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Star Trek: Excelsior – Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels (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.

I have to admit, when I first saw Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, I was a bit surprised to be introduced to Captain Hikaru Sulu. This was a character who didn’t even have a first name before The Undiscovered Country. The name chosen – “Hikaru” – was taken from Vonda N. McIntyre’s 1981 tie-in The Entropy Effect. Still, I suppose it could be worse. Uhura didn’t get a first name on screen until the release of Star Trek in 2009.

So it seemed strange that this supporting character should find himself the commanding officer of a starship, let alone a state-of-art ship of the line which opened the fond farewell to the original series crew. Still, the character of Captain Hikaru Sulu remains one of the most interesting branches sprouting off the trunk of Star Trek. Takei would reprise the role on Star Trek: Voyager, hold down a couple of Simon & Schuster audio adventures and even feature heavily in tie-in novels and comic books. Takei is quite fond of recounting his campaign to launch a television show centred around the character.

It’s quite remarkable, as Sulu is probably the only major character who could credibly “spin-off” from the original Star Trek show, which is remarkable for a supporting performer whose most iconic moment in the classic Star Trek show was waving a sword through the corridors while practically naked.

excelsior-forgedinfire

Excelsior: Forged in Fire is something of an origin story for this iteration of the character, telling us how Sulu became the Captain of the USS Excelsior. What’s really strange about Forged in Fire is that Martin and Mangels really push Sulu to the background of the story. More of a prequel to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‘s Blood Oath than The Undiscovered Country, it seems like Forged in Fire is more preoccupied with the quest for vengeance led by Kang, Kor and Koloth than it is with the story of how Sulu ended up in command of the Excelsior.

Indeed, Sulu spends the vast majority of Forged in Fire sitting on the sidelines, watching the plot from a distance. Forged in Fire riffs rather heavily off The Undiscovered Country, which makes sense – that accounts for the source of everything we know about “Captain Sulu.” So we get the prospect of galactic peace with the Klingons, the use of equipment designed to measure gaseous anomalies as a means of tracking a terrorist enemy, and Captain Sulu riding to the rescue of old friends at the climax of the story.

Being honest, Forged in Fire feels a little pedestrian. Then again, perhaps there’s something fitting in having Sulu ride to the rescue as his first major act as Captain of the Excelsior. After all, that is apparently the reason why Sulu was promoted to Captain in the first place, according to writer Denny Martin Flinn and director Nicholas Meyer on the commentary to The Undiscovered Country:

I was always under the impression that Sulu was promoted at the request of his agent, by the way. Is that true?

No.

Still, it’s a nice line.

At the climax of the film, as Chang’s invisible bird of prey stalks the Enterprise, Flinn suggest that story reasons were responsible for pushing Sulu into the command chair of another starship:

I think it was creating this sequence that we actually realised we’d need a third ship, and promoted Sulu to the Excelsior, which effectively took him off the Enterprise for the other scenes, but he’d always wanted to be promoted anyway.

So Sulu was promoted so that he could lead the cavalry charge in the movie’s third act. (To the point where Takei jokes the subtitle to The Undiscovered Country should have been “Captain Sulu to the Rescue.”) So there’s something quite astute about the way that Forged in Fire keeps Sulu at the periphery until he has to lead the charge to help out his allies, even if it doesn’t make for a satisfactory reading experience.

Still, as Flinn concedes, Takei had been lobbying for Sulu to get a promotion for quite some time. A more cynical commentator might suggest that the actor was looking to say more than merely “aye, sir” or “laying in course”, and who could blame him? Takei himself argues that Sulu’s promotion was thematically important for the show:

Well, you know, Star Trek and the Starship Enterprise was supposed to be a metaphor for Starship Earth. It was supposed to be an idealized representation of what our society should be. In our society, we have a lot of minorities. Asians, African-Americans, women getting on the upward mobility escalator. They’re making progress going up, whether it’s in the professional world or the business world, or in other various careers. But the problem seems to be that think called the glass ceiling. They make it up to a certain point and then it stops. I kept lobbying to the powers that be at Paramount saying to them, “if Starfleet is to represent that ideal, you just can’t keep giving us advances in rank.” By that time I was a Commander. The movie before that I was a Lieutenant Commander, but I was still there at the helm punching those same buttons. I said to them, “it’s very important that if we are supposed to be that kind of bright, eminently capable people…professionals….we have to get that advancement. We have to be able to show that this idealized society truly works. It’s very important than, that we see one of the characters moving up and becoming a captain. Of course, my character being Sulu, I lobbied most vigorously for him. Finally after 25 long years of lobbying, we were able to reach that idealized representation of Starfleet. The glass ceiling doesn’t exist with Starfleet. He was a captain then.

Indeed, Takei had actually managed to secure the promotion long before Star Trek VI. A deleted exchange from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan shooting script suggested that Sulu would be Captain of the Excelsior:

I really must thank you.

I am delighted; any chance to go aboard Enterprise, however briefly, is always an excuse for nostalgia.

I cut your new orders personally. By the end of the month, you’ll have your first command: USS EXCELSIOR.

Thank you, sir. I’ve looked forward to this for a long time.

Having Kirk personally make the recommendation seems a tad ironic, given the strained relationship between Takei and Shatner in the years since the show went off the air. Indeed, Takei has even gone as far as to claim that Shatner sabotaged the scene in The Wrath of Khan by intentionally messing it up.

