Book Trek #5: Star Trek: The Next Generation – ‘Q-Zone’

In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.

Part of this story takes place 1 billion years ago.

The middle part of any trilogy can be tricky, and Greg Cox’s ‘Q-Zone’ suffers from such pacing and momentum issues as he continues weaving the interesting backstory of Q, the all-powerful being who has tormented Captain Picard and the Enterprise-D crew from The Next Generation pilot onwards. If ‘Q-Space’ established the problem and the stakes, ‘Q-Zone’ adds the context we need to understand what not just Picard and his crew, but the entire universe, are facing.

Star Trek has a fascinating relationship with God, and or Gods. It doesn’t really know what to do with them. The Original Series often made them strange, meddlesome or simply annoying. The Next Generation held a firmly atheist, rigid orthodox view that there was no Almighty, and indeed Q was the perfect example of that; he was the culmination of the message Gene Roddenberry wanted to convey all along, that he might be fascinated by God, but he doesn’t really believe anyone all-powerful is all-knowing, given how frequently Q ends up proving he’s little more than an omnipotent trickster. Deep Space Nine, perhaps because it was more egalitarian in how it developed a galaxy of species, built its whole mythology around the Prophets and a belief in more than just scientific ‘wormhole aliens’. Subsequent series, on the whole, tended to avoid the thorny subject altogether.

‘Q-Zone’ is of course a Next Generation story and therefore Cox builds the whole piece around cosmic beings who *believe* themselves to be Almighty, all-powerful, but consistently prove they are just as petty, small-minded and plain brutal as the savage, ‘lesser’ species they toy with. 0—or the unfortunately named Nil, primarily because it sounds like ‘Neil’ as the podcast Literary Treks has fun with—continues to operate as a corrupting influence on the younger Q. Previously I considered him akin to a ‘groomer’ of Q, but in ‘Q-Zone’ he is characterised more as a persuasive, manipulative bully who knows exactly how to twist his words and tap into Q’s omniscient naivety for his own ends. He is, naturally, a thoroughly repugnant individual given his position as the primary antagonist.

Cox takes a risk in reviving several God figures from TOS which serve to prove the point about how Roddenberry seemed all over the place in his portrayal of God-like species. He surrounds Nil with the Gorgon, from the pretty awful TOS episode ‘And the Children Shall Lead’, the Beta XII-A entity from ‘Day of the Dove’ (characterised here as (*), which can only have been a nightmare for Cox when it came to writing) which is just about the weirdest alien creature Star Trek has ever given us (a sadistic pulsating light, basically) and The One, a ponderous bushy-bearded entity who looks like the Christian God and is, of course, the same God-pretender as Captain Kirk and crew later encountered imprisoned in the Galactic Core in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Cox is making a concerted effort to tie these characters into the wider mythology and backstory of the Q Continuum.

The problem with a story like ‘Q-Zone’ is that it’s all perhaps just a bit *too* cosmic. Cox heavily focuses on the destruction and torment this ‘gang’ of omnipotent beings Q unwittingly brought into his universe wreak, but the consequence is that Picard almost takes a back seat as a passive observer with the Q of the future we recognise, and everything happening on the Enterprise-E at the same time just feels small and rather rote in comparison. There is no way a story like this could be made on television, not just because of the sheer budget it would take to realise, but simply because when you’re dealing with omnipotent cosmic beings who can destroy entire civilisations, it renders the rest of the Star Trek universe as really quite small and nihilistically pointless in response. Where do you go after this?

