Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Recently Read: “Prime Directive”

Without intending to produce formal reviews, from time to time it would be interesting to talk about the things I’ve been reading, and not long ago I had the pleasure of completing the 1990 Star Trek novel Prime Directive by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. This novel spent some time on the New York Times bestsellers list, and at nearly 400 pages is certainly a bang-for-your-buck situation.

I’ve read a fair bit of Trek fiction over the years, the collection is about five shelves’ worth, dating back to the original editions of the James Blish dramatisations of the original series episodes, and while many of the writers who have taken the various incarnations of Star Trek on their ongoing voyages have thoroughly captured the “voice” of the characters, perhaps few have done so with the sensitivity of this team. One hears the original cast in every word, and each character is drawn with clear precision. I felt perhaps the intellectual fencing between McCoy and Spock was just a shade overdone, but constituted recognition of one of the important character dynamics of the series.

The novel is set at the end of the first five year mission, and forms a punctuation point to the second, involving a catastrophe of Federation-wide importance, challenging fundamental aspects of the Federation’s internal regulation. As the title suggests, the ethic of non-interference in the development of pre-contact civilisations is in focus, and the story blurs the line as to where and when the directive should be applied. It is the Enterprise’s bad luck to be called to a planet on the brink of self-destruction at the peak of the nuclear standoff era in its cultural evolution, and to be ensnared in a deep and mysterious situation which flies in the face of the best projections of the scientists monitoring the planet from its own moon. This situation results in both the eruption of nuclear exchange and the wrecking of the Enterprise – and the disgrace of her senior crew.

The novel is arranged in parts, the first lying months after the incident, the second dramatising the events of the incident itself, thereafter resuming the post-event timeline to its resolution.

When one settles in to read a 400-pager one does so with a sense of anticipation; there is a rich experience forthcoming, or should be, and this one does not disappoint. The writers acknowledge their research assistant who coordinated details from the original series – for instance, the character of Lieutenant Palamas, from the episode Who Mourns for Adonis? features prominently, and in a precognitive excursion we encounter the priggish Styles, hell-bent on replacing Kirk, who appeared ten years later in the screen canon as captain of the Excelsior in Search for Spock. The Orion civilisation is featured, as well as Tellerites, and a slew of details scattered throughout the original series. These are ingeniously blended with updated technical comments which flesh out the fictional 23rd century in a convincing and satisfying way. Now we know why dilithium crystals are so special, and how they relate to subspace “transtator” technology. The wormhole created by warp-imbalance in Star Trek The Motion Picture is placed into technical perspective, and the “work bee” modules encountered in that outing are put to good use here. The novel takes place very firmly inside the chronological and technical framework of the wider Trek canon and is aware at every moment of its responsibility to blend, rather than contradict.

It might be said that such awareness would put a crimp in creativity but this is not the case. Invented details compliment the canon without compromising it, and, certainly in my opinion, this is a hallmark of good Trek fiction. One sees a huge movie in this novel, complete with modern special effects, and is happy to see it as a punctuation point between seasons, had the original gone five years.

In their afterword, the writers acknowledge the genius of Gene Roddenberry, from the perspective of the almost quarter-century since the first season had gone to air. It is somewhat poignant to read those words at this time, as 2016 is the fiftieth anniversary – this novel was written half the show’s tenure ago, so forms a balance point in more ways than one. To say the novel has not aged or dated in any way is a tribute to its telling – it continues to convincingly evoke a future with which we have long been intimately familiar.

If you enjoy a long, engrossing, engaging read, a new excursion with old friends, and a deep appeal to the yearning behind the very concept of the show – the “dream of stars” as the writers put it, then I thoroughly recommend Prime Directive.

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