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Star Trek – The Galactic Whirlpool by David Gerrold (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

David Gerrold is one of the very few Star Trek writers to become an established science-fiction writer after his work on the television show.

Sure, writers like Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga have continued to work in genre television and film, but Gerrold is unique in that he has built up a reputation as a formidable science-fiction novelist. “By any reasonable definition David Gerrold is a major figure in science fiction,” the New York Times has argued. It seems hard to disagree. If Roddenberry had produced Star Trek a decade or so later, he may have been approaching David Gerrold the same way he approached Ray Bradbury or Theodore Sturgeon.

Gerrold joined the writing staff in the second season of Star Trek, following a number of failed pitches. The writer managed to sell The Trouble With Tribbles, which became one of the most iconic and memorable Star Trek episodes ever written. He was such a success that he was drafted in to punch up I, Mudd – the script going into production before The Trouble With Tribbles. Gerrold would hang around for the third season of the show and would become one of the defining voices on Star Trek: The Animated Series with D.C. Fontana.

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Gerrold remained busy in the long gap before Star Trek: The Next Generation, writing a string of well-regarded one-off science fiction novels in the seventies; however, perhaps his best-known work in the interregnum was The War With the Chtorr, his series of novels documenting an alien invasion of Earth. When he fell out with Gene Roddenberry over the production of The Next Generation, Gerrold would launch his popular Star Wolf series – a bunch of novels adapted from a television pitch that feel very much like his vision of The Next Generation.

However, despite this success outside Star Trek, Gerrold remains quite attached to that massive shared universe. Indeed, he recently adapted his own infamously lost Next Generation script – Blood and Fire – for Star Trek: Phase II. However, this was not Gerrold’s first “non-televised” piece of Star Trek. The author was responsible for The Galactic Whirlpool, the fourteenth Bantam Star Trek novel published in 1980. The novel was published shortly before the license was handed over to Pocket Books, and is a remarkable accomplishment.

galacticwhirlpool2The Galactic Whirlpool is one of the most interesting and intriguing Star Trek novels. As with Vulcan’s Glory or Mosaic, it is interesting to see how one of the defining creative voices on Star Trek approaches the world without any of the limitations (in budget, in scale, in setting, in continuity) imposed on televised episodes of the franchise. The Galactic Whirlpool stands head and shoulders above many of its contemporary novels, and Gerrold proves quite the coup for the tie-in novel publishers.

Truth be told, the Bantam tie-in novels were not always the most faithful to the source material. The publisher did not seem to operate particularly high standards of quality control, and so the novels could often feel a little quirky or eccentric. In many cases, they felt like traditional pulpy science-fiction paper backs adapted slightly for the world of Star Trek. These were novels with trashy titles like Spock Must Die! or Spock, Messiah! or Devil World – titles that demanded exclamation marks. In many respects, they feel like companions to the Gold Key comics.

They were fun and enjoyable, but quite distinct from the world of Star Trek as familiar to fans. So having David Gerrold write a stand-alone novel for the series was quite a coup. Gerrold’s name grants the Bantam books a greater measure of legitimacy. After all, Gerrold is not only an established science-fiction writer in his own right, but a Star Trek veteran. However, Gerrold is not just any veteran of Star Trek. Gerrold is the author of one of the best-loved Star Trek episodes of all time.

So that grants Gerrold a certain amount of weight and substance, particularly when writing a licensed tie-in. There is a sense that Gerrold is aware of this. One of the most interesting facets of The Galactic Whirlpool is the way that Gerrold tends to branch off on tangents and diversions, as if dropping tasty little nuggets for readers who want to know how Gerrold saw the Enterprise and its crew members. So the book is populated with titbits and trivia, details offered with the certainty of somebody who actually worked on the show.

For example, The Galactic Whirlpool allows Gerrold to expound upon Kirk’s middle name. Gerrold had established James T. Kirk’s middle name as “Tiberius” in Bem, and so continues to develop it here. According to Gerrold, it is “more of a nickname than a real middle name”, one that Kirk earned at the Academy:

Kirk used it as a reminder. When he found himself growing angry or frustrated, he would repeat it to himself as a mantra, a calming exercise of mind, “James Tiberius Kirk … James Tiberius Kirk.” It was the Tiberius that did it It made him stop. And think. It was an unpleasant association and the memory of why it had been applied to him was doubly unpleasant.

There are lots of other diversions in The Galactic Whirlpool, as Gerrold fleshes out the world of Star Trek in a very casual and conversational style. “There were actually three shuttlecraft bays on the Enterprise,” he states at one point, in what feels like the opening line from a documentary on the ship’s shuttles.

It seems like an inordinate amount of The Galactic Whirlpool is given over to these little flourishes and tangents – as Gerrold builds up the world of the twenty-third century. So we get a glimpse at the “bug spot event” training employed at the Academy and confirmation that the Vulcans helped to build the Enterprise. There are points where it feels like Gerrold is more interested in world-building than storytelling, although there are enough little details and trinkets to make it an enjoyable experience.

