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Star Trek – Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno (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.

It’s amazing just how iconic and influential the character of Christopher Pike is, despite the fact that he only appeared as a guest character in a two-part episode of the first season of Star Trek. Of course, he was the lead character of a pilot that was filmed in 1964, but not aired until almost a quarter of a century later, but it still seems strange that the character should hold such sway over Star Trek fandom. Perhaps it’s a sign of how preoccupied fans are with trivia and minutiae. Maybe it’s a sign of how skilfully Star Trek cultivates holes in its own mythology (in this case Pike’s time as captain) for the fans to fill. It might even be the lingering sense of tragedy surrounding the “captain who never was”, played by an actor who died at the young age of 42.

Whatever the reason, it feels appropriate that Pike was one of the characters celebrated and included in the franchise’s 40th anniversary celebrations, and the character is well served by the decision to task Margaret Wander Bonanno with writing “the definitive Pike novel.”

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Margaret Wander Bonanno is among the most respected and the most highly-regarded Star Trek writers ever, despite the fact that she isn’t among the most prolific of franchise tie-in authors. Bonanno wrote her first Star Trek tie-in novel in 1985, Dwellers in the Crucible. Her second Star Trek novel, Strangers from the Sky, made the New York Times best sellers list. However, her third Star Trek tie-in, Probe was such a painful experience – the victim of “office politics” and editorial meddling – that Bonanno retreated from the franchise entirely. Her next Star Trek novel (Catalyst of Sorrows) would only be published twelve years later.

Burning Dreams is her second novel published since her return to Star Trek fiction, published in 2006 to coincide with the show’s 40th anniversary. And it demonstrates why Bonanno is considered to be among the very best writers ever to handle Star Trek tie-in fiction. Her work calls to mind past masters of tie-in fiction like John M. Ford, or Diane Duane. There’s a sense that she is writing this book not as a collection of trivia or an attempt to “fill in” particular blanks. Instead, she has taken influence from the show and then woven all the available evidence into a tapestry, much like Ford did with the Klingons in The Final Reflection or Duane did with the Romulans in My Enemy, My Ally.

I am wary of books that seem to exist to fill in gaps left in the Star Trek canon. There’s often a sense of fannish completism to these stories, where the end goal seems to be to craft an over-arching “theory of everything” approach to the franchise, where everything has its proper place and everything is fitted neatly into its allotted space. The most obvious example is Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars books, which seem to exist purely to tie together every piece of the 20th century ever referenced in Star Trek or its spin-offs. So there’s the fear that a biography of Christopher Pike might fall into the same trap, a desire to wrap up everything every stated/written/thought about the character into a single cohesive whole.

That isn’t writing, it’s cataloguing, and Bonanno shrewdly avoids falling into that trap. She acknowledges a lot of the work done with Pike by other authors, and is effusive in her praise in the book’s charming afterword. However, the references are kept relatively tight, and never allowed to dominate the text. For example, the most blatant example is confined to a single paragraph, where Bonanno cheerfully (and wryly) lists off a number of adventures the character has enjoyed in various tie-in works as Pike considers what stories to share with his companion:

Should he tell her about the wonders he had seen—about the spacefaring Leviathans, living creatures transformed into interplanetary vessels? Or about a Vulcan gemstone so huge and fraught with history that even a Vulcan would kill to possess it? Should he tell her of the strange little watering hole in San Francisco where time seemed to stand still, and improbable tales were told? Or about a crewman named Dabisch who had a transparent skull? Or perhaps about a race called the Calligar, who lived on the other side of a time portal that opened only once every thirty-three years? Or of a sad and mysterious Trill woman named Audrid, who once upon a time, in a cavern deep inside a wayward comet—

Beyond that, Bonanno also incorporates the supporting character of Moves-With-Burning-Grace from Marvel’s Early Voyages comics in a small role. Other than that, though, there’s a very clear sense that Bonanno wants to tell her own story, and Burning Dreams is a lot stronger for it.

