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Star Trek – Crucible: Spock – The Fire and the Rose by David R. George III (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.

The second part of David R. George II’s epic Crucible trilogy, The Fire and the Rose, can’t quite measure up to the charm and warmth of the first instalment in the series, Provenance of Shadows. George’s Crucible trilogy is a breathtakingly ambitious piece of work. Celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek with a trilogy of novels, each grounded in The City on the Edge of Forever and each based around a different member of the show’s leading trinity. The Fire and the Rose is still a very smart and well-constructed read, but it stands in the shadow of the first of George’s three books.

I suspect that at least part of the reason The Fire and the Rose doesn’t work as well is down to the subject. Leonard McCoy is a vitally important Star Trek character, but he was also a relatively under-developed one. While he was one of the leading trio on the original show, he was never as popular as Kirk and Spock, and never garnered the same amount of attention. (Notwithstanding solid work done by writers like Diane a Duane.) So McCoy was a relatively blank canvas for George to develop.

In contrast, Spock is the face of Star Trek. He was part of the first episode of Star Trek ever produced. He appeared in the most recent film released. Although DeForest Kelley christened Star Trek: The Next Generation with a cameo in Encounter at Farpoint, Leonard Nimoy’s visit to the spin-off earned a full two-parter in Unification. As such, Spock is a character who has been developed and explored and expanded by countless writers over the franchise’s long history.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine there’s too much left to say about him. George tries quite hard, and find a nuance or two, but The Fire and the Rose feels more like an attempt to consolidate what we already know of Spock.

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That sounds a bit harsh. The Fire and the Rose is a good read, and an enjoyable slice of Star Trek fiction. George has a wonderful knack for trying to contextualise information scattered across the franchise’s history, consolidating it not only into a form which makes sense, but a form which makes for an interesting story. The little contradictions and omissions and oversights all tell their own story, and George tends to find a way to weave these into his own story with relative ease – creating a story thriving on the conflict between various pieces of franchise canon.

In his introduction, George concedes that The Fire and the Rose began life as something radically different than the version finally released. He had originally planned to provide a story bridging Spock’s last appearance with Kirk in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and his reappearance in Unification during The Next Generation. How did Spock decide to abandon the Federation and go to Romulus? What happens to have one of the most iconic and influential Starfleet officers disappear without informing anybody?

It’s a good hook for a story, but George argues that it wouldn’t really be an appropriate subject for the original show’s fortieth anniversary. It would be more focused on the characters and politics of The Next Generation, which would defeat the purpose of publishing it as part of a milestone celebration based around James Tiberius Kirk and his iconic crew. It would be a Spock story, but it would not be a Star Trek story.

George makes a convincing argument, but I can’t help but wonder whether Spock’s trip to Romulus and his decision to abandon the Federation might have provided a somewhat sturdier framework for this story. After all, each of the three books does extend into the era of The Next Generation, as our heroes reflect back on their own time exploring strange new worlds.

That said, The Fire and the Rose does pick up one small thread hinted at in The Next Generation. Central to George’s vision of Spock as a character is the idea that Spock doesn’t always make the best choices in life. We like to believe that all of our growth and choices push us in a particular direction, towards a particular goal. It’s nice to think that once we have made things right they will stay that way. After all, given the hard work invested, why can’t things stay the way we want them to. Any momentum is forwards, any setback temporary.

The Next Generation suggests that this is not the case for Spock. The character spent so much time trying to reconcile his human and Vulcan halves. He struggled to earn the respect of his father, the stern Vulcan Ambassador Sarek. Journey to Babel revealed that the pair did not get along, and had not seen eye-to-eye for some time. That relationship developed over the course of the films, with Sarek finally conceding in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock that he cared deeply for his son.

Sarek was vital in convincing Kirk to go back for Spock, and in organising an ancient ceremony on Vulcan in the hopes of resurrecting his son. “My logic is uncertain where my son is concerned.” In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Sarek passionately defended Kirk and son for perceived acts of aggression against the Klingon Empire. It seemed that the two had reconciled their differences. In most other stories, we’d leave at that point – content in the knowledge that Spock and Sarek had found the peace which had eluded them for so long.

