Missing in Action is the 16th book in the Star Trek: New Frontier series of novels by Peter David. I’ll freely admit that I’m a huge fan of Peter David’s work, whether it’s comics or fiction. So whenever a new installment in this ongoing saga hits paperback, I generally drop whatever else I’m reading to find out what he’s done with/to the characters this time around.
Peter David started this series back in 1997, and at the time, it was a bit of an experiment. There had been plenty of Star Trek novels written over the years, but all of them had been attached to one or more of the various TV shows — The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, or Voyager (and later Enterprise) — and each dealt with the continuing adventures of such established characters as Kirk, Spock, and Picard, each in their own familiar milieu. What David decided to do (with the nudging of then-editor John Ordover) was start an entirely new and original ongoing story, one set in the same universe as but unattached to any of the established shows in the franchise, using everything that had happened in the TV shows and movies as its “history” and moving forward from there.
David borrowed a starship, the U.S.S. Excalibur, from an episode of TNG, and placed in the captain’s chair a man named Mackenzie Calhoun — an entirely new character who has never appeared in an episode of any of the shows. Thrust unwittingly into the role of a liberator for his home planet at a young age, Calhoun is a strategic genius … but also a bit of a loose cannon. When it comes to sheer bravado and a willingness to piss off Starfleet, Calhoun makes Kirk look like an rank amateur. He’s got a scar across his face, a sword hanging on his wall that he actually uses sometimes, and an uncanny sixth sense for danger.
Also serving aboard the Excalibur are an assortment of characters, some of which David recycled from TNG in the same way that he’d recycled the ship itself. His “Number One” is Elizabeth Shelby, who played a key role in the classic “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter in which Picard becomes a Borg. The navigator is Robin Lefler, who served aboard the Enterprise for only two episodes, and is perhaps only remembered because she was played at the time by a young Ashley Judd. The doctor is Selar, a Vulcan who also served aboard the Enterprise, but only appeared in one episode of TNG. In each case, the characters are vaguely familiar to hard core fans of the franchise, but not so established that David can’t do with them as he pleases.
To spice things up, David has also added a variety of what one might call “extreme” alien crewmen to the Excalibur, the likes of which hasn’t ever been attempted on the TV shows. Take Zak Kebron, the huge Brikar security officer who appears to be made of stone (kind of like The Thing in the Fantastic Four comics). Or Burgoyne 172, the chief engineer, who is a member of the androgynous Hermat species, has both male and female “features,” and for whom pronouns are a constant dilemma. Or M’Ress, a character that David brought forward in time from the Star Trek Animated Series from the 70s, who is a member of a humanoid cat species. Or Arex, likewise from the cartoon series, who’s an orange fellow with kind of an ET head, three arms, and three legs. Dealing with Vulcans and Klingons is a breeze compared to the exotic needs of some of these characters.
Besides the unusual captain and his unusual crew, David has gone out of his way to keep “The New Frontier” stories fresh by immersing these characters in one bizarre storyline after another, juggling massive galaxy-shattering plot points and complex intra-crew romances alongside each other seamlessly. One wonders if it would even be possible to do these stories justice on TV or in a movie … although I frankly would love to see them try. Calhoun and his cast of “misfit toys” commonly find themselves up against gods, creatures who believe they’re gods, a race of giant Lovecraftian creatures, and even the death (and sometimes resurrection) of key characters. Yet no matter the scope of the scene, Peter David transitions from one to the next effortlessly, rarely confuses the reader, and works a sadistic cliff-hanger like nobody’s business.
This is really more of a review of “The New Frontier” series as a whole, rather than “Missing in Action” in particular (which was excellent). Because I’d hate to give away key plot points from the latest novel to anybody who hasn’t read the other 15 books yet. And I wholeheartedly recommend that you do. Even if you’re not necessarily somebody who watches the Star Trek shows, and who just enjoys a well-written sci-fi book now and then, this series will not disappoint. Fans of Joss Whedon (as I am) will find a lot to like here — the pace is quick, the humor is always fresh, the female characters are strong and realistic, and the romance is rampant. And if you do happen to be a fan of the Star Trek shows (as I am), then all the better — these books are a treat of continuity, inside jokes, and frequent nods to the various series.