“To me,” she argues in the book’s afterword, “Star Trek has always been akin to Arthurian legend—there are many voices, many dimensions, but it is essentially always the same tale.” It’s actually a nice way to approach the franchise, and is one of the reasons that little flaws in the franchise’s continuity never bothered me too much. The core values are the same, the central ideas, it’s just different interpretations and perceptions.

One of the things that stands out about Burning Dreams is the way that Bonanno works with what has been established and re-contextualises it. It’s quite similar to the same manner in which Ford and Duane could take a collection of quirks and plot points in a bunch of scattered episodes and fashioned these details into a holistic and logical alien culture. Bonanno delves into Pike’s childhood and career, but she also spends a considerable amount of time revisiting scenes from The Cage and The Menagerie.

A lesser writer might simply include these moments as connective tissue, but Bonanno actually makes a considerable effort to explore the implications of the ideas suggested, and to help smooth out some of the more obvious problems. If nothing else, it is reassuring to know that somebody else watched The Menagerie and The Cage and shared some of the significant problems with them.

Pretty much all of the amendments and slight alterations, the clarifications of details obscured at the edge of the frame, exist to make the character actions in those episodes flow relatively smoothly. Something which had never occurred to me until I read Burning Dreams, but which seemed logical in hindsight, was the suggestion that Spock actually received a communication dispatching the Enterprise to Starbase 11 at the start of The Menagerie.

Being honest, I had always assumed that Spock had simply somehow heard the “scuttlebutt” about what had happened to Pike and decided to take action. Bonanno instead suggests that the Talosians made Spock think that he received a message. As Bonanno demonstrates, this makes a bit more sense from the perspective of Spock’s character:

Spock hadn’t lied when he informed Kirk he had received a message from Starbase 11 requesting Enterprise divert there for reasons unexplained until they were informed of Pike’s injury. The trace of the Talosian mind within his own was just powerful enough to make him believe he had actually seen such a message on his screen.

This is a nice character beat, not because it removes a contradiction of the oft-cited “Vulcans don’t lie” bit of fan canon, but instead because it fits with what we know of Spock’s character. Although he repeatedly justifies lies of omission, both to himself, to McCoy and Pike, Bonanno makes it clear that Spock figures out the message is a fake even before the episode begins. All that matters is that Spock is given enough of a grey area to embark on a bit of self-deception, which is perfectly in keeping with his character, especially in The Menagerie.

At one point, talking with the Magistrate, Spock shrewdly decides not to directly inquire about the message, in order to maintain plausible deniability to himself. “If the Magistrate confirmed what he suspected, he would have to lie to Kirk. He would not do that, not even to save Pike.” So Spock compromises with himself, while allowing himself some pretence of logic and rationality. It’s a nice character moment, and a solid beat for Spock. After all, Spock misleads Kirk, betrays him and hijacks the ship. It’s absurd to suggest that this is somehow better because he never directly lied to Kirk’s face. However, Spock could never rationalise that, and it’s clear that Bonanno understands that about the character.

There are other tweakings and clarifications that serve to help resolve some of the troubling elements of The Cage and The Menagerie. Most notably, Bonanno devotes considerable time and effort to developing and expanding both Vina and the Talosians as characters in their own right:

What was really fun, too, was expanding Vina’s character. In the original, she suffers from several things—the attitude toward women in the 60s, and Disposable Blonde syndrome, and Gene Roddenberry’s having to put the Menagerie script together in such a short time. So she could easily be seen as just a bit of fluff.

Making her Pike’s coequal, and stopping to think of the implications of her being the only human on Talos IV for 18 years before Pike’s arrival, and for another 13 years afterward makes us realize how incredibly strong this character is. How many of us could survive something like that with our minds and souls intact?

While some might consider this revisionism, I’m quite fond of the approach – acknowledging that the show was a product of a different time with different values. Writing Vina as a relatively shallow figure of desire might have been excusable on American television in the mid-sixties, but it’s no justification to suggest that she should always be written that way.

