#177: The Captain’s Daughter (TOS #76)

This week, when Demora Sulu turns into a wild animal on an away mission, John Harriman has the unenviable task of putting her down. But her father refuses to accept how it went down, and risks a good old-fashioned court martial to unlock the truth. Can Captain Harriman’s reputation survive another high-profile death? How many kids has Kirk actually fathered? And will my new Boothby theory break the internet? All this and more in The Captain’s Daughter, the book that’s brought to you by Lifeshot.

The Captain’s Daughter
Author: Peter David
Pages: 278
Published: December 1995
Timeline: Present day of the book is not long after Generations, maybe a month or two; segments in the past are set just after the end of the five-year mission and in assorted subsequent years
Prerequisites: Star Trek Generations (movie or book); the development Demora’s “death” hinges on is based on technology from “Shore Leave” (S1E15)

It’s often considered anathema to talk about Star Wars in Trek spaces, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.

One of the criticisms most frequently levied at The Rise of Skywalker by its detractors is that it crudely walked back one of The Last Jedi‘s most poignant themes—i.e., that it isn’t your name or your lineage that makes you important, and you can make your own destiny. In those critics’ view, The Rise of Skywalker took a huge steaming dump all over that inspiring message with the clumsy revelation that Rey, previously thought to be some nobody hick from the sticks, was in fact the granddaughter of Emperor Palpatine, a surprise that raised more questions than it answered, chief among them: “There was someone out there who would have sex with Palpatine?” (It’s a big galaxy, I guess.)1

The Captain’s Daughter suffers from something somewhat similar. In it, the Enterprise-B answers a distress call from Askalon V. Hearing the speaker use an obscure Chinese dialect, multilingual Demora Sulu is intrigued, and asks Captain Harriman to join the landing party. Down on the planet, Demora gets separated from the group only to return naked, feral, and on the warpath; in the ensuing melee, Harriman is forced to kill her in self-defense. It’s a real raw deal, especially for Harriman, who still struggles mightily with the reputation of captaining the ship that felled no less a legend than James T. Kirk on its widely publicized shakedown cruise, and must now face the fact that a relative of another colossal Enterprise legend has now died on his watch. (At his own hand, even.) However, that is the nature of the beast. Space is dangerous, and the people who dedicate their lives to exploring it understand what they’re signing up for.

Occasionally, a captain or senior officer will allow themselves a brief indulgence in mourning a crew member’s senseless passing. In very rare instances, we might get to know them fairly well before death snatches them from us. But Demora Sulu is not just some random redshirt. By dint of her name, Demora Sulu is exempt from the ignoble fate of the average lower-decker, and her death cannot be abided, either by her father who watched his own captain elude it countless times or by the demands of canon. As a result, it never feels like Demora is truly gone, which undercuts a lot of the book’s dramatic heft and potential.

Borrowing some of its structural DNA from David’s own Imzadi, the story then alternates between past and present, showcasing the wild 24 hours Sulu spends in the city of Demora, a terraformed tourist trap in the Sahara. Although Sulu claims to be bored stiff by the city’s manufactured ambience, he nevertheless finds himself drawn into a chase he comes to believe has been arranged by Chekov. Sulu fights off three henchmen in hot pursuit of an alluring, mysterious woman named Ling Sui, all the while never believing the reality of it and camping it up even as he is knocked out cold and captured by the thugs and rescued by the very woman the men were pursuing. Only an anonymous contact getting his head blown off with a disruptor convinces Sulu that the whole fine mess is serious business. The chase spills out of the city into the desert, where they finally elude their pursuers and spend the night at an oasis on the way back to civilization. By the next morning, Ling Sui has disappeared without a trace—every bit the “mystery woman” she told Sulu she was.

Seven years later, Dr. McCoy breaks the news to Sulu that their night of passion in the desert produced a child, and that, having died of Sakuro’s disease, Ling Sui, whose real name was Susan Ling, still carried enough of a torch for Sulu to consider leaving the young girl in his care the best decision. Torn between the prospect of gallivanting about the stars and the urge to do right by the girl and give her a proper rearing, Sulu chooses—at least, initially—his daughter, and subsequent flashbacks showcase the push and pull between the warring desires and their effects on both Hikaru and Demora.

