Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #4
Written by Scott & David Tipton, with Tony Lee
Pencils by Gordon Purcell
Watercolors by J.K. Woodward
For two weeks this review has defeated me. I wrote a draft. I didn’t like it. It was, I thought, harsh. I wrote another draft. This one I didn’t like, either. Then deadline madness descended upon me with all the weight and force of Thor’s mighty hammer, and with the fifth issue only two weeks away I wasn’t sure I was going to say anything of the fourth issue of this series.
Then I saw the cover to the final issue of the series. We’re not there yet. The concluding eighth issue isn’t out until the end of December, four issues away. Yet, I couldn’t not think about it. And I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry. As a fan of comics history, it’s… fun. Totally unexpected. As a fan of these franchises, Doctor Who and Star Trek, it’s taking the piss. That piss-taking cover shouldn’t bother me — comic books should be fun, after all — and yet it does irk me somewhat. Based on the series to date, it’s not earned.
I’ve not been happy with this series. The first issue had a cover that promised more than it delivered, giving us essentially a Doctor Who comic with a Star Trek: The Next Generation cameo. The second issue reversed that — a Star Trek: The Next Generation comic with some Doctor Who stuff — and gave us the meeting of the two franchises, but then it left the interesting things, like the Doctor and Picard talking, in the background. The third issue, where we should have finally seen plot movement, instead spent its time on a flashback. The series, to that point, committed an unforgivable sin — it was boring.
I’ve been critical of the series, but I’ve always held out some hope that something, anything would happen to redeem this, to make suffering through the boredom worthwhile. I really wanted this series, after all. But there comes a point where a person has to accept that their aspirations don’t reflect reality.
And the reality, after four issues, is that Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 is not good. It could have been good. It should have been good. But it’s not, and frankly, it doubt it’s going to get better.
Let’s break it down. The series has had four major problems. Three of these I’ve discussed before, one I’ve not.
First, poor pacing. Assimilation2 has not been written to be read in single issues. The Oncoming Storm Podcast, in their review of the first two issues, has compared the pacing to the decompression of Brian Michael Bendis’ work. Even I wrote after the first issue that “I suspect that, like many of IDW’s Star Trek comics (excepting John Byrne’s work, the vast majority of which is one-and-dones), this will read better in a single sitting in the inevitable collected edition.” I’ve yet to feel satisfied after an issue of this series because the story isn’t plotted or paced to fit a monthly chunk of twenty pages. (I think that the better format would have been, like JLA/Avengers, a four-issue 48-page prestige format mini-series. Same story, same pacing, but the format would mask some of the obvious pacing issues.)
Second, a lack of meaningful plot development. The series has raised a number of questions, and it’s made no effort to answer them. How did the TARDIS land in the Star Trek universe? Why is the Doctor having painful memories? Why doesn’t Picard trust the Doctor? (More to the point, why is Picard so badly characterized? He’s acting like the Star Trek: First Contact Picard, not the season five Picard.) Why were the Borg and the Cybermen working together? And what do the Borg and Cybermen want? The fourth issue adds a plot complication to these questions — the Borg and the Cyberman have had a falling out and have turned on one another — but this complication has no justification based on what we’ve seen before, so it adds another question to the mix: Why have the Borg and the Cybermen fallen out? Even allowing that this story isn’t meant to be read in single issues and should be read in a single volume, we should have started to get answers to these questions by this point because the protagonists’ attempts to resolve these questions and solve the problems should have lead us to a definite climax that introduces new problems and launches the second act. To this point, the series hasn’t done that. It continues to muddle along.
Third, a too-large cast. Star Trek: The Next Generation has a large ensemble cast. Doctor Who doesn’t have quite as large an ensemble. While other Star Trek crossovers (the X-Men crossovers, the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover) have managed to incorporate the other cast well, usually by pairing off characters between the two franchises and giving each a plotline, Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 has yet to find a role for Amy and Rory. Essentially, Assimilation2 reads like a Star Trek: The Next Generation story that guest-stars the Doctor. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that Amy and Rory simply have no role in a Star Trek story. As a window into the setting, they’re unnecessary; everyone knows the Star Trek world, the way it works, the way it behaves. As characters whom the story affects, they’re useless; there was no good reason for them (the Doctor, yes; Amy and Rory, no) to join Riker’s Away Team in the fourth issue. If this were the episode “Sarek,” then Amy and Rory are as useful as Ki Mendrossen.
