Alternate History in Star Trek, part 4: Early Novels, the TOS Movies and More Comics

By Tom Anderson

In a previous article in this series, I discussed AH tropes in the non-canon comics spinoffs from Star Trek “The Original Series” (TOS), which go back to the 1960s in which the show was being broadcast. By the time we reached the DC Comics productions of the 1980s, however, we had run into the problem that the original Star Trek films had been coming out in the meantime, so we cannot discuss the later comics before briefly going over these. As we’ll see, the same also applies to most Star Trek novels (even the majority of TOS era-set ones didn’t debut till after the films) but first I should briefly mention those which were published before this. As always, this comes with the disclaimer on my part that I am only personally familiar with a fraction of these, and I may well miss something or misrepresent it from those I only know through synopsis.

This produces a neat segue, because the first written TOS fiction consisted of episode novelisations published by Bantam Books and authored by James Blish, who – amusingly from a modern perspective – had not actually seen the episodes he was adapting! Ironically, Blish would not see any Star Trek until he relocated to the UK in 1969. Because of this, his adaptations (collections simply referred to as Star Trek 1, 2, 3 etc.) were based on draft scripts and so on rather than the TV production, so often differed from them in pacing and details. This did not stop them becoming popular – for the benefit of the younger audience, this kind of TV novelisation was very popular in the 1970s, with the BBC notably doing the same for Doctor Who. Nor was it limited to science fiction – my parents have the novelisation of the pilot episode of Starsky and Hutch, for example. Remember this was an era before video recorders or purchasable recordings of any kind, and when even repeating past broadcasts was a fairly new idea (previously, to do so would have required paying the actors a large amount, hence why the BBC often just wiped old tapes in a media tragedy). So reading the book might be the only way to relive a TV story one had enjoyed – and it’s not as if anyone was in much of a position to critique it if it deviated from the broadcast they now only half-remembered.

For an even bigger dose of irony, Blish also stated that he disliked this kind of TV tie-in fiction, but he changed his mind after his Star Trek work gave him financial stability – unlike his own, acclaimed but variably popular, “Cities in Flight” science fiction series. From the sixth volume onwards, Blish often worked with his wife J. A. Lawrence and her mother Muriel, who only received credit years later. The success of the adaptations led to a new original novel by Blish after TOS ended, 1970’s “Spock Must Die!” This was the first Star Trek spinoff fiction aimed at adults, after the previously-discussed Gold Key comics and Mack Reynolds’ controversial young-adult novel “Mission to Horatius”. “Spock Must Die!” is generally viewed as being of little merit nowadays (Blish wanted to kill off a main character to shock people and for little other reason, which oddly enough upsets the readership, R. A. Salvatore take note). However, it is a time capsule of the odder aspects of TOS, as well as being full of references to fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Gormenghast. The Blishes continued with further TOS adaptations until Blish’s death in 1975.

At Bantam Books, Frederik Pohl’s level of interest in Star Trek can be summed up by him asking who was responsible for publishing Star Trek fiction in a meeting, only to be told “You are!” (In fairness, we have all been there). After Blish’s death, Pohl recruited new writers to produce new original TOS spinoff books. One of these was his friend Theodore Cogswell, a Spanish Civil War veteran and author of mostly humorous science fiction – Pohl demanded Cogswell get the Enterprise crew ‘off the damn ship’! Cogswell’s first effort was the very strange novel “Spock, Messiah!” (1976) which is basically Dune but with the Star Trek cast, influenced by the contemporary news of the Middle East and the oil shock. Like a number of early Star Trek novels, it contains a fair bit of questionable racist language aimed at Uhura and Sulu, as well as a fair few inaccuracies. Nonetheless, Cogswell suggested (rightly) that its success illustrated that the fans were hungry for more TOS media.

