Thursday, March 13, 2014
Myriad Universes: The Star Fleet Universe
The idea of doing licensed products for Star Trek in the gap between the Animated Series and the film series was, let's admit it, a strange one. It's not like today, where any genre fiction work is seen as a potential massively lucrative (and desperately needed) franchise and is milked for everything it's worth from the moment it hits the scene no matter how paper-thin the source material is or how niche the fanbase. Back then, there were definitely properties that made money and were popular and those that weren't, and you didn't tend to get merchandise out of properties that weren't.
Star Trek itself fell into an interesting space on this spectrum: It was certainly well-known, but, as far as an entire generation of people were concerned (and momentarily discounting the few die-hard fans who had remained obsessed with the show all this time), it was likely a show they hazily remembered that hadn't been relevant in almost a decade. But there was also that contingent of new viewers who were just now getting exposed to the show through the syndicated reruns: This was the first exposure to Star Trek they had, and they didn't have things like Mr. Spock's Songs from Space anymore. This alone probably explains the longevity of things like the Gold Key comic series and the Pocket Books tie-in novel line, but it also led to some things that were, in retrospect, a little weird. Considering the audience Star Trek had was now firmly established as a niche one, and given the backdrop of the late-1970s this is happening against, what we wound up with was a situation where there was clearly a fanbase that could be served, but one that was comparatively small enough to justify not actually making serving it a serious priority.
Because this was happening in the days before a Disney-style obsession with brand uniformity took over the mindset of ever single producer and executive in the entertainment industry such that every sci-fi property has to be closely monitored and kept “official” (partially out of necessity it must be stressed: Hollywood, and really the entire industry, is in a deeply perilous position as of this writing), we get really odd and fun little artefacts like Star Trek: The New Voyages, which was a rather unprecedented direct contact between a very small production team and the fanfiction community, which is something that plainly couldn't happen today. Should Marvel or Lucasfilm (both really Disney) or Doctor Who (really the BBC) attempt something like that for any of their properties today, it would first have to be fed through about a million different marketing committees and sub-committees before being hastily abandoned for fear the fics wouldn't be “on message” (which, in the case of The New Voyages, they *absolutely* weren't, and that was *wonderful*).
But Star Trek's weird liminal position allows for things like this: In those days, if you wanted to license a Star Trek work, you wrote up one dude at Paramount studios, told him or her what your idea was, and they'd say “Sure. Go for it. Why the hell not?” Which brings us to the topic at hand: What's become known as “The Star Fleet Universe” (note the spelling-Not to be confused with “Starfleet”) has just about the most laughably casual history of any work of merchandising ever. The acknowledged first work in this particular 'verse is Franz Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual, published as an official tie-in from Ballantine Books in 1975. This was, in retrospect, an unusual book in the history of Star Trek tie-in works, and set a precedent for some other interesting transgressive works to come: It purports to be an official compilation of the United Federation of Planets' Articles of Confederation, series of detailed intel reports of the “Star Fleet Armed Forces”, breakdown of command structure and description of every single significant piece of technology used in Star Trek. It's written in an in-universe style, supposedly a classified file of material left behind on Earth by the Enterprise crew during the events of “Tomorrow is Yesterday”.
What makes this curious is that basically nothing in the Star Fleet Technical Manual actually came from Star Trek. Franz Joseph was a German technical writer who was inspired by the franchise and had an idea to do a book of blueprints and technical information after attending Star Trek conventions and seeing how many fans wanted replicas of the props and costumes used on the show. Joseph personally contacted Gene Roddenberry, who thought it was a great idea and put him in contact with Bob Justman and other members of the Star Trek production team. The result was this book and its companion, the Star Trek Blueprints which became, retroactively, the “official” sources for technical information on the Star Trek universe.
Or, at least they did temporarily, as Joseph's work is no longer considered canon to the franchise today. This just goes to show you how useless and unhelpful the concept of canon is as both books were used for reference in the production of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock such that a few of the diagrams actually appeared *on screen* in the finished products (not to mention concepts originating in the books being explicitly referenced in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Datalore” and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).
Fast-forward to 1979, and an Amarillo, Texas-based publisher of tactical and strategic board war games called Task Force Games, headed by a US Army veteran by the name of Stephen V. Cole, is interested in making a war game set in the Star Trek universe. He gets the license and the result is Star Fleet Battles, which draws on, and extensively builds upon, the material from Joseph's Star Fleet Technical Manual. However, not long after, Star Trek sort of becomes big business again with a rather eye-catching film series, and suddenly Paramount decides to tighten its belt in regards to merchandising. The first casualty is Cole, who is prohibited from using any material from the film series or, after it premiers a decade later, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Cole continues to flesh out his version of the Star Trek universe, and his series of games continues to this day published by Task Force Games' successor, Amarillo Design Bureau.
So what we ultimately have with Star Fleet Battles and its numerous expansion packs is, in a sense, an alternate universe, and thus an alternate direction the Star Trek franchise could have gone. This is important to take note of, because it's indicative that even at the level of license rights Paramount was always somewhat lenient in regards to how people read Star Trek, and was at least open to the possibilities of alternate interpretations, explained away via “divergent timelines”. But this is a conversation to be picked up at a (much) later date, because no matter how marginal the Star Fleet Universe is, the fact is it remains a significant part of Star Trek at this phase of its life and belongs just as much to what was “canon” Star Trek at this point in time as the Animated Series or the film series. It had its genesis in meetings with real, actual people involved in the production of the Original Series and the Technical Manual was used to prep both the movies and the board game, so it's impossible to ignore what it's telling us about the world of Star Trek.
