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Prequel Problems: My Brother's Keeper (Star Trek)

By Tom Anderson

Not a red shirt in sight at the completion of construction of the Enterprise.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In part 26 of my “Alternate History in Star Trek” article (currently on hiatus) I mentioned that in 1999, Michael Jan Friedman had written a trilogy of spinoff novels entitled My Brother’s Keeper. I hadn’t read the article at the time, but they had always intrigued me, and since writing that article I have now done so. As they cover Friedman’s version of James Kirk’s backstory, or large parts of it, they therefore make ideal material for a Prequel Problems article.

As it has been a while since I penned one of these, as a reminder, I have always found prequels to be one of the most challenging forms of writing. A writer needs to connect with pre-existing material set chronologically later without contradicting it or (the Michael A Stackpole problem) excessively highlighting the links to the point that they begin to stop making logical sense. Star Trek is notorious for repeatedly featuring “the first time” something has happened (or “the first time in a hundred year”) which means that thing, such as encountering a particular alien race, can therefore never be used in a prequel – see my article The Romulan Straitjacket . More debatably, one could nitpick by looking at characters’ internal monologues and emotional development. Prequels are, by definition, written after an existing work and, if penned by the same author, they may well have become better at their craft. It is easy for a character to feel more emotional deep and nuanced in the prequel and then seem to have regressed to a cruder form in the original. My point is that prequel writing is a minefield, and thus examples of good practice in the field should be cherished and highlighted all the more.

Michael Jan Friedman is a prolific author of Star Trek spinoffs whose writing style I have always found indefinably underwhelming. I cannot put my finger on quite what it is, because Friedman certainly writes competently enough and comes up with some interesting concepts. Partly I think it’s his original characters never feel that fully realised to me (he does better with other people’s). Perhaps there’s some vague note of caution running through how he approaches stories. But then, caution is not necessarily a bad thing for writing within the constraints of someone else’s canon, not to mention the additional chronological constraints of a prequel. So, in some ways, Friedman is well suited to tackle this kind of project.

My Brother’s Keeper is a reference to Cain’s quote in Genesis 4:9 after God confronts him for murdering his brother Abel. Like Cain, James Kirk had committed murder, not against a blood relation but against a friend so close he might as well be a brother: Gary Mitchell. Unlike Cain, Kirk’s hand was forced. In Where No Man Has Gone Before, the second pilot of Star Trek (which was, confusingly, broadcast out of order) Mitchell is the Enterprise’s navigator when the ship attempts to cross the Galactic Barrier at the edge of the galaxy. Mitchell, who has high ‘esper potential’ (manifesting as ‘flashes of insight’) is affected by the barrier and starts transforming into a terrifyingly powerful being with glowing silver eyes and the ego and ambition to match. Kirk is forced into a moral quandary, with Spock warning him that Mitchell must be stopped before it is too late. Kirk tries to maroon him on a mining colony, but Mitchell breaks free, killing Lieutenant Kelso in the process. Even Kirk’s futuristic phaser rifle no longer scratches him. Kirk is only able to defeat him by setting Mitchell at odds with Dr Elizabeth Dehner, who was also affected by the barrier, weakening him long enough to make him vulnerable. Kirk still hesitates when Mitchell’s eyes return to normal, and almost loses his life, but is finally able to bring down a mountain on top of him (if it works for Buddha with Sun Wukong…). Mitchell had ostentatiously created a grave for his former friend Kirk, with a headstone reading: JAMES R. KIRK, and is now buried in it himself. Back on the ship, Kirk records for the log only that Dehner and Mitchell gave their lives in the line of duty; they did not ask for what happened to them.

At least his birthplace managed to get the middle initial right.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

There are a number of oddities to Where No Man Has Gone Before due to it being a pilot. Spock is wearing gold and there are no redshirts yet (the tan operations uniforms were changed to red when test audiences couldn’t tell the tan from the gold); there’s no sign of McCoy or Uhura, with Dr Piper as the chief medical officer. Mitchell is the navigator and Kelso is the helmsman, with Sulu appearing as a scientist instead. And, of course, Kirk’s middle initial is given as R rather than T.

