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Star Trek – The Fearful Summons by Denny Martin Flinn (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.

One of the great things about a franchise as expansive and as well-documented as Star Trek is that no idea is even completely lost to history. The franchise is sprawling enough that episodes and films inevitably end up lost to history. Scripts are written and re-written, with ideas changing dramatically from original conception through to the final released version. Even Star Trek: Phase II is well accounted for, affording fans a glimpse at how things might have gone for the franchise.

It’s interesting to imagine the possibilities that exist at given moment for the franchise – how radical things might be now had a particular event gone a different direction. Imagine Bryan Fuller and Bryan Singer bringing Star Trek back to television with Angela Bassett in the big chair. Or Spock on the grassy knoll. Or Oscar nominee Geneviève Bujold as Janeway. Or a first season of Star Trek: Enterprise set primarily on Earth during the development of the warp five drive.

So much of the franchise is discussed and analysed that ideas like this tend to bubble through. Occasionally, the franchise allows an echo of what might have been to break through. Star Trek: The Next Generation adapted two aborted scripts from Star Trek: Phase II into The Child and Devil’s Due. Harlan Ellison’s original script for The City on the Edge of Forever is being adapted into a comic book. That is to say nothing of writers like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold working with fan productions.

However, Denny Martin Flinn’s novel, The Fearful Summons, is a particularly interesting glimpse at what might have been. It’s essentially a novel based around his original idea for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It’s a rather bizarre and occasionally awkward glimpse at what might have been for the franchise.

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In many ways, this feels rather obvious. After all, both The Fearful Summons and The Undiscovered Country get their titles from Shakespeare. Both open with a mini-adventure featuring Sulu on the Excelsior. Both are steeped in the politics of the twilight of the Cold War. While Spock claimed to be a descendent of Sherlock Holmes in The Undiscovered Country, here he is described as “a metaphorical descendant” of Jacques Costaeu.

The similarities extend even further. Flinn seems to borrow some of the storytelling tricks and techniques that he used on The Undiscovered Country. Both see the crew of the Enterprise joined by an attractive young woman who ultimately turns out to be a traitor – although the betrayal in The Undiscovered Country is a lot more personal. In The Undiscovered Country, Spock is betrayed by his pupil. In The Fearful Summons, Kirk is betryed by his lover.

Flinn has talked a bit about his original plan for The Undiscovered Country. As it stands, the movie has a rather funereal atmosphere – it is about Kirk and his crew facing a future where they might be rendered obsolete. Securing peace with the Klingons is written as a capstone to their adventure, one final mission for the greater good. The film ended with the Enterprise being ordered to return home for decommissioning. However, Flinn had originally intended to hammer the theme a little more.

Originally, the writer had planned on having Kirk coming out of retirement to reunite the crew for one last mission. The idea was that the crew of the Enterprise had already retired and that this mission represented one last “hurrah!” for a team of people who had already saved the Federation countless times. Ultimately, Flinn’s idea didn’t make it screen. The episode ends on the retirement of the crew, rather than opening with it.

Still, The Fearful Summons provides a glimpse of the direction Flinn’s pitch might have gone. On a routine exploratory mission, Captain Sulu and several members of the crew from the Excelsior are kidnapped by an alien pirate. This sparks an intergalactic hostage crisis, as the Federation is powerless to recover the hostages without creating a diplomatic incident. As such, a retired James Tiberius Kirk decides to take matters into his own hands and to bring his old crew back together to rescue their old friend.

There’s quite a lot about The Fearful Summons that feels a little “off”, elements that don’t feel like they fit comfortably within the framework of Star Trek, despite Flinn’s best effort to use the right words and the right characters in what appears to be the right context. Writer Denny Martin Flinn has admitted that he did not know a lot about Star Trek when he started writing The Undiscovered Country.

However, he had an entire production team to assist him with the screenplay for that major motion picture. The script for The Undiscovered Country inevitably went through cycles of notes and feedback and input from people who knew the franchise inside and out. After all, Flinn was writing material for actors who had been playing the roles for a quarter of a century. Shatner or Nimoy would be able to spot an out-of-character line a mile off, and fight it with considerable strength.

While The Fearful Summons undoubtedly went through a vigorous editorial process, it couldn’t match that level of scrutiny and evaluation. There is something a little distracting about the text, as it feels like Flinn’s novel isn’t entirely “in tune” with the franchise. When Sulu and a bunch of Excelsior officers are kidnapped, The Fearful Summons stresses the urgency of their return. “If they disappear quickly into a far galaxy, they will soon be forgotten.” Kirk seems to warp around the Federation in no time at all, assembling his team from across the cosmos in a day-and-a-bit.

(I particularly like the revelation that Kirk got “a gold chronometre” on his retirement from Starfleet. It is such a brilliant obvious bit of imagery that isn’t made any better by Flinn’s decision to substitute the suitably futuristic-sounding “chronometre” in for “watch.” That line may be the perfect barometre for The Fearful Summons. If it seem incredibly irritating and condescending, then the book isn’t for you. If it is a little goofy and almost endearing, then the novel might be worth a shot.)

While some of these details are distracting, others are simply intriguing. It feels almost like Flinn is writing an alternate version of Star Trek, one populated with references to “the Eurosphere” or “London Intergalactic.” There is a more thriving private sector than we’re used to in Star Trek, with both Chekov and Uhura finding careers outside Starfleet in their retirement. A lot of time is spent in bars, which are described in terms that feel more like the surroundings from Star Wars than anything in the Star Trek franchise. At one Starfleet establishment, “Silky Way and Puss-in-Boots” provide a futuristic non-stop erotic cabaret.

