Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Myriad Universes: Star Trek: The New Voyages

At first glance, something like Star Trek: The New Voyages might raise a few red flags. It's a two-volume (though more were planned) fanfiction compilation professionally published under the Bantam Star Trek line edited by Gene Roddenberry and convention regulars Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. Immediately, one wants to angrily declare that fanfiction does not require professional validation and is a perfectly legitimate art form in its own right and something like this is only going to lead to a slippery slope where fanfic writers will be competing with each other for places in an artificially constructed hierarchy of credentials.

But in practice, that's not how Star Trek: The New Voyages reads at all (...at least at first, but we'll get to that). Instead, this is, rather heartwarmingly, nothing short of an unabashedly warm embrace by the Star Trek production team of the fanfiction community and a firm declaration that this is who Star Trek is really for and with whom the future of the franchise ultimately lies. Gene Roddenberry's introduction to the first volume is quite simply one of my favourite things he's ever written: Naturally, he positions himself as the creator from whom all of Star Trek springs from and claims the Original Series was “...not a one-man job, although it was something very personal to me-my own statement of who and what this species of ours really is, where we are now and something of where we may be going”. This is somewhat difficult to swallow knowing about the contributions of Gene Coon and D.C. Fontana and Roddenberry's own off-the-record statements about how Star Trek is really “just mini Biblical tales”, but hey, it's Roddenberry and we expect him to say something like this. What we, or at least I, did *not* expect Roddenberry to say is what comes after.

“We were particularly amazed when thousands, then tens of thousands of people began creating their own personal Star Trek adventures. Stories, and paintings, and sculptures, and cookbooks. And songs, and poems, and fashions. And more. The list is still growing. It took some time for us to fully understand and appreciate what these people were saying. Eventually we realized that there is no more profound way in which people could express what Star Trek has meant to them than by creating their own very personal Star Trek things.

Because I am a writer, it was their Star Trek stories that especially gratified me. I have seen these writings in dog-eared notebooks of fans who didn’t look old enough to spell 'cat.' I have seen them in meticulously produced fanzines, complete with excellent artwork. Some of it has even been done by professional writers, and much of it has come from those clearly on their way to becoming professional writers. Best of all, all of it was plainly done with love.
Good writing is always a very personal thing and comes from the writer’s deepest self. Star Trek was that kind of writing for me, and it moves me profoundly that it has also become so much a part of the inner self of so many other people.

Viewers like this have proved that there is a warm, loving, and intelligent life form out there.-and that it may even be the dominant species on this planet.

That is the highest compliment and the greatest repayment that they could give us.”

(Roddenberry also says if he could go back he'd make Star Trek “hotter”, but that's beside the point.)

This speak volumes, as does Sondra Marshak's later declaration that “It can be called 'fan fiction.' It is that, but it is more than that; it is simply Star Trek fiction.” and “...they are real Star Trek, written with care and love, faithful to the sunlit universe in which the Enterprise still flies on these voyages to strange new worlds”. And this tone permeates absolutely everything in the book, and the introductions the cast members offer to each individual story are equally as beautiful as Marshak's and Roddenberry's. My favourites are the ones by Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, DeForest Kelley and William Shatner, each of whom talk about, in their own way, how touched they are by the effect their work has had on people and how humbled they are to be part of something that's inspired, uplifted and brought joy to so many people.

(Shatner's essay in particular is a punching-the-air moment for me: He had such a reputation during this period of being a fan hater weirded out by Trekker culture, to the point he even poked fun at it with his tongue-in-cheek book Get a Life!. Clearly though, he was just as aware as anyone else of the effect Star Trek had on people and its capacity for material social progress.)

At the risk of slipping into the exact same platitudes I criticized Captain Kirk for in Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment, the reason I quote The New Voyages so much, and in particular the first volume, is that it is so eminently quotable and is so perfectly, essentially Star Trek. This is pretty much everything I adore about the franchise wrapped up in one concise little package and it's gotten to the point where I'm not sure I could talk this book up any better than the authors and editors themselves did. It's a triumphant reassurance that Star Trek belongs to everybody, but especially fanfic writers, and that it's fanfic writers who keep the story and the myth of Star Trek alive even when there's no Star Trek television show on the air.

Of course, all the highlighted fanfic authors in this volume are women, and, of course, all of their stories are utterly fantastic. They're so good, in fact, they easily outclass anything that was on either the Original Series or the Animated Series. “Ni Var”, for example, is basically “The Enemy Within” done right, splitting Spock into a pure Vulcan and a pure Human half and examining how it's in fact his duality that defines him and what makes him a good friend to Kirk and McCoy. “The Enchanted Pool”, though a bit rocky in its depiction of Spock, is on the whole a terrific fusion of a character piece about Spock's reluctance to engage in a romantic relationship with a rumination on Star Trek's connection to magick and faery myth (I won't spoil the huge twist ending, but suffice to say the one-off character introduced in this story is incredibly memorable and worth paying close attention to). Indeed, even Marshak and Culbreath themselves liken Star Trek to the Arthurian mythos.

