Oxygen thieves

“Space, the final frontier…”

Spoken over a starscape of a sun, planet, and two bodies floating towards us, thus begins the latest episode of that classic 60’s sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Expanding on it’s Star Trek allusion however, it goes on to explain that space is “Final, because it wants to kill us.”

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Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.

Also echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey and Wallace & Gromit’s The Wrong Trousers, “Oxygen” sees the Doctor taking new companion Bill on her first trip to outerspace as opposed to another planet, answering a distress call coming from a mining station owned by Ganymede Systems. With Nardole in tow, they find themselves in yet another life or death situation – only her fifth episode and yet Bill has already learned all she needs to know about the Doctor’s reactions to imminent death – and one which is broadcast at time which couldn’t be more apt.

For me, season 10 has come as a pleasant surprise. After what I considered to be a dreadful Superman rehash in “The Return of Doctor Mysterio”, “The Pilot” offered a glimmer of hope that maybe all wasn’t lost before Steven Moffat’s overdue handing over of the showrunner reins. Despite news of his own decision to leave the show which prompted speculation of his replacement, for the first time Peter Capaldi felt like the established Doctor rather than just the new Doctor who had only recently taken over from his predecessor.

As much as I have admired his performance as the 12th Doctor, I feel as though he has been let down by too many episodes which didn’t give him enough to make the most of his time in the role. Yes there have been some stand out moments, the Doctor’s “sit down and talk” speech is an absolute highlight of Doctor Who as a whole, but these have by far been the exception rather than the rule.

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Bill’s baptism of fire.

Bill’s questioning of everything from the Doctor’s Tardis to his morality is a welcome addition from a more than worthy new companion and has lead to some of the season’s most comical, and also most dramatic moments. The inclusion of Nardole as the Doctor’s very own Jiminy Cricket also adds to the show, albeit at the expense of Matt Lucas who – like Catherine Tate before him – plays a character with a great concept almost exactly the same as every other character throughout his career.

Although I must admit I have been iplayering them rather than making a Saturday night appointment like previous years, even Lucas and the small blip that was the second half of “Knock Knock” haven’t stopped season 10 from being a collection of great episodes.

“Oxygen” is no different, and perhaps the best to date. Far from the only time Doctor Who has placed emphasis on compassion, respect, and the value of a human (or alien) life, it is perhaps the most pertinent. In the run up to the UK’s general election, it is also perhaps the most widely reaching anti-Conservative party political broadcast of all time.

The episode is written as an unashamed morality play against the excesses of capitalism, depicting a futuristic dystopian vision where even the air we breathe is considered a commodity to be marketed: making the whole metric/imperial argument somewhat redundant, units of distance on a map are shown in average breaths.

While most dystopian futures are written as an allegory for contemporary societies, “Oxygen” has the unfortunate honour of being broadcast at a time when the targets of its metaphors are in fact already reality. The inevitable point of the episode when the Doctor realises the true nature of the threat comes when, faced with imminent death quite literally by the trappings of capitalism, Bill comments on the absurdity of being “fined for dying”.

Rather than the fully automated space suits killing their occupants due to being hacked as initially believed (another remarkable quirk of timing in regards to the recent cyber attacks on the NHS), it readily becomes apparent that their current threat, not to mention the previous cause of death for 36 miners, is in fact a conscious decision made by the corporation that considers workers who aren’t meeting work quotas as a waste of resources.

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One of many protests against austerity.

More than just “Companies with links to Tories ‘have won £1.5bn worth of NHS contracts’“, ideas such as there being no middle ground between being either a diligent worker or six feet under also evoke headlines such as “Thousands have died after being found fit for work, DWP figures show“, which attempt to highlight the full extent of the Tory policies which even the UN has declared as being a breach of international human rights.

It would seem that the present here and now is as much an ideal setting for “the endpoint of capitalism, a bottom line where human life has no value at all” as any imagined far future.

Even were this not the case over here, the fact that “Oxygen” was written before businessman Donald Trump’s US election victory but broadcast after his repeal of Obamacare is equally as alarming. Something which considers pregnancy and even domestic violence as pre-existing conditions which insurers all to often refuse to cover, surely even writer Jamie Mathieson cannot deny that the future always comes upon us quicker than we realise.

