Star Trek: New Frontier #11: Restoration

It almost seems wrong to criticize Restoration. But sometimes you have to, you have to say the unpleasant things because they must be said. People aren’t going to criticize Restoration because it’s New Frontier, because it’s reflexive to say that the new books show how far New Frontier has come and how much better they are than the ones that came before.

Unfortunately, I have to criticize Restoration. Because it deserves the criticism. Because it’s not the be-all and end-all of New Frontier that it’s been hyped up to be. I don’t hate New Frontier. I don’t reflexively criticize it to embarrass Peter David. I don’t point out that the Emperor has no clothes to try and force people not to buy the books. I want to see New Frontier do well. I want to see people buy Star Trek books.

But, I also want to see the best damn Star Trek books we can get.

The first rule of reviews is, I think, find at least something positive to say. I’ve spent the past few hours trying to think of something positive to say about Restoration, the New Frontier hardcover, and I think I’ve finally seized upon the positive in the book.

I liked Moke.

Sadly, the rest of the book was a disappointment. I can’t believe I put aside Dark Matters halfway through to read Restoration; I’ve never liked Christie Golden’s work in the past (except for her first Ravenloft novel about a decade ago), nor am I a fan of Voyager, and yet I was entralled with the first Dark Matters book.

I guess you expect more from a Peter David novel. You expect something punched-up, something that goes for the gut and the heart, something that in the end says something about the human condition.

What you don’t expect is a dull, meandering, boring novel. And yet, Restoration is all of these things.

A lot of things happen in Restoration, but none of the action really comes off the page. I found reading the book to be a chore. Shelby’s first mission in command of the Exeter held my interest not at all because I neither cared for (or even knew) her crew and didn’t find the story particularly compelling. Calhoun’s time as the Sheriff of a frontier town didn’t catch my interest, because I’ve seen that story before in any number of Westerns. Okay, the problems with the “High Noon” story.

One. It was cliched, especially if you’re a Western fan. The mysterious stranger who saves the fallen woman and defeats the town boss. Excuse me while I yawn.

Two. The deus ex machina ending. Isn’t it just convenient that the one man that can deal with Sheriff Calhoun has a spaceship? Isn’t it just convenient that this man has a personal grudge against Calhoun? Isn’t it just convenient that Calhoun happened to land in the one town on this backward planet where the local boss had a working subspace radio and could contact his “heavy”?

Had Calhoun come to accept that he might never be able to leave Yakaba, that the stars were forever closed to him, I might have accepted that. I might have been able to forgive the coincidences piled up coincidences. But Calhoun’s expectation that he’d be able to leave, that he’d be able to get off the planet, and then someone comes along and is able to make that wish fulfillment come true, that’s a bit much in anyone’s book.

What am I looking for here? A small dose of reality.

Would it have really hurt if Calhoun had come to accept that Yakaba might have been his home forevermore? Would it have really hurt if Calhoun had come to accept that he could love Rheela, as he had come to accept that he had a real bond with Moke? In the end, I didn’t care about Calhoun and Shelby. In the end I thought Calhoun had been damned unfair to Rheela.

Calhoun, of course, will never see things that way.

Throughout the Excalibur trilogy Peter David has been using one story to counter-point another, to varying degrees of success. Here in Restoration, however, the counter-point effect doesn’t come off; Shelby’s story comes to an end a hundred pages before Calhoun’s, and when her story does end we turn to a resolution of Lefler’s story from Renaissance, and I can frankly admit that I didn’t give a damn. The novel crawls to a dead halt at that point. The Lefler story felt like padding to tide us over until we reached the end of Calhoun’s story, and it stopped the story dead on the pages it was on. I honestly wanted to skip over those pages and get back to Calhoun’s story. Why? Because the Robin/Morgan story was the least interesting story in the prior two volumes. I didn’t give a damn about their problems on Risa or their romantic entanglements. Quite frankly, I’ve never cared one way or another for these two characters. I think Ashley Judd is adorable, but Robin Lefler is, in Peter David’s hands, detestable.

Finally, the novel is boring. Though maybe I covered that when I said it was dull.

