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Star Trek: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge (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 death of Spock at the climax of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is one of the definitive Star Trek moments. Pop culture has assimilated the moment, to the point where any half-decent nerd will identify “the needs of the many…” or “I have been and always shall be…” or maybe even “of all the souls I encountered…” It’s an absolutely massive moment for the franchise, where the film series dared to kill off the show’s most iconic and best-loved character.

It’s no wonder that the moment is such a strong focal point for those seeking to explore Star Trek. Star Trek: Into Darkness riffs mercilessly on that iconic scene, inverting it and counting on the iconography to generate enough emotional resonance for the film to get away with a fairly half-hearted homage. (The effects of The Wrath of Khan last until Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, while the consequences of the climax of Into Darkness don’t even last until the closing credits.)

So that famous sequence serves as an effective focal point of Geoff Trowbridge’s The Chimes at Midnight, which offers a parallel continuity of the Star Trek films in a universe where Spock died after the events of Yesteryear.


On the surface level, it’s the events of Yesteryear that provide the divergence for Trowbridge’s The Chimes at Midnight. It is set in a logical projection of the alternate universe where Spock died as a young boy. He never became Kirk’s first officer, and the two never became soul mates. Instead, Kirk’s first officer was an Andorian called Thelin. In Yesteryear, Thelin’s defining characteristic was that he was animated in the wrong shade of blue, a fact that Trowbridge justifies by suggesting that he’s part Aenar. I’m sure he has a similarly thoughtful explanation for why Koloth wore pink in More Tribbles, More Troubles.

Despite the fact that the premise hinges on an episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series and Trowbridge goes out of his way to “fix” a mistake made by colourblind colourist Hal Sutherland, most of The Chimes of Midnight focuses on a divergent timeline for the Star Trek feature films. This is interesting, because implicit in that concept is the idea that Spock wasn’t necessary vital until the films.

Based on what little we know about the history of this alternate world, it would seem that the three seasons of Star Trek flowed relatively smoothly without Spock. Ambassador Sarek is still alive, so Spock wasn’t necessary to the resolution of Journey to Babel. The universe still exists, so Kirk was able to reach the right decision on his own in The City on the Edge of Forever. The fact that Earth still exists implies that the crew were able to deal with V’ger and the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture without Spock.

The implication is that the most important thing that Spock ever did was to die. After all, despite the fact that Spock was absent for decades up to that point, things only start to look really different when we reach the climax of The Wrath of Khan. That’s a bold assertion to make about a well-loved character, but Trowbridge might have a point. Spock’s death was vitally important to Star Trek becoming the show that we know and love.

After all, Spock was the show’s breakout character, to the point where Gene Roddenberry apparently consulted writer Isaac Asimov about how to deal with the fact that Kirk was the show’s lead, but Spock was the more popular character. Kirk was able to claw his fair share of the show’s focus by virtue of Shatner’s lead billing and his role as captain, but there was a very clear sense that Spock was the show’s strongest character.

Indeed, you could make a convincing argument that The Search for Spock, where Spock spends most of the film as a horny teenager, amounts to the first true Star Trek ensemble piece since The Naked Time in the show’s first season. By shuffling Spock off stage, the franchise was forced to develop the supporting characters. It’s no coincidence that The Search for Spock offers what might be described as the franchise’s first true universe-building.

Spock’s death offered the franchise a chance to expand, and to move beyond the iconic character (and sex symbol). It’s telling that the franchise remained an ensemble piece even after Spock was resurrected from the dead, with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home demonstrating that the focus didn’t suddenly narrow again because Spock was back. (You could make a compelling argument that one of the many problems with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was the decision to try to refocus the film on the trinity of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.)

Either way, Spock’s death was a massive turning point for the franchise. So removing it has a typically apocalyptic effect. In particular, Earth itself becomes something of a galactic punching bag in Trowbridge’s alternate version of the twenty-third century. Without Kirk to defuse the events of The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, Earth is first devastated by the gigantic whale probe, before being invaded and occupied by a Klingon armada. (It’s amazing how often these Myriad Universe stories turn into dystopias.)

At the same time, Trowbridge makes a conscious effort to push Saavik and David Marcus to the fore. This is interesting, because the two represent the literal next generation for the cast of the original Star Trek. David Marcus is Kirk’s son. Saavik is Spock’s top pupil. Indeed, there has been some idle speculation that Saavik was only introduced in The Wrath of Khan to serve as a potential replacement for Spock at the point when it looked like Leonard Nimoy might be hanging up his pointed ears for good.

