Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Leonard James Akaar, Small Universe Syndrome & Boba Fetting

I've recently begun reading through the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel relaunch series. These are novels set just after the end of the series and continuing the adventures of the characters beyond the episodes. They're quite interesting so far but I've noticed a pervasive problem with them that's even worse in the other Star Trek franchise novels.

I like to call this problem "Small Universe Syndrome." It's a unique quirk of media tie-in fiction set in vast (and old!) franchises with writers who tend to be fans. To some extent it does exist in franchise fantasy novels as well, but it's less immediately noticeable in many of them. Small Universe Syndrome, at its heart, is the idea that instead of populating a book's background with random, basically characterless, supernumeraries, writers will bring in a guest star/secondary character who fits the bill. The advantage is that it often cuts down the amount of character building a writer has to do for a scene where a main character needs information from a superior or such. Instead of inventing a new character and introducing a relationship between that character and the prime one you're using, which can often take up time that a writer either doesn't have or doesn't want to waste, it's simpler to just plug in an existing personage. And at this conceptual level, I have no problem with it. It's a nice little nod to the readers. However, this practice has been getting out of hand of late in various fictional universes.

While there are many instances I can examine, perhaps the best one - and the most damning! - is the case of one Leonard James Akaar in the Star Trek universe. Akaar is a character from the 60s episode "Friday's Child." He appears in roughly one scene... as a baby. You see, Kirk and McCoy help protect his due-any-second mother - Julie Newmar - from Klingons, and to pay homage for their protection, she names the just delivered child after the two of them. It's a fun episode and features McCoy's famous "I'm a doctor, not an escalator." Now you would think this would be the end of the story, no? An alien species never revisited by any of the shows would seem to be the end of the story. Well, not quite. In the 1980s DC Comics Star Trek comic, an adult Leonard James Akaar showed up as a witness at Captain Kirk's trial. It was a pretty cool scene, referencing an episode of the show while "updating" a character. And that was pretty much all she wrote for Mr. Akaar. Until 1999/2000 that is.

According to Memory Beta, the Star Trek wiki for Licensed tie-in material, Akaar has appeared in 17 novels since the DS9 Relaunch in 2000. (It more or less discounts books where he makes minor appearances - page or less - and discounts any mentions-but-doesn't-appears) That's an average of 1.7 novels a year. For a character whose sole "canonical" appearance was as a non-speaking child, that's a significant uptick in appearances! In books set during and after the "modern" Trek series, Akaar is an elder statesman/ambassador/diplomat/adviser/former commander/former head of Starfleet. What a resume! He's basically a catch all for those situations where an author wants a familiar face to put Picard or Sisko in their place. But what's wrong with that resume is people forgetting what he's supposed to have done! In DS9 he's an ambassador, former admiral and former captain. In Next Generation books, he's a life-long diplomat based on his leadership roles on his home planet. Books within the last few years have reconciled these two paths with him being a Diplomatic Officer! HUZZAH!

Now, Akaar has also made appearances in what are called "Lost Era" novels - those novels set after the Original Series movies, but before the start of The Next Generation. Here, he's an officer (Sometimes Tactical, sometimes Diplomatic!) aboard the Excelsior, which is another Small Universe microcosm. (Sulu, Chekov, Tuvok, Chapel, Rand, Akaar, and more!). Akaar is the most interesting because of his little screen time! To give an opposite example, there's a Bolian Captain, Rixx, who appears in an early episode of TNG. He has quite a number of speaking lines, mentions a past meeting with Picard, and never appears again, outside a few offhand mentions. Rixx had never made an "expanded universe" appearance until 2 years ago!

However, Akaar is not alone. I just read "The Lives of Dax" which tells the tale of all 8 hosts to the Dax symbiont. In general the stories tend to be pretty good. However, it's just simmering in SUS! T'Pau, Dr. McCoy (granted his presence in the story was established in the series), and Captain Pike make token appearances that don't add anything other than name recognition to the stories. One of Dax's hosts invents transporters for the Federation, another tests shuttles for the launch of the Excelsior (See above!). After a while, it became a little eye roll-y. There's apparently a book out this past month which sees Geordi, Guinan, Scotty, Nog, Nurse Ogowa, Leah Brahams and more all on the same ship!

I've chosen Trek as a starting point because it best exemplifies the problem. However Star Wars, Doctor Who, Forgotten Realms and many more all have their fair share of small universe syndrome. But Star Wars has also resulted in a similar, but slightly different phenomenon I like to call Boba Fett-ing. As many know, Boba Fett is one of the most popular characters in the franchise, but his fame is disproportionate to his screen time! Essentially, he became popular because he looked really cool and uttered a few badass lines.

Boba Fetts are a unique version of SUS characters. Essentially, they're somewhat established characters in the show/movies whose fame, popularity or presence in tie-in literature is disproportionate to their screen time/role on the show. Star Trek has a few, Ro Laren is the one I usually point out the most though. Here's a character that was supposed to move to Deep Space Nine, but the actress wanted out of the show. So the books went on to make her a big presence in the DS9 relaunch, as well as in the Next Gen books set during her time on that show. She's been said to be responsible for big resistance skirmishes and decisive wins in battles. Scotty - though a fairly big character in his own right in the TOS era - has become a Boba Bett for the TNG books. (Scotty was transported to the future - literally - in a 5th season TNG episode and has become the HEAD of the Corps of Engineers in the books.)

Star Wars has a few OTHER Fetts as well, like Corran Horn - who I love. He tends to pop up in every book to say a few tough guy lines and then go off on his own mission. Ki-Adi-Mundi is the big prequel movie-era Boba Fett, he only has a few onscreen lines, but in the comic books and novels he's a bad ass Jedi Knight. After a fashion, Qui-Gon Jinn - Liam Nesson - has a Boba Fett tinge to him. Many major events or turning points were attributed to him because fans loved his one-hit-wonder character. A whole bevy of Pre-Prequels detail his life training young Obi-Wan and political dealings with that guy Terrence Stamp played.

Artemis Entreri from the Drizzt Do'urdern novels is a bad guy who just shows up to taunt people and then disappear from time to time. He was appeared up with equally Boba Fett-esque character Jaraxle - basically Drizzt's foil from eariler in his timeline!

Boba Fetts are common in most sci-fi and fantasy books. They need not be good guys or bad gals, but it's a correlation between fan interest or literature popularity that just doesn't mesh with the source text/movie. Boba Fetts are often linked to Small Universe Syndrome, where their presence becomes almost expected. I've heard fans say it's easier to name the Star Wars books Boba Fett is not in then to try and list them all. (But I'm sure Wookiepedia has one.)

So what do you folks think of Small Universe Syndrome? Is it inevitable with fan-purchased literature? Does it have to happen? Do you like it? Are there Boba Fetts you can think of in other franchises? Do you disagree with the concept? Let me know!

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