Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Review of "Spock, Messiah!" [1976 tie-in novel]

This review originally appeared on Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009.





Check out that cover blurb: “THE ULTRA-POWERED NOVEL OF A TELEPATHIC SPACE TERROR,” eh?
   
I’ll be the judge of that, Mr. Bantam blurb dude from the mid-’70s.
  
I’d delete the words “the,” “ultra,” “powered,” “a,” “telepathic,” and “terror.”  Except that would leave “NOVEL OF SPACE,” and since this novel takes place almost entirely on a planet, that wouldn’t be very accurate, either.
  
Oh, well.
  

The story has to do with the Enterprise crew exploring the planet Kyros.  In order to help not violate the Prime Directive, the landing party members have been imprinted with “doppelgangers” (or “dops” for short) consisting of the memories and personalities of Kyrosians.  By drawing on these “dops,” the crew can successfully integrate into the society for up-close sociological study.  Then, of course, something goes wrong; Spock, presumably under the influence of his dop, goes nuts and forms a religion.  Chaos ensues.
  
I probably shouldn’t, but I like this novel.
  
For one thing, there’s sex...which the Trek shows never had much of, really, not without huge layers of metaphor being slathered on top of everything.  Television was too restrictive in the '60s, and the ‘80s weren’t much better; by the time America got around to finally having a bit of coitus on teevee in the ‘90s and ‘00s, Trek was late to the party, and its meager efforts seemed perfunctory.  However, in Spock, Messiah!, sex is a definite motivator for at least some of the characters.  As such, this novel presents yet another alternative look at what Star Trek is and can be, and is therefore of interest.
  
The downside is that this novel might fairly be called not only sexual, but sexist.  There are far-too-frequent mentions of the “pert little bottom” of Ensign Sara George (a new character), and other such phrases.  I think Cogswell and Spano only meant to present to us a strong woman, who was charting a course toward discovering and enabling her own sexuality, and chose to do so by sexualizing her character through fairly explicit descriptions … but the approach would have probably been seen, at best, as a failure even in 1976.  In 2009, it’s downright offensive.
  
Uhura’s treatment, unfortunately, is even worse.  Barely present in the novel, she is described as “black” several times.  Once would have sufficed; even that many, though, seems excessive.  That sort of language was accepted then and still is now, and there’s nothing more wrong with referring to a person as “black” than there is with referring to a person as “white.”  The problem here is that it doesn’t fit with established Star Trek conventions.

Allow me to explain.
  
The problem here is that the process of turning a visual story (Star Trek) into a non-visual story (the novel) is tricky business even in the hands of expert prose stylists, and these two fellows were apparently no experts.  On the television series circa 1968, it was obviously a big deal that Uhura is black, Scotty Scottish, Sulu Asian, Chekov Russian, etc.  But it's a big deal to the people watching the show circa 1968; it's not a big deal to the characters on the show, which is why it was a big deal to the people watching it.  That element cannot, and must not, be discounted; the characters never mention it.  Uhura is referred to as a Nubian at one point, but everyone seems embarrassed for the alien who does so; not offended, just mildly embarrassed.  Not by him; for him.
   
Well, in order for that to translate to the page, it’s impossible to do things like refer to Uhura as “black,” or to write Scotty’s dialogue phonetically (another of this book’s sins, though it was neither the first nor the last to commit it).  It’s out of continuity with the series, and you feel it.  And yet, there is also the need to try and somehow convey that information, lest readers not be privy to all the pertinent facts about the characters.  Such matters must be dealt with delicately, and referring to the “black” Uhura on multiple occasions is about as delicate as a cement truck driving over a kitten.
 
I’m of a divided mind about the novel’s plot.  The dops are an interesting conceit, but I’m not sure they’re plausible; I’m okay with them science-fictionally speaking, but don’t they seem like a severe invasion of privacy?  Would Starfleet sanction that type of tech?  Would it be put into the field without exhaustive testing?  Would Kirk really let Ensign George off the hook for what she does; if so, would he do it as easily as he does?  I think the answer to all of those questions is “no,” and that presents a severe setback to how well this novel integrates itself into the Trek universe.
  
Additionally, since it turns out that Spock was never really the villain (spoilers, lol!), the whole novel feels like something of a cheat.  And yet...I like it.  I like how Kirk and McCoy accept George’s new (and substantial) sexuality with only a hint of salaciousness; I like the tension of the race to recapture the trilithium, even though it is sort of obvious and manipulative; I like the camaraderie between Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and George; I like the espionage-esque elements.
  
I don’t like the religious elements.  The aliens aren’t quite well-drawn enough for us to get a true sense of their culture, and therefore the religion doesn’t feel natural.  It’s not terrible writing; the authors sort of get away with it.  And ultimately, the religious themes fit in well with the Trek S.O.P. of demystifying religion at nearly every turn.
  
Not great, but not bad either...and definitely interesting.

7 comments:

  1. Best title ever. That exclamation point is the icing on the cake and never fails to crack me up when I see this one on the shelf.

    Excellent breakdown. It IS definitely interesting but what a mess indeed. When I first read it, I couldn't believe the opening. Shoehorning that info-dump on the completely ridiculous concept of "dops" into McCoy's "Aren't these the darnedest things, Jim?" dialogue put me off before I even got to page ten.

    And while that was unreadable enough, then you the racism and sexism of the writing (as you rightly point out,) and this becomes just more embarrassing litter on the roadside of American culture. Instructive litter, in some regards, the same way we can learn much about people's illnesses by studying their stools. (I do not speak from experience, here.)

    And yet! The central idea of Spock going nuts and forming a religion is just so (Sulu voice) DELIGHTFUL. And yeah, the espionage element and character interactions. Cleaned up a bit and churned through the Genes' and Fontana's revisions, this would have made a great episode. I'd say that's its main strength, actually, how easily it would be a perfectly serviceable (and maybe even classic) TOS episode, if they trimmed the stupid stuff.

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    1. Yeah, that's a great point. I'd love to know what Roddenberry thought about novels like this one. I wonder if he had any input into them, or even any interest.

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  2. According to Susan Sackett, he never read the tie-ins. As time went on and he was more and more distanced from the productions, he grew increasingly vocal about their non-canon-ness, as well.

    It's kind of sad how all that played out, actually. For all his faults, he was "the Creator," after all. I think they could have at least let him merge in a cosmic sex cloud with V'Ger. Least they could have done.

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    1. Looking back on it, I think that's a huge part of the reason why I have real fondness for both "The Motion Picture" and the first season of "The Next Generation." In some ways, those represent his master's thesis on "Star Trek," and for all their flaws, I think there is way more about them that works than doesn't.

      Hmm...

      This has given me an idea for a post over at The Truth Inside the Lie...

      To be continued!

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    2. I've been coasting on my notes/ impressions left from my last re-watch of TNG for my rankings, and I realized I really don't know the s1 and s2 episodes as well as I thought. I watched them all when they first ran, of course, and then as part of two subsequent re-watches over the years. (This is starting to sound like a confession/ plea for intervention...) But I'm going to give them all another watch before I get to the TNG blogs. (s1 and s2 that is; s3 thru s7 I can pretty much recite chapter and verse, God help me.)

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    3. God has already helped you, my son: by giving you an encyclopedic knowledge of the final five seasons. Now, you must honor Him by bringing yourself up to speed with the first two seasons (and possibly with DS9 and Voyager as well).

      I'm not helping, am I...?

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    4. One of these days/ years with both DS9 and Voyager. The proverbial list grows and grows... I feel bad that I can't cover either series as comprehensively as they deserve for the Captain's Blog, but I'll make up for it by overdoing it on everything else.

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