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Star Trek – Cast No Shadow by James Swallow (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.

Valeris is a fascinating character who gets a bit lost in the scope of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Given the film’s focus on bidding a fond farewell to the iconic crew of the Enterprise, it’s understandable that the newest addition to the crew should get pushed aside. It’s even more notable because Valeris is clearly a stand-in for the character of Saavik, another of Spock’s young female Vulcan protegés, making her not only a newer character, but a substitute for a newer character.

One of the most interesting things about Star Trek tie-in fiction is the scope afforded by the gigantic shared universe. Across the dozen movies and the seven-hundred episodes of television, there are countless supporting characters and concepts thrown out. Due to plotting necessities and the demands of particular stories, some of these ideas are never truly fleshed out. The sheer volume of tie-in material means that writers do get a chance to develop and expand upon these character which might otherwise be forgotten.

Writing a novel centred on Valeris is a very bold idea, but one which acknowledges just how intriguing the concept of Kim Cattrall’s Vulcan traitor is, despite the fact the film treats her as a minor character at best.

castnoshadow

Of course, there is something very cynical about the cover of James Swallow’s Cast No Shadow, which includes the character of Spock rather prominently. (In fact, more prominently than Valeris, the actual star of the book.) After all, you’d expect Spock to play a significant role in the rehabilitation of his former student – particularly given his involvement in her downfall.

Swallow includes several small appearances from Spock, but he’s far from a major character in the novel’s narrative. (Indeed, Sulu is not that big a player in the scheme of the story, but has a much larger part than Spock.) Including Leonard Nimoy’s visage on the cover seems like the most cynical of marketing ploys, and is more than a little disingenuous on the part of the publisher – a clear attempt to shift more units by putting a familiar and well-loved face on the cover. Those buying for Spock will be disappointed.

Still, Swallow keeps his focus relatively tight, with the novel primarily focusing on the characters of Valeris and Vaughn. In a way, the novel feels like a companion to the Lost Era miniseries, more concerned with filling in perceived gaps in the canon than with featuring familiar faces. Indeed, Vaughn is a character who has never appeared in a live action Star Trek production, and Valeris is a supporting character in the final film to feature the entire original cast.

I have to admit a fondness for Pocket’s willingness to branch out and experiment. It’s a far cry from the restrictive purview afforded to tie-in media in the late eighties and early nineties under the aegis of Richard Arnold. It seems to hark back to the looser and casual style of writers like Diane Duane and John M. Ford – writers genuinely thrilled to have a chance to map out their own corners of an expansive shared universe.

In fact, Swallow acknowledges the link. A Klingon vessel, apparently named after “one of their warrior poets”, is named the “Chon’m.” The phonetic pronunciation seems remarkably similar to “John M.” Swallow even does a bit of work to reconcile Ford’s development of the Klingons with the version subsequently developed by Ronald D. Moore and others. To Swallow, Ford’s “Black Fleet” can exist alongside Moore’s “Sto’vo’kor.”

Similarly, Swallow offers a nice and overt shout-out to the origins of Valeris. Apparently, Kim Cattrall consulted on the creation of the character, and the name was chosen so that it might incorporate “Eris”, the Greek god of strife. Appropriately enough, Swallow makes this a bit of a theme, including the codeword “kallisti” as a means of drawing the reader’s attention to the name.

Indeed, it’s Swallow’s handling of Valeris which is most interesting. Valeris is an interesting character, if only because her place in The Undiscovered Country feels so strange. She’s a Vulcan, one of the franchise’s most iconic species, and yet she turns out to be a traitor. She’s also a surrogate for another character, filling a very similar plot function to Saavik. It’s strange to see so much effort put into replacing a character who has already been consciously side-lined.

According to Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories, actress Kim Cattrall had been director Nicholas Meyer’s first choice to portray Saavik in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, lending her appearance here a strange sort of symmetry. Saavik featured in early drafts of The Undiscovered Country writer by Mark Rosenthal, paired up romantically with both Kirk and Spock in various versions of the script.

Indeed, in his memoir, The View from the Bridge, director Nicholas Meyer admits that he had hoped to convince Kirstie Alley to return to the franchise, admitting that Valeris is a very obvious substitute, and one whose betrayal doesn’t carry quite as much weight as it might:

Originally we had hoped to lure Kirstie Alley back to reprise her character as Saavik — her backstory from the other films would have made this especially poignant — but once again she declined.

As I have noted, in an ideal world Valeris should have been the stalwart Saavik, a character we had already come to love. And trust. This would have sharpened the pain of her betrayal, but absent Kirstie Alley, we decided it would be better to introduce a new character.

The second actress to play Saavik, Robin Curtis, was treated somewhat shabbily by the production team. Forgotten on the surface of Vulcan at the start of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, possibly – or possibly not – carrying Spock’s baby depending on the draft of the script. Curtis has admitted to being somewhat frustrated at the way that the films treated her, shuffling her quietly off-stage.

