Star Trek: A Time to be Born and A Time to Die
Back in 2004, Pocket Book published a connected series of nine Star Trek: The Next Generation novels, designed to bridge the gap between Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek: Nemesis, the last of the TNG movies. Nemesis introduced several changes to the status quo of the TNG crew (Riker and Troi were engaged to be married and Riker was finally moving on to his own command; Worf and Wesley were apparently back in Starfleet, etc.), and this book series was designed to explain those new developments and to give Nemesis more of a context that fit with pre-established Trek continuity.
I didn’t read the “A Time To…” series back when it was first released. While I was hooked into the interconnected series of DS9 novels that continued the DS9 story past the events of the finale, “What You Leave Behind,” the Pocket Books Trek line hadn’t yet merged into the very-cool tapestry that I have been following and enjoying for the past decade and a half, weaving together characters and story-lines from all the Trek series. So at the time, I didn’t view this new TNG series as a must-read. But the primary reason I didn’t read it was that I hated Nemesis. I thought it was a failure through and through, and while it was a delight to see Riker and Troi’s storylines finally moving forward in that movie, many of the other changes felt like annoying reversals of character developments that I had enjoyed. Worf’s unexplained return to a Starfleet uniform was the most galling. I was delighted by the way Deep Space Nine developed Worf’s character, and I thought that the place where they left Worf at the end of the series, as the new Federation ambassador to the Klingon empire, was a perfect next step for the character. And so I was super-annoyed at Nemesis for undoing that development without any explanation, and dropping Worf right back where he had been long ago on TNG, as security chief for the Enterprise. (Adding insult to injury, Nemesis’ general stupidity and carelessness of storytelling led me to believe that this change to Worf might have just been an accidental oversight, rather than a change made with a good reason at heart. Or at least, any reason beyond: we want Worf in the movie so let’s just put him back on the Enterprise and assume the fans won’t notice or care that we’re undoing all of his development from DS9.) And so I was not exactly chomping at the bit at the prospect of reading nine books devoted to explaining these changes. I preferred to ignore Nemesis to the best of my ability.
But in the years since, Pocket Books’ Star Trek line HAS expanded into a gloriously rich, complex interconnected tapestry of stories and characters. I know most people look down their noses at fiction based on popular franchises. But this continuing Star Trek series has blossomed into one of my very favorite interconnected fictional universes. And the “A Time To…” novels have, in hindsight, proven to be a central piece of this puzzle, with many storylines and characters introduced in this series that would have ripple effects for years to come, and throughout many other novels.
Back in 2018-19, Pocket Books’ Star Trek books went on a lengthy hiatus that lasted for more than a year. (The story was that the license with CBS/Paramount was being renegotiated, but I suspect part of what was at issue was how the Trek novel series would adjust to the new CBS Star Trek shows, which had the potential to disrupt the careful continuity these books have crafted. When the Picard show was released, we saw an entirely different future for these characters than what the novel series had developed. I would love for the novel series to continue uninterrupted, separate from Picard and whatever CBS All Access winds up doing with its other Star Trek shows. Sadly that doesn’t seem to be the case and even though Pocket Books is publishing Trek novels again, it looks like David Mack’s Collateral Damage is the end of this long continuing series of novels that I have so loved.) Anyways, getting back to my main topic: I decided that this break in new novels would be a fun time for me to go back and finally read this “A Time To…” series.
John Vornholt’s duology A Time to Be Born and A Time to Die are a strong kick-off to this nine-book series. Picard and the Enterprise-E are assigned to assist in the recovery efforts at Rashanar, a graveyard of starships left over from a fierce battle in the Dominion War. Looters and scavengers with their own agendas complicate these efforts, but not as much as a mysterious antimatter-based entity that seems to exist within the graveyard with the ability to duplicate and destroy starships. On top of all of that, the Ontalians, a new Federation member world within whose space the Rashanar graveyard exists, seem to have their own agenda that might not jive with the interests of Picard and the Federation. When another Federation starship, the U.S.S. Juno, is lost with all hands while on operations within the graveyard, Captain Picard looks to have been negligent, and is summoned back to Earth for inquiry and reprimand.
I loved the mystery of Rashanar and the Ontalians. It’s great to see new aliens and new sci-fi concepts and mysteries in these stories. I enjoyed seeing a TNG story that reflected the DS9 storylines and explored the fallout of the Dominion War. Mr. Vornholt has a very strong grasp of the TNG ensemble and did a great job writing all the characters. Everyone sounded and felt exactly as they should.