However, The Next Generation suggests that this understanding didn’t last. In Sarek, Picard is overwhelmed by the Ambassador’s emotions. He laments the fact that he never let Spock know how truly and deeply he loved the boy. In Unification, Sarek suffers the final stages of his degenerative illness alone. Spock is on Romulus, and Sarek dies without his son nearby. His current wife tells Picard, “He wants to heal any rift that may still remain.” He mumbles to himself about how Spock failed to measure up to his expectations. “I gave Spock the benefit of experience, of logic. He never listened. Never listened.”

Spock’s life doesn’t necessarily move in a linear and progressive path. He attains the rank of captain, but he never commands the Enterprise for a significant amount of time. (He is in charge of a cadet cruise in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but he turns command over to Kirk quite quickly.) He spends years building a reputation as one of the finest Starfleet officers ever to wear the uniform, only to suddenly abandon it. He makes peace with his father, only to abandon him on his deathbed and leave so much unsaid.

In the Crucible trilogy, George does a great deal of work re-contextualising the lives of the leading characters from Star Trek. In particular, he casts Kirk’s life as some sort of mounting tragedy, chaining together the sheer weight of personal loss which should be enough to break any man. George offers a brief recap here:

They walked quietly for a few moments, and McCoy’s thoughts drifted from the horror of Tarsus IV and the deaths of Jim’s parents to the many other losses that Jim had suffered in his life. The young Lieutenant Kirk had idolized his commanding officer aboard the Farragut, but had seen Captain Garrovick and two hundred other crew members die when attacked by a strange gaseous creature. His best friend out of the academy, Gary Mitchell, had died during his service aboard the Enterprise. His brother and sister-in-law had perished on Deneva. His son had been murdered by a ruthless Klingon commander. Edith Keeler had died, and Miramanee and Rayna Kapec-McCoy shook his head, stunned as he realized the scope of what Jim had endured in his personal life, which did not even account for those Starfleet officers who had lost their lives while serving under his command. When Jim had mentioned knowing that he would die alone, had he felt that, by the end of his own life, everybody he cared about would already have passed away before him? How difficult it must have been for him to have so many of those closest to him leave.

Spock’s life hasn’t been quite as tragic, but George still suggests that Spock bears his own crosses.

It’s particularly tragic, then, that George casts Spock’s personal demons as shame and guilt. For a character who claims to be able to control his emotions, it must be torture to feel responsibility for taking what was the most logical course of action. George’s version of Spock is suffering under the pressure of decades of pent-up regret:

Through their mind bridges, T’Vora had perceived in Spock a reservoir of remorse, collecting a series of regrets formed throughout the course of his life. As a boy, disappointing his father with his decidedly human behavior. As a man, realizing that he had hurt his mother, never telling her that he loved her. As a friend, failing Jim Kirk at the end of his life, allowing the captain’s final months to pass without contacting him when his pursuit of dangerous avocations clearly indicated his unhappiness.

There’s a beautiful irony right there – the idea that Spock should feel so much guilt for his failure to appreciate the emotional needs of others. Spock has always been one of the franchise’s most fascinating characters, and the conflict between his perception of himself and the reality has always been a great way to generate drama on the show.

George does his usual good work here, tying together a bunch of things that Star Trek continuity has glossed over and fashioning them into a credible dramatic character arc. At his best, the writer as a tendency to look at episodes and events in a way which seems novel, but makes perfect sense. I especially like the idea, advanced here, that Spock really became Kirk’s best friend with the death of Gary Mitchell in Where No Man Has Gone Before.

That observation makes the second pilot an important event of itself, despite the fact that it begins with the Enterprise’s mission well underway. Star Trek began, George suggests, the moment that Kirk and Spock became friends. It also hints that Spock’s guilt for his conduct towards Kirk began from very early in their relationship. After all, imagine becoming the captain’s closest confidante and adviser after arguing (successfully) that he must kill his best friend.

George actually hints at the possibility in the text, as Kirk tells Spock:

“In fact, I’m going to need a good first officer now more than ever. Being as close to Gary as I was, I used to talk to him a great deal. Even if he didn’t have your scientific acumen or the ability to provide insight on as wide a range of subjects as you, he did know me. And sometimes I didn’t need his counsel anyway; just talking with him allowed me to better observe my own decisions, to pinpoint their weaknesses or confirm their strengths, but now…”

George suggests that Spock’s guilt for his conduct towards Kirk has been eating away at him from that moment, only increased by the role Spock played in The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s a fascinating way of looking at the relationship, and one which ties together the show’s history to suggest that their friendship is anchored in loss and tragedy.

