The long hoped-for explosion of Star Trek – The Motion Picture sent out shockwaves that would make the explosion of the Klingon moon Praxis look like a New Hampshire firecracker. Suddenly, everything about both Star Trek and Star Trek fiction had changed, and the writers of the latter found themselves scrambling to catch all the whizzing and bouncing ramifications. And as we’ve noted, those writers weren’t alone in their endeavors anymore: STTMP had turned an obscure, cancelled network TV show into a multimillion-dollar property, with abundant ancillary licensing rights that Paramount Pictures took very seriously – not artistically, mind you, but as a source of revenue. It took about a nanosecond for the powers that be at Paramount to realize that their Star Trek movie could also be the start of a franchise, and when you’re supporting a franchise, consistency becomes everything … grey, lockstep consistency.
A key pillar of that consistency was of course the new continuity established by the movie itself. In that new continuity, our familiar Enterprise characters are no longer young – they’re distinctly middle-aged, and they’ve already gone on their famous five-year-mission to seek out new life and new civilizations. They’ve come back from that mission, split up, experienced utterly undocumented ‘lost years’ (like Jesus!), then reunited to save Earth itself from a super-powerful space-probe. At the end of that first movie, our crew is cleaned up, outfitted in ridiculous space-pajamas, and sent off into space to have, we presume, new adventures. When you think about it for even two seconds, you realize what an utterly impossible burden it is for any new novel to bear.
Who are these people, now? What have they gone through, about which we know nothing? At the beginning of STTMP, Spock and McCoy have both resigned from Starfleet, for Pete’s sake, and Kirk has taken a desk-job, which is almost worse. Any novelist with even a speck of imagination (in later years, this would rule out many Star Trek novelists, alas) is going to look at the set-up for STTMP and immediately think the same thing some of us thought while we were sitting in the movie theater watching it for the first time: something happened to this crew, something at or around the end of that five-year mission, something deeply and profoundly personal and traumatic. But no Star Trek writer was allowed to ask that question, let alone answer it – such things were ex cathedra until such a time as a big-screen Star Trek movie clarified them (many’s the time I myself have sat down and started to write that novel – Mission’s End was always my working title, and I knew exactly which original-series character I’d need to make the whole thing gel … but then I’d always remember the fugitive state of Star Trek fiction)(I should dust off my notes and post the whole thing on Fanfiction.net). Instead, those writers were handed a nascent ‘book’ of the new franchise, a rule book of things they were and were not allowed to do.
Is it any wonder, then, that most of those earliest novel-adventures weren’t particularly satisfying? True, Paramount and Pocket Books started off the new, official run of books on the best possible foot: they got the mighty Vonda McIntyre to write the novel that came out directly after Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of the movie itself. McIntyre hit the ground running with that novel, The Entropy Effect, giving us not only a couple of memorably drawn Enterprise crew members (and throwing in what is surely Star Trek‘s first – and only? – mention of The Tale of Genji) but also a female ship’s captain named Hunter, a character so popular half a dozen other Star Trek novelists have name-dropped her over the years. The Entropy Effect revolves around a former teacher of Mr. Spocks’s who now appears to be a dangerous criminal whose experiments in space-time have warped the nature of reality – and caused, among other things, the unthinkable:
The turbo lift doors opened. Pavel [Chekov] stopped whistling.
Mr. Spock walked onto the bridge, and Uhura knew immediately, with an overwhelming wave of despair, that everything had gone terribly wrong.
Without a word, Spock stepped down to the lower level of the bridge. He stopped for a moment, and then he sat in the captain’s seat.
Uhura clenched her long fingers. She had an irrational urge to leap up and run away from her post, to a place where she would not have to hear what Mr. Spock was about to say.
But Spock had opened the emergency paging circuits: when he spoke, everyone on the Enterprise would hear him. There was nowhere to run. Pavel turned around: he too sensed disaster and his face had paled to a sickly shade.
The silence and the tension increased.
Spock closed his hooded eyes, opened them again, and gazed straight ahead.
“This is Commander Spock.”
He hardly ever refers to himself by his rank, Uhura thought, only by his position, science officer, first officer –
“It is my duty to tell you that a few minutes ago, James T. Kirk, captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, died …”
Under the new circumstances, the book is better than it has any right to be, but it’s nonetheless handicapped by its own vague back-story. At no point in the narrative do readers feel like they’re watching the new, movie-versions of these old characters; despite the silly costumes our heroes are wearing on the book’s cover, the contents feel like they could just as easily apply to 1962 as 1982.
