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Star Trek – The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner et al (DC Comics) (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 Ashes of Eden is effectively professionally published Star Trek fan fiction, written by William Shatner. The actor gets some assistance from veteran Star Trek writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, but it’s clear that Shatner is the driving force behind The Ashes of Eden. Indeed, an astute reader will spot quite a few thematic overlaps with Shatner’s much-maligned directorial effort, only without the rest of the cast around to temper his efforts to make this a story about Kirk and Kirk alone.

Still, The Ashes of Eden isn’t as bad as it might be. After all, just because something is fan fiction – professionally published or otherwise – says nothing of its quality. The story is probably best read as an exploration between Shatner and his alter ego, but it holds together quite well, providing a much more solid (if still far from perfect) exploration of the themes hinted at in Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

The dusk of an era...

The dusk of an era…

Star Trek was one of the shows that really defined modern fandom. It serves as the origin of countless fandom phenomena, and many terms associated with fannish devotion can trace their roots back to Star Trek. For the purposes of this review, it’s worth considering “Mary Sue”, a term which is fairly popular in internet circles, especially those concerned with fan fiction. The phrase originates in a ten-paragraph parody story written by Paula Smith for Menagerie #2 in 1973.

The lead character of Smith’s A Trekker’s Tale, Mary Sue, went on to have a massive impact on fan culture. The label, attributed to characters within a story, is frequently used as a criticism, a justification for dismissing a particular work as weak or without merit. By 1976, the editors of Menagerie had explicitly admitted their disdain for “Mary Sue” characters in submitted fiction. Over the years, the application of the term has broadened somewhat, and it’s quite often thrown around outside its original context. It’s perfectly plausible to hear the term applied not only to characters within fan fiction, but also characters appearing in official works as well.

Talk about a greatest hits package...

Talk about a greatest hits package…

But what is a Mary Sue? It’s hard to agree on a precise definition. Writing about another cult series with its own active fandom, Rachel DuBois defined the term in her essay The Giddyshame Paradox: Why “Twilight”’s Anti-Fans Cannot Stop Reading a Series They (Love to) Hate:

‘Mary Sue’ is a term that grew out of fanfiction, in which fans appropriate their favourite pop culture characters to rewrite the stories in which they appear. A Mary Sue character is despised as a hyper-idealised, fan-created character who dominates the plot and show chief functions are author insertion and wish fulfilment. She is not solely an inhabitant of the world of fanfiction, however; Pat Pfieger writes that Mary Sue has marked original fiction, especially romances, by amateur writers for at least 150 years. Pflieger continues, “[Put] simply, Mary Sue is more: more charming, more belligerent, more spiritual, more klutzy. She has better hair, better clothes, better weapons, better brains, better sex and better karma than anyone else.” Plots revolving around Mary Sue characters fail because they become all about Mary Sue – that is, the author’s own wish fulfilment – rather than a creative re-imagining of a well-known text in which other fans might truly be interested; they alienate readers because they are manipulative, self-involved fantasies.

It’s not a bad definition, and there’s a convincing argument to be made that Shatner’s version of Kirk – as glimpsed in The Final Frontier and his own novels – is very much a male “Mary Sue” (or a “Marty Sue”) with one important distinction. Kirk is not, of course, fan-created.

They blew it up!

They blew it up!

Indeed, it’s worth noting that – even when Shatner is not driving the story – Kirk displays many of the attributes associated with a Mary Sue character. As the lead character in the television show, he’s always heroic and hyper-idealised. Camille Bacon-Smith makes the accusation directly in Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth, when attacking the use of the term as knee-jerk criticism:

Other fans have noted that James Kirk is himself a Mary Sue, because he represents similarly exaggerated characteristics of strength, intelligence, charm and adventurousness. They note that the soubriquet “Mary Sue” may be a self-imposed sexism – she can’t do that, she’s a girl.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had over the technical application of the term. Does the fact that default term remains “Mary Sue” hint at some unpleasant sexist connotation? Is it possible for a character inside an official work to be a “Mary Sue”, if they meet all the other qualifications? Is William Shatner writing James Kirk as the centre of the universe any different than any other writer doing the same?

Kirk's on a roll...