Now for some specifics. As I said before, I didn’t care for the Exeter‘s crew. We really don’t spend much time with them, except to see them as a kind of monolithic block opposing Shelby’s will as Captain. They weren’t developed well as characters, and in the end I didn’t care about them or the Exeter‘s mission. We’ve seen Prime Directive problems before, and to a large extent this mission reminded me of a cross of the Ianni mission (mentioned in A Rock and a Hard Place) and the Grissom disaster. Alex Garbeck certainly handled the situation in the same manner as Quentin Stone handled the Ianni, by crawling into a bottle and not wanting to come out. Shelby’s own character development veered wildly. I could buy the change, yes, but not the degree of the characterization change. Had Shelby’s change of character come after her dream of Calhoun badgering her, I might have accepted it more readily. But because that dream came after Shelby’s complete dismissal of her command crew’s opinions where the insect infestation was concerned, where she’d made the decision Calhoun would have made in the same circumstance, I couldn’t really accept that Shelby’s change came from internal character growth. The change in Shelby seemed almost forced.

Of course, the more disturbing thought is that Calhoun acted in that dream scene as though he were Shelby’s imaginary friend. First Shelby thinks Calhoun is with her at the wake, and now she’s turning to his shade for command advice. Do we really want such a mentally unstable person, one who talks to spirits, in command of a starship?

As for Calhoun, I don’t know what to say. Double or Nothing was Calhoun as James Bond. Restoration is Calhoun as Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven or Gary Cooper in High Noon. This might have worked, had we gotten inside of Calhoun’s head. Unfortunately, throughout Restoration we’re always held at least an arm’s distance away from Calhoun. We’re always seeing Calhoun as he wants to be seen by those around him. All in all, it’s not a bad conceit, but it also serves to reinforce the image of Calhoun as a cold, unfeeling bastard in the reader’s mind.

Restoration is to Peter David what Ship of the Line was to Diane Carey: a book that reads like a first draft mistakenly published. I’ve said it before about Diane Carey; she writes three books a year, one brilliant book, one decent book, and one miserable book. I think I can say the same for Peter David this year. Requiem is the brilliant book, Renaissance is the decent book, and Restoration is the miserable book.

I was wrong when I called “Double Time” the nadir of New Frontier. It wasn’t. Restoration is the nadir of New Frontier. The one thing Restoration has going for it is that it makes me hopeful for New Frontier‘s future: from this point there’s only one place to go, and that’s up.

Restoration was sadly, in my opinion, emotionally rather flat. There weren’t here the scenes of the emotional power as those in Imzadi where Admiral Riker found Deanna Troi in the past or in The Captain’s Daughter where Rand and Sulu talk about the children they’ve lost. The one scene in Restoration that approached that level was the scene where Rheela was dying and Moke ended the storm and the shaft of light broke through the clouds. Unfortunately, that one scene had little if anything to do with any of the New Frontier characters.

But for the first time since 1997, I’m not looking forward with any sense of anticipation towards the next New Frontier novel. What turning points did we experience here in Restoration, or for that matter, in the whole of the New Frontier trilogy? Aren’t we, ultimately, back where we started a few books ago? The crew is back together, doing what they’ve always done, the Excalibur is restored to them, and Thallonian space beckons.

What, I ask, has changed?

Shelby and Calhoun wife and husband? Shelby with her own command? Forgive me for sounding cynical about this. I have grave doubts about the ability of Peter David to use two ships and crews to any great effect, to be able to adequately deal with a cast of characters that will now approach twenty, on any kind of reasonable basis.

That, my friends, is the one change to New Frontier that the Excalibur trilogy has brought about. The other characters are still where they were before, with the emotional handicaps they’ve had before.

I just wish Peter David could write a character that wasn’t an emotional cripple. Where are the normal people in New Frontier? Where are the emotionally healthy people in New Frontier?

I might well be in the minority, but that’s not going to change my feelings on Restoration one bit. It wasn’t the great story that it could have been, and as it stands now it’s one of the weaker hardcovers Pocket has published in the Star Trek line.