In fact, there are more than a few points in The Galactic Whirlpool where it seems like Gerrold is winking at the reader, referencing events or details from the production of the show, rather than the world of the show. Most obviously, Kirk’s oblique reference to “the extra kilos of mass creeping up on him” might be a shout-out to William Shatner’s difficulties maintaining his weight during the production of the show. Indeed, Shatner tended to put on extra weight as each season progressed, due to understandable pressures and practicalities.

There are points where it seems Gerrold is being a little bit too cute. The Galactic Whirlpool ties into The Trouble With Tribbles quite directly, a point apparent from the earliest chapters – and something that becomes even more apparent towards the end of the novel. It seems like Gerrold is winking a little too heavily at the audience, working a little too hard to stress the connections to one of the franchise’s most beloved episode. It is hard to blame Gerrold for this, but it is a little distracting.

Still, for all this, Gerrold manages to capture the voices of the cast. His version of Kirk sounds a lot like Shatner, with the same verbal tics and quirks. “I don’t suppose you have any… ah, thoughts on what the object might be, do you, Mr. Spock?” Reading the novel, it is hard not imagine Shatner having fun with the prose:

“Even so-,” James T. Kirk continued, pursuing the thought like a Socratic scholar worrying at a bone of contention. “Even so-what if this-this anomaly is something…” he brought his hands up before him, gesturing as if to enclose the thought, “… something beyond the experience of the sensory buoys… ? Some new Klingon tactic perhaps?”

It is quite clear that Gerrold has a very strong affection for the characters and the actors who play them, trying to capture the characters as more than simply names on the page. There is a great deal of affection to The Galactic Whirlpool, a clear sense that Gerrold is delighted to be writing for the franchise again.

In fact, Gerrold’s effort to capture the performances of the cast in prose hint at one of the more interesting facets of The Galactic Whirlpool. As with Gerrold’s popular Star Wolf series, The Galactic Whirlpool began as a pitch for television. In particular, a lot of the core ideas can be traced back to Gerrold’s original pitch for Tomorrow Was Yesterday – a story that Gerrold pitched during the first season, and has no relation to the broadcast episode Tomorrow Is Yesterday.

Unaware of the realities facing a weekly television series in the late sixties, Gerrold had originally pitched a story about a war being waged upon a generational ship – a war that had caused some of the inhabitants to forget that they were on a ship at all. The concept was so alluring that Star Trek itself would attempt something similar in For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky in the third season, although that particular episode did not do any real justice to concept.

Gene L. Coon had tempered Gerrold’s ambitions by the time the show bought The Trouble With Tribbles. Nevertheless, Gerrold held on to the interesting ideas at the heart of Tomorrow Was Yesterday. Not only did Gerrold incorporate them here, he also wove them into Yesterday’s Children, a much tighter novel than The Galactic Whirlpool. Nevertheless, these concepts provide a solid science-fiction basis for The Galactic Whirlpool, giving the story a framework around which Gerrold can outline his own vision of the world of Star Trek.

There are a wealth of lovely throwaway science-fiction details to be found in The Galactic Whirlpool, with Gerrold clearly loving the opportunity to go into more detail than might be possible in a televised episode. So there are paragraphs playing with concepts like gravity and faster-than-light travel. Here, Gerrold demonstrates the sort of fascination and attention to detail that one expects from a veteran science-fiction writer, an author who has considered these concepts as more than simply prerequisites to manage the show’s budget.

There are also some clever ideas about the evolution of language, as Gerrold seems to predict text-talk in a wry and subversive development. Having spoken in broken English since her first encounter with the Enterprise crew, Kirk and McCoy are shocked to discover that one of the people living on the colony ship can speak proper English. “Sure,” she explains. “If I want to. But it seems very wasteful of energy to use so many extra words in a sentence to say the same thing.” It is a delightfully witty, almost prescient touch.

In fact, some of Gerrold’s observations feel quite pointed in light of subsequent developments – perhaps foreshadowing some bones of contention between Gerrold and Roddenberry. In his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Roddenberry had speculated that mankind might become more evolved as they developed space-flight. In his novelisation, Kirk seemed to consider himself something as a throwback, a character out of touch with the paradise around him.

In contrast, Gerrold seems more cynical about the prospect, observing that “there was a very real fear on the Earth that the starsiders might begin to feel so detached from the rest of humanity, somehow lose their sense of responsibility to the species, that they would begin to regard themselves as… uh, gods.” Given the approach that Roddenberry would take to twenty-fourth humanity during the first two years of The Next Generation, it seems like Gerrold might have been ahead of the curve.

The Galactic Whirlpool is a fascinating read, even if it feels more like a treatise than an adventure. It is written in a funny and conversational style by an author who clearly cares about the material, and is well worth a look for anyone who enjoyed Gerrold’s Star Trek work. Which would seem to be most fans.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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