Sunday, August 14, 2011

Of Trek and Who, continued

Diane Carey's Star Trek: New Earth and Challenger books set up a series premise that could easily exist outside the Star Trek universe. The colony of Belle Terre is original to the New Earth miniseries and its single follow-up; so are all the characters remaining after the crew of the Enterprise goes back about its business. There's no Starfleet, no familiar aliens; instead, the Blood and the Kauld, introduced in the series, are the nearest alien cultures. A book about Belle Terre and Challenger, if it left out any mention of phasers, tricorders, warp drive, and other familiar Star Trek terminology, would be recognizable as Star Trek only if those two words were on the cover.

In the UK, if Star Trek had been a BBC series, Carey would likely be able to continue the Belle Terre saga through a publisher without a licence for Star Trek fiction, as long as the books retained only their original elements. In the USA, with Star Trek the product of an American studio, Belle Terre is the property of Paramount -- well, CBS now. Carey can't take it anywhere else and do anything else with it. She owns no copyright in any of it.

Doctor Who, on the other hand, operates under a very different set of rules.

As I understand it, anything created for Doctor Who by a writer not actually on the show's staff remains that writer's property, whether that writer is writing for the TV series itself or for a tie-in line. Starting back in the 1960s, Terry Nation was able to produce tie-in material about the Daleks as long as there was no Doctor or Tardis involved. There were Dalek books, annuals, comic strips; Nation negotiated with an American company to produce a Daleks TV series, but that never came to pass.

Since then, several organizations have produced audio dramas, films, books, and comics that use elements created by other writers; as long as they approve, and nothing else from the show is used, the only problem is finding an audience. There's even a K9 TV series with no real links to the Who universe any more.

Could this work for Star Trek, if the rules were different? As much as I'd like to think so, I don't think it work nearly so well. Doctor Who has an exceptionally flexible format -- it can happen anywhere in space or time; it can vary widely in tone and subject matter. Star Trek has some flexibility as well, obviously, but virtually all of it fits into a shared universe over a period of a couple of centuries and featuring a number of common cultures, organizations, and technologies. Maybe Gene Coon's estate could oversee tie-ins set in the Klingon Empire with no Starfleet or Federation involvement, which could arguably work. But something like Carey's Challenger with the Star Trek elements mostly removed -- or likewise for Peter David's New Frontier -- would there be a point? Why not just do them as independent SF series?

A connection to the TV series wouldn't necessarily help sales all that much. It might even hurt them. One of the Doctor Who-related spinoffs ended when the TV series returned, because fans who wanted something however distantly related to Who during its time off TV lost interest when the real thing was back. Other spinoffs have tried to minimize discussing the connection in order to attract readers who don't read tie-in fiction, though I doubt that's worked very well yet (unfortunately).

But there's something about the Doctor Who spinoff series that trumps all of that: they're fun, and they make the Doctor Who universe just that much richer and more wonderful for being part of it. (No one has ever declared what exactly counts as canon in Doctor Who, unlike Star Trek, so if I want to count it as a legitimate part of the Whoverse, there's no one to say no.)

Here's a look at some of what's out there.

Bernice Summerfield is the queen of this realm. She features in a number of the Doctor Who New Adventures novels, first appearing in Paul Cornell's Love and War. When Virgin Books lost the Doctor Who licence to BBC Books, they carried on with a Benny-centered New Adventures series that lasted 22 books. Meanwhile, Big Finish had started a series of audio adventures starring Lisa Bowerman as Benny. When Virgin stopped publishing the line, Big Finish took over, making some changes to the series premise and publishing six books in paperback before switching to hardcovers -- a couple of dozen or so now. Benny's an archeologist from a few centuries in the future. Originally a hard-drinking, sarcastic young woman with fake credentials, she's been a Time Lord's traveling companion, a university professor, an employee of the Braxiatel Collection, and more. She's had relationships good and bad. I've read all of her New Adventures and the first Big Finish book. My one concern is that there comes a point in the series continuity where you have to be following both the books and the audios to make sense of everything that's going on, and I haven't bought any of the audios. Yet.