I’ve previously mentioned that Star Trek’s place in the history of media is assured, if for no other reason, because of how it changed and blurred the relationship between creators and fans. Around the same time as Pohl’s new writers began work, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak, and Joan Winston wrote “Star Trek Lives!”, a reference book collating the fan works of Star Trek enthusiasts, discussing fanzines and the impact that the show had had on them. Shortly afterwards, “Star Trek: The New Voyages” was published by Bantam, a short story anthology which drew on a number of fan stories previously published in fanzines. Some of these had introductions written by the cast members, all the way up to William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. The relationship among the cast and between cast and fans could famously be fraught, but nonetheless, Star Trek was like no fiction franchise before it. For the first time, the in-group of creators and actors and the out-group of fans was no longer separated, and creativity could flow from the latter as well as the former. As I’ve said, Star Trek basically invented the modern concept of fan fiction as we understand it today, and viewed it perhaps more positively than any franchise since – largely because, with no new TV show production, it was the only outlet that the creators could draw on. This enthusiasm helped power the push for the animated series (discussed in the previous article) and ultimately the films.

Before we get to that, let’s briefly mention the other pre-film era novels. As you may have gathered from some of the titles above, the Star Trek fandom in this era was a bit obsessed with Spock, to put it mildly – there’s even an entire chapter about the phenomenon in “Star Trek Lives!” There was, shall we say, a certain association of this idea with the fact that so much of early Star Trek fandom consisted of women (a bit of a contrast to a later stereotype!) Two of the earliest novels were “The Price of the Phoenix” (1977) and “The Fate of the Phoenix” (1979) by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath, which drew on the classic TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident” and its memorable female Romulan commander character. Marshak and Culbreath (who also edited the aforementioned New Voyages anthologies) explicitly said they were uninterested in professional literacy criticism, but did want feedback from fans. One fan essay argued that, while Cogswell’s “Spock, Messiah!” had been insulting to women, Marshak and Culbreath’s writing “made everyone a woman” and painted a picture of Spock’s character that smacked of emotional wish-fulfilment and didn’t match the TV show portrayal. This sort of argument remained a fracture in the Star Trek fan community, and exaggerated portrayals of that tendency by its opponents are likely the origins of many modern stereotypes of fan fiction.

Meanwhile, James Blish’s widow J. A. Lawrence published a short story collection about Harry Mudd, called “Mudd’s Angels” (have we mentioned it was the 1970s?) and Kathleen Sky, who had submitted a script to the TV show before it was cancelled, realised it as the novel “Vulcan!” which is about a scientist who’s racist against Spock. There were male writers as well, mind you, such as Gordon Eklund, who wrote the first Star Trek story about a Dyson Sphere in “The Starless World” (which is bonkers, but in an appropriately TOS way), “Trek to Madworld” (1979) by Stephen Goldin and “Planet of Judgement” (1977) and “World Without End” (1979) by Joe Haldeman. “Judgement” features an invading race called the Irapina who force Federation representatives to go through challenges, including McCoy playing poker and Kirk commanding a sailing-ship Enterprise in a simulation – two ideas that would go on to reappear in The Next Generation (TNG). In the end, the Irapina divert their invasion force towards the Romulans instead. This is a neat segue to noting that, other than the Spock obsession, the main distinguishing feature of the early TOS novels is that they feature the Klingons and Romulans at least 50% of the time – in contrast with their relatively few appearances in the actual TV show. This undoubtedly created a mindset which strongly influenced later Star Trek media – whereas Roddenberry himself had wanted to drop them (somehow) and use new alien races instead. (The Organians and the Organian Peace Treaty also frequently show up, whereas actual on-screen Star Trek basically just forgot about this eventually).

Haldeman also introduced the idea of an atavistic ‘Back to Earth’ movement (which went on to also appear in other novels by other writers) that had somehow wanted to bring billions of humans back from colonies to Earth; Kirk’s father is said to have been a political supporter, and Kirk was forced to farm the land without modern tools as a child as part of his ideological beliefs, helping explain why Kirk tends to adapt well to more ‘primitive’ environments in TOS. This is a nice illustration of how some writers would draw on concepts introduced by others, but never consistently, with the result that aspects of the Star Trek setting could be shaped in mutually-contradictory ways. That novel also features a generation ship, showing that “Space Seed” had remained in the fan imagination – which would be important for the later films.

