It’s over a decade since the ambitious Star Trek: A Time to… series was published. The nine-book Next Generation saga set out to provide context for events that feature film Star Trek Nemesis had introduced without explanation – the marriage of Will Riker and Deanna Troi, the return of Wesley Crusher, Worf going back to Starfleet, and Riker finally assuming his own command, to name just a few.
“The various books in the miniseries tackled these questions in varying degrees,” explains writer David Mack. “My two books in the miniseries, A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal, were concerned specifically with exploring the reasons behind Riker’s decision to accept promotion to captain of the Titan, and setting the stage for Worf’s eventual departure from diplomatic service — a storyline that culminated in Keith R.A. DeCandido’s novel A Time for War, A Time For Peace, which concluded the miniseries.”
As our roundtable retrospective on the series continues (catch up with Part 1 here), we’ve asked five of its authors – the aforementioned Mack, plus John Vornholt, Dayton Ward, Robert Greenberger, and Keith R.A. DeCandido – to look back at each of the nine books in turn…
The series began with John Vornholt’s A Time to be Born and A Time to Die, which brought back former TNG regular Wesley Crusher. His final appearance on the TV series had seen him abandon a Starfleet career, instead departing to another plane of existence with the transdimensional alien being known as the Traveler; in Nemesis, he had a non-speaking cameo, in human form and Starfleet uniform, at Riker and Troi’s wedding reception.
John was able to show what first brought him back into the lives of the Enterprise crew. “In A Time to be Born, Wesley Crusher is reborn as a Traveler, after a lengthy apprenticeship,” he reminds us. “Of course, time, space, and distances don’t mean anything to a Traveler, so Wesley is essentially a superhero, with the powers of Doctor Who combined with a shapeshifter. In the Pool of Prophecy, he views the destruction of the Enterprise-E, a vessel he’s never seen in reality, and he has to use his new gifts, and old allegiances, to save them.
“In A Time to Die, the Enterprise is disgraced after destroying another Federation vessel during the efforts to clean up a dangerous debris field, full of wrecked starships, left over from the Dominion War. With a skeleton crew, they attempt to find a ghostly ship that has been destroying all intruders in the vast debris field. It sure is nice to have a Traveler aboard!”
John was a natural choice for the Wesley-centred parts of the miniseries, having wanted to bring back Wesley long before his Nemesis cameo. “[John Ordover] knew I had tried several times to take up Wesley Crusher’s story as a Traveler,” he recalls, “but Paramount would never let me do a ‘Wesley as a Traveler’ book because the TNG movies and TV show had left that completely unexplored. They were worried that a TV show or movie might make a casual comment, such as ‘Too bad Wesley Crusher died last week’, which would have completely negated any story I came up with.
“Then, lo and behold, Star Trek Nemesis came out, and there was Wesley Crusher, alive and well! Better yet, that movie gave no explanation at all where Wesley had been, or what he had been doing. Suddenly I was free to fill in the blanks on Wesley Crusher after he left with the Traveler. I got an early copy of the Nemesis script, because I wrote a YA novelisation of that movie, as I had done with all the previous TNG movies. In the script, Wesley had a few lines that might have caused me some minor continuity problems, but all his lines ended up on the cutting room floor. Once again, I was free to pursue Wesley’s story without any fear of contradicting something in official Star Trek canon.
“It was always my intent to finally do justice to Wesley Crusher and his amazing decision. I know Wesley has his detractors, but that was mainly [due] to the ‘Wesley saves the day’ plot device of the first couple of TNG seasons. You can’t leave a dangling thread like that – one of the main characters goes off to become a Traveler – and not expect someone to grab it.”
What was it like to kick off such a huge project? “One of the best things about writing the opening book or books in a series is that you don’t have to worry much about what comes afterwards,” admits John. “So I didn’t. I was happy just to finally tell my Wesley as a Traveler story. I also wrote a middle book in the Double Helix series [a six-book TNG series from 1999], Quarantine, and that is always a tougher assignment. You must be aware of everything that came before your story, and everything afterwards, but the middle book can’t really resolve anything. You can only up the ante and involve more characters.”