Kirk’s on a roll…

It’s worth noting that other writers tend to engage in this fannish glorification of Kirk all the time. Michael Jan Friedman and Kevin Ryan’s Requiem, for example, reveals that Kirk’s encounter with the Gorn is an exam at Starfleet Academy in the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Similarly, Jeff Mariotte’s Deny Thy Father reveals that there’s an entire field exercise based around the events of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Kirk is painted inside the universe as a larger-than-life figure, so why is it such a big deal when Shatner writes him that way?

It’s an interesting question, and it’s hard to avoid the fact that Shatner has had his troubles with ego in the past. Most of the cast of the original series hated him. George Takei still harbours a grudge. Will Wheaton tells horror stories about meeting him on the set of The Final Frontier. He turned down a cameo role in JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot because he wanted to play a much larger role in the film. According to his biography Up Till Now, he even pitched the resurrection of James T. Kirk to Paramount Pictures following the filming of Star Trek: Generations. When asked for a reason, he responded, “Eighty million dollars.”

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

It’s fair to describe Shatner as driven by his own sense of ego, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he did bring a cult icon to life. As great as Jeffrey Hunter’s performance was in The Cage, it’s hard to imagine the franchise without Shatner’s wonderfully dramatic lead. I’d argue that Nimoy was a stronger dramatic actor, and his performance more perfectly modulated than that of Shatner, but Shatner oozed a machismo charm. As wonderful as it was to see bold science-fiction stories on network television, I suspect that the success of Star Trek was – largely – down to the charisma of Shatner and Nimoy in the lead roles.

So you could make a convincing argument that Shatner’s self-confidence is somewhat justified, and this confrontational and over-confident off-screen behaviour doesn’t tarnish that. Kirk was always more of an ideal than a fully-formed three-dimensional character. He was a masculine power fantasy, one that was charismatic and intelligent, but also built on wit and power. Shatner’s Kirk exuded this sense of authority that made him seem much larger than life.

Frankly, my dear...

Frankly, my dear…

That said, it’s hard to read The Ashes of Eden without feeling that Shatner identifies just a little bit too much with Kirk, something the actor has conceded:

“The Kirk character has always been played very closely to my own personality,” Shatner says, “because in the beginning of the series, there was so little time to hold a character armor in front of me. . . . There was only time to learn the lines and say the words and hope that the way I was playing it would be the way that I, Shatner, would have liked to have played myself, given those circumstances. To be that brave in combat, and that kind of wisdom and that kind of searching for intelligence, and that kind of equanimity and love. So I played it close to me. . . .

“So when it came time to write the book, I thought that I would write it as close to me, also, as possible. . . . I wished to show the sensuality and the sensuousness and the turmoil, and make it textured as much as possible. And take from my own life and feelings.”

Even on a superficial level, you can see that playing out in The Ashes of Eden. The last of Kirk’s Starfleet colleagues to stand by him is James Doohan, a member of the cast with whom he had an especially difficult relationship. Doohan was the only member of the cast who didn’t eventually get involved in Shatner’s Star Trek Memories book. The two reportedly reconciled before Doohan’s death, even if George Takei alleges otherwise.

Lighten up!

Lighten up!

Still, The Ashes of Eden relies on a plot device that was the heart of The Final Frontier. Kirk finds himself alienated from his crew. The cast unite against Kirk, who is forced to play the hero of the piece. In The Final Frontier, DeForest Kelley and Leonard Nimoy were able to convince Shatner not have McCoy and Spock abandon the captain. Here, without the actors to hold him back, Shatner has Kirk forced to go it alone, with Spock and McCoy alienating themselves from Kirk first:

‘Unfortunate.’ Three decades of friendship dissolving in that one spoken word. That one verdict. The time for words is gone. I have to continue on what might be my final journey the way I’ve always known I must. Alone.

Even Scotty, who sticks with Kirk longer than most, finds himself doubting Kirk. The villain of the piece, Drake, accuses Kirk of making his crew “paranoid”, and Shatner’s version of Kirk seems incredibly insecure for a galactic hero. “Scotty, don’t you trust me?” he asks, earnestly. Scotty seems to waiver. “Och, don’t put it that way.”

Unwashed and somewhat slightly phased...

Unwashed and somewhat slightly phased…

And yet, despite this, Kirk is shown to be correct. Drake recruits the Enterprise crew to hunt down their Captain, and the play along. It takes them quite a while to figure out that the new Starfleet Commander-in-Chief – who introduces himself by making jokes about Kirk’s dead son and has a room full of Nazi memorabilia – is eeevil. They eventually wind up assisting Kirk in his quest. While the story ends with Kirk accepting his mortality, it also has McCoy assure Kirk that he has achieved immortality in a way – in much the same way that The Final Frontier ends with Kirk killing God before realising that God is actually inside him. (Okay, inside everyone.)

