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Star Trek – Shadows on the Sun by Michael Jan Friedman (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 almost feels like sacrilege to fill in the gap left at the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film was such a perfect send-off that picking up a novel directly after the end credits role feels like it might undermine the perfect farewell story for the veteran crew. After all, director Nicholas Meyer suggested that the film was an attempt to capture the spirit of Fukuyama’s “end of history”, representing the “end of history” for the original crew.

Except, of course, it wasn’t the end. In terms of internal Star Trek chronology, episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation had picked up on the later adventures of Scotty and Spock. Star Trek: Voyager would flashback to a Sulu story unfolding concurrently with The Undiscovered Country. Scotty and Chekov would appear in Star Trek: Generations, which would also serve as a disappointing farewell to one James Tiberius Kirk. It seems bitterly appropriate (if far from fair) that Uhura should remain the only major player whose story actually ends with The
Undiscovered Country

Still, despite his passing of the torch appearance in Encounter at Farpoint, you could make an argument that The Undiscovered Country was the end of the line for Leonard McCoy more than Kirk or Spock. And, as such, Michael Jan Friedman’s Shadows on the Sun serves as an effective (if flawed) reflection on the way that McCoy’s presence sort of faded from the 24th century spin-offs. startrek-shadowsonthesun

In theory, with the credits rolling on The Undiscovered Country, the curtain is coming down on the original cast. However, the spirit of the original show lives on. The Next Generation had picked up the threads from the classic television show, offering a somewhat more intellectual approach to the universe. Still, one could see many of the same archetypes carrying over, albeit reversed. Kirk found himself embodied in the version of Riker seen in the first and second seasons, while Picard was such a worthy successor to Spock that Sarek had him bond intimately with Spock’s father. (Data also – and more obviously – played into the Spock archetype.)

However, while the spirit of Kirk and Spock lived on, the end of the stories featuring the classic crew did seem to represent the end of the line for McCoy as a character archetype in the franchise. To be fair, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga would attempt to revive the archetype in the person of Charles “Trip” Tucker III for Star Trek: Enterprise. Indeed, the casting notice for “Charlie ‘Spike’ Tucker” described the character as:

A Southerner who enjoys using his ‘country’ persona to disarm people. He has an offbeat, often sarcastic sense of humor. Spike was hand-picked by Captain Archer, who is something of a mentor to him. Although Spike is a brilliant Engineer and an outstanding officer, he has very little first-hand experience with alien cultures, and he’s often a “fish out of water” when dealing with new civilizations.

Barring the fact that Tucker was an engineer and that Archer was a mentor rather than a contemporary, there is significant overlap between Tucker’s character and that of McCoy – unsurprising, since Enterprise was attempting to recreate the classic trinity.

Still, in the pristine and sterile world of The Next Generation, it seemed like there was no room for a McCoy archetype. McCoy worked on the original Star Trek as a character that contemporary audiences could recognise, a simple country doctor caught up in this surreal larger-than-life world. DeForest Kelley did a wonderful job with the character, making him seem “real” and well-drawn despite the fact that he was (as with any crew member beyond Kirk or Spock) relatively underdeveloped.

McCoy could be grumpy, stubborn and unpleasant. His heckling of Spock has uncomfortably racist undertones from time to time, even if Kelley plays it with enough charm that it never seems too harsh or too cynical. Friday’s Child features the character slapping a pregnant woman. McCoy was the character who seemed most likely to speak his mind, and the least
likely to be diplomatic about it.

His attitudes were aligned roughly to those of the audience, with Roddenberry describing him as “the voice of humanity” on an otherwise futuristic science-fiction show. Friedman acknowledges this here, having Jocelyn, McCoy’s ex-wife, explain that the environment that produced McCoy wasn’t too radically different from the modern world. “In many ways, the South hadn’t changed since before the Civil War,” she explains, a remark that may offend some readers who’d argue the South has already changed significantly.

Still, it’s telling that Jocelyn talks about the McCoy’s home town in the past tense. She seems to imply that – in the years since McCoy departed – even his home has moved on and evolved. The world has changed. It’s as if Atlanta remained static only as long as it took to produce Leonard McCoy. Once McCoy had departed, the region could leave its idyllic nostalgic stasis and re-engage with modernity.

By the time that The Next Generation entered production, it seemed like a direct viewpoint character was no longer necessary to help the viewer embrace the world of Star Trek. (You could probably make the argument that the nerdy and awkward Geordi was a cynical audience-identification character for the geeky demographic, but such an argument would belie the show’s impressive breakout success.) Indeed, given that McCoy’s primary function on the classic Star Trek was to disagree with Spock, the “conflict free” Roddenberry Box imposed on The Next Generation rendered him somewhat obsolete.

