My nice, neat plans for a rundown of Star Trek novels have once again been complicated by the Silent Majority! First they demanded that I backtrack and talk a little about all those fanzines I mentioned, the ones that started cropping up even while the original series was on the air. That forced me to relive some gruesome memories (it’s just possible I was involved in the production of some of those fanzines), and it added not one iota of information about Star Trek novels – but I do as I’m bid, and those things did contain the first Star Trek fiction ever written outside the series itself, so there was at least the semblance of justification.
And if I couldn’t resist the Silent Majority over something like that, how much less can I resist this new complication, this call that I give attention to the written versions of the episodes? After all, most people in the universe never saw any of those fanzines when they were being made (ah, the grandiose schemes we had, to increase readership! I declare, no matter what kind of publication you’re involved with, everything always comes down to increasing readership) – whereas the twelve volumes of script-adaptations done by James Blish (and completed after his death by his wife Judith Lawrence) were the first genuine successes in the history of Star Trek publication. All of them became genre bestsellers, often out-selling their Asimovian competitors so handily that one New York publisher used to browbeat his stable of authors by yelling, “Jaysus Mary and Joseph, you’re gettin’ beat by a cancelled TV show here!”
Not quite any cancelled TV show, as its growing legions of fans were beginning to demonstrate even as early as 1969, when the last of the original episodes aired. They wanted more, and they were mostly bookish types in the first place – only natural that they would seize on any Star Trek books the instant they appeared. James Blish was tapped to write up the TV scripts (often he had nothing else to go on – no interviews, no film footage), and he did the first volume with his customary hack’s reliability: it was on deadline and at length, and pretty much all it did was adapt seven scripts: “Balance of Terror,” “Charlie X” (originally called “Charlie’s Law”), “The Conscience of the King,” “Dagger of the Mind,” “Man Trap” (originally called “The Unreal McCoy”), and “The Naked Time.”
Fans loved it – they bought that first paperback (with the cover that used the studio’s original ad-poster, complete with Mr. Spock’s green skin – a special effect that, mercifully, proved too expensive to do every week on TV) and kept buying it: it was the first screen-to-print adaptation to rack up any kind of sales numbers and one of the first science fiction paperbacks to pass the 100,000-copy mark in terms of sales. And Paramount Pictures listened – oh, they didn’t listen well, mind you. If they’d listened well, they’d have hauled the cast and crew back into the studio, immediately begun filming Season 4, and then listened to all those book-buying fans and given the show a nice stable berth in the weekly schedule – Wednesdays at 9, say. If they’d listened that well, the original Star Trek might have gone on to seven or even ten seasons, and we’d all be living in an entirely different reality right now.
But the studio did listen well enough to tell Blish he had a steady job, and in due course more Star Trek volumes appeared – and they all sold instantly. In a little drugstore in small-town Iowa – the kind of shop where the paperback books were sold in one of those metal spinner-racks that squeaked really loud whenever you turned it – their copies of Star Trek 1, 2, & 3 sold so fast the clerk had to re-order not just the books themselves but the re-order forms! Since the scripts were studio property (despite some of them having been written by fairly well-known sci fi authors) and Blish was paid a standard flat-rate fee, these unassuming little books quickly began generating substantial profits.
Movie studios are inherently evil conglomerates, so Paramount mostly just gobbled up those profits. But they funnelled a bit of money back into the series that was generating it all: they prettied up the covers of the books. To this day, the covers of some of those first twelve Star Trek script-volumes stand as some of the most vibrant and evocative sci-fi covers of the era, often lurid and exotic in their lighting and viewing angles, as though exulting in their freedom from TV-budget restraints. These were as far from the dot-matrix photo-reproductions of those early fanzines as you could get: for the first time, fans could see the Star Trek they’d always imagined, the one that had always existed for them side-by-side with the plywood TV sets and the salt-shakers doing double-duty as futuristic medical scanners.
And Blish warmed to his task. He was still sticking to his original guidelines (roughly 30 pages per episode), but his descriptions became more detailed, and although he couldn’t really deviate from the action or dialogue in the scripts, he more and more often – at the pleading of the fans who wrote him letters by the thousands – threw in little descriptive flourishes. They weren’t much, but to starving fans, they were delightful. One example: in his adaptation of the great second-season episode “The Ultimate Computer” (the script was by the mighty Dorothy Fontana, with a technical assist from Laurence Wolfe), at the tense moment in which the Enterprise, helplessly controlled by the super-computer M-5, deviates from its course in order to hunt-and-destroy an old automated freighter (thereby revealing to a horrified Kirk & co. that the machine isn’t fully under the control of its ersatz-wunderkind designer):
The Woden was an old, lumbering spaceship, clearly on her last enfeebled legs. As a threat, she was a joke to the galaxy. Moving slowly but gallantly in deference to the rejuvenating influences of automation, she was a brave old lady trying to function with steel pins in a broken hip.