As much as The Ashes of Eden seems to suggest that Kirk might have learned some sort of humility, it seems somewhat feigned. Spock suggests that Kirk is the best candidate for the role of Starfleet Commander-in-Chief. The story opens with Kirk reliving his glory days on the USS Farragut on the prototype holodeck. “We’ve got all of your exploits online,” an officer boasts. When Kirk enquires why, the officer responds, “Sir… you’re a hero.” Kirk is modest, “Those ‘exploits’… they were just my job.” However, it does seem a little disingenuous, as if Shatner’s Kirk is fishing for complements.

Even Kirk wants to be James T. Kirk...

Even Kirk wants to be James T. Kirk…

Even Sulu, the guy whose job it was to fly the Enterprise, credits Kirk with coming up with a daring combat manoeuvre. “Captain Kirk once told me he had always wanted to try that manoeuvre,” Sulu notes. That seems rather strange since it was Sulu who has characterised as the hot-shot pilot. Interestingly, the climax of The Ashes of Eden features Sulu back at the helm, rather than in command of the Excelsior. Given Takei claims that Shatner intentionally fubbed lines that would have identified Sulu as Captain of the Excelsior in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – as a way to get them cut from the film – it seems rather pointed. Sulu’s place is apparently at the helm of Kirk’s ship.

It is interesting to note just how many plot devices and themes recur from Shatner’s Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, even beyond the “James T. Kirk vs. the universe” undertone. We get to see Kirk riding a horse, something of a pet theme of Shatner’s – being a horse enthusiast. Recalling his original plans for The Final Frontier, these horses have horns on their heads. While The Final Frontier had Kirk confronting a being claiming to be God, The Ashes of Eden has Kirk visiting a place which has a name translated as “Heaven.”

It was a fun ride...

It was a fun ride…

Picking up another cue from The Final Frontier, this planet was apparently originally intended as a treaty planet to celebrate the peace between the Romulans and the Klingons, much like Nimbus III was “the planet of galactic peace.” Much like Nimbus III, Shatner’s portrayal of this peace planet feels more than a little cynical. It is basically a gigantic munitions dump, making it something of a perversion of the concept of a peace planet.

The Ashes of Eden borrows its iconography and imagery quite heavily from the Star Trek movies. Drake is identified as the head of the conspiracy from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. At one point, for some reason, Drake plans to use the same time-travel slingshot (in a Bird of Prey) that Kirk and his crew used in The Voyage Home. The movie’s big dramatic moment comes when the Enterprise explodes dramatically, revealing that the crew have beamed elsewhere. It seems like one gigantic pool of shout-outs and homages to “big moments” from the film series.

Yep, nothing vaguely sinister about this guy...

Yep, nothing vaguely sinister about this guy…

To be fair, it works a lot better than it should. Part of the reason that The Ashes of Eden works better than The Final Frontier is the sense that Shatner is embracing the idea that the crew are getting old. A lot of The Final Frontier felt like an ill-judged attempt to capture the spirit of the television show, to present a version of Kirk who had never aged or matured. He is introduced, after all, climbing El CapitanThe Final Frontier felt like an attempt by Shatner to turn back time and make an extended episode from the point in time before the supporting cast had characters and the villains (and the Klingons) had development and motivation.

At least in The Ashes of Eden, Kirk builds that conscious regression into his past. He admits that Kirk is trying to re-capture his glory days. There’s something decidedly wish-fulfillment about the way that a beautiful woman shows up and promises to make Kirk young and heroic again, but at least it’s predicated on the assumption that Kirk has grown old. The best parts of The Ashes of Eden feature Kirk reflecting on that, and are honest about how this is an attempt to relive the past – opening with Kirk replaying an adventure from early in his career.

Free Enterprise...

Free Enterprise…

There’s a sense that Kirk’s era is passing, and Shatner’s discomfort with the idea is palpable – but it’s also strangely honest. “He finds no answers in the past,” we’re told. “Yet, he has no future.” When Kirk reflects on the future, he offers what seems like a none-too-subtle jab at Star Trek: The Next Generation, astutely observing that he used to travel around and destroy utopias like the one presented in the spin-off. “Who wants to live in a perfect world? I’ve seen too many of them in my travels. Perfection means no more challenges. And that’s as good a definition of death as I can imagine.”

