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Alternate History in Star Trek part 5: Early TOS Pocket Books novels

By Tom Anderson

Aside note: in between writing part 4 and this article, Star Trek: Picard returned and featured...a time travel and alternate history storyline. Well done for giving me more to write about, lads. Kudos that they at least found an explanation for why Kirk and co. can time travel whenever they please but nobody else can, I’ll discuss that when we get to it.

I first became a serious fan of Star Trek in 1994. One surprising revelation that I eventually came to was that the Pocket Books original series (TOS) novels popular at the time, which I had assumed dated back to the 1970s, were far more recent. For years I had assumed the publication dates represented second editions, not helped by their very retro cover style to my eyes (see my article about how every modern US edition of a fantasy book looks like it’s from 1981) and the half-charming, half-comical taglines above the title (ON A MISSION OF PEACE, A BEWITCHING WOMAN SETS THE ENTERPRISE AT WAR – WITH ITSELF!). Another complication is the fact that the books were printed in the UK by Titan Books, who put them out in a different publication order. For example, the Titan order has Gene DeWeese’s “Chain of Attack” (1987) as book 1, which in the original US Pocket Books order is book 32! The American series starts with the novelisation of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), which in the UK order doesn’t appear until book 14. While the novels usually don’t reference each other much, so the chronological publication order is often of little importance, this can still be very confusing. Loath as I am to surrender an opportunity to get the British perspective down on a topic usually dominated by American views (see: every other article I write), in this case I think we have to go by the original US order.

To get back on topic, the later publication dates of the novels means that they were never purely an expression of authors writing in the setting established in the original 1960s TV series. The actual first Pocket Books novel published, other than the Motion Picture novelisation, was “The Entropy Effect” by Vonda N. McIntyre (1981), which already has the film-era refit version of the Enterprise and the pastel uniforms on the cover. Much of the book covers’ designs were indecisive about what era they were meant to be set in; communication between authors and cover artists is usually a tad ‘tin cans on a string’ at the best of times, and even the authors seemed uncertain sometimes when they were setting a book. (A good example is Diane Carey’s “Dreadnought!” (1986), which features references to TOS-era ship designs from Franz Joseph’s Star Fleet Technical Manual, but also Klingon Birds-of-Prey which first appeared in Star Trek III). From 1987 onwards, of course, the authors could even be influenced by the appearance of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) which we’ll begin to discuss in the next article. We’ll use that year of 1987 as a convenient cut-off point, discussing only those Pocket Books novels released up to that year for now, and return to the topic later.

Time travel features in that aforementioned first novel, “The Entropy Effect”. A scientist named Mordreaux has been sending people back in time for a better life (similar plot to “All Our Yesterdays”) but his actions threaten to destabilise the universe, so Spock (of course) has to time travel back to try to stop him in the first place – only to get help from a future version of Mordreaux who now regrets his actions. A suspiciously similar plot would later be used in the Voyager (VGR) episode “Relativity”.

I should mention that this era was when the rules of Star Trek spinoff media canonicity were established. Richard Arnold, a 1970s superfan turned integral part of the revival of Star Trek (becoming ‘Star Trek Archivist’ in TNG) is often credited/accused of being responsible for this. His decrees about canon led to him being nicknamed ‘Melakon’, the alien Hitler stand-in from the TOS episode “Patterns of Force”, by some opponents. In hindsight, the rules he established seem perfectly sensible to me; spinoff media must be consistent with on-screen canon as of the time it was published, cannot make major changes such as killing off characters, but can explore the backstory of character events mentioned briefly on screen – in the knowledge that the exploration is non-canon and can be contradicted later on screen. With that in mind, let’s go on.

The next two books published, “The Klingon Gambit” by Robert E. Vardeman (1981) and “The Covenant of the Crown” by Howard Weinstein (1981), do not feature AH tropes but are worth noting because of the fact that they both feature the Klingons. As seen in the pre-Pocket Books novels, Star Trek fans and writers in this era really liked featuring the Klingons, Romulans, emphasising Spock, and exploring Vulcan culture; the next book, “The Prometheus Design” by Sonora Marshak and Myrna Culbreath (1982) even features a glossary of Vulcan terms. At this point the authors were still trying to state whether their books came before or after The Motion Picture, but only one more book (“The Abode of Life” by Lee Correy, 1982, and the first one of these I’ve actually read myself) was issued before the novelisation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan appeared. From this point onwards, chronology became vaguer—especially as that film killed Spock off, seemingly forever, and authors’ aforementioned obsession with the character.