Having saved the lives of two survivors however, the Doctor drops them off at their “Head Office”, afterwards informing Bill that “six months later, corporate dominance in space is history, and that about wraps it for capitalists … then the human race finds a whole new mistake”: with the benefit of hindsight, something which could also be taken as an analogy for Labour’s constant infighting hardly making them a perfect choice for government either.

But whether it’s from space miners facing the ultimate redundancy, or an impassioned plea based on real life experience entitled “This is how the Tory disability assessments are killing people“, if we take one thing from “Oxygen” regardless of when it is set or even when it was written then it’s surely the Doctor’s thoughts on answering a distress call:

“The universe shows its true face when it asks for help, we show ours by how we respond.”

Something for the UK to think about on the 8th June….

Taking back Control?

The latest Star Trek novel to be released is the much antcipated Control, by David Mack. It continues Dr. Julian Bashir’s arc of taking down the United Federation of Planet’s ruthless, self appointed, and self professed “protection” service, Section 31, which began back in Deep Space Nine‘s sixth season.

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Control is Mack’s fourth novel to focus on Bashir

As with the best of Trek, Control is a story that is as much about our present as it is the future, and is highly influenced by today’s ever pervasive atmosphere of surveillance, hacking, and Snooper’s Charters. At Section 31’s centre is the titular Control; no doubt a nod to Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but the enigmatic leader of 31’s name also comes as a prophetic warning.

Here is an artificial intelligence that is as much a calculating dictator as it is the basic operating system of the entire Federation: making decisions on behalf of the ‘inferior’ citizens it protects, it does so by crunching the astronomical numbers gleaned from starship sensors, to an individual’s replicator habits. As any half decent Vulcan would applaud, it deems that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it is doubtful there are any who would consider the few as completely expendable in a fashion as merciless as Control.

Through frequent flashbacks to the 22nd Century we are given the backstory of a relatively simple computer code designed to recognise potential threats (via the means of the unchecked surveillance which we in the 21st are becoming alarmingly aware) and inform law enforcement as appropriate. On one hand it is certainly an interesting concept, and the fact that it spans every single piece of technology of an entire interstellar superpower is fully warranted in order to fully grasp the analogy of interlinked handheld and camera/microphone equipped computers that are literally lining the pockets of our own civilisation.

As an independent piece of science fiction (it’s not like something so accurate can be described as speculative fiction) it would have been a fascinating thriller. In fact for all it’s derivation from its source material, 2004’s i, Robot was at least a blockbuster with some similarly interesting philosophy behind it.  But Control isn’t an independent piece of science fiction.

It’s an official piece of Star Trek fiction. And that’s where the problem lies…

Author David Mack has been writing Star Trek prose for well over fifteen years, having  previously co-written the screenplay and story for the DS9 episodes Starship Down and It’s Only A Paper Moon respectively. Novel-wise he is perhaps best known for Star Trek: Destiny, a centuries spanning epic in which the Borg learns that resistence is far from futile and their reign of terror is finally brought to end, albeit not without a fight.

On a more personal note, Mack has also written some of my favourite Trek novels, including the previous Bashir/Section 31 adventure Zero Sum Game, and the destruction of the USS Bombay within the pages of Star Trek: Vanguard‘s Harbinger is one of the most touching events I’ve read in any book, Star Trek or otherwise.

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Destiny featured characters from TNG, DS9, and Enterprise

Thanks to its far reaching consequences, Destiny heralded a new era for Star Trek novels and showed that the post televisual relaunch had well and truly set its own course in the stories it would tell, and praise was rightfully lauded everywhere in its general direction.

His next trilogy, the Next Generation specific Cold Equations also ended on a high after the Enterprise crew had literally saved the entire galaxy. Despite so much hanging in the balance, the tale wove together established Trek lore from both screen and page to ensure that it remained entirely believable throughout.

Other novels have increasingly extended his reach in terms of the interstellar stakes, and as impressive as his writing is however, the riskier road leads not just to greater profit, but also greater losses when things don’t pan out.