The biggest surprise of the novels, and, in the end, my favorite aspect of this dulogy, was the return of Wesley Crusher! I think Wil Wheaton is a great actor and a great person (I’ve quite enjoyed a lot of his internet-based work in recent years), even though I never much liked the character of Wesley on TNG. I felt the writers never knew what to do with this character, and as such he was either annoying (as the superhumanly precocious kid, constantly saving the Enterprise) or, when they started writing him just as a regular young ensign on the ship, sort of useless and extraneous. I was thankful when he was written off in season four. Wesley’s final appearance on the show, late in season seven, suggested that he had evolved into a superhuman “Traveler” (bringing back the mysterious Traveler from season one.) That was an interesting idea, albeit one that 1) the show didn’t explore deeply enough to really give the concept its due and 2) it leaned more heavily than I’d have preferred into the early season one idea that Wesley was superhuman, something I never quite bought into. (I liked Wesley most when he was fallible, such as in “The First Duty,” which I think is Wesley and Wil Wheaton’s finest hour on TNG.)
I haven’t been rooting for Wesley to be brought back into these TNG novels, but nevertheless I LOVED what Mr. Vornholt did with Wesley here. I loved the explorations of Wesley’s experiences as a Traveler, and also of who the Travelers were, how they operated, and what they could and couldn’t do. I also loved the way Mr. Vornholt managed to keep Wesley very human and fallible, showing us his struggles as he felt caught between two worlds, his former friends on the Enterprise and his new life as a Traveler. This was as empathetic as Wesley has ever been! I am impressed. (My only complaint was that Wesley’s story felt somewhat unresolved at the end. Were there consequences to his actions in this novel, interfering in events to help his friends? I am hoping/assuming that Wesley’s story will continue in the other books of this saga.)
It was nice to see new Enterprise security chief Christian Vale. (She was introduced in the SCE e-book Belly of the Beast, by Dean Wesley Smith, and subsequent to this “A Time To…” series, she become a major character in the continuing TNG novels, and then the Titan series focusing on Riker’s first command.) She didn’t have too much to do here, but she will prove very important down the road, so it was fun to see her early days here. It was also nice to see Lt. Perim, the Enterprise-E’s Trill conn officer (who appeared on-screen in Insurrection… but not in Nemesis, which means that I suspect she’s not going to make it through this nine-book series…). I enjoyed the way Mr. Vornholt fleshed out her character here.
The story of Data’s emotion chip was a big part of Star Trek: Generations, and we followed Data’s use of that chip through First Contact and Insurrection. But in Nemesis, although this was never actually explained on-screen, it didn’t appear that Data had that chip any more. He didn’t act like he did. And so, in this book, we read that Starfleet has confiscated the chip for reasons connected to the tragic events at Rashanar. I find it a little hard to accept that Picard would take this lying down… but I like the way these books begin the process of better contextualizing Nemesis. I look forward to how the rest of the books in this series continue to handle this process.
This novel set up a scenario in which Picard amd the Enterprise command crew are disgraced in the eyes of Starfleet. I raised my eyes at this notion. Even if Picard did make a mistake, how could that overcome all of the heroic good he had done throughout his career? Mr. Vorhnolt successfully set up a scenario, in book one, where Picard does appear to have erred — or, at last, where we can understand how others could see it that way. The destruction of the Juno was undeniable (and, while that was a tragedy, I was pleased that wasn’t magically undone somehow by the end of book two.) I particularly enjoyed the section at the end of book one dealing with Picard’s inquiry before Starfleet brass. I liked that glimpse into Starfleet and Federation politics, and it was fun to see Admiral Necheyev and Admiral Ross again. It was interesting how Admiral Ross, who, on DS9, was the most interesting and likable Starfleet admiral we’d ever seen in Trek, was cast in a somewhat unfavorable light here… whereas Admiral Necheyev, who often seemed very annoying and shortsighted on TNG, was given more depth and acted in a far more sympathetic manner towards Picard and the Enterprise crew here. I also liked reading about the Medusan Commodore, a nice Original Series nod! (From the episode, “Is There No Truth in Beauty?”)
The only problem in all this was that, by the end of book two, when the truth of what had gone down at Rashanar was finally explained, I didn’t buy why the truth was kept secret by Starfleet, resulting in Picard and the Enterprise crew’s continuing to be pariahs within Starfleet. The Ontalians seemed relieved if not grateful that the situation was resolved. So allowing Picard and co. to continue to look bad in order to appease these new Federation members no longer seemed necessary. I guess we’ll see where this all goes in the rest of the series.
I was also a little surprised by the ending of the second book, in that I’d thought there would have been more effort made to understand and possibly communicate with the antimatter creature. Picard and co all seemed to jump to the determination that it must be killed/destroyed very quickly, in a somewhat un-Star Trek way. That surprised me.
So far, I am very happy to have begun finally reading this series! This was a great start, and it made me very excited to move on to books three and four, written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dillmore. I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on those novels!
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