As such, there’s a sense of one generation handing it over to the next. It’s no coincidence that these two younger counterparts to our two iconic characters are introduced in a film where the principle macguffin is a device called “genesis” and offering “rebirth.” The Wrath of Khan is about growing old, and part of that is leaving a legacy. Kirk leaves David, and Spock leaves Saavik. (Read what you will into the decision to push them as a romantic item, like Trowbridge does here and like Robert Sallin suggested for The Wrath of Khan.)

It’s interesting, then, that The Search for Spock really pushes both of these new and younger characters aside. Saavik is separated from the Enterprise crew, not even accompanying them back to Earth. She is then left on Vulcan at the start of The Voyage Home, and is never mentioned again. David Marcus is brutally executed by the Klingons in The Search for Spock, his life offered as a sort of payment for the resurrection of Spock.

The Wrath of Khan teases the potential of a changing of the guard, of a passing of the baton, of the end of an era. The Search for Spock refutes that quite bluntly. So Geoff Trowbridge’s alternate version of events takes that concept and runs with it. David Marcus and Saavik end up as important players in a galactic game, while Kirk dies and the rest of the Enterprise crew slowly fade from significance.

So, in a world where Spock never died and Kirk was never able to reclaim his past glories, The Wrath of Khan represents the end of an era. This feels oddly appropriate given the title of Trowbridge’s novella, borrowed from the immortal bard. It also, incidentally, gives its name to a little-seen but well-loved Orson Welles film that spins off Shakespeare’s recurring character John Falstaff, which deals – appropriately enough – with the theme of fathers and sons.

The Chimes at Midnight is also interesting to look at from the perspective of Star Trek: Into Darkness, another Star Trek story which spins off the iconography of The Wrath of Khan. Despite the fact that it was published a year before the rebooted Star Trek film, Trowbridge makes some interesting observations about Into Darkness‘ homage to Spock’s death. Quite frankly, Trowbridge realises the dramatic purpose of Spock’s death in The Wrath of Khan. It serves to humble Kirk, and to show that his recklessness has serious consequences.

It plays into the theme of Pike’s lecture at the start of Into Darkness, the notion that every foolhardy decision Kirk makes, empowered by his own arrogance, puts the lives of others at risk. Spock sacrifices himself to make up for Kirk’s past mistakes. Spock’s death excuses the arrogance of stranding Khan on a planet without telling anybody, of hijacking the Enterprise while it’s on a cadet cruise in the pursuit of glory.

In Into Darkness, Kirk is allowed to redeem himself. He dies (but not really) to save the ship. However, this misses the point. Kirk gets out of jail free. He doesn’t pay the price of his anger. The narrative threads haven’t been paid off. Kirk hasn’t learned his lesson. He just cheated once again. That’s the biggest narrative problem with the ending of Into Darkness, and Trowbridge manages to foreshadow it here by suggesting that Kirk cheating his way out of certain death was only going to make things worse in the long run.

Without Spock, the Enterprise is able to escape from Khan. The implication, then, is that with Spock it would have been possible to escape from Khan without sacrificing Spock. However, Spock didn’t die because it was the only way to resolve the problem. After all, the writers could easily have concocted a technobabble excuse that would have let Kirk and his crew off the hook. It’s always possible for a story to have a happy ending if the writer wants it. Of course, that risks damaging the integrity of the narrative.

Spock died because there had to be a cost to Kirk’s actions. Even within The Chimes of Midnight, Kirk himself is able to hone in on the broken narrative, as if acutely aware that there has to be a cost to his actions:

“That’s what the no-win scenario is all about, isn’t it? Knowing when to make the ultimate sacrifice?” He stopped, and his shoulders drooped in dismay. “And in my own vanity, that’s something I was never willing to do. None of us sacrificed anything to stop Khan-not me, not you…only a bunch of wide-eyed kids blindly following orders like good little soldiers. I don’t know if I want to make those… ‘difficult’ decisions anymore.”

A lot of the same incidents recur. Like The City on the Edge of Forever suggests, the time line is trying to bend itself into a shape that is almost familiar. (Captain Styles even gets to keep some of his lines from The Search for Spock at what would have been the start to The Voyage Home“Bridge, this is the captain. How can you have a yellow alert in spacedock?”) The whale probe attacks. Sybok shows up. Styles is in charge of the Excelsior.

