Boarding The Enterprise

Boarding The EnterpriseOrder this bookStory: A lively mixture of SF writers (many of them with connections to the original Star Trek) and other essayists look back to the dawn of Star Trek, dissecting the original show to ponder its meaning, and stepping back to analyze the meaning that the Trek phenomenon has taken on over time. Contributors include David Gerrold (who also co-edited), D.C. Fontana, Norman Spinrad, Howard Weinstein, Eric Greene, Michael Burstein, Robert Metzger, and several others.

Review: I’ve been an admirer of BenBella’s Smart Pop books for some time now, enjoying the variety of ways of looking at their subjects that the standard-issue scattershot of writers brought to the table for each book. Sure, there are the occasional bone-dry essays, and there have been a few occasions in the past where attempts at humorous essays flatlined like badly-written internet humor. Generally, though, I look forward to the more-or-less factual essays, examining their subjects from an angle that I might not have previously considered. And if there’s an occasional essay from someone who’s worked on the show, that’s icing on the cake that elevates it slightly above the other “Unauthorized! And Uncensored!” books about various pop culture phenomena that are already on the market. When you look at the short list of honest-to-God Star Trek luminaries lining this book’s table of contents and credits, it’s clear that “Boarding The Enterprise” has hit something of a home run.

I haven’t always enjoyed David Gerrold’s rants in previous BenBella books. Which is odd, because I love the man’s work. But it seems, in books on both Stargate and Firefly that he’s been involved with, this was a guy who couldn’t miss an opportunity to take a potshot at the TV show who happened to put him, and probably still his most famous work of fiction, on the map. (Not saying that someone of Gerrold’s talent wouldn’t have found his way there anyway, mind you.) So imagine my surprise when, in the introductory essay of a book that’s all about Star Trek, Gerrold soft-pedals it a bit, presenting a measured and honest criticism of the show’s successes and failures. Maybe it’s because he knows he’s playing to an audience that would lynch him for his usual approach (and keep in mind, I don’t think, even with a year or so of no new episodes of any given spinoff, that there’s a Trek fan out there who hasn’t come to realize the self-imposed limitations of the franchise’s format). But I found his essay insightful and surprisingly reverent. So he doesn’t loathe Star Trek after all. He closes this chapter with a plea to the reader to also investigate what else is on the SF bookshelf, whether literally in print or metaphorically in other media. There may not, in fact, be wiser words in this book.

The real meat of the book’s essays begins with one by Eric Greene, author of “Planet Of The Apes As American Myth: Race, Politics And Popular Culture”, analyzing what Star Trek had to say about American policy in Vietnam, American racial and sexual equality, and American foreign policy overall. This chapter is absolutely fascinating, and literally sent me back to my DVD shelf to rewatch Trek episodes that I’d seen 20 times before to re-analyze them for myself. Greene points up a dichotomy of episodes portraying Kirk as right-wing conservative (usually written, somewhat surprisingly, by Gene Roddenberry), and others painting Kirk as a liberal (often, but not always, written by Gene Coon). This chapter may well be the heart of the book, and Greene could probably easily write a whole book of his own addressing these and other relevant issues across the entire franchise.

Michael A. Burstein is up next with an examination of religion and religious freedom in Star Trek, and this too is a fascinating piece, not least of which is because it gleans its talking points from some of the same episodes that Greene saw as Vietnam metaphors. While there are a few mentions in these essays of The Next Generation and later spinoff series, for the most part the essayists restrict themselves to the original series (which is appropriate for a book marking that series’ 40th anniversary; they can tackle Next Generation in 2007, which will be that show’s 20th). I began to wonder to myself, based on that, if perhaps the assessment is true that the original Star Trek has a mythic power that its offspring simply have no hope of living up to. Numerous times during the first run of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, etc., you could almost spot an “Issue Episode” from the “coming next week” trailer. And yet here, like great literature (though I’m hesitant to make that comparison), the original Star Trek can be about different things depending on who’s watching.

Some of the later essays will either grab you – or not – depending on your take on the author’s underlying message. One author gradually segues from the theme of women-as-primary-creators-and-consumers-of-fan-fiction into an exploration (and to some extent, justification) of the sub-genre of fanfic known as “K/S,” or “slash” fiction; another spends a lot of time on the metaphysical question of whether someone who steps out of the transporter, having just beamed up, is truly the same person who was beamed down from there earlier. One humorous essay celebrates the engineering (and logistical, management-handling) genius of Mr. Scott, while another blames science fiction for killing manned space exploration (!).

Howard Weinstein, who sold his first story at the age of 19 to the animated Star Trek series, brings it all home with an essay about Star Trek’s message of a struggle toward a gentler human nature and a more mature sense of conscience and responsibility. And perhaps that right there really is the greatest legacy of Gene Roddenberry, not a particular character or story, but putting the seed of that idea into people’s heads.

“Boarding The Enterprise” is the same (perhaps inevitably) uneven mix of ideas, writers and agendas that most of the Smart Pop books are, but where it succeeds, it can remind you of why Star Trek is still loved to this day – and, perhaps, why it’s the original Star Trek that Paramount now seeks to revive under the auspieces of J.J. Abrams, and not a new spinoff, prequel, or “generation.”

Year: 2006
Editors: David Gerrold, Robert J. Sawyer, Leah Wilson
Publisher: BenBella Books
Pages: 464

(Disclosure note: the writer of this review served as a fact-checking consultant on this book, and reviewed a pre-publication copy of the manuscript. The sequence of some essays may or may not have been altered before press time.)