Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek 3 by James Blish

What better way to celebrate the release of the excellent new Star Trek movie (it's quite possibly my favorite Trek movie ever, you really should go see it) than to read some more of James Blish's adaptations of the Original Series?

I had noted in my review of volume two that Blish, with serious space limitations, had fallen into plot summary writing rather than storytelling, a trend that had me worried.

With this set of episodes, however, there is a much more nuanced style that works far better. Rather than trying to get everything in, as it felt in the second book, Blish tries to keep a narrative going with compelling dialogue and use of point of view. It makes for a far better read.

Interestingly, this is also the first edition that has a lengthy introduction, in which Blish talks about the immense popularity of Star Trek, how he's not as connected with the show as people think (he mentions seeing Roddenberry only three times), and just how many awards the show's writing was nominated for while still getting cancelled (though he tactfully leaves that part unsaid). He also mentions how his Star Trek mail was larger than mail on all his other fiction combined and gives a few tips for the budding sci-fi writer.

It's a nice humanizing preface that helped me get into Blish's head a bit better on how he was writing these. I think my favorite part is his genuine surprise that someone wants him to write an original Star Trek novel.


This volume has several great Star Trek episodes in it, including "The Trouble with Tribbles", "The Doomsday Machine", and "Mirror, Mirror." There's also "The Last Gunfight," "Assignment: Earth", "Friday's Child," and "Amok Time," all of which are given a nice treatment here by Blish.

What continues to be most interersting to me when Blish is not doing the plot summary writing is the subtle changes made here and there. "Doomsday Machine" in particular has an immensely different ending that strikes me as Blish adding another layer of Anti-Vietnam War commentary on top of the original "mutual destruction" theme--an idea that works rather well, I thought, though your mileage may vary. Almost all of the episodes included here can reflect on the American-Russian problem, as the Klingons lurk in the background almost constantly, if not right at the surface ("Tribbles").

Where Blish shines best, I think, is in the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. By the time these episodes were aired, it was clear who the stars of the show were, and they tend to be on the page most often. Blish is probably best with Spock, giving him the wry lines that make the character sing while at the same time offering coldly logical commentary on the situation. But he's gotten better by this time at handling McCoy's continual conflict of morality versus practicality and Kirk's desire to have it both ways.

I'm afraid I don't remember enough of "Mirror, Mirror" to know how much of the final Kirk speech is Blish and how much is the episode, but the writing of Kirk's appeal to the logic of the evil Spock is top notch:

"Mr. Spock, one man can change the present. BE the Captain of this Enterprise, whether you want the job or not. Find a logical reason for sparing the Harkans, and making it stick. Push where it gives. You can defend yourself better than any man in the fleet, if you are anything like MY First Officer, and I think you are. In every revolution, there's one man with a vision. Which will it be? Past or future? Tyranny, or the right to hope, trust, love? Even here, Spock, you cannot totally be without thedecency you've shown on the--the other side. Use it, make it work!"

That's a speech that you know Kirk would make, and even when Blish is tweaking things, he captures the feel of the characters well. Which is good, because in the interest of space, he sometimes needs to condense things, which forces great interpretations at times, such as when McCoy has to drug Kirk faster in "Amok" because there's only 20 pages to get the whole job done.

This volume sees a transition, I think, from just doing the episodes to the beginnings of Star Trek fiction. As such, I think it's a good read for any Trek fan. I'm still not convinced these are for a casual audience, but if you wanted to give them a try, this seems like a good place to start.

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