I particularly like the way that George uses some of the franchise’s divergent approaches to time travel as a means of heaping more guilt upon Spock. If it is acceptable to change the past in stories like The Voyage Home or Yesteryear, why couldn’t Spock have found a way to save Edith Keeler? “I am uncomfortable,” Spock admits at one point, “with the notion that my action in violating a principle is justifiable because I approve of the outcome.”

For a lesser writer, drawing attention to this perceived inconsistency would run the risk of undermining the story. George incorporates it seamlessly, suggesting that Spock’s logical mind tortures him with guilt. (I will admit that I’m surprised George didn’t throw in a “time travel for research” reference to Assignment: Earth.)

There’s a difference between how George uses continuity and past events as a way of contextualising and driving his story and the way that other writers like Greg Cox lean on in-jokes and references as a storytelling crutch. None of George’s attempts to reconcile plot holes or re-contextualise adventures feels like name-dropping. All of it fits somewhere in the tapestry of his profile of Spock. I like how Kirk calls Spock out on his use of the word “feel” in Where No Man Has Gone Before, or Spock’s attempts to explain his smiling in The Cage:

“When I attended Starfleet Academy, almost all of my time outside of coursework I spent at the Vulcan compound in Sausalito. When I was posted to the Enterprise, I was the only Vulcan among the crew, and one of only seven nonhumans aboard. In my initial attempt to integrate with my shipmates, I chose to emulate some aspects of human behavior, including smiling.”

These don’t exist purely to resolve plot holes, they provide us with a picture of who Spock is – or how George sees him. It adds up to a fairly compelling and convincing picture.

It’s a testament to George’s writing that The Fire and the Rose works so well, given it hinges on a massive step backwards for Spock as a character. The half-Vulcan spent so much of the films trying to balance his human and Vulcan halves, so his decision to attempt kolinhar again represents a definite reversal. His refusal to commit to the procedure once again at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture represented character growth, so this is a clear regression.

And yet it feels natural. People don’t always move forwards. Spock, in particular, is a character who has never followed the obvious path laid out to him. George makes a brave choice with the character, and I think it pays off. The ritual provides a solid foundation for the exploration of Spock’s emotional life, without reducing the book to a selection of excerpts or snippets. It’s a vehicle for character development and exploration.

At the same time, however, The Fire and the Rose suffers because a lot of this is familiar ground. George structures the three books so that they overlap thematically and chronologically. Sometimes this works very well – I like the way that Spock has a romantic subplot which compares and contrasts with that of McCoy – but it also leads to a feeling of repetition. It often feels like we’ve read too much of this before, and that there are sections here which might have been best transposed to Provenance of Shadows and vice versa.

For example, we get a flashback to McCoy walking out on his wife and child here, which was barely touched upon in Provenance of Shadows. It is part of Spock’s story, but it’s a massively significant moment for McCoy as a character, and it feels weird that we divert into that particular story in this book. I know that George is probably trying to emphasise just how tangled up these characters’ lives are, but it does feel a little strange.

(Then again, one suspects that the whole Crucible trilogy would read better in one book. Pocket Books had planned a hardcover collection, complete with original bridging material from George. Sadly, it fell through. It’s a shame those bridging stories may never see the light of day, but the trilogy still holds up very well on its own terms.)

The scenes with Spock in the past feel a little out of place, since Spock isn’t the focal character. They allow us to get a sense of Kirk’s growing attraction to Edith Keeler. (Rather strangely, they also seem to confirm that Kirk – to quote Futurama – did “the nasty in the past-y”, something which would never have got past censors in the sixties.) However, there’s very little here that feels essential to Spock himself. George found a way to make The City on the Edge of Forever seem like a McCoy story; it is obviously a Kirk story; Spock feels like he just plays a vital supporting role.

There’s also, as mentioned above, the fact that Spock is the most iconic Star Trek character in the history of the franchise. By virtue of his high profile, Spock’s personal history and emotional state have been well-explored. Although the kolinhar angle is relatively novel, George seems more like he’s searching for unfamiliar nooks and crannies than he is laying claim to unexplored terrain. It’s not a major problem, but it does make The Fire and the Rose a less satisfying read than Provenance of Shadows.

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Still, these are minor complaints, and The Fire and the Rose is a fitting second book in this trilogy exploring three pop culture icons. There might not be too much earth-shattering in here, but it’s a solid character study of the face of Star Trek.

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

 

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