Friday, February 18, 2011

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The Big Screen!

In 1979 something happened that changed the nature of Star Trek fiction forever. It was something so long hoped-for and dreamed-of that many fans - myself included - had given up all real hope that it would ever happen:

In 1979 Paramount Pictures produced Star Trek: The Motion Picture, reuniting the entire core cast of the original TV show in a big-budget big-screen movie.

I went to see the movie, um, several times that winter, and long before that I thrilled just to the sight of the movie's two posters, the first showing the new Enterprise and a row of little boxes showing our old familiar crew, and the second showing Kirk, Spock, and a mysterious woman in a shower of glinting light. I avidly soaked in every scene, every moment, every word of dialogue, the whole time in a state of happy disbelief that the experience was happening at all. I've of course developed many detailed opinions about that first Star Trek movie - about its merits and flaws, about its worth both as a movie and as Star Trek. But this is SteveREADS, after all, not SteveSEES, and besides: I'm perfectly willing to admit that my acumen might be fogged over a bit when it comes to seeing this particular franchise on film.

That's where my blogging colleague Mr. Anderson comes in. As a special treat, I asked the devoted movie fan over at Hello Mr. Anderson to watch that first movie cold, as it were - to do his best to take it in free of the baggage any fan of the original series must inevitably bring to such a screening. He obliged, and some of his conclusions are bitter indeed for a from-the-beginning fan such as myself to read. I wish I could say the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture fared better - especially because, as noted, it functions as THE pivotal moment in the fiction of the show, the A-bomb, birth-of-Jesus thing that forever divides the sub-genre into 'before' and 'after.'

The novel was written in draft by our old friend Alan Dean Foster, with fine-tunings by Harold Livingston, and with a main-stage polish and oversight by none other than Gene Roddenberry himself. This is the only Star Trek novel in which Roddenberry is listed as an author (indeed, in most of the paperback's earliest printings, as the only author), and that fact underscored the thing's canonical status.

Before this novel (which is doltishly titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture - as if nobody anywhere along the line realized what a nonsensical title for a book that is), all of Star Trek fiction existed in what's known in quantum physics as a superposition. All of it, in all its manifold contradictions, might be 'real' - or none of it might be, or it might be both at the same time. The Romulan Commander, as we've seen, might have any number of fates or even names, poor Doctor M'Benga might be revealed as any number of dastardly villains, every supporting character from those first three TV seasons might be hauled into any novel, given any story arc the writer wanted, and still be fair game for the next writer to come along. In quantum physics, a particle is in superposition until some conjugating event happens to determine what it actually is - before that moment, it can be both a thing and its direct opposite (Schrodinger Cat being the most famous example), but after that moment, it IS - determined, uniform, and canon.

The canon of Star Trek fiction begins with Gene Roddenberry's novel, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In these 252 pages, the fictional universe of Star Trek changes in several radical ways, and it's Star Trek's creator doing the changes, so they're real, as it were.

They were also, when you stop and think about it, startlingly severe. Roddenberry made the unusual decision to have his comeback story reflect a real-time gap in the lives of his characters: the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture take place almost three years after the return of the Enterprise from her original five-year mission - so, somewhere around six or seven years after the last aired episode of the cancelled series. Our stalwart heroes are no longer young - even Chekhov is now a fully seasoned adult. The central crew of the Enterprise hasn't changed: Uhura is still at communications, Sulu is still at the helm, Chekhov has moved to the new weapons station ... but our 'big three' have undergone radical changes since last we 'saw' them: Kirk has accepted a staff job and a promotion to Admiral; Spock has resigned his commission and gone into monastic retreat on Vulcan in an effort to purge all human emotion from his mind; and McCoy has resigned his commission and gone into early retirement as some kind of bearded recluse.

Roddenberry and his co-writers weave their story so smoothly that the reader at first simply accepts all this as the story unfolds. But re-reading the book in 2011, I realized how deeply, unpardonably out of character all three of those changes are. James T. Kirk (it's in this novel that we're first 'officially' told that the 'T' stands for 'Tiberius' ... a factoid that wouldn't be confirmed on screen for five more movies) taking a desk job? Spock, after making such strides to accept and be accepted by his human shipmates, seeking to overhaul himself into an uber-Vulcan? McCoy, the ultimate man of healing, giving up on medicine to sit on his porch? In retrospect, these seem like fairly desperate contortions made in order to produce a classic getting-the-band-back-together plot.

That plot will be familiar to anybody who's seen the movie: a massive alien entity, Vejur, is headed straight for Earth, and the only starship in interception range is the newly refitted Enterprise under the command of young Captain Will Decker (unlike in the movie, in the book we learn that he's the son of Commodore Decker from the great TV episode "The Doomsday Machine"). Admiral Kirk, chaffing at his desk duties, learns of the menace and uses it as an opportunity to force Starfleet to give him back command of the Enterprise, which he commandeers over the resentful objections of the now-demoted First Officer Decker. The ship hurriedly makes preparation to leave Earth orbit, taking on a full crew - including a brought-out-of-retirement Dr. McCoy and a new navigator, Lieutenant Ilia. Meanwhile, the alien entity has for some unknown reason made telepathic contact with Mr. Spock, who hurries to join the Enterprise as it leaves to intercept Vejur.