Fans and Star Trek spinoff authors (there is a fine line between the two) have suggested explanations for this. My favourite one for silliness has to be Peter David’s one from Q-Squared in which it is implied to have happened in an alternate timeline altogether. However, in this series Friedman goes with the more usual interpretation that the Enterprise returned to Federation space, swapped out some crew and adopted new uniforms. (Annoyingly, in typical mutually-exclusive non-canon spinoff logic, the same events are depicted differently in the later Star Trek: Vanguard novel series and, to a lesser extent, in the novel Sarek). The R middle initial is stated as being part of a running joke between Mitchell and Kirk, which (pleasingly) we never actually see the beginning of, rather than hitting every point too heavily as prequels often do. It actually adds an extra air of tragedy to the episode, that enough of Mitchell remained for him to reference the joke even while turning into a monster.

Friedman names the books of his trilogy after the ships on which they are primarily set: Republic, Constitution, and Enterprise. It does seem a bit odd to just happen to have a novel called Enterprise as part of a series like this, but then Vonda N McIntyre already used it for her disappointing attempt at depicting Kirk’s first adventure as captain of the ship, so never mind. Friedman draws extensively on flashbacks depicting the events of Where No Man Has Gone Before – some might say he pads the narrative, but I’d argue it adds authenticity to it – especially in the first book, which opens with a retelling of Kirk’s desperate fight with Mitchell at the end of the episode. Actually, most of the books are told in flashback, but most go back further. The framing device is Kirk trying to hold it together as captain of the Enterprise after the loss of his friend, returning to Earth for his funeral (the fact that they get to return just like that feels a bit off to me) and preparing to give the eulogy for a man he killed himself.

The flashback in the first book is told to Spock, who – despite denying his own emotions – knows that Kirk needs to talk, and the two of them are not yet as close as they will one day be. The second book opens with the shipboard funeral for Lieutenant Lee Kelso (who doesn’t have relatives, hence why they’re not returning to Earth, apparently) and then talks over crew transfers with Spock. He gets debriefed at a starbase (Friedman implies something dodgy behind the mission to investigate the galactic barrier and maybe even hints at Section 31, but thankfully doesn’t come out and say it). We also see McCoy’s perspective as he thinks back to agonising over whether to quit his job at Starfleet Medical and join the ship. He already knew Kirk and again, pleasingly, Friedman chooses not to try to bend his flashback story in order to work in their first encounter; we’re just told about it. As Kirk ponders over a new transferred crewman who’s temporarily covering for Mitchell, that leads him to the primary flashback.

When we reach the third book, Kirk spends most of it psyching himself up to speak to Mitchell’s parents – he eventually admits the truth and, though sad and bitter, they accept it – and it concludes with it poignantly opening his eulogy at the funeral.

The difficult thing with an episodic series like the original Star Trek is that one writer can establish a close emotional or familial connection and then others have little obligation to respect it. Usually, it won’t be outright contradicted, but the spirit is not there. Kirk loses his best friend in Mitchell here, and in other episodes he loses his brother and family members and we hear about his childhood living through the bloody episode of Governor Kodos. But these points are not in the minds of other writers depicting Kirk.

We end up with the slightly odd situation that Kirk seems to care more about the death of his son David (whom he had essentially only met once) in the films than about any of these. Not that I’m saying Kirk is wrong to feel the latter emotional connection, of course, but it’s an illustration of how characterisation struggles with an episodic story structure and multiple writers. Friedman’s challenge here is to try and convince us that Gary Mitchell was important to Kirk in a different way – that his friendship had changed him as a person, and so every time we see James Kirk act in a particular way, we are seeing the continuing influence of Gary Mitchell. In this, I would say Friedman does well, almost surprisingly well considering we are talking about such an iconic character where the readers have an image fixed in their minds.

