This week, a Romulan with a personal vendetta un-drops the bridge on Kirk for her own nefarious ends. But she’s also doing it to help out the Borg, who hope to use him to take out their own worst enemy and assimilate the Federation (but not the Romulans, they double-pinky-swear). What use do the Borg have for an alliance with anyone? What’s behind the curtain at the Vulcan video store? And when Kirk’s not on screen, should the other characters be asking, “Where’s Jimmy?” All this and more in The Return, the book that didn’t even let the corpse get cold.
Author: William Shatner
Pages: 371 (PB)
Published: April 1996 (HC)
Timeline: One month after Star Trek Generations
Prerequisites: Generations; “Best of Both Worlds” at the very least, as far as Borg knowledge; “Balance of Terror” (TOS S1E14); and one that would count as a spoiler so I’m putting it behind a footnote1
If we acknowledge that the novels are in general a sideshow, a curio in the overall Star Trek experience, then it could be argued that the Shatnerverse is, for better and worse, one of the more visible manifestations of that arm of the franchise, if not the most. I’ve been both excited and nervous to reach this point; skeptical, yet also cautiously open-minded. Although it wasn’t a great book, I was relieved that The Ashes of Eden mostly was not what I feared a Shatner-penned novel would amount to. Though it was a bit leading in its philosophical line of questioning, it was, to its credit, pensive, with an eye toward the sunset, and lacked the bluster one might reasonably expect from its author’s ego. It seemed clear that Shatner had some feelings he wanted to work out, and as is the privilege of the famous, he got to use the New York Times best-seller list as his platform for it. Aside from the requisite action, it was a thoughtful rumination on his incipient twilight, if not an especially riveting one.
But something happened while The Ashes of Eden was being written and/or awaiting publication, and that something was Star Trek Generations. Writing offered Shatner a noncommittal way to arrive at a conclusion for Kirk on his own terms, in his own time, and if you could accuse him of a little self-indulgence, well, no other Trek actor had written a novel about their own character (yet). Maybe there would still be opportunities for jaunting about space. Maybe retirement would be the next great adventure, or life with Teilani. There was time to figure it out. Instead, Generations slammed the door on all that. William Shatner filmed a death scene. A bridge fell on Captain Kirk. He died. “It was … fun. …Oh my.” And that was that.
Obviously, I can’t read the man’s mind. But as I read The Return, it was difficult to escape the feeling that Generations somehow flipped a switch in Shatner’s brain, and that, faced with an ending of tangible nearness and undeniable finality, he clamped down on the thing he felt belonged to him with the depressingly predictable vise-grip of those of his time and privilege. I don’t fault Generations for this. I imagine any work that tried to definitively draw the curtain on the Captain Kirk saga would have triggered something like this. It if hadn’t been Generations, it would have been something else. Roger Ebert once poetically called his wife Chaz “the great fact of [his] life”, but in the final balance, William Shatner’s ego is likely to be the great fact of his career, and works like The Return, which has a premise so ridiculous and contrived it could only have been concocted to satiate such a rampant urge, are not likely to sway the historical record favorably.
This might make it sound like I loathe The Return on general principles, but that wouldn’t be very reviewerly of me, and anyway it’s not actually as bad as it could have been, which is really saying something. As with the previous Shatner outing, that is almost certainly thanks to the incalculable contributions of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, whose stamp is evident on pretty much every part of this book that isn’t the very beginning or the very end. It’s hard not to get a sense that every good idea in this book was theirs, and that they put a nigh-heroic amount of elbow grease into polishing the bad ones as well. The plot of The Return is held together by spit, bailing wire, and prayers, and watching it chug along for almost four hundred pages without completely buckling is truly kind of a miracle.
