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Star Trek – Vulcan’s Glory by D.C. Fontana (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

I’ve never really felt too strongly one way or another about continuity. I never got too upset about Klingon forehead ridges, or the fact that Khan somehow remembered Chekov from an episode that took place before he joined the Enterprise. I’ve always found the use of the term “canon” to describe the shared continuity as more than a little indulgent or absurd. I consider some of the better tie-in novels I have read to be a worthy part of the Star Trek universe, regardless of the fact that they may not fit, or they may contradict what was depicted on-screen. I’ve never been too tightly tied to the notion that something is “important” or “in continuity” among this 700-episode franchise.

Still, I can’t help but feel like there’s something almost legitimate about Vulcan’s Glory. It is a novel from writer D.C. Fontana, who served as script editor and writer on the classic Star Trek show, and is regarded as one of the guiding lights of the franchise. She went on to write for both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Given her importance to the show over its extended history, anything Fontana writes about it is worthy of note. Indeed, Vulcan’s Glory was originally published in 1989 and was reissued in 2006 for the franchise’s fortieth anniversary.

Even to somebody reluctant to consign “importance” or “worthy” to a tie-in based on outside factors, the story of Spock’s first mission on board the Enterprise, written by one of the strongest writers of the original Star Trek and a guiding influence on the franchise, still jumps out as a pretty important book.

vulcansglory

Christopher Pike is an interesting character. If you asked any random person to name the first captain of the Enterprise, most would answer James T. Kirk. And they’d be right, from a broadcast point of view. Star Trek: Enterprise might feature Jonathan Archer as the first captain of a warp ship named Enterprise according to the fictional universe’s chronology, but James T. Kirk was the first to air on television. Shatner’s portrayal of Kirk cemented the show’s place in popular culture and – along with Spock – became one of the truly iconic television personalities of the sixties.

However, William Shatner was not the first actor to play the Captain of the Enterprise. In 1964, two years before Where No Man Has Gone Before was broadcast, Jeffrey Hunter was hired to play Captain Christopher Pike in The Cage. Hunter was a screen actor perhaps best known for his supporting role in the classic western The Searchers, or as Jesus Christ in King of Kings. Securing Hunter for the part of Pike did a great deal to legitimise Gene Roddenberry’s would-be space western.

However, the network were not happy with The Cage, even though they were intrigued by Star Trek as a concept. Roddenberry was asked to go off and produce another pilot show. In the meantime, Hunter’s wife had convinced him not to reprise the role of Christopher Pike. As a result, the second pilot featured William Shatner as James T. Kirk, and history was made. Given that Where No Man Has Gone Before joined an already established crew on an extended adventure, there was really little reason to believe that Kirk wasn’t the first commander of the Enterprise. Christopher Pike would go down in history as a curiousity or a quirk.

Well, he would have, had The Menagerie not been produced. About half-way through the season, running low on scripts and ideas, Gene Roddenberry needed something to buy his production staff more time. Roddenberry was a rather resourceful and astute individual, so he came up with an idea of using all that footage that had been shot for The Cage, and incorporating it into a framing narrative starring the current cast and characters of Star Trek. However, Roddenberry needed an excuse to show that footage, which was only really linked to the show by the production design and the presence of an uncharacteristically emotional Mister Spock.

Christopher Pike would fulfil that function. Roddenberry constructed a framing story where Pike would be revealed to be suffering from radiation poisoning, and Spock would try to return him to the planet from The Cage. The radiation burns would provide a handy way to disguise the fact that Jeffrey Hunter wouldn’t be returning, with Sean Kenney filling in for Hunter as Pike, now confined to a wheelchair and communicating using a series of beeps. Pike was dropped off on the planet, and given a relatively happy ever after.

