Image: From the cover of No Limits

If I were to rank Star Trek series—which I could spend the rest of my natural life debating myself on—I would have to include Peter David’s Star Trek: New Frontier in the list. Because these books are not only more consistently great than some Trek TV series, but than many TV shows, period. Minor spoilers ahead.

For those who don’t know, New Frontier is a series of novels by Peter David which were first published in 1997. The books mostly follow the adventures of the crew of the USS Excalibur as they patrol Sector 221-G, a part of space full of inhabited planets that used to be under the rule of a fallen empire. And they are is proof of how great expanded universes can be.

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Star Trek is an entire universe that, canon-wise, is mostly unexplored, We’ve seen some things done by four spaceship crew and one space station, with three of the series clustered in the 24th Century. That leaves a lot of space and time wide open for other writers to fill in the blanks. This is something a number of writers have done, some of them exceedingly well.

What makes New Frontier stand out is that it has basically the same conceit as one of the TV shows. It even included a few one-off characters from The Next Generation, anchoring the books in canon. But since the book’s crew were all either book-only characters or minor TV ones, the series had a lot of freedom.

Normally books set during TV series, involving TV characters, have to go back to the status quo at the end; nothing in the books can actually affect the characters or the universe, because then it would be easily contradicted by the show. New Frontier, by contrast, had the freedom to do anything it wanted with its characters: People got married, had kids, died, and—most unusually for Star Trek—got promoted onto other ships. Plus, the lack of TV constraints meant that characters could leave the ship permanently and still be followed by the story. Not confined by a TV show budget, New Frontier could be stuffed full of aliens, planets, action sequences, and other phenomena.

Image: The crew of the Excalibur as of Martyr (Book 5) and Fire on High (Book 6)

All of that freedom could have been a disaster if David hadn’t had such a strong grip on what he wanted New Frontier to be, and what he wanted it to be was as unrelentingly odd as The Original Series was. No one has ever sustained a balance high camp absurdity with real dramatic tension as well as David. The had one character declaring his prison cell an embassy and single-handedly fighting off a bunch of guards. And it culminated in a giant flaming bird hatching out of a planet—and if you thought that was too stupid a thing to ever work (thanks, “Kill the Moon”), not only does it work in context it also manages to work in a shout-out to Gene Roddenberry. And that isn’t even the best meta-joke in the series.

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By the time New Frontier was published, Deep Space Nine was owning ongoing serious drama in Trek while Voyager was managing to find whole new ways to hit the reset button. In the books, New Frontier was being weird and funny while also having a strong continuity and consistent character growth. Exhibit A) a character discovers that he’s in an experiment where the rules of Warner Brother cartoons have taken effect. An anvil even falls on his head. B) Everything that has to do with Soleta and her half-Vulcan, half-Romulan background.

That’s not to say that the books are perfect. As the series went on, the lack of constraints led to increasingly baroque plots, and the captain is so perfect he feels like a stealth parody of a Mary Sue—he even has purple eyes and semi-psychic abilities. Plus, his real name suffers from apostrophe abuse so intense (M’k’n’zy) that it should be the patron saint of this trope.

And yet none of the tropes David uses are fatal to the series. New Frontier is chock full of the stereotypical things Star Trek is famous for. You want crashing and exploding shuttles? Beam-outs? Aliens who act as gods? You got it. If anything, these are features, not bugs. It’s proof that Star Trek can stay recognizable and not be boring.

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Star Trek: New Frontier did something really great while confined by the Star Trek that was on TV, and it filled a gap in the universe that you didn’t even realize was there. And it did it all while being fun and smartly written. If you haven’t read it yet, pick up the books. It’ll fill the Star Trek-shaped hole in your life better than just about anything else.