Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Star Trek Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru

Our book today is a Star Trek Enterprise novel called Kobayashi Maru. It's written by Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin, and as any Star Trek fan will immediately recognize, it's about a very memorable doomed little ship.

That ship is not, as some wags might have it, the Enterprise herself, specifically the ship under the command of Captain Jonathan Archer as portrayed in the late lamented TV show, the first incarnation of the Star Trek franchise to get cancelled since the original. One might think that cancellation would leave an ordure of failure on the series' four seasons, but they actually make for some fine viewing. The series flailed around a bit at its beginning (as series tend to do), but even from the beginning it boasted a strong acting cast and some fine bigger issues to play with. It lacked the grandeur that characterized the concluding seasons of Deep Space Nine, and of course it lacked the fantastic premise of Star Trek Voyager, but it also gained something from the fledgling fallibility of its heroes - here was an starship Enterprise that wasn't so incredibly powerful that writers needed to confront it with gods (Apollo in the original series, Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Caretaker in Star Trek Voyager): ordinary alien vessels could - and often did - kick the crap out of poor Enterprise. Her captain and crew had to be quicker on their feet - her engineer always trying to improve on the relatively primitive technology with which they first venture into space, her armory officer always trying to put more bite in her meager arsenal, her Vulcan science officer always trying to make sense of this strange species called humans.

The main problem Enterprise faced was timing: the original series already had so many firsts. Captain Kirk was the youngest person ever to command a starship, so the Enterprise producers couldn't cast Milo Ventimiglia as the first captain. Spock was the first Vulcan to serve in Starfleet, so increasingly contorted ways had to be found to have a Vulcan serving on the bridge without having that Vulcan actually be in Star Fleet. And so many of the mysterious beings and situations the original ship and crew encountered were previously unknown ... it seemed to leave little for the Enterprise captain and crew to do.

The writers found lots of inventive ways to get around this, and then they finally settled on the best way: this incarnation of Star Trek should be all about showing us the history of all the others - and it should remind us, on a weekly basis, that history is exciting, and that it's made by ordinary flesh-and-blood people doing sometimes extraordinary things. The show's fourth season did that admirably well, indulging in multi-part episodes and giving fans treat after treat. It's a shame the show was canceled; it had a lot more ground to cover and lots more interesting stories to tell.

The Kobayashi Maru is one of those stories, and it's ingenious to connect it to Enterprise and the era of Jonathan Archer (oh! if only this had been an episode of the show!). As mentioned, all Star Trek fans will recognize the name of Starfleet's legendary no-win scenario: the Kobayashi Maru, a stricken vessel calling for help in the middle of hostile territory, with the Enterprise the only vessel nearby. Doing nothing means consigning the Maru and her crew to death; attempting a rescue means crossing the Neutral Zone and entering Klingon territory.

At the time, we'd all be lulled to sleep by Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and maybe we'd forgotten how thrilling the original series could be, even on a spit-and-styrofoam budget. But then Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came to theaters, and fans were very vigorously reminded of all the reasons why they loved the show in the first place and fought for its survival. And the opening of that movie (what many Trek fans still consider the best one) showed us a combat-retrofitted Enterprise bridge, populated by all our old familiar crew but presided over from the captain's chair by a Vulcan-looking woman.

That woman hears the distress call, decides to attempt a rescue, and gets her bridge blown apart for her troubles. One by one, we see our old heroes fall to the deck, apparently killed, as the Vulcan woman becomes more and more rattled. Then the simulation ends, the practice-room is opened up to a flood of light from the outside, and an older, more wizened Admiral Kirk starts to tease Captain Spock over the fact that all of his training cadets 'died' in the simulation. In the course of The Wrath of Khan, we're informed that James Kirk is the only person who ever beat the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario.

That's all a hundred years in the future, however, as far as this novel is concerned. What's happening now in Kobayashi Maru is some truly excruciating prose.

"Duh," you might say: "It's a Star Trek novel, for pete's sake! Of course the prose is excruciating." But this isn't necessarily so. There have been good Star Trek novels. But what Kobayashi Maru represents in our little science fiction troika here, is the pinnacle of corporate interference in an adaptation's actual prose. With The Last Days of Krypton, the interference was minimal - Superman Returns was something of a box office disappointment, after all. With Jedi Twilight, the interference was extensive but relatively benign - once you check in with the weird, crazy spider at the heart of the web, you're free to write more or less what you want. But Star Trek is about to relaunch as a gazillion-dollar franchise with a 'hot' director and more fan anticipation than Jesus. A whole new string of movies, a tribble-like explosion of marketing tie-ins, possibly even a new TV series .... so suddenly, the network and its parent studio are paying attention to everything Star Trek. And that attention can be summed up in one word: careful.

