This week, the longest Star Trek novel to date takes us once more back to the pre-TOS past to fill in some of the history of Daddy Kirk, a.k.a. George Samuel Kirk. He’s the first first officer of some new high-tech doodad called a … star … ship? But on a goodwill mission to save some families trapped in an ion storm, they overshoot their destination and end up smack dab in the middle of Romulan space. As they try to figure out how to get home without dying, Robert April and George Kirk butt heads over the best approach to commanding a ship. Is April the time of the season, or does father know best? Is it a little weird how many decent Romulans there are in the books? How empty, on a scale from very to extremely, is James Kirk’s threat to quit Starfleet? It’s Final Frontier, or, The Last Book to Have That Ugly Slanted Font Thing Going On on the Cover.
Author: Diane Carey
Published: January 1988
Timeline: Framing story immediately after “City on the Edge of Forever” (TOS S1E28); main story 25 years prior to TOS
Prerequisites: Technically none, though who needs an excuse to rewatch “City on the Edge of Forever”?
Not to be confused with: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier or First Frontier, a later TOS event novel also written by Diane Carey
Like Enterprise: The First Adventure and Strangers from the Sky before it, Final Frontier aims to fill in the mysteries surrounding a foundational element of Trek lore—in this case, the maiden voyage of the first vessel to be called a starship as we know it. In fact, one could easily posit the three books as a de facto trilogy connected by that theme of lore expansion. Cast in that light, Final Frontier is, by a rather wide margin, the weakest of the three.
Fresh off the Edith Keller tragedy, James Kirk is using some well-deserved time off to explore a different portal to the past: letters from his father George Kirk, which he’s reading in the loft of his parents’ barn back home in Iowa. The mental toll of his trip through the Guardian of Forever and the melancholy tone of George’s letters conspire to put Kirk in a deep blue funk, enough so that he’s giving serious thought to relinquishing his command. Such is the novel’s framing device, and though Carey pops in on it from time to time, it doesn’t pack much of an overall punch.
Most of the action centers around George Kirk. When we meet him, he’s chief of security at Starbase Two, chillin’ with his buddy Francis Drake Reed, breaking up rec deck hustles, and writing depressing letters to his sons. Then he and Reed get drugged and taken away, an act orchestrated by his friend Captain Robert April, who wants George to embark on a super-important mission with him and didn’t want to risk having him say no. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t care how good a friend someone was—if they thought chloroforming me was a better way to persuade me to do something for them than asking me directly, I’d kick ’em in the jewels and tell ’em, “Find someone else, doucheberry.” But George doesn’t do that; instead, he hears out the plan, which is to save a ship populated mostly by families that’s stranded in an ionic storm cluster and being buffeted with lethal radiation using a newfangled contraption called a “starship”.
The mission is carefully chosen to establish a specific precedent for starship exploration—i.e., right over might, unification over destruction. While there is an antagonist, most of the book’s conflict is between Robert and George regarding the best way to run a starship. Remember the episode “The Enemy Within”, where Kirk got split into two Kirks, one ridiculously evil and one a lame namby-pamby wiener who was paralyzed by indecision? Final Frontier is a lot like that, but with two separate people representing those sides, and the tougher side being just kind of rough around the edges rather than full-on psycho. George Kirk is the man of action, with the military background to know that sometimes you can’t just talk your way out of a mess, and Robert April is even more of a pacifist than your average Starfleet officer, getting all huffy and withdrawn any time George suggests even a moderate show of force might be necessary. Captain April insists the starship is a purely exploratory vessel, while the more pragmatic Kirk worries it could easily exploited for its offensive prowess. Though the two men don’t dislike each other by any means, their fundamentally opposing natures form the bulk of the story’s conflict, more so than anything involving the Romulans.
Yes, we’ve got Romulans again. About half of the first half takes place on the Romulan ship, ostensibly following Commander Idrys serving under Field-Primus t’Cael Kilyle. They are patrolling deep in Rihannsu territory—an ignominious assignment, since being so far away from the Neutral Zone offers no chance of Federation skirmishes and thus no chance to gain honor and/or glory through battle. In addition, the Praetor has his own set of eyes and ears on board tracking them in Antecenturion Ryiak. T’Cael may be in the doghouse, but he’s cool as a cucumber and refuses to be big-dogged by a twerp like Ryiak. T’Cael is yet another example of the archetypal “reasonable Romulan” so many authors seem to be enamored with, who is tired of fighting all the time, wants his Empire to find a way that doesn’t involve constant war and plundering, and quickly gets along with humans and earns their trust. He’s hardly a unique specimen, though he has his moments.
After a rocky start from the spacedock that nearly blows up the ship, which George thinks might be sabotage and Robert chalks up to launch-day kinks that need working out, they punch the warp drive button … and end up sitting ducks, deep in Romulan territory. Robert gets thrown against a bulkhead in the ensuing chaos, giving him a concussion, leaving George to handle negotiations with the Romulan commander on a nearby neutral planet. If you’re wondering if you’ll get to see where Jim got his legendary diplomacy skills, you might be somewhat distressed to find that the apple fell pretty far from the tree, and in fact may have grown on a different tree altogether.
