24 December 2009

Book review: Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory

Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory
D. C. Fontana (1989)

I will have little to say about the Germany trip today. December 24th is the major celebration day of the season, instead of the 25th, and everything is shut down. No tourist tales for you, only family ones, and this blog isn’t the place for such information.

However, I can present you with a book review. I associate epic fantasy and especially The Lord of the Rings with the Solstice season, but for some reason I also think of Star Trek as well.

I’ve never read a Star Trek franchise novel, until now. Despite my love of Star Trek (although I am not considered a Trekker by actual Trekkers), I had never seriously considered picking up one of the tie-in books. This is not an intellectual bias; I read plenty of media tie-in works and consider it part of my training as a writer to understand the reverse-engineering that goes into making prose from a visual medium. I simply never saw any need to read Star Trek stories considering the copious amounts of broadcast and cinematic Trek already available. I had plenty of Trek already.

But then I found out that D. C. Fontana had written one of the novels in the Pocket Books series. And it was about the Enterprise under Christopher Pike, the captain from the famous rejected pilot for the original Star Trek, “The Cage.” That was an adventure I had to read, and pronto.

Dorothy Catherine Fontana wrote some of the best episodes of the classic ‘60s Trek: “Charlie X,” “Journey to Babel,” “This Side of Paradise,” and two of my personal favorites, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “The Enterprise Incident.” As she says in her Afterword for the 2006 re-print of Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory for Trek’s Fortieth Anniversary, she was present at the birth of the show: she typed up Gene Roddenberry’s final draft of “The Cage” before it went in front of the cameras.

It is “The Cage” that serves as the inspiration for Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, since it takes the reader back to that earlier crew of the Enterprise that viewers only had a chance to see in “The Cage” and the segments of it that Roddenberry and the show writers used in the two-part episode “The Menagerie,” originally meant as a bit salvage in the crunch-time of the first season’s production schedule. We see Captain Christopher Pike, First Officer Number One, Doctor Phillip Boyce, and a young Vulcan Ensign named Spock boldly go where no man or one has gone before. There’s also a bonus bold-goer: Montgomery Scott did not appear in “The Cage,” but Fontana brings him on the crew as a junior grade engineer.

Vulcan’s Glory is Spock-centered, following the famous Vulcan’s first assignment aboard the Enterprise. Fontana’s knowledge of Vulcans, and especially Spock, is extensive; she uses the background from the episode “Amok Time” and her own “Journey to Babel” and the Star Trek: The Animated Series episode “Yesteryear” to expand on Spock’s youthful development, when he is still struggling with his human side (as in “The Cage,” he occasionally cracks a smile) and his responsibilities on Vulcan to eventually marry his betrothed T’Pring. Spock receives his first assignment aboard the Enterprise and quickly develops a relationship with another Vulcan crewmember, T’Pris. The idea of a “Spock Romance” is fraught with danger, but if anyone can handle it, Fontana can. As she shows in her script for “The Enterprise Incident,” she knows how to write the “mental sexuality” of Vulcan relations, and Spock’s link to T’Pris is believable, and yes, logical.

Vulcan’s Glory is not a book heavy on an action plot. It relies on the novelty of the characters to draw the reader. We can enjoy seeing a young Spock and Scotty, obvious pleasures, but also witness the development of figures merely glimpsed before, like Christopher Pike and Number One. Fontana has a special flair with the lost character of Number One, who could have developed into a wonderful lead female role if NBC hadn’t insisted on axing her from the cast. Her calculated perfection would get transferred to Spock in the series, but Fontana manages to write her here as someone who can co-exist with the logical Vulcan as a “perfect being” but one with emotional drives. She received some help from the actress who played Number One, the late Majel Barrett, wife of Gene Roddenberry, who spoke with Fontana about what Roddenberry had originally planned for the character.

A number of different story threads compose the narrative. The Enterprise is on a diplomatic assignment to the planet Areta, where Pike has been personally trying to help the holocaust-ravaged planet of nomads and mutants establish trading relations and begin the climb back to civilization. Before going to Areta, the Enterprise tracks down new information on a lost Vulcan artifact, the uncut stone of the title. Conveniently, the fresh evidence shows that the ship that carried the Glory crashed on Areta, allowing Pike to start his adventure among the nomads while the recovered Glory stirs up trouble on the Enterprise . . . such as a murder.

The murder investigation is similar to what would happen two years after publication in the movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and is the most intriguing part of the plot. Fontana has the classic “locked room mystery” elements down perfectly for the spaceship setting. The action with Pike on Areta tends to get lost among this. A comic subplot about Scotty mixing up the galaxy’s best batch of “engine room hooch” adds nothing to the story, but Fontana makes it amusing enough that it doesn’t distract. It means we get to spend time with Scotty, so I’m not complaining.

The novel reaches a clever revelation that unites the murder story with Spock’s emotional/logical development. If Fontana intended Vulcan’s Glory as a psychological origin story for the mature Spock of Star Trek: The Original Series, she succeeds. Not all of the novel hangs together with the unity that the best episodes of the various Trek TV shows do, but as an adventure with familiar characters and ones we wished we could have gotten to know better, it delivers a fully satisfying reading experience.

Now that I’ve read a Star Trek novel, I’ll have to check out the prose episodes from Diane Duane, an author I already love because of the “Young Wizards” series. Her novels deal with the Romulans, my favorite Trek alien race, so these are now “must reads.”