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Star Trek – Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno (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.

Saavik is an interesting character, for several reasons. Most obviously, there’s the behind the scenes manoeuvrings involving the new character. Everything from her origin to the recasting of the role between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. There’s the inclusion of a short scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and the fact that the last time we see Saavik, she’s watching the reunited cast of the original Star Trek continue their galactic adventures.

There’s her complete absence from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and then the weird pseudo-return of the character in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where the role that would become Valeris was originally considered for Saavik, before being cast with Kim Cattrall, an actress who had originally been considered to play Saavik. It’s interesting to consider the conceptual history of the character, given what she was supposed to represent upon her introduction in The Wrath of Khan.

Margaret Wander Bonanno does an excellent job exploring Saavik’s life in the wake of her decision to remain on Vulcan in The Voyage Home, with Unspoken Truth doing an excellent job playing with the character in the grand scheme of the shared Star Trek universe.

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When Saavik was introduced in The Wrath of Khan, she was clearly intended as a second-generation Spock. In a movie about how the original cast were all getting older, Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer made a point to include both Kirk’s son and young half-Vulcan officer who was being trained by Spock. Star Trek Magazine speculated that Saavik may have been written in as a possible replacement character for Spock, if Leonard Nimoy declined to return after his death in The Wrath of Khan.

This was far from certain, of course. In The Star Trek Interview Book, writer Harve Bennett conceded, “I had no idea what the future of Saavik might be.” Given that The Wrath of Khan was concerned with the age of the original crew, and perhaps hinting that Kirk and his team might be passing their prime, the introduction of characters like David Marcus and Saavik makes sense. Indeed, pairing the team up for an away team in The Search for Spock seems designed to strengthen the idea that they are second-generation stand-ins for Kirk and Spock.

At one point, the early drafts for The Wrath of Khan hinted at an attraction between David Marcus and Saavik, which could probably be read as a playful concession towards popularity of Kirk/Spock romances in fan fiction. By making Spock’s successor female, the crew would have been able to neutralise some of the more controversial subtext. Either way, the away team scenes in The Search for Spock confirm that David Marcus is just as reckless as his father, while Saavik is just as rational as her mentor.

Of course, since The Search for Spock represents a direct reversal of the themes of The Wrath of Khan – proving that Kirk and his crew are still everything they once were – it also renders David Marcus and Saavik somewhat irrelevant. David Marcus was killed off in a decidedly anti-climactic manner, to provide some personal dimension to the conflict between Kirk and Kruge. Saavik’s fate wound up being much more convoluted and confusing.

In a way, Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Unspoken Truth feels like something of a companion piece to her superb exploration of Christopher Pike, Burning Dreams. Both Unspoken Truth and Burning Dreams are books about characters pushed aside by the franchise. Pike was pushed aside before the show even aired, before being resurrected when the series needed to buy some time by airing his pilot. The character was then dumped on an alien world and all but forgotten about. Saavik’s abandonment comes at the other end of the run of the original series, as she was quietly shuffled off stage during the film franchise.

Rather cleverly, Bonanno uses the novel to touch upon several of the behind-the-scenes complications involving the character. In particular, she alludes to the implied subtext (perhaps even the unspoken truth) of the Saavik subplot in The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, cleverly having Sarek and Amanda skirt around saying it, much like the movies avoiding directly stating it. After she appears unwell, Sarek suggests, “If you must know, it was my thought that some …residual effect of her assistance to our son on Genesis …”

He is alluding to the suggestion that Saavik might be pregnant with Spock’s child, following their pon farr encounter on Genesis. Indeed, this was originally the intention of the farewell scene on Vulcan at the start of The Voyage Home, even though – as Robin Curtis noted to the Official Fan Club Magazine – it was never stated outright:

Do we see any changes in Saavik during the short amount of time we see her?

There isn’t too much time to see any changes but there is an implication athat something has changed. The truth is, not much time has passed and the change I’m speaking of is something within the writing they leave to your imagination. They leave themselves open creatively. You don’t know whether they leave me behind on Vulcan because I’m pregnant or whether I just have the flu. They’re implying something about my health but it’s not clear as to what it is.

There was a scene shot that said Saavik was pregnant wasn’t there?

From what I understand, that scene is still in the film but it does not include the word pregnant. In other words, they were going to go with that idea and spell it out for you but now they’ve decided not to. The scene remains but it doesn’t say it in so many words.

How very Vulcan, as Bonanno explores here – saying something without actually saying it.

Indeed, the decision to leave Saavik behind and to excise her from the film franchise remains a bone of contention. In the commentary on The Voyage Home, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy discuss the sequence, suggesting that there was originally the idea that Saavik might be pregnant with Spock’s child:

Was that part of continuity, Leonard? I’d forgotten.

To have Saavik exit? No, I can’t honestly tell you that was an honest decision to get her out of the way or anything like that. I just seemed as though she’d be extraneous on this trip, and more interesting to leave her behind with the potential information that she was expecting Spock’s child.

