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Star Trek – The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes (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.

It’s amazing to think how much tie-in material the character of Saavik has generated, considering that she only appeared in three Star Trek films. There are regular characters who have never attracted the same degree of attention as Saavik. There’s probably a reason for this. After all, Saavik was introduced as an important character in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. There’s even some speculation that she might have been originally intended as a replacement for Spock, had Leonard Nimoy decided not to return to the franchise. As such, she was introduced as a surprisingly developed character with a background rife with storytelling potential.

It’s a bit of a disappointment, then, that she was first re-cast as Robin Curtis in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and then she was quietly shuffled off-stage at the start of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, never to be seen again. Perhaps that squandered potential is at the root of the fascination with Saavik. The Pandora Principle, the only Star Trek novel from author Carolyn Clowes, offers us an origin and a history for the character, building off hints and character attributes that were never even mentioned on-screen.


A casual viewer might be forgiven for assuming that Saavik is fully Vulcan. After all, it was never directly contradicted on-screen. However, Saavik was originally created as a half-Vulcan, with the script for The Wrath of Khan introducing her as a Romulan/Vulcan hybrid:

LT. SAAVIK is young and beautiful. She is half Vulcan and half Romulan. In appearance she is Vulcan with pointed ears, but her sin is fair and she has none of the expressionless facial immobility of a Vulcan.

This suggests several things. For one thing, it hints at the idea that the Romulans might have played a much larger role in the Star Trek movies. After all, they were the original antagonists of The Search for Spock before Leonard Nimoy favoured the Klingons.

It also suggests that Saavik might be groomed as a replacement for Spock. Like Spock, she is only half-Vulcan. Ensuring that Saavik is only half-Vulcan allows for dramatic character beats and development, similar to Spock’s own internalised identity structures. Given how Spock’s repressed angst was a major ingredient in the success of the character, it would make sense to explore some of the same dramatic angles with his successor.

Swapping out his half-human heritage for her half-Romulan identity allows for some variety – but it also allows the movies to position “human” as a middle point in the scale, a balance between the aggressive Romulan and rational Vulcan halves of her psyche. With Spock, choosing to explore humanity would represent choosing one heritage over another. Saavik learning to embrace some of humanity’s attributes – as hinted in The Wrath of Khan – would instead serve as middle-ground between extremes.

Indeed, a deleted line from The Wrath of Khan acknowledges this, with Spock suggesting that “the mixture makes her more volatile than — me, for example.” In effect, Saavik seems to have been conceived as Spock with the intensity of the extremes increased. It’s also worth noting that her character arc was set up as being closer to that intended for Xon in Star Trek: Phase II or Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture than that of Spock in the television show, with her learning to tolerate and appreciate human illogicality, rather than merely temper it.

It’s worth noting that Saavik’s half-Romulan back story was shuffled to the background once Leonard Nimoy’s return to the franchise was secured. It was never mentioned on-screen in The Wrath of Khan. The script to The Search for Spock only allows that Saavik is “half Vulcan”, without identifying the other half. Robin Curtis has stated that she and Leonard Nimoy opted to ignore that aspect of the character:

But in the case of Star Trek III and Saavik, it really didn’t matter. Leonard felt that Saavik was Vulcan. That was his choice, and his choice was my choice. I played Saavik the way he asked me to play her. My job as the actress is to do what my director wants, and that’s what I did.

So Saavik’s unique character background lost focus. Watching the films, there’s no sense that there’s anything especially unique or compelling about Saavik as a character. She just seems like any other character, rather than the new member of the crew teased in The Wrath of Khan, and suggested by the fact that Kirsty Alley joined the crew at that ill-fated “Ultimate Fantasy” Convention shortly after the release of the film.

Perhaps that’s why Saavik has remained so compelling and intriguing a figure for tie-in authors. DC comics published a two-issue origin of the character in 1984, around the release of The Search for Spock. The Pandora Principle was published in 1990, four years after Saavik’s last appearance. However, it prominently features Saavik on the cover. There’s a sense that Saavik was a figure of interest to most fans, an item of curiosity.