Faction Paradox is a very different proposition. Introduced in the Eighth Doctor Adventure Alien Bodies by Lawrence Miles, they're a strange organization -- a faction of time travelers playing a mysterious role in a future war between the Time Lords/Great Houses and the Enemy. They've appeared in several books published by Mad Norwegian, Random Static, and Obverse Books; a dozen audios from BBV and Magic Bullet; and, unfortunately, only two issues of a comic from Image. Where the Bernice Summerfield books are a continuing saga, Faction Paradox is a collection of very different things. There are recurring elements but the books are generally all standalones. The audios, on the other hand, tell continuing stories. There are also a lot fewer Faction Paradox stories, so, though the concept is much stranger, getting into them may be easier.

Time Hunter is a series of eleven trade paperback novellas. When Telos lost its licence to publish its series of hardcover Doctor Who novellas, a spinoff featuring the characters Honore Lechasseur and Emily Blandish from Daniel O'Mahony's Doctor Who novella The Cabinet of Light was developed. Time Hunter's home setting is England after World War II. Lechasseur is a fixer, Blandish a mystery woman from another time. They find they're able to travel through time together and have some mostly standalone adventures with occasional advances in the Blandish mystery arc. A few of the books use elements from Doctor Who, notably the Daemons and the Fendahl.

Iris Wildthyme is a character created by novelist Paul Magrs who appeared in a few very odd Eighth Doctor and Past Doctor Adventures. she's a mysterious woman who has regenrated a few times and who travels through time and space with her companions in a British red double decker bus that's slightly smaller on the inside. Though the character lends herself to comedy and satire, not least thanks to her prodigious drinking, Iris stories can be dark or affecting as well. Big Finish published one hardcover Iris anthology and a few audios. Obverse Books is publishing an ongoing series of Iris anthologies, also in hardcover, and her creator has published a full novel through snowbooks, possibly the first in a series.

And I haven't even mentioned Miranda or Senor 105 yet, but this post is already generating too many tl;dr responses...

A different kind of Prime Directive

Well, this has to be an item with a limited audience. It's a very long meditation on being a father, on being a son, and on Star Trek, the original series. Dietrick's poem, based on fact, is about a man whose difficult relationship with his father had their shared viewing of Star Trek as a rare bright spot. There's a lot of philosophizing, a lot of remembering.

Dietrick has received some impressive praise for his work. Among others, Joe Haldeman, no literary slouch and no stranger to science fiction and Star Trek, praised it. As for me, poetry was never my thing (and me a former English major), but this is written accessibly enough that people who might not expect to like it might find themselves surprised. The book is subtitled A Renga Chain, though according to wikipedia a renga would be a collaborative work rather than something by a single author. At any rate, it could almost be read as prose despite the formatting on the page. Each section is haiku-like, three lines, usually with the standard five/seven/five syllables per line, but few are complete. Sentences may begin in the middle of one section and continue through a few more. Few sections stand alone. There's generally seven sections per page and roughly 120 pages to the main work. This is not some lightweight versifying, unlike so much of the contents of the 2000 anthology Star Trek: The Poems.

The book includes an introduction and a publisher's note by other people and an afterword by the author talking more about Star Trek and his father. The last page of the afterword, with Dietrick taking his father, now suffering from Alzheimer's, to meet William Shatner at a Star Trek con may be the most affecting moment in the book.

So who's it for? Well, middle-aged men trying to make sense of their issues with their fathers and their concerns about being a father themselves who spend time trying to figure out what it means to be a man -- and who grew up watching the original Star Trek -- could find something here. And so, no doubt, could their families. (My dad and I get along fine and I have no kids, so that lets me out.) People interested in seeing a supposedly highbrow artform take on supposedly lowbrow pop culture may also be intrigued. Or just anyone with an interest in Star Trek, in reading, and in encountering something different once in a while.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cast No Shadow (spoilers)

The Star Trek movies introduced two new characters who played an important role in a movie or two then seemingly faded away, despite the need for new characters and new relationships to keep things fresh. The first, Saavik, has had some exploration in a handful of novels and issues of the early 1980s DC Star Trek comics, but I can't help but think she deserved a lot more. Still, she's done much better than her fellow Vulcan, Valeris.

