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Star Trek – Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett (Review)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

Ex Machina is really an astoundingly clever piece of work. On the surface, a lot of reads like a fan’s wishlist, a collection of “snags” made while watching the classic Star Trek films and making a conscious effort to fix them up a bit. There’s a lot of effort into explaining the changes between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with character-centric subplots focusing on Kirk’s ego or Chekov’s growing disenfranchisement.

Indeed, Bennett even provides an entirely unnecessary but quite-enjoyable-nonetheless set of annotations for Ex Machina, explaining where and how he’s tying his story into a rake of continuity. He describes Ex Machina as probing “an unexplored gap” in the franchise’s chronology. Ex Machina exists as both a sequel to a rather bland third-season episode of the show (For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky) and The Motion Picture. Neither is especially loved among fans.

However, what’s fascinating about Ex Machina is the way that none of this prevents Bennett from crafting a compelling and intriguing narrative. It’s clear that he’s enjoying attempts to fill in various gaps, but Ex Machina works incredibly well as a piece of Star Trek which stands on its own two feet.

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Religion is a bit of a tricky beast. For a show broadcast in the sixties, Star Trek was positively bold. As Ex Machina repeatedly points out, Kirk and his crew were frequently cast as “godkillers”, acting as “those Fedraysha blasphemers, who hunted down gods and killed them wherever they found them.” Episodes like The Return of the ArchonsThe Apple and For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky saw Kirk confronting computers and aliens posing as religious deities, only to assert that people should not be dominated or controlled by religion.

Even being broadcast at the end of the sixties, this was a radically atheist philosophy, rather in line with the personal beliefs of Gene Roddenberry. Like the show’s handling of the Vietnam War, it was rendered inoffensive through allegory, but felt subversive and a little bit cheeky. Ex Machina essentially revisits those concepts, with Bennett accounting for the way that the world itself has changed since Star Trek went off the air.

To be fair, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine offered a religious philosophy for the nineties. Cults tended to pop up quite frequently in stories like Paradise or Covenant, but the show was – broadly speaking – more tolerant of religious belief. The show’s lead character was a religious figure, destiny existed, and the show refused to definitively state that the creatures worshipped by the Bajorans were not gods. Godhood, it suggested, was in the eye of the beholder.

It spoke to the new age spirituality of the nineties. It’s telling that relatively little of the Bajoran religion was explored. It wasn’t excessively ritualised, with various Bajorans choosing to worship in their own way. The Kai was a mostly political position, and Vedeks seemed to occupy a niche between philosophers and librarians. (And, apparently, gardeners.) In the right hands, faith could be a powerful tool in the journey to self-realisation.

Of course, attitudes towards religion have shifted since the nineties. The rise of Islamophobia and fear of fanaticism in the wake of 9/11 (to the point where even those working in the US military have tended to conglomerate Islam as a religion with terrorist extremism) as well as the increased polarisation of religious politics in the United States (fostered in no small part by the resurgence of the religious right since the mid-nineties and the ever-increasing profile of fringe hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church).

Star Trek: Enterprise broached the idea of religion in episodes like Chosen Realm and the Kir’Shara trilogy, but it never really grappled directly with the conflict between religion and secularism. In that regard, Ex Machina feels like an attempt to pick up those threads and themes from the classic Star Trek and reevaluate them in the modern world. Would Kirk so recklessly and so presumptively topple religions today? Or is there something a little too imperialist and confrontational about telling a people what they can or can’t believe?

Is Kirk “at best a well-meaning cultural imperialist”? It’s a criticism that could easily be levelled at the original Star Trek. Indeed, writer David Gerrold made some similar criticisms in his World of Star Trek book. “While Kirk was occasionally in error, never was there a script in which the Enterprise’s mission or goals were questioned,” Gerrold argued. “Never did they run into a situation that might have been better off without their intervention.”

Ex Machina raises the possibility quite seriously, and it marks something of a transition. It’s the point where Star Trek becomes a bit more introspective and questioning. As such, positioning the story between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan feels quite astute. Directly overseen by Gene Roddenberry, The Motion Picture feels like a direct update of the television series for the late seventies. In fact, it was originally conceived as a television pilot for a relaunched television show.

In contrast, The Wrath of Khan is more introspective and questioning. It calls Kirk into question, holding him to task for his repeated arrogance and demonstrating that his decisions have consequences he can’t foresee. The Wrath of Khan sees Kirk confronting his son for the first time, and also sees the death of his best friend at the hands of an enemy he unilaterally vanquished in Space Seed. It’s a story about growing old, and how the past tends to haunt us.