One month after the events of Generations, Romulans attack the salvage site at Veridian III and beam Kirk straight up from his grave, with Spock standing there watching and everything. They use some ancient tech of unknown provenance that they don’t fully comprehend to revive him, and Salatrel, the commander who exhumed him, brainwashes him into believing he had a Romulan family and that Jean-Luc Picard is his mortal enemy, along with, by extension, Starfleet, the Federation, and the Enterprise. Reprogramming Kirk into a Picard-hunting T-800 fulfills Salatrel’s desire for revenge against him, and in turn, taking out Picard removes the greatest obstacle to the assimilation of the Federation by the Borg, with whom Salatrel has entered into an unauthorized, tenuous, and frankly bizarre alliance. In return for assisting the Collective, the Borg will allow the Romulans to remain unassimilated “as a curiosity”, so that by studying them they can improve the methods by which they “welcome” other cultures to the Collective, although it’s tough to imagine that arrangement lasting long.
Meanwhile, Picard and Dr. Crusher go on a covert mission with a team of Starfleet intelligence agents to New Titan, where the Borg have assimilated Starbase 804 and are converting it into a cube. The mission is steal and commandeer a Borg vessel, which requires Picard to put the Locutus faceplate back on so he can fake it till he makes it. You’d think this would rip the old trauma clean open, but he already cried it out in the family vineyard that one time, so he can do it with only the mildest discomfort. Eventually Picard realizes they’ve been led into a trap and assumes command of the mission, but by that point all they have time to do is stow away in the cube as it’s tractored off the planet and taken by transwarp impossibly far away, to a hideout the Borg have carved out by managing to transcend the very laws of physics.
While Jean-Luc and Beverly are off Borging it up in God-knows-where, Ambassador Spock teams up with Riker, the rest of the TNG gang, and even Dr. Bashir to extract Kirk from the Romulans and break the brain-scrambling Salatrel subjected him to. Once they manage that, they board a Defiant-class ship outfitted with transwarp engines to follow the Borg to wherever passes for their headquarters, where they have a chance to permanently lay the Borg threat to rest by infiltrating and destroying the central Borg node.
The Romulan-Borg alliance is a sublimely goofy concept, one that immediately raises the question of why the Borg would ever need or desire to team up with anyone, much less a resource-poor race of born losers like the Romulans. In this, the book acquitted itself just well enough to make me say “whatever” and vow not to devote continuing and excessive mental energy to the idea, but until it offered up a decent explanation for the pairing, I simply was not buying what it was selling. I’m all for strange bedfellows, but the differences in philosophy and scope between the Borg and the Romulans are far too stark to casually ignore for the sake of any given crossover. It isn’t just the Romulans, either; Borg plus anyone is too difficult to reconcile without a far more serious effort than we get here.
The Return also has a bad habit of never letting you forget that James T. Kirk was, is, and always will be the GOAT. It starts right out the gate with Riker: “Of all that had happened on this desolate world of Veridian III only a month ago, inexplicably, the fate of James T. Kirk weighed most heavily on his mind.” Yes, very inexplicable. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s hard not to imagine Shatner puffing his chest out as he contributes sentences like “And neither Starfleet nor the Federation Council could forget the millions of innocent lives which had been spared on Veridian IV by the actions of Picard, his crew, and, most notably, James T. Kirk…”2 As with similar issues in The Ashes of Eden, these are mostly relegated to the early pages, falling off significantly once the Reeves-Stevenses take the wheel for most of the duration, but there’s also a sort of reverse issue where the book makes most of the TNG crew look like clowns. It’s a little painful to watch guys like Data and Worf go down to an old man fresh out of the grave (even if it happens to the latter all the time in TNG, and even if that old man is hopped up on nanites), and when the book does pay compliments to their teamwork or camaraderie, they feel insincere.
Really, the fact that The Return is at all readable or coherent is a testament to the considerable talents of the Reeves-Stevenses, who almost surely had to downplay the extent of their involvement to keep the machine running smooth and certain egos unbruised. They couldn’t totally salvage everything; there’s a certain revelation I won’t spoil, except to say it contains traces of “Trelane is a Q” energy but never quite rises to the heights of madness Peter David achieved with that deceptively simple concept. Despite its profound goofiness, however, The Return does hold interest and even occasionally surprises. I have a fairly low tolerance for “so bad it’s good”, though, so I might not be as gracious next time if it doesn’t start to approach “actually good”.
