We last left Star Trek fiction in a state of what the show’s techno-babble experts might call ‘temporal flux.’ After a long period wandering in the wilderness (sustained only by the manna of sometimes spotty and often manic fan fiction, fanzines, and fan conventions), the old cancelled TV show had at last reached the promised land of a big-screen Hollywood movie, and although reviews of that movie were decidedly mixed (as were reviews of the Gene Roddenberry novelization), it unleashed a shock wave into Trek continuity that changed everything. Before that movie, the fanzines could speculate all they liked about the future of our beloved U.S.S. Enterprise and its valiant crew, but all we knew was what the three seasons of the original TV series had shown us. That series showed us neither the beginning of Captain James T. Kirk’s five-year mission in deep space nor, more importantly, its ending. There was all the room in the galaxy to wonder what those familiar characters were doing – most fans imagined an endless sequence of planet-hopping adventures, and most fans imagined nothing more.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (movie and book) shattered the static peace of such a situation, and it did this by bringing one previously minor element to the fore: time. In the original series, characters had pasts (Spock served for a long time with the Enterprise‘s former captain, for instance, and Kirk and Scotty, we knew, had had many service postings before they joined the ship), so time was always a background note. But in the new movie, we’re dunked in it: years have passed since the time of the original show’s setting. When the movie opens, Kirk has taken a desk job at Starfleet, and both Spock and McCoy have left the service – and perhaps more importantly, the whole world of those original TV adventures is over: the captain is an admiral, the bridge crew is visibly older, the celebrated five-year mission is completed … time has passed, and unlike in so many sci-fi series, it’s passed inside the story, not just outside it.
Fans were slow to adopt this new reality – not just because they weren’t in any way finished with the old reality but also because they weren’t alone in this new one: they had corporate suits as company. Paramount had invested a lot of money in STTMP and its various movie tie-in products – and investments need to be watched by trained, responsible adults. Suddenly Star Trek was too important to be left in the hands of the people who’d safeguarded it all those hopeless years: the fans.
This very much extended to the series of Star Trek novels that was given renewed energy (and funding) with the launch of the movie. The movie could clearly stand as the beginning of a franchise, which meant, among other things, that corporate creatures who knew nothing about Star Trek would now have the authority to dictate the very parameters of the concept. You can tell by the book-covers: the drawings of our familiar characters are patterned (traced?) on the appearances in the movie – older, weather-beaten, clearly no longer the same people who went on all those original adventures.
A new fictional reality obtained. From a corporate standpoint, the first movie in a new franchise establishes the shape of that reality, the tenor, everything. In STTMP, our heroes re-unite to save the Earth from an alien space probe of awesome power. They succeed, and they all decide to stay on the newly-refitted Enterprise and head out for more space-adventures. In Paramount’s consideration, those future adventures will be movie-adventures, so writers of Star Trek books now faced two huge obstacles: they had to set their novels in the new ‘present’ of the movies, and they couldn’t radically change things without having corporate suits shutting the whole thing down.
Two of the earliest of these new Trek novels didn’t quite manage to clear either of these obstacles. mainly because they were written by the writing team least likely to adapt to this radical new reality. Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath had been among the original organizing forces behind written Star Trek adventures – they were gathering fan fiction, polishing fan fiction, and essentially writing fan fiction long before there seemed to be any hope of such fiction ever having a market, and so their roots were deep in the fanzine world – which, as we’ve seen, could get a little rough. In the early 1980s, Marshak and Culbreath wrote two books – The Prometheus Design and Triangle – that could fairly be called the last Star Trek fanzine stories ever published. The characters might have been wearing those periwinkle new uniforms on the covers, but these stories belonged to an earlier era.
That earlier era had some defining writing-tics. It was fond of racy sadomasochism, for instance – characters are frequently either naked or tortured or tortured while naked. It was also fond of Spock-worship, making the Enterprise‘s half-Vulcan science officer into a kind of super-powered demi-god who routinely through the rest of the crew into the shade. These things are true in both these novels – Spock (and, in The Prometheus Design, the Vulcan admiral Savaj) is repeatedly shown to be much stronger and faster than Kirk and his fellow humans, but unlike in all future variations of Trek (where the fact that Vulcans are much stronger than humans is still true), in the world of these novels, Spock’s Vulcan strength always seems to matter more than it should. Fan fiction was also enamored of the idea that Spock’s suppressed emotions were always on the verge of breaking free; Marshak and Culbreath did more than anybody to create that idea, and they’re doggedly faithful to it in these pages, where Spock is always coldly furious (a faint echo of this tic lasted for decades and turned up in Tim Russ’ portrayal of Commander Tuvok onStar Trek: Voyager, as we’ll see).