And talk about jarring covers! The cover of Robert Vardeman’s The Klingon Gambit makes a new precedent: it’s just a painting of one of the new-style Klingon warships from the original move – no Enterprise, no Starfleet heroes – just the bad guys. In Vardeman’s largely uninspired book, a marauding Klingon warship seems to have slaughtered a group of Vulcan scientists on a distant planet – and perhaps unleashed a new weapon designed to work like an intoxicant. That latter old chestnut of a device gives license for our characters to be wildly out of character without prompting every reader from here to Argelius to cry fowl. The action turns out to be ploddingly predictable, and in between pokey action scenes we get excruciating out-of-character sequences involving everybody on board the Enterprise, as when Kirk interrupts his own staff meeting to catch Lieutenant Uhura daydreaming:
“What were you thinking about, Lieutenant? A few minutes ago.”
Uhura looked at the table, a shy smile on her lips. “I was thinking about Doctor M’Benga. Isn’t he handsome?”
Several around the table suppressed laughs. A cold stare from Kirk stilled them. “I see nothing funny in Lt. Uhura’s reply. I asked her a question and I received an honest response. You all know your duties. Go about them. Dismissed.”
Kirk watched his senior officers depart. A cold shiver raced up and down his spine. He felt control of his ship slipping from his grasp, and he didn’t know why.
Readers will know the feeling, on display yet again in Howard Weinstein’s The Covenant of the Crown, in which Spock and McCoy are stranded on a bleak distant planet with the vivacious young heiress to that world’s throne, and they all have to survive long enough to see her come to power. On some level, Weinstein must have known he was writing a strictly average roughing-it adventures story (and one that for long stretches could just as easily feature Flash Gordon and Dale Arden as Spock and McCoy), but he has the dilithium crystals to stake out the loyalty high ground in his Author’s Note:
Gene Roddenberry did a wonderful job of creation, and we have done a wonderful job of being loyal, creative, and critical fans. We managed to keep Star Trek alive through the years of struggling to bring it back, and through whatever disappointments the movie or the other books may have caused.
He’s daring you to tell him that his novel is disappointing, and to be fair, some parts of it aren’t; the book’s main action is both tedious and predictable, but Weinstein manages to work in some interesting ‘character’ moments during the quiet bits:
McCoy had met his wife at a square dance the summer after his first year in medical school. They’d walked down the road that led away from the old Simpson barn, on the dust and gravel still warm from a day filled with sultry July sunshine. By the time they’d reached the cool sweet air of the woods and sat on the bed of pine needles and kissed, he’d suspected he might be in love. Across the hills, they’d watched the freighters and shuttles lift off, headed out to orbital stations around the globe – that had been their excuse for the walk, that and getting away from the noise and bustle of the dance – but the launches weren’t all that frequent, and they’d had lots of time to chat and spark.
There was a great old word – sparkin’. He sighed again, and remembered where he was now. What’s it all worth in the end, anyway?
That last line is a dead give-away that the author knows he’s dealing with an older version of McCoy but isn’t sure of much else. Weinstein would go on to write a good deal of Star Trek, but this first novel can’t help but raise the same questions the others raise: who are these crew members? How might they have changed with time and unrevealed experiences? And one more question, perhaps, that many of us were asking as soon as we walked out of the movie theater that first time: is this it? We worked and dreamed and strained to get our original crew back together, to make Enterprise fly again, and this is what we get? Planet-of-the-week adventures, like the least imaginative instalments of the old TV show? Somehow, it began to feel anti-climactic. By surviving and being reborn in a bigger format, Star Trek somehow seemed made now for bigger things, and this wasn’t it. Instead, this was too often feeling like reheated James Blish, as was certainly the case with Lee Correy’s novel The Abode of Life, in which a crippled Enterprise limps into orbit around a distant world full of isolationists who don’t believe in extraterrestrial life. The thing had one of the most unintentionally hilarious covers of any Star Trek novel before or since, a lethally dull title, and an opening paragraph that seemed designed to stop even die-hard fans from reading any further:
“May I call to your attention, Captain, that our present course takes us disturbingly near the reported gravitational turbulence reported by Federation ships in this sector of the Orion Arm?” As usual, Spock was both punctilious and logically correct in his assessment of the situation.
Once upon a time, Star Trek fans would have forced down prose like that, a do-nothing novel like this, out of simple hunger: we had no TV show adventures anymore, and we were desperate to keep this imaginative universe alive. But the arrival of the Star Trek movie signalled a fundamental change: Star Trek was back, and some of us couldn’t help but feel (perhaps without even articulating it to ourselves at the time) that some deep aspect of the game had changed. Of course at the time we had no idea how right that feeling was – as mentioned before, a new element had been introduced into Star Trek, and it had the potential to change everything about the concept. That element was time – we now had glimpses of the Enterprise crew in two different times in their lives. It seemed like a tiny detail at first, but it wouldn’t stay that way.
And in the meantime, we would hurry to Trow’s bookstore for the latest Star Trek novel, troop our beagles back home to consume it, and as often as not feel disappointed in a way that even the rankest fanzine had never made us feel. These books may be Star Trek in look and label, but far too frequently their heart was missing.
Fortunately, help was on the way! And at first, it would come from a very familiar source.