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Star Trek – Crucible: McCoy – Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III (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.

The classic Star Trek was not really a character-driven show. Of course, everybody recognises Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but the show seldom took the time to really dig into their history or origins. We’d occasionally find out that Kirk had some overlap with the villain of the week. He had served on a starship that had been the victim of a vampire space cloud, or lived on a colony during a brutal massacre. These details added up to something, along with the occasional reference to (and eventual death of) his brother Sam.

Spock got a bit more development, probably due to the fact that he was an alien. After all, developing Spock meant developing an entire exotic alien species, and offered some insight into how Vulcans must live. We’d also get occasional factoids or tidbits (Vulcans can mind meld, they have inner eyes, they had a schism millennia ago) that help to give a concrete picture of the where the character came from and where he might like to go.

McCoy, on the other hand, was a bit of a blank slate. Everybody knows McCoy. He’s the irritable surgeon on the ship, prone to insulting Spock and complaining about the fact that he’s flying through space in a ship filled with mechanical doo-hickeys. However, we never really get a sense of McCoy’s past. We never learn much about his family on-screen, except when the writers wanted a bit of dramatic fodder in the penultimate movie featuring the original cast, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. But we don’t talk about that.

So David R. George III’s Crucible: McCoy – Provenance of Shadows is an interesting book. Not only because it is a book completely devoted to the least-developed of the iconic leading trio, but also because this relatively under-developed character also gets one of the longest Star Trek tie-in books ever written. And without too much focus on his past.

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Okay, that’s not entirely fair. It’s hard to define a character as “under-developed” when you can picture them so clearly. DeForest Kelley defined McCoy so brilliantly, and the character worked as a foil to Spock so perfectly, that he is an essential part of the Star Trek franchise. That said, it’s worth noting that the character actually received relatively little back story or development as the show went on.

Ironically, the only time the show really acknowledges McCoy’s past is in the character’s first appearance, in the first episode of Star Trek to air. In The Man Trap, McCoy encounters an old girlfriend living in the middle of nowhere. However, the show didn’t quite develop that angle. While McCoy’s attachment to Nancy creates a nice hook when it turns out that she’s an evil shape-changing salt vampire, the show never really develops their emotional connection.

They are pleasant to each other, they seem to enjoy each other’s company, but neither seems to want to spend too much time reminiscing, and there’s never any hint that the two might hope to rekindle an old spark. It’s just nice to see one another and… oh, yeah… she has been replaced by the last murderous salt vampire in existence. This seems to set the pattern for McCoy’s personal life.

In For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky, McCoy thinks he is dying. So he settles down on an asteroid and marries a beautiful priestess, in what seems to be the Star Trek version of a mid-life crisis. When it turns out that he has been miraculously cured, he leaves. She is never mentioned again. To be fair, this is par for the course in episodic television. Serialised storytelling didn’t exist at the time, certainly not in the way that we take for granted today.

Emotional attachments forged over one episode where quick to be forgotten. Kirk never mentioned Edith Keeler after The City on the Edge of Forever, and Spock never made a passing reference to Zarabeth following All Our Yesterdays. However, there was a sense of devastation in the closing scenes of those episodes missing from McCoy’s decision to abandon his new wife. Not to mention the fact that it took extraordinary circumstances to pull Kirk and Spock from their true loves. McCoy, on the other hand, simply discovered that he’d be hanging around for more than a year.

The fact that McCoy’s back story is rarely mentioned seems to give proof to this. The writers’ bible, produced at the end of the first season, gives us a glimpse at McCoy’s history:

Dr. McCoy is 45 years of age, was married once… something of a mystery that ended unhappily in a divorce. He has a daughter, “Joanna”, who is 20 and in training as a nurse somewhere. McCoy has provided for her, hears from her as often as intergalactic mail permits, but his duty aboard the starship keeps them apart. We will suspect that it was the bitterness of this marriage and divorce which turned McCoy to the Space Service.

While that fits with the portrayal on-screen, it is never explicitly mentioned. A casual fan could go through the entire television show and never realise that McCoy had been married, let alone that he had a daughter. To be fair, his daughter had originally been scheduled to make an appearance in The Way to Eden, but that didn’t work out. While Kirk and Spock got next-of-kin in the live action television show, McCoy would have to wait until the animated spin-off to even mention his daughter. (In The Survivor, for those keeping track.)