Mack’s 2011 novel Rise Like Lions follows on from his previous novella-turned-novel The Sorrows of Empire (which I will admit I haven’t read because there are SO MANY Star Trek novels it’s impossible to read them all), and sees the races of Star Trek‘s mirror universe unite into the Galactic Commonwealth. Something perhaps not so surprising, given that it effectively mirrors the way in which Destiny sees the standard alpha and beta quadrant powers suffer unheard of misfortunes. That said, it is a change which is so sweeping that the mirror universe becomes all but unrecognisable from it’s onscreen adventures; humanity has gone from a plucky rebellion to being handed technology the Federation would almost deem all but impossible to the point where it strains credibility, and breaks all suspension of disbelief, in the process.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read its predecessor which no doubt fills in many gaps, but surely any novel should be able to work solely on its own merits? It does have to be said that Mack’s Disavowed, of which Control is an immediate sequel and which also combines his mirror universe narrative with those of Bashir/Section 31, makes great use of the changes that had been introduced, but without suffering the consequences of the almost Deus ex Machina transformation itself.

Somewhere between The Body Electric and Rise Like Lions then, Mack has shown that he is more than capable of handling such extreme narratives, just not with a 100% success rate. With Control however, Mack has managed to combine making such high stakes and revelations believable and entertaining, whilst simultaneously extolling the most jarring feature of any Star Trek novel (that I have read) in that it comes completely at odds with what Star Trek is, and undermines the entire basis of arguably entertainment’s most loved, enduring, and optimistic mythology.

50-something years ago, Gene Roddenberry dreamed of a future where humankind had put its petty differences aside. Poverty, racism, and sexism, (and had paramount not intervened, homophobia) were a thing of the past, and Earth’s only adversaries came from outside it’s orbit rather than within. In fact Roddenberry’s vision was so utopian that his insistence that conflicts between crew members simply wouldn’t happen often lead to accusations that his series were too boring, and lacked significant dramatic tension.

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Section 31 was first introduced in Inquisition

Although Star Trek‘s longevity owes much to the outside influence of a host of other writers and producers, each merely put their own spin on the core optimism that is at Star Trek‘s heart. DS9 was only concieved after Roddenberry’s death, and despite making humanity a little less perfect – in part by throwing Section 31 into the mix – than he had initially intended, it showed that the light still shines the brightest in the dark.

In fact some of the best stories can be defined by Picard’s quote that “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity” by placing the emphasis on the actual work that is needed to achieve humanity’s potential, rather than merely presenting it as a done deal.

Flying right in the face of this established notion however, Control retcons the forming of the entire Federation, even that of a united Earth government, by uncovering the “truth” that humanity’s destiny was in fact shaped by Bashir’s ultimate nemesis and Section 31 founder: an all seeing and all watching computer code. In this version of the future, humanity was steered towards a better world rather than having the strength, willpower, and compassion to build it themselves.

It certainly raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy and free will, but in a way which just doesn’t fit with its surroundings. I’ll admit that it would be a stretch to say that (narratively at least) the entirety of Star Trek is therefore built on a lie, but not by much.

Control isn’t the first Trek story of any medium to question the cooperative/assimilation expansive nature of the Federation, and Control’s belief that the Borg would have eventually ruled over Earth and its allies if it had introduced itself via means of seduction rather than conquering is one of the book’s most thought provoking notions. But others who take part in that debate, such as last year’s Star Trek Beyond, at least do so in terms of a humanity that overcame its own problems before finding different ones amongst the stars.

Gene Roddenberry once described Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

We can always wonder how much better off (in the short term) we ourselves could have been with a sentient computer safeguarding our best interests during Brexit and Trump’s comparable elections, but that would have been taking the easy way out.

And that’s not how Star Trek works.

Review: Star Trek – Live In Concert

wpid-181055a.jpgMelbourne Symphony Orchestra,
Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre,
31st January 2015

Although it has constantly been changing throughout its numerous television and cinematic instalments, J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reimagining of Gene Roddenberry’s classic Star Trek brought with it the biggest reinvention of all. Having cast fresh faces as the well-loved characters helming the U.S.S. Enterprise, the film and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness are currently reinvigorating the cinematic experience with fully orchestral screenings.