Following this came “Black Fire” by Sonni Cooper (1983), which features Klingons, Romulans and the fan-favourite female Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident” (not the first time she’d appeared in spinoff media and very much not the last). “Triangle” by Sonora Marshak and Myrna Culbreath (1983) features Spock undergoing Pon farr again (of course) and attempts to build on Roddenberry’s soon-abandoned concept of pacifist New Humans back on Earth. “Web of the Romulans” by M[elinda] S[eabrooke] Murdoch (1983) not only features the Romulans, but also a plot where the Enterprise’s main computer falls in love with Kirk. OK, now there’s a plausibly TOS story – or maybe TAS, at least.

Further evidence that Spock’s death in no way dampened authors’ enthusiasm for the character came with “Yesterday’s Son” by A[nne] C[arol] Crispin (whose Star Wars works I have previously written about) in 1983. This was a sequel to “All Our Yesterdays”, featuring both the Atavachron and the Guardian of Forever, in which Spock finds he fathered a son with Zarabeth in the distant past of Sarpeidon. The book also features a plot where the Romulans are attacking the Guardian’s home planet in order to gain access to its time travel powers, an idea that would reoccur repeatedly in later spinoff novels. Crispin referenced many other TOS episodes in the book, illustrating how the fan-influenced novels were shifting away from the episodic, self-contained nature of storytelling of TOS in the direction of a cohesive, consistent (sort of) setting.

“Yesterday’s Son” would eventually get a direct sequel, a concept established (or re-established from the pre-Pocket Books era) by Robert E. Vardeman in the next book, “Mutiny on the Enterprise” (1983) which follows on from his previous book “The Klingon Gambit”. Another important breakthrough came with the next book, “The Wounded Sky” by Diane Duane (1983). While the plot has little to do with what would later make Duane famous – her work on building a culture for the Romulans, with the Klingons instead being the antagonists here – it introduced many supporting characters which she would later bring back for those books. The plot of the book would later also be knowingly adapted into the TNG episode “Where No One Has Gone Before” a few years later.

“The Trellisane Confrontation” by David Dvorkin (1984) features both Klingons and Romulans, because of course it does. Then came the now unfortunately-named “Corona” by Greg Bear (1984) and “The Final Reflection” by John M. Ford (1984). The latter I have previously written about: Ford established an interesting background culture for the Klingons, which has nothing whatsoever to do with what TNG eventually decided on for them. The book also features glimpses of the Federation in an earlier era (such as a Klingon character meeting McCoy as a boy) and references the atavistic ‘Back to Earth’ movement that had already appeared in the pre-TOS novels. The peculiar thing is that both the novel description, and the cover design, ignores the fact that the Klingons had been redesigned in The Motion Picture to have their now-distinctive forehead ridges. Given they had not reappeared on screen till then, perhaps writers simply assumed it had been a one-off? It does illustrate that changing a design will always be controversial. Anyway, I can’t complain because I shamelessly stole some of Ford’s ideas for my own books (primarily how Klingon bridge orders work), now Star Trek isn’t using them anymore. Indeed, as though delivering a slap to the face, the next novel would be the novelisation of Star Trek III, in which the Klingons finally reappear, ridges and all.

Star Trek III would also feature Spock’s resurrection, of course, not that his death had prevented half of the novels in the interim using him as the lead character. The next book after that was “My Enemy, My Ally” by Diane Duane (1984) in which she begins her aforementioned exploration of Romulan culture, featuring Kirk teaming up with an honourable but politically out-manoeuvred Romulan commander. This would introduce the term Rihannsu as the Romulans’ own name for themselves (after all, ‘Romulan’, being derived from the Earth name Romulus, was surely a code name?) Some other authors would reference Duane’s vision of the Romulans (such as Diane Carey) though like Ford’s Klingons, it has not had that much influence on on-screen Star Trek, unlike fanon and spinoff ideas about the Vulcans.

Having just teamed up with the Romulans, Kirk then has to team up with the Klingons in “The Tears of the Singers” by Melinda M. Snodgrass (1984) who would go on to be a writer on TNG. The next book has perhaps the best title of any Star Trek novel and I hope to read it myself some day – “The Vulcan Academy Murders” by Jean Lorrah (1984). “Uhura’s Song” by Janet Kagan (1985) gave her character a day in the limelight, and is well regarded by many critics. “Shadow Lord” by Laurence Yep (1985) feels like an incongruous crossover with the swords-and-sorcery genre. We finally get back to time travel with “Ishmael” by Barbara Hambly (who would later write Star Wars content). But don’t worry, the time travel in question involves a Klingon ship disappearing...with Spock on board. Again, I really cannot stress enough the sense of incongruity one feels on going back to watching TOS, and feeling how rarely Klingons and especially Romulans feature in the original media, whereas having a spinoff book without at least one of them feels more unusual. I can almost understand Roddenberry’s attempt to not feature them in TNG, given this context.