After Ryiak uses t’Cael’s time off the ship to murder Idrys and try to vaporize t’Cael, the Romulans take a hard pivot from featured players to an almost totally abstract threat, their motivations, thought processes, and most likely courses of action narrated entirely by t’Cael, who becomes the Federation ship’s de facto consultant on battle strategy and decides to take his chances seeking asylum in the Federation. From there, most of the action involves figuring out who made the ship crap the bed and why, plus a philosophical impasse here and there for good measure.
Mostly Final Frontier is kind of dull, though it takes occasional detours to be extremely stupid as well. The traitors who sabotage the ship, Graff and Saffire, are seen rarely, usually only long enough to establish/remind that they are saboteurs. Saffire in particular is briefly noted as being the type of guy who separates his food before eating it, which is a fairly common idiosyncrasy even among people one wouldn’t necessarily describe as OCD otherwise. But when t’Cael hears of this harmless quirk, he immediately jumps straight to “THAT GUY IS A ROMULAN. ONLY ROMULANS SEPARATE THEIR FOOD. THAT IS DEFINITELY SOMETHING SO DISTINCTIVE ONLY ONE SPECIES WOULD EVER DO IT.” And sure enough, Saffire turns out to be one—in spirit, anyway; he’s a human who pledged fealty to the Romulans as a child after being found stranded in their space. The way two and two are put together is so dumb, it threatens to derail the entire book.
Carey didn’t have much character background to go off of to bring the crew of the first starship to life, but a lot of her creations don’t land and either aren’t terribly likable or aren’t fleshed out enough to be able to make that assessment. Robert April, whose only previous appearance was in an Animated Series episode where the entire crew is rapidly de-aging, is here presented as an amiable, genteel, pretty laid-back guy, though his unwillingness to make decisive moves in unpleasant situations can grate. His unshakeable devotion to the United States Constitution is also a bit of a puzzling character trait for him to have, considering he’s extremely British. (That could just be me being cynical, although that, a dubiously deployed Ayn Rand quote at the end, and her approval of George W. Bush’s Middle East campaign, revealed in Voyages of Imagination, make me suspect Diane Carey is, if not already a full MAGA chud, at most one or two steps away, which would go a long way in explaining the militaristic bent of many of the books we’ve seen by her so far.) I also wasn’t into Robert and Dr. Sarah Poole’s romantic arc, and helmsman Carlos Florida didn’t get enough to do to get me over the hurdle of his silly name. Only Spirit Claw Sanawey, the Native American astrotelemetrist, was someone I wanted to get to know better.
Overall, I wasn’t too thrilled with Final Frontier. If you’re interested in the offensive/pacifist give-and-take that poses a philosophical quandary for the Federation, you might find something to latch onto here. There’s also some well-researched historical buildup to how the starship comes to be called the Enterprise. But people looking for fascinating angles on rarely explored lore and interesting character work are liable to come up mostly empty-handed here.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is t’Cael. Without t’Cael, there’s absolutely no way the Federation crew is getting out from under the Romulans or the ship is getting home. That, plus his no-nonsense command style and policy of taking exactly zero crap from petty nuisances (as demonstrated below in the Nuggets) is enough to earn him to this week’s MVP award.
- I’m giving LVP to Dr. Leo Brownell, the guy in charge of engineering on the Federation starship. Dr. Brownell is what you would get if you mixed Dr. McCoy with the scene in the 1990 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie where Casey Jones and Donatello take turns coming up with insults for each letter of the alphabet. Even that description doesn’t fully get at how dumb all his dialogue sounds.
Nuggets and Other Stray Bits
- The way Romulan ear points are turned seems to be an indicator of beauty in Rihannsu culture. (Idrys’s ear points apparently make her out to be somewhat plain.)
- p. 169: One of the greatest examples of raw ownage to date. T’Cael throws the rule book at Ryiak, who gets all smarmy and sarcastically offers to double-check the law to make sure everything t’Cael recited at him is accurate. T’Cael’s response: “I will allow you to hang yourself by the genitals. And that is all you will ever do on my behalf.” How do you say “delete your account” in Rihannsu?
- I don’t want to spoil it, but Graff’s death scene is pretty cool. Gruesome, but cool.
I give Final Frontier 2.5 out of 5 unnamed starships. In the end, Final Frontier just doesn’t add up to much. None of the characters are very compelling, the story drags on way too long, and Kirk’s supposedly long, dark night of the soul is a total non-starter. There may be an interesting story to tell with these characters, but this isn’t it. Interpersonal conflicts aside, it’s a pretty boilerplate encounter with Romulans, and we’ve had enough of those at this point that one exceeding 400 pages had better be pretty darn special.
NEXT TIME: We get down with the sickness in The IDIC Epidemic