What were the formative events of the United Federation of Planets? How did Starfleet come to exist? What were Starfleet’s original goals? As a long-time Star Trek fan I had often wondered about these questions; we knew from Classic Trek and beyond where Starfleet ended up, but what was Starfleet like at its beginnings? John Ordover, one of Pocket’s Star Trek editors, floated the idea of exploring those early years of the Federation and Starfleet, and Michael Jan Friedman was given the call, to write Star Trek‘s “secret origins.” Originally published as a back-up feature in each month’s Star Trek books from mid-1999 to mid-2000, Starfleet: Year One collects the twelve published chapters and adds much new material to the story, fleshing out some details and restoring others that were originally excised for reasons of space. The end result is an interesting, if flawed, look at the aftermath of the Romulan Wars and the Starfleet that emerged from that conflict.
Starfleet: Year One has ambition in spades. Not only does it look at a period of history that Enterprise is only now beginning to mine, it also questions Starfleet’s purpose–is Starfleet a military or an exploratory organization? Unfortunately, the novel suffers from a sprawling cast of characters and a diffuse plotline that balloons in the central chapters of the story. The opening chapters introduce the six protagonists of the novel, each representing one side in the debate over Starfleet’s mission and future. Each are given command of a ship, each are assigned to do what they believe to be best for the future of the service, and the outstanding captain will receive command of the first of the Daedalus-class vessels. Once the captains are underway the novel begins to suffer, as the various missions each captain performs are shown as brief vignettes, all of which run for two or three pages, involve characters we meet only by name, and do not involve any of the other captains or their stories. The final chapters bring the six captains back together as a crisis threatens the Federation with each captain having a different viewpoint, based on their stance in the question of military versus exploration debate, towards the resolution of the crisis.
The twin problems of Starfleet: Year One are its diffuse and divergent plotlines and its lack of characterization. By having six major characters in a three-hundred page novel, each character largely having his own separate adventures from the others, no plot thread is developed in great detail. At the same time, the Starfleet captains come across as bland, nondescript ciphers as none are characterized or described to any great degree. We are given little background on any of the characters beyond the fact that one is a Rigelian and others participated in some of the toughest battles of the Romulan Wars. Instead, they serve more as stand-ins for their viewpoint on the debate over Starfleet’s future, with some advocating extreme positions and others occupying a middle ground. Had Friedman focused on two characters rather than six, perhaps these problems would not have occurred and resulted in the flawed novel we have.
Despite those flaws, I found Starfleet: Year One to be a non-taxing read and an eager page-turner. But the plot meanders, the characters are bland and forgettable. What could have been Star Trek‘s The Right Stuff turns out to be far less epic than it might have been. Friedman’s writing still sparkles, even if his characters and plot do not. A missed opportunity to do right what Enterprise has done wrong.