There have been a handful of attempts to depict Captain Kirk’s backstory over the years. Perhaps the best known is the 2009 JJ Abrams Star Trek film, which craftily pulls a get-out-of-jail-free card by making it an alternate timeline where Kirk grew up without his father, but it still rubs me up the wrong way. Abram’s Kirk is basically a pop-culture idea of what young Kirk would be like: reckless, cavalier, with a voracious sexual appetite and a poor work ethic (at least what we see on screen). There was some influence from Diane Carey’s portrayal of young Kirk in Best Destiny – which I also dislike – but at least her version of young Kirk is a teenage monster who calms down once he decides to pursue the Academy. By contrast, the original show itself stated that young Kirk was a stiff, humourless, “walking stack of books” academic overachiever at the Academy. Obviously he underwent character development – Friedman’s clever idea here is to attribute that development to his friendship with Gary Mitchell. Mitchell, instead, becomes the reckless, slapdash, but cunning one who drags James Kirk out of his shell and helps make him the man we know.

Indeed, the first flashback literally shows Kirk as ‘a walking stack of books’, holding a teetering pile of them as he prepares to set up his history class as a cadet student teacher. I normally don’t like this kind of prequel literalism, but it’s done in a funny way here. He has a chance encounter with the younger Mitchell and the two hit it off poorly. Kirk is frustrated that Mitchell doesn’t seem to be paying attention in his class, yet can always answer any question. Mitchell tells him about his esper ‘flashes of insight’ and Kirk retorts that he has become dependent on them. However, the two nonetheless become friends, with Mitchell declaring Kirk is a ‘project’ and trying to get him to unfreeze with women, organising double dates without Kirk’s knowledge. Again, this idea from Friedman works well because it’s so unlike the Kirk we know, so we can see how Mitchell changed him. It is somewhat similar to the TNG episode Tapestry in which Captain Picard learns that if he had been less reckless in his youth as an ensign, he would now be stuck in a tedious dead-end job and would never have been offered a command. It’s not quite the same, as Kirk was always ambitious and Mitchell isn’t (being content to remain a navigator) but there is a parallel. Kirk’s internal monologue, incidentally, states that he was only an average student at school, but had become driven academically out of a desire not to disappoint Captain Robert April and Admiral Mallory, who had been his sponsors for the Academy.

Speaking of Captain Picard, Friedman generally does a pretty good job of keeping the series ‘feel’ confined within the setting of TOS, with one of the few outliers being that Kirk at one point is offered a bottle of Chateau Picard wine!

Kirk and Mitchell’s friendship develops at the Academy (with a few disagreements) but soon the two are called to serve on the USS Republic with temporary commissions. (Apparently this was always a thing in Star Trek, but I still find it weird). With Mitchell’s help conniving behind the scenes, Kirk begins a relationship with a female Andorian officer named Phelana. During their routine mission, the captain orders most personnel confined to quarters while some strange kind of testing is going on. Naturally, the insatiably curious Mitchell tries to find out about it, and is both caught out and drags down Kirk with him, temporarily damaging their friendship. We don’t find out what the strange event was until book 3.

However, the Republic is then sent on a mission to an alien planet where two factions, the Heir’och and Heir’tza, long at war, are now seeking peace. This will be achieved because their species very occasionally produces a telepathic child, and now each faction has one telepath; with their mutual ability to read each other’s minds, they can therefore ensure the peace is safe from a planned pre-emptive strike by one side. Naturally, there are also people on both sides with a vested interest in trying to reignite the war, which they do by disrupting the elaborate parade ceremony in which the telepaths are brought to a temple. Starfleet is assigned to help provide security, and Kirk, Mitchell, and Phelana all end up assigned to a bakery. Kirk and Mitchell work out that the ‘decoy’ they’re assigned to protect is actually one of the real telepaths due to a double bluff, but they are still taken captive. The three of them were given strict orders not to leave their position, and there is an important decision point where Mitchell jumps off a roof to pursue the kidnappers; Kirk hesitates but decides to follow him, and Phelana remains behind – effectively ending their romance.

In a quite well-written heist sequence, Kirk and Mitchell are able to rescue the telepath from his kidnappers, with Kirk at one point trying a bluff that lets him defeat a far larger number of enemies. The narrative notes that Mitchell’s habit of taking risks is rubbing off on him, helping create the Kirk we know today. They get the telepath to the temple – which succeeds because, thanks to Mitchell’s esper potential, the telepath can communicate with him and prove who he is to guards who do not know his face. In the end, Kirk and Mitchell are feted for their achievement, with objections over them not obeying orders being dropped – but a barrier has come down between Kirk and Phelana.