This would be the last time that Pike would appear on-screen until JJ Abrams would reboot Star Trek in 2009, and cast Bruce Greenwood as the captain of the Enterprise, and as a mentor figure to James T. Kirk. Pike would end up wounded in the line of duty, but would be promoted out of the way so that Kirk could assume the command he was fated to receive. Greenwood will be returning for Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Still, despite the relatively small number of appearances that Pike has made, he still casts an impressive shadow. All the more impressive for the fact that The Cage was first broadcast on television (outside the framing device of The Menagerie) in 1988, as part of the From One Generation to the Next special designed to pad out the short run of The Next Generation‘s second season, which had been crippled by the Writers’ Strike.

And yet, Pike holds a strange appeal. Perhaps part of that is down to the fact that Gene Roddenberry would take The Cage on tour with him, and show it at conventions. This probably helped build up a cult appeal around the episode and its leading man. After all, making the episode harder to see only increased the credibility of those lucky enough to watch it. There’s also the fact that there’s something quite alluring about knowing that there was once an almost entirely different crew doing the same thing on the same ship, and that one of our leads has a past that includes those different people.

Vulcan’s Glory exists to tell the story of Spock’s first mission on the Enterprise, and to help add a bit of texture to that period of Star Trek history, the time before Kirk assumed command and engaged on his five-year mission. It’s easy to see why the period holds such an appeal to fans, and also why Fontana might be drawn to it. Fontana has gone on record identifying Spock as her favourite character in Star Trek, and so writing the story of his first mission must seem quite appealing.

Unfortunately, Vulcan’s Glory isn’t really much of a story. It’s more a collection of odds-and-ends, a bunch of lose incidents and anecdotes that occasionally overlap. The title of the story belongs to one strand, but Vulcan’s Glory also features lots of other plot points and threads that try to offer a broad canvas to explore this version of Star Trek, the iteration of the show that never quite made it to the screen.

So, for example, we get Pike trying to negotiate peace on an alien planet, in a way that seems at odds with the Prime Directive that would become such a key part of the franchise, first identified towards the end of the first season in Return of the Archons. We also get Scotty brewing “engine room hooch” in the ship’s Main Engineering. Oh, and a love subplot involving Number One and Christopher Pike. Oh, and a love affair with Spock and another Vulcan.

There’s a lot going on there, and Vulcan’s Glory occasionally feels a little disjointed and all over the map, more like an episodic collection of stories that sometimes overlap rather than one single over-arching narrative. This is a little unsatisfying, as there’s a rake of good ideas here that are scarcely developed before the next idea is suggested. For example, Pike’s involvement with the tribal society seems relegated to the background.

Indeed, the identity and motivation of the murderer on board the Enterprise seems almost like an after-thought. Which is a shame, because the character provides an interesting foil to Spock, who really should be even more at the heart of the story. It just seems like Fontana has far too much that she wants to do here, and – as a result – doesn’t have the space or the time to develop all her characters, themes and ideas as thoroughly as she would like.

It doesn’t help that Fontana isn’t the strongest prose writer. She’s an excellent script writer and script editor, but there are times when Vulcan’s Glory seems more than a little clunky, lost in purple prose and awkward analogies. For example, after Spock meets with an attractive fellow Vulcan, Fontana chooses to use the most awkward Star Trek metaphor imaginable. “T’Pris’s face still floated on the viewscreen of his mind.” That’s teenage poetry bad.

Quite a lot of Vulcan’s Glory seems to exist in order to dismiss particular misconceptions that have taken root around Star Trek. For example, Fontana is quite explicit that there are several other Vulcan crew members on board the Enterprise, as if to dispel the popular belief that Spock was the first Vulcan in Starfleet, an assumption that would seem to have been disproven by the show’s decision to feature a Vulcan-crewed craft in The Immunity Syndrome.

Similarly, while drawing heavily on Amok Time, Fontana features a Vulcan love scene specifically to dismiss the idea that Vulcans can only have sex during their pon farr. Fontana is also careful to explicitly reference her contribution to Star Trek: The Animated Series, Yesteryear, referencing young!Spock’s encounter with his “cousin” Selek in the Forge. The reference seems to exist purely so Fontana can affirm her animated episode as part of the Star Trek canon, a legitimate contribution to the mythology that deserves equal footing with Amok Time.