“Visit to a Weird Planet Revisited” and “The Face in the Barroom Floor” are both light comedy pieces, the former being the obligatory “The actors get transported to a universe where their show is real” story and the latter being a straight comedy of errors where Kirk accidentally ends up implicated in a barroom brawl and arrested on shore leave. The second volume even has a simultaneously ridiculous and charming story called “Surprise!” written by Nichelle Nichols no less, about Spock and Uhura's tribulations trying to plan Kirk's birthday party (and that, somewhat wonderfully, posits Uhura and Nichols herself as an exasperated mother figure looking after “a ship full of little boys”). Once again, these are stories that couldn't have been done on the Original Series because they're too low-stakes: If nothing gets blown up or nobody gets punched, it's not going to make good sci-fi TV. But the characters and setting lend themselves very well to this kind of story, and it's often the little humorous moments that prove to be the most revealing and most essentially human.

This touches on larger truth Star Trek: The New Voyages grasps about its parent franchise and genre fiction as a whole. One of the things that makes these stories so very good is that the authors intimately grasp the humanness of these characters and these situations and aren't afraid to put that front and centre. We can have entire stories built solely around the relationship between Kirk and Spock, or Spock and McCoy, or Kirk and Uhura, or Kirk and Chapel and not have it feel voyeuristic or forced because these are human (or near-human) people doing human things with each other (in more ways then one: Practically every story is either predicated on or ends on a scene of *extremely* blatant slashing, even, delightfully, Nichols' own, and the editors are clearly *totally* on board with this). By and large, the New Voyages stories are incredibly low-key affairs about how people get along in Star Trek's universe and how its idealism manifests in day-to-day life, and that is so incredibly refreshing to read.

*But*, and there always manages to be a but, things start to go off the rails a bit in the second volume. Whereas Volume 1 came out into a world where there hadn't been a Star Trek show in two years, Volume 2 came out into one where Star Trek: The Motion Picture had just been announced and the Space Shuttle Enterprise had been launched. Star Trek was no longer the same franchise, and predictably, though painfully, where Volume 1 read like a love letter to the fanfic writers and the production team passing the torch to them, Volume 2 reads like a PR spot for NASA. Marshak and Culbreath go on and on about how NASA is Star Trek's vision given life in the real world (which it absolutely isn't) and how wonderful it is that Star Trek is coming back in a filmic form. While they do try to stress that the new movie is only going to be one more piece of the evolving tapestry of Star Trek and that the franchise really belongs to its fans, it doesn't feel quite as sincere or as convincing this time. Something's definitely changed, and not entirely for the better.

Furthermore, the stories themselves are a mixed bag this time, and this is very clearly due to there being only two or three fanfic writers spotlighted. Nichols' story is of course brilliant, but it's the only real standout this time. I had been really excited to read “The Patient Parasites” by Russel Bates, co-author of “How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth” once I found out it had been included in this compilation, but, upon reading it, it seems clear why D.C. Fontana passed it over. It's not that it's a poor story-Far from it; it's a perfectly deft execution of the Original Series formula where Kirk talks down a single-minded robot who has been programmed to search the galaxy for knowledge, absorb it and bring it back to its “patient” masters so they don't actually have to create anything of their own. But that's sort of the problem: It's almost *too* generic a Star Trek story.

It also certainly doesn't help that Bates intended to use this story to introduce the character of Dawson Walking Bear and then changed his mind. Bates says he swapped Walking Bear out for Sulu in this story, and that's *literally* what he did: Had this been written today I would have accused Bates of doing a find-and-replace with the words “Walking Bear” and “Sulu”, because absolutely nothing Sulu does in this story is in keeping with his established character. There's even a scene where Scotty says “the young lieutenant would like to earn his keep”, as if Sulu hadn't served on the Enterprise for at least five years already by this point and one where he has Sulu mention how his ancestors wouldn't be pleased with using an artificial eclipse to shut off the robot's power supply because they saw them as bad omens, which is first of all not even accurate in the context of either the Japanese *or* the Native Americans, and secondly never something Sulu would actually say.

And this is all too bad, because, while it may be a generic Star Trek story “The Patient Parasites” is also a perfectly functional one. There was no need for Bates to remove Walking Bear from this story: In fact, a case could be made he would have fit right in because in some respects this is very much a story that does indeed come from a Native American perspective, and it's a bit sad that D.C. Fontana didn't seem to notice this. Kirk's argument about why the robot's designers are in the wrong is because, as technological and ideological parasites, they only take from others and never give anything back, and it's not too hard to interpret this as something we might expect from a Native American positionality.

As William Cronon argues in his social history Changes in the Land, while it's a fallacy to claim that Native Americans lived in perfect harmony with an unspoiled land prior to the arrival of European colonizers, what they were able to manage was a way of making subtle changes to the land that didn't disrupt the environment. In essence, they didn't take more than they needed and recognised that living in a healthy give-and-take relationship with the environment was better for everyone. Essentially, what Bates is saying here, albeit translated into a Roddenberry-esque Original Series moral atom bomb. Unfortunately, this also means “The Patient Parasites” is considerably less creative and groundbreaking a story than the fanfiction highlighted elsewhere in The New Voyages.