Clowes’ only Star Trek novel is a compelling read. It’s set in the considerable gap between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. Indeed, the novel emphasises the size of this gap by suggesting that Saavik has had the time to grow up from feral child to Starfleet cadet between those adventures. It’s a clear way of delineating the first Star Trek film from those that followed, but also of underscoring the key theme of age and maturity which runs through The Wrath of Khan.

Indeed, Clowes does an excellent job leading into the themes of The Wrath of Khan, creating a strange sense of foreboding by borrowing from the movie’s rich iconography, but in an original way. Most obviously, The Pandora Principle explains how Starfleet managed to wrest Kirk from command of the Enterprise after he clawed his way back into the seat in The Motion Picture. However, some of the imagery can’t help but evoke Kirk’s coming confrontation with Khan.

There’s a weapon of mass destruction here, much like Genesis in The Wrath of Khan. However, the weapon here has no beneficial side-effects, it has no justifiable purchase. It doesn’t create worlds. It destroys them, whole-scale. Kirk and the Enterprise discover the weapon on board a Romulan Bird of Prey, adrift and dead in space. Boarding the ship, McCoy and the team are aghast to discover that the ship is staffed by young officers. “All of them kids.” Given how many children would die when Kirk takes a cadet cruise out, it seems like a glimpse of things to come. (Similarly, Clowes also traps Kirk underground for a considerable length, buried alive.)

It’s a nice way of tying into the film, without ever seeming too clumsy or heavy-handed. The scale and the details of the events depicted in The Pandora Principle are radically different from those which occur over the course of The Wrath of Khan, but there’s a clear sense that the universe is building slowly towards that inevitable confrontation. It’s a shame that Clowes only ever wrote one Star Trek book, because she demonstrates incredible talent here.

In particular, she picks up on the version of Saavik presented in The Wrath of Khan, as distinct from the later iteration played by Robin Curtis. This is a character who is very clearly being groomed as a potential replacement for Spock, ready to fill that gap should it ever become vacant. Of course, the novel was published in 1990, so Clowes knows – as the reader knows – that the position will never become available. However, Clowes ignores what we know of Saavik’s fate, and builds her up as the character heading into The Wrath of Khan, rather than the character abandoned after The Voyage Home.

As such, her similarities to Spock are rather consciously played up. The novel opens with other Vulcans taking exception to Spock’s stubborn behaviour, quietly implying his human half is to blame. Similarly, Saavik has difficulty reconciling her Romulan half, treating it as a disability:

But Saavik was not a real Vulcan. In spite of all her progress and acquired veneer of civilisation, underneath the proud red uniform of Starfleet Academy, she would always be half Romulan. And no amount of progress could ever make up for that.

It makes sense. After all, The Motion Picture featured Spock finally making peace and accepting his Vulcan half. In a way, you could argue that Spock’s character arc was over, and that his death in The Wrath of Khan might have been positioned perfectly.

If that was the case, it would make sense for his replacement to be introduced much earlier, struggling with the same insecurity and identity crisis that we’ve come to expect from Spock, thanks to episodes like The Naked Time or This Side of Paradise. Clowes includes a clever note of irony as Spock reprimands Saavik for her inability to come to terms with her identity. “Your reluctance to reveal this to Starfleet or to Vulcan is somewhat understandable. But your refusal to acknowledge this to yourself is illogical.”

While Spock never lied about – or covered up – his human half, it does seem hypocritical for him to lecture his student about “acknowledging” her non-Vulcan half. Given that Spock only really made peace with who he was in The Motion Picture, Clowes makes it clear that he’s expecting far too much from his young student. It’s a nice way of drawing attention how Saavik’s character arc in The Wrath of Khan was clearly intended to follow the pattern of Spock’s development.

That said, Clowes does offer a hint of criticism of Spock’s character arc in the films, and arguably of the direction intended for Saavik. In the classic television show, Spock was the unerring voice of logic and reason. He represented the rational, with McCoy speaking for the emotional. In the films, Spock became more comfortable with the emotional and the irrational – indeed, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country features him insisting that his treacherous student shoot him before aggressively smacking the phaser from her hand.