And what it's telling us is both interesting and disturbing, because the Star Fleet Universe is overtly about empire building. It literally, by definition cannot be about anything else. The original Technical Manual mentions the “Star Fleet Armed Forces” and Star Fleet Battles goes even further, breaking the entire galaxy down into sectors and octants controlled by individual sprawling galactic political powers and military alliances. There are different governments, each with their own history of aggression and conflict with each other and each with their own unique political organisation, tactical predispositions and fleets full of different classes of battleships, destroyers, scouts and heavy cruisers.
Aside from all the expected powers (the Federation, the Gorn, the Klingons, the Romulans and the Tholians), the Star Fleet Universe also adds a unique culture called the Hydrans, a society of petite nonhumanoid methane-breathers with three genders and expands greatly upon the Orion Cartel, who, under it, becomes a loose multi-ethnic association of pirates and smugglers instead of a solitary race built around deception and thievery as they were in the Original Series and Animated Series: They're far and away the most interesting faction, and it's little wonder the video game series set in this universe gives them prominent starring roles (and interestingly, in fact, the Star Fleet Universe seems to be the basis for at least a part of the reconceptualization of Orion society on Enterprise down to, somewhat hearteningly, it being a matriarchal one).
Then there are the Kzinti.
Returning to the Kzinti of course means returning to “The Slaver Weapon” and all the dark implications it held for the Star Trek franchise. All of the concerns I raised in my analysis of that episode remain valid here, and are in fact even more pronounced given the expressly militaristic nature of the Star Fleet Universe. Back then I argued that the massive wrench the Kzinti throw into the workings of Star Trek comes from trying to reconcile the history of the supposedly-peaceful and benevolent Federation with the Earth-Kzin Wars from Larry Niven's Known Space universe, from which the Kzinti originally hail. What this does is rewrite the history of the Federation such that it has its origins in Earth basically repeatedly curb-stomping a hopelessly outmatched adversary over and over again to flex the muscle of its blossoming military might.
In the context of “The Slaver Weapon”, we can read this rather ugly series of events as another of D.C. Fontana's numerous attempts to deconstruct and problematize the basic structures and assumptions of the Star Trek narrative, and in particular the Federation as a form of government and unambiguous good, much as she did, albeit considerably more cynically, with Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment and that we know she was interested in as early as “Mirror, Mirror” and “The Enterprise Incident”. However, Star Fleet Battles is not the work of D.C. Fontana: It's the work of Stephen V. Cole, an ex-military guy and is expressly a war game. By the sheer fact the Federation is a playable faction in this game, and just based on what this game is and how it works, by definition, what used to be implications and subtext in “The Slaver Weapon” becomes unchallenged overt *text* in Star Fleet Battles-If there was ever any doubt before, it's now evaporated: The Federation is now explicitly an empire and military power on par with, and just as warlike as, any of its interstellar neighbours.
Now, I have a confession to make. While I'm just about as much of an anti-war person ideologically as you're likely to find, I deeply enjoy war games and always have. I have many fond memories of the video games based on this universe and, as a kid I would concoct laughably elabourate scenarios for my friends and I whenever we had water gun fights or played kick-the-can involving multiple sparring armies and territory control. One of my favourite video game series is Nintendo Wars, which is all about back-and-forth, turn-based strategics on a sprawling, modular battlefield with an infinite number of variables and convenient colour-coded armies. Now, I know this will cause Paul Schneider to spin in his grave, but allow me to offer some meager defense: What I like about war games is purely the psychological aspect of it-I love formulating tactics and strategy and trying to out-think and out-maneouvre another player. It's purely a mental exercise for me, and also purely a casual and recreational one as I also suck profoundly at war games.
What I *don't* like is the disregard for human life and dignity of real war, and pretty much everything else about it. I can justify my occasional indulgence in war games because they are expressly, consciously and deliberately unreal. Nobody *dies* in Nintendo Wars, a bunch of cartoon army men toys fall backwards looking like they just got yanked offstage by a Vaudeville cane. And, helpfully, they all respawn next time you move an infantry unit. Everything's an exaggerated, colourful caricature and happy, upbeat music plays in the background. You're not supposed to think about the ramifications of the way this world works, it's a pure artifice that exists solely as the backdrop for the mental exercise of strategy, just like Chess or Go or any other such game throughout history. Same is true in first person shooters, or at least the good ones anyway. Nobody died in kick-the-can either: You just went back to base to start another round.
I suppose you could make the same argument for Star Fleet Battles: It's all a game, so it shouldn't be taken too seriously. Except...I can't do that in this case. Yes, it's a game and yes, the ultimate focus should be the strategy, but this is still set in the Star Trek universe, supposedly a pacifist utopia, and it *was* an officially licensed product and considered canon for however short a time. And I can't just disregard the implications that holds for the larger franchise. This paints the Federation in an *extremely* negative light, which, OK that's fine (I'm going to get about a million Trekkers writing to me and screaming about this, but I'm onboard with it), but what's concerning is that now the franchise no longer seems to want us to have a problem with this, which is seriously worrying as far as I'm concerned. The Federation is a brutal empire focused on conquest and colonization...and that's no longer cause to be appalled, that's just the way things are.
I can deal with perpetual war and conflict in my war games if it's lighthearted and cartoony enough, but I have a hard time accepting it in my Star Trek. To me this goes against basically everything the franchise tries to show us and what it's become over the past ten years, let alone where it's going to continue to go over the next thirty. Problematize the Federation, sure, that thing's long overdue for a serious critique. But, when you go so far as to turn the entirety of the Star Trek universe into a battlefield map and leap headfirst into unchecked militarism, I think you've crossed a line somewhere. This is what you get when you take Star Trek's troublesome roots as “Gulliver's Travells with the Space Navy” and general techno-fetishism and run with it to the logical limit and, from at least my perspective, it's worth asking ourselves if this is really the place we want to end up.