As a result of this lack of development, it seems like a lot of McCoy didn’t develop organically from the stories, but from DeForest Kelley himself. Indeed, playing McCoy turned out to be a bit of wish fulfilment for the actor, as friend and assistant Kristine M. Smith noted:

He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, delivered at home by his uncle, who was also a doctor for the Governor of Georgia at that time. His uncle thought De would make a fine doctor; De’s dad, a Baptist minister, thought De would make a fine preacher. De thought he would make a fine cowboy, since his family didn’t have enough money to send him to college to pursue a career as a physician. De often joked at conventions, “But I did become both a doctor and a cowboy – in motion pictures!”

Indeed, much of McCoy came from Kelley himself. The actor’s home (Atlanta, Georgia) became the character’s point of origin. One piece of the actor’s personal history bled through and became part of the character, as the actor’s biography – From Sawdust to Stardust – notes:

Roddenberry knew there were a few lines that could not be crossed with Kelley, and one small instance dramatised this. DeForest recalled: “I had great trouble when we started Star Trek. Roddenberry said no jewelry, and I had [my mother’s ring] on, and he said no jewellery, and I said, no jewellery, no deForest.” That’s all there was to it. Just like that, everyone knew he meant it. Clora’s ring became part of Dr. Leonard McCoy.

“Everything to do with McCoy we did with Kelley’s input. We created McCoy with Kelley right there,” Dorothy Fontana remembers. Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek, but DeForest Kelley created Dr. McCoy.

So David R. George III didn’t really have a lot to draw on when creating the character of McCoy. Indeed, somewhat counter-intuitively, one imagines that Margaret Wander Bonanno probably found it a lot easier to write “the definitive Pike novel” for the show’s fortieth anniversary, Burning Dreams.

George composed a trilogy of stories, each revolving around a member of the main trio. Deciding to pick a single episode as a focal point, the author chose The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s a smart choice. Not only is it one of the best Star Trek stories ever, or one of the best science-fiction tales ever told, it is also iconic and accessible. It has a great premise, a nice hook. In more practical terms, it also features all three of the main characters, with each given a fair amount to do.

Somewhat characteristically, McCoy is the least developed of the trio in The City on the Edge of Forever, with so much of his role implied or left to the imagination. McCoy triggers the crisis that sends Kirk and Spock to New York to save the future, but we spend most of the episode with the captain and his loyal first officer. McCoy’s role is pivotal, but it doesn’t take up as much screen time or even garner that much attention. When Kirk holds back McCoy to stop him from saving Edith Keeler, we obviously understand McCoy’s frustration at watching the woman die, but the episode hinges on Kirk’s anguish and guilt.

George hones in on a very interesting idea, and one which ingeniously fits within the structure of The City on the Edge of Forever. When McCoy first went through, he altered history in such a way that Starfleet or the Enterprise never existed, that Kirk and the away team found themselves alone on a deserted rock with no way home and the universe altered around them. Kirk and Spock went back in time, stopped McCoy from changing history and returned home.

However, what happened to that first McCoy? The one who went through and saved Edith Keeler? Perhaps he simply faded instantly from existence, as his future never existed for him to travel back in time. However, George wonders, what if that McCoy went on to live a life in this altered timeline? What if he were forced to live our the rest of his life in twentieth-century America, in the shadow of the Great Depression and a radically different Second World War?

It’s a great hook, and George uses it to get an angle on McCoy. Unlike, for example, Burning Dreams, we don’t revisit McCoy’s past. We discover about his formative experiences, that his mother died in childbirth, that his father resented him, that he worked on a cotton plantation after his father felt he had grown too attached to technology. However, we don’t revisit these moments as anything more than fleeting memories, or hints of dreams.

It’s an approach that suits McCoy well. The writers’ guide characterised McCoy as a character always on the run, and it feels appropriate that George allows the character to avoid directly confronting his past, at least until the last quarter of the novel. We start on the run, following his divorce, following his rocky relationship with Joanna, following the death of his father. We seldom look back, and never through any choice of McCoy. What memories emerge are pushed to the fore by his subconscious or by forces outside of his control.