These early novels were important for developing the setting, and especially sharing ideas about the inevitably-appearing Klingons and Romulans – there is a reason why Star Trek has so many mutually-contradictory takes on what the Klingons should be like, in particular. In 1980 a team led by Jeffrey Maynard published (through Bantam) “Star Trek Maps”, the first proper in-universe Star Trek reference work – or, to put it another way, the first fan attempt to nail jelly to the wall by reconciling all the inconsistencies produced by the chaotic cloud of creatives. (In fairness, the maps are absolutely gorgeous).

By this point, we have reached the TOS movie era, with “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” in 1979. I should briefly mention how important the Star Trek fandom had been in getting to this point, even successfully campaigning for NASA’s first (test) space shuttle to be named Enterprise. Initially, there had been plans for a second TV series, usually called “Star Trek: Phase II” in hindsight. This deserves its own article, so I won’t discuss it much now, other than to say that many of its ideas would go on to be recycled in TNG. With the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, to an extent, Star Wars, Phase II’s pilot was revised into a film – albeit one shot more in the long, drawn-out style of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “The Motion Picture” (TMP) saw mixed reviews; after a vast budget, a new remodelled Enterprise, new uniforms, some new cast members, the Klingons appearing but now with forehead ridges, etc., it didn’t help that the story was pretty much the same as the old TOS episode “The Changeling”, about an Earth probe that had encountered aliens, gone mad and returned destructively to humans. There isn’t a lot to say about AH here (just as there wasn’t in the early novels), except perhaps to note that as the probe in question was Voyager VI, evidently that programme went on longer in the Star Trek universe! The novelisation of the film, whose authorship is debated (officially Roddenberry, possibly Alan Dean Foster), introduces the idea of pacifist ‘New Humans’ on Earth who see ‘Old Humans’ like Kirk and Starfleet as being a necessary but distasteful evil – this attempt to reconcile Roddenberry’s ideas got nowhere.

Alan Dean Foster had also been writing Blish-style adaptations of the animated series episodes for Random House (1974-78). The aforementioned film novelisation was published by Simon & Schuster’s Pocket Books imprint, while S&S also later did Star Trek reference books under their own name. The Bantam era came to an end, and from now on Pocket Books would be the primary Star Trek publisher for a while. The Pocket Books era of Star Trek novels is the one I am most familiar with; because it began with the TMP novelisation, by definition all later novels are aware of at least some of the TOS movie content, and often the covers are rather indecisive on whether to depict TOS-style or movie-style starships and uniforms. The era in which later stories are set is often left quite ambiguous. We’ll discuss the Pocket Books series again in a later article, but for now, back to the films themselves.

After the rather limited success of TMP (barely making back its huge budget), Trek returned to the big screen once again in 1982 with “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (TWOK; the title was changed from “The Vengeance of Khan” because the writers worried it would be too similar to this new Star Wars film rumoured to be called “Revenge of the Jedi”...) There is insufficient space to go into TWOK here, which is today widely considered the best Star Trek film (though when I was growing up it often came near the bottom of fan lists, as people hated the sad ending). It kept all the external designs from TMP and was able to save money by reusing scenes of the Enterprise leaving Spacedock and so on, having a much smaller budget. It did introduce better and more iconic uniforms than the pastels of TMP. (Incidentally, TMP also had the third most instantly dated thing in Star Trek after the hippies in “The Way to Eden” and that one character who vapes in “Star Trek: Picard” – McCoy arrives with a beard, an open shirt and a gold medallion around his neck. Disco lives forever, man).

