Sunday, October 19, 2014

Captain J. Evans Pritchard of the Starship Enterprise

One of the charms of the often clumsy morality plays of the old Star Trek series was how they could often be pulled off with quite a bit of style when the episode was well-written. The leads of the series -- William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley -- were competent professional actors with a lot of combined experience in television and when given some top-level TV material could make top-level genre entertainment surrounding the Moral of the Story.

In 2014's The Weight of Worlds, multiple Trek-novel author Greg Cox manages to pull off the part about writing a story with an Important Point. He comes nowhere close to offering anything like the panache of the best work old TV veterans like D.C. Fontana, Gene L. Coon, Jerome Bixby or even series creator Gene Roddenberry himself ("best work" is an important qualifier here. Coon was also responsible for "Spock's Brain.")

The Ephrata Institute is a think tank located on an isolated planet near the edge of Federation space. One day it sends out a garbled distress call, and Starfleet sends the Enterprise to investigate. Invaders from another dimension have attacked the institute, and their control of gravity threatens to render them too much for the Enterprise crew to handle. While Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock are brought to the invaders' homeworld to confront their leader, other landing party members must combat the invading force and help protect the Enterprise herself.

Cox offers up a couple of neat items -- dissidents on the invaders' homeworld chose Kirk as their potential champion because examining Ephrata's records showed he had a history of toppling false deities. And an injury to Engineer Scott puts Lieutenant Uhura in command of the Enterprise; a role that series backstory said she was trained for but which we never got to see.

But those are garnishes on an empty plate; Weight of Worlds reads like a low-end episode of the animated series of Star Trek aired in 1973-74. Cox has a penchant for name-dropping old series episodes in unnecessary and awkward ways. Kirk declines a party invitation with a memory of how a party attended by Dr. Helen Noel went awry in "Dagger of the Mind," for example. Lieutenant Sulu develops a crush on his fellow landing-party fugitive, but Cox is nowhere near talented enough to show that develop so he just tells us. And he is also nowhere near talented enough to make his central idea -- beware religious crusaders who are convinced their truth is The Truth -- anything more than a moralistic cliché that carries no weight. Cox has more than a dozen Trek novels and many more movie and video-game tie-in novelizations to his credit, so it's difficult to understand why at this point in his career he can't write a novel with enough skill to sell his simplistic sermon.
Television series usually have a person called a "showrunner," who makes certain things like continuity and character development are watched for mistakes. Episodes may be written or filmed "out of order," for example, and so a showrunner checks whether or not an episode written earlier but filmed later keeps up with what's happened before.

Actors themselves may play a role in this kind of checking, too. An actor who has played a character for some time will probably have an idea or understanding about the person they are pretending to be, and they might question an action or dialogue given to them based on that character understanding. "I don't know if (character I play) would do that," he or she might say, and it's not always from pain-in-the-butt artiste tendencies.

So I am pretty sure that both George Takei and William Shatner, who don't see eye-to-eye on much of anything these days, would taken David R. George III's Allegiance in Exile story if it had been presented to them as a script into the showrunner's office and said, "Sulu (and/or) Kirk would never do this."

The Enterprise is exploring a new sector of space late in its five-year mission, and finds a beautiful but uninhabited world. Examination of the world shows the remains of colony, destroyed within the last year, but no sign of inhabitants or attackers. The mystery deepens when a kind of automated defense system fires on a landing party and the Enterprise itself. Sulu is nearly killed but is saved by a female crewmate, Ensign Trinh, who specializes in archaeology and anthropology and whose information could be vital to understanding what happened on the planet.

The mystery deepens further a few months later when the crew discovers another colony planet destroyed in the same manner. In the meantime, Sulu and Trinh have developed a romantic relationship, and he is sickened with worry about the danger she will face as a member of a new landing party. When she is injured, he blames Kirk and angrily confronts him, while the captain himself meekly acquiesces to his junior's accusations.

George begins with the interesting mystery of the destroyed colonies, but heads right off the rails just as soon as Sulu and Trinh develop their romance. Sulu is a lovestruck adolescent rather than a grown man, and his anger at Kirk regresses him further into a toddler throwing a tantrum because an adult took his toy away from him. Nothing in the younger character's reactions looks anything like a person who understands that both he and his girlfriend have taken on potentially dangerous jobs that may place them in harm's way, and did so with wide-open eyes and adult decisions.

Kirk himself, far from a commander who knows that leadership means deciding things, and in his business decisions can have fatal consequences, questions himself even more than Sulu does and allows himself to be completely disrespected by a junior officer with nary a peep in response. Trinh is nothing more than a prop to help Sulu have a Moment of Crisis; she's not even allowed to have a good onscreen demise but relegated to the Tragic Life-Threatening Injury of a cheap soap opera.

The mystery itself is merely a setup to introduce some characters seen in later incarnations of the Trek world, some of which are George's own rather than from any broadcast episodes of any of the TV shows. He does so, and all he had to do was wreck 40-plus years of character continuity to do it.
Now, it may be that the proper response to a couple of slams of lightweight genre fiction is a gentle reminder that, "Hey, it's genre fiction. You shouldn't expect too much." That's a valid observation and a good guide, but the problem is that neither of these books comes anywhere close to "too much." Genre fiction and television in general and Star Trek in particular have produced some real top-drawer efforts. Some of the best of series novels and episodes can prompt, for a questioning reader/viewer, just as serious a reflection on the human condition as any serious literature. And some of the best were just great yarns that entertained for as long as they lasted even if they didn't linger in the mind afterward.

By those standards as well, both Weight and Allegiance fail miserably. A devoted fandom that will happily and loyally swoop up anything in their chosen favorite world deserves better than books like these.

P.S. -- Neither book has a character named J. Evans Pritchard. He's from a different fictional environment, although his work was produced from the same milieu.

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