Well, obviously it had to be, right?
The question was never really whether or not there was someone going around besmirching the good name of the Enterprise, but who exactly was doing the impersonating and why. We still don’t know that yet, there’s one more issue yet to go. But we do get to meet our adversary, and it’s a bit unsettling how dead-on their recreation truly is. Before any of that though, the story opens on a genuinely disturbing scene of yet more brutal carnage. Our foe has beat us to Alpha Sarpeidon and murdered another starship, this time the USS Merrimac. And no punches are pulled this time, with the whole gruesome aftermath laid out for us in a lurid full-page spread right when you open the book, complete with lifeless bodies floating in space.
The crew, accompanied by Admiral Rosenstrum, retreat to the observation lounge to discuss their options and come up with a way to track down the killer before it strikes again. This is going to prove difficult, as there’s been no obvious pattern in its behaviour to date and Geordi can’t pick up a traceable ion trail. Data eventually posits a theory that, if true, will allow the Enterprise to hunt down its evil doppelganger. He suggests that the ship is following the Enterprise‘s exact flight path from a specific mission several years ago (which also explains why it was in Ferengi space: When the Enterprise initially visited that sector of space, it was under Federation jurisdiction, but the boundary between Federation- and Ferengi-occupied territory has shifted since then). Should this pattern hold, the Bogus Enterprise (and yes, this is actually what they call it for the remainder of the story. Prophets, I love the 1980s) should next be headed for a defenseless colony on Beta Tarsus IV. Captain Picard immediately orders Wesley to proceed there at maximum warp to intercept.
We might expect that once we reach part three of a story of this magnitude, the plot would start to tread water a bit. We had a first issue laying some subtle hints about what’s to come, a second issue of rising tension and we know the big climax is coming next month. By all accounts, this should be a filler issue as we kill time before the big showdown, and perhaps a lesser creative team would have done that. But not Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos: The majority of the plot-related stuff is taken care of at the very beginning and very end of the story (and there’s even a brief but requisite shootout with the Bogus Enterprise in the issue’s final third to keep us hooked), leaving the bulk of the story to be taken up with character moments. One thing that Michael Jan Friedman is quickly proving himself to be a master hand at is vignettes where people just sit around and talk to each other. It becomes a real hallmark of his Star Trek: The Next Generation for me and while there were brief glimpses of it as far back as his first volume 2 story, it’s here, where he’s got an entire book to fill with them, that his talent really begins to shine through.
First, there’s Captain Picard and Rosenstrum, who share a scene together after the rest of the crew depart the observation lounge. The admiral trusts Picard’s judgment, but wonders if he’s making the right call in putting stock in Data’s theory, as Data is an android who lacks intuition. Picard disagrees, saying his intuition tells him that Data is right even if they don’t know why yet, and puts it to Rosenstrum, who had previously complained about needing to act quickly, that this is precisely what he’s doing. It’s here that Rosenstrum really comes into his own and leave a lasting impression on us: Perhaps remarkably for a one-off character in a tie-in comic, he has a very distinctive and conversational voice about him, and it goes a long way towards humanizing him and making him sympathetic to us. This is imperative for the ultimate efficacy of this arc as, once again, he’s sort of the lynchpin character as it is he who is going to be changed by his interactions with the Enterprise crew; forging a renewed respect for their unorthodox, yet unmistakably noble, endeavours and looking within himself to re-examine what Starfleet means to him.
But it’s not like the Enterprise crew themselves are emotionless, idealized abstractions either: These are still people, no matter how charmed their life and no matter which truths they have transcended to. And people have thoughts and feelings. Wesley chats with a relief operations officer from the planet Axgard, whose people believe that every tragedy must be met with a good deed to balance out the loss and restore cosmic harmony. He’s unsure if any amount of good deeds could make up for what the Bogus Enterprise has done, to which Wesley has no easy answers. It’s fitting that Wesley would be the interlocutor and would have this reaction, and it reminds me of own shock at the destruction of the USS Yamato in “Contagion”. Meanwhile, Beverly, almost fully recovered from her life-threatening bout with Rihehnnia in “The Pay Off!”, confides in Guinan her feelings of helplessness. As a doctor, she feels like she let down all the people who the Bogus Enterprise killed and that she should have been able to do something for them. Guinan tells her there’s no way she can change how she feels anymore than Beverly could have helped the crew of the Merrimac, but points out that’s precisely what makes her such a good doctor.
Even Assistant Chief Engineer McRobb is back. He and Geordi reflect about how much power is within their grasp, and how frightening it is that the Bogus Enterprise must have the exact same amount. And how if someone could make one duplicate Enterprise to send on a mission of murder, they could make a lot more too. This segues back into the main plot, as the real Enterprise arrives at Beta Tarsus IV, apparently ahead of their quarry. Picard warns the colony’s supervisor (a lovely bit of 1980s sci-fi pyschedelia by way of Pablo Marcos) she and her people may be in danger…just as the Bogus Enterprise shows up. As the real Enterprise tries to get between it and the colony, it’s constantly outmatched as the impostor seems to be able to predict every tactic Captain Picard tries. Riker and Troi suggest the ship may have deduced some pattern in Picard’s behaviour, a suggestion that seems sound when Picard turns the con over to Will, who seems to have better luck. Just when he seems to have turned the tide of battle, however, the impostor retreats.
As the real Enterprise gives chase, we have to think back on McRobb’s words. Federation starships are certainly privileged to have such a position of power. The Enterprise in particular, being the flagship and one of the extremely rare and prestigious Galaxy-class starships: Supposedly the pinnacle of human engineering. What might happen if a hypothetical someone had possession of all that power, yet had none of the moral convictions of our crew or any of the values Starfleet claims to represent? Or indeed, simply gave into the darker impulses that form that institution’s backbone, as we saw so clearly last time.
Maybe the real reason Starfleet Command was so quick to condemn Captain Picard was because, in the actions of the Bogus Enterprise, they saw a reflection of their own dark subconscious staring back at them.