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Star Trek – Sarek by A.C. Crispin (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

One of the more interesting things about the expanded Star Trek universe is the diversity. It is possible for supporting characters and guest stars to carry their own narratives and stories within the grand sweeping tapestry of the Star Trek universe. Despite his importance to the mythos, Mark Lenard’s Sarek only made a handful of appearances across the history of the franchise. He only appeared once in the entire classic Star Trek television show, in Journey to Babel.

It is a testament to Mark Lenard’s dramatic abilities and D.C. Fontana’s writing that Sarek would recur across Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and even the original Star Trek movies. The character – despite only appearing in a supporting role across four televised episodes and four feature films – remains one of the most intriguing supporting characters across the franchise.

A.C. Crispin’s Sarek offers a fascinating glimpse at one of the show’s most compelling guest stars, even if the novel does suffer a bit trying to “fix” some of the problems that the author seems to see in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

tos-sarek

There are points where Crispin’s Sarek feels dangerously close to officially-licensed fan fiction. Set in the aftermath of the signing of the Khitomer Accords, the novel goes out of its way to rework some of the key parts of that feature film adventure. Reading Sarek, it’s quite clear that Crispin did not care for particular facets of Nicholas Meyer’s farewell to the Enterprise crew, with the novel offering key insights into political manoeuvres and sinister machinations that change the emphasis of events depicted on film.

Sometimes, Crispin simply emphasises particular aspects of the movie. At one point, the novel makes reference to a scene cut from the theatrical release of the movie – featuring a plan by Starfleet to rescue Kirk and McCoy from the clutches of the Klingons. McCoy is incredulous. “I never knew that, Jim!” he exclaims, speaking for fans only familiar with the cinematic cut of the movie. “I thought Starfleet just decided to throw us to the wolves.”

However, there’s also a sense that Crispin is grafting material on to The Undiscovered Country wholesale, as if trying to acknowledge the criticisms that a conspiracy within the Federation went against all of Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic ideals. It turns out, according to Sarek, that these conspirators did not work under their own influence. Telepaths were at work, manipulating players from behind the scenes.

“We prodded Keraz, we prodded Chang, we prodded Kruge and Wurrl and Makesh and Kardis,” the villains boast at one point. Although the novel never explicitly states as much, it is quite possible that Crispin is suggesting that the Starfleet conspirators like Admiral Cartwright and Colonel West were similarly “prodded” in the direction of war. As such, it would excuse the cynicism of the film, and the suggestion that Starfleet is anything less than a utopian organisation. It is, in that regard, the perfect defence of Gene Roddenberry’s vision.

There is something that feels very dishonest about this. The beauty of The Undiscovered Country is its willingness to openly criticise Federation foreign policy and moral relativism. “Human rights; the very name is racist” might be one of the most powerful pieces of self-criticism in the history of the franchise, with the accusation that the Federation is a “homo sapiens only club” ringing painfully close to true.

Given that The Undiscovered Country is really about the Cold War, with the Klingons as Russians and the Federation as the Americans, this sort of self-reflection feels appropriate. (As an aside, I do like how Crispin acknowledges the Russians-as-Klingons metaphor by having the Klingons pronounce the name of Peter Kirk as “Pityr.”) Glossing over that ambiguity and reflexiveness in order to provide an easy “an alien made them do it” excuse feels lazy and cheap.

There are other obvious attempts by Crispin to “salvage” aspects of the canon with which the author seems to disagree. So, for example, despite the poignancy of that final scene in The Undiscovered Country, Crispin insists that the Enterprise crew will likely never retire. “We were… gratified… to learn that he and the Enterprise will continue to serve the Federation,” Azetbur observes in conversation, as if to suggest the idea of retiring the Enterprise was mere folly, rather than the entire point of the movie.

Similarly, we get a conversation between Sarek and Amanda where Amanda explicitly signs off on the idea of Sarek marrying again – as if that permission is needed in order for fans to condone the long-lived Vulcan’s decision not to live his life in isolation or withdrawn solitude. “Someday you’ll remember this conversation,” Amanda tells her husband, signing off on his eventual marriage to Perrin. “Someday you’ll be relieved to know that you have my blessing in choosing another consort.”

There’s a strain of continuity pressing down on Sarek, as if Crispin feels obligated to foreshadow and hint at absolutely everything that might unfold in the years ahead of Sarek. Aside from the aforementioned allusion to his second marriage, Crispin also feels the need to explain the long absence of the Romulans from the interstellar political scene between The Undiscovered Country and The Neutral Zone.

There are other awkward elements to Sarek that make it seem like a piece of fairly conventional fan fiction that somehow found its way to publication. The character of Peter Kirk feels almost like nerdy Star Trek wish-fulfilment. The young cadet, who appeared as a child in Operation — Annihilate! – is directly related to James T. Kirk and seems to have inherited his charm, wit, skill, enthusiasm and energy.