George characterises McCoy well, recognising patterns in his behaviour that point to some underlying personal issues:

As I did, I noticed an aspect of the show that had probably arisen as an artefact of the writing, rather than as something intentional: Doctor McCoy does not seem to have a good romantic life. He dates very little in the show, though he clearly likes women. Reference is also made to an old flame that got away, and in the animated series, a daughter is revealed. What could have caused his lonely adult life, I wondered, and I looked to the films for an answer. There, we saw a difficult relationship with his father, which seemed a good place to start. Slowly, I conceived a backstory for McCoy consistent with everything we’d ever seen on screen, but pointing to a part of the character never really addressed.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. George is a writer who excels at filling in the blanks, connecting smaller indicators into a broader picture.

Indeed, most of the book seems to have been drawn from a two line exchange in For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky, which George includes here. It pretty much comes as close to summing up George’s vision of McCoy as any line actually spoken on the show:

“You have lived a lonely life?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he admitted. “Very lonely.”

George also draws on the observations made in the writers’ bible. In a rare moment of self-awareness, McCoy concedes, “For a time, space travel was something of a refuge for me.”

Provenance of Shadows also connects McCoy’s profession with his personality, suggesting that his approach to life is somehow reflected in his philosophy on medicine. Perhaps, based on advice he gives his daughter, what makes him a good doctor is what made him a bad father:

“Care, but not too much,” he’d said. “You’ll be a better nurse that way.” At the time, she’d thought his advice about maintaining emotional distance had been simply a function of his character, not as a physician, but as a man. At least according to Joanna’s mother, his detachment had been a major cause of the end of their marriage.

The story is filled with wry character observations like that.

The book is essentially split in half, with chapters alternating between McCoy’s life in Star Trek from The City on the Edge of Forever to his passing shortly after the events of Encounter at Farpoint and his life on twentieth-century Earth. It’s a very ambitious structure for a novel, quite experimental for a tie-in and quite unlike anything else ever attempted in a Star Trek book. As an idea, it is bold and clever, and precisely the sort of creative approach to the franchise that we should see more often. It helps that the execution is top notch.

George hits upon something fascinating. It’s something that makes perfect sense in the context of The City on the Edge of Forever, but the show never really hinted at – one of those ideas that fits so perfectly that it’s hard to believe this is the first time that it has been suggested. George makes the observation that McCoy might actually have been happier living out his life on an ancient Earth than he was for most of his life in the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries.

It’s a challenging idea, given how idealistic about the future Star Trek is. We are led to believe that everything will be better in the world of Star Trek, so it’s strange to imagine a character more suited to a primitive lifestyle than the progressive opportunities of the distant future. Life is so much more convenient, so much idyllic, that it’s hard to image anybody raised in that paradise could exist for too long outside it. On the other hand, McCoy seems perfectly suited to live in that version of Earth, much moreso than Kirk or Spock.

There are multiple reasons for that. Of the trio, McCoy is the closest character to modern man, the one most likely to offer a view that would resonate with contemporary audiences. As Roddenberry described him, McCoy is the “voice of humanity.” It helps that DeForest Kelley plays the character as if he has wandered out of a western, much more than the characters of Kirk and Spock. He’s also a bit of a technophobe, with the writers’ guide pointing out that he is “highly practical in the old ‘general practitioner’ sense” and fears that “perfect medicine, psychotherapy and computers may rob mankind of his individuality.”

So McCoy fits in much better than Kirk or Spock probably ever could. While Spock famously referred to the technology of the time as “stone knives and bear skins”, McCoy seemed to adapt quite well. “Initially, the primitive state of health care on 1930s Earth had frustrated him, but he’d quickly accepted it,” we’re told. He even fits in quite well socially as well, even conceding that he drew some measure of satisfaction from the religious services of the period. “He had expected to find the services difficult to sit through, but that hadn’t been the case.”

Of course, George also realises that trapping McCoy in the past greatly limits his ability to run from his problems. Space is limitless, and the Enterprise disappears for years at a time. In contrast, McCoy is lost and somewhat isolated in the past. He has less freedom to just take off at the first sign of trouble. (Indeed, his first attempt to get anywhere outside New York demonstrates that it’s also a very risky proposition.) George hints that a version of McCoy trapped on Earth would be more likely to face and confront his own demons, due to the fact that it’s a lot harder to run away.