It seems like Flinn is writing Star Trek with a more generically space opera style, revelling in the types of tropes that don’t usually get much exposure in Star Trek – exotic bars or anonymous mega-corporations or private yacht owners. It is more than a little bizarre to imagine all of these elements consolidated into a single Star Trek narrative. However, while The Fearful Summons would have made for a woeful mess of a film, it’s actually pretty intriguing – if completely off-the-wall – read.

This is Star Trek as glimpsed through the prism of somebody who has never really watched that much Star Trek, but has a lot of enthusiasm for science-fiction and pulp adventure clichés. It’s an absolute disaster as “the last adventure of the crew of the Enterprise”, but it’s surprisingly fun if read as a glimpse into some alternate world where Star Trek looked a little bit more like a generic seventies or eighties science-fiction franchise.

To be fair to Flinn, he is trying. It’s clear that he has embraced his ideas for The Fearful Summons and is running with them. Indeed, The Fearful Summons very clearly follows the same rough blueprint as The Undiscovered Country. It is just as steeped in politics and social consciousness. Indeed, it even includes a throwaway warning about the dangers of nuclear power in its opening scene with the crew of the Excelsior:

“Yes. A civilization that misused nuclear power may have suffered an atomic accident of some sort,” Sencus finished the young helmsman’s thoughts for him. “On an enormous planet. It was not uncommon centuries ago. With a radioactive half-life of literally thousands of years, those rocks will remain barren and hot forever.”

The destruction of Praxis in the opening scene of The Undiscovered Country was clearly meant to evoke the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl. Flinn returns to this idea here, suggesting the mismanagement of atomic energy could have potentially disastrous results.

Of course, the political commentary doesn’t stop there. If The Undiscovered Country was built around anxieties about the end of the Cold War, then The Fearful Summons is about the Iran hostage crisis. After all, the awkward relationship that exists between the Federation and the aliens introduced here suggests the American interest in Iran before the Revolution:

“The Federation wants the balance of power maintained as well. We have agreements with the Ruling Family about the dilithium that keeps the supply going and the price reasonable. So everybody is happy. If the Spiritual Leaders took over, they might change the rules. They have what they call a Higher Calling, and they don’t seem to care if the dilithium gets mined or not.”

Other hints about Beta Promethean culture also evoke Iran, albeit a culture on the cusp of the Revolution, rather than in the aftermath of one. The fragile balance that exists between political and religious power suggests a society caught at a crossroads. The Klingon presence on Beta Promethea recalls the pragmatic relationship that existed between Iran and Russia.

The hostage crisis in The Fearful Summons is clearly intended to evoke the hostage crisis that hounded Jimmy Carter’s term in office. It’s a crisis that quick balloons outside the control of any of the parties involved, with the rhetoric espoused by certain hard-line Starfleet types feeling uncomfortably familiar:

“In other words,” Caius broke in, “we’ve brought the bastards out of their stinking, primitive, undeveloped past and into the future. We’ve given them resources beyond their wildest dreams, just because their primitive planets happen to be sitting on dilithium-crystal mines. And still we’ve had to kowtow to their demands, and play patty-cake with their leaders. When what we really ought to do is fly up with a sh!tload of Federation Starships and take the pious bastards over.”

Given the development of American foreign policy in the Middle East, with dilithium obviously standing in for oil, certain aspects of The Fearful Summons feel much more uncomfortable now than they did when they were originally written. Still, The Fearful Summons trades rather heavily on contemporary concerns – at one point Kirk seems to consider an arms-for-hostages deal.

It is very interesting how various tie-in and spin-off Star Trek novels really embraced the idea of Iran as a potential threat to the United States during the eighties and into the nineties. Peter David’s opening twelve-issue run on DC’s second Star Trek on-going comic book series gave us “the way”, while here Flinn gives us “the Only Way.” However, outside of the obvious influence of the Iran-Contra Affair on scripts like Too Short a Season and Conspiracy, where the focus was on the American betrayal of trust rather than the people being dealt with, the Star Trek production teams generally stayed away from the idea.

While The Fearful Summons is mostly an entertaining mess, Flinn occasionally crosses a line or two. In particular, Kirk’s seduction of a woman young enough to be his daughter is more creepy than romantic. It’s a moment that Flinn seems to be setting up for a nice subversion that never actually arrives. It seems as if Flinn is writing to flatter Kirk’s ego, rather than to offer an interesting glimpse at what retirement might look like for a celebrated hero.

Flinn’s prose certainly doesn’t help matters. At one point, Kirk ruminates on why starships are described as female:

It was no coincidence that Starships were thought of in the female gender, he mused. Women and Starships had a great deal in common. They were sleek, mothering, energizing. They were exotic and erotic. They were temperamental, transitory.

And you could ride them into forever, he thought.

That’s a front-runner for the most cringe-inducing writing I have ever encountered in Star Trek tie-in novels.

The Fearful Summons is not a good Star Trek novel. It’s almost impossible to recommend on its own merits. It’s an interesting glimpse at what might have been, if only so that we may be thankful that it wasn’t. Still, it’s proof that Star Trek is a franchise that is expansive enough that there’s room for everything; and that so many of those infinite combinations and alternatives never completely disappear into the void.

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