Bennett cleverly positions Ex Machina between these two stories. It forces Kirk and his crew to confront the consequences of their meddling in an alien society, and face up to the fact that things don’t always work out as they might intend. Despite what episodes like A Taste of Armageddon and The Return of the Archons might suggest, you can’t just force your liberal model of society on a people and expect society to start functioning overnight.

Indeed, quite a lot of Ex Machina works well as thematic foreshadowing of The Wrath of Khan, delving into Kirk’s “pattern of abandonment.” In a moment of reflection which hints at the trouble lying ahead of him, he observes, “So I washed my hands of the problem and went on my merry way. I hardly ever bothered to check up on any of the worlds I’d interfered with.” Those include the worlds where he settled genocidal dictators, it would seem.

That said, it’s interesting that Bennett plays into the idea that Kirk knew about David Marcus. I always interpreted his conversation with Carol in The Wrath of Khan as implying that she merely asked him to stay away and never told him why. Kirk being Kirk, I assumed he simply hadn’t followed up on the point – just like it seemed he never followed up on anything. I always felt that it made the themes of The Wrath of Khan a bit more potent, playing into the idea of Kirk as a massively influential figure who tended to disappear far too quick into the ether.

Bennett also takes advantage of the opportunity to do a little tidying up, to smooth over the gaps between The Motion Picture and the rest of the films starring the original cast, devoting some well-integrated throwaway lines into explaining matters as minor as the sudden change in uniforms. “Blasted quartermasters can’t make up their minds anyway—we’ll probably have new uniforms in another six months. Well, maybe for once they’ll design something that doesn’t look like a pair of pajamas.”

Bennett even offers some closure and growth to the supporting cast, with Nurse (Doctor!) Chapel moving beyond her rather hopeless and almost tragic crush on Spock – perhaps an acknowledgement that the original Star Trek never treated its female characters too well. “Well, you don’t have to worry, Mr. Spock,” she offers, expressing an outlook more in keeping with a futuristic portrayal of a medical professional. “I’ve long since gotten over that silly little crush. I finally realized I wasn’t doing myself any good, constantly falling for distant, undemonstrative men.”

Ex Machina isn’t just a fascinating piece of Star Trek mythology. Indeed, Bennett remains true to the spirit of the franchise, offering a story which works effectively as a parable or metaphor. The situation with the settled colonists “liberated” from oppressive theocracy has rather obvious parallels with Afghanistan, and the suggestion that reconstruction is not as easy as one might hope. It’s nice to see Bennett using the franchise for pointed commentary and to handle themes and ideas which are obviously relevant to the modern world.

There’s a lot more relativism than we’re used to in Ex Machina, and that’s a good thing. Kirk is forced to confront the reality that some of his past actions haven’t been as virtuous or as clean-cut as he might like to believe – or even as the narrative of a sixties American television show would suggest. “He was a trained soldier, and he understood that in war you used whatever means necessary to stay alive and win the fight. He’d engaged in tactics that could be called terrorist— destroying the munitions dump on Organia, blasting the Eminians’ computers and disintegration booths. And he’d do it again if he were forced to.”

Ex Machina is, rather consciously, a piece of postcolonial Star Trek, written with a sensibility an outlook arguably closer to Deep Space Nine than any of the other spin-offs. There’s a respect for the beliefs of cultures less technologically advanced than the Federation, an appreciation for how those beliefs allowed them to survive. “There was a special strength to subjugated cultures, a determination to retain their identity against all odds, and usually it was the intangibles of faith that they clung to when their oppressors stripped away everything else they had.”

So Ex Machina works because Bennett has an innate understanding of what Star Trek is, and how to use it. It’s not just the trappings or the themes or the continuity or the characters. It’s dressing up things that trouble or concern us about the wider world and using them to tell an interesting and thoughtful story – one that might seem too blunt or too on-the-nose to handle directly. It’s using science-fiction as a vehicle for social commentary, using a concept from the sixties without feeling handcuffed to the values or norms of the era.

It’s modernisation, but in a clever and unobtrusive way. It demonstrates that Kirk and Spock are timeless, by looking at this same universe through more modern sensibilities, daring to question what came before. And Bennett loves to question and challenge and provoke. While other writers will often try to paper over plot holes or shoddy contrivances, Bennett stops short of explicitly acknowledging these flaws and these troublesome little bits.

Indeed, a considerable amount of space is dedicated to gently mocking and ridiculing some of the weaker elements of For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. (References to Natira’s “stilted formality” feel like none-too-subtle criticism of the performance.) Bennett even points out some of the rather contrived plotting, what with McCoy suddenly having a fatal illness and then – just as suddenly – not having a fatal illness. He even refers to the somewhat contrived set-up of The Motion Picture, where the Enterprise is the only ship capable of defending Earth, as “preposterous.”

