I must admit, I had some qualms about the Star Trek novel crossover series, The Captain’s Table. I had faith in the authors, but I had little faith in the concept. I’m not quite sure what I had imagined, probably something in which each story, instead of being narrated from the Captain’s Table, involved the characters launching from the Captain’s Table and having oddball adventures. I could envision a convoluted novel in which a post-Star Trek VI Captain Sulu teamed with a five year mission-era Kirk, and my mind shuddered at the possibility. Having Kirk from 2266 in his yellow velour shirt running around in 2295 with Sulu in the maroon jacket didn’t appeal to my sensibilities. For what it’s worth, that didn’t happen here, either for good or ill. As the novels appeared I could see that my fears were ungrounded, that the novels were simply told at the bar, that the bar simply didn’t factor into matters, it was just another storytelling device. The first four novels didn’t even need the bar, that they were simply “another day on the job” sorts of stories. There was nothing special about the first four novels, the characters were doing things that we’d seen before in other novels, in television episodes, what have you. And then, along comes Peter David and Once Burned.
Here was a decidedly different novel, using the same Captain’s Table setting, the same storytelling trappings, but going in a different direction, a more challenging direction. Here was a novel in which the narrating captain wasn’t even the captain of the events of the story. Indeed, he wasn’t really even the central character of the story. The trappings of the other Captain’s Table novels — the bar denizens such as Prrghh and Hompaq, the gecko, the listeners butting in with stupid questions — are simply not present, nor are they necessary to Peter David’s story as they would distract the reader from the strength of Calhoun’s tale of the fall of Norman Kenyon, his Captain aboard the USS Grissom. Calhoun’s story, that of the Grissom disaster and the events that led to his abandonment of Starfleet, is the best of the six Captain’s Table novels. The story is extremely well told; Peter David is at his writing finest here in what is probably his best novel since The Captain’s Daughter.
As in The Captain’s Daughter David deals with a group of characters that we have never seen before; the crew of the Grissom is as unknown to the audience as was the crew of the Enterprise-B, and the crew comes alive on the page. Hash is an interesting character, one that I look forward to seeing in a future New Frontier novel, and Kat Mueller makes for an interesting foil for Calhoun. Mueller, however, doesn’t really come across as a character until about two-thirds of the way into the novel; until then she functions more as an outlet for Calhoun’s sexual urges, and her characterization suffers because of that. The Andorian Cray functions much as a Bond villain henchman does, standing on the stage giving stern looks and then beating the crap out of the hero at the most inopportune moments.
But the real miracle of the novel is the characterization of Norman Kenyon.
Norman Kenyon becomes one of Star Trek‘s most tragic figures; a character that has everything that he loves, everything that he cares about, torn away from him. Contrary to the Star Trek status quo Kenyon suffers real pain, and from his pain makes a decision that runs counter to what thirty years of Star Trek have told me. And I’m not sure that if I were in his position that I’d make a different decision. Kenyon drives the events of the novel; Calhoun’s actions aren’t taken independently but stem from Kenyon’s actions. Calhoun acts in reaction to Kenyon, thus Kenyon is the central character, even though we don’t see the events from his perspective, even though we don’t know his thoughts. We don’t have to, because that’s part of the joy of the novel, trying to figure out what is going on inside Kenyon’s mind. We’re not going to know, because Calhoun can’t know. This heightens the tension in the novel; the mystery about Kenyon’s state of mind becomes the novel’s driving force toward the inevitable conclusion. I’m not sure that he comes across as “beloved,” which is how Calhoun describes him, but I can see him as a kindly, grandfatherly type. Kenyon is a different type of Star Trek captain, one that turned his crew into a family and they treat him like their father. I can’t think of a Star Trek captain that comes across as such a parental figure; Picard and Janeway have their parental moments, but not to the degree that Kenyon does. His final moments, his final breakdown serve to reinforce that impression; Kenyon had taken the weight of the world upon his shoulders and at that point there was no other way to remove that weight from them. I was moved by his final moments.
Calhoun, the narrator of the tale, displays some unusual traits in the course of the story. The most obvious is his deviousness, his inability to tell the truth about his scar; this behavior reminded me greatly of the lies Quintin Stone told in A Rock and a Hard Place. Seeing Calhoun in the second chair, not as Captain, gave me some new insight into his personality, and I could see why he had to leave Starfleet. It wasn’t that he had made any mistakes in the course of the Grissom disaster, it was that he had ceased to be a leader and didn’t assert himself until the very end. Could everything have been prevented had he acted differently, had he been more assertive as a First Officer? By turning his back on his instincts, by realizing that he had done so, Calhoun could see that he was in some way culpable for the ultimate resolution of the incident. Calhoun had lost his instinct, his drive, and he needed to find it again. The Grissom disaster showed him that, Kenyon’s breakdown showed him that. By ignoring his strengths, Calhoun ceased to be himself, and that was his greatest failing in the novel.
Calhoun also becomes more three-dimensional in this novel. The first chapter, about his Xenexian past, shows that young M’k’n’zy wasn’t quite the stern figure that his adult self would become, and his reaction to his first kill is very humanizing; I found the reaction of the Danteri interesting and touching. Then, in the second chapter Calhoun’s ruminations on the nature of his relationship with Shelby contained more emotional depth than anything in Triange: Imzadi II; this is Calhoun making a statement about who he is and why, about his strengths and his weaknesses. Calhoun makes some profound statements in this novel, about who he is and about what the universe is. Calhoun is clearly on the same path as Kenyon, for similar reasons. Without an emotional grounding, one that he so clearly admits that he lacks, Calhoun could be heading for the same ultimate result. I see Calhoun as “damaged goods,” so to speak, seemingly stable but with an unstable emotional undercurrent beneath the surface, hidden beneath the veneer of civilization that he wears around himself. However, I see Shelby as a stabilizing influence on Calhoun’s life, and so she is probably far more important to him that he would ever admit, even to himself.
Peter David draws some interesting parallels between Calhoun and Kenyon. Kenyon couldn’t talk about his feelings because he didn’t know how. Calhoun couldn’t talk about his past because he had cut himself off from his past emotionally in his “cloak of civilization.” That’s the key difference between the two men; Kenyon’s past, as described by Calhoun, indicates an emotionally healthy man who suffered tragedy and grew from it, while Calhoun knew tragedy and shut himself off from it. Kenyon lost his wife and found solace in command and family. Calhoun lost his father and turned to liberating his planet, perhaps in a quest to find his father’s killer. Kenyon’s solution required no deaths, only an emotional involvement in his crew and his ship, while Calhoun’s solution rested on killing as many Danteri as he could and cutting himself off from emotional connections. Kenyon found himself without emotional support, and out of his grief made a decision, that his family’s killer would see justice done. Despite having an entire crew that worshiped him, Kenyon had no one to whom he could turn for solace and advice. He should have been relieved of command, but that would have only exacerbated his emotional problems. Once Kenyon shut himself off, his course was set and he couldn’t be swerved. Kenyon’s final dissolution was as tragic as it was inevitable.
Once Burned makes for a great reading experience and is probably the first New Frontier novel that I’d shove in someone’s hands if they wanted to know what it was about New Frontier that I liked. Readers looking for a great reading experience period would be well served by reading Once Burned, and fans of Peter David’s work will find him in fine form here.