What’s interesting about The Captain’s Daughter is that you can feel it bucking against the inevitability of the status quo, trying to cast it off. The problem is that in order for Star Trek to run the way it does, it must often reject these attempts like incompatible organs. For example, The Captain’s Daughter tries to posit the idea that maybe it is not actually space that is the greatest adventure of all, but perhaps parenthood? A compelling thought exercise, to be sure. But part of what makes Star Trek characters so legendary is their total, unbreakable marriage to the stars. Kirk must reject Carol Marcus. Spock cannot pass Kolinahr. Picard cannot spend his life running a vineyard. Sulu cannot be the father Demora needs. And so the book is essentially pigeonholed into one answer to the above question, which is to say, “LOL, who are we kidding? Of course it’s space.”

Moreover, Demora is maneuvered into fully accepting that running off into space at the drop of a hat was a better decision for Sulu than sticking around to raise her. One could argue, however, that her also being in Starfleet makes that an easier pill to swallow, but while I think there’s room for conflicting feelings to coexist in her heart—she can believe that Starfleet’s ideals are honorable and worthy of upholding and hate that her father regularly chose it over her—I’d have to guess that might have been a little too complex for TOS as it was understood then.

All that said, it’s a testament to Peter David’s talent that The Captain’s Daughter remains a strong read despite being hog-tied pretty much from the jump. I was especially moved by the arc of John Harriman, a character I feel is criminally underexplored given the potential for thematic richness he’s got in him. His father, an admiral, figures heavily into the present-day portions of the story, and where the Hikaru/Demora side of things is mostly about what a parent owes a child, the Harriman father/son dynamic flips that around to powerful effect. Copying the basic structure of a story as excellent as Imzadi also helps give it a bit of shine, and though the buildup in Sulu and Ling Sui’s relationship never gets quite as intense as Will and Deanna’s did, it’s still sweet in its way.

It’s hard to say whether I’d recommend The Captain’s Daughter. On a raw enjoyability level, I would. It’s certainly loaded with excellent individual scenes; some of the best, like Demora experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions while waiting with the rest of Earth to die in the moments leading up to The Voyage Home‘s climax, are like delectable little short stories, the sort of thing you might expect to encounter in one of the Strange New Worlds anthologies. But for those who prefer to unpack their entertainment, some of its core components invite a level of scrutiny they aren’t really prepared to withstand. This is one time where I can’t really proclaim definitively whether to check it out or not. Consider how you feel about Peter David, about this book’s subject matter, and all that implies and entails, and proceed accordingly.

MVP & LVP

  • I gotta give it to John Harriman this week. What can I say? I love the character. I’m endlessly fascinated by him. One of the only attempts at suspense that works in this book is the question of whether Harriman will be a Boy Scout or continue the grand tradition of Enterprise maverickery. (Or, put another away, whether he’ll do the right or the right thing.) I’m the sort that generally prefers that Trek move forward when possible, but honestly, I could watch seven seasons of the Enterprise-B, of Harriman carving out his own identity and emerging from beneath the shadow of James Kirk and into his own legend. Harriman needs his own Anson Mount, someone who can sell modern fandom on the character and electrify and reinvigorate him.
  • My choice for LVP this week is Taine, the leader of the bad guys in Demora. He works well enough as a thug pursuing Ling Sui in the segments set in the past, but I somehow genuinely did not expect him to be the overarching villain of the whole thing. The character is far less equipped to handle that role, and the book’s climax is significantly weaker for it.

Nuggets & Stray Bits

  • “In his quarters, Captain Harriman stared out at the passing starfield and reflected that a ready room might be a really great idea. Some sort of special quarters for the captain, just off the bridge. That way if he wanted or needed some private time—some time to think or plan or just get away from the crushing burden of being in charge—he could avail himself of it without having to leave the bridge entirely…” — (p. 11)
  • Janice Rand is revealed to have had a daughter, Annie, who died when she was only two years old. It’s heavily implied that Kirk was the father, but that she never told him, accepting than an earthbound fatherhood was not the optimal use of his time and talents. Just how many kids has that guy sired, anyway? Dozens? Hundreds? (pp. 39, 40)
  • Sulu has a Lifeshot of Demora, a sort of series of holographic photos taken over the course of several years that morph in succession, tracking one’s growth over the course of however long the pictures span. Honestly, holograms notwithstanding? Million-dollar idea. And that would probably even be feasible today, albeit as a premium indulgence for one-percenters. Still! (pp. 141, 142)
  • At one point, Sulu is lined up to become the first officer of the Bozeman under Captain Morgan Bateson. He gets nervous when he’s about to tell him he’s not going to take the position, and Bateson gently urges him on, telling him—hand on my heart, swear to God—”Go ahead. I’m listening.” This is two hundred percent intentional, right? Right?? It has to be. I’m similarly convinced that the mention of some creature called a “Terwilligan Flogg” on the same page is an apple that didn’t fall too far from the Sideshow Bob tree. (p. 167)
  • I always wondered if I’d ever see anyone make the Mr. Spock/Dr. Spock connection. It always seemed too obvious to even be worth pointing out, and now that I’ve seen it in print, it confirms that, yes, that is absolutely the case. (p. 173)
  • Demora has a run-in with a young Boothby, whose father is also Boothby, while visiting the Academy as a teenager. This has inspired a new piece of headcanon. Tired: Trelane is a Q. Wired: Boothby is a Q. Prove me wrong! (pp. 181, 182)

