Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry
Simon and Schuster, 1979
Price I paid: $2
Space—the final frontier…
But for James T. Kirk, late of the starship Enterprise, it looks as though the days of exploration are over. After the completion of his five-year mission, he has been promoted to Admiral—and assigned to a permanent ground job. The Enterprise has been completely refitted, and placed under new command.
But when a destructive alien force threatens Earth itself, only Kirk possesses the courage, the ingenuity, and the loyalty of the finest crew in Starfleet to venture into deep space to meet the challenge.
One by one they return: Dr. McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura, Chapel, and at last, Mr. Spock, his mind called back from Vulcan mysteries to join his old companions. Added to the old crew are the Deltan navigator, Ilia, an alien woman as compelling as she is beautiful; and the young captain, Willard Decker, whose life is mysteriously entwined with hers. As the Enterprise embarks for deepest space, the crew have very little time to discover the nature of their unknown adversary, for a huge, luminescent, and deadly cloud is coming nearer and nearer to Earth…
Written with the insight and authenticity that could come only from Star Trek‘s creator, here is the inner story of the Enterprise’s most dangerous and spectacular mission.from the inside front flap
I’m about to hit peak Star Trek nerd, so feel free to skip this one if you don’t care.
Honestly, feel free to skip any review you want. It’s okay, I get it.
But just so you didn’t come all this way for nothing, can I recommend a book I’m really enjoying? This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. It just came out a few months ago.
OKAY so let’s talk about Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Novel by Gene Gosh-darned Roddenberry. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. I thought it too. It’s why it took me so long to get around to this book even though I bought it a few months ago at a Friends of the Library sale.
“Surely it’s not really by Gene Roddenberry, is it?”
This is a matter of some contention. A lot of people are under the impression that Alan Dean Foster wrote this book, since his name is on the cover. ADF did do work on the screenplay.
But other sources are adamant that Roddenberry wrote this himself. If true, this is the only novel he is on record as writing. What do I think? Acknowledging that utter surety in anything is the mark of a fool, I’m pretty confident that this came direct from the hand of Roddenberry. I have two reasons:
- I’ve read plenty of other Foster and this just doesn’t feel like him
- The book is sloppy and bad, as if written by someone who does not normally write novels
I realize that #2 could be twisted into a mean dig on Foster, but I’m not doing that. I have mad respect for Alan Dean Foster.
Knowing that this is pure, undiluted Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek is the reason I’ve decided to tackle it. Outside of this novel, the closest thing we have to seeing what Roddenberry really envisioned is his original “Star Trek is…” pitch, which was a pretty early draft idea so it’s not exactly fair to talk about how weird and wacky it was, and oh boy, it was.
This novel is also pretty weird and wacky.
Right off the bat we’re given a forward by Admiral Kirk. It dives into some things that are never before or since explored in Star Trek, things like a growing race of new humans (always in italics) that are possibly the next step in human evolution, “finding rewards in group consciousness that we more primitive individuals will never know” (vi). “Admiral Kirk” goes on to explain that starship captains are a different breed: conservative, individualistic, and not too smart.
He also talks about how much he wishes his five-year mission hadn’t been mythologized as much as it had, something flatly denied in the next forward by the author and Kirk’s foremost biographer, Gene Roddenberry.
I’ve seen other books do this but just because this is Star Trek it stands out. It’s the thing where the events are “real” and just being reported on by the author. In most cases it wouldn’t even bother me if the “real” events were taking place in an obvious fantasy land or in the future. But here we’ve got Gene Roddenberry, future person who is also a notable present person, relaying a story to us in the present and never acknowledging that, so I guess we’re supposed to assume this book fell back in time from the 23rd century? Or Roddenberry came back in time to share the book with us? I can only suspend my disbelief so much.
The first few chapters of this book are different from the movie. Kirk is on vacation in Egypt, hanging around in a museum, when his “senceiver” goes off. This is a thing never otherwise seen in Star Trek. Apparently starship captains have a brain implant that allows them to be contacted when they’re otherwise unreachable and if there’s a gigantic existential threat?
There’s a footnote about it, one that fails to advance the story at hand, that tells us that these “senceivers” are a closely guarded Starfleet Command secret because there were “Mind Control Revolts of 2043-47” over similar devices.