You could argue that by the time The Next Generation hit the air, Spock had been made captain and McCoy was redundant. Sure, he popped up to wish the crew on their way in Encounter at Farpoint, but there’s something symbolically appropriate about his appearance there. He’s taking one last look at the Enterprise, and retiring away – a redundant part of the franchise’s dynamic.

Barring the attempt to re-capture the essence of the show’s character in Tucker on Enterprise, it’s worth noting that McCoy was never really as iconic or influential as Kirk or Spock were on popular culture. He was a vital part of the show’s core dynamic, and his catchphrases (“he’s dead Jim…” or “dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a…”) are as popular as any of Spock’s (“illogical…”, “fascinating…”, “live long and prosper…”), but he’s unlikely to appear on as many lunch boxes or posters on his own, as compared to as part of the trinity.

You could also make an argument that the ascension of Uhura in the recent JJ Abrams films represents more proof that McCoy really was an artifact of the original Star Trek. Uhura has a much more pronounced role than she had on the show, while McCoy is relegated to part of the ensemble – causing quite a few fans to suggest Uhura has replaced McCoy in the triumvirate. (Which, given how under-developed and under-exposed Uhura was, feels like some sort of weird karma, albeit at McCoy’s expense.)

So The Undiscovered Country feels like the last big hurrah for Leonard McCoy and what he represents, the point at which he sort of fades a bit from importance, while the spirit of
the other two members of the trio live on. So it feels strangely appropriate that Shadows on the Sun decides to tell an epilogue to the last on-screen story of the classic Enterprise crew that serves as on final salute to Leonard McCoy. We’ll see Kirk and Spock again, and they’ll endure in a way that McCoy doesn’t quite. So Michael Jan Friedman’s Shadows on the Sun feels like an attempt to give the character some closure.

Friedman layers this all on pretty heavy, making it clear that this is McCoy’s story dragging the rest of the cast along as co-stars. After all, fate conspires to ensure that McCoy’s last adventure takes him back to the site of his “first real mission in space”, offering a reunion with his ex-wife and bringing him face-to-face with a decision he made all the way back when he was a young officers.

(Weirdly enough, Friedman makes relatively few allusions to the fact that this is the last mission of the Enterprise or anybody else on her. The only real suggestion of a full circle is an affectionate call back to The Cage, with Kirk and McCoy playing “bartender-slash-psychiatrist” together. Which is a lovely subtle shout-out, but one which feels strange since Kirk and McCoy are the two members of the trinity who weren’t around for The Cage.)

There’s an element of contrived coincidence to all this, right down to the whole “the diplomatic team are McCoy’s ex-wife and her new husband (his old rival)” twist. And, to be fair to Friedman, he manages to shrug it off with only the most basic of rationalisation. At one point, McCoy muses, “If I stayed in Starfleet long enough, if they kept on mediating from planet to planet, the chances of our running into one another would get greater and greater and…”

Of course, space is really much larger than most writers give it credit for, but one of the strengths of fiction is general is that there’s no such thing as coincidence. Shadows on the Sun is about bringing McCoy a full circle, and allowing him to confront his ex-wife is part of that. After all, as the novel suggest, “Wasn’t that why he’d gone out into space in the first place? To get away from her? To escape the very notion of her?”

Indeed, Jocelyn is the source of most of the problems with Shadows in the Sun. Despite the text constantly reminding us that most divorces are the result of two incompatible people realising that they have irreconcilable differences, without blame entirely apportionable to one side or the other, the divorce seems structured so that it’s easy for the reader to blame Jocelyn for the dissolution of the marriage. Sure, Leonard might have been passively contributing to the collapse of the relationship, but Jocelyn was more actively responsible – and in a surprisingly cliché manner.

Indeed, the entire subplot involving McCoy’s relationship with his ex-wife feels a little shallow and trite. Her husband turns out to be an old rival of McCoy’s. Because this character might generate some conflict in the reader if he turned out to be competent or even decent, he’s cast in the archetype Star Trek role of “stupid head-strong diplomat”, with even Kirk pointing out how these sorts of stories usually go down once the guy tries to assert his diplomatic authority:

Kirk frowned. “Naturally,” he said softly. “But it’s not a wise course, Mr. Treadway. If you’ve been reading your monographs, you know that diplomatic envoys who do what you’re doing usually end up regretting it.”

“Usually,” Clay agreed. “In fact, you were involved in many of those case histories yourself, as I recall. However, my wife and I are not the usual breed of diplomats. I’m betting we’ll have less occasion for regret than you think.”

More than that, though, the story follows a fairly predictable arc. It’s incredibly obvious where it is all leading, and – once we’ve spent about a dozen pages with the couple – it’s quite apparent how the story will flow. Their marriage is dissolving; he’s incompetent; she’s still in love with Leonard; he’ll screw up… and so on. There’s not really one surprising beat to the plot.