Finally — and this is the new problem, the problem that in the background of all the others — the series is a conceptual misfire.
Start from the premise that this can be read as a Star Trek: The Next Generation story with the Doctor as the guest-star. I’ve yet to identify anything about the story that requires the Doctor. When the first issue comes out next week, take a look at Brannon Braga’s Star Trek: The Next Generation mini-series Hive. The first issue of that series and the fourth issue of this series end in exactly the same place — the Borg Collective asks Picard to rejoin them and lead them again as Locutus because there’s a bigger enemy that threatens them both. Are there Cybermen in Hive? The Doctor? Of course not. This could be a case of similar stories (Borg and time travel) hitting similar story beats, but even if it’s a coincidence it points to the lack of necessity in the crossover elements in Assimilation2. This story could be told without the Doctor quite easily.
There’s a word of advice I remember former Star Trek novel editor John Ordover making years ago to aspiring writers during the Strange New Worlds contest. Paraphrasing from an old and musty memory, it went something like this: “If you can tell your story with other characters, then the characters aren’t intrinsic to the story.” Since then, I’ve asked myself these two questions when writing a story. What about this story requires those characters? What about these characters motivates that story? Insofar as the Doctor and his companions are concerned Assimilation2 fails those questions, if viewed from the perspective of a Star Trek: The Next Generation story. Viewed the other way, as a Doctor Who story with Star Trek: The Next Generation characters, those questions are impossible to answer because the story is incoherent seen in that way. There’s nothing intrinsic about this story and its characters.
After four issues of Assimilation2, I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that the point of the series is simply to see the Star Trek and Doctor Who characters sharing the same page, that’s all the creators intend, and any quibbles with story are beside the point. The story, basically, is an excuse for Picard to act constipated around the Doctor, for the Doctor to be a force of chaos on an Away Team mission, for Guinan to say cryptic things, for Amy and Rory to worry about the Doctor. Lawrence Miles and Tat Wood, in their critiques of “The Five Doctors” in About Time 5 summed up that story thusly: “It’s a party, so they all do their party pieces. [SNIP] Like the Star Trek movies, what we have here is an on-screen convention. In those terms, nobody’s really in a position to grumble. But it could have been something much more radically odd, like Doctor Who used to do before it started playing safe.” Sadly, that sums up where Assimilation2 is at the halfway point. And based on everything that’s come before, what’s to come is unlikely to be any different.
That’s in the future, however. What of the fourth issue, since I’ve spent the last fifteen hundred words waxing theoretical on the problems of Assimilation2 as a whole?
The story develops some plot. The Doctor talks with Guinan, and, just as in “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” Guinan recognizes that something has gone wrong with time and that the guest-star shouldn’t be there. The Borg and the Cybermen suddenly turn on each other. Picard is content to let the Cybermen destroy the Borg when the Borg ask for his assistance, but the Doctor wants Picard to ally himself with the Borg and become Locutus again to defeat the Cybermen.
Yes, it’s nice that the Doctor and Guinan have a sit-down, but there’s nothing new here. Guinan says cryptic things, the Doctor plays mysterious and says cryptic things, everyone else is confused. We’ve seen this very conversation before. For Guinan, “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Time’s Arrow,” Star Trek: Generations. For the Doctor, “The Impossible Astronaut” and “The Wedding of River Song” come quickly to mind. The only thing different here in Assimilation2 is who the Doctor and Guinan are having this cryptic, pointless with — each other. This isn’t something we would get on television or on film because they never met on film, but that doesn’t make the same conversation new, it just makes it different.
