Let’s get things clear from the start: Terri Osborne is a really talented writer. Her non-fiction is engaging, and her fiction is tautly-plotted and littered with brilliant characterisations. However, if you’re not a regular reader of Star Trek books, you might not have heard her name yet.
She made her first professional sale in 2003, when Three Sides to Every Story appeared in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine anniversary anthology Prophecy and Change. Focusing on Jake Sisko and Tora Ziyal during the Dominion occupation of DS9, the story was highly acclaimed by fans and critics. Two more Trek short stories and five eBook releases followed, and this year she crossed into the world of Doctor Who, with a tale in the Short Trips anthology The Quality of Leadership.
That story – Good Queen, Bad Queen, I Queen, You Queen – featured the fourth incarnation of the Doctor and the first incarnation of Romana, and has already been singled out by readers as one of the highlights of the anthology.
“What I loved about Mary Tamm’s performance was that she was not the typical companion I’d seen to that point,” Terri enthuses, discussing the actress who portrayed Romana.
I’m keen to find out what drew her to Romana so strongly. “Timing,” she explains. “I was young when I first saw the Key to Time series here in the US. I was fortunate enough to live in an area of the country that got Doctor Who on PBS within a year or two after it aired in the UK.
“[Romana] wasn’t some alien the Doctor picked up on his travels. She was every bit the Doctor’s equal, possibly even his superior at first, and she was even intellectually smarter than he was. For a child, especially in a progamme I knew was coming from outside America, it was a big thing to see. I was born in 1969, and got something of a front-row seat to the women’s equality movement in the States. While American TV had a bit of a different take on the whole thing (single moms, heroines like Wilma Deering, Serena and Athena, who were all on the level of the lead male characters, but still not really there, if that makes any sense), it was good to see that there was a society out there taking the step we had yet to take. I hesitate to say she was a role model, because even though I loved the character, I never really wanted to be like Romana when I grew up, but there were elements of the role model for me there.”
Romana is definitely the dominant character in Terri’s story, relegating the Doctor into a much smaller role, which alters the traditional dynamic between the two characters. “As I was working on the story,” Terri explains, “it was obvious that it was going to be a Romana-centric story, and the idea of reversing the traditional roles was something that intrigued me as an experiment. In retrospect, even though it wasn’t conscious on my part as I was writing it, the concept of feminine empowerment permeates this story. Reversing the traditional Doctor/companion roles helped reinforce that notion.”
The theme for the anthology was (as its title cunningly implies) leadership, with stories featuring leaders from earth’s past, from alien worlds, and even from a grotty all-night store. Terri chose to focus on Boudicca for her contribution. When I ask why she made that choice, she reveals a long-standing interest in the era. “Celtic history has always been a fascination of mine. The story of Boudicca’s revolution and the idea that one woman could bring mighty Roman expansionism temporarily to its knees is something that has always intrigued me. One person really does have the power to change the world.”
However, it’s the ending of the story which has floored many readers, with reactions ranging from shock to delight to sheer disbelief. When I read it for the first time, I missed the signposts, and was completely amazed. Was the twist something that was planned from the start, or did it evolve naturally as the tale progressed? “This is incredibly difficult to answer without spoiling the ending,” Terri smiles. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to see done on Doctor Who, but couldn’t find evidence of it happening, so I did it myself. The idea that the Doctor is the only benevolent ‘rebel’ Time Lord that ever existed is something that just never quite worked for me. He couldn’t have been the only one in the whole of time and space. I always thought he was just the one whose adventures we were following. In a way, it also lays groundwork for the Doctor passively experiencing something he still to his tenth incarnation chooses not to allow himself: stop and let himself fall in love. It gives us a glimpse of why he so actively avoids it, even though it pains him. He’s seen what it can do.”
The ending is indeed an original and unexpected idea (and Terri’s right – it is hard to discuss it without spoiling the surprise!). I ask Terri if she had a back-up plan, in case the powers that be at the BBC or Big Finish hadn’t approved her idea. “The story would have ended with the Doctor and Romana’s departure,” she reveals. “The entire purpose of the story is to give Romana a glimpse of what she’s capable of, in preparation for her role as Lady President in the Big Finish audio dramas. She finds the ability in herself because the only other option is a broken timeline, and the first story of her leadership experience is one that I thought would be a very fitting story for the Doctor to relate. The ending just gave me an opportunity to give a little twist to history.”
