Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Starting At The Beginning Of The Star Trek Novel Franchise With Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The Good: Generally well-written, Interesting concept
The Bad: Adds little or nothing to the on-screen presentation, Fairly simple diction.
The Basics: With a main plot about as interesting as the film and bogged down with additional, irrelevant details, the novel of Star Trek: The Motion Picture flops.

When Pocket Books nabbed the license for the Star Trek franchise back in the late 1970s, they wanted to start high. There was still a lot of enthusiasm for the film Star Trek: The Motion Picture (click here for my review of the film!) and even then Star Trek was seen as a viable and profitable franchise worth exploring and exploiting. So, to stack the deck in their favor, Pocket Books began the novels with the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To pen the novel, Gene Roddenberry was brought in to do the honors.

The novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a generally literal interpretation of the film and those who became excited a few years back over the Director's Cut of the film might want to note that when Robert Wise updated his Star Trek opus, it was mostly just for special effects. In other words, the few additional character elements that Roddenberry started with in the novel did not make it into the movie. And as a book, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a rather average book, with unimpressive narrative techniques and diction, making for a read that begs the question "What is the point?" Yes, as a writer, I ought to be thrilled whenever there is a book instead of a movie, but when something begins as a movie and much of the thrill of the film is the visual spectacle, the book needs to add something truly significant to the film or else it flops. This is essentially what happens with this book of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Admiral James T. Kirk is on vacation when he receives a message from StarFleet Command (directly to his brain). A squadron of Klingon ships has been destroyed by a mysterious cloud and the bearing of the cloud now puts it on an intercept course for Earth. Springing into action, Kirk meets with Admiral Nogura to get command of the newly refit U.S.S. Enterprise and he is successful. Despite his recommendation for the Enterprise's new captain, Kirk replaces Captain Will Decker as captain of the Enterprise and he begins to assemble his new crew, by reuniting his old crew. Unfortunately for Kirk, a transporter accident kills his new science officer and his lover and the Enterprise limps out of spacedock missing a few key officers, most notably Spock who was on Vulcan attempting purge himself of all emotions when he telepathically received Kirk's thoughts and the message about the alien cloud.

After another mishap - this time with the engines - and the arrival of a particularly reticent Spock from Vulcan, the Enterprise moves to intercept the alien cloud, which now appears to be hostile. Gambling on the abilities of the cloud, Kirk and Spock manage to broadcast a friendship message to it and prevent the Enterprise from being destroyed. Penetrating the cloud with the Enterprise, they discover a structure inside and in their efforts to learn about it, they lose a new crewmember, one who is connected to Decker and whose return as a mechanical construct leads the Enterprise crew to realize they are in a struggle for the survival of Earth itself!

Gene Roddenberry makes explicit several ideas in the novel of Star Trek: The Motion Picture that were never concretely nailed down in the film. The most notable among these is in the backstory of Willard Decker. Decker is supposed to be the son of the crazed Commodore Matt Decker from the episode "The Doomsday Machine" (click here for my review of that episode!). Roddenberry details the inner voice of Will Decker quite well, declaring that he is a man who has struggled as a result of the way his father met his end. Kirk, in the novel, is characterized almost as his patron, looking out for Decker and his career to insure he got a fair shake of things and was not judged by his father's illness. Also, Decker and the Deltan navigator Ilia are granted more backstory and as a result, Decker makes more headway with the Ilia probe after she is replaced by V'Ger.

Roddenberry also uses the opportunity to flesh out his vision of the future a little bit better by writing some future history. The problem is that his mention of historical events yet to come are all in the context of technological advancements. So, for example, Kirk's StarFleet brain implant (senceiver) is given a bit of backstory where they were only used because the ethical mind-control implications of such technology had been eliminated, due to humanity learning a thing or two from a previously unmentioned Mind Control Revolt. As well, Roddenberry pushed a smart energy agenda by positing that putting a hydroelectric dam in the Straight of Gibraltar would generate enough electricity to fuel Southern Europe and Northern Africa.

If this seems like a divergence from the story (and the review) you are correctly gathering what the crux of my problem with the novel Star Trek: The Motion Picture is. The film plodded along as a terribly boring - not nearly cerebral enough - visual effects film and when the Director's Cut came along, it just changed the visual effects. In the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Roddenberry adds more setting and a little more on the characters. But mostly, it is divergences from the main story that distract from what the book is supposed to be about.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is not about filling in the gaps between our times and the time of Star Trek, it is about learning about new life forms and preventing them from obliterating Earth. How does the history of the senceiver make that easier, more comprehensible or more relevant? It doesn't, truly. And because these technologies and concepts are not revisited outside this book, they stagnate and seem like unnecessary embellishments. This would not be the case if this had been a truly original universe the reader was being introduced to. But instead, the Star Trek universe had been pretty well established by Gene Roddenberry on television. Those picking up the novel did not need new technologies and history lessons that were included ought to have benefited the story or been used as future precepts. Instead, they were largely abandoned or neglected outside this work.

And there is nothing of significance added to the characters of Kirk and Spock which was not shown in the film Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Their story and the story of V'Ger's advance upon Earth are virtually identical to the movie, so there is little to entice readers into this book.

Add to that, this is not the most sophisticated read. It is written to be accessible to anyone with a middle school education and is not impressive in the prose in any way. Roddenberry has a decent ability with the dialogue, but beyond that, his descriptions are fair at best and the characters are sublimated to the story and this is not the greatest Star Trek plot ever written.

It is, however, a start and while I never thought I would do this, readers might want to save some time, pop in the film Star Trek: The Motion Picture and just start with novel #2 for some original material!

For other Star Trek franchise books, please check out my takes on:
Imzadi By Peter David
Star Trek Omnibus 1 By Marv Wolfman
I, Q By Peter David and John de Lancie


For other book reviews, be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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