Final Assessment

Good, but with quite a few caveats. The Captain’s Daughter defies easy categorization on the TBAGE scale. I’m calling it good because I enjoyed reading it and had fun and was entertained by it. However, be aware that there are a lot of conceptual issues with it, and that several aspects of it wilt under exposure. Some people will be able to forgive that, or simply won’t mind it. I leave it to you to decide which kind of person you are.

NEXT TIME: It doesn’t get more obvious than titling your book Crossover

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#178: Crossover (TNG event)

4 Comments

  1. Adam Goss

    As a fan of David’s work (mostly, I have read a couple stinkers by him – nobody’s perfect), I can assuredly assure you that the Frasier/Simpsons references are most assuredly deliberate. We’re talking about the same author who, in the novel I, Q, co-written with John DeLancie, got Grand Nagus Zek, played by Wallace Shawn on DS9 and who also played Vizzini in The Princess Bride, to finally say the word DS9/Bride fans waited seven seasons for and never got: “Inconceivable!”

  2. A.D.

    Like you, I think the character of John Harriman has a lot of potential. Have you read Serpents Among the Ruins? He gets fleshed out a lot in that story, though I don’t think that book’s plot really holds together in the end. Still worth a read.

    Back to this book: I’ve never read this so I don’t have much to say. Chiefly because I hate Peter David’s writing. He simply cannot help but load every story up with eyerollingly terrible jokes. There is no scene too important, dramatic, or sad that he won’t find it necessary to leaven it with some of his cheesy humor. He also suffers from a sever case of small universe syndrome. And he isn’t adverse to slipping in digs at people he’s feuding with either, at least in his comic work. He does occasionally come up with some cool ideas though. I loved the very end of Vendetta, for example.

  3. Nathan

    I just read this a few weeks ago. Or re-read it after a couple decades. It is slick, and as with any David novel it was bolstered by his comics-honed pacing, but as you get at — this whole book was essentially a big retcon (David’s specialty!): how did Sulu go from not having a daughter in STVI to having an adult daughter a few months later? And as you say many of the best bits are seeing some of the events of the films from Demora’s perspective. But I feel like Taine and his gang were completely unnecessary — the story didn’t need that sort of antagonist, and his cronies doing Saturday morning cartoon badguy-speak (“Hey boss, I like murder and torture as much as the next guy”) felt really out of place in a Trek novel. I also didn’t like that David brought a lot of his male-gazey stuff out (Demora dies naked after worrying that chocolate will make her fat, her mother, after the meet-cute-cum-extended-chase, goes on about how every man needs a mystery woman, and more!), And for a book called The Captain’s Daughter I think it could have benefited by being less about Sulu and more about his daughter. And heck, she (and Harriman) should have been on the cover. The more I think about it the more I think it would have been better as an unnumbered event novel that didn’t have to give most of its screen time to original Enterprise crew and could have focused more on the title character.

    • Adam Goss

      Is it really a retcon to give Sulu a daughter? We were never explictly told he didn’t have one, we just didn’t know about her until she was invented. Granted, to add her in at such a late date does feel a little like she was “shoe-horned in”, but how often does Star Trek, or any story franchise for that matter, introduce something new that fits into someone’s past? Maybe it jars us only because we all just ASSUMED Sulu didn’t have a daughter when it really was just a matter (semi-in-universe) of her not being mentioned to us before. We get so attached to our assumptions about official canon or head-canon that this is what leads to people whining about Spock “suddenly” having a sister.

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