Thursday, January 10, 2008
Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire
Our book today is Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire by Michael Martin and Andy Mangels, and it's devilish hard going, truth be told.
Star Trek fiction has fallen on hard times just in general, and there's little can be done to remedy it. Paramount is gearing up for a rervivification of the entire franchise through a new movie (plans are already afoot for a new ongoing TV series, starring pretty much everbody it should never star but promising guest-appearances by what is now a sizeable population of Star Trek veterans), and so sanitization efforts are at a near-Lucas level of least-common-denominatoring.
Which is probably as good a reason as any why novels as relentlessly dumb as Forged in Fire so regularly appear. The fault can't lie elsewhere: the material - that unexplored era between the retirement of Captain James T. Kirk and the heyday of the Enterprise-B under the lily-livered command of Captain Baldy and his wimpy crew - is first-rate, essentially one protracted treatise on the lingering after-effects of the Age of Kirk. And at least part of the writing itself can't be faulted - Michael Martin is a stranger to us, but Andy Mangels we know from of old, and a smarter and more capable writer you could hardly find. The restrictions placed on the writing team by the corporate powers that be cannot be known but must be reckoned severe, if only because otherwise a writer like Andy Mangels wouldn't write a boring word to save his life.
As it is, Forged in Fire is an impossibly wooden affair, so ridiculously dependent on Trekker insider knowledge that no non-Star Trek fan could possibly derive a scintilla of enjoyment from it. And lest there be any non-Trekkers out there wondering about that sentence, let us assure you: there was once a time when Star Trek novels were written not only for fans but for general science fiction readers as well.
That time, in a book like Forged in Fire, seems very distant indeed. This book not only makes heavy-handed references to major and miniscule events in dozens of episodes of four different incarnations of Star Trek, it does so without contextualizing them at all (we defy a non-Trekker to read this book and have the first idea who 'Emony' is, for instance - we know, and Star Trek fans will know, but if nobody else knows, what kind of book can this possibly be?), and it goes even further: it also makes heavy-handed and uncontextualized references to Star Trek books. In other words, unless you've been assidulously keeping up with all things Star Trek, you don't have a targ's chance in Sto-Vo-Kor of understanding this novel.
Perhaps it's an awareness of this state of affairs that's led our two authors to endlessly explain and re-explain literally everything their characters say or do or are, as if to apologize for how egregiously they've left those readers out in the dark. But as a result, the average reader will find himself shuttling between saying 'I don't have any idea what you're talking about' and 'you've already told me that, many times.' It's like our authors - or their corporate overseers -don't think the average reader can retain any information at all for more than five or six pages. When Vulcan ambassador Sarek is first introduced, we're told all those things: he's Vulcan, he's an ambassador, and his name is Sarek. Even non-Trekkers who don't know that this is the Sarek, father of Mr. Spock, still have brains - and yet despite this, every single time Sarek reappears, we're helpfully told that he's a) the Vulcan b) ambassador c) Sarek. Every single time.
And what about Captain Sulu, that entirely spotlight-worthy figure who must necessarily be at the heart of any 'Star Trek - Lost Years' venture? Well, there's a scene in the book where he's wished a Happy New Year. Here's the finisher:
Sulu smiled gently. 'Ganjitsu,' he said, using the Japanese word for 'New Year's Day,' which never failed to make him think of the namesake border world he and his parents had lived for a few short years during his childhood.
Which might sound charming and picturesque, except that by the time that passage happens, we've already been told all of its ingredients - Ganjitsu, its Japanese meaning, the fact that it was the name of a colony world on which Sulu and his parents lived - five times. Let's clarify: Every time we're told anything about the childhood of Captain Sulu, we're told everything about the childhood of Captain Sulu. It's an impossibly tedious bind in which to put a reader, but then, our authors have a complicated story to tell.