Anyway, the past setting of “Ishmael” is Seattle in the year 1867, and Spock attempts to blend in under the name ‘Ishmael Marx’ (which feels more Bond villain material, really). The book establishes that the Klingons had been conquered and ruled by a race called the Karsids in the past, and they attempted to subvert Earth as well around this time, but were overthrown by a Klingon rebellion. The time-travelling Klingons are attempting to interfere with this to harm the future Federation, but fail. When Spock returns to the present day, he finds that he is descended from some of the contemporary humans he helped, on his mother’s side. The story appears to have influenced the later TNG two-parter “Time’s Arrow”. Of course, the Klingon backstory would be discarded, but interestingly DS9 did eventually establish that the Klingons had been invaded and raided by a race called the Hur’q in the past, which may have been inspired by this story.

The next novel, “Killing Time” by Della Van Hise (1985), is both AH-related and may be the best example of how Star Trek authors in this era were still strongly influenced by fanfiction roots. The Romulans (of course) attempt to tamper with time in order to damage the Federation; it is specifically mentioned that they can’t overcome Starfleet’s 12 starships like the Enterprise (a relatively late exercise in Roddenberry’s headcanon that there were only 12 such ships and they were unusually powerful). Interestingly, the full details of the time intervention are not explored – it is simply stated that the Romulans bumped off several key figures from Earth’s past. Unfortunately from their point of view, all they do is create a new timeline in which the Federation still exists, but Earth is subordinate to Vulcan. The Starfleet analogue now has only 7 starships, but that’s still enough to thwart the Romulan Empire. Instead of the USS Enterprise, there is the VSS ShiKahr, commanded by Spock, and with human Kirk as a mere lowly ensign. The tone of the whole thing is wild, even including a joke where a colleague tells Kirk not to wear a red shirt when he goes on an away mission. More crucially, the first edition includes Kirk-Spock slash fiction tropes, which led an understandably outraged Roddenberry to recall and pulp the first edition. A second edition was published with more than fifty changes, but Van Hise never wrote for Star Trek again. This is really an illustration in how much fanfiction had influenced the actual, official Star Trek spinoff fiction. Oh, and the book features the female Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident”, again, and gives her a different name to a number of other books, because of course it does.

The next book was “Dwellers in the Crucible” by Margaret Wander Bonanno (1985) which was the first original novel to feature the character Saavik, established in the films. The novels explore her backstory, mentioned in the scripts but never on-screen, that she is a half-Romulan, half-Vulcan hybrid who grew up in horrific circumstances on the appropriately-named planet Hellguard, but was recruited to Starfleet by Spock. Possibly this idea may have influenced the backstory of Tasha Yar on TNG. Anyway, this novel’s story features a Romulan plot (what, again?) and a character who’s strongly implied to be the female Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident” (what, again?) I have to wonder if, when Joanne Linville appeared on TOS for a one-off appearance in 1968, that she dreamed her character would excite the imagination of generations of fans and writers and provoke a periodic canon fist-fight over what her name was (as she only whispered it into Spock’s ear in the original episode).

Next came “Pawns and Symbols” by Majliss Larson (1985), featuring the Klingons (naturally) and perhaps invoking the chess-like symbolism that John M. Ford had introduced. Interestingly, the book reprises the character of Kang from “Day of the Dove”, but the cover art shows him with forehead ridges – prefiguring the canon car-crash problem seen when Kang, as well as other TOS Klingons, would reappear with ridges in the DS9 episode “Blood Oath”. This is followed by “Mindshadow” by J[eanne] M. Dillard (1986) in which Spock has lost his memory and needs to recover order to a foil a Romulan plot, just in case you thought we were getting a novel without either the Klingons or Romulans. Yes, when this was the environment that TNG was getting planned in, I can better see Roddenberry’s point of view in wanting to move away from them.

The next novel, “Crisis on Centaurus” by Brad Ferguson (1986) is a nice example of how some of the novel writers attempted to explore backstory elements only hinted at in TOS. TOS writer D[orothy] C[atherine] Fontana had, during the run of the TV show, envisaged McCoy having an estranged son, which McCoy’s actor DeForest Kelley suggested should instead be a daughter. This was added to the show bible, but never explicitly referenced on-screen; plans for Joanna McCoy to feature in a story came to naught. However, a number of spinoff writers, including Ferguson here, decided to use her. The plot of this one involves the planet on which she’s located being subject to a bomb attack, and Uhura being put in temporary command of the Enterprise. The attack, it turns out, was engineered by...a racist terrorist group called the League for a Pure Humanity, led by Isidore Holtzman (presumably no relation to the one from Dune). What, we finally have a book without the Klingons or Romulans behind the plot? Amazing.