TWOK did not directly deal with AH tropes, except that it brought back Khan Noonien Singh and thus forced people to think about how the Eugenics Wars were meant to happen, now we were getting uncomfortably close to the 1990s. TWOK also introduced the influential character of Saavik, a female Vulcan (originally conceived as a Vulcan/Romulan hybrid) who is Spock’s protegée. “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (TSFS) continued the story, and pleased fans by bringing back the Klingons as a true antagonist and featuring fan-influenced Vulcan culture. I feel this one is underrated – how many works of fiction undo a main character death and it doesn’t feel like a cop-out because something just as precious was lost in the process?

Anyway, we then get to “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (TVH), and this is the only TOS film which involves significant AH tropes. Coming back to Earth from Vulcan to face charges in a stolen Klingon Bird-of-Prey, Kirk and co. discover that a giant alien probe (what, another one?) has approached Earth and is now destroying it through destructively searching through its oceans and disabling all electronics. Spock (of course) works out that the probe is searching for humpback whales, which went extinct in Earth’s past. The only solution is to use the old gravitational slingshot time travel trick from TOS to go back to (of course) 1986, when the film was released, and bring back some whales. This is one of those plots that made perfect sense in 1986, and probably feels like total wacko moon-speak to the younger generation (see also: TNG having dolphin navigators in tanks on their Enterprise). Despite the stakes, TVH manages to be the most fun and upbeat Star Trek film, taking a refreshingly relaxed approach to time travel. For example, in order to build a tank to put the whales in, Scotty has to tell a contemporary manufacturer how to build transparent aluminium, which concerns McCoy as it might alter the future – Scotty shrugs it off by suggesting that how did they know he didn’t invent the damn thing. Later, after Chekov gets captured as a Soviet spy while using radiation from the contemporary nuclear USS Enterprise to recrystallise their dilithium, McCoy casually cures a woman with a severe illness while on the way to rescue him from a hospital. Finally, Kirk’s 1986 love interest actually follows him back to the future. It’s very un-Star Trek but we just enjoy the ride.

After TVH, Star Trek would return to the small screen with TNG as two further TOS films were simultaneously made. Neither of these really involve AH tropes so I won’t discuss them here. What I will (finally) get back to is the DC Comics series which came out in between the films – and, as previously discussed, took a frankly bizarre approach to continuity. The comics would continue the story from the end of TWOK, even though it was obviously going to get a different continuation in the next film, then shrug and somehow retcon things back into place to continue from TSFS, and so on. I admit that at least it’s a refreshingly laissez-faire approach, compared to DC’s usual obsession with ironing out continuity over storytelling in their own superhero comics. But then this was the 80s, before they had got out of control.

The DC Comics used some ideas that now seem very out of place; Federation ships also use cloaking devices, and cloaking technology is relatively easy to overcome with sensors akin to active sonar, for example. The earliest DC series, following on from TWOK, involve clashes with (of course) the Klingons, and introduce the pacifist Klingon defector Konom, whom I mentioned in my last article. The Organians are also involved, and there is even a fight between the Organians and the Excalbians from “The Savage Curtain”, who want to stop the Klingon-Federation peace so they can study the fight between them! We then revisit the galactic barrier from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” with Saavik suffering from the Vulcan Pon farr blood fever from “Amok Time” and fleeing towards it in madness while the Romulans (of course) pursue. This storyline was then cut short due to TSFS inconveniently coming out in the meantime, and the DC continuity-hounds hastily shoving Saavik and David Marcus onto the USS Grissom in the hope nobody would notice that it’s meant to continue straight on from TWOK. Amazing.

All of this illustrates that the DC writers were quite keen on taking concepts, characters, ideas and settings from all across TOS and throwing them together, sometimes with interesting results. I’m not familiar with most of the DC comics, except for the next storyline, which was later collected as “The Mirror Universe Saga” (1984-85) and follows on straight from TSFS. We’ll come back to the ones published after 1985 another time, but for now, I want to discuss this ‘saga’.