It came off the idea in Star Trek III that there had been the Vulcan Pon Farr sequence, when Spock is ageing and goes through his adolescence and pon farr for the first time. This sort of ‘Spock in heat’ thing and Saavik saw him through it. We never saw anything like intercourse, but we did see the beginning of a mating ritual. So the idea was ‘did they or did they not consummate sexually their relationship and was she now expecting Spock’s child?’ The idea, therefore, was to leave her with Spock’s mother on the Vulcan planet with the idea that she may eventually give birth to Spock’s child.

However, Saavik was quickly forgotten on Vulcan, and was never mentioned again in the film series. To be fair, a large part of that is probably down to the way that William Shatner seemed to frame Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as a return to the franchise’s roots, trying to get away from the ensemble to focus on the leading trio. (Although, if he’d had his way, the film would have focused even more on James T. Kirk.)

Actress Robin Curtis has been honest about her frustrations with the decision to cut Saavik from the film franchise:

That was just such a weird left curve, to be honest. Given what had happened with Kirstie Alley, they negotiated for each film after the third, for the fourth, the fifth and the sixth. For somebody who’s 28 years old and had never made than a few bucks a year, that’s quite an event, to have a contract that provided for three films in years to come. Then, weeks and weeks before the filming (on Star Trek IV) was to begin – and the contract would then be void, because it had a timeframe on it – my people were reaching out to Paramount, saying, “What’s going on?” They wouldn’t say anything. They wouldn’t reveal. They kept putting us off. That, of course, raised a flag. “Something’s not right. This character isn’t being groomed. They will not be following the storyline that we had been led to think they would,” which was that Saavik would be pregnant and there’d be this whole connection between her and Spock. Lo and behold, all this hope that there might be greater involvement for the character turned into those few lines.

In many ways, Unspoken Truth is about that character trying to return to the background following her brief flirtation with the cast of the original Star Trek, and emphasising how her departure was never really handled or dealt with by the franchise. Saavik, the character, was just left behind on Vulcan, possibly pregnant by Spock, forced to find her own way back to something approaching a normal life.

“Unpleasant truths are best left unspoken,” Bonanno assures us, and that seems to be the case as much with the film franchise as with the fictional world of Vulcan. Saavik’s lack of an identity is something of a major plot thread in Bonanno’s novel. The character is unsure of her heritage or origins, afraid to delve into her own personal history. As a result, she seems like an oddity, a character without a history and – perhaps – without a future.

In the wake of The Voyage Home, Bonanno has Saavik slip quite effortlessly into what must be a fairly generic Star Trek adventure. There is no hearing for Saavik after the events of The Search for Spock, and she’s not tied up in debriefings surrounding the failure of Genesis. Her encounters with the crew of the Enterprise finally finished, she’s allowed to slip back into a normal life as if nothing had happened. We’re told that “she had a promising career ahead of her that ought not be overshadowed by any association with Starfleet’s chronic miscreants.” She’s not a member of that family of “chronic miscreants.” She was just somebody passing through.

And so the first half of Unspoken Truth does something rather interesting. It puts Saavik in a role quite similar to her role at the start of The Search for Spock. She’s a science officer on an Oberth-class science ship, working with an unconventional civilian liaison in charting a strange planet. Of course, in The Search for Spock, things went horribly wrong. That was an adventure featuring the original cast, so things had to go horribly wrong. Here, however, things go surprisingly well, giving us a taste of what life must be like for Starfleet ships that don’t get tangled up in the adventures of Kirk and his crew.

Bonanno gives us a first contact scenario that plays out absolutely perfectly. The only thing noteworthy about it is how it isn’t noteworthy at all. Barring an early encounter with a culture that hasn’t managed space-flight as the Federation understands it, everything works surprisingly smoothly. There is no sinister plot, no massive twist or reveal. The aliens appear friendly and curious, and they turn out to be friendly and curious. It is, you imagine, how the majority of first contact situations not involving James Kirk must go.

It’s worth pausing here to note that Bonanno has a great deal of fun with the first contact scenario. Refusing to fall back on the standard “contact goes awry” tropes that we’ve come to expect from Star Trek stories featuring strange new worlds, Bonanno instead focuses on creating a truly alien alien species. It’s the kind of concept that could only work on the printed page, and Bonanno takes advantage of her medium in crafting a uniquely strange extraterrestrial for Saavik to encounter.