The first writers to delve into that difficult middle ground in the A Time to… series were Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore with A Time to Sow and A Time to Harvest, their first full-length novels together.
“John Ordover, who had been my editor for my first short stories and novels published by Pocket Books, contacted me in the fall of 2002 about me – or Kevin and me, as we now a writing duo by this point – about writing a pair of novels for a Next Generation miniseries he was planning for 2004,” remembers Dayton. “At this point, he was planning 12 books, with six different writers (or writing team, in our case) each taking on two books. John called us after one of the authors in his original lineup had to bow out. Kevin and I had been writing together for a couple of years, having written a handful of novellas for the Star Trek: S.C.E. eBook series. In a sense, being asked to contribute to the A Time to… series was the Star Trek novel equivalent of being called up from the minors to play Major League Baseball.
“By the time we were brought on board, the other novels in the series were all underway to one degree or another, and most of the major character arcs had already been laid down,” he explains. “Given the third and fourth books to write, our primary task was to write a story that would bridge the gap between the setbacks the Enterprise crew suffers in the first two books, and the path to redemption they follow in the latter books. With that in mind, we wrote scenes in the beginning that show the different characters coming to grips with their ‘fall from grace’, before we get on with letting them take those first steps down that aforementioned path.”
Dayton and Kevin’s books brought back the Satarrans, an alien race first seen in the TNG episode Conundrum. “Conundrum has always been a favourite episode, and something about the Satarrans and their unbridled audacity always impressed me,” Dayton explains, when we ask what inspired their return. “Besides, nobody else had done it!”
It’s a surprise that they hadn’t been used before. On screen, despite being a century behind the Federation technologically, the Satarrans showed a lot of guile and resourcefulness, almost having the Enterprise destroy their archenemies in one swoop. “I suppose one could argue that they’re a bit one-note, so far as what they might do to stir up trouble for Starfleet or the Federation,” Dayton points out. “Still, I am surprised they haven’t turned up. As far as I know, and correct me if I’m wrong, they haven’t been used since A Time to….”
Much of the series’ direction was established prior to the conception of Sow and Harvest. “As I said, we were brought on relatively late in the game, at least so far as the hashing out of character arcs and plot threads being woven through the different books,” says Dayton. “I suspect John knew at least most of what he wanted to see tackled, and the authors who ended up taking on those character arcs (Bob Greenberger, David Mack, and Keith DeCandido) likely brought their own ideas to the table, and the plots developed outward from there in service to those characters. Our job was to start ‘aligning the stars’, so to speak, with respect to at least a few of those characters while telling our ‘bridging tale’.”
On the other side of that bridge was Robert Greenberger, who took the reins for A Time to Love and A Time to Hate. “I got to touch on the largest issues between films: the actual proposal and beginning of wedding planning,” Robert explains.
The series couldn’t have come at a better time for him. “One cold January day in 2002, I was fired by Marvel Comics,” he recalls, “and as I stood in Grand Central Station, awaiting a train home, editor John Ordover called to commiserate and offer me two books in the series. Apparently I was on his list for this project so this jump-started things.
“At that point, given my other works, John saw me as one who could handle Riker well, so I was handed the proposal with Troi. Since I was at the series’ midpoint, I knew we had to raise the stakes a bit. Since we didn’t see Kyle Riker at the wedding, or any mention of him, I hit on the notion that he would die in my story, which saw him trying to negotiate help a distant world deal with an ecological problem that spelled doom for not one but two races. For me, it was once again trying to find new challenges for Picard and company. I wanted to deal with Riker and his past a bit along with his finally taking the plunge and proposing.”
What was it like to take a character like Kyle Riker, who’d been a guest star in a single episode of TNG, and give him such a prominent role? “With just one appearance to work with, I felt that gave me a starting point,” Robert replies, “and based on what we’d also learned about Will’s background, I had some threads to weave together. Honestly, the tension between actors was quite informative and helped as I wrote their scenes.”