Similarly, the Talosians are probably the biggest problem with The Menagerie. The episode hinges on Spock trusting the aliens enough to hand his friend and former commanding officer over to a bunch of aliens who at one point planned to use him to breed a new race. These were people who would torture him with memories of fire, and force him to re-live painful memories, keeping him in a cage. Rewatching The Menagerie, I think that’s the biggest plot problem. After all, even if Pike looks happy, why would you trust aliens that can control illusion so effectively?

Again, Bonanno works hard to make it all make some sort of sense. Vina seemed to spend most of The Cage terrified of the Talosians, so the only way that Bonanno can make these aliens seem like the kind of people you’d trust to protect Pike is to suggest that it was all an act. “The Talosians had never tortured her,” Bonanno assures us after recounting one scene where Vina screams in what seems like terror. Apparently her helpless damsel in distress act was just an appeal to Pike’s masculinity, which is as effective a way as any to justify sixties television writing.

Similarly, Bonanno does her best to explain why sending Pike to Talos is justifiable at all. Apparently the state we see Pike in during The Menagerie isn’t stable. Bonanno suggests that his deterioration would continue further, which does a lot to help dismiss some of the unfortunate implications of the Enterprise just dumping a disabled Starfleet officer on an alien world. “Some of the medical experts who had examined him weren’t sure he would even be capable of that much longer,” the book informs us. “The consensus was that his condition was degenerative.”

Why didn’t that point come up in the episodes? Well, apart from the fact the writers didn’t think of it, Bonanno justifies it through Spock’s conversations with Pike. Discussing the Talosians, Spock explains, “They are aware of what your doctors will not tell you, which is that your condition is degenerative. While you may live out a certain number of years, your condition will only get worse.”

As a side note, I also like that Bonanno seems to share my issues with General Order 7 as a plot point. It exists to raise some dramatic tension in The Menagerie, but it doesn’t make much sense if the Talosians can create an illusion of Commodore Mendez which can fool Kirk all the way on Starbase 11. “Spock had wondered if the Federation Council truly understood that keeping humans physically removed from the Talosians was immaterial,” Bonanno writes. “If the Talosians wish to reach across a galaxy to invade a mind, any mind, they could do so.”

I also like Bonnano’s rather sharply observed observation that the Federation in Star Trek was running the risk of turning into that warehouse from Raiders of the Lost Ark, serving as a guardian against abusive of objects far too dangerous to be used. Not only does the Federation safeguard Talos IV, it also sits on time-travel technology from The City on the Edge of Forever. As Sulu notes:

“You know there’s been talk of revising General Order 7. Essentially pretending the Talos group doesn’t exist. It’s remote enough so you’d have to go out of your way to get there. The Powers That Be can’t decide whether to delete it from the starmaps or put a security perimeter around it, the way we did with the Guardian of Forever, and removing the capital offense from the books. You couldn’t wait another few months for them to sort that out?”

I do like that Burning Dreams ends with the decision to abandon that approach to Talos IV, representing a final shift away from the sort of Lovecroftian “the universe is full of existential terrors” themes that often underpinned the original Star Trek and towards the more open-minded and accepting philosophy of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In a way, it’s appropriate that one of the framing stories is set in the wake of Kirk’s death, before The Next Generation. Starring “Ambassador” Spock and “Captain” Sulu, it is clearly set in that big gulf of space between the opening sequence of Star Trek: Generations and Encounter at Farpoint. This feels quite right, offering some closure for that era of the show, and a transition from one franchise outlook to another. Although it’s one small part of a much larger book, the final fate of Talos IV feels like it’s a thematically important moment, almost like David George III’s work on Serpents Among the Ruins.

Still, as interesting as all this connective tissue might be, as fascinating as Bonanno’s redemptive reworking of classic Star Trek might be, these aren’t the best parts of Burning Dreams. For one thing, it’s a very well-written book. Appropriately enough, given the subject matter and the characters involved, Bonanno eschews a rigidly linear narrative, instead favouring a more flexible and almost ethereal approach, one that evokes the sense of free association dreaming.

