In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.
Part of this story takes place 446 million years ago.
‘The Escape’ is proof that Star Trek: Voyager was prepared to boldly go in no small measure right away when it came to the tie-in novelisations which regularly accompanied the television shows on screen across the 1980’s, 90’s and 00’s. Dean Wesley Smith & Kristine Kathryn Rusch, existing stalwarts of the Star Trek novel scene, throw the crew in the first Voyager tie-in novel right into an ambitious storyline which would make the Department of Temporal Investigations’ heads explode.
Voyager may have been a proxy for The Next Generation in many instances across its seven year shelf life but the approach the series took to time travel was right out of The Original Series playbook. In the 1960’s, it felt as though Captain Kirk and crew were zipping back through time every five minutes for some kind of adventure, and many of the show’s most memorable episodes involve the Enterprise travelling through time as well as space, such as ‘City on the Edge of Forever’.
Despite being made three decades later, with the more advanced narrative sensibilities that came with the 90’s, Voyager often seems defined by the show’s use of time-travel. Captain Janeway’s crew found themselves in different time zones far more than Captain’s Picard, Sisko or Archer in their respective shows, while Discovery to date has only dealt with it via a Groundhog Day-style time-loop episode.
‘The Escape’ therefore feels indicative of the kind of tales Voyager told all the way through from Season 1’s temporal mystery ‘Time and Again’ to the series finale ‘Endgame’, which of course quite controversially relies on a temporal paradox to have the crew reach their objective: get home to Earth from the distant Delta Quadrant, where they have become stranded.
Smith & Rusch’s novel was written early in the process of making Voyager and there are points you can definitely feel that; the Doctor being referred to as Dr. Zimmerman as he was originally meant to be referred to, Neelix sounding more like an irritating facsimile of Deep Space Nine’s Quark than who he would eventually become (if indeed he wasn’t always that in the show), and references to how the Starfleet and Maquis crews making up Voyager are starting to blend in together.
Yet the time-travel based storyline feels perfectly in tune with the kind of high concept science-fiction adventure stories Voyager would tell, even if ultimately it would only have most likely made for a run of the mill episode of the show itself. Many of the Voyager time-travel stories either shot for a ‘big-budget’ concept such as ‘Future’s End’ or ‘Year of Hell’ (and of course ‘Endgame’), or added an emotional component such as in ‘Timeless’, the 100th episode which saw an older Harry Kim play havoc with the timeline to prevent Voyager’s destruction. This early on in the creative development of Voyager, this being the first novel after the adaptation of pilot episode ‘Caretaker’ to tell an entirely original story, Smith & Rusch are careful to make ‘The Escape’ much more about the alien enigma and world-building than the characters themselves.
Mind you, this is very much a staple of stand-alone Star Trek tie-in fiction. Writers are restricted by a sandbox to an extent, unable to forward these characters in any meaningful way which might contradict dominant on-screen canon. Therefore it makes sense they would often choose to try and create memorable alien civilisations and their own tie-in characters who the TV show creations would encounter. This only changed when the TV shows came to a close and tie-in, semi-canonical book fiction continued the stories of these characters. We’re a long way off from that here.
‘The Escape’ chooses to make the concept of the Alcawellians and their time-travel based society the focus, more so than developing truly interesting and memorable alien characters – those we get such as trickster time-cop Drickel and venal time-criminal Kjanders are fairly one note, while time-lawyer Rawlik doesn’t get enough time to develop hints of a dynamic with B’Elanna Torres that are threaded into the story.
Smith & Rusch are far more interested in the complexity of the Alcawellian system of enforced, administrative time-travel, and it is a fascinating science-fiction idea; a society who, upon discovering time-travel, created a set of 500,000 year periods in which their citizens can travel across more than a billion years, allowing them to settle ‘up-time’ or ‘down-time’, while Real Time (as in the linear series of events) continues on within their own timelines.
Though as a concept it takes some getting your head around, Smith & Rusch do manage to explain it fairly concisely, often thanks to characters like Tuvok getting the concept and understanding it so we as a reader can. Much as there is a great deal of time-travel and potential paradox flying around, the story never loses you in time and place, which it could so easily have done.
Unfortunately, even with their remarkable innovation of time-travel, the Alcawellians just aren’t all that interesting as a species. Powerfully administrative, with rules and regulations dominating their time-obsessed existence, they’re quite bland and suffer from the same problem Voyager would often encounter when meeting new alien species – they just don’t feel particularly *alien*.
Despite the fact the Delta Quadrant is 70,000 light years (aka 75 years of travel) away from Earth, Voyager could easily have met these people around the Federation’s own back yard and Smith & Rusch had the chance, with their unusual technology and choice of how to implement it, to make these people rather strange and eccentric. It’s a chance they just choose not to take. Nor does the magnitude of Starfleet officers travelling farther back in history than anyone else leap off the page – nearly 500 million years could have been last week for all it feels unique, strange and different.
Yet, for the first Voyager tie-in book, ‘The Escape’ feels surprisingly assured for the most part. Only one or two beats of characterisation are off, with the majority of main players sounding like their on-screen counterparts, and it has the pulp adventure stylistics of Voyager in the nature of the story itself. It lacks a certain memorable colour or unusual, alien strangeness that would have made it stand out amongst Star Trek novels, but as a starting point to continue the Voyager crew’s explorations in book form, it does more than a decent job.