Friday 25 November 2011

Trek Review: Watching the Clock by Christopher L. Bennett

Time for another Star Trek review, methinks. I like the Trek novels that are a little unusual, the ones that stray beyond the core character groups. While it can be fun to read a book that makes you think "That would have made a good episode of DS9," or whatever, many of the best books are the ones that explore the wider Trek universe, taking the chance to explore strange new... well, you know what I mean. There are hundreds of intriguing supporting characters in Star Trek, and sometimes it can be fun to see what they've been up to since they guested in an episode. Equally, there are whole eras of history, before, after and between those we've seen in TV and film, which can be explored to add further colour to this fictional universe.

So: Watching the Clock. Or, to give it the full cover title, Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations - Watching the Clock. Bit of a mouthful, so I'll stick with the shorter version. This was released in April, and I read it in September, but have only just got around to writing the review up. It's the latest novel by Christopher L. Bennett, a fairly prolific Trek author in recent years. I've previously read his atypical Borg story Greater Than the Sum, and Ex Machina, his excellent sequel to The Motion Picture. He's a fine author, with a clear prose style that manages to get across complicated ideas quickly and easily, which is a talent in this frequently technobabble-heavy range. He's also one of the Trek authors who is clearly determined to have fun with the series, as well as one who likes to explore loose ends and continuity points. So, he'll spend a page trying to come up with a solution to a decades old plot point... but also has a tendency to get his female characters naked whenever possible, which stops things getting dull...

Bennett has taken the chance to develop two characters who were only briefly seen on screen, but who have become fan favourites: temporal investigators Dulmur and Lucsly. They appeared in the fun DS9 episode 'Trials and Tribble-ations,' played by Jack Blessing and James Jansen, respectively. These are the guys who have to go and clear up after the main cast have an adventure in the past. The ones who have to make sure no tribbles were brought back by mistake; that history wasn't rewritten; that we're not all living in a parallel timeline without realising it. They're the auditors of reality.

It's amusing to learn that Bennett wrote this book because he hates time travel. This is something that he shares with his two main characters. He dislikes the riddles and anomalies that plague the many time travel stories in Trek, and so set out to solve them, and put them into some kind of coherent framework. A fool's errand, perhaps, but he manages it with astonishing success. Along the course of this book, in which we follow Dulmur's career development from private detective to high-ranking temporal investigator, Bennett addresses, either in depth or as a swift reference, virtually every incidence of time travel in the history of Star Trek, including various books and even some fanfic and an unmade series. Even the alternate reality of the new movie gets a plausible explanation. The novel takes in the work of the DTI, dropping Dulmur and Lucsly into the background and aftermath of various well-remembered time travel episodes, as they try to sort out the mess left behind. Occasionally, we get glimpses of the Trek universe's mysterious future, including the contrasting approaches of the shady, morally questionable 29th century Starfleet we saw in Voyager, and the time travelling agents from the 31st century we met in Enterprise. By the end of it, the Department are caught up in their biggest bugbear, the Temporal Cold War, and Bennett even unmasks the enigmatic Future Guy who plagued Captain Archer.

This may sound like a dry read, but it's anything but. While Bennett has clearly done his research into quantum physics and many worlds theory, he balances any science with enjoyable escapades and character development. All his characters feel like real people, in spite of their outlandish futuristic occupations. An exciting side-plot sends likeable new DTI recruit Teresa Garcia on an adventure to the Axis of Time, an invention of Bennett's which joins dozens of time zones seperated by millions of years of history. It's an awesome view of mankind's place a vast, unfriendly universe - with a bit of hot alien sex thrown in for good measure. The real triumph of the novel, though, isn't the all-enveloping theory of Trek time travel, the fiddly time-hopping sequence, the adventures beyond history or the plethora of Doctor Who and Back to the Future references. Bennett's greatest achievement is making a couple of dour, humourless jobsworths like Dulmur and Lucsly so incredibly likeable.

It's a grand adventure in Star Trek history, and I'd recommend it to anyone who, like me, is steeped in the series' lore. After reading it, take yourself along to Bennett's annotations page to read about all the references you missed.

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