The Ashes of Eden is never too blunt or too honest about Kirk’s nostalgia, and it indulges it far too readily. There’s a sense that Shatner is very much on board with this nostalgia trip. He is shrewd enough to reveal that the beautiful young woman who shows up and offers Kirk exactly what he wants is too good to be true. That said, he also has her cuddle into his arms in battle, and admit that – while she was seducing him – she has become unable to resist his charms. She started out manipulating his nostalgia. Now she loves him.

"Hold me, Jim!"

“Hold me, Jim!”

Shatner’s only willing to deconstruct Kirk’s ego and nostalgia so far. Eventually he begins to romantically play into them. It’s hardly the stuff of great fiction. Indeed, it’s the sort of indulgent self-insert fan fiction that is so frequently derided in fandom, albeit written with just a hint of restraint. (I can’t tell how much is Shatner’s self-awareness and how much is down to his co-writers.) The Ashes of Eden is very much fan fiction, with all the associations that come with that label. However, it is reasonably well-written fan fiction, and it’s notable for being fan fiction written by a leading man.

It’s also notable that Shatner’s work is shown a certain amount of deference. While the books aren’t treated as part of the tie-in internal continuity (after all, Kirk is eventually resurrected by an alliance of the Borg and the Romulans), there is a sense that the publisher keeps a respectful distance from Shatner’s novels. Ashes of Eden is the story in Shatner’s little pocket of the shared universe that fits most comfortably within the Star Trek canon, as it doesn’t rely on completely invalidating the ending of Star Trek: Generations.

In space, nobody can hear you explode...

In space, nobody can hear you explode…

As such, it makes sense that there has been the occasional reference to the Enterprise-A here, in James Swallow’s Cast No Shadow, for example.  This fate of the iconic star ship – dramatically destroyed here after being handed over to an alien government – has never been explicitly contradicted outside of Shatner’s work. Whether that’s by design or simply down to a lack of interest, there’s no way to know, but it does give the impression that the publisher and other writers are at least passively acknowledging the novels.

It’s worth noting that there are some nice ideas here. I like, for example, that Sulu’s manoeuvre seems like it might be a precursor to “the Picard Manoeuvre” from The Next Generation, relying on the speed of light to confuse an enemy. I also like the idea of building off the post-Undiscovered Country Klingon Empire as the post-Cold War Soviet Union, including the idea that there are all these weapons just floating around due to political and military corruption. As Chekov notes, “We know there generals who are… shall ve say… making them available.”

He does prefer it this way. Warrior-to-warrior.

He does prefer it this way. Warrior-to-warrior.

The Ashes of Eden is most interesting as an insight into the relationship between William Shatner and his character on a popular sixties television show. It’s fascinating to see an actor driving a character that they have helped define. Indeed, taken alongside The Final Frontier, it offers an idea of what Shatner’s own particular version of Star Trek looks like. It’s just like regular Star Trek, and James Kirk is still the centre of the universe. His gravity has just been substantially increased.

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

4 Responses

  1. Kind of makes you wonder what Shatner thought of his character on Boston Legal, since Denny Crane was pretty much a parody of Shatner’s gigantic ego.

    • I think Shatner has been recorded as mellowing (somewhat) in recent years – his present feud with George Takei notwithstanding. I think there’ll always be an element of the prima donna to Shatner, but he’s a lot more aware of it than he would have been in the seventies or even eighties. Then again this is William “I don’t do cameos” Shatner, so who knows?

  2. I am getting a bit bored with Takei coming up with new “terrible Shatner” things. It seems he’s made a career out of it. I actually don’t believe the claim that Shatner flubbed lines in Wrath of Khan: I think that Takei is a bit…obsessed.

    I don’t think Shatner could care less.

    • It’s a fair point, and I’m not sure how much credibility I attribute to either side. However, it takes a lot of hate to hold a grudge that long, and I find it fascinating that neither is really too willing to let go of the perceived wrongs. Takei won’t accept that these things are in the past and it’s probably time to let go, but – equally – Shatner won’t accept that some of his conduct was quite hurtful to those around him. There’s a strange lack of empathy on both sides.

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