Indeed, in the absence of Spock, Trowbridge suggests the commanding trio still conform to the same archetypes. Reason and emotion standing at Kirk’s two shoulders, with him serving as an arbiter between them. With the logical Spock replaced by headstrong Thelin, McCoy’s place in the triumvirate adjusts, as the universe itself adapts to compensate:

Thelin had always admired McCoy’s pragmatic ability to rein in Kirk’s headstrong nature-something Thelin himself, as a highly emotional first officer, had never quite been able to do. It seemed as though the doctor’s medical instincts gave him insight into the psychological, as well as the physical, needs of the command crew.

In the end, it’s narrative logic rather than the changing of the key players which trips up Kirk and throws everything to hell. It isn’t the substitution which drastically alters the course of the universe, but the attempt to avoid paying the price of past actions.

Trowbridge also finds some time to meditate on Star Trek‘s preoccupation with the Second World War. Star Trek has always been a show defined by the conflict. Many of the writers lived through it, and some even served during it. It was the moment at which America assumed its place as one of the two preeminent global powers, when it finally asserted its influence and authority. When the history of the Second World War is altered in The City on the Edge of Forever, it doesn’t produce an alternate timeline; the entire Star Trek universe ceases to exist.

As much as Star Trek reacted to contemporary concerns, and delved into topics like civil rights and the Vietnam War, the show was still rooted in the Second World War. It makes sense, if one accepts Star Trek as an American mythology. In Star Trek: The Human Frontier, Mich Le Barrett and Duncan Barrett suggest the appeal of the Second World War:

Vietnam and the Second World War are the two wars of the twentieth century that have the most powerful hold on the imagination of the makers of Star Trek. From a European point of view, it is easy to see the cultural influence of other wars. We have dealt at some length with the ‘nautical metaphor’ in Star Trek, and could argue that the history of the Napoleonic Wars has a strong legacy in the series. Similarly, there are a number of ways in which the tropes of the Great War are reworked in Star Trek, particularly in the bleak and costly alliance and endless casualty sheets that characterise the protracted Dominion War in DS9. Nevertheless, these are influences of historical feeling and resonances of the imagination that refer principally to how conflicts are represented. The substantive conflict to recur in much of Star Trek is the Second World War, on which (unlike the Great War of 1914-18, the Vietnam War or the Cold War) the verdict of historical hindsight is very clear. This was not a war in which self-interest predominated; it was a ‘holy war’, a politically just war against the immoral force of fascism. The extent to which the definition of the Second World War as, retrospectively, the fight against fascism is justified is a larger question. (The worst crimes of the Nazis were only appreciated as the war ended.)

As such, any potential revisionism of that mythic quality is troublesome. In particular, the reality of western indifference to the treatment of minorities by the Nazis in the lead-up to (and even during) the war stands at odds with the heroic narrative of triumphant soldiers liberating horrific concentration camps. The ethical debate over the use of weapons of mass destruction against Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains heated, but it hasn’t been allowed to undermine the narrative of good triumphing over evil.

Star Trek is typically cautious about approaching these ideas. Deep Space Nine comes closest to challenging the self-image of America during war-time, with the implicit suggestion that the Federation feels some measure of guilt for allowing the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor (a frequent stand-in for the Holocaust) to take place and the exploration of whether the use of an unethical weapon of mass destruction might be justified if it assures peace.

Still, there’s some comfort in the distance between the analogies and the facts. The weapon used against the Changelings in the final season of Deep Space Nine is biological in nature. When the franchise eventually approached the use of the nuclear bomb directly, in Star Trek: Voyager‘s Jetrel, the metaphor is insulated. The weapon wasn’t developed by Starfleet or the Federation, the franchise’s common stand-ins for American ideals. Instead, the violence was perpetrated by aliens on aliens.

It’s distant and less uncomfortable than it might be if we were directly challenged by the morality of American tactical decisions during the Second World War. So Trowbridge does something interesting here, by recognising the Genesis Device as an obvious metaphor for atomic power (Voyager makes the comparison explicit, comparing Einstein and the atom to Marcus and Genesis). He just plays that out to its logical conclusion.

In Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom, writer Adam Roberts suggests the decidedly oriental appearance of the Klingons in Errand of Mercy could be attributed the fresh memory of Japan during the Second World War. This influence only grew over time. According to The Art of Star Trek, costume designer Robert Fletcher designed the Klingon armour from the films to evoke a “feudal Japanese” design. That carried over to the later shows, with Ronald D. Moore describing the race as a hybrid of “the Samauri of feudal Japan, the Vikings, and the Hell’s Angels.”

So Trowbridge plays out the franchise’s fascination with the Second World War to its obvious conclusion, with the Federation (standing in for America) using the Genesis Device (standing in for atomic power) against the Klingons (standing in for the Japanese). It’s worth noting that many of the same reasons offered to justify the dropping of the bomb on Japan are used to justify the use of the Genesis Device against the Klingons. Theirs is a culture that will fight total war, and the use of the weapon must be weighed against the potential cost of not using the weapon.

(In this analogy, the Romulans serve as counterparts of the Russians. Allies of the Federation during the war, they retreat into a hostile arms race once they witness the weapons of mass destruction that their adversaries have harnessed.)

It’s absolutely fascinating reading, asking the reader to explore the ethical implications of the Federation’s policies. It is, after all, plausible to argue that the Federation is only allowed to exist as a peaceful utopia because it has eliminated scarcity and exists in a stable political equilibrium with the other major galactic powers. If pushed into a corner, how would it react? Would it harness scientific advancement as a weapon?

More than that, though, Trowbridge manages to needle at some of the underlying assumptions that Star Trek takes for granted. After all, if the use of such force in times of war can be justified – as the grand mythology of the Second World War argues – why does it feel so uncomfortable to see Starfleet doing it? The Chimes at Midnight is a clever little read, one with a lot going on in its relatively lean page count.

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

4 Responses

  1. An interesting review. The only part I disagree with is that the real Kirk (from TOS, played by Bill Shatner) is implied to be as arrogant as Nu-Kirk (Pine).

    “Spock’s death excuses the arrogance of stranding Khan on a planet without telling anybody, of hijacking the Enterprise while it’s on a cadet cruise in the pursuit of glory.”
    No, it was all about Kirk’s greatness, not arrogance. He offered Khan to build his own world in TOS, without risking anybody else. Okay, the planet was blown off-course, but who knew that? And hijacking the Enterprise wasn’t in pursuit of glory. Kirk was a flag officer, entrusted with the secret of Genesis, the most powerful force in the Trekverse this side of the Omega Molecule. He had to protect it, at all costs.

    • I can see what you’re saying, but I’m not sure I agree.

      Kirk let a genocidal war criminal loose on an alien planet without telling anybody. One of the reasons the film works so well is because Khan’s anger (all-consuming though it might be) is understandable. Kirk dumped him there and forgot about him. After all, you imagine if he told Starfleet, they’d check up on Khan every once in a while.

      It’s telling that quite a few Star Trek novels and pieces written in retrospect try to explain that Starfleet knew about Khan being stranded in the system, as if Kirk informed them; it’s a conscious attempt to retroactively mitigate Kirk’s guilt. It’s quite clear on screen that the only member of the Reliant crew who knew about Khan being stranded was the one who (we’re told) was on the Enterprise at the time, and it seems weird Starfleet would want to test Genesis on a planet next door to a bunch of power-mad supermen.

      As for hijacking the Enterprise, it was the closest ship, but it had also been retired and was manned by children. Taking it into combat was reckless, and the script itself acknowledges that some measure of Kirk’s ego was at play. (Just as The Motion Picture hints at the same idea.) The proper thing to do would be to relay the message to a combat-ready and properly staffed ship so they can deal with it.

      I’ll concede that Kirk wasn’t originally written as the reckless adventure hound that he became in the public imagination. Early scripts (like Where No Man Has Gone Before and Shore Leave), suggest Kirk is rather bookish and studious. Which makes sense, if he’s to be the youngest Captain in Starfleet. No military in the world would keep movie-era Kirk on, even if he did save the planet.

      However, Shatner’s performance and the pulpy scripts gave Kirk a bit more edge. (nu)Kirk is very clearly rooted in the version of Kirk established in the movies, tailored to Shatner’s performance more than the character as originally written. This is glory-hungry “screw the rules” reckless rock-climbing horse-riding Kirk, not “had trouble getting a date at the Academy” Kirk.

      Pine’s version is based more on the former than the latter, but so is movie-era Shatner Kirk. Arguably, so is second-season-on Kirk.

  2. Just stumbled across this… Wow! Thanks very much for your deeply insightful comments.

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