Thursday, June 15, 2023

Enough With the Canon Fundamentalists

By most people's reckoning, Star Trek will be 57 years old this September. To put things in perspective, Superman hit his 57th anniversary in 1995, by which time he'd already gone through one hard reboot and numerous softer ones. Not even the most ardent fanboy would've expected the character and his world to maintain a single unbroken continuity from 1938 to 1995.

But that's exactly what some Star Trek fans expect. 

Never mind that the world of 1966 is as far in our past as 1909 was to Star Trek's original audience. You could argue that TV has changed as much between 2023 and 1966 as the medium of film had between 1966 and 1909. No, the only thing that matters to these Star Trek Fundamentalists is "canon". These are the kind of people who will make an absolute judgement on the "goodness" or "badness" of a Star Trek production based on the shape of a starship's warp nacelles in a single leaked screencap.

These canon-humpers are always looking around for things to be angry about, and these last six years of streaming Star Trek have given them enough fuel for a near-constant orgy of rage. A recent complaint is that Strange New Worlds shouldn't have Nurse Chapel in it at all, and that she definitely shouldn't be having feelings for Spock because established "canon" tells us that she was involved with a scientist named Roger Korby at this point in the timeline.

Except it doesn't.

The first time we see Christine Chapel is in the fifth regular episode (if we go by production order) "The Naked Time". This episode tells us two things about Christine: she's a nurse and she's in love with Mr. Spock. Obviously the two haven't just met; it's implied in dialogue that she's had these feelings for a while. We next see Nurse Chapel three episodes later in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" where we're told that she joined the Enterprise in hopes of finding her fiancee Dr. Roger Korby (described as "the Pasteur of archaeological medicine) who's been missing for five years.

This is as much as we ever learn about Chapel. Interestingly, her feelings for Spock come up again in future appearances, but Roger Korby is never mentioned. Over the years most fans assumed that Christine was involved with Korby first, and after he disappeared she joined Starfleet, was assigned to the Enterprise, and met Spock. But that's all it was—an assumption. The show said absolutely nothing about her professional or personal history.

In the Season Two premiere of Strange New Worlds Chapel mentions that she's applying for a fellowship in archaeological medicine, the very field that one Dr. Roger Korby is the Pasteur of.

So why couldn't she have fallen for Spock during a tour on Pike's Enterprise, and when it didn't work out she left for an archaeological medicine fellowship where she met Dr. Korby? They entered a relationship, then he disappeared, and she rejoined the Enterprise in hopes of finding him one day, only to realize that she still had feelings for Spock. That works, right? And the only thing it contradicts are the long-held assumptions of unimaginative fans.

A real Star Trek fan would react to that by saying "Wow, what a surprising development that gives the Majel Barrett version of the character more depth than she had before!"A canon-humper would just be mad that a long-held assumption got contradicted.

My problem with the canon fundamentalists is that they don't want anything new. All they want is to see exactly what they expect. Any story set during a particular era of Star Trek "history" must exactly match whatever we've seen from previous installments set during that same era, even if those installments were produced as far in our past as the Titanic disaster was for fans in the '60s.

If your main thing is being performatively Mad on the Internet, I guess canon fundamentalism is a good business to be in. But if you want to be a mentally-healthy human being who watches stuff because you enjoy it, then maybe not.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Weird Star Trek: Star Trek Novelverse Edition

Since the very beginning, Star Trek has had rules. Mostly this was done to keep things within a TV budget and make the world of the show seem believable; it was never really something that viewers were supposed to obsess over. But it turned out that Star Trek's fans love to obsess over things, and attention to detail quickly became a major part of the whole franchise.

And yet, during its first 20 years the Star Trek universe was a pretty wide-open place. The original series and the first few movies didn't really do any deep dives into alien cultures, the character's pasts, or Federation politics. So all that stuff was open for exploration, and novels were the perfect place to do it. Unlike TV or movies, a book's only limits are the author's imagination and what the editors will let them do. And up until 1988 or so the editors mostly let Star Trek novel authors indulge themselves. The result was glorious run of deeply weird, occasionally wonderful stories full of stuff that was totally inconsistent with where the Star Trek universe ended up going. For example:

The Federation Chemically Lobotomizes People Who Invent "Dangerous" Technology
Vonda McIntyre's The Entropy Effect was the first novel that Pocket Books published after Gene Roddenberry's novelization of The Motion Picture. Its main plot is about the chaos that erupts when the Enterprise is assigned to transport convicted murderer Georges Mordreaux to prison. After a lot of twists and turns (including the murder of Captain Kirk), Spock discovers that Mordreaux didn't actually kill anybody. (Well, his crazed alternate-timeline variant did) He invented a time machine, and a few of his friends begged him to use it to send them into the past to live out their lives. When Federation authorities realized the incredibly dangerous nature of Dr. Mordreaux's invention, they suppressed all his research, framed him for the murder of his friends, and sentenced him to be confined to a psychiatric hospital and pumped full of drugs to destroy his brilliant intellect so he could never re-invent the time machine.

