Review -- Star Trek: The Q Continuum

Laying in bed one evening it hit me. When you really compare it to its sisters and spin-offs, Star Trek: The Original Series was really, really weird.

Beings and Barriers in Star Trek

While you have the classic and repeated clashes with the Klingons, the tense and cerebral cat-and-mouse game with the Romulans, battles with ancient machinery, and plagues of parasitic aliens, no other crew has encountered more non-corporeal life than the original series. Many of these encounters stuck in my head as a child: the ostentatious General Trelane (retired), the mysterious Organians, the aggression inducing Beta XII-A Entity, and the groan inducing -- but not fundamentally flawed -- "God" of Sha'ka'ree shown in Star Trek 5. 

TOS also established some of the most bizarre features of the Star Trek universe until Voyager forty years later. In the very first broadcast episode of Star Trek, Where No Man has Gone Before, a mysterious Galactic Barrier is discovered to encircle the Milky Way galaxy. This seemingly impenetrable energy barrier destroys wayward starships, but also enhances or kills the most psychically gifted individuals aboard. While it's an easy mistake to make, a similar Great Barrier encapsulates the very center of the galaxy.

All of this can be attributed to thoughtless writing of a decade spanning television and movie franchise. Star Trek: The Next Generation, however, continued the tradition from the very first episode by introducing the dangerously omnipotent and dangerously playful Q. The Q were a favorite of TNG, appearing more there than any other series. Q introduced the Federation to the Borg. Q was also responsible for one of the best series finales among any Star Trek series (although, the bittersweet What You Leave Behind did give it a run for the money). 

Q also had the most developed backstory of any of the non-corporeal entities featured in the franchise. Played by John de Lancie, Q was the penultimate mischief maker for his species so much so he was "banished" to humanity for a brief period. During which, he was attacked by the his one-time-playthings, the gaseous Calamarain

Overview of The Q Continuum Series

With all these non-corporeal aliens running amok, one begins to wonder if they ever run into each other, or if any of them are related somehow. This is what must have occurred to Greg Cox, the author of the Q-Continuum series of novels. Despite its title, the trilogy is primarily concerned not with the Q as a species, but with a Q, the same played so effectively by John de Lancie. The series attempts to reconcile the existence of the Galactic and Great barriers, as well as the Sha'ka'ree God, the Beta XII-A Entity, and the Gorgon, a one-off being from And the Children Shall Lead

The Plot

The plot is actually compelling. Billions of years ago, Q was young and even more mischievous than he appeared in TNG. Having been bored of the uniformity and conformity of the Continuum, Q visited the Guardian of Forever and asked it to show him something interesting. He is taken to a barren, snow-covered rock inhabited solely by a baroque and mysterious extra dimensional entity who calls himself 0. We never get to know much about 0, where he comes from, or why he's marooned. The only persistent character feature is his inability to travel faster than light. Encouraged by 0, the young Q brings 0 to our plane of reality and our galaxy. The Continuum charges the young Q with responsibility for 0 and his actions. If that doesn't bode well, it's about to get worse.

Q is inexperienced and naive at this point in his immortality. He only sees the danger 0 poses too late. After taunting then punishing the Calamarain under the guise of a test, 0 gathers together his "old gang" -- the Beta XII-A Entity, named (*), the Gorgon, and the Sha'ka'ree God who calls himself The One. Looking for a lesser species to test, the young Q makes the mistake of suggesting the Tkon Empire. The actions of the quintet nearly bring the empire to destruction, only to survive everything they can muster. 0, just as he did with the Calamarain before, decides to punish the Tkon for being so resilient. The result leads to an all-out conflict between 0 and his buddies and the Continuum, with the young Q caught in the middle. 

All of the above story is told in parallel with what's happening on the Enterprise-E. The betazoid scientist Lem Faal has created an experiment that might breach the Galactic Barrier through the use of an artificial wormhole. Q appears early on warning Jean-Luc Picard to not continue the experiment. As the E is approaching the barrier, the Calamarain appear. Q then appears briefly, only to whisk away the captain on the above history of the Continuum and Q himself. 

The end reveals how both the Galactic and Great Barriers were erected to protect us lesser species from such malevolent beings.