Cox is careful of course to establish that Nil and his cronies exist in some kind of dimensional realm outside of known reality, accessible only through the fascinatingly all-powerful Guardian of Forever (which surely is the closest thing to God as we see in this story), which ensures Star Trek still—even beyond the vast exploration of galaxies beyond our own—has in theory a place to go beyond our own universe, but it further allows him also to make the point that the Q Continuum isn’t quite as fiercely omnipotent as they have always claimed to be. None of the Q know where Nil and his associates come from and they’re supposed to know the entire ‘multiverse’, as Q often puts it. This puts the Continuum increasingly further in the realm of false Gods, just like all the other encountered in Star Trek.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of ‘Q-Zone’ is how Cox uses it as a way to explore the ancient Tkon Empire, one of the numerous races lost to antiquity encountered across the multiple TV series, which Picard and his crew found traces of in the early Season 1 episode ‘The Last Outpost’ (best forgotten otherwise as the episode which introduced the Ferengi as serious villains… yeah…). The Tkon were wiped out when their Sun went supernova, destroying their civilisation in an instant, and in Cox’s own Trek non-canonical mythology the Tkon were destroyed thanks to the work of Nil in igniting their dying Sun centuries before it would have wiped out their people, and before they can complete the ‘Great Endeavour’ – using powerful machinery to swop their dying Sun for a fresh new one.

The Tkon are well characterised in ‘Q-Zone’ as a civilisation which, despite being ran by an Empress, doesn’t seem all that different from the Federation which would exist millions of years later. They span numerous worlds, are in essence peaceful, and if anything are further ahead than the Federation by some centuries given their technology of telepathically interacting with their environment and creating technology which can transport entire stars. In other words, the Tkon are powerful and advanced, which makes Nil’s interest in them (triggered by Q) all that more interesting; he’s looking for a species he can ‘test’ for omnipotence, test their worthiness to exist, which of course is very similar to the mindset Q employs in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ and ‘All Good Things…’ with humanity.

There are a few ways to read what Q experiences during ‘Q-Zone’. He actually seems to respect the Tkon and their achievements in a way that feels uncharacteristic, but Q’s character arguably softened the further into The Next Generation we got, in no small part thanks to John de Lancie’s playful demeanour. He is really quite harsh and terrifying in ‘Encounter at Farpoint’ in places (as he also is in ‘Q-Who?’), but by ‘Tapestry’ he is far less interested in testing humanity than he is testing Picard, the man he probably perversely considers his closest ‘friend’. ‘Q-Zone’ intentionally feels like ‘Tapestry’ in reverse, actually, with Picard exploring the mistakes which forged Q from the boy he was into the man he became. But what does Q truly learn from this?

We may get the answer in ‘Q-Strike’ but it appears Q turns against his new brethren, given the destruction of the Tkon by Nil out of spite for the fact they were resiliently surviving everything Nil’s gang throw at them (and its everything from intergalactic wars to planetary apocalypses). Q saw Nil in the manner any child seeking rebellion does with that ‘cooler, older, bad boy’ who they think has all the answers, and can help them make their mark on the world. Q felt the Continuum were stuffy and outmoded, when in fact they potentially understand the cosmic rules of reality entities like Nil have no respect for. It’s the classic teenage rebellion storyline, with the Continuum as the long suffering parents, and Q having fallen in with the wrong crowd – it’s just on a universal, civilisation bothering scale.

That’s the Star Trek allegory in play, and Cox does have fun with it, but whether it makes sense to Q’s eventual character remains to be seen. Even if he actively works to stop Nil and his associates and succeeds, Q still ‘tests’ humanity through Picard much like Nil was testing the Tkon. Did he approve of some of Nil’s ideas, even if he didn’t approve of the methods? Q doesn’t reign hell down on the Federation (which he could easily do) perhaps because he remembers what Nil did, the needless death and havoc he caused, and couldn’t bear to inflict that. Either way, the fact Nil obviously rubs off on Q is disturbing enough, and ‘Q-Strike’ hopefully will tie these character points off in a satisfactory way to work as well with established canon as possible.

You’ll notice I’ve barely mentioned the Enterprise in discussing ‘Q-Zone’. That’s because they honestly barely worth a mention, given the sequences on the ship are enormously plodding, often feature the intensely annoying Lem Faal, and only move the narrative incrementally. It’s the weak spot of an otherwise intriguing continuation of the story, though it almost certainly proves the Q Continuum trilogy could have been two books rather than three.

‘Q-Strike’ hopefully will provide an exciting ending to perhaps the most cosmic, far-reaching storyline Star Trek is ever likely to in any medium.

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