With two performances over one weekend, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra are the latest, and first Australian musicians to bring this international concert tour to their home city. Saying it’s more than a normal screening may sound obvious, and at the same time it was less than a normal orchestral performance. Halfway between the two, it wasn’t entirely either.

A valuble asset in creating the desired reaction from the audience, music is too often overlooked but would be conspicuous by its absence. Highlighting the moments of action, drama, and tension in Star Trek, it is also highly emotional in places; never more so than the pre-credits destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin. Despite the intensity of George Kirk’s sacrifice being unmatched throughout the rest of the film, Michael Giacchino’s accompaniment score serves as a great introduction, and the opening title was ushered in with well-earned rapturous applause.

Being played in front you the music was naturally given more prominence than in a standard cinema, but the fact that more emphasis, or even lighting, wasn’t placed on the orchestra themselves was a missed opportunity. As much as it was a film screening rather than regular concert it was still disappointing that so much of your attention was drawn to the screen by design in the first place.

A lack of programme was also highly noticeable. Not only did this deny the fans a souvenir of such an infrequent event, but it also hinders the individual orchestra members from gaining the recognition they deserve (although information on the performers can be found on the MSO’s website).

Not that the orchestra weren’t given their time in the spotlight by the end, as the lights were raised once the action had finished and the end credits were overseen by their rendition of Alexander Courage’s iconic TV theme, and Giacchino’s finishing suite. An encore of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture/Next Generation theme was also a welcome surprise for the audience.

An audience which, not surprisingly, was largely made up of avid Trek fans, several clad in Starfleet uniforms of varying eras, but it was also rather mixed. There were those who dressed smartly and presumably came to see the Orchestra’s latest concert, but as a bastion of geek culture in general, Star Trek also attracted those wearing T-shirts from Alien to Game of Thrones. Even a Captain Jack Harkness was in attendance.

As an award-winning Hollywood composer Giacchino has worked frequently with Abrams, and has also composed the score the for several Pixar features and shorts, including The Incredibles, and Up. It is not surprising a film with his score was chosen for Live In Concert screenings, and the film itself was treated well; even the intermission was well placed within the film’s narrative, allowing breathing room for the impact of Vulcan’s destruction to sink in.

Orchestral performances of well-loved films is something that should occur more often, and will do if the ‘coming soon’ teaser is anything to go by. Just the dates of a future performance might not be much to go on, but being given in the style of a certain DeLorean’s dashboard display garnered a huge cheer.

Into The Dark?

"Into The Dalek"

“Into The Dalek”

Of all the recent Doctor Who episodes, “Into The Dalek” is one that I personally want to see the most, perhaps even more than 50th anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” itself. Rather than the anticipation that has been built up around current episodes, the War Doctor, regeneration, etc, “Into The Dalek” instead has me curious.

Last week was the broadcast of “Deep Breath”, the first full episode to feature Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor. Like many (make that all) fans I had been looking forward to this as I was eager to see exactly how Capaldi would portray the Doctor. Even though we have all now seen this portrayal however, there is still the fact that we don’t know who Capaldi’s Doctor is.

Although well read audiences are used to the idea of regeneration and several actors all playing the same character, a new Doctor is still something that takes getting used to. Many fans, particularly those new to the series, will also need convincing that this new character is the same one they know and love. As such “Deep Breath” follows a similar template to “The Christmas Invasion” and “The Eleventh Hour”, the first appearances of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors respectively.

Whilst fending off an alien invasion these are episodes which see a companion trying to figure out who this new/same man is. Throughout the run of the series it has always been the companion who is the point of view character, through whose eyes the audience discovers time and space. In this situation they are more important than ever, and amnesia or not, the failure of the 1996 TV-movie is often blamed on introducing two incarnations of the Doctor before his companion.