George wisely decides to avoid populating the book with cameos or continuity references. Edith Keeler obviously plays a major role, but most of the rest of the supporting cast on McCoy’s trip to the past are original creations. He only slips in one sly reference, and one one he pitches in such a way that isn’t intrusively obvious who he is referring to:

“Thanks,” Benny said. “But I don’t really have much of an appetite.” He spoke in a strangely exact way, with something of a staccato delivery to his words.

That might be the best description of Avery Brooks’ performance style that I have ever read. George doesn’t make the cameo too intrusive, only mentioning the surname once, in passing, long after the character disappears from the book. Limiting cameos like this prevents continuity references from overwhelming the character work that George is attempting, avoiding some of the problems which dogged The Eugenics Wars.

Provenance of Shadows isn’t your typical Star Trek novel. One half of the book follows McCoy trying to establish his own life on a doomed world. The other half isn’t so much a narrative story as a collection of insights slotting between various episodes and films. In his preface, George writes that he avoided a lot of the continuity of other novels in crafting this story, hoping to make the fortieth anniversary book more accessible to new or casual readers.

I have no problem with George’s decision to avoid tying in too heavily to the continuity of various spin-off books, but it is interesting that the book relies so heavily on the reader’s knowledge of Star Trek lore, fitting between particular adventures. I suppose it makes sense. After all, anybody picking up a fortieth anniversary trade paperback will likely know they Star Trek inside out, and George was probably hoping to attract new tie-in readers, rather than new Star Trek fans.

I really like George’s approach here. As a rule, Star Trek was highly episodic. Stuff rarely carried over from one episode to the next. Whatever the crew dealt with in a week was confined to that week, and rarely spilled over. Certainly, there was little evidence that the characters really dealt with the emotional consequences of the events of a given episode. This made sense. That was the model of television at the time, in an era before serialisation. The network liked to be able to chop and change the order in which the show broadcast, and they wanted viewers to be able to tune in on any given week without feeling locked out.

This created a weird sense of disconnect, and George notes this. It seems like Kirk went from losing Edith Keeler in The City on the Edge of Forever straight to discovering his brother was dead in Operation: Annihilate, with no real sense of how that must have affected him as a man. George suggests that what we see on-screen is Kirk’s way of dealing with things, and that this disconnect is a sign of how badly he is coping. As Spock advises McCoy, “I am not concerned that Captain Kirk has taken too long to accept the deaths of his brother and sister-in-law. I am concerned that he has not taken long enough.”

One of the better aspects of the story involving the “real” McCoy, George tries to connect the events of these episodes, to turn them from a bunch of random incidents into a serialised space adventure. As he points out, the end of the first season is particularly rough:

Prior to the incidents on Deneva and with the Guardian of Forever, the Enterprise had been on the front lines of what had nearly become a shooting war with the Klingons, and before that, there had been the deadly search on Janus VI for the creature killing miners. Uhura also recalled the struggle to evacuate colonists from Omicron Ceti III; the attempt by a group of twentieth-century, selectively bred warriors, revived from suspended animation, to commandeer the ship; and the tensions the crew had undergone when the captain, Mr. Spock, and their landing party—as well as the entire ship’s complement—had been declared casualties in the computer-controlled war between Eminiar and Vendikar.

That has got to take its toll.

Towards the end, he connects many events of the original television series in a chain of events that make Kirk’s life seem especially tragic, in a way that the franchise never really handled on screen. When George points it out, the losses seem rather potent and cumulative, and it’s hard to believe that anything could have been worth all that suffering:

And Jim, Spock thought. What about Jim? In the admiral’s life, bereavement had become all too present a companion. Beyond the crew who had perished under his command, and for whom Jim felt absolute responsibility, his grandparents had died in his youth, and his parents after that. He had seen Gary Mitchell, his closest friend at the time, mutate into something sinister and dangerous, and Jim had been forced to kill Mitchell himself. He had found his only sibling, his brother Sam, dead on Deneva, and had watched his sister-in-law die in agony not long afterward. Miramanee, carrying his unborn child, had been stoned to death, and another love, Rayna Kapec, had essentially committed suicide.