David Mack wrote the last two-parter in the series, A Time to Kill and A Time to Heal. “In the summer of 2003, several months after my Star Trek: S.C.E. eBook novel Wildfire had been released to critical acclaim and strong sales, I was contacted by editor John Ordover,” recalls David. “He asked me to write a pair of back-to-back paperback novels that would constitute the penultimate story in a nine-book Star Trek: The Next Generation miniseries he was planning. I agreed.
“It was a fortunate development for me, and it came at an opportune time. Based on the strength of my Star Trek résumé at that point – co-writer with John on a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and author or co-author on a handful of Trek books and eBooks – I was poised to make the leap to full-length novels.
“A Time to Kill brings the crew of the Enterprise-E to the planet Tezwa,” David reminds us, “where a diplomatic crisis (sparked by the militaristic prime minister, Kinchawn) leads to violence between that isolated world and the Klingon Empire. The Federation president, Min Zife, orders our heroes to prevent a Klingon invasion of Tezwa – but the only way they can do that is to conquer the planet themselves first, and plant a Federation flag on it before the Klingons arrive.
“In A Time to Heal, Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-E are caught in the crossfire as they try to serve as peacekeepers between warring factions on the planet Tezwa. They also are searching for Commander Riker, who has been MIA after being captured during the Enterprise’s conquest of the planet in A Time to Kill. But their investigations reveal a more disturbing cover-up, one that is both old and ongoing, and that they eventually trace to the highest levels of the Federation government, prompting a disastrous showdown between Starfleet and its civilian government.”
David’s books provided some of the series’ darkest moments. “What would be the point of having them spend the whole miniseries ‘up’?” he asks. “Unless they suffered reversals, they would have nowhere to go, and the miniseries itself would lack a narrative arc.
“The truth of a character’s nature is most often revealed by adversity. To paraphrase a line from Deep Space Nine, it’s easy to be an angel in paradise. It’s only when a character’s back is put to the wall, or their hand to the fire, that we find out who they really are. It’s also true that hardship is frequently a catalyst for change, and we needed to explain many changes in these characters’ lives. Putting them into crisis and breaking them down was the fastest and most interesting way to dramatise those personal and professional transformations.”
Keith R.A. DeCandido was left to wrap the series up in a single-volume finale.
“My own particular task in A Time for War, a Time for Peace was threefold,” Keith explains. “I had to provide a conclusion to the series, one that put everything that happened in the previous four duologies into context and which put everything in place for Nemesis. I had to set up the post-Nemesis status quo, setting up what both the TNG novels and the Titan novels would be doing going forward (as well as setting up my own Articles of the Federation, which was in development at the time, too). And I had to actually tell an interesting story.”
Over the course of the series, the Enterprise crew had to fight an uphill battle to restore their reputation after the events of Be Born and Die, with plenty more trauma as the books unfolded, from Data losing his emotion chip to Riker losing his father.
“That was John Ordover’s original conception,” Keith explains. “Bring the Enterprise to their lowest point and have them fight back from it. It was an inversion of TNG’s usual, where Picard and his gang were the flagship and the best and the brightest. Basically it took a page from DS9, which didn’t just accept the Federation’s utopia, but challenged it, which in many ways made it stronger. What we wanted to do was challenge the Enterprise’s shiny status as the top of the line and have them fight their way back there, proving that their awesomeness isn’t just good luck, it’s something they’ve earned.”
“You need a long arc for a nine-book series,” points out John Vornholt, “and John Ordover and I decided early on that the Enterprise and her crew had to be disgraced and on the back burner. So they had to fight back over time to reclaim their honour and respect.”
“It would be incredibly dull to tell a year’s worth of stories that could have been episodes of an eighth season,” adds Bob. “We really needed to raise the stakes and challenge the crews for dramatic purposes. You want to see your characters endure insurmountable odds so you root for them to succeed. Yes, there were prices to be paid but in the end, the Federation and the Enterprise was stronger for it.”