The next book is one of my favourites, which I mentioned above: “Dreadnought!” by Diane Carey (1986), featuring a plot inside the Federation to use a new super-starship to enforce peace on the galaxy by force. Some of the ideas explored have parallels with later stories, such as DS9’s “Paradise Lost”. I never liked the idea that Earth or the Federation could easily beat everyone else if it wanted to, but the plot is nice and it uses both some established ship designs as well as introducing new ones. It also introduces lower-decks characters such as one-name-only Ensign Piper from Proxima Centauri (conveniently, her home world was recently discovered!), the blond Vulcan Sarda, farmboy tech wizard Judd ‘Scanners’ Sandage, and Piper’s friend Merete. Piper is a bit of a Mary Sue, breaking the Kobayashi Maru scenario and helping foil the plot. The characters then reappear in “Battlestations!” (1986) with only one other book in between, so I’ll cover that here too: this one involves the development of transwarp drive (as seen in Star Trek III) and a plot by multiple galactic powers to steal it. A big battle at the end involves not only the Klingons and Romulans, but Tholians, several other minor races, subject races of the Klingons we’ve never seen before (but explaining how they can be such a big empire). There’s also an annoyingly vague hint that implies that an ‘unidentified ship’ belongs to a race we haven’t ‘officially’ met yet, but given this novel came out before TNG, it’s not a TNG race as I always assumed as a kid.

In between Carey’s two books came “Demons” by J. M. Dillard (1986), perhaps prefiguring the TNG episode “Devil’s Due”. Then comes the previously-discussed “Chain of Attack” by Gene DeWeese (1987) – which, as a reminder, was published in the UK by Titan Books as book 1! This one also seems to have influenced stories like TNG’s “Where No One Has Gone Before”, or the whole concept of Voyager. Next comes “Deep Domain” by Howard Weinstein (1987), whose strange plot involving a water world and alien whales betrays the fact that it is derived from early concepts for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. “Dreams of the Raven” by Carmen Carter (1987) sees McCoy temporarily lose his memories as the Enterprise (and a Klingon ship, so we can put it on the cover) are influenced by the psychic abilities of the mysterious aliens dubbed ‘Ravens’.

The next book is Diane Duane’s “The Romulan Way” (1987, with Peter Morwood). In this, Duane would fully capture her view of the Romulan (or Rihannsu) civilisation and its history, including explanations for how they left Vulcan, their political system and what influenced it, and so on. Much of this is, interestingly, told through a deep-sleeper Federation agent on Romulus who has gone native, perhaps too native. All of this came conveniently about a month before TNG debuted with “Encounter at Farpoint”, and the Romulans would reappear (after a couple of mentions) in the final episode of the first season – none of which, of course, had anything to do with Duane’s ideas. One does feel a certain sense of futility here, as with John M. Ford’s ideas about the Klingons. Nonetheless, Duane and other writers would continue to develop her Romulan ideas and feature them in other, non-canon books into the twenty-first century.

Speaking of which, Ford published another book, “How Much For Just The Planet?” in 1987, which was the first Pocket Books novel to debut after TNG did (though, of course, it must have been written before then). It is a fitting place to end this article, as it is a much-loved piece of comedy whose eccentricity feels very fitting for TOS at its silliest. It features both the Federation and the Klingons competing for the dilithium resources of the planet Direidi, whose inhabitants seem to be tricksters in the mould of Trelane. The book is written almost as a stage musical, with characters based on fellow authors such as A. C. Crispin, Diane Duane, Janet Kagan, Peter Morwood, and even Neil Gaiman. Even the Klingons (with forehead ridges on the cover) get to join in the fun, with their commander dressing in a black and white human ritual garment called a ‘tuk’zedo’, and the Direidians successfully distract both sides from war in favour of mutual exploitation of the resources. It was a fitting end to the first wave of TOS novels, before influence from TNG began to be felt.

I will end this article here. There were several instances of time travel, though only one pure AH case (the controversial “Killing Time”). In fact there are many more interesting examples of AH and AH-adjacent tropes in TOS novels, but – to my surprise when I discovered this – many of them, even those which feel as though they have no influence from TNG – debuted later. We will come back to these in time, with examples such as “Timetrap” and “First Frontier”, but for now, we must turn back to the small screen and explore how early TNG episodes approached time-travel concepts. See you next time!



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