Over the course of the novel, Peter Kirk seduces a beautiful alien, helps secure galactic piece. He even gets to win the unwinnable Kobayashi Maru; something that Kirk could not accomplish without cheating. Peter Kirk feels like a male version of a Mary Stu, a character who serves as a collection of clichés about fan fiction characters. He’s the best that there is, but he’s also modest and humble; he only finds himself in this crucial situation because he’s the only one our heroes can count on to get the job done.

So there are some very serious problems with Sarek, as a piece of Star Trek being written in 1994. And yet, despite that, it’s a fascinating read. For one thing, it is a very character-driven novel. The plot of Sarek involves the Vulcan ambassador trying to expose a sinister conspiracy aimed squarely at the heart of the Federation; the story climaxes with Sarek getting his own action sequence. And yet, despite that, there’s something rather more personal going on here.

Sarek is at its strongest when it chooses to focus on Sarek’s relationships to other characters. It’s interesting to delve into the love between a Vulcan and a human – it’s very hard to imagine how Sarek and Amanda could have started dating, let alone marry and produce a child together. Amanda’s journals feel very real and sincere, and Sarek’s conflict between his wife and his larger obligations do give the plot the necessary heft.

Similarly, the dynamic between Spock and Sarek feels natural and organic, building off the wonderful work done by D.C. Fontana. It is understandable how the two could differ over this situation, and Crispin works hard to make both characters seem logical and relatable. In essence, as Sarek himself points out, the Vulcan ambassador has found himself in the middle of a conundrum very similar to the one his son faced in Journey to Babel all those years ago.

There are other nice touches. I like Crispin’s idea that the extended life spans of Romulans and Vulcans allow them a view of the universe that is distinct from that of humans. When evidence of the Romulan plan is revealed, Kirk is stunned. “By my calculation, they’ve been working on this plan for seventy-five years!” Sarek corrects him, “Possibly longer.” For creatures like Vulcans and Romulans, that period is nowhere near as long as it might seem.

Sarek is a bit of a mess. It tries too hard to fix problems that don’t really exist, and to connect threads that don’t need connecting. At the same time, it works best as a character study of one of the franchise’s most enduring and endearing supporting players – a demonstration of just how deep the shared Star Trek universe can extend if needed.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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5 Responses

  1. It seems I liked this book somewhat better than you did. When Ellen Chessman Meyer did her review I made a few comments. The biggest problem was the Peter Kirk story was unnecessary. It was only there to fill the pages and make this a “giant size” novel. Maybe he is a bit of a Mary Sue,but he just is not as interesting as Sarek. The other comment I made was that there could have been a scene where Sarek told Spock he was too hard on him as a child.

    Her revision of Undiscovered Country did not bother seem that unreasonable. Nor did it really seem to take away from what you from the Federation having corrupt people. One other thing you did not mention it setting it up. The plot for Unification. This is in the conference at the end. Is that the part that explains the Romulan absence or was it the other comment you quoted?

    • I think it’s the same conversation – talking about the Empire retreating to lick its wounds while Sarek hopes for the future.

      I really disliked the changes to The Undiscovered Country for several reasons. Most obviously, these changes rob Chang of his own agency. The irony of conspiring with the enemy to prevent peace with that enemy is a lovely piece of work. With the change, Chang becomes a pawn in a larger scheme than a man who would be king. (Even if he would have been setting the Empire’s policy from teh shadows rather than the main stage.)

      More than that, though, it suggests – although it’s never explicitly stated – that Cartwright and West could just as easily have been manipulated or prodded in a particular direction. Cartwright racist and hatred is powerful precisely because it comes from a position of privilege and power – a future without money where inequality has been destroyed. Brock Peters had terrible difficulty filming that scene where Cartwright comes out as explicitly racist, and he did a wonderful job – it’s a massively powerful plot point about how these toxic philosophies pop up in the places where we absolutely least expect them. Suggesting that we need telepaths to push us towards those urges feels like it mutes the point of the film. But I think we can agree to disagree on this – doctors differ and all that…

      I didn’t know that about the Peter plot. Although it seems weird that he becomes such a Mary Sue type character in that case.

      • Just wanted to say that I am not sure that is why the Peter subplot was added to the book. It is more of a suspicion than anything else. It just seems alot of Trek novels have subplots that are not necessary. Add to the fact that the early books were shorter and often did not have them,it seems likely. By earlier that includes pocket and the Bantam line.

      • Yep, don’t worry. I was just a bit curious about that.

        It’s interesting that so many of the mid-nineties novels were “giant” novels when – as you point out – so many of the early ones were much leaner. Sometimes more is more, but sometimes it does feel like padding. (For example, Peter David’s Vendetta feels a little bloated, but the similarly-sized – I think – Q-Squared and Imzadi flow a lot better.)

        I suspect you might be on to something, particularly with the hardcover novel explosion of the time period.

      • Another example is David’s Q in Law. The Wesley Crusher subplot was sort of unnecessary though it was not terrible. P

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