Ten Forward Toast
This week’s poured-out synthale goes out to Baru, the Bolian lieutenant who saves Riker’s life at the beginning of the book by pushing him out of the way of the Romulans’ vaporizing beam. I am on record as having a soft spot for Bolians, though I’m not sure I could tell you why. I just think they’re cool. I love any time we get to see them. Why you gotta do my blue peeps like that, Willie Shats?
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is Picard. He handles the potential disaster of stepping back into the Locutus role very well, though that’s likely more a product of how Star Trek breezes past traumatic events that realistically would take far longer to unpack and work through than shown.3 Still, he’s a dude who can get the job done when it comes down to brass tacks—even if that job requires ripping open old wounds without anesthetic.
- My pick for this week’s LVP is Riker. We definitely don’t get his best face in The Return. His default mood is irritable; he’s always yelling or otherwise terse with someone. At one point, he accuses Spock point-blank of colluding with the Romulans, which is nearly unfathomably cruel, not to mention ultra-rude. He’s a Federation ambassador, dude! Riker’s just a big, boorish galoot in this one. The writing did him real dirty in this one. I actually felt a little bad for him.
- In addition to regular humanoid drones, The Return features heavy-construction Borg, three meters tall with four arms, and Borg canines. The latter sort of makes The Return the Alien 3 of Star Trek novels, which, if I have a good bead on the general consensus about that movie, probably is not the most flattering comparison.
- I’m not sure I pin down all the things I expected from The Return, but I can safely say that even a sprinkling of DS9 was not on that list. It’s great to see Bashir in action here, though also kind of sad-funny that no one will loop him in on anything too important.
- It is at least somewhat novel that for once, the Romulan with a vendetta against Kirk is connected to the events of “Balance of Terror” rather than “The Enterprise Incident”.
- I got a genuine deep laugh out of this line, from when Salatrel studies Kirk’s behavior in a holodeck simulation: “It was unusual that Kirk was still involved in conversation. According to her psychographic projections, he should have initiated lovemaking by now.” (p. 119)
- “The seven-year cycle of Pon farr gave Vulcan’s greatest minds ample opportunity to anticipate and experience their pleasures, and the detailed records of that anticipation and experience were still banned on more than half the worlds of the Federation. No doubt when full relations were established between Vulcan and Romulus, entire Vulcan libraries would become available throughout the Star Empire, and Spock anticipated the shock waves that would result when Romulans experienced the exquisite discoveries of suppression and discipline.” — Pretty steamy, sounds like, though I’ll throw a fit if they pass up the opportunity to call the collected works The Red Shirt Diaries. (pp. 204–05)
- “Captain John Lewinski tapped out the rhythm to an old blues tune on the side of his command chair. If there was anything better than two-hundred-year-old Andorian blues, he had yet to hear it. Unfortunately, his crew had taken a poll, and he had been asked to no longer pipe it onto the bridge.” — This is the kind of thing I would do if I was a captain, although I think I’d exercise veto privilege a bit more often. Crew poll? Ha! That’s cute. “Haven’t you people ever heard the rule? Driver gets the aux cord? No, helm, not you. Me! I meant me!”
- Also, could they have picked a worse race for alien blues than Andorians? Andorians are already all blue! It’d be cleverer, though also probably stupider-sounding, if Andorians used a different color to denote depression. The Andorian purples, for example. Not funny, mind you. But a slight bit cleverer at least. (p. 292)
Average, and in all likelihood we have Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to thank for somehow getting it up to even that level. You can definitely tell all the best ideas came from them, and they probably had a hand in cleaning up the less successful ones as well. A Romulan-Borg alliance is about as shaky and head-scratching a premise as any book I’ve reviewed so far has offered up, but somehow Shatner and his assistants prop it up enough to sustain almost four hundred pages. This is much closer to what I assumed the Shatnerverse would be like than The Ashes of Eden was, and I take no joy in being right about that. Hopefully subsequent Shatner outings make at least a little more sense.
NEXT TIME: The beautiful destruction of The Rings of Tautee