Still, it’s clear that Fontana has a clear understanding of Spock as a character. In fact, her depiction of Spock’s childhood seems very similar to the way that the 2009 Star Trek film chose to portray it:

He clearly remembered every event leading to and involved in his test, including the fact that he had set off for it unauthorized, alone, and ahead of schedule in order to prove himself a true Vulcan and not— not— an Earther.

He recalled his stubbornly determined march into the Forge, an impulsive act brought on by his father’s stern admonition that he must learn to behave like a Vulcan. Spock had known Sarek was correct. Spock was subject to anger then, often fighting with Vulcan boys who taunted him about his half-human blood, and even giving way to tears of disappointment and frustration.

Of course, Fontana wrote Journey to Babel, the episode that introduced the audience to Spock’s father Sarek, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Fontana’s depiction of the duo’s awkward relationship feels so consistent with their dynamic on the show:

The subspace radio message had been relayed to him at the hostel via the Artemis: “Return to Vulcan immediately. Urgent matters require your attention.” It was succinctly signed “Sarek.” Daniels had attached a brief message of his own: “Sorry. I believe his orders supersede mine.”

Indeed, Fontana does an excellent job exploring Spock’s psyche and motivations.

I particularly like the idea that Sarek’s attitude towards Spock is rooted in his own personal issues, that his stubborn refusal to allow Spock to take his own path in life stems from his own relatively adventurous life. As Spock notes, Sarek is being a bit of a hypocrite here. “His parents broke tradition by not having him bonded to a Vulcan female in childhood,” Spock points out to his mother. “Sarek broke tradition by choosing you, a human woman. Why am I not allowed to break tradition as well?”

It’s not a strictly rational process, and Fontana is smart enough to acknowledge that – even though they may claim to be governed by logic, Vulcans can still be blinded by emotion. Sarek’s stubborn refusal to speak to his son – and the absurd measures he takes to stick to the letter of that refusal – demonstrate that Sarek is far more emotional than he would like to let on. Indeed, one wonders if the reason Sarek dislikes his son so much is because Spock is an effective mirror of his father, even with his half-human heritage.

She also does an excellent job recognising some of the contradictions in Vulcan culture that become quite obvious when watching Star Trek, with the rigid logic seeming to conflict with traditions and rituals that are anything but rational. Building once again off Amok Time, the plot centres around something of massive ritual importance to the Vulcan people, but which doesn’t necessarily make a great deal of logical sense.

The eponymous stone is a relic of Vulcan’s long lost past, something left over from an era of conflict and violence. While there might be sentimental reasons to hold on to the stone, it hardly seems logical that the relic could be so important to so rational a people:

Pike studied Spock carefully, trying to gauge something he did not understand. “If the Glory was a prize of war, and Vulcan rejected the philosophy—the emotion —of war, why is the stone such a great loss?”

It fits surprisingly well with what we know of Vulcan, but also speaks of the paradox concerning these creatures. For aliens that claim to be governed by logic, Vulcans can seem irrationally tied to traditions and beliefs.

She even does a nice job accounting for the difference between the version of Spock seen in The Cage with his later and more stoic appearance in the weekly television show.

Fontana suggests that Spock has been closing himself off from the world in response to a loss, and that he has only improved at the art of concealing and suppressing his emotions. As Pike muses, towards the end of the novel, “But I can’t help but think that we’ve lost something in Spock through all of this. I grant he doesn’t have many reasons to smile right now, but he’s colder, harder, more silent than before. More formal, if you can imagine.” Of course, Vulcan’s Glory is set at least a little earlier than The Cage, so it would seem that Spock grew even “colder, harder, more silent” over time.

Of course, the production reason for this change is because – after watching The Cage – the network forced Gene Roddenberry to chose between Number One and Spock. Only allowed to bring back one of the characters, Roddenberry rather cannily chose to consolidate the pair, keeping Spock as a character, but taking Number One’s personality. In The Cage, it’s Pike’s first officer who serves as the voice of reason and logic, while Spock seems to smirk at points. When the time came to produce Where No Man Has Gone Before, Roddenberry would reimagine Spock as a stoic and emotionless first officer.