(It also seems ironic that so many writers tend to play off the irony of this idea. David R. George III, for example, includes a somewhat superfluous scene in Star Trek: Crucible – McCoy: Provenance of Shadows where Kirk apologises for costing Sulu his captaincy following the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In Forged in Fire, Martin and Mangels suggest that Sulu’s “orders to assume command of this wondrous if still experimental starship, the first of her class-had been signed by Admiral James Kirk himself.” Never let it be said that tie-in writers don’t have  a glib sense of humour.)

Takei has been quite vocal about his affection for the character of Captain Hikaru Sulu in the wake of The Undiscovered Country. It seems like the actor is continually pitching a television spin-off based around his character, to the point where it is still a credibly April Fool’s Day joke among geeks. Takei has claimed to be be “absolutely baffled” that Sulu never secured his own spin-off.

Instead, Sulu has done a wonderful job captivating the imaginations of fans trying to fill the gap between The Undiscovered Country and Encounter at Farpoint. Peter David, for example, wrote The Captain’s Daughter focusing on Sulu’s relationship with his daughter glimpsed briefly in Star Trek: Generations. George Takei read a series of Captain Sulu Adventures in 1994 and 1995 focused on the character’s exploit. When Pocket Books made an effort to explicitly fill the space between Kirk and Picard, the first book in the Lost Era series was The Sundered, focusing on Sulu’s Excelsior.

So it really feels like Forged in Fire should be a gigantic and powerful origin story for Sulu, the tale of how a supporting player on the USS Enterprise found himself thrust into the role of Captain of one of the most high-profile ships in Starfleet. After all, tie-in materials are quite found of speculating how Kirk came upon his command, so one would imagine that the change to tell a big bombastic Sulu story would be too appealing to mess up.

Unfortunately, Forged in Fire never really feels like a Sulu novel. It includes all the necessary elements and hits all the requisite beats, but it feels rather perfunctory in following Sulu’s ascent to the command chair. It gives us the ultimate fate of Captain Lawrence Styles, as wonderfully (albeit briefly) portrayed by James B. Sikking in The Search for Spock. It provides a nice easter egg reference to his first officer in that film played by Miguel Ferrer. It puts Sulu in a crisis, and has him prove himself.

However, it all feels rather rote. The bulk of Forged in Fire is concerned with the grudge held by Kang, Kor and Koloth against “the Albino.” It’s all about setting up Blood Oath, a second-season episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And it does this rather well, but it feels like Sulu is marginalised, to the point where Martin and Mangels seem to feel the need to give Sulu a personal history with the Albino in order to include him in the plot. It all feels a tad convenient and – despite his picture on the cover and the tease that this is the story of his command – Sulu feels like a supporting character at best.

It’s a shame, because the rest of Forged in Fire works quite well. Martin and Mangels strain quite a bit to try to explain how all the smooth-headed Klingons from the original Star Trek suddenly had bumpy foreheads in the feature films, but they manage to offer a reasonably logical explanation that feels no less convoluted than the explanation for how they ended up with smooth foreheads in Star Trek: Enterprise‘s Divergence and Affliction. Being honest, I’m not sure it’s a hole in continuity that needed to be filled, but Martin and Mangels offer an explanation with fits within the tapestry of Star Trek.

That said, Forged in Fire never really excels. It does a lot of ambitious stuff, but only to a fairly average standard. There are a rake of clever ideas here, and none of them fail spectacularly, but none of them truly resonate. The plot elements all feel rather generic, as if assembled from some giant “construct your own Star Trek plot” generator. There’s a peace conference; sabotage; a rogue operator; a shaky peace between enemies, a dogged pursuit; strained diplomatic relations.

(As an aside, I’ll confess that I’m a bit disappointed by how often writers fall back on the “peace conference with the Klingons” trope, particularly in tie-in fiction based in the lead-up to The Undiscovered Country. Somehow, the suggestion that the Klingons and Starfleet were getting along quite well before Praxis explodes undermines a lot of the power of The Undiscovered Country for me. My inner Star Trek geek would be far more interested in what was going on with the Romulans, and how Nanclus got to hang out with the Federation President.)

Still, there are some nice ideas here. I like the suggestion that peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire will lead to “wide-spread law and order”, as if to suggest that the more ordered universe from The Next Generation was made possible by the fact that the Federation and the Klingon Empire were not locked in Cold War with one another. I’d also argue that Forged in Fire functions much stronger as an origin story for Curzon Dax, and that his arc is much stronger than that of Sulu.

(I also like that Martin and Mangels pick up on the absurdity of nicknaming a villain “the Albino”, as in Blood Oath. We’re told that Dax “felt silly using the word ‘albino’ as if it were the Klingon saboteur’s actual name, but absent any more definitive nomenclature, it would have to do.” I’m actually quite fond of tie-in fiction that isn’t afraid to have a bit of fun with the source material, and I almost wish the rest of Forged in Fire had been just as playful and coy.)

Still, Forged in Fire is a reasonably solid tie-in book. It’s not exceptional, and the marketing and branding seems a little misleading. It feels like a rather disappointing debut for Captain Sulu instead of a triumphant introduction to Curzon Dax.

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

 

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