The first matter of vital importance on which readers need to be briefed is Klingon knobs (hello Beepy! Thanks for joining us, but alas, it's not what you were hoping for). You see, in the original Star Trek series back in the '60s, the Klingons were for the most part made to look like a suburban bigot's caricature of Chinese Communists - they all dressed the same, and they were swarthy with bushy eyebrows. In the original series, Captain Kirk crossed swords with three main Klingons: Koloth, played by William Campbell, Kang, played by Michael Ansara, and Kor, played with malevolent fun by the great John Colicos.
OK, so far so good. The original series gets cancelled (despite some vigorous letter-writing campaigns), bleak times pass, and lo, 'Star Trek - The Motion Picture' debuted in theaters and opened with a scene featuring Klingons - only hold the phone! These Klingon had long manes of hair and knobs all over their foreheads! In taking advantage of the lavish special effects budget Paramount provided to make the Klingons look like aliens, the creators of the first Star Trek movie opened up a shit-can of problems for all the nerds to follow. Because, nerds being what they are, their first question would of course be: why did the first batch of Klingons we saw look different from the second? What happened in their society, or their genetics, to account for the change? The answer 'because the movie had a huge budget and the TV series didn't' is beyond the pale even to mention to such people - you must provide answers.
For a blissful period, the official world of Star Trek - that is, the movies and the TV shows - just blithely refused to do this. The third (and greatest) of the Star Trek movies, 'The Search for Spock,' featured loads of Klingons, including a very droll performance as the villain of the piece by Christopher Lloyd. The sixth movie also feature loads of Klingons, including a bonny villain-turn by Christopher Plummer ... but still no mention of the knobs. And by that point there was a Klingon showing up every week on the bridge of the Enterprise, no less (Lieutenant Worf, redoubtably played by Michael Dorn), all with no words spent on knobs.
But when knobgate broke, it was nerdishly bound to break big, and so it did: on 'Deep Space Nine,' Worf confronted the question directly, when the classic episode 'Trials and Tribble-lations' brought him and his comrades literally (well, digitally anyway) face to face with those old-style Klingons with their bushy eyebrows and sweaty faces. When faced with the confusions of his comrades, Worf clammed up, so fans had to wait a bit. Star Trek Voyager, in the meantime, made things ever so much worse.
In a very good episode called "Flashback," Voyager's security officer, 100-something-year old Vulcan Tuvok begins experiencing, you guessed it, flashbacks to his days as a callow youth serving aboard - to come full circle - the Excelsior of Captain Sulu. The show's producers scored a casting coup by getting the wonderful George Takei to reprise his role as Sulu, and as an added bonus, they got Michael Ansara, who played the Klingon Kang in the original series, to reprise that role as well. So there the two Star Trek veterans were, face to face again after all these years. Fan heaven, you'd think.
But you'd be wrong! And why? Because right there on Kang's head were knobs! So now not only did nerdy fans have to explain why post-original Klingons had knobs on their heads, they had to explain how it could be that one of those knobless Klingons subsequently managed to acquire them.
Early Star Trek novels had come up with a perfectly simple explanation: the Klingon Empire was large and encompassed many worlds - and many species. It made sense that soldiers would be volunteer - or be drafted - from many of those worlds - hence the difference in appearance. But that explanation goes right out the nearest airlock if the same guy first doesn't have knobs and then later does.
In other words, somebody now had a ripe, redolent job of explaining to do. And that task was made three times harder when the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine came out with a first-rate episode called 'Blood Oath.' The premise of the episode was pure gold: one of the crew of Deep Space Nine was Jadzia Dax (played with wooden incompetence by the unbelievably gorgeous Terry Farrell), a Trill whose sentient internal parasite (like everything else Star Trek, it's a long story) had been alive a century ago and shared a blood oath with - full circle again - Kang, Kor, and Koloth. The show's producers scored another casting coup - they got all three actors to reprise their Klingon roles (Colicos in particular is having a whale of time and acting everybody else under the table in the process) - all with knobs. So now it wasn't just Kang, it was everybody, and something needed to be done.
