Desperate Hours is the first novel under the Star Trek: Discovery imprint, and sees the reliable Trek author David Mack with the unenviable task of tying the backstory of Discovery with the elaborate Star Trek novel continuity. From the get go, this was going to be a difficult task, and to his credit, Mack, under direction from Bryan Fuller, goes straight in there by setting this story at the exact intersection of the origins of Trek and its newest iteration.
Desperate Hours (perhaps the most generic title an adventure story could have) is set in 2255, one year before the fateful events of “The Vulcan Hello,” and one year after the very events written for Star Trek, those of the first pilot episode, “The Cage.” In spite of being set only two years apart, “The Cage” and “The Vulcan Hello” are worlds apart in content, style and tone, the franchise having developed in such ways that the two episodes are scarcely recognisable as being part of the same universe. Nonetheless, if any medium can make this work, it's prose, as the very distinct visual styles of these two eras of Star Trek can be glossed over, and the business of story focussed on.
There's a clear opportunity to combine and contrast characters here, with Starfleet crews from different ends of the franchise coming into collision. A crisis on the breakaway colony of Sirsa III brings both the starships Shenzhou and Enterprise into orbit to deal with the problem. An ancient alien Juggernaut is discovered beneath the surface of the planet, bristling with weaponry and capable of wiping out not only Sirsa but any planet it local space. While Captain Georgiou seeks a solution to both the alien threat and the political ramifications of Starfleet intervention on the planet, Captain Pike is called in to make carry out Starfleet's orders. With the Juggernaut potentially posing a gigantic and uncontainable danger to the Federation, Starfleet order's Pike to lay waste to the planet should no other way of stopping it become apparent.
While it's fascinating to see two captains of very different stripes at loggerheads – Georgiou is methodical and restrained, Pike more bullish and masculine – I struggle to believe that Pike, who was so memorably weighed down with the lives lost under his command in “The Cage,” would so readily accept genocidal orders from Starfleet. It's a major failing of characterisation in my opinion, and makes for a significant flaw in the novel.
More successful is the clash between Burnham and Spock. At present there seems to be no plan to bring Spock to the screen in Discovery, in spite of Burnham's relationship with Sarek and her presumed presence during Spock's childhood. Desperate Hours explores Burnham's background, clarifying some confusing elements, including the two traumatic attacks she experienced on Doctari Alpha and Vulcan, and also explores something of her upbringing, with Burnham describing herself as “culturally Vulcan.” The similarities between a human, brought up as Vulcan, and a Vulcan-human hybrid, both from the same family, would suggest that Burnham and Spock have a great deal in common and a special bond. So why do Burnham and Spock have so little to do with each other?
To put it bluntly, they can't stand each other. Their ongoing rivalry, competing in youth for the respect of Sarek and the love of Amanda, both trying to prove themselves in a stoic society, has only been exacerbated by Spock's decision to join Starfleet and his resulting schism with his father. Nonetheless, as much as they have a personal dislike for each other, there's a clear and mutual respect between Burnham and Spock, one which sees the upcoming first officer of the Shenzhou call on the junior science officer of the Enterprise for help in this extremely difficult situation. A large chunk of the book is taken up with Spock and Burnham working within the Juggernaut itself, facing a series of deadly tasks. While this leads to some fascinating interaction and sees the two learn more about each other, and so themselves, I have limited patience for narrative that takes the form of a series of puzzles, however life-threatening. Nonetheless, the exploration of both Burnham and Spock brings new depth to both their backgrounds.
The less expected interaction is between Lt. Saru and Pike's Number One, here, in line with other recent novels, given the rather obvious Una. There is further exploration of Saru's background on Kelpia, which explores his nature as a prey animal with less bluntness than the TV episodes, but the surprising part is the deep respect, and indeed attraction, to Number One. The two make an unusual but effective pairing, and their scenes together are some of the most successful in the book.
There is some exploration of the rest of the Shenzhou's bridge crew, giving a richness and realness that was missing in Discovery's pilot story. On the whole, the storyline is an enjoyable adventure, as much about human conflict as alien threat. It's quite a straightforward tale, but one with plenty of action and excitement, and in spite of the supposed danger of the Juggernaut, provides a surprisingly low-key series of events for the first Discovery novel. Then again, not every Starfleet intervention leads to interstellar war, thankfully. This time, Shenzhou and Enterprise come together and chalk this one up as a win for Starfleet. They should probably make the most of it.