Review: Star Trek: The Original Series – Harm’s Way
There are some creative minds who we just implicitly trust when it comes to Star Trek.
You can be sure you’re in for a decent episode if you know Jonathan Frakes was in the director’s chair (okay, maybe not “Sub Rosa,” but the other dozens of directorial credits he has to his name are keepers). If Dennis McCarthy was responsible for the music in a particular episode, you’ll likely notice and appreciate what tenderness it adds to the production. In the Star Trek literary world, there are only a few authors you can trust who will deliver an entertaining, thoroughly Star Trek-y read. One of those people, David Mack, is back on bookshelves with Star Trek: The Original Series – Harm’s Way, and yes, it’s as enjoyable, multi-faceted, and thoughtful as you’d expect from the Star Trek veteran.
Like his other recent Star Trek books, including the finale in the landmark Star Trek: Coda trilogy, Harm’s Way proves that Mack knows these characters and this universe. He should be familiar with the Vanguard series, in any case, as he authored the first book in the series back in 2005. You’ll feel like you’re watching a Star Trek episode in your mind’s eye as you read Harm’s Way, which is just about as much as we can hope from any Star Trek on the printed page.
Harm’s Way is an Original Series-orientated novel that continues the Star Trek: Vanguard series of books. But that didn’t mean much for us, as we went into this novel without reading the numerous entries in the Vanguard series. And the great thing is we didn’t feel like we were missing out on too much by diving into the deep end. In fact, Harm’s Way made us want to go back and start reading the Vanguard series from the beginning.
Harm’s Way tells an “us” versus “them” story, one where Captain Kirk and his crew must work with another Starfleet vessel, the Sagittarius, to recover scientific research about an ancient and all-powerful alien genome before the Klingons can get it. The backstory behind this genome and why the Sagittarius and personnel based out of the secretive Starbase Vanguard are involved will mean more to people who read the series but rest assured Mack doesn’t leave newcomers hanging. You’ll get the idea of what’s been going on before Harm’s Way. We argue the backstory about Starbase Vanguard isn’t really even necessary to enjoy this story. It’s related to the broader series in a relatively minor way; this book’s plot functions well enough on its own. However, for what it’s worth, we get the sense the events of this book will likely play a role in future Vanguard entries.
Fans of The Original Series will likely appreciate how Mack weaves in not only secondary The Original Series-era characters throughout this book, but a landmark TOS story. Captain Kirk is suffering from a crisis of confidence thanks to his recent ordeal with the Planet Killer and the sacrifice of Captain Matthew Decker, as chronicled in “The Doomsday Machine.” Having Kirk not at the top of his game in Harm’s Way adds a dimensionality to the character we weren’t expecting.
Indeed, Harm’s Way presents Kirk not as the larger-than-life symbol of macho masculinity we might be used to, but just a man, with all the downfalls that entails. It’s not often we see Kirk weak or humbled, so we appreciated that story element here. It doesn’t help that the captain that he is facing off against is his Klingon rival, Kang, so their game of cat-and-mouse that takes place throughout most of this book is especially unpredictable.
This isn’t to say Kirk is the main character of this story. Instead, Mack enlists an ensemble cast to drive the book forward. The crew of the smaller Sagittarius offers a distinct contrast to those on the Enterprise, and of course, the Klingon characters in Harm’s Way are bespoke from their Federation counterparts. This diversity leads to fascinating interactions as the three crews fight to survive space and ground combat. Just one notable character arc in this story is Spock’s. The Vulcan recently lost control of his emotions during pon farr, as chronicled in “Amok Time,” so that insecurity leads to some emotional and logical turmoil for the Vulcan as he and his away team struggle to fight their adversity.
Our major praise for Harm’s Way involves how it balances being a hard sci-fi book and a morality tale in equal parts. Yes, you get all the tech talk, action, and cultural intrigue that comes with a typical Star Trek novel, but you also get a keen look into how the Federation and Klingons are the same in many ways. Our characters at first regard the Klingons as their typical enemy that stands to cause a lot of trouble, but the two sides are ultimately forced to work together to accomplish a shared goal.
Of course, this is easier said than done, but this book will make you think about the differences between the Federation and Klingons and why, in the context of the alien genome at the heart of the story, the two sides are more similar than they appear. It’s a thought-provoking read, which is also as much as we can hope for from a Star Trek novel.
The one major critique we have for this book is the way its action can sometimes devolve into unbelievability. There are quite a few battle scenes in this novel, and many of these scenes, while full of adrenaline and sensibly written, make us question just how menacing the enemy is supposed to be. The spear- and stone-throwing planet natives, the Chwii, who our characters fight on numerous occasions, have Stormtrooper-esque combat abilities (which is not a compliment). Our heroes, of which there is just a handful on the planet, fight hundreds of Chwii in open combat, and only a few characters suffer any notable injuries. Don’t be surprised if you lose just a bit of immersion as you realize the Chwii never quite pose the substantial risk to our heroes as Mack wants you to believe.
Taken together, Harm’s Way is another excellent entry from David Mack, and will surely fit nicely on your bookshelf. It feels like a Star Trek episode through and through and will make you view certain long-standing characters and factions in a more multi-faceted way. Isn’t that what great storytelling is all about? The end of the book hints to readers that the Enterprise crew isn’t done with Operation Vanguard, so fans of this series surely have something else to look forward to.
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