Fontana offers her own insights on Number One. Unfortunately, she chooses to develop Number One’s attraction to Pike, as the Talosians revealed in The Cage. It seems it’s impossible for a female officer on any iteration of Star Trek to spend time with her superior without developing an attraction of some sort. (Uhura even seemed to fall for Spock in a few early episodes.) However, Fontana also offers an interesting justification for the character’s name.

Apparently, “Number One” is not an affectionate nickname given to the officer by a trusting superior. Instead, it is a title hard-earned. “On her planet, Ilyria, excellence is the only criterion that is accepted,” we’re told. “She is technically designated as being the best of her breed for the year she was born.” It’s actually a fairly clever way of explaining the choice of nickname, and it’s actually a clever way of justifying the fact that – almost half-a-century after she first appeared – Pike’s second-in-command apparently doesn’t have a name. According to Vulcan’s Glory, she does – and we’ve known it all along.

That said, Fontana’s portrayal of Pike himself seems a little bit off his depiction in The Cage. Of course, that episode opens with Pike considering resigning, and mourning the loss of several crew members, so it’s probably not too indicative of the commanding officer’s character. That said, Hunter brought a certain seriousness to the role, a gravitas that seemed more like Patrick Stewart’s stoic Picard than William Shatner’s charming Kirk.

As such, it’s hard to imagine Hunter in several scenes in this book, most notably his rather warm and open greeting of the ship’s new crew members:

“Welcome to the U.S.S. Enterprise. I am Captain Pike. I don’t know you all individually yet, but I guarantee you I will before very long. That’s not a threat.” There was an appreciative chuckle from the people assembled. Pike flashed a brilliant smile at them, seeming to favor everyone.

However, there is a hint of Hunter’s intensity to be found here. He doesn’t seem to react to his latest break-up in the most healthy of manners, bottling up his frustrations inside. Indeed, Fontana seems to treat the character traits on display in The Cage as the worst of Pike, those aspects of himself that he tries to control under normal circumstances. “Doubt seldom seemed to intrude on Pike,” we’re told, “but personal relationships, an awareness that sometimes he had to ignore his humanity in order to command, these bothered him.”

Still, it’s nice that so much of Fontana’s novel feels like it could have been a bunch of episodes starring this version of the Enterprise. Despite being written in the late eighties, after The Next Generation had gone on the air, Vulcan’s Glory feels like a left over relic from the sixties, in a good way. Fontana hits upon many of the themes and ideas that underscored those early adventures, making it feel like this is the sort of stuff the Enterprise could have been getting up to between The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before.

For example, Scotty is still a bit of a a crude stereotype, with an affection for the fine liquor which seems to stem from the fact that he has a Scottish accent and is named “Scotty.” He confesses himself he’s fond of “a wee drop.” The story also plays to fear that were lingering in the public consciousness at the end of the Second World War. For example, humans still seem tetchy about genetic engineering and eugenics, despite the fact that aliens like Vulcans and Ilyrians practice it.

Even the planet featured here feels like a throwback to the sixties era of nuclear paranoia. As Spock explains, “Beta Circinus III, called Areta by its natives, is a Class M planet. One thousand four hundred fifty-seven years ago, warring factions unleashed a nuclear holocaust that devastated large areas of its surface.” It’s a nuclear wasteland, an irradiated shell of a world recovering from an apocalypse that seemed all too possible when Star Trek was first on the air.

Vulcan’s Glory might not be the perfect piece of Star Trek, but it’s a nice attempt to add some texture to a period of Star Trek history that has remained quite intriguing throughout the show’s nearly fifty year history. It’s also great to see Fontana return to Spock, and while the writer’s style isn’t perfectly suited to prose fiction, it’s clear she has a firm grip on the world and the characters who inhabit it.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

 

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