Book Review: STAR TREK: PICARD – ‘The Dark Veil’ (James Swallow)

All things being equal, the second season of Star Trek: Picard would likely have been airing at the start of 2021, allowing the second tie-in novel The Dark Veil to align with its parent show.

Luckily, James Swallow’s tale does not rely too heavily on the established canon and continuity of Picard’s current events and has the providence to prop itself up as what is fast becoming a ‘classic’ Star Trek story. Classic, in terms of this franchise, used to refer to the colourful kitsch of the 1960s Original Series but it now encompasses an era Swallow has straddled, both as a tie-in novelist and story contributor to Star Trek: Voyager – the 1990s. Perhaps the ‘Golden Age’ of Star Trek, this era did not just birth Picard’s originator, The Next Generation, but a style of storytelling the modern age of Star Trek has increasingly moved away from. 

The Dark Veil, in that context, is comforting and reassuring. It feels a reminder of what Star Trek is capable of and, honestly, what the modern example of it on television is steering away from.

A brief side note to discuss Star Trek’s tie-in fiction, as it feels pertinent to The Dark Veil.

Swallow had contributed numerous books to the ‘post-Nemesis series’, ie the continued future history of Star Trek in the late 24th century following the last canonical story in that era, which stood for well over a decade across a myriad amount of incredibly detailed, well thought out books. For a long time, these were for many fans the future they imagined. When Picard arrived, it pushed those stories into an alternate timeline as on-screen canon over rode that continuity, leading to Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, a tie-in novel in the most direct sense of the word – actively sketching in detail in the gap between Nemesis and the beginning of Picard in the life of the titular character while helping to establish the concept at the heart of the show. It felt the most directly tethered tie-in novel to a canonical series in a long time.

The Dark Veil is different, in that respect. Swallow attempts a fairly unique combination of new and old. Focused on the Next Generation characters Will Riker and Deanna Troi, this story is set almost fifteen years before the events of Picard, largely after The Last Best Hope, and focuses on the crew of the U.S.S. Titan, the ship the newly promoted Captain Riker took command of with his wife at the end of Nemesis. Subsequent novels in the post-Nemesis timeline, some written by Swallow, turned these adventures into a series of novels as the Titan played a key role in galactic events, and here Swallow buys into the growing theory of a Star Trek multiverse by utilising the majority of Titan characters beyond Will & Deanna from the previous timeline. This breeds a familiarity for established tie-in novelisation fans while also not alienating new readers. Fans will get a kick out of Commander Christine Vale in the Picard canonical timeline (not that The Dark Veil is strictly canon…), but it won’t matter if you’re just meeting her for the first time.

This feels like a sea change for now tie-in novels exist in the Star Trek universe. As Swallow explains in his interview about the book for the Make It So podcast, the writers of tie-in material have access to the writers of Picard, scripts, story conferences and a general level of input which would never have been the case during the Golden Age. Tie-in fiction then was a completely different entity that felt throwaway, even when those novels were tremendously written. None were canon. None were fixed. Any could be contradicted and many were. The Dark Veil feels different. These novels feel intertwined with the TV series in a weightier manner. Swallow’s work here, fleshing out the Titan’s role on the Romulan border in the wake of the supernova crisis and the eventually character of Thaddeus Troi-Riker (Will and Deanna’s son who had passed away by the events of Picard), could be contradicted on screen but it feels less likely.

The Dark Veil, much like The Last Best Hope, feels like a complement to the screen material designed to tell chapters of a broader story that television will likely never get to.

This adds to the novel’s sense of enjoyment, certainly for me, though that is not to say the disconnected tie-in novel cannot be worth reading.

The previous Titan series, now in an alternate continuity, is well worth seeking out as part of a different, grand late 24th century tapestry. But how The Dark Veil plays off established points within Picard, particularly the backstory doled out in Nepenthe (the best episode of a rather hit and miss first season for me) regarding the Riker’s, adds texture to a universe which, on screen, has at points sorely lacked context and depth. Swallow writes with a casual confidence when it comes to Trek, the penmanship of someone so well versed in both canonical and non-canonical lore that he can throw a Kelpien in in one breath, and reference the Tezwan in another. The latter is deep cut lore and while Swallow never drowns in references or call backs or backstory, the underpinning recognition that the writer knows and understands Star Trek simply makes the storytelling richer.

The feat is doubly impressive given the story, in other hands, could have been rather simplistic. The Titan come to the aid of the Jazari, a highly secretive species who are looking to not just leave the Federation, a polity scarred by an attack by synthetic life on Mars which killed thousands and sent Starfleet scurrying into isolationism, reneging on a promise to aid the flailing Romulan Star Empire in the bargain, but leave the known galaxy. Much of the context lies in the first season of Picard but Swallow provides enough depth to not just Riker, Troi and the Titan crew, but the assortment of Jazari—such as ex-Titan crewman Zade and the aggressively rude Qaylan—and the crew of a Romulan ship who become embroiled in the Titan’s mission as, inevitably, things go catastrophically wrong. The relationship between noble Romulan commander Medaka and Riker is the kind of honourable dynamic we would have seen in The Next Generation, with Swallow having the time to evoke character to the degree modern on screen Trek skips past in service of plot. It is hard to imagine as well-rounded a Romulan as Medaka existing in Picard.

Without spoiling too much of a narrative which rewards mystery, as geopolitical clashes between Starfleet and the Romulans lead to a deeper understanding and revelation about the Jazari, The Dark Veil works as a compelling narrative in a different fashion to The Last Best Hope. That book served to explore broader events, cast a sweep across the landscape of Picard’s backstory and catch audiences up, but Swallow gets to tell a grounded story over a shorter time frame which evokes the principles and historical guiding lights of Star Trek from eras past.

The Dark Veil is an example of the balance between non-essential storytelling and a broader, inter-connected narrative that media should lean into as the way we consume storytelling evolves into podcasts, ARG’s, audiobooks, apps and beyond. My hope is that canon will eventually encompass more than just on-screen work, as examples such as Trek—or what Star Wars is currently doing with The High Republic—will be recognised as part of a wider whole, all of which exists and can be enjoyed from different vantage points.

The best compliment about The Dark Veil, which personally I felt about The Last Best Hope, is that reading it retroactively makes the experience of watching Picard even better. That is surely, alone, a reason to engage.

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