Kobayashi Maru is a mind-bogglingly careful book. Nothing is ever said about anything ever without eighty qualifiers; every emotion is first stated then quibbled away to nothing; words and words and words flow, but virtually nothing happens. There are more adverbs in this one book than in most dictionaries. And the result is always ridiculous. Take a scene in which the embryonic Federation Council is arguing amongst itself. Here's what one member says in opposition to a proposal from Earth:

"The Andorian government does not require the permission of Earth, or the Coalition for that matter, to take whatever action we deem justifiable and prudent in the face of this grave danger."

And here's how it's characterized:

Remaining in his seat, Samuels made an admirable display of equanimity in the face of such vehement opposition.

Vehement opposition. Whatever action we deem justifiable and prudent. See? I'm giggling just a little even now.

The homeliest turns of phrase abound in this book, and the careful, careful prose drags in so much instant, pointless recapitulation that the reader is bombarded with recaps of every single thing that happens, right while it's happening. It's like stereotypical high school composition prose, only the writers are overdoing it and getting paid fairly well. Just look this - you haven't seen this much mincing since the last Granny Cook-Off:

Facing front and leaning forward toward the helm, she said, "What's our ETA at Alpha Centauri?" She knew she probably sounded like a child asking "Are we there yet?" But given her current lack of sleep, as well as her preoccupation with Jonathan Archer's long-shot attempt to avert a seemingly inevitable war with the Klingons and/or the Romulans, she regarded it as a minor miracle that she sounded even halfway coherent.

Nevermind that we've already been told several times within six paragraphs that the character is lacking sleep; nevermind that the whole scene takes place right in the middle of the plotline about a possible war with the Klingons and the Romulans ... just look at the stultifying words themselves: current lack of sleep, seemingly inevitable, and/or, minor miracle, halfway coherent. It's practically schizophrenically bad.

A split-personality diagnosis would seem to flow naturally from the fact that the book is co-authored, especially since Andy Mangels is usually a talented, funny, snarky writer who wouldn't write lethally boring prose like that to save his life. His fans might naturally finger this Michael Martin character as the guilty party, the one throwing in all those counteractive adverbs and gumming up the prose.

The real culprit, though, is probably CBS Studios and their army of ad-marketing people. Probably some feckless, sunglassed drone was assigned to vet this book and neuter everything that moves. Or maybe our two authors were given extensively stringent "guidelines" for what they could and couldn't write, and how they could go about it. In the end, that's the charitable explanation. It means some studio rule book was ultimately responsible for this bland, lifeless concoction. If it's not true, if the writers themselves are to blame, well - any writer, no matter how talented, can lay the occasional egg (picture Homer's agent: "Homey, Homey! The Iliad? I'm there! The Odyssey? Boffo stuff! But these Hymns? Couldn't sell them to my mother ..."). And if it is true, let's all pray to the Great Bird of the Galaxy that all such studio hacks were banned from the set of the new movie, or we're all going to have to sleep through another The Motion Picture before we get to the good stuff.


Beepy said...

Welcome back. What a wonderful review!

I have to ask though...there was an older Star Trek book called "Kobayashi Maru", right? I seem to remember Sulu figured heavily, right? Is that one any good?

Greg said...

Steve, whaddaya think about novels for the more recent Star Trek series; Next Generation, DS9, Voyager?

There's Ship of the Line and Federation of course, but anything without the old crew? Anything?

brian said...

My own personal Koboyashi Maru tests usually involve women and booze. As in, when I drink too much women don't talk to me, but when I don't drink I don't talk to them. I need Kirk to somehow fix the test for me.

Steve, you should try using the "follow blogs" feature. It's a good way to see when other blogs are updated, but it could also, theoretically anyway, increase traffic.

steve said...

Beepy: yes, there was an earlier Trek novel called "Kobayashi Maru," and it did heavily feature Sulu. I read it when it first came out (as, I hesitate to admit, I always have and still do read every 'classic' Trek novel as soon as it appears) and wasn't all that impressed, but it's Leo Frickin' Tolstoy compared to THIS 'Kobayashi Maru.'

Greg: For some odd reason, there has never been a really good Next Generation, DS9, or Voyager novel. I've always thought a GREAT DS9 novel could be written in the form of Jake Sisko's memoirs of growing up on the station, but it would require a hand unrestricted by studio strictures to do it right.

Brian: and how, pray tell, does one use this 'follow blogs' feature?

brian said...

Go to the "dashboard". Scroll down and you should see something labeled "blogs I'm following". Then it will give you the option to add the URLs for each blog. You will need to add "blogs I'm following" to your layout as well.

Ed said...

The Kobayashi Maru test is mentioned in one of the original series episodes but I can't remember which one. Anyone know?

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