I hope I have gotten across in these articles just how difficult it is to chronologically keep track of all the Star Trek media being produced, even back in the 1970s! However, I think I am correct in saying that no-one had, thus far, revisited the Mirror Universe concept from “Mirror, Mirror” since the original episode came out in 1967. This is quite striking, considering how many other themes from TOS had been revisited in one spinoff or another: Klingons, Romulans, Harry Mudd, Organians, the Guardian of Forever, transporter duplication as in “The Enemy Within”, and many more seemingly-obscure ones. In a past article I did on A. C. Crispin’s Star Wars work, I mentioned that she once related that she wanted to do a Mirror Universe piece, only to be shot down because ‘it’s been done’ with these DC comics, suggesting that that was the only attempt to revisit the Mirror Universe up till then.

I think it’s fair to say that it would have been a better world and a better Trek if the Mirror Universe had been left to rest as a one-off. Having said that, these comics are probably the best take on it since the original episode, or ‘least worst’. Unfortunately, ever since then, both canon and non-canon Star Trek writers have returned, like a dog to its vomit, and done progressively worse and worse Mirror Universe content ever since. But as this does explicitly involve AH, let’s discuss the Mirror Universe Saga content.

The comics begin with a neat fake-out, with the Enterprise going to the Regula II station seen in TWOK only for Kirk to cruelly blow it up, Carol Marcus and all – cutting around the different Mirror Universe uniforms until the reveal so we don’t realise this is the mirror ship and crew. I admit that DC’s weird approach to these comics’ continuity probably helped this – the reader would just assume this was another leftover comic set before the Enterprise was destroyed in TSFS, only to then learn it follows on from it. Considering that they were the first people to try to update the Mirror Universe uniforms, the artists also did a good job. The crew wear the same red jackets as the prime universe has updated to (albeit with the women bearing their midriffs as in the original episode), but with the black belts replaced with blue sash-belts and the new circle-rectangle base for the Starfleet delta instead having the Mirror Universe imperial sword-through-the-Earth in the middle. They’re different enough to be interesting, but close enough to allow that fake-out opening, and for our Kirk to manage to fool an unobservant security guard at one point.

Remembering that these comics follow on from TSFS (as an alternative timeline, if you like, to the as-yet-unreleased TVH), we return to our prime crew on their stolen Klingon Bird-of-Prey on Vulcan. Spock hasn’t fully recovered his memories, so they return with Saavik to the Federation to face charges. They’re intercepted by Captain Styles, the stuffed-shirt captain of the new and powerful USS Excelsior seen in TSFS. Meanwhile, the mirror crew and the ISS Enterprise use a controlled version of the ion storm seen in the original episode to travel to our universe, because, er, conquest ’cause they’re evil, I suppose. (One reason why writers may like the Mirror Universe is that you don’t have to worry about motivations). Naturally, this leads to a nice WTF moment when the Excelsior’s advanced technology unmasks the cloaked ISS Enterprise and Kirk & co. are shocked to seemingly see their old ship they just saw burn up in the atmosphere of the Genesis Planet.

What follows is probably the best-written compromise on the Mirror Universe being a credible threat, while still being true to the spirit of the original episode portraying them contemptuously as savages – unlike Discovery’s poisonous take on presenting certain Mirror officers as being more capable or an asset because of their lack of morality. The more advanced Excelsior is easily beating the ISS Enterprise, but Mirror Kirk is canny enough to notice that Styles has docked prime Kirk’s stolen Klingon Bird-of-prey to the back of his ship. As Mirror Kirk has command codes stolen from Klingons in his own universe (which also work here, just go with it), he’s able to teleoperate the Bird-of-prey to blast the Excelsior within her shields and disable her. Notably, prime Kirk realises what he’s doing and warns Styles, who just ignores him because he’s an idiot. Thus, mirror Kirk is a credible threat who seizes control of the ship, without being presented as superior or even equal to prime Kirk.