“‘Things get worse’ is a cornerstone of drama,” Dayton observes, “and ‘piling on’ is also a proven successful tactic. Cue diabolical laughter!”
With a decade of hindsight, we ask the writers what single thing they’re proudest of in their respective A Time to… tales.
David picks “the fact that I was able to give each novel its own unique style and tone, rather than craft the duology as a single story split into two volumes. I developed Kill and Heal as two separate stories focussed on the same alien world and the same internal Federation government cover-up. But where Kill is a fast-paced military action techno-thriller, Heal is a more cloak-and-dagger political mystery. In that respect, they represent the dichotomy between high-tech war, which can seem geared toward instant gratification and swift victory, and the long, brutal slog of an occupation.”
“It was our first time writing the TNG characters in novel form, and I think Kevin and I managed to tell a very TNG-esque storyline,” suggests Dayton, regarding Sow and Harvest. “We received a lot of comments from readers who told us that they could hear the actors speaking our dialogue, which for me is one of the nicest compliments I can receive about a tie-in novel in general and Star Trek in particular. So, I’m proud we were able to provide that for fans.”
From War, Peace, Keith picks “the conversation between Data and Go where he, basically, defends his own emotionalism. I’d never really bought the notion that Data was incapable of emotion, given how many other things he was able to learn, and I think his explaining to Go how he has been able to ‘fake’ emotions is one the character should have said a long time ago.”
“I think my work with Riker, his background, and his dad worked pretty well and I’m fairly happy with how the big proposal scene worked out,” says Robert, of Love and Hate. “[But] I think I lost my way in the middle and it came as John was leaving Pocket and his role was filled by Ed Schlesinger, who had a lot of catch up to do so the editorial hand I needed was not there so I was on my own.”
“Since it was our first time being ‘called up’ to write with some of the ‘first stringers’ on the novel line, I’d say our biggest challenge was just keeping up with the more established writers,” admits Dayton. “They set the bar pretty high, you know.”
For David, the biggest challenge was meeting the deadline. “I wrote Kill and Heal during a very chaotic period of my life,” he explains. “I was working a demanding full-time job at the Sci Fi Channel (back before it was called Syfy); I was helping my fiancée (now my wife) Kara plan our wedding and honeymoon; while writing the first book, I moved out of an apartment I’d lived in for 12 years – and in the move I lost my notes for the duology; and, on top of all that, a week after I’d moved, one of my cats died suddenly.”
Is there anything about any of the books which the writers might do differently today than they did in 2004?
“I think I would have outlined the book far more tightly,” suggests Robert, “so I didn’t get lost in my own story and found better roles for the rest of the crew.”
“Given the choice, I think our story would’ve worked better as a single book,” Dayton reflects. “I have to cop to that. Our window for developing the outlines for both books was so small, we ended up submitting what in retrospect was a decent outline for one book, not two. Kevin and I spent considerable time later on developing character arcs and story branches to ensure we had enough worthwhile material for two books, but if I had it to do all over again, I’d have taken all of that, and still found a way to write it as a single novel. I’ve even toyed with the idea of going back to the manuscripts and creating a ‘director’s cut’ of the story, but Pocket likes keeping me busy with new things to do. Maybe when I retire, or something.”
“I would push harder to change the titles to A Time to Create and A Time to Destroy,” reveals David, of Kill and Heal. “I think those titles originally had been attached to Daffyd ab Hugh’s duology. After it was cancelled, I had hoped the titles would be up for grabs, but for some reason I was told they couldn’t reassign them to my books. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure they could have if anyone had bothered to make the effort. I think those titles would have fit my story far better than the ones I inherited. Surprisingly few people are killed in A Time to Kill, and even I’m at a loss for words when readers ask me to justify the title of A Time to Heal, which remains one of my most graphically violent works. As Vonnegut wrote, ‘So it goes’.”
Continue reading… • In Part 3, we investigate the series’ extraordinary legacy.
The nine A Time to… books were released between January and September 2004 by Pocket Books, and are available now.