The writers of Star Trek Enterprise finally stepped into the breach; they fielded a two-part episode that struck the question head-on (so to speak): something about a genetic retro-virus, biological terrorism, et-cetera, et-cetera. As is customary in extended melodramas like this one, the eventual solution was tedium itself compared to the ruckus that originally caused it.
That was the root explanation Star Trek Enterprise came up with: somebody had created a retro-virus in a lab that had smoothed the knobs of every Klingon exposed to it (and of course, as is the way with retro-viruses, their children). That would account for why Kang, Kor, and Koloth would have looked the way they did when Captain Kirk first encountered them. The only question it would leave unanswered was how the dickens Klingons like Kor, Kang and Koloth got their knobs back.
That's where Forged in Fire comes in, and that's why it ought to work so much better than it does. This book tells the detailed story of the taking of that blood oath - by young Curzon Dax and the three Klingon commanders, Kang, Kor, and Koloth, in the heyday of Captain Sulu of the Excelsior.
Three great Klingon captains, a timeless blood-oath, a piecemeal-immortal Starfleet officer, one of Captain Kirk's legendary crew, the topicality of biological weapons and cosmetic bioengineering ... all the ingredients were assembled for great drama. And the really frustrating part of all this is that somebody like Andy Mangels, if given time and a free hand, could have made a great Star Trek novel out of this raw material (this isn't to put blame on Michel Martin at all, who might, for all we know, be just as clever as Mangels).
We believe what got in the way was corporate influence, probably with a touch of nerdy fan anality thrown in. Every single thing in the book is explained at length, which is fine if you're talking about warp-core dynamics but infuriating if you're talking about, say, the act of eating, or walking. Sulu is made to be the soul of geniality because Takei is the soul of geniality - but with the possible exception of Tom Jones, souls of geniality seldom make compelling central heroes. An older and wiser Doctor Christine Chapel provides some ersatz sass as a kind of Doctor McCoy stand-in (the Excelsior's own medical officer, Doctor Klass, is tantalizingly unrealized). We're told that Sulu's old comrade Pavel Chekhov will be joining the crew, but he doesn't show up for this novel (nor does Tuvok himself, also promised for later). Most of the new characters are water-weak cardboard-cutouts who couldn't maintain the interest of a small child. No, the salvation of the book, given its central plot, would have to be the three Klingons and Curzon Dax, a character so often mentioned on Deep Space Nine as a memorable curmudgeon that the reader of Forged in Fire might hope his presence would enliven proceedings. But no - despite a couple of verbal posturings, he's as wooden as the rest.
Here's a case in point: there's one scene two-thirds of the way through Forged in Fire where Curzon Dax is alone with these three great Klingon captains whose respect - even friendship - he's only just begun to win. While all four of them were being tortured by the bad guy (in a deliciously vicious scene we think was entirely the creation of Mangels), these big, gruff Klingons learned that the young man they were coming to like was a walking host to a sentient parasite centuries old. In this scene where they're all alone again for the first time, the Klingons reluctantly and awkwardly raise the question, and Kurzon tries to explain, and the scene falls flat. The scene falls flat. Give us a cup of dry red wine and one hour, and we could craft that scene in a way that would make it a song of embarrassment and culture clash and dry humor. And not just us alone: hundreds of Star Trek fans could write that scene with equal aplomb; Hell, Mangels could do it with ease. The fact that it doesn't happen - and that none of its counterpart scenes ever happen - is the singular strangulation of fanboy novels such as this. They not only rely entirely on nerdy minutiae, on virginal computer-dwellers who just want pieces of information there on the page, not drama, but they're also hampered by corporate 'suits' who've never read a science fiction novel and are only protecting a franchise.
There can't be any other explanation for why Star Trek fiction stinks so bad these days, why it's so wooden and self-referential. Forged in Fire feels very much like a trial balloon: it's possible there'll be other installments in the adventures of Captain Sulu. We can only hope they'll shake off their explanatory duties and breathe free, but the prospects are slim.