More than that, it left readers gagging for more of Osborne’s work. If she were to return to the Doctor Who literary universe in the future, fans would probably be delighted, and she’s already got ideas for future adventures. “While I came to Doctor Who in the late 1970s,” she explains, “the one character that never fails to intrigue me is Captain Jack from the modern era. I would love to write an adventure with Jack in his days in the Time Agency. He’s the perfect character for a traditional sci-fi pulp fiction story.”
Despite her well-received trip in the TARDIS, Terri is still best known for her Star Trek fiction. However, she recently revealed online that she won’t be returning to fiction’s final frontier any time soon, with the eBook story That Sleep of Death marking her departure from Trek literature. Intrigued (and, admittedly, disappointed), I ask her to explain her decision.
“That’s a very difficult question for me to answer,” she says, “because there are personal as well as professional reasons I made the decision. I don’t want to sound ungrateful for the experience and opportunities that writing Star Trek fiction has given me. I couldn’t be more thankful for the chance to tell what I hope people think are some really fun stories that you don’t normally see in the Star Trek universe. However, my original fiction was suffering from the constant stopping and starting, and it was time for something to give. So, when I felt the time was right, I withdrew my name from consideration for future Trek projects after That Sleep of Death. It’s not that I don’t love Trek. Trek gave me the confidence to believe in my ability to do this writing thing professionally, but every bird has to leave the nest and learn to fly on its own at some point. It was time for me to leave that security blanket behind. I’ve got a few friends for the world to meet, and it’s time to focus on introducing them to everyone. And that’ll start at some point in 2009.
“One of my biggest influences is the early work of Laurell K. Hamilton,” she continues, “who also wrote Trek early in her career. Even she had to leave it behind to nurture her own worlds. I knew the time would come eventually, and while it was difficult, it was a necessary choice for me. It’s my fondest hope that when folks finally get to meet Rowan, Angelo, Diana and the rest of the characters that populate the Realms Next Door universe [which Osborne has created], you’ll see why I chose the path I did.”
Despite departing from the fiction line, Terri’s name continues to crop up in Titan’s official Star Trek Magazine, to which she’s regularly contributing articles. However, she confesses that it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “I admit — and the editor over there doesn’t know this yet — but it was a little scary at first,” she says. “I’d never written for a magazine before and wasn’t sure I was capable of doing it. That’s a completely different skill set than writing fiction. That was one of the proverbial writer moments where you agree to a project, hang up the phone, and freak out about how you’re going to do it.
“Now that I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, whenever I get the emails from the editor, I’m always happy to have that opportunity. Trek is a part of modern culture. I think there’s a lot to cover in discussing Trek’s effect on the world around us. I may not be telling stories in that universe for the moment, but it has been and ever shall be an important part of my life.”
So, with Star Trek fiction firmly behind her, what are Terri’s thoughts on the eight stories she contributed to that vast universe? “I’m pleased with them all, to an extent,” she smiles. “I admit, I wish we’d had more time with ‘Q’uandary, as I’d have liked to take one more pass at it in retrospect, but the tight production schedule of the anthology didn’t allow it. That said, I’m still pretty happy with the story that we ended up with.
“As for what I have a particular fondness for,” she replies, when I ask for her personal highlights, “one of the things I’d always wanted to see was the return of Sarjenka. I thought that was a tremendous opportunity that was left by the wayside, and I really thought it would be fascinating to explore the aftermath of what was done to her. Pulaski’s method couldn’t have worked perfectly and permanently, because in so much of modern storytelling, Plan A never works as expected, especially when dealing with new races. Also, I really wanted to see that choice come back to bite Picard in some manner. I mean, the man we revere so highly still ordered the violation of a child’s mind. Yes, he had his reasons, and we all understand those, but the quickness with which he made that decision was something that stayed with me for a long time. The idea of heroes having to make decidedly un-heroic decisions, and how they live with it themselves, is intriguing. So, I’m particularly fond of Progress (even though I wanted to kill my muse for it at first), and Remembrance of Things Past for that reason.”