Yes, it’s nice that there’s some development of the Borg/Cybermen alliance. We’ve seen that they’re together in past issues, but we’ve had no idea why they were working together or what they wanted (beyond the obvious modus operandis of assimilate and/or destroy). Before the story can even answer those questions, suddenly they’re at each others’ throats. This development, interesting though it may be, feels ungrounded and unearned. Ungrounded, because we can’t understand why the allies are fighting each other if we don’t understand why they’re allies to start with. Unearned, because the Borg/Cybermen alliance, after the attack on Delta IV way back in the first issue, have been a conceptual menace, and they haven’t been built up enough that their sudden falling out has any meaning to the reader.
And yes, it’s nice that the conflict between Picard and the Borg is brought up (though as I said earlier, it feels like a later characterization of Picard and not of the “I, Borg” Picard), but this feels like an arbitrary development. Unless the story actually follows through with Picard allying with the Borg, this seems like something designed solely to create more conflict between Picard and the Doctor as the Doctor clearly thinks that Locutus is a good thing, not knowing that this would actually be a bad thing. (And for an example of how bad that would be, see Hive #1.)
In short, it’s nice that these things happen, but I don’t see them, at least the first two, moving the narrative chits forward.
Amy and Rory actually do stuff in this issue. It’s not interesting stuff — the Doctor convinces Picard to let them go on an Away Team mission, where they don’t do anything at all (except, curiously, behave like Legolas and Gimli at Helm’s Deep). When they went on the Away Team mission, I was hopeful that Rory would be captured by the Borg and assimilated, not because I want something bad to happen to Rory but because something needs to happen to increase the characters’ jeopardy and their involvement in the situation, and I was mildly disappointed that it didn’t happen, especially as the mission then led to a pointless conversation with Troi.
The artwork takes a turn. Gordon Purcell, an artist with Star Trek comics credits going back to the 1980s, is now providing the pencil foundation for J.K. Woodward’s paints. This looks to be a permanent change for the remainder of the series — Purcell pencils, Woodward paints — and the resulting artwork has a different flavor. It looks similar to the previous three issues as Woodward’s paints keep it visually consistent, but and Purcell’s artistic quirks, like gangly characters and lots of finger pointing, are present. The fourth issue isn’t as photo-realistic as the previous issues, and some of the character likenesses, especially Amy’s, are wildly off.
And finally, we get a cliffhanger. It’s not the game-changing cliffhanger I was hoping for — this issue also doubles as the final issue in the first volume of the collected edition, so I was expecting something major to happen at this point in the narrative — but it’s certainly better than previous issues’ final images.
Overall, the fourth issue just there. On its own, it’s adequate. If the goal is to show the Enterprise crew and the TARDIS trio on the same page and nothing else, then it succeeded at that. If it had higher ambitions, though, it’s another middling chapter in a disappointing series. I’ll carry on with the series. I can’t not read it, I’ve been a fan of these franchises for as long as I can remember. But I’ll carry on without enthusiasm and without expectations.
What do I expect going forward? The cover to the fifth issue shows Picard stepping out of the TARDIS. Assuming that this reflects the issue’s contents, I assume that the Doctor will take Picard into the future (much as he did to Sarah Jane Smith and Marcus Scarman in “Pyramids of Mars”) to show Picard the result of not cooperating with the Borg. The sixth issue depicts the Doctor and a Borg working together, so presumably the Doctor will be allied with the Borg (possibly led by Locutus) against the Cybermen. And the seventh issue, which is the latest cover to be made public, shows the TARDIS at Wolf 359, which indicates that the key to stopping the Cybermen is in the past and the Doctor has to go and get it.
Maybe the Doctor should get assimilated by the Borg. That would certainly be different, though if the Dalek Asylum’s nanomachines didn’t convert him into a Borg drone, then Borg nanites probably would assimilate him, either. However, that would make a killer cliffhanger to issue #7, an image of the assimilated Doctor announcing his Borg identity.
No, I shouldn’t think that way. I’ll only disappoint myself.