The flashback in the second book is a few years later. The one starship Kirk’s backstory is associated with, but which doesn’t appear in the title, is the Farragut – firstly when a young Kirk found a poor repair job by Ben Finney which drastically damaged the latter’s career (from Court Martial) and later, when Kirk survived an attack by an alien entity that killed half the crew and he was wracked with guilt over failing to act faster (from Obsession). Again, one thing I like about Friedman’s writing here is that he doesn’t feel the need to cram in every single part of Kirk’s backstory. We heard in passing in the first book that the Finney incident happened before the narrative began, and the alien entity incident happens just before the flashback in the second book opens. We get a brief description of Kirk’s numb horror in the aftermath, and the reader can see the self-hating hypocrisy that Kirk is blaming himself for the attack when, in reality, it’s his actions (when thrust into command by the death of Captain Garrovick) that are saving the rest of the crew and getting the ship back to base.

Kirk is reassigned to the Constitution where Mitchell is already serving, and Mitchell makes it his mission to try to restore his friend’s spirit – not helped by Kirk refusing to talk about it. Kirk has been made first officer, but is again thrust into command when the Constitution’s captain is stuck beneath a shield on an alien planet (a recent Federation member) as multiple satellites from a different group of aliens attack it. Kirk faces impossible odds and, to make matters worse, a huge alien ship shows up. We see Kirk learning important lessons – asserting his authority against a surly officer, hesitating before sending men into danger, and ultimately unnecessarily sacrificing two more lives in a futile attempt to mount a rescue. It’s rare that we actually see the latter ‘on-screen’ in Star Trek – usually it’s a warning made by an officer who is proved wrong, and launching the rescue is always the right idea. Seeing it here really helps hammer home the weight of that decision whenever Kirk has to make it in the series. Ultimately, Kirk is able to defeat the alien invaders with Mitchell’s help and has recovered some of his spirit after the Farragut incident.

The third book’s flashback is where the series reaches its climax and also, in my opinion, starts to come apart slightly. Up till now, Friedman has been pretty conscientious about not overdoing the excessive prequel links that some writers are guilty of. However, the third book goes a bit far; for example, Lee Kelso jokes to Mitchell (after the latter’s joke made him laugh hard) that he’ll be the death of him. (Though it does mean that Star Trek did this joke three years before Star Wars. Take that, Ewan McGregor). The timescale of the book is also a bit iffy; it’s set on the Enterprise with Kirk as Captain, Mitchell as navigator, clearly not that long before Where No Man, so we run into the problem of just how well Kirk does or doesn’t know Spock at this point.

The third book finally reveals the secret that Mitchell tried to uncover in the first book and was also briefly hinted at in the second, when the Constitution visited a planet and held a secret meeting with a Klingon ship. We also got to see the Klingon perspective there, with future captain Kang as First Officer. I was going to complain about how Kang gets to meet Kirk in the third book, but on checking Day of the Dove, they actually do act like they already know each other, so, hmm, fair enough. Anyway, it turns out that this planet is home to a group of rogue genetically-enhanced Klingons and their mad scientist creator, and a joint Federation-Klingon mission keeps an eye on them (as the Federation refused to have them executed). Several of the shiftier officers Kirk and Mitchell encountered are part of this classified containment operation, including Phelana, whom he meets again here (she wants to rekindle things but he doesn’t). Anyway, predictably the genetically-engineered Klingons manage to escape. They take over the Enterprise, holding Mitchell hostage among others, and plot to use it to attack the Klingon homeworld, while Kirk has to strike a desperate deal with Kang to pursue them in Kang’s ship. (This is actually the same plot as the TNG Klingon Challenge VHS board game, oddly enough).

You see what I mean about the plot for this one feeling like it pushes the boundaries of a prequel a bit – I don’t feel that Kirk losing control of the Enterprise and having to win it back is something that can reasonably happen in an ‘off-camera’ plot that’s never brought up again. To be fair, Friedman does use the opportunity to play with Kirk not