One of the important things about being a Star Trek fan, as it is with being a fan of anything, is a willingness to concede that sometimes the object of your affection can be a bit crap. Sometimes things make no sense. Sometimes things are broken, or they don’t work. It’s not about providing excuses for some of the unfortunate sexual or racial politics of a piece of television from the sixties, and it’s not about trying to dress up or excuse or rationalise those flaws. Some times you just have to admit that they exist.

Because if you can’t recognise the flaws, then there’s no real value in celebrating the good stuff. Appreciating something like Star Trek shouldn’t be about loving blindly or unquestioningly. It should be about being able to accept that the thing you love isn’t perfect, but – when it works – it can be transcendental. Bennett very clearly isn’t entirely satisfied with some aspects of the original Star Trek. However, the fact he’s willing to admit that and own up to it doesn’t devalue his obvious affection.

Because it is very clear from Ex Machina that Bennett loves the show. After all, why else would you write a book set after The Motion Picture? There are other more fun and better-loved parts of the mythology, but it’s clear that The Motion Picture resonates with him. He gets a kick out of writing for the rich assortment of aliens featured in the film, elevating many bit-part players into members of his supporting cast. Bennett relishes the opportunity to write for characters who appeared for mere seconds in the final cut of the film.

Bennett’s introduction cites Diane Duane as a major influence, and he even finds time to reference her short story Night Whispers from the Enterprise Logs collection. (He also borrows her justification for the mind-meld grip from The Last Word.) There’s a clear thematic link between Bennett’s work and the work of Duane. Both celebrate the capacity for diversity in the franchise, featuring Starfleet crews which are markedly more unique than those featured on the show. Bennett’s version of the Enterprise, building off the more advanced make-up effects seen in The Motion Picture, feels positively cosmopolitan.

Indeed, one senses that the diversity of the aliens featured in The Motion Picture played a large part in attracting him to that particular era of Kirk’s adventures. The Enterprise is populated by aliens who look and feel alien, with Bennett relishing the opportunity to develop the supporting cast without distracting too much from the leads or the crisis itself. Indeed, just because he builds an interesting supporting cast doesn’t mean he overlooks the regulars, devoting time to foreshadow Chekov’s transfer to the Reliant or Sulu’s pursuit of command.

(I quite like that Bennett explains their dynamic as working on an “opposites attract” principle, with Chekov the ardent nationalist and conservative provoking the interest of Sulu the renaissance man. I also don’t mind the implication that part of the reason Chekov left the crew was because he no longer sat beside Sulu on the bridge. It makes a great deal of sense on a character level, and contextualises the fact that those two cast members were the ones who developed most outside the tightly-knit family.)

There are moments when Bennett goes a little bit too far, when his indulgences get a little bit much (having Nurse Chapel – the character played by Majel Barrett Roddenberry – ask both “do I sound like the computer to you?” and “do I look like somebody’s mother to you?” leans slightly too heavily on the fourth wall), but he mostly balances the demands of telling his own story with the joy of a fan playing in a beloved sandbox quite well. (And yet, for some reason, having Sulu reference Takei’s “oh… my” and occasionally playing with Shatner’s pauses works fine for me.)

Still, there are moments of quirky genius here, as Bennett gleefully reveals he’s put far too much thought into things – something of a hobby for the obsessive fan. (Trust me on this, I know from obsessive fans.) The joy is often infectious, with any Star Trek fan likely to go “I never thought of that” or “that actually makes a surprising amount of sense” when Bennett offers one rationale or another for a piece of the mythology.

Ex Machina is a worthy and joyful celebration of an esoteric and oft-overlooked period of Star Trek history, at once an ode to a by-gone age and yet a clever modernisation of some of the franchise’s core qualities. It’s a clever and fun début from Christopher L. Bennett, and one well worth checking out for anybody who likes a bit of social commentary in their Star Trek or even just occasionally wonders what an expanded version of The Motion Picture might look like.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

 

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for such a thoughtful and flattering review! To give credit where it’s due, though, the bit about the mind-meld grip being based on the optimal neural access points comes from Diane Duane’s “The Last Word,” issue #28 of DC Comics’s first STAR TREK series.

    • Thanks Christopher! A pleasure to hear from you and many thanks for your kind words. I will correct that mind-meld-y bit forthwith! (I feel particularly embarrassed because I actually reviewed The Last Word as part of this project.

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