This problem is compounded by the fact that Jocelyn never feels like a real character. Sure, she gets a lengthy monologue to Kirk recounting her side of the story, but it seems more like half-hearted justification than an honest defense of her position. Although the text suggests that McCoy shares some responsibility for the failure of the marriage, it also makes it convenient to blame Jocelyn. She never develops into her own character, she’s the one who made the big gesture that destroyed the marriage, she’s the one with fidelity issues.

All this weighed against the fact that we know McCoy creates a situation where we’re pretty much assured to take his side, regardless of the occasional forced reminders about how big moments don’t happen in a vacuum. The novel also treats Jocelyn as little more than a trophy for McCoy and his old rival to fight over, an excuse for McCoy to assert his masculinity. At the end of the novel, completely ignoring Jocelyn’s own agency, McCoy’s romantic rival observes, “The game’s over-and we’re both losers.” It makes it sound like she’s a volley ball in some contest between two males jockeying for position.

Still, despite the issues with Jocelyn, Shadows on the Sun does work well as a showcase for McCoy, demonstrating how he was already a relic even in the somewhat rougher frontier of Star Trek‘s 23rd century. Putting the good doctor on a planet where assassination is a higher calling and death is all but worshiped is a pretty fascinating concept, if only because it throws McCoy’s values into sharp contrast with those asserted by the Federation – particularly in The Next Generation and subsequent shows.

Stationed on a planet where murder is an art, McCoy has no hesitation in attacking local culture and tradition, adopting a morally absolutism stance opposed to the moral relativism that the later Star Trek shows would adopt:

“Right and wrong isn’t a matter of opinion,” McCoy told him, starting to get exasperated. “It’s an absolute. And killing people is wrong.”

“But isn’t that philosophy at odds with the Prime Directive?” asked Huang. “According to that, we’re supposed to resist the temptation to impose our ideas of morality on anyone outside the Federation even if they’re committing what we think are the worst atrocities imaginable.”

It’s worth noting that, while McCoy’s views are opposed to the principles of the Federation espoused by Picard and later officers, his position syncs up quite well with those of Kirk. Many commentators (including writer David Gerrold) have argued that the classic Star Trek was essentially a show about exporting American values into the wider universe. That’s precisely what McCoy is doing here. It’s also something that the later spin-offs were more hesitant about.

The beauty of Shadows on the Sun is the way that Friedman is quite happy to let McCoy be the character we know and love. He doesn’t soften the character, or make him too rigid. McCoy is a person who believes in absolute morality, but his own absolute morality is built on the notion that he can do good in the universe. In The City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk suggested that “let me help” could be the three most important words in the English language, and they are essential to who McCoy is.

Shadows on the Sun puts McCoy through a wringer, demonstrating that his principles and his internal morality can come with a high cost. However, it refuses to break McCoy. Even in the face of incredible loss and horrific revelations about how his conduct has shaped this war-torn world, Friedman suggests that McCoy can’t be anything other than who he is. It’s rather beautiful and eloquent, and a fitting tribute to the character.

Positioning it as a post-script to The Undiscovered Country is a shrewd move, allowing McCoy one grand farewell before he vanishes into history, his impact on the future direction of the franchise arguably much less than that of Kirk or Spock, but still keenly felt and appreciated. Despite the tragedy of the story, there’s no bitterness in Friedman’s epilogue to McCoy’s story. There’s no suggestion that he’s anything but a decent man, no suggestion that there’s anything wrong about what he does or how he does it.

There is ambiguity, but Friedman wisely leaves it open to the reader to reach their own conclusions. He even offers a compelling justification for how McCoy can be so righteous and angry even while serving as a medical officer. His supervisor in the book’s length flashback section discusses his gruff bedside manner:

“I like it a lot, McCoy. And you know why? Because it takes more than compassion to make a good doctor. It takes anger too, and plenty of it. Anger at the circumstances that create the misery you’ve got to deal with. Anger at the people who create those circumstances. Anger at the whole damned cosmos, for giving birth to the kind of beings who could be so miserable in the first place.”

It’s a very clever – and very fitting – explanation for characterisation that might seem incongruous or surreal.

That said, the novel does run into a bit of bother with the ending. Since this is a McCoy story, the novel can’t really branch too far into politics without losing its protagonist. However, the diplomatic story resolves itself too easily, with the turmoil on the planet resolved in a single line in the novel’s closing chapter. It may have been more ambiguous to have the Enterprise depart the planet being unable to resolve the conflict, leaving the reader to meditate on the ambiguity of the situation, to contemplate whether McCoy’s absolutism can really have any place in the 23rd century.

That said, I can understand the desire not to have the Enterprise’s last mission end in dismal failure, its legacy tarnished by a postscript story inserted after the credits of The Undiscovered Country. Still, the wrap-up seems too clean, too tidy. That’s really the only major problem with an otherwise insightful and well-constructed story – outside of Friedman’s issues with the characterisation of McCoy’s ex-wife.

Still, as far as “the last McCoy story” goes, you could ask for a lot worse.

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

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