Perhaps it’s for the best that the show was episodic. All that loss adding up would probably have turned the show from a science-fiction adventure into a grim existentialist tragedy. All that pain and all that death. It actually makes the Nexus subplot in Star Trek: Generations work a lot better. After all, Kirk is entitled to his little slice of heaven, right?

George is very good at providing cause-and-effect reasoning to link events seen in the franchise. Some of his nicer, smaller observations include the suggestion that the presence of reporters on the bridge of the Enterprise-B in Star Trek: Generations was an attempt at PR damage control after the revelations at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, or that the historical gap between the Enterprise-C and the Enterprise-D was observed out of respect for the sacrifice of the former ship.

There’s also a sense that George is quite willing to acknowledge plot holes or other problems in a slightly playful manner, and that he doesn’t take the classic television show too seriously. Discussing the events of Operation: Annihilate, he pauses to consider the aerodynamics and ropey special effects powering the flight of the neural parasites:

It flew quickly but awkwardly; that it could fly at all seemed a mystery, considering its unwieldy body and that it not only did not have wings, but possessed no appendages of any sort.

Writing about For the World is Hallow and I Have Touched the Sky, he points out a rather glaring plothole and acknowledges that some of Kirk’s dialogue seemed a little out of character.

If no way could be found to safely alter the path of the asteroid-ship, then Starfleet would doubtless order the people of Yonada told the facts and transplanted to another world. Though technically a violation of the noninterference principles, it would provide a justifiable and acceptable alternative to allowing Yonada to collide with Daran V and its nearly four billion inhabitants. Just before leaving Yonada with Spock, Kirk had told McCoy that if necessary, Starfleet would blast Yonada out of the sky, a valid claim, though one he’d exaggerated for effect in order to convince the doctor to return to the Enterprise.

Indeed, at one point, the book makes what seems like a criticism of Captain Kathryn Janeway’s behaviour in the Star Trek: Voyager episode Night, as Kirk considers the ways of dealing with his mounting grief:

“I have a job to do, a duty to perform. I’m responsible for the lives of more than four hundred crew, and for a while there, as you mentioned to me at the time, I was also responsible for the lives of more than a million people on Deneva. I didn’t have time to lock myself in my quarters and feel sorry for myself.”

Given that Janeway did precisely that at the start of the show’s fifth season, it’s hard not to read that as a bit of meta-criticism of that creative decision. Then again, Janeway really suffered as a character because the writers had no idea what to do with her. But that’s a debate for another time.

You could probably make the argument that George has really constructed a bunch of scene transitions, filling in blanks in the mythology rather than telling a cohesive story. I understand that view. There are overarching elements to the plot – Spock and McCoy’s investigations of Kirk’s strange bio-readings, McCoy’s relationship with Tonia Barrows from Shore Leave – but it does all feel rather disjointed and disconnected. Then again, that feels like the point of it all. McCoy is constantly running away from stability, so it makes sense that his life is less of an arc and more a random series of events.

It’s really more of an opportunity for George to share his insight on what holds the Star Trek universe (and its characters) together. George even considers the meta-physics of transporters, as a young Kirk wonders whether you move through the universe, or the universe moves around you, prompting his father to offer some insight:

When finally he’d spoken, he’d told Jim that both feelings and reality depended upon points of view and points of reference. Since apparently everything in the universe moved with respect to everything else, he’d supposed that you could arbitrarily select a point and declare it the center of the universe, about which everything else remained in motion. So if they considered Jim—and his brother—the center of the universe, then yes, the universe actually had dissolved and re-formed about them.

It’s very hard to resist a writer who can handle such a fundamental aspect of the franchise in such an intelligent manner.

Provenance of Shadows is really unlike any Star Trek novel ever published. It’s not a book I’d recommend for anybody with only a passing knowledge of the franchise, but it’s something that rewards people with an in-depth knowledge of their Star Trek. It is, as with any David R. George III novel, exceedingly smart and well-written, and very rewarding. It’s cleverly constructed and has a wonderful central premise. However, I suspect that it isn’t for everybody, and won’t be what everybody expects when they want to read a book centring on the life of Leonard Horatio McCoy.

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It’s a wonderful novel, and certainly among the best produced for the franchise in quite some time, crafted with an obvious love of the material, and thoughtful approach to the franchise.

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

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