#122: Here There Be Dragons (TNG #28)

This week, a space yacht hanging out inside a stellar cluster is only the first impossible sight of many to come for the Enterprise crew. But when they venture inside to visit Planet Germany, Picard and Ro make the mistake of sampling the wares. Now they have to escape or spend the rest of their lives posing as peasants. Will the Enterprise make it out in one piece? Will the Prime Directive make it out in one piece? Will Worf’s dignity make it out in one piece? All this and more in Here There Be Dragons, the book that swears it’s not touching.

Here There Be Dragons
Author: John Peel
Pages: 275
Published: December 1993
Timeline: Early season 6, just before “Rascals” (S6E7)
Prerequisites: “The Paradise Syndrome” (TOS S3E3) (Preserver lore)

While studying a nebula birthing a star, the Enterprise finds something that literally can’t be in there: a ship—a pleasure cruiser, at that. Yet there it is, making a number of, uh, questionable tactical decisions against the Enterprise. Eventually an escape pod departs from it, and they beam its sole occupant to safety at the last second. Said occupant, Castor Nayfack, is overflowing with outlandish claims. Among them: that he is an undercover Federation agent; that there is a planet inside the nebula where poachers are hunting beasts that resemble Earth dragons; that the planet is also home to gen-u-wine bonafide 100 percent Earth humans, living in a medieval society developmentally stuck in roughly the 13th century; and that the tunnel that can take them safely inside the nebula is the handiwork of none other than the mysterious beings known as the Preservers.

Picard leads the away team (over Riker’s usual protestations) of himself, Data, Ro Laren, and a security officer, Lt. Miles. Disguised as traveling musicians, Data breaks off to absorb himself in the suddenly realized answer to a nagging archaeological anomaly while the rest meet Nayfack’s contact Graebel. But Picard’s eagerness to imbibe proves a grave error; the wine is drugged, and Picard and Miles are sent to labor in the mines while Ro is sold into an even less savory form of slavery. As pickles go, Riker is stuck with a dilly of one: rescue the captured crew and stop the poachers without breaking the Prime Directive, and maybe also unravel some of the mystery of the Preservers to really sweeten the pot.

Here There Be Dragons, says John Peel in Voyages of Imagination, was inspired partially by a self-issued challenge to subvert a longstanding Trek rule of “no fantasy”—a patch of thin ice the series has skated on more than a few times, though perhaps not quite as cleverly or elegantly as Peel has managed here. Certainly, it’s commendable that he did it without simply resorting to the holodeck, at least not for the main arc. But that makes a lot of sense when you’re aware of it: the book does have sort of that sibling-bully “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you” vibe when it comes to dancing around the line of pure fantasy. That this bit of cheekiness somehow does not come across as overly precious might be the novel’s most impressive feat.

Actually, that would more likely be the almost scientifically calibrated perfection of the ensemble balance. Everyone gets lots of meaty parts; there’s no senior officer I would say drew a short straw in terms of page time. And they all have a lived-in informality with each other that rings true, especially Riker and Troi, whose easy rapport vividly recalls their imzadi bond without having to explicitly invoke it. Even Ro’s outspokenness doesn’t lapse into insubordination. Not only does this make the story a lot of fun, it also helps to elide elements that occasionally strain credulity, such as the frequency with which Picard casually and eagerly enlists Data as a physical enforcer.

Here There Be Dragons plays fast and loose, as stories where the Prime Directive is very much a going concern tend to do. Rather than call it messy, however, I’d say it’s more like shaggy, a distinction I hope conveys affection. Because I like this book quite a bit; I like the cut of its jib. What I like most about it is that it succeeds at being fun in a way I think TNG doesn’t usually nail. For better or worse, TNG is very squeaky clean, and when it tries to cut loose, it often does so in a way that is either too starchy and stiff or that comes at the expense of some of the show’s dignity. But this book shows off admirably what that fun can look like when it’s properly natural.

For some reason I thought John Peel (not to be confused with the legendary British radio DJ of the same name) wrote more Star Trek books than he did, but this is the first of just five. Two of those are in the Deep Space Nine kids’ line, which when you see what else he’s written makes a lot of sense. He actually wrote more books each for Carmen Sandiego (!) and James Bond, Jr. (!!!) than for Star Trek, as well as writing with distinction on the literary adventures of Doctor Who, being one of the few authors to depict Terry Nation‘s Daleks in full-length original stories. So far I’m enjoying his Star Trek work, and I hope the rest of his output continues to similarly impress.