In The Prometheus Design, the Enterprise is threatened by a race of super-beings who are using sentient life throughout the galaxy in an enormous experiment involving aggression and risk. The ship has been commandeered by Admiral Savaj and placed under the command of Mr. Spock, both Vulcans having decided that poor, human Kirk is too weak to withstand the aliens’ influence. Fans of Trek fiction – especially present-day fans who’ve been spoon-fed corporately-vetted Trekkie-baby food for twenty years – have always found the undertones of this stuff unpalatable, and I admit, our authors lay it on a bit thick in this book, contriving their plot in such a way that not only does Spock spend a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting that he’s wearing) large prosthetic horns on his forehead, but Kirk spends a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting he’s wearing) a virginal white speedo and nothing else. But the fans who complain about Marshak and Culbreath’s oft-displayed willingness to humiliate Kirk aren’t reading far enough into the novels – these authors are at their best in celebrating the inner qualities of their heroes, the inner conflicts that make them who they are, as even Savaj is forced to admit in one nifty scene in which he confronts the super-aliens:
“Why do the subjects choose to return to the danger-aggression zones?” Savaj asked very clearly.
Trath stopped in midstride and turned to look at Savaj.
“Is it possible,” Savaj asked, “that the greatness cannot exist without the violence?”
“Who has raised with you such questions?” Trath said dangerously.
“I have,” Savaj said. “We have.” He indicated Kirk. “They are implied in the oldest fire myth of these Humans’ world.” He nodded then toward Spock. “This one, bred to their world and born to mine, went out to the stars to investigate the duality of his heritage, and his soul, in the zone of danger – and greatness. This one” – he indicated McCoy – “is a born healer who chooses to fight death in the battle zone. The three together may be a lesson neither I nor my world has yet learned fully.”
That same inquest is very much taking place in Marshak & Culbreath’s next novel, the much-mocked Triangle, in which Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew are caught in an invisible war between two group-mind entities, each one determined to co-opt these starship crewpeople, the foremost avatars of rugged individuality. Both the Oneness and the Totality try to practice mind-control on various crew members, and Kirk and Spock are distracted by the arrival of Sola Thane, an alluring Federation Free Agent who (here we go again) has the authority to relieve Kirk of his command and take over the Enterprise herself – and our two heroes aren’t just distracted by her power-play: they’re also both attracted to her, setting up the lust-triangle of the book’s title. That part of the plot is more than faintly ridiculous, and yet Triangle is full of the break-neck action and exotic scenes that are these authors’ signature – and again, the inner qualities of heroism and individuality are the things ultimately being celebrated here:
“Why?” Kirk asked suddenly. “Why should plurality and diversity mean enmity? Even we singletons have learned friendship, love – a oneness which does not have to mean Oneness. For us, at least, Oneness means the end of the unique entity – dehumanizing, depersonalizing loss of identity. But our kind of oneness” – he gestured toward Sola and Spock – “is a celebration of individual identity, of difference. There is no love, passion, no friendship, no ultimate personal choice which does not depend on the unique, irreplaceable one. It is what we would miss in Oneness, and why we have fought against you with our lives.”
That kind of stuff may be dorky, but there’s an unapologetic grandeur to it as well – a boldness and a willingness to grapple with big ideas, all the mongrel energy of the old fanzines and decked out in new uniforms (and sporting footnotes – our writing team loved annotating their references). The small canon of Marshak and Culbreath – a short story in The New Voyages 2, The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, and these two novels – is fairly small, and much as I love these books (I re-read them all far more often than I re-read any other Star Trek fiction), I realize it couldn’t ever have been much bigger. If the cautious, corporate exponents we saw last time – lifeless things like The Abode of Life – represented one path Star Trek fiction could take as it expanded into the strange new world of successful franchise-support, The Prometheus Design and Triangle represented another path, equally untenable: from this point on, fan fiction must go back underground where it began, and Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath disappear from the Star Trek story.
But they laid the groundwork for a third way before they disappeared. In the wake of the big movie (and borne aloft by the subsequent ones), Star Trek fiction was now a vital, paying concern – it wouldn’t take long for such a venue to attract writers who not only embraced the new fictional reality of the movies but also embraced the need – the freedom – to move well beyond the hell-bent shoot-em-ups of our retiring team, however entertaining those shoot-em-ups were.
Star Trek fiction so far had known passionate amateurs and dispassionate professionals. Up next: the passionate professionals!