Rather pointedly, Clowes suggests that perhaps Saavik shouldn’t aspire to be more human, despite what Spock’s character arc suggests. Perhaps there is a place for emotionless logic. When the crew discuss the Pandora myth, Saavik advocates the approach of reason ahead of fear or irrationality. “And why should curiosity, which is a proper function of intellect, not be considered a good thing?” she asks, after hearing the myth. After all, Star Trek is supposed to be a franchise about exploration and science, questioning the universe around us. Why should Spock aspire to be more human, when being human involves that sort of fear of the unknown?

At the novel’s end, Saavik discusses her thoughts with her teacher, and resolves not to be more human, but to be more Vulcan:

“I know now what it means to be Vulcan. I saw it. And what I saw may be forever beyond my grasp, but I think that is besides the point. I am going to try – and keep trying, Mr. Spock, every moment of my life. Because there is no better thing to be.”

It’s quite a clever a subversive twist on the movie era, when it seemed like the best thing that Spock could do was to become more human. “How do you feel?” becomes a major plot point in The Voyage Home, the climax of which involves Spock learning to trust his “best guess” rather than hard absolutes.

The Pandora Principle is a fantastic piece of work, and one which makes me regret the fact that it’s Carolyn Clowes’ only Star Trek novel.

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

10 Responses

  1. This sounds like a very good novel. Does this the information in this agree the background for Saavik given in Bonnanno;s more recent book. Or are they different.

    About two months ago i did search the author. Not only has she not written any other star trek novels but has no others printed at all. Fiction or non fiction. Unless this is a pen name this is the only book she has ever published.

    • Hm, that’s weird. It must be a pen name.

      Bonanno’s novel fits quite well. It elaborates and adds more detail, but it doesn’t contradict and actively builds on the book.

      • There was a book called voyages of the imagination which Christopher Bennet has read. Bennet said she was quoted in the book and there is nothing about a pen name.

        Back to Bonnano. Does her novel actually reference things from this book?

      • It does indeed. It references the back story. She adds some new elements and doesn’t go into too much depth, but it’s clear that she’s consistent with The Pandora Principle.

  2. I just finished reading this book. It is interesting but there are some plot holes and scientific inaccuracies. It is surprising that these have not been mentioned in the reviews of the book online. Still the first 190-200 pages were very good. It got weaker near the end. Finally the the whole issue of Saavik going back and disobeying Spock was dealt with very superficially.

    • I don’t know. I really liked the whole thing, although it is definitely a “movie era book”, in that it’s very loose and out-there concept-wise, in ways that don’t always make strict logical sense. But I generally like that – I’m a big fan of Margaret Wander Bonanno, who is very much queen of this sort of approach. Dwellers in the Crucible is absolutely off the rails, but that’s what makes it so fascinating.

  3. Here are a list of plot holes and inaccuracies that I have listed on another site.


    • That’s a fair list. I’ll concede that (in just about all forms of media – but especially in Star Trek) I am quite willing to forgive plot holes and inaccuracies if the story is compelling enough. I suspect that’s probably due to the way I was raised on a diet of trashy horror and science-fiction, genres that are prone to these sorts of errors as a matter of course.

      • The thing about the story was the way it did not resolve the Saavik Spock issue. I thought there would be some more insightful dialogue in the last chapter about what she had done. In the book Voyages of the Imagination she says she started the outline of this book in 1985 and had to go back and forth with paramount changing things. I wonder if the girl who transported the object,who we found out being alive in that last chapter was a change asked for by paramount. Despite it’s flaws it holds together better than Memory Prime,which was a overrated novel.

      • Memory Prime is Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, right?

        I haven’t read it, but I’m generally lukewarm on the duo. I think they are one of the stronger “continuity spinning” writers to work in tie-ins, but it often seems like their books exist to tidy up or “fix” continuity and to connect various strands of Star Trek together. They do this phenomenally well, but I wouldn’t class them in the same league as Duane or Ford or even Bonanno.

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