She’s clearly very happy with those Trek stories, and rightly so, but she’s sure the best is still yet to come. “Of course I’m going to say that readers haven’t seen my best work yet,” she says. “It would be silly of me not to. While I have the ‘do the best job you can all the time, no excuses’ work ethic, I also know that the more you work at this, the better you become at it. I’m not through writing by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve been writing stories for 33 years now, and I don’t see any reason not to have at least 33 more.”
Many of Terri’s fans have been particularly enamoured with her characterisations. “I’m a very character-driven writer,” she agrees. “I can’t really begin to write a story until I feel like the characters have moved into my head. I can’t work without feeling like I know who my characters are and being comfortable with knowing how they’d react in any situation I put them into. I guess that would probably explain why so many people feel I’ve got a particular skill with characterisations. That’s the most important part of telling the story to me.”
Terri’s definitely got a natural skill for making the characters who populate her stories believable, well-rounded and engaging, and I wonder which characters from her Star Trek work were particularly easy or difficult to get a handle on. “Easiest?” she repeats. “Hands down the Female Q, Domenica Corsi, and the Doctor [from Voyager]. What that says about my personality, I honestly don’t want to know.
“Hardest? It was really difficult for me to get a grasp on Captain David Gold at first. I still don’t feel like I quite got him in Malefictorum. The idea for Progress struck me as I was writing Malefictorum, and I wanted to strangle my muse. But the more I looked at him and thought him through, the easier it became.”
Both Malefictorum and Progress were part of the Star Trek: Corps of Engineers series, a monthly line of eBook-exclusive stories which was recently put on hiatus. Terri’s two-part story Remembrance of Things Past was the final adventure to feature the crew of the U.S.S. da Vinci, and she’s disappointed that the series won’t be continuing. “I’m very sorry to see it go,” she admits, “because there was this nice little corner of the Trek universe that we had to play in where longtime novelists could have fun with a great group of characters and newer voices could be brought into the fold.”
Something of a farm system for new talent, then? “I hesitate to call it a ‘farm system’, because the baseball analogy doesn’t quite hold (if you look at it from a purely analytical perspective, the Strange New Worlds contest was far more of a true ‘farm system’ for the line than CoE ever could have been), but it was one more avenue to get new voices into the mix. Any time you have a group of creative people working on a particular universe, you need to get new voices in there from time to time, or the storytelling suffers. That’s the complaint I see lodged against long-running TV series time and again. However, CoE got us far more than new voices. We could tell stories there that wouldn’t quite fit within the way the line has evolved. Frankly, I just don’t see a locked-room murder mystery working within the confines of a series like Titan; or a story involving a mining disaster working within Vanguard. But they both fit perfectly within the framework of CoE. We got to go places and do things that were not traditionally Trek, and that was a freeing experience as a writer. I don’t think we’ve gotten to the point where we can truly appreciate that creative loss yet. I suspect when we get to the end of the trade reprints, we’ll start to see the loss of the storytelling potential that ran through every corridor of the da Vinci.
“As for Remembrance,” she continues, “everyone probably needs to know one thing. I spent most of the writing of Book One — about a year, truth be told — suffering from severe migraines and vertigo that they couldn’t find a cause for. That put me quite a bit behind schedule on getting Book One in. The call to end the eBook line came between when Book One was beyond the point of no return editorially and my turning in Book Two. If we’d known during Book One, I’d probably have included more of Tev instead of shipping him off to Andor for the funeral of his friend who was killed in the terrorist attack on Therin Park. There was already so much going on in Book Two that, when Keith and I spoke about it and how we were going to conclude the series for the time being, he said he’d much rather have it close with the da Vinci riding off into the proverbial sunset for their next mission. Life goes on, and so do we. The past that had haunted us is mostly put to bed, and we have more missions ahead. If the time comes for us to tell more of those stories, they’re there.