For those post-regeneration episodes of the revived series however, we first get to see the comical but crude side of the Doctor. Capaldi comparing Strax to the seven dwarves is no different from Matt Smith telling Amelia Pond to fry something because she’s Scottish. It may be harsh, but it’s that funny element of being alien and not quite understanding that is the initial reassurance that there is nothing to worry about. So far, so very Doctor.

"Basically, run!"

“Basically, run!”

Throughout the episode the companion is puzzled by the Doctor saving the Earth by asking seemingly ridiculous questions, but come the end of his investigation he will save the day through his ‘I am the Doctor’ moment. David Tennant called the Sycorax’s blood control bluff and pressed their big red button for them, and Smith stared down the Atraxi with his history of saving the Earth. Capaldi on the other hand …. didn’t.

The confirmation phone call from Number 11 wasn’t for Clara’s benefit, it was for ours.

In interviews and previews leading up to Capaldi’s episodes, one word which was often used was “dark”, and here we are given a Doctor who may, or may not, have pushed a (half) man to his death. Regardless of whether it was push or jump, it is hardly the first time the Doctor has had to oversee the death of the antagonist, but here he does so with a look of almost indifference.

Dark indeed, and something which harks back to the days of Sylvester McCoy (apparently) destroying Skaro and committing Dalek genocide. It came at the point in the show’s history that script editor Andrew Cartmel wanted to add some more mystery to the character after years of accumulated drip-fed information. Twenty-plus series after the question had first been asked by Ian and Barbara, “Doctor Who?” had essentially become “the Doctor’s life story”.

The question...

The question…

And after the broadcast of “The Time of the Doctor”, this was exactly where we found ourselves again. Not only have we had revelations regarding the Time War, an element that Russell T. Davies used to renew the character and wanted to leave untouched, but along with Smith’s tenure, “The Time of the Doctor” also saw the end of the question.

This time it was quite literal in fact, as it was even used diegetically within the show itself; “on the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked — a question that must never ever be answered”. To be fair it wasn’t exactly answered properly, but it did at least give a substantial conclusion to an arc that had run throughout Smith’s entire portrayal, if not the series as a whole.

And so now we find ourselves ready to continue/renew the adventures of a character we have known for 50 years. After the climax of “Deep Breath”, we are eagerly awaiting the next appearance of a Doctor who has every indication of being as dark as it gets, and it doesn’t get much darker than when facing the Daleks.

Throughout years of mystery, answers, and revelations, we are once again asking ourselves that central question which brings us back to our television sets Saturday night, after Saturday night: Doctor Who?

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – A Ceremony Of Losses’

Whilst no longer in their heyday in terms of the number of books published each year, current Star Trek novels now seemingly try to outdo each other in terms of galactic importance. A Ceremony Of Losses comes as part of the The Fall miniseries, and sees a third threat to a Galactic head of state in as many novels.

A_Ceremony_of_LossesIn this volume it’s the turn of the Andorians, as Doctor Bashir turns his attention to the reproductive crisis that has plagued the former Federation members so prominently in recent years. As such, this novel relies the most on prior knowledge of ‘current’ (ie, relaunch novel) 24th Century events.

Not only does the political angle continue the ongoing story-lines of Andoria’s medical problems and succession from the Federation, but even those who have read the 23rd Century Star Trek Vanguard series will have an advantage over those who haven’t. Obviously the preceding Fall novels Revelation and Dust and The Crimson Shadow also both go without saying.

All the relevant back-stories are adequately explained however, but it is the fresh cloak and dagger – and eventual all out knives drawn – angle that make this story shine. For all the various plot threads it relies upon, it is the tradition of using Bashir’s espionage tales sparingly that Ceremony best continues. It is here that Dr. Bashir makes what is possibly the ultimate decision of his ongoing personal struggle between superior intellect and bleeding heart.

Bashir’s decision (and its consequences) are chronicled with all the talent of dramatic description readers have come to expect from Mack, the political issues are far less enduring than some others, all the while focusing squarely on those characters readers know and love.