Valeris's part in Star Trek VI was originally written with Saavik in mind. I'm glad that didn't happen. Not only did that leave Saavik as an uncorrupted character who could be expected to continue playing a role in the series, it introduced a new character with a new and intriguing relationship with Spock. Granted, her part in the criminal conspiracy meant that she could hardly continue as a regular member of the crew, but it still seems strange that it should take twenty years before we'd get a book that explores her character.

But finally we have James Swallow's new novel, Cast No Shadow. It answers some of the questions and leaves others unanswered, but more importantly it does so in the form of a suspenseful espionage novel. A few years after the events of The Undiscovered Country, a terrorist attack in the Klingon Empire is revealed to have connections to the conspiracy that killed Gorkon and tried to prevent peace between Federation and Empire. And the best clue a young Starfleet Intelligence analyst named Elias Vaughn leads to a convict: Valeris.

Though Spock is prominent on the cover, he's not a main character. Vaughn (from the DS9 relaunch and other books) and Valeris are the main characters here, but there are a number of other interesting characters along the way, including operatives from a number of secretive organizations. But this is a rite of passage for Vaughn and a tale of possible redemption for Valeris, and some other characters aren't as fully developed as they could have been, including the terrorist group. For that matter, we don't get Valeris's own thoughts at some key points in the plot, which keeps up the level of suspense -- can she be trusted? What does she want? Why did she do what she did, and why is she doing what she's doing now? Swallow ultimately provides believable answers, though the Spock/Valeris connection is not explored in as much depth as the cover might lead a reader to expect.

Speaking of the terrorists... Swallow uses the Kriosians, whose canonical appearances I'd pretty much forgotten about. Turns out there's some dispute over whether the various Kriosians seen in Enterprise and two episodes of The Next Generation were all meant to be from the same civilization. My official Star Trek iPad app says no, other sources say yes, and Swallow goes with the latter. As always, he works in a lot of nods to continuity in unobtrusive ways.

The book avoids the obvious cliches. Valeris doesn't suddenly realize she was wrong then put everything right by sacrificing herself in some noble and fatal way. Vaughn doesn't instantly become the Federation's best field agent. Though the terrorists' final attack is obviously going to be averted somehow, because we know from 24th century Trek that the Klingon homeworld wasn't destroyed and the Klingon Empire didn't fall, how everything is going to play out is never predictable.

(I could call them freedom fighters instead of terrorists, but Swallow presents them as a relatively callous and unsympathetic bunch, as eager to kill Federation citizens as Klingons. That's arguably a weakness, as is the characterization of the individual Kriosians; they tend to the one-dimensional. Even with the importance of Federation/Klingon detente, I'd expect a bit more sympathy for the position the Klingon-occupied Kriosians are in from Starfleet officers.)

Overall, it's another solidly entertaining standalone novel. But I wouldn't mind another Valeris story with a bit more Spock in it. And more Saavik novels, dammit, with the Kirstie Alley Saavik.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Of Trek and Who

If you're already a confirmed fan of both Star Trek and Doctor Who books, feel free to skip this one, you know this stuff already. But if you're one of the Trek fans who've been getting into Doctor Who since it came back in 2005 but haven't delved into the books, you may find it interesting.

One of the times I pondered the possibility of getting into Doctor Who books, as mentioned a couple posts back, I was put off by the fact that there were 80 Doctor Who novels already out there. This would have been around 1984-85 or so.