OK, so it’s not exactly Ursula LeGuin – the line, for instance, should clearly be “as a threat to the galaxy, she was a joke,” and that use of “deference” isn’t quite right either – but for fans who’d had nothing, it was something, it was the investiture of an at least rudimentary level of narrative into the scripts they could so often recite from memory.
There were only just so many of those scripts, however, and eventually Blish and his wife ran out of them. A few years before that happened, however, Paramount, awakened at least to the possibility of making money off such titles, authorized Alan Dean Foster to novelize the scripts of the Star Trek half-hour animated series. Foster published Star Trek Log One in 1974, adapting three of those half-hour cartoons: “One of Our Planets is Missing,” “Beyond the Farthest Star,” and the bittersweet “Yesteryear” (the best of the animated episodes by a wide, wide margin – written by the aforementioned Dorothy Fontana). Despite the fact that the animated series was in general a pale and hokey sliver of the live-action series that preceded it, Star Trek Log One promptly sold a squintillion copies, and over the next four years, Foster wrote up adaptations of all the animated episodes. His adaptations never failed to improve on the originals, giving them character, depth, and continuity and working miracles with some very, very derivative stuff (more tribbles, more meetings with gods, more time-travel, etc).
And his adaptations quickly got longer than anything Blish had ever done. In Foster’s early volumes, each 20-minute cartoon episode got roughly 70 pages of prose treatment, but by the time he was writing the final volumes, that ratio had expanded considerably – indeed, the entire lengths of Logs eight and nine are devoted to a single 20-minute episode apiece. Foster had the ravenous support of Star Trek fans everywhere for any and all license he needed to take in doing these herculean feats of gaseous expansion, and although he shared much in common with James Blish as a writer (in both cases, Paramount had wisely chosen to go with a good-enough and utterly reliable author instead of a great and flighty one), the difference in how he viewed the breadth of his brief was obvious from the first page of the first Log:
Veil of stars.
Veil of crystal.
On the small viewscreen the image of the Milky Way glittered like powdered sugar fused to black velvet.
Here in the privacy of the captains cabin on board the Enterprise, James T. Kirk had at fingertip’s call all the computerized resources of an expanding, organized galactic Federation in taped and microfilmed form. Art, music, painting, sculpture, kinetology, science, history, philosophy – the memory banks of the great starship held enough material to satiate the mind of any civilized being. Satisfy and fulfill him whether in the mood for matter profound or trivial, fleeting or permanent, whether curious about the developments of yesterday or those as old as time itself.
Yet, now, in this particular off-hour, the man responsible for guiding the Enterprise safely through the multitude of known hazards and an infinitude of imagined ones that lay strewn throughout space – when he could have devoted his thoughts to little things of no importance and rested his mind – chose instead to study a smaller though no less awesome version of the same scene he was compelled to view so many times from the commander’s chair on the bridge of the starship.
His eyes strayed idly to the lower corner of the screen. Gossamer thing threads of crimson and asure marked a spectacular nebula of recent origin – flaming headstone marking the grave of some long vanished star …
To put it mildly, that’s certainly not James Blish penning those words. Fans ate it up, and by this point they had guaranteed the continuation of their own feeding in the only way that ever guarantees such things: they put their money where their mouth-breathing was. Paramount listened, and suddenly the path was smoothed for more Star Trek fiction. What would follow would be an almost mind-numbing profusion of titles and concepts, and these shall be our mission: to boldly read where no one single blog has read before!
One thing we won’t be reading must surely count as the biggest money-making blunder the print division of any movie studio has ever made: there are no books of those original TV live-action episodes. Even now, fifty years later, those two final volumes of Alan Dean Foster’s – the last two Logs in which a single TV episode apiece is fully dramatized in prose – represent the only time that innovation was allowed. Once the concept of Star Trek fiction had proven itself profitable, if Paramount had gone to the authors of those original live-action scripts and said, “Look, if you agree to write this up as a novel – throw in as much extra stuff as you want, these nutty fans love that kind of crap – we’ll pay you the going rate and publish it,” they’d have gotten a long line of enthusiastic “yes”s. A line of such novels – perhaps with a cover-painting of some scene from the episode, perhaps the the actual script in an appendix – would have sold nicely. Hell, a much, much longer line of such novels (including all the TV-incarnations that have appeared since) would sell well even now. But as far as I know, it’s never even been considered – and bare approximations have been tried only twice. “Do me a favor, Mr. Spock,” poor Dr. McCoy says at one point, “and don’t call it fascinating.” But Spock would certainly have added: it is interesting.
Still, might-have-beens shall delay us no longer! Now that we’ve covered TV-adaptations, I trust I have everyone’s permission to move on to novels at last? We’ll begin with the small group of ‘pre-canon’ novels – in our next thrilling installment!