However the real problem child of New Voyages Volume 2 is Marshak and Culbreath's own “The Procrustean Petard”. It sounds like it's going to be a really interesting and provocative setup: Lured to a former recreation planet by a false distress signal, the crew of both the Enterprise and Commander Kang's battlecruiser get gender swapped by having their chromosomes altered, with the exception of Spock and Kang, who get double-Y chromosomes and become, essentially, hyper-masculine. The rest of the story involves both crews trying to deal with the ramifications of the new status quo and find a way to change themselves back.

As intriguing as that premise is though, very quickly it starts to become painfully obvious that this story is everything people accuse “Turnabout Intruder”of being, which is rather shocking coming from two female writers: The crew, especially Kirk, spends the majority of the story bemoaning the dysphoria of their situation, which would be alright (and accurate) if it wasn't limited exclusively to the crewmembers turned female saddened at becoming physically and emotionally weaker and more vulnerable (not to mention the fact that this reads Kirk herself completely wrong, but that's another story): The women who get turned into men get scenes where they revel in their newfound strength and power, and there's even a female security officer who decides to stay male because “it's a better form for her chosen profession”, which is...just...yuck. And furthermore, there's not a single male crewmember who decides to stay a woman, which really hurts. I mean I don't expect 1978 Star Trek to grasp things about transgender issues fiction *today* can't even get right, but this would have been the absolute perfect platform to talk about them and the story just completely misses the boat on every single interesting direction it could possibly have gone.

Likewise, this would have been a wonderful opportunity to explore how gender roles manifest in Star Trek and how this compares with the way they work in the real world, but Marshak and Culbreath do *absolutely nothing* with this, instead focusing on how nobody will take Kirk seriously as a commander anymore in the body of a beautiful woman, which makes zero sense even given the way the Star Trek universe works already. At *least* in “Turnabout Intruder” the dilemma was over the fact that Kirk wasn't legally allowed to take command of a starship as a woman and how unjust that law was: This story seems to *actually be saying* that women are the “weaker sex”, inherently inferior in high-performance jobs like working on a Starship and how tragic that is. And no matter which way you cut it, that's simply not the Star Trek way.

(That's not to say Marshak and Culbreath don't know how to have a little fun: The best part of this story, and frankly its only redeeming feature, is its extremely strong implication that everyone in the crew is off having incredibly hot sex with each other off-camera because they're so taken aback by what knockouts they've all become and they finally have the ability to appreciate, and act on, the love and beauty they see in one another. Even turning the Enterprise into a lesbian orgy isn't enough to save this one.)

What we see in Star Trek: The New Voyages then is a perfect microcosm of the split in Star Trek fandom: The first volume wears how indebted it is to the fanfic writers on its sleeve: Indeed, it can be seen as an official acknowledgment and adoption of the overwhelmingly female fanzine structure and culture that defined Star Trek fandom in the 1970s. The second volume, however, shows the less savoury side of the franchise: The top-down, technologistic side that would much prefer to cozy up to (and sell out to) NASA and the aerospace engineering sector for a cross-promotional deal with the shiny new bit of branded Star Trek Soda Pop Art rather than engage with the people who are actually trying to internalize Star Trek's idealism and act on it on an everyday basis. And this is pretty much how the fandom is going to remain divided, at least until Nerd Culture comes along (but even now it's rather clear where Nerd Culture is going to spring from).

But, the original message of The New Voyages remains as clear now as it ever was. This is Star Trek, through its original creative team, finally recognising and embracing the things that people (particularly female people) loved about it, and loved about it enough to keep it alive almost a decade later. As Nichelle Nichols says (and here I go quoting people again):

“We have come a long way since the last of the old voyages...We still have a long way to go. But I see people working to get there. (It is significant that many of them are women; for example, the writers and editors of these stories.) So long as we are still working, writing, talking, thinking, loving, we are under way on warp drive to the world and the future we want.

These are the new voyages….

And they may be just a little different.”


  1. I think the Marshak/Culbreath story needs to be read in the context of their Price of the Phoenix and Fate of the Phoenix, in which Kirk's self-image of strength and masculinity are consistently undercut and he is placed in a "feminine" role, though there metaphorically and not literally. "Procrustean Petard" looks a bit different after reading the Phoenix novels -- still a failure, but it becomes clearer what they were trying to do.

    Back when there were only about ten ST novels, Price and Fate were my favourites. Probably still are, though I've read only a small fraction of the current vast profusion.

    1. And Spock, Messiah! was my least favourite -- though I don't remember anything about it except a) it took place on a planet with no nudity taboo except for the face, and b) none of the characters seemed to be acting in character.

  2. Marshak was also one of the co-authors of Star Trek Lives! into which as always she inserted some Randianism.