“And for the record,” she adds, “they did finally find a cause for the vertigo and migraines. Stress. A word of advice to the readers, your neck muscles are one of the places stress can find a home. If your neck muscles get too tight, you can find yourself with vertigo for no apparent reason. And migraines can be spawned from the simple movement of clenching your jaws at night. Also stress-induced. It was discovered that I have an anxiety disorder that helped exacerbate that problem. If I have any influence in this world right now, I can’t think of a better way to use it right now than to encourage people to not be afraid of seeing a mental health professional if they think they need to. So many people fear the stigma of being considered ‘crazy’ if they do, I was one of them, but to them I say this: if there were something wrong with your blood chemistry (diabetes, thyroid, hormone therapy for menopause), you’d see the doctor, right? What’s the difference between something wrong with your blood chemistry and something wrong with your brain chemistry? Don’t be afraid of talking to the doctor about it. Getting help won’t change who you inherently are as a person. It will, however, allow you to get back into the world as a functioning human being.”
I wonder if, several months down the line, Terri’s opinions about her decision to back away from Star Trek have changed. She expresses such clear enthusiasm for the Star Trek universe, and it seems possible that she might regret no longer penning the odd Trek tale.
“I feel it was, creatively, the best decision for me,” she counters. “I had gotten into the bad habit of allowing my original fiction to lay fallow while I kept trying to fight for a spot in the Trek line that just wasn’t there to be had. I pitched concepts like the fall of the Federation under the premise that we really don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. I mean, Starfleet was fighting for the status quo, yes, but what really was the alternative? If we know why we’re fighting for our way of life beyond ‘because that’s what we do,’ I firmly believe it gives a deeper meaning to the conflict. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some reading, I’m sure) none of them flew.
“Looking back,” she continues, “it’s clear to me now that the Trek line was going in one direction, while I was going in another. My creative journey put me on the same road as the Trek line for a while, but I knew that couldn’t possibly last forever. I don’t regret the decision for a moment.”
But if Terri was to return, just for one last adventure? “I’m not sure what the plot would be, but I would still love to write a K’Ehleyr story,” she smiles. “She’s still one of my favourite twenty-fourth century characters.”
One science-fiction universe which Terri hasn’t yet visited professionally, but which she’s expressed a lot of love for, is that of the recently-cancelled Stargate Atlantis. “As a fan, I wish I could say I was happy with it,” she says, of the decision to end the show, “but I understand the business behind the decision. One thing I hope to do is get involved in the Stargate fiction line. I still believe there are plenty of stories to tell with the Atlantis team, so while I’m sad to see the regular series go, I’ve got high hopes for a long string of DVD movies and hopefully some novels with my name on them if I’m really fortunate.”
As well as developing some Stargate ideas, Terri’s put a lot of work into developing her own original universe: the aforementioned Realms Next Door. It started off as a number of different ideas, which “all managed to congeal into one”.
“The basic premise,” Terri reveals, “is that history may not be exactly what we think it was. ‘History is written by the victors,’ the old saying goes. How can we be sure those victors told the whole story? What if they left out a few things?
“As anyone who’s read Good Queen, Bad Queen… could probably tell, I’m greatly enamoured of the storytelling possibilities inherent in history’s mysteries, and this universe is as full of real-world mysteries as I can make it. However, there’s one thing that separates the Realm we humans live in from the ones ‘next door’: the supernatural is very real. The first published story in this universe right now looks like it will be Love and Other Excuses, which takes place in the mid-fifteenth century in Tuscany and involves a family of vampires whose power extends long into the twenty-first century. The anthology in which it is slated to appear is currently in a bit of contract limbo between two publishers right now, but it looks like it’ll be out next year. I have about 12 other projects in this universe in varying stage of development right now. One is a Young Adult series, another is a comic series, and there are novels and short stories all on the list spread out over about 600 years of time. I’m really excited about getting this up and running. It’s been something near and dear to me for so long now, and it’s high time I started introducing everyone to these folks.”
And with that exciting news, it’s time for our conversation to end. Before we wrap up completely, though, Terri has one last message for her audience. “I want to take a moment to thank all of the readers who’ve been out there supporting all of the Trek authors over the years,” she says. “We wouldn’t be here without you all. As for me, I hope you’ll stick around and see what I have in mind for the future, and the past, and the present.”
The future’s bright, and Terri Osborne’s is definitely a name to keep an eye on.
The Quality of Leadership was released by Big Finish Productions in May 2008. That Sleep of Death was released by Pocket Books in January 2008.