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – The Crimson Shadow’

For the second in a five part mini-series, it could be easy to argue exactly how much of a Deep Space Nine novel The Crimson Shadow really is. Although its Next Generation credentials are obvious, the fact it revolves around the political turmoil of a major DS9 planet does point in the direction of that series. That said however, it’s not as though The Next Generation has ever treated the Cardassians delicately, David Warner notwithstanding.

Despite the inclusion of characters from both however, The Crimson Shadow is first and foremost simply a Cardassian novel, with any other setting taking second place; as with the recent Typhon Pact books the lines between TV series are becoming increasingly irrelevant. Also like Una McCormack’s previous novels, this is a story of an entire people rather than just those few who tell it.

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And it is through this ability to tell the big picture from a small perspective that McCormack brings out the full potential of what a Star Trek novel can be. As Trek at its best not only is this tale of another world both highly enjoyable and also relevant to our own – the withdrawal of allied troops cannot be taken as mere coincidence – but her writing is second to none.

The opening narration is reminiscent of Dickens himself and the depiction of the various levels of unrest, from boots on the ground to the offices of government, are handled with a level of skill that belies the fact this is only McCormack’s fourth full length Star Trek novel. Despite this however, it is the meeting of two diplomatic heavyweights, Elim Garak and Jean-Luc Picard, where The Crimson Shadow shines.

The depiction shows not just her in-depth knowledge of these disparate figures, McCormack’s particular fondness for Garak is no secret and as such his own story is the most compelling, but the interplay between the two is as engrossing as the rest of the novel combined.

Despite such a positive rendering of those characters that are included, the heavy political themes of the novel do tend to leave some left out; Geordi La Forge in particular is once again relegated from major player to the smallest of appearances.

Overall this novel presents such a powerful account of one of Star Trek‘s most influential races that it is easy to forget The Crimson Shadow is designed to be just one part of larger whole. Regardless of the Federation’s aid, or even the Castellan’s leadership, Cardassia couldn’t be in better hands than Una McCormack’s.

Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – Revelation and Dust’

Despite the plethora of novels in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine relaunch series, their number has diminished in the all-encompassing post-Nemesis relaunch novels; which now includes Captain Riker’s Titan in addition to the regular Next Generation, DS9 and Voyager staple, not to mention the various cross-overs. Although no books have been published with a Deep Space Nine title since 2009, the series has been the focus of a number of Star Trek: Typhon Pact novels however, not least of these is Plagues of Night, in which the beloved titular station is spectacularly destroyed.

Revelation_and_Dust_solicitation_coverBetween the longer than average span between publishings, and the dramatic events of the previous novel, Revelation and Dust understandably takes longer than most to get started. Although there is little that has happened in the interim there is still a new station to introduce and previous events to recap, which includes the kidnapping of Rebecca Jae Sisko. Something that has to be recapped, as it was a presumably major event that was never actually told.

The relaying of the exposition is helped by the fact that the characters we are reacquainted with are mostly old favourites from the TV series once more, as with Vaughn and Shar no longer aboard it is only the addition of Ro Laren and Sarina Douglas who new readers may be unfamiliar with. Although old and new alike will feel those such as O’Brien and Odo could have featured more heavily, Revelation makes the best of a new start thanks to author David R. George III’s ability at picking up right where he left off, having written three of the four DS9 set Typhon Pact novels.

Interwoven with the main comings and goings of the new station’s opening ceremonies, the novel also charts the experiences of former colonel (now vedek) Kira within the celestial temple. As is often the case when dealing with the prophets, this tale is shrouded in metaphorical mystery and by the end poses more questions than it offers answers. Doubly interwoven as the introduction of Rebecca’s abilities similarly seems to have been added as the start of an ongoing narrative of which this is only the beginning.

As the first of a five part mini series however, it is clear that Revelation is a beginning of many things by design, not least considering the fact that narratively it has to be the most influential Star Trek novel of recent times, its singular pivotal event is made all the more surprising by coming much later in the novel than is normally expected of something so inciting.

And despite George’s fine writing this is perhaps the only downfall of Revelation and Dust. Despite being accessible to regardless of how well read in Star Trek fiction, and an exceptional start to what promises to be a game changing mini-series, it is not simply a tie-in novel that can read independently from any others.