Roddenberry got into the spirit with his footnotes, folks. Just a few pages later, in a chapter focusing on Spock that is almost exactly as I remember it from the movie, there’s a two-page footnote spread all about how the human concept of “friend” doesn’t exist in Vulcan thought, but there’s a word (t’hy’la) which means “brother” and is the closest idea, although the word also means “lover,” and as a result there is all this speculation about whether or not Kirk and Spock have, in fact, proceeded at warp speed to the Galaxy of Physical Love.
It goes on and on, folks! Gene really needed to address the fact that there’s so much Kirk/Spock fic going around in the seventies! It’s hilarious!
For what it’s worth, this footnote is one of those “progressive for the time I guess” moments that pretty much define Star Trek. For one, there’s a comment from Kirk about how he has “no moral or other objections to physical love in any of its many Earthly, alien, and mixed forms,” which is pretty nice, he then goes on to say that “I have always found my best gratification in that creature woman,” which is a shitty way to put that sentiment.
This also plays into another weird aspect of this book: It is Very Horny.
On page 14 Kirk meets a lady from his past, Vice Admiral Lori Ciana. This part wasn’t in the movie, and let’s all thank the Great Bird for that, because
He could almost catch the scent of her body fragrance, and he could feel the slight pressure of his genitals responding to those memories.
LET’S ALL TAKE A SECOND TO THINK ABOUT JAMES T. KIRK’S ERECTION, SHALL WE
This is not the only boner in the book! Later, after we meet Ilia, the Deltan, there’s a mention of how Sulu is afraid to stand up from his station that is just adorable because apparently Sulu is fourteen in gym class instead of a Starfleet officer whose job is to pilot the most advanced ship in the fleet.
The book doesn’t describe the uniforms at all, so I’m not sure if Gene was intending for us to imagine the original uniforms or what, but then you think about the uniforms they were wearing in this movie and the whole boner thing is SO MUCH WORSE!
Vice Admiral Ciana was, incidentally, killed by a malfunctioning transporter beam, adding a little context to a scene in the movie that didn’t belong there in the first place. Does that context mean the scene makes sense and adds anything to the plot now? Nope!
So a thing is that Roddenberry wanted there to be sex in the Star Trek universe because, in his mind, future humanity would have evolved and matured to the point where it was no longer a weird, taboo, tee-hee kind of subject. That’s perfectly noble and honorable, but there are ways to handle that well, and I don’t think he ever quite found any of those ways, so what we end up with are women who are, without exception, indescribably beautiful, and the men who want to sex them up real good in space. At least it’s always consensual.
So after the opening chapters, the book follows the plot of the movie closely, but we get to see what the characters are thinking and experiencing firsthand, which I guess one of the main reasons for having a novelization, but in this case it undermines everything I respect about these characters.
Kirk spends most of the book doubting himself and generally thinking and acting like a giant jerk. Oh, also, at one point he says the word “shit,” which, no, that’s not something James T. Kirk would ever do. I’m not saying there’s no place for swearing in Star Trek, and it was totally great when Ensign Tilly said “fuck” that one time in Discovery, but it is very out of character for James T. Kirk to say “shit.”
He also at one point mentally refers to Vice Admiral Ciana as a “whore.” I don’t remember the context, but that doesn’t matter, because that is both terrible on its own AND out of character.
Spock comes across as an example of all the worst lessons we can learn from Spock. Off the top, let me say that I love Spock as a character. But there is at least one way to interpret and admire Spock that has a tendency to turn toward the negative:
- I like Spock, he’s a good character
- Spock prefers logic to emotions
- That means emotions are stupid
- Therefore other people’s emotions are stupid
- I can ignore other people’s emotions and be a raging asshole all the time
Spock behaves in exactly that way for first half of the book. I seem to remember there’s an element of that in the filmed version, and that it’s character development that also ties into the whole “V’Ger is an entity of pure logic” storyline, but it’s a lot more uncomfortable in this book, solely because we’re in his head as he thinks things like “everyone is happy to see me, and that’s dumb, I will ignore it and leave the bridge without acknowledging them.”
Spock finally learns his lesson near the end, at least. And Kirk also stops coming across as a selfish grasping jerk who can’t let go of his ship, whom he loves like a woman.
At one point in this book, Dr. Chapel (formerly Nurse Chapel) remarks that Kirk’s physiological response to command is remarkably similar to that of chemical addiction.
