The first Star Trek: Discovery novel is a godsend if the show left you hungry for more detail. Set one year before the premiere, Desperate Hours features a team-up between the U.S.S. Shenzhou and the Enterprise—a fan-pleasing crossover with the cast of Star Trek’s original 1965 pilot episode. Considering CBS’s secretive attitude, this book contains a surprising amount of new information about the show’s main characters and their backstories.
Written by longtime Star Trek novelist David Mack, Desperate Hours holds equal appeal for new fans and those who miss the rhythms of earlier shows. Focusing on a perilous Starfleet rescue mission to a colony planet, it’s the kind of self-contained story we’re unlikely to see in the serialized framework of Discovery.
Shortly after Michael Burnham’s promotion to First Officer, the Shenzhou receives a distress call about a leviathan attacking a mining colony. This launches them into a kaiju-inspired adventure with some scientific mysteries thrown in, impeded by local politicians sabotaging the investigation. To complicate matters further, Starfleet orders the Enterprise (or as Georgiou delightfully calls it, “the Big E”) to tackle the monster in a different way. That’s where the Original Series callbacks come in, because while this takes place before Kirk’s time on the Enterprise, Spock is already the science officer. And as we know from Discovery, Michael Burnham is (kind of) Spock’s adoptive sister.
Since the adult Spock is unlikely to appear in the show, Desperate Hours provides fascinating insight into their relationship—or lack thereof. Without giving too much away, it seems they were raised separately on Vulcan. Both were shaped by the controlling influence of Spock’s father Sarek, but while Spock rebelled by leaving Vulcan to join Starfleet, Michael still strives for Sarek’s approval. There’s more than a little friction in this distant sibling rivalry, yet they still achieve a satisfying realization about Sarek’s perfectionism and unfair double standards.
Unlike the show, Desperate Hours is more of an ensemble drama than a Burnham-centric story—and that’s OK. The real highlights are in the minutiae of Starfleet operations, because let’s face it: Tie-in novels are for nerds. David Mack fleshes out Georgiou’s bridge crew, including some characters who never got lines onscreen. For instance, the “Daft Punk robot” I namechecked in my review is actually a woman in a VR helmet. Who knew? (Incidentally, she’s awesome. The helmet is for holographic targeting, and she says things like, “Now get ready to see some serious shit.” She’s a Star Wars girl in a Star Trek world.)
If you’re a fan of Kelpien science officer Saru, you’ll be glad to hear he gets plenty of screentime in Desperate Hours. Despite being a rather one-note character (he’s constantly hampered by his fear-driven instincts as a prey species), he’s weirdly lovable, and his anxiety provides a contrast to Burnham’s confidence. You could argue that he’s actually braver than many of his colleagues, since humans are naturally adventurous while Saru is the only Kelpien in Starfleet. Yet it’s easy to see why he’d be annoying to work with, and why he and Burnham rub each other the wrong way.
Star Trek is ultimately a workplace drama, something you might forget between the epic space battles of Discovery‘s early episodes. Tie-in novels allow more attention to the daily conflicts and intellectual successes of a ship like the Shenzhou, exploring what makes Starfleet tick.
Starfleet’s heroes are smart and hard-working, and try to resolve their disputes with professionalism—even if they’re seething with frustration beneath the surface. Sometimes that can get a little grating, like the many technobabble-heavy conversations between Burnham and Spock, but you can’t deny that it’s very Star Trek. I’d almost be disappointed if people were swooning with melodrama all over the place, although Desperate Hours does provide one unexpected partnership that may tickle your fanfic sensibilities. Saru makes a rare friend in Number One, Pike’s first officer from the original Star Trek pilot, and the initial inspiration for Michael Burnham herself.