Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Picard: The Last Best Hope, by Una McCormack

This extraordinary novel by my friend Una McCormack is something really special: the best tie-in novel I've read in an age, a great novel in its own right, and disturbingly, horribly timely.

The brief is simple enough: to bridge the gap between our last sight of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (in the 2002 movie Nemesis) and the start of his new TV series, Star Trek: Picard, which itself follows on from the destruction of the planet Romulus in the 2009 reboot movie Star Trek. Una sets out her mission on the first page, beginning, as does the new TV series, with retired and elderly Picard at home on his vineyard in La Barre. Only Una has him picking over exactly what led to him being here.

It's so much more than just joining the dots between movie A and television series B. The prose is immediately arresting, the scene poignant and moving, the great Picard now,
"One more outcast, cast adrift. Prospero, on his island. An old conjurer, his magic spent, nursing old grievances." (p. 3)
This is a perfect association for Picard, played all these years by Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart. There is dignity, even majesty, in his fall from grace. Having established that sense of him, Una then has Picard settle on, "the moment when everything changed" - the day he left his beloved Starship Enterprise. 

We cut back to that day, and Una swiftly lays out the Great Problem that Picard is tasked with - a refugee crisis that involves old enemies who are too proud to ask for help. Picard is promoted to Admiral and takes charge of a new ship and crew to boldy go sort things out. Nicely, Una also has him take his leave of old friends, especially those who've not (yet) had cameos in the new TV series. One conversation with an old friend is like a knife through the heart.
"[Picard] had never quite summoned up his courage, when it came to Beverley Crusher." (p. 20).
Picard must also argue the case for the officer he thinks should succeed him on the Enterprise, and much is made of the significance of Captain Worf, a Klingon, taking the helm of the Federation's flagship just 100 years since the enmities of 1991 movie, The Undiscovered Country. That works well, but oddly it's relayed through other people's responses. We barely glimpse Worf at all; he's given no dialogue. I assume there's some contractual issue, or some other spin-off has bagsied Worf's perspective, but still.

One other thing seems missing: I've still little sense of how Picard knows Laris and Zhaban, the Romulans working for him at the start of the TV series. They get no more than a name-check in the book. Again, I assume that's a story for another time - or something I missed in the series. [ETA, Laris and Zhaban apparently feature in the comic mini-series Countdown.] But that and the silence of Worf are hardly complaints, just the sole two moments where I thought, "Wait, what?"

Otherwise, the book's use of established, TV-derived lore is exemplary. So much tie-in fiction is about playing in the margins, at a discrete distance from the primary source. But Una includes scenes that I've watched in the TV series, adding to them, extending them, offering more context and insight. It's more than simply access to the production team and the episodes well ahead of broadcast: there's evident care and trust and parity of esteem in the relationship between production team and writer for this to dovetail with the series so perfectly. The result is that I'm engaged in and am enjoying the Picard TV series more because I've read the book.

Again, it's not just about joining the dots. Una creates her own characters - indeed, a whole ship under Picard's command, the Verity. Two characters are so well drawn that we really feel their loss when they die. I also found ambitious politician Olivia Quest particularly easy to visualise, as Emma Thompson in Years and Years. Characters new and established feel psychologically real: there are few out-right villains, just people with conflicting views about what should be done in the face of vast and awful crisis.

I think there's something of the TV series Chernobyl in this response to - and denial of - calamity. We're also told that the people of Earth long solved its climate crisis, and then Picard despairs of those refusing his help:
"But there must have come a point - long past - when it was clear that something on Romulus was going horribly wrong. Yet many people - even among the elites, most of whom have been privy to the information - seem not to have believed the evidence of their own eyes. They seem to have wantonly refused to connect the dots between the increasing heat, the storms, the floods, and the freak weather pattern. I struggle to understand why. Perhaps some truths are simply too much to face." (p. 253)
Una couldn't have known it, but much of her novel feels horribly pertinent right this minute, as we square up to Corvid-19. Politicians and experts argue over the correct response to an unprecedented crisis. There's selfishness and denial from ordinary people, not sure what to believe in the calm before the storm. But, fast becoming reality, there is suffering and death on a barely imaginable scale...

We know from the opening page of the book that things do not turn out well for Picard or those he pledges himself to save. I'd already seen the episode of the TV series which flashes back to the day Picard resigns from Star Fleet. Una includes that, and shows us his resignation. He fails. Then she concludes with some thoughts, from Picard, on the cruelty of history.

Bloody hell. It's a book that's changed my sense of the TV series, and the world outside my door now.


Stuart Ian Burns said...

Laris and Zhaban are apparently covered in the comic prequel:


0tralala said...

Aha! Thank you.