Kirk spends a lot of time hanging out in his own head, which means we get a lot of internal monologue but also really emphasizes the fact that he’s become a doddering old man since the end of his Five Year Mission. It would be one thing if he just thought things a lot, but it gets worked into the story, so that he’ll be sitting there on the bridge thinking something and then the narration goes What was it Decker was saying? and then jump us mid-sentence into some dialogue, often something like “—you okay, Admiral?”
WEIRD CANON MOMENT: At one point it’s stated that Kirk is the first ever starship captain to bring back his ship and crew relatively intact after a Five Year Mission.
ANOTHER WEIRD CANON MOMENT:
Several of Jupiter’s moons were in view, Io and Ganymede particularly, reminding Kirk that the movement of these moons seen through Galileo’s telescope had been one of humanity’s first proofs that Earth was not the center of the universe. The so-called mutant-farm civilizations of pre-history had known this, of course, but their information had been a gift and not the result of human labor and growth.pg 65
It’s like somebody told Roddenberry that a secret of good science fiction is to just sprinkle little bits of mystery or unexplained detail and never revisit them.
It’s one of those things that works fine for someone like Tolkien (depending on your own given concept of “works fine”). It does not work here. Maybe that’s because, again, this is Star Trek, because Star Trek is supposed to be about knowledge and discovery and so throwing weird unexplained crap like that out of nowhere is out of character for the entire universe. Or maybe it’s just that Gene Roddenberry wasn’t a particularly good novelist.
What else is there to say?
Um, at one point Mr. Sulu is referred to as a “scrutable Asian” (45).
Whereas in all the promo material and stuff the antagonist of this plot is named V’Ger, in this book it’s spelled Vejur. The book did make me realize just how little sense it makes that the thing is called that. Once Voyager VI gained self-awareness, did it know how to read English but didn’t have knowledge of what it was named before the paint got all scuffed?
“Vejur” at one point says “resistance is futile” and that made me giddy.
I think that’s everything.
I thought I had read this book before as a kid but apparently I hadn’t, because little kid me would have been thrilled at how much sex was in this book and I think I would have remembered that. I do remember reading Vonda McIntyre’s novelizations of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. Khan has a particularly great moment where a person’s eyes bug out over a file in the computer system whose size is a whopping fifty megabytes, so that’s awesome. No shade at the author, mind you, it’s just one of those funny moments.
(The Next Generation writers decided to make up their own computer storage unit, the “quad,” to prevent us from having such moments of glee at their expense.)
This novelization was pretty wild and weird but it actually has a leg up on the movie in several ways, ways like “it finally ends” and “it doesn’t spend six minutes swooping around the Enterprise.” Call it what you want—The Slow-Motion Picture, The Motionless Picture, whatever—the book improved on the pacing of the movie, a feat roughly as difficult as
I can’t think of anything. Nothing is less difficult than having better pacing than that movie.
In the end, the main takeaway from this book is that Roddenberry’s true concept of Star Trek is that it represents a future where people are mature enough to have sexual relationships with no hangups and therefore do at every possible opportunity because they are all extremely attractive people. Unfortunately, that is also the main takeaway from the first couple seasons of The Next Generation, so there you go. This book was a lot more explicit about it, though, but I think that is perhaps a matter of costuming than anything else.
It’s funny because this is a whole two-edged sword thing, right? Like, a future where people are mature about their sexuality and can enjoy it in an atmosphere of respect and trust is great and wonderful to think about, but if you want to show it and not just tell it, there’s not really any way to separate it from erotica or pornography. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those genres, of course, I’m just saying that there’s a mismatch of intent.
Was Gene Roddenberry’s intent to be titillating or to be progressive? Is it both? Are the two compatible? It’s a question that plagues my thoughts on a lot of science fiction of the time, when the genre finally discovered that genitals exist and might be worth thinking about. So much of the problem revolves around the way men wrote (and still write) women, and Roddenberry is a superb example of this. What comes across is the statement “In the future, there is a new kind of sexual morality, a better one, stabler, more inclusive, healther, and safer for everyone which is also great because ALL THE WOMEN ARE FRIKKIN SMOOOOOOOOOKE HOT WOOOO.”
I’m glad I got a college degree so that I can think things like this and share them with the world.