Negotiating with these creatures offers “an aesthetic experience we can only imagine”, and it’s clear that they have an entirely different frame of reference from most Star Trek aliens. “The concept of space travel in a vessel is unfamiliar to them,” we’re informed, “as is the ability to take scientific readings in space.” However, Bonanno makes a point that this shouldn’t be bizarre or uncomfortable. As Spock points out to Saavik, it’s very anthropocentric to assume that our own way of perceiving the universe is the only true way to do so:

“As you gain experience, Saavik- kam, you will find that life-forms that lack certain senses often have remarkably sophisticated enhanced or alternative senses that compensate,” Spock had said as they began their instruction. “Taste, vibration, magnetism, electricity—all are potential avenues of exploration. Intelligent life cannot evolve to a level of sophistication in the absence of sensory input. You may in fact find that it is you whose senses are limited …”

These aliens aren’t the central point of Unspoken Truth – much like the snake aliens weren’t the central point of Burning Dreams – but they demonstrate Bonanno’s wonderful knack for playing with the idea of “alien”, for moving past the limitations of live-action Star Trek in a manner similar to the way that Diane Duane did during the eighties.

Unspoken Truth also takes advantage of Bonanno’s somewhat stream-of-consciousness writing style, where time and location are prone to dramatically shift from one paragraph to the next. It gives Bonanno’s novels a decidedly unfocused feeling, as if they refuse to be rigidly structured. It can work exceptionally well if used in the right context, and Unspoken Truth uses the technique quite well to give us the sense of a life being lived rather than a story being told.

It’s very hard to sum up the plot of Unspoken Truth beyond “stuff that happens to Saavik after The Voyage Home.” There are several very clear plot threads running through the novel – the murder of other survivors of Hellguard, first contact, her relationship with Spock and Sarek – but they tend to drift in and out of focus. This might be infuriating, if there wasn’t a sense that this is the entire point. Like Burning Dreams, Unspoken Truth works because it feels like Saavik’s life is meant to be a bit unfocused and unstructured.

So while Bonanno allows Saavik to move back towards what must be a more “normal” Starfleet experience – the sort of day-to-day goings on that presumably have to happen around the Enterprise’s latest Earth-saving adventure – she also makes a point to touch on some of the other meta-textual stuff concerning the character. Most obviously, Bonanno has Saavik live through a mirror version of her planned role in The Undiscovered Country.

In early drafts of the script for The Undiscovered Country, both Leonard Nimoy and Nicholas Meyer had hoped to bring back the character of Saavik. That didn’t work out, so they wound up inventing a new young female Vulcan character who would serve as the student of Spock. Valeris would be revealed as the traitor at the climax of The Undiscovered Country, bringing us a full circle from Saavik’s introduction as a possible successor to Spock in The Wrath of Khan.

Whereas Saavik was intended to hint that there might be a second generation that could rise up and succeed Kirk and Spock, Valeris existed to prove that the audience could only rely on the existing and established characters. Valeris is a twisted inversion of Saavik. Responding to early drafts of the script to The Undiscovered Country, Gene Roddenberry wrote a memo decrying the decision to turn Saavik into a villain.

In many ways, the second half of Unspoken Truth can be read as a reaction and response to the decision to write the Saavik surrogate as the traitor in The Undiscovered Country. Here, Saavik finds herself manipulated by a conspiracy attempting to prematurely destroy any hopes of peace between the Klingons and the Federation. While there is nominally some measure of suspense about whether Saavik is playing along with the conspiracy, Bonanno’s position on the matter is quite clear. Spock is Saavik’s family, so having her undermine him would be an ultimate betrayal of her character.

In playing a version of events consciously designed to mirror The Undiscovered Country, Bonanno offers a version of events more clearly focused on Saavik as a character than any of her appearances in live action. This is a version of the tale which gives Saavik more agency and influence than she would have had if she returned for the final original Star Trek movie. In a way, Bonanno seems to make the argument that the decision to just leave Saavik behind on Vulcan at the start of The Voyage Home might have been the best choice. It left the character free and untainted.

After all, she has had quite a journey. She began as a possible replacement for Spock, a suspiciously similar substitute. Bonanno explicitly acknowledges the similarities when she flashes back to Saavik’s childhood on Vulcan:

It had been a bad week at school, whispers behind her back, half-muttered insults spoken just beyond arms’ reach. If Spock was visited with déjà vu, he did not allow her to know it.

However, she’s moved past that stage and has developed – through the tie-in novels and expanded universe – into something else entirely. Far from a replacement for Spock, she is his equal. (Indeed, Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz’s Vulcan’s Heart would see the two become lovers, moving past the teacher-student relationship.) Bonanno even has Spock argue that Saavik must determine her own identity, rather than simply trying to act as a replacement for him.

“I served as balance to an innate leader such as James T. Kirk,” he tells her. “My path is not yours, Saavik, nor should it be.” Bonanno’s Unspoken Truth gives Saavik her own adventures, and her own life outside of comparisons to Spock. Using the freedom afforded by the decision not to bring her back for The Undiscovered Country, Bonanno manages to tell a story hinging on Saavik figuring out who she is outside of her brief flirtation with the crew of the USS Enterprise.

It’s a fascinating read, and a very thoughtful exploration of a character rather carelessly discarded by the motion picture series.

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

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