If Captain Picard caught the Federation doing something like that we'd get the mother of all Picard speeches about Federation ideals and the rights of sentient beings. But Spock just kind of shrugs and accepts it. He reasons that if a such a thing were invented on Vulcan, everyone would unanimously agree never to use it. But since humans aren't as self-controlled, he agrees that the Federation basically has no choice but to forcibly suppress the technology and lobotomize the inventor. Vonda McIntyre's take on the normally-idealistic Federation was shockingly dark, yet it presaged some of what future stewards of the franchise would do with Section 31. 

Klingons Are Violent Animals Who Can Only Act Reasonable If They're Drugged
Again with the drugs! In the 1988 novel Timetrap by David Dvorkin, the Enterprise tries to rescue a Klingon ship trapped in some kind of space storm, but it disappears with Captain Kirk aboard. Kirk wakes up on a base full of reasonable, peaceful Klingons who tell him that the space storm transported him 100 years into the future. They say that in their time the Klingon Empire and the Federation are at peace, and it all started 100 years earlier when Captain Kirk led a fleet of Klingon ships from the future into Federation space on a peace mission. They want to take Kirk back to the 23rd century to fulfill his part of their historical record.

Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a Klingon ploy to trick Kirk into helping them take an invasion fleet past Federation defenses. And the peaceful Klingons only act that way because they've been taking drugs to suppress their violent tendencies. When they go off the drugs, they devolve into snarling, animalistic monsters. To be fair, a formerly drugged Klingon who's reverted to her violent tendencies does have a moment of compassion for Kirk after he collapses from injuries he sustained earlier in the story. But the overall message--that Klingons are inherently violent and animalistic--very uncomfortably mirrors stuff that real-world racists say to justify the terrible things they do.

I believe that this was one of the last books (maybe the last) published before Gene Roddenberry's office--in the person of his manservant Richard Arnold--took a direct role in approving novel manuscripts. And let me be clear: I never liked the late Richard Arnold. He was a fundamentalist who thought the only person allowed to have original Star Trek ideas was Gene Roddenberry. He loved to tell behind-the-scenes stories, and all of them were about a time when he was right about a piece of Star Trek trivia and some more important or famous person was wrong. If he was a Star Trek character, he'd be one of the hooded Lawgivers from "The Return of the Archons" who mindlessly enforced the will of the Landru computer.

That being said, I imagine Richard Arnold probably would have rejected this book, and it would've been the one and only decision of his that I agreed with.

The Forgotten TV Western That's Part of the Star Trek Universe
Timetrap was not the first novel where a main character disappeared on a Klingon-related mission. In 1985 Pocket released Ishmael by Barbara Hambly. It's one of the first Star Trek novels I remember seeing in my local Waldenbooks, maybe because of how strange the cover art was:

It clearly said "Star Trek", and that was obviously Mr. Spock there on the right. But who were those other people and why were they all dressed like riverboat gamblers? Whatever explanation you can think of, the truth is way weirder.

The 1968-69 TV season was Star Trek's last on NBC. Meanwhile, over on ABC a new comedy-Western series called Here Come The Brides was starting the first of what would be a two-season run. The premise of the show revolved around women who came to Seattle after the Civil War to find husbands. One of the show's characters, sawmill owner Aaron Stemple, was played by Mark Lenard (the same guy who played Spock's father Sarek a year earlier). In the book, Stemple finds an amnesiac Spock unconscious in the woods and takes him to his cabin to recover. As we go along, Spock meets the show's other characters and becomes integrated into their social circle, making this book basically a Star Trek/Here Come The Brides crossover.

Eventually we learn that Spock got caught up in a Klingon plot to travel back to the 1860s and kill Aaron Stemple to prevent him from helping to thwart Earth's takeover by the Karsid Empire. Of course they fail, Spock gets his memory back, and we learn that Aaron Stemple is actually one of his human ancestors. Oh, and there's also a scene in an alien cantina where Dr. Who, Han Solo, and Apollo and Starbuck (the Richard Hatch and Dirk Benedict versions) all hang out together.

A book like this would probably never get published today and it's absolutely glorious.

The Klingon Empire Gets Canceled By Godlike Aliens
When Spock Must Die! was published in January 1970, Star Trek had been off the air for less than a year. The show was dead and buried as far as anyone knew, and author James Blish was free to do whatever the heck he wanted.

So he wiped out the Klingon Empire.

The book is a semi-sequel to the episode "Errand of Mercy", where the practically-omnipotent Organians stop a Federation-Klingon war and force the two sides to sign a peace treaty. In Spock Must Die!, the Klingons imprison the Organians on their planet with a powerful force field, which leaves the Klingons free to make war on the Federation. Eventually the Enterprise crew takes down the forcefield and frees the Organians, who respond by taking away the Klingons' spaceflight ability for 1,000 years. Imagine what future Star Treks would have been like if the Klingons were completely taken off the table.