For Kirk, being back in command of the Enterprise is the consummate homecoming, and Roddenberry is urgent to point that out:

Kirk eased himself down into the center seat. This place was officially his now and he left himself savor the first moment, pretending to survey the bridge stations. No that he expected anyone to be deceived - but he knew they would be tolerant of a moment like this. His eyes fell on Decker, whose eyes were fixed rigidly ahead, his expression taut. Kirk felt sympathy, then reminded himself that if they survived, Decker would still have his own moment like this. But for James Tiberius Kirk to sit here again was like Lazarus stepping out into the sunlight.

As the ship leaves the solar system, we get an odd little aside from Roddenberry, a reminder not only that 2001: A Space Odyssey had begun the modern era of sci-fi but also that the many books of ErichVon Daniken were still phenomenally popular when this novel was written:

The moon Io had held some shocks for the first Earth scientists to land there, although not nearly as shattering as the earlier discovery that Earth's own moon had once served as a base for space voyagers (their identity still a mystery) who had conducted genetic experiments with Earth's early life forms a million or more years before human history had begun.

The single most interesting thing about this novel is an innovation Roddenberry adopts early and then simply abandons: the book starts off as a transcript of the whole Vejur adventure as written up by Roddenberry at the behest of ... Admiral Kirk, who also pens a preface in which he complains about how exaggerated and distorted his adventures have been over the years. This very promising gambit is pursued a bit at the beginning of the novel, where footnotes often clarify the text, as when we're told that Spock thought of Kirk in terms of the Vulcan concept of closest friendship:

Editor's Note: The human concept of friend is most nearly duplicated in Vulcan thought by the term t'hy'la, which can also mean brother and lover. Spock's recollections (from which this chapter has drawn) is that it was was a most difficult moment for him since he did indeed consider Kirk to have become his brother. However, because t'hy'la can be used to mean lover, and since Kirk's and Spock's friendship was unusually close, this has led to some speculation over whether they had actually indeed become lovers. At our request, Admiral Kirk supplied the following comment on this subject:

"I was never aware of this lovers rumor, although I have been told that Spock encountered it several times. Apparently he had always dismissed it with his characteristic lifting of his right eyebrow which usually connoted some combination of surprise, disbelief, and/or annoyance. As for myself, although I have no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms, I have always found my best gratification in that creature woman. Also, I would dislike being thought of as so foolish that I would select a love partner who came into sexual heat only once every seven years."

Readers are left to dream wistfully about how fascinating this novel would be if those footnotes had continued throughout, but alas, ether Roddenberry quickly tired of the idea or his co-writers considered it too much work: the footnotes peter out after less than fifty pages and make only the briefest, most perfunctory returns throughout the rest of the book.

The rest of the book could have used something fascinating. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the book, not the movie) is a failure as a novel - it's boring, thinly imagined, and worst of all virtually lacking in the character interplay that shines in some of the best Star Trek ficiton we've encountered so far. The scenes in which a tormented Mr. Spock, still trying bitterly to retain his near-emotionless state, snubs his former friends and shipmates are well-enough done but could have been truly moving in better (or fewer?) hands. And as a certain (anonymous) reviewer sagely pointed out thirty years ago, Roddenberry's use of italics quickly slips out of his conscious control - whole passages toward the end of the book are italicized for no reason whatsoever, and the effect is extremely distracting.

The book isn't a total loss, however: there are classic Roddenberry moments scattered throughout, sharp little reminders that this entire series, this entire concept, originated in the invincible optimism of this one man:

Kirk felt a rush of sentiment for these men and women here who had seen death strike form that cloud and had still stayed. The "ordinary" and lovely blue-white planet below them deserved protection - it had bred a sturdy and decent race, certainly a courageous one. From the beginning of time, other groups like this had gone out, handfuls of puny humans standing together against the dark night, against saber-toothed killers, against the sea, and finally into space. The shape and face of the unknown had changed during all those eons, but there had been no change in human courage.

And artistically successful or not, Star Trek: The Motion Picture - both the book and the movie - were seismic in  their implications for the franchise. The movie made lots of money for the studio, which guaranteed sequels, and the book took all of the Star Trek fictions that had come before it - all that fan fiction, all those heartfelt novels - and plopped them firmly into the category of 'imaginary' stories, ex cathedra fantasies that never 'really' happened. This forlorn property, this little show that had been kept alive by fans when nobody else cared, was now a multi-million dollar corporate cash-machine. Suddenly there was a canon; suddenly there were corporate executives imposing standards. And one more element was introduced, something that seemed inconspicuous at the time but would go on to have the biggest, most unprecedented ramifications of all: for the first time ever, time had been introduced into an ongoing adventure series.

What would Star Trek fiction do, in the wake of all these changes? Well, at first it would do what it always did: just keep being dorky. We'll see a few choice examples, in our next chapter.


Alan Dean Foster said...

Hi Steve;
I had absolutely nothing to do with the novelization of the movie. Zilch. Nada. Zero.
Alan F

Steve Donoghue said...

Woopsies! But this makes sense - if you HAD been involved in the writing, it would have been GOOD, and I wouldn't have had to say so many rude things about one of the Founding Texts of Star Trek fiction!

Alan Dean Foster said...

Thanks for the compliment. I was not asked to do the novelization...part of many other things that were going on at the time.