The biggest difference between the worlds of Trek and Who in book form back then was that the latter was still very much about novelizations. There was very little in the way of original Doctor Who fiction outside of short stories in the children's hardcover annuals. The novelizations themselves were also very different -- Star Trek episodes had been wrapped up in 13 short story collections by James Blish and, later, J.A. Lawrence and 10 books adapting the animated series by Alan Dean Foster, plus a few movie novelizations. The action in the Trek book world had moved to original novels.

Doctor Who, with its stories spread out from two to (once or twice) a dozen half hour episodes, didn't lend itself to the same approach. Instead, each serial was adapted as a novel, with the epic Dalek Master Plan eventually being adapted as two novels. It wasn't until after Doctor Who began its sixteen-year hiatus that the focus really shifted to original fiction, with the arrival of the New Adventures. (The three book Companions series, with an adaptation of the Sarah Jane TV movie and original novels centering on Turlough and Harry Sullivan, hadn't really come to much.) The New Adventures were a very different story.

The assumption behind the NAs was that the fans were growing up and were ready for a Doctor Who that was also growing up. The stories were more complex, incorporating occasional story arcs, and occasionally delved into decidedly more adult terrain than the TV series ever did. Equally importantly, with the show off the air, the books were effectively the continuation of the series, and supporting characters, like TV companion Ace, came and went. Writers associated with the TV series -- Terrance Dicks, Andrew Cartmel, Marc Platt, Ben Aaronovitch -- wrote for the series. The series was so intent on moving forward that the fairly obvious idea of a series of novels featuring previous Doctors took some time to materialize, but the Missing Adventures arrived eventually. So too did the Decalog series of anthologies.

The 1996 TV movie disrupted things considerably, not least by ending Virgin Books' Doctor Who licence and handing it to BBC Books, who started the Eighth Doctor Adventures and the Past Doctor Adventures. But the legacy of the New Adventures was secure. Paul Cornell and Gareth Roberts were among the writers who would go on to work on the revived Doctor Who TV series years later. Russell T Davies, the showrunner who brought it back, had written the novel Damaged Goods. Steven Moffat, who take over from Davies, wrote the Decalog short story "Continuity Errors."

The return of the TV series had an unfortunate effect on the books, though. The main BBC lines were dropped as the BBC discovered that the kid-friendly books based on the new show were selling several times as many copies as the fan-oriented EDAs and PDAs. Meanwhile, some of the spinoff lines (to be covered later) found that fans were no longer as keen on everything Who-related they could find now that a new series was on TV again. (Those books were often great, but they weren't always cheap, while the show on TV was free.)

The situation in 2011, for a book fan, is not nearly as good as it was ten years ago. There are a few books a year aimed at different children's age levels. There's been one big, adult-oriented novel, Michael Moorcock's Coming of the Terraphiles, and the possibility of one or two more a year. There's a small number of Torchwood books, which are often quite good, but there's no Doctor in them. Likewise the small press adventures of Iris Wildthyme and Faction Paradox.

The core Doctor Who book lines were at their most essential when the show was off the air. I can't help but wonder what would happen if a new Star Trek series became a huge hit, like the movie did -- what effect would that have on the books? Maybe not a lot; the movie didn't. But it's hard to say for sure. I'd prefer to have a healthy and popular line of books and a healthy and popular TV series.

Writing Sarek: after six years, some good news

From the latest Conlan Press update, news on Peter Beagle's long, long, long delayed Writing Sarek (I paid for my copy six years ago):
WRITING SAREK — Hardcover Edition

Completion of this book was regrettably delayed by the same Beagle family issues mentioned above. We took advantage of the delay to dig even deeper into the show. That effort yielded more internal Star Trek: The Next Generation production memos related to the "Sarek" episode, several variant drafts of the original script, and a set of unused story pitches that Peter had completely forgotten he had made to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. All of these discoveries will be included now, and we couldn't be happier about that.

Writing Sarek will be wrapped and sent to the printers shortly after manufacturing begins on The Last Unicorn CD audiobook and Two Hearts.

May actually happen before we reach the seventh anniversary of my order, though I dunno... waiting seven years has some serious significance for Vulcans.