MVP & LVP

  • This week’s MVP goes to Barclay. That ol’ boy busts his doggone butt in this book! Worf has an arc where he’s all mopey because the Enterprise finally ran into humans who live by a code of chivalry and honor, and he doesn’t get to beam down to meet them because the knowledge of his existence would blow the peasants’ minds all over their faces, to say nothing of taking a big old steamer on the Prime Directive. Barclay builds him an Arthurian holodeck program fit for a king, and although it ultimately doesn’t scratch Worf’s itch, it’s a fine effort regardless. He also works through a broken ankle to effect a critical shield repair after nearly dying from crawling into a tube with an argon atmosphere to fix a containment field. He’s still got the characteristic nebbishness and fear, but this Barclay is a man of duty, decisiveness, and purposeful action, and frankly, it’s a great look for him.
  • I’m choosing Picard for this week’s LVP, because a lot of the mess he and several others get into wouldn’t have happened if he’d been a bit more on the ball. That said, this was very much an intentional decision by Peel, who said he was interested in seeing what it would be like for Picard to make a major goof against a stupid enemy. I’m on the fence about this. I don’t demand peerless perfection from fictional characters, but at the same time, it can be frustrating to watch them make cadet mistakes. I’m not a fan of the decision, but it doesn’t significantly harm the greater story. Honorable mention to Lt. Miles, who spends most of the book unconscious but doesn’t die, and at least had the good sense to harbor a cursory suspicion toward Graebel’s wine. Being a redshirt (or, in his case, a goldshirt) is a hard-knock life.

Nuggets & Stray Bits

  • Here There Be Dragons marks the first actual appearance in a novel of Alexander, doing a melee combat simulation with Riker. Riker fails to see the point in melee combat, though predictably he will by the end of the book, which is more than I can say for me seeing the point of Alexander by the end of the series.
  • Picard plays a rather boisterous king in Barclay’s holodeck program, reminding me of his performance in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which would have been pretty fresh at the time this book was published (just five months after the movie’s theatrical run).
  • Picard is so baffled, frustrated, and infuriated by the events leading up to Nayfack’s introduction that he actually says “what the deuce”,1 which gave me a good laugh. (p. 25)
  • Deanna, helping rule out Worf for the away team: “‘Besides,’ Deanna said with a smile, ‘you don’t play any musical instruments.'” — Not true! He plays the chuS’ugh! In fairness, however, it would probably go over as well in 13th-century medieval Germany as it does everywhere else—which is to say, not great, Bob. (p. 63)
  • Smolinske in Stores is a fun character. I hope she comes back in future Trek novels by Peel. I could read a small collection of shorts about her outfitting away teams for various missions. (pp. 65–66, 259–261)
  • “Hagan glowered at [Nayfack] in disgust. ‘You lying turd,’ he snapped.” — I find it astounding that two separate books over a hundred installments apart not only both have poachers for villains but also both have one of them use the word “turd”—and it’s just as jarring now as it was then. (p. 95)
  • Data name-checks Indiana Jones, Irwin Allen, and Roger Corman. Finally, some real culture in Star Trek! (p. 175)
  • “‘There’s got to be a secret doorway or something. Isn’t that a feature of all old castles?’ / ‘Certainly in bad fiction,’ Riker replied. ‘And, it appears, in real life.'” — This is a brand of meta-joke you have to be really careful with. Deployed in the wrong place and/or at the wrong time, it can bring more bad juju down on a book already lousy with it. Lesser Star Trek novels have tried this gambit only to wilt under the scrutiny invited by it. Fortunately, this book has the goods to pull it off. (p. 217)

Final Recommendation

I recommend Here There Be Dragons. It pulls off something you don’t often see in Next Generation, which is that it’s fun without qualifiers or caveats. Clever without being precious, informal without being insubordinate, and light without being piffle. And be thankful for that lightness, because the next book on our docket, also a TNG adventure, is about as far from this one in tone and cheeriness as you can get. Appreciate the breath of fresh air; now strap in and get ready to go under.

NEXT TIME: The Enterprise-D passes through the Dark Mirror

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3 Comments

  1. Adam Goss

    This is on my long-term reading plan (I maintain a list of books to follow to ensure I maintain variety but also don’t ignore certain authors or certain types of books), and though I won’t get to this one for a long time I am excited for it nonetheless thanks to this review. I’m wondering what holds you back from naming it a Diamond of the First Water, as it sounds like this would have been highly rated under your old system.

    Also, I agree that characters don’t have to be absolute perfect paragons at all times – they should have weaknesses and foibles (it’s one of the reasons I wish TV shows would include things like the occasional stuttered/stammered line or a light tripping of the feet, because that’s natural, it happens to people and should not instantly be relegated to a blooper reel if the actor can recover from it smoothly).

    So I can easily see Picard struggling in a match of wits against a highly intelligent opponent and bracing himself if he makes a mistake… but Picard making a mistake against, as you put it, a stupid enemy is also interesting, provided it’s a matter of him underestimating just HOW stupid the foe might be (or overestimating their intelligence, take your pick), because that makes the foe potentially unpredictable and dangerous, and it may be a rookie mistake but it can be easily borne out of complacency or overconfidence. (“Hah! Their puny weapons are no match for our superior intellect…. *thud* Crap, their puny weapons WERE a match for our superior intellect.”) And it would be totally valid for Picard to do, especially if he is mentally kicking himself afterward for the mistake… Without giving spoilers, is what I have described the kind of behavior he exhibits in the book?

    • jess

      Probably the only thing stopping me is it isn’t one I can see picking up over and over. But I could change my mind—these aren’t iron-clad decisions.

      As to your non-spoilery question: pretty much, yes.

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