I mentioned “one of the framing stories” above, and Burning Dreams is structured so that the stories involved intertwine and overlap, rather than fitting neatly inside one another. The narrative shifts from Spock’s journey back to Talos IV to Pike’s return to the planet to his first visit to his early career to his childhood. Bonanno doesn’t structure the story as a series of nesting narratives. Instead, there’s a more elastic flow to the story. Things progress thematically, rather than logically.

Plot points and events are alluded to (and even explicitly mentioned) before they occur, making it clear that Burning Dreams isn’t about suspense. The fate of Pike’s family, for example, is discussed in broad terms long before we explore those events in depth. It feels almost like a dream, a stream of consciousness. While some of Bonanno’s other has work has suffered  due to structural problems caused by the author’s loose style (Strangers from the Sky being the best example), it works here. Given the fact that the story visits and revisits the notion of reality as malleable or capable of distortion, it feels appropriate.

It also reads very well, avoiding the temptation to turn the character’s life into a drab series of episodic events built on top of each other like bricks in a wall. Instead, this feels more like sewing a tapestry, with an individual thread tangling and weaving through other strands, occasionally looping back on itself. Bonanno has developed a reputation as a strong character writer, and Burning Dreams is more driven by character and themes than by plot.

In approaching Pike, Bonanno is clearly influenced by several factors. Obviously, you can sense Jeffrey Hunter’s influence here. Unlike some of the stories featuring Pike, it’s not too difficult to imagine Hunter delivering Bonanno’s lines. Pike is written as the closed-off character we saw in Burning Dreams, much more like Picard or even Sisko than James Tiberius Kirk. He’s quiet and introspective, withdrawn. You get a sense, watching The Cage, that Pike was an interesting character, but one much less suited to headlining a sixties television show than his successor.

Indeed, Bonanno seems to acknowledge that Pike more closely resembles Picard than Kirk. Asked why he might be interested in a career in Starfleet, Pike responds, “I want to see what’s out there. Can’t put it in any fancier words than that.” It’s a line that seems to intentionally invite comparison to Picard’s final lines of Encounter at Farpoint, “Let’s see what’s out there.” Picard is very clearly a more “cerebral” character than Kirk, and it’s possible to argue that the more academic and intellectual approach of Star Trek: The Next Generation was more in keeping with The Cage than a lot of the original Star Trek show. Pike, it seems, might just have been the wrong character at the wrong time.

And Bonanno seems to perceive that aspect Pike, perhaps echoed or amplified by the real life tragedy surrounding Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter was an actor who died too young, suffering a cerebral hemorrhage following a freak accident on the set of one of his films. He had been preparing for a role in The Desperados when he passed away in 1969. There’s a sense that, despite several iconic roles in his lifetime, Hunter never really got the credibility or the attention he so sorely deserved.

Bonanno writes Pike as a character who seems perplexed by his own story. We’re told that, after his experiences in The Cage, Pike never trusted the reality unfolding around him:

Not given to talking about himself at the best of times, Christopher Pike was especially reluctant to share the fact that he had spent those years away from Talos IV wondering if he would ever again be able to distinguish reality from dream.

Of course, this feels strangely appropriate. The Cage itself – the one definitive “Pike” story – seemed to exist in an almost intangible state. It was the cornerstone of a massive science-fiction franchise, but it was little known outside the show’s fanbase. It was the first episode of the original Star Trek produced, but it only aired years after the show had ended. It both was and wasn’t.

Which makes Pike something of a tragic figure. His story exists, but was never really told. It never tied together. There was potential for a story. He could have been the leading character of one of the biggest science-fiction franchises of the twentieth century. However, it was not to be – Pike found himself relegated to a silent guest star in a two-part episode where he served as an excuse to play footage from the show’s first pilot, buying time for an over-worked production team.

There’s a sense throughout Burning Dreams that Pike is a character denied a satisfying conclusion. His romances and his associations seem impermanent, incomplete and unsatisfying. Silk, a young female friend from his childhood, disappears from his life entirely after he returns to Earth – and yet he still dreams of her after his accident.  When it seems, towards the end of the novel, Pike might have finally found true love, she retreats from his life entirely. Able to perceive the future, it seems she sees that Pike is not a character who gets an ending or a resolution.