The comics continue that trend of presenting the mirror crew as a threat but still inferior because of their self-destructive lack of civilisation. Prime Kirk & co. escape to the ISS Enterprise and seize control (with a very nice emotional moment when he reacts to seeing the bridge of a version of his lost ship again). They fight mirror Kirk on the Excelsior, and though outmatched, manage to defeat him at the cost of the Enterprise (again). Meanwhile, mirror Spock goes to Vulcan to find prime Spock. The only poor aspect of this is that prime Kirk initially asked mirror Spock why he didn’t continue his plan to reform the Empire discussed at the end of “Mirror, Mirror”, and in a cop-out, mirror Spock says he just changed his mind after logical analysis. (He promptly changes it again after mind-melding with prime Spock, leading the latter to recover his memories and the former to realise how much a better life he has had with friendship and without backstabbing). This isn’t great, although it’s still a heck of a lot better than how DS9 would eventually resolve it.

The comics then skip over a bit with an infodump, cutting straight to prime Kirk & co. posing as their counterparts in the mirror universe, having returned with the Excelsior supposedly as a prize ship. While there, they decide to put together an alliance against the Empire, drawing on the counterparts of the Klingons and Romulans (of course). This is the first time that the idea of other powers in the Mirror Universe is discussed, because – as I said – TOS itself didn’t mention the Klingons and Romulans half as often as the spinoff media does.

More interestingly, Spock’s investigations uncover the original Point of Divergence of the Mirror Universe, according to these authors at least. It had been established that Earth and the Romulans fought their first war in the 2150s-60s. In the prime timeline, the fighting took place far from Earth, but in the Mirror Universe (whether by choice or not – it’s not clear) it took place in Earth’s own solar system. Earth lost the war (it won in the prime timeline) and suffered brutal Romulan occupation for decades. (Including an image of a Romulan guard with ‘SS’ on his helmet in the Germanic runes and everything, which is a choice. Maybe they just like cosplaying as local historical bad guys). Finally an Earth resistance fought its way to victory and overthrew the Romulan occupiers, fighting under the flag of a sword through the Earth. Turning into a fascistic Empire, it proclaimed “No longer will we be the conquered – from now on, we will be the conquerors!”

I, personally, find this to be a much better origin story for the Mirror Universe than any of the ‘ooh it’s tainted by evil from the start’ modern attempts. It’s semi-plausible that, less than a century after this overthrow, Earth could still be such a violent and expansionist regime influenced by fear and paranoia of its years under the yoke, without everyone having to be an intrinsic cartoon villain. There are obvious historical analogies, such as Spain conquering the New World after the Reconquista from Muslim rule, or Russian eastward expansion after centuries under the ‘Tatar yoke’ of Mongol rule. But, of course, doing this realistically would imply that the Empire might eventually calm down by itself after generational change, and we can’t have that, because then we wouldn’t have a cool evil setting where everyone’s evil to set our chronologically later stories in! Sigh.

Anyway, this saga is resolved by the discovery that all Mirror Universe technology conveniently relies on a piece of technology that the Excelsior doesn’t, and can be knocked out by an energy field. The Klingons and Romulans are temporarily equipped with countermeasures, which are then remote-blown up by Kirk at the end so they don’t push their luck. However, it turns out that mirror Starfleet was also building its own Excelsior copy – the mirror match (haha) is brief, though, as Scotty pulled the same TSFS trick of swapping around the Excelsior’s computer chips when the mirror people scanned it, so the copy overloads its systems.

The ending is pretty pat and designed to feed back into the ongoing comics, but overall, I felt this saga was – dare I say it – an actually interesting take on the Mirror Universe, with the only fly in the ointment being the silliness with Spock. As I said, though, unfortunately it would inspire others to make rather weaker attempts at the same in future. For AH purposes, the fact that this suggests an actual, solid POD – within Star Trek future history, not our past history – is an important step forward for AH speculation in the Star Trek setting.

Stay tuned next time as we cover the second wave of TOS novels before beginning TNG.


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Tom Anderson is the author of many SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions, Cometh the Hour, To Dream Again), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, The Surly Bonds of Earth and Well met by Starlight.