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Star Trek V: The Final Frontier by J.M. Dillard (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

In many respects, J.M. Dillard is a safe pair of hands.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was released at a point where Star Trek was shifting. Star Trek: The Next Generation had returned the franchise to prime time television after an absence of almost two decades and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home had been an unqualified box office success. Gene Roddenberry was welcome back at Paramount after parting ways following the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, even if the production of Star Trek: The Next Generation was already slipping through his fingers.

There was a much tighter editorial approach to tie-ins and to spin-offs. Whereas the writers of the early Pocket Books novels and DC comics had been given considerable freedom, that freedom was being reigned in around the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The monthly comics series was launched with any elements not matching the “on message” approach to the franchise scrubbed out. All the original characters were gone. All the references to Star Trek: The Animated Series were gone.

The shift at Pocket Books was also palpable. Authors were suddenly getting asked to do ridiculous re-writes, or simply having their own material re-written at will. Margaret Wander Bonanno’s much-mangled Music of the Spheres is perhaps the most infamous example, going through several different ghost writers before finally being released as Probe, a book that Bonanno has relentlessly disavowed. Publishing Star Trek tie-ins was more like making sausages than it ever had been before.

So, in this context, it makes sense that author Vonda N. McIntyre would not return to do the novelisation of The Final Frontier. Her adaptations of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home were clever and thoughtful stories that built freely off the source material, finding room for asides and tangents that were not possible on film. Her novelisation of The Search for Spock hits the movie’s opening scene almost a third of the way into the book.

As such, McIntyre’s unique style was unlikely to be a comfortable fit for this new tie-in environment. J.M. Dillard, on the other hand, would be.

st-finalfrontierFirst, some context. Dillard is a successful author – she publishes both under her maiden name, Dillard, and her married name, Kalogridis. She enjoys no small success for her vampire series The Diaries of the Family Dracul, and has published a number of science-fiction and historical novels outside the Star Trek franchise. However, she got her big break writing Star Trek novels, with her first novel, Mindshadow, published in 1985.

Dillard proved herself a reliably consistent writer. She published Demons the following year, and Bloodthirst the year after that. In many respects, Bloodthirst foreshadowed her later success writing vampire novels. Coming up in the ranks rather quickly, Dillard was chosen to help launch the Lost Years series of novels – designed to fill the gap that was perceived to exist between The Turnabout Intruder and The Motion Picture.

It was her manuscript for The Lost Years that landed her the adaptation of The Final Frontier. However, it is worth looking at some context around Dillard’s work with Pocket Books. She was a very much a go-to writer for a number of assignments. She is the credited author on two of the four Lost Years novels, opening the series with The Lost Years and closing it with Recovery. However, Dillard wasn’t just a go-to writer for original stories. She was also a frequent and trusted ghost writer.

On top of opening and closing Lost Years saga, Dillard also did an uncredited re-write on the second book in the series, Brad Ferguson’s troubled A Flag Full of Stars. While – according to Voyages of the Imagination – Ferguson was “relieved” that Dillard was assigned to re-write his work, not all writers were thrilled at this. Margaret Wonder Bonannon makes a somewhat dismissive reference to “the Vampire Lady” in her account of the difficult journey from Music of the Spheres to Probed.

So J.M. Dillard was very much considered a “safe pair of hands” when it came to producing Star Trek tie-in material. She wasn’t going to cause controversy or colour outside the lines in the same way that some of the other tie-in writers might. One imagines that Richard Arnold didn’t have the same conflicts with Dillard that he enjoyed with John M. Ford or Diane Duane or Margaret Wander Bonanno or Peter David.

You can gauge just how safe Dillard’s hands are considered by the fact that wrote every Star Trek movie novelisation from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier through to Star Trek: Nemesis. She also worked on adaptations of certain key episodes, like Emissary, the pilot to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or The Expanse, the second season finalé of Star Trek: Enterprise. Dillard is a reliable and solid author, one who turns her manuscripts in on time, takes good notes, and tows the party line.

She’s very different from the writers who had launched the Pocket Books tie-ins. The transition from Vonda N. McIntyre’s Star Trek novelisations to those written by J.M. Dillard perfectly illustrate the transition that was taking place behind the scenes at the time. And, as you might expect, Dillard’s adaptation of The Final Frontier lacks the sort of affectionate authorial touches that made McIntyre’s Star Trek movie novelisations such a joy to read. The novelisation of The Final Frontier is all business.

To be fair, it improves upon the source material. That’s not too difficult, given what a trainwreck the film happened to be. Although Dillard doesn’t branch out in the way that McIntyre does, she tries to establish some sense of continuity between The Final Frontier and what came before. One of the most distracting aspects of William Shatner’s The Final Frontier is the way that it pretends nothing has changed since the television show – ignoring the developments and character growth of the last three films.

Dillard tries to contextualise the events of The Final Frontier in terms of those films. “It was almost as if Jim was thumbing his nose at death,” we’re told of the opening scene, as Dillard explains that Kirk is still dealing with the events of The Search for Spock:

And there were many things he wanted to avoid thinking about: the grief he still felt over the loss of his son, David, and the fact that Carol Marcus still wanted nothing to do with him. He could only assume her silence was an accusation, a laying of blame.

Similarly, Scotty’s “pain” is explicitly stated to be the loss of his nephew during the events of The Wrath of the Khan. However, Dillard’s attempts to knit together continuity aren’t quite as bold and brash as McIntyre’s had been. This is the first novelisation since The Wrath of Khan not to devote considerable space to Carol Marcus, for example.

More than that, Dillard’s references to continuity feel like they exist primarily to draw attention to the gaps, rather than going a step further and trying to properly explain them. After Kirk’s “I lost a brother once” to Spock and McCoy at the end, Dillard is sure to note that “they would think he referred to Sam.” Dillard draws attention to the gaffe rather than actually fixing it, as Peter David attempts in the comic.

Similarly, Kirk laments how out-of-character Spock is acting when Sybok shows up. “Whatever happened to the good of the many?” he demands. “Did we talk you out of it too thoroughly?” There is a very definite sense that Dillard is having a laugh at the expense of the script. At one point, Kirk protests, “But the centre of the galaxy can’t be reached! Even a schoolchild knows that!” Dillard makes reference to the various factors that make the plot point particularly absurd.

At the same time, Dillard doesn’t seem to hate The Final Frontier in the same way that she would hate the next film in the series. As much as the novelisation seems to spend a great deal of time gently mocking the logical gaps in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, it doesn’t contain the same level of vitriol as her novelisation of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. With a bit more character development for Sybok and a little more insight into his history and his objectives, her novelisation for The Final Frontier does smooth out a few of the many rough edges with the final version of the film.

Still, despite all this, The Final Frontier remains an unsalvageable piece of work. Dillard does a nice job tidying up the script, but the movie’s biggest problems come baked into the premise. It would take a writer willing to throw out entire chunks of the screenplay and build around those gaps to offer any real chance of turning it into a workable story. Sadly, Dillard is not that writer.

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