It’s a recurring theme throughout the novel. “Not every mission has a clear-cut ending, Chris,” Commodore Mendez has to assure him at one point. “You win some, you lose some, and some just fade off into nothing.” It seems like Pike was fated to just fade into nothing, and that makes Burning Dreams seem all the more tragic. Kirk is a figure of legend, a figure who couldn’t even remain dead in the tie-in fiction. Pike just sort of dissolved from view.

I think that’s the best part of Bonanno’s approach to Pike, the understanding of the character as a figure who almost seems in search of his own narrative – lacking the sense of certainty and destiny of Kirk or Picard. In the end, Pike earns his ending. It feels fitting that Spock is the character to witness Pike finally close a loop that obviously started in The Cage. Spock is the character who has been there from the beginning, and he’s the character who should be there to see Pike finally get that well-earned and long-sought sense of closure.

There are lots of other nice touches. I like the decision to frame Pike’s origin story as a sort of a Western, another demonstration of how shrewdly Bonanno ties it all together. It’s a smart decision. It obviously finds a way to include Tango, Pike’s horse who appeared briefly in The Cage. More than that, though, it also works as a reference to the way that Roddenberry originally constructed Star Trek as a “space western.” The scenes on Elysium, including plans to introduce populations of wild horses and the primitive Neworlders, seem to speak to that romanticism about the “final frontier” often seen in early Star Trek.

There is more to it than that, though. It serves as another way to tie Pike back to his actor. Jeffrey Hunter is probably most recognisable for his role in John Ford’s The Searchers. Somehow it’s easy to imagine a character played by Hunter growing up in that sort of surrounding, and setting Pike’s childhood at home on a futuristic range feels strangely appropriate beginning for the character – as does the notion that Pike retires to the Mojave between missions.

There are lots of clever touches that demonstrate Bonanno has done her homework – that Burning Dreams is the product of a mind that has spent quite some time slavishly analysing and considering the implications of everything that has appeared on screen. She justifies, for example, the use of fire as a means of punishing Pike in The Cage. She is sure to include a line about the change of management of Starbase 11 between Court Martial and The Menagerie.

And it’s clear she has her own ideas that build on the show, beyond the limitations of television of the time. I especially like the interlude with Pike and the Kan’ess, a reptilian species that are actually logically developed from snakes – for example, they are deaf and communicate via non-verbal cues. This provides an obvious challenge, as it’s something outside the framework of the show. As Spock concedes, “The translator was not designed for a solely gestural language.” There are even finer details, like the idea that “not every species developed all of its technologies in parallel”, and that an entire advanced civilisation of hunter-gatherers could exist.

In a nice touch, I do like that the Kan’ess are portrayed almost as well-developed and well-expanded science-fiction B-movie villains, right down to keeping an Earthman as their pet and planning to invite some more humans to their planet for dinner. They are obviously far better characterised than most such alien menaces, but Bonanno uses them in such a way that they wouldn’t feel too out of place on an episode of The Outer Limits. Which, of course, feels appropriate. The Cage could have served well as an episode of The Outer Limits.

Burning Dreams is a great little book, and a reminder of why Bonanno is one of the best tie-in writers ever to work on the franchise. It’s a well-thought-out and cleverly constructed story of one of the most pivotal and fascinating characters in the history of Star Trek, but one which finds something interesting and worthy (and affecting) to say about him.

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

One Response

  1. i decided to get in on the conversation. i don’t know if they update this page but having watched captain pike on star trek discovery his injury is more horrifying. to complete his mission he needs a time crystal. to take the crystal means to see a vision. the vision shows the accident in graphic detail. pike sees himself burned and then ravaged by the radiation. in the vision he meets himself in the life support chair and is horrified. as the vision ends the pike in the chair begins to melt in front of him. his face looked like it was falling off. pike is so horrified at the vision he recites the starfleet mantra which talks about duty and sacrifice. the keeper of the crystals tells pike he can avoid that future by not taking the crystal for if he does he can not escape his fate. pike takes the crystal to complete his mission however.

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