Characters

Being a Star Trek novel, I tend to keep the expected threshold of quality intentionally low. Like the Star Trek: Destiny series before it, I came across The Q Continuum series while reading articles on Memory Beta. I had hoped that this trilogy would at least live up to Destiny's level of interest, but I was to be disappointed.

Like Destiny, The Q Continuum is weakest when dealing with any of the established characters. Deanna Troi, Will Riker, and in particular, Picard seem wooden and indescribably off. They feel less like they do in the television series and films and more like a characterization of themselves. Troi remains perfunctory and pointless, Riker feels constantly ready to punch everything, and Picard never seems to get out of "Take me back to my ship, Q!" mode. The portrayal of Reginald Barclay is slightly better, although I far prefer his portrayal in Voyager. Lem Faal and his two children, for all the screentime they receive, feel flat and forgettable. 

The only exception is Q himself. While an established character, his portrayal in The Q Continuum feels much more on-target. While playful, Q only once permanently hurt or killed any member of the crew. His odd preoccupation with humanity, and Picard in general, feels much more justified after reading this novel. I greatly enjoyed getting to know Q more through his trip down memory lane with Picard. 

0, (*), Gorgon, and The One also feel real enough to suspend my disbelief. If anything, the character I want to know more is 0 himself. When introduced, we are given the sense that he wasn't always stuck on that snow-covered planetoid, nor was his "leg" always infirm. At some point he was all-powerful and FTL capable. I would have gladly traded away an entire third of the book for a single chapter on his origin. 

Writing

While I never expect much from a licensed Star Trek novel, Greg Cox's writing leaves much to be desired. Despite the fact I was reading the omnibus edition, the phrasing and language used by the characters seemed far too repetitious. In particular, use of the word "blast" as an frustrated interjection occurred several times in each book. "Blast it!" "Blash him!" "Blast!" "Blast you!" For the love of the Universe Cox, even Picard said "damn" at least once on camera! The novels read like a PG movie stripped down in hopes of a G rating. 

The writing also takes far too long to wind up and wind down. Good advice for new Deep Space 9 (or Babylon 5) viewers is to completely skip the first season. The same could be said for this series. The first book is nearly superfluous in its entirety. If reading the eBook edition as I did, you can skip to nearly 33% and not miss anything truly important. Likewise, the last quarter of the book feels drawn out and dull. 

Portrayal of the Q

The biggest advantage the Q has is that we only see representations of them. To my knowledge, we never see a Q's true form. After all, these are supposedly omnipotent, extra-dimensional beings that only visit our quaint little plane of reality occasionally. In one Star Trek: Voyager episode, we're shown the Q Continuum. The writers then made the smart decision to not portray the reality, but as an effective metaphor a desert town and the highway to everywhere. No need for us to see the actual Continuum if it's not significant to the story.

Greg Cox starts going down this way in the first novel. Too quickly, however, that story telling device is abandoned and things take on a kind of mythological reality of invisible gods that literally hold stars in the palm of their hands. It's an approach that's disappointing, if forgivable. The problem doesn't end there, however.

Throughout the story, Q is accompanied by his "wife" Q (often distinguished as "the female Q"), and their "son" little q. For a brief moment in the novels, I had hoped that the writer was capable of portraying Q gender as yet another affectation for the benefit of us mere mortals. This hope is quickly dashed, however, as the dialog reifies Q sex in a way I found to unworthy of the species. Binary gender isn't a fact in this reality for human beings. Why should it be so for entities that can change genders, species, and forms at will? Unfortunately, this steadfastly binary gender system is not unfamiliar to Star Trek. While attempts have been made to approach the issue (the Jenii, the Andorians, the Tholians, the Vissians), this approach the Q feels more in line with Hollywood's Trek rather than Roddenberry's original vision.

Summary

In many ways, The Q Continuum trilogy is a lot like the TNG episode Tapestry. Instead of being about Picard, it's about Q and the mistakes he's made. I can easily imagine the three books condensed to a two-part mid-season TNG episode. For what little significance it had, the entire subplot with Lem Faal and the E could be reduced to the beginning, middle, and end of the episode. This would leave the bulk for Q and Picard. 

I wouldn't recommend this series to others. The poor writing does not overcome the interesting ideas as it did in Star Trek: Destiny. Its faster and cheaper to point them at the Memory Beta articles instead.

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