Indeed, Curtis raises an interesting point about what the treatment of Saavik suggests about the film series. In an interview with Cinefantastique, Curtis argued,  “Paramount led me to believe that Saavik was being groomed for more participation, that they were finally trying to include some younger regular characters in the movies.” It’s an interesting point.

Saavik was introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a film about the original crew growing old and accepting that perhaps their time has passed. As such, it makes sense for the script to involve two conscious mirrors of Kirk and Spock. Kirk meets his young son David. Spock mentors his protegé Saavik. These are, in a very real sense, long before the prospect of a spin-off without Kirk and Spock was ever mooted, “the Next Generation.”

So their treatment feels rather pointed. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock represents a reversal of The Wrath of Khan. It’s an entire movie dedicated to demonstrating that Kirk and his crew still have their mojo. Tellingly, while The Wrath of Khan casts Kirk and Spock as teachers, The Search for Spock makes them rebels. With the film series abandoning the suggestion that its leads might be getting on a bit, their younger counterparts were rather hastily brushed aside.

David Marcus was unceremoniously killed off. Saavik was left behind on Vulcan and completely forgotten, along with the possibility that she might be carrying Spock’s son. Indeed, the use of Valeris in The Undiscovered Country serves to bring it all a full circle. It demonstrates just how far we’ve come from the reflective subtext of The Wrath of Khan. The Undiscovered Country is a swansong for the original crew, but it’s not as funereal as The Wrath of Khan. It’s a farewell celebration rather than a mournful dirge.

So this time the new young Vulcan crew member is not a hero. Rather than a youthful replacement for and successor to Spock, Valeris is an arrogant young upstart who seeks to subvert and undermine our trusty cast of established veterans. She’s not the future of the Enterprise, she’s a corrupting influence who the older Enterprise crew members need to stop. Indeed, Valeris gets relatively little character development in the film itself, with only the context of her role in the plot to make her interesting.

Swallow picks up on this. Indeed, Cast No Shadow builds off the climax of The Undiscovered Country, where Spock forcibly mind-melds with his young protegé. It’s an effective scene, shot well by Meyers and featuring solid work from both Nimoy and Cattrall, but  the movie brushes over the implications of the scene. In the rush to get to the inevitable confrontation with the Shakespearean-quoting Klingon bad guy, the movie glosses over the implications of the scene.

Cast No Shadow dares to pick up on the implications of the scene, describing the forced mind meld as nothing short of a “violation” of the young woman. When Spock does appear, the prison counsellor working with Valeris holds him to account for an action which ate up a minute or two of screen time before being quickly forgotten:

“What you did could be construed as torture, sir!” Tancreda’s voice rose. She wondered where her ire was coming from: Was it hers, or was it the ghost of Valeris’s fury speaking through her? “A crime!”

Prying through another individual’s thoughts uninvited must represent the most gross invasion of privacy.

It was glossed over in the film. On the commentary, director Nicholas Meyer and writer Danny Flinn are almost glib about it. “I find this to be a very erotic scene,” Flinn notes during the sequence.  “It was meant to be,” Meyers explains. “It was meant to be erotic. It’s supposed to be sexy stuff.” They aren’t alone. Actress Kim Cattrall has quipped that she got to have “safe sex with Leonard Nimoy!” Still, it remains a troublesome and divisive scene.

Writing the novelisation, J.M. Dillard seems to identify it as a potentially problematic sequence, and effectively re-writes it:

His Vulcan training was superior; there was no question that he could extract whatever information he desired from her thoughts. But to force himself on her consciousness was the mental equivalent of rape – immoral by any standards, considered by the Vulcans to be as heinous a crime as murder.

It did not. The mind-touch, gentle as a caress, merely asked permission, then lingered. She closed her eyes, stunned almost to tears by this unexpected courtesy.  For a long moment she wavered. Illogical, for Spock to grant her this dignity, to allow lives and the course of history to hinge upon a single act of kindness. Rather than tear the information from her, he opened himself.

Whether or not it still counts as creepy and invasive is a matter for the reader to determine.

In Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek, David Grevin picks up on the rape subtext and identifies this as a shift in how the mind meld was portrayed in Star Trek as a franchise, perhaps reflecting on shifting cultural norms:

Similar rape-like mind-meld moments occur in the 1991 Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and in the Voyager episodes Meld and Random Thoughts; what in the 1960s was a radical joining of consciousnesses becomes in later Trek an unleashing of violent will.

Certainly, in the years since the release of The Undiscovered Country, the scene has become more striking. It’s one of those “ticking bomb” scenarios frequently dragged into the debate on torture in the wake of 9/11. It now feels like Star Trek by way of 24. Swallow deserves credit for raising the issue, even if his conclusions are a bit questionable.

He doesn’t flinch from the brutality of the act. He argues that the violation of Valeris makes her rehabilitation almost impossible. As she refuses to open up to a counsellor, we’re informed, “It was important for Valeris that her thoughts remained her own.” Spock’s actions broke her, in a very real and brutal way – one that undermines everything the Federation is supposed to stand for.

Cast No Shadow only really runs into trouble when Swallow tries to tie up this plot thread. He flows a fairly logical narrative arc, forcing Valeris into a situation where she is forced to employ the same torture used against her. It’s a very weird scene, because it seems to suggest that not only was Spock’s conduct entirely justified, but that Valeris can come to some sort of understanding about why he did what he did. (In Swallow’s defense, he makes it clear that this understanding does not necessarily extend to forgiveness.)

It just feels very trite and very convenient. The build-up and pay-off to the moment seem a little contrived, a little forced – particularly when Valeris felt so violated by the abuse of trust. It’s not the fact that Valeris is forced to conduct the same action – one suspects that, under just about any circumstance, Valeris would be less troubled by it than Spock. Spock is burdened by the weight of being a “good guy” and good guys do not engage in that sort of conduct. Valeris murdered two of her crew mates. Her moral compass is less tightly wound.

The problem is the way that Swallow treats this moment as an epiphany for Valeris. It feels a little awkward, and it makes her seem a little naive. After all, it’s hard to believe that her difficulty getting past the violation was her inability to understand why Spock felt it was urgent. His motivations were quite clear, even if Swallow repeatedly argues that Valeris’ logic has its blind spots.

I’m also a little uncomfortable with Swallow’s decision to give Valeris a traumatic childhood experience to explain her hatred of the Klingons. I rather preferred Steve Wilson’s insinuation in A Question of Loyalty that Valeris had her own logic, that her decision to participate in the conspiracy was based on the logic that the Klingons’ past behaviour as an expansionist galactic power was the only reliable indicator of their future conduct, and that the long-term needs of the many would be best served by destroying the Empire rather than enabling it.

Yes, it’s in stark contrast to the franchise’s optimistic outlook, but it feels like it gives the character more agency than “bad stuff happened when she was younger and she never got over it.” Given the portrayal of Vulcans as cold and arrogant in the various Star Trek spin-offs (particularly the early years of Star Trek: Enterprise), I can understand why Swallow might wanted to steer clear of another sneering and racist Vulcan. Still, it does feel a little too easy an excuse for her conduct.

However, Swallow writes a pretty good Valeris. It’s easy enough to hear Kim Cattrall’s voice as she delivers her lines, and it’s fascinating to explore the post-Undiscovered Country political landscape. Building off the “Klingons as Soviets” metaphor in the film, Swallow borrows a bit from post-Soviet-era Russian history. In a way, there’s something quite refreshing about that. With so many terrorists in Star Trek spin-offs working as stand-ins for religious extremists, it’s nice to see a book drawing on a slightly different metaphor.

Swallow’s sinister terrorist organisation, radicals from a Klingon colony word, seems designed to evoke Chechen rebels. While the Chechen conflict has obvious ties to radical Islamic terrorist organisations (obvious in the wake of the Boston Bombings), it is good that Swallow opts not to provide his villains with an explicitly religious motivation. Instead, they are self-proclaimed freedom fighters from a world under Klingon occupation – recalling the struggle of regions like Dagestan or Chechnya.

Swallow does something interesting here, pointing out that – by offering aid and support to the Klingon Empire – the Federation is passively condoning its exploitation of these colony worlds. While Gorkan may have seemed like a benign leader to the Federation, and it’s clear his daughter seeks peace with the Empire’s neighbours, it’s clear that neither wished to see the decline or end of the Klingon Empire. Indeed, Gorkan stepped up the exploitation of the colonies in the wake of the explosion on Praxis.

Several members of the terrorist group raise the issue of this Federation support for the Empire. In a way, it seems like an extension of Azetbur’s biting “homo sapiens only” club remark. The Federation is arguably a political entity primarily concerned with its own best interests. This self-interest means that it is – to quote one of the rebels – “blind to their struggle.”

It’s a beautiful criticism of Federation diplomatic policy, and a well-observed piece of realpolitick. After all, Nicholas Meyer envisaged The Undiscovered Country as a version of deep space glasnost, so it makes sense to extend that principle to the various political considerations that must have been flirting around the edges of the film. Swallow doesn’t push the idea too far (he never, for example, retroactively incorporates this motivation into the conspiracy in The Undiscovered Country), but he broaches it just skilfully enough to draw attention to it.

(Indeed, Swallow would incorporate a similar criticism into his Terok Nor: Day of the Vipers. That story, charting the occupation of Bajor by the Cardassian Union, offers a pretty damning condemnation of the Federation’s willingness to sit on the sidelines and just watch it happen – implying that there’s some element of guilt playing into the Federation’s interest in Bajor in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.)

Cast No Shadow is an intriguing bit of tie-in fiction, designed to flesh out an admittedly shallow character in the final film to focus on the entire original ensemble. There are a few missteps involving the characterisation of the Vulcan traitor, but it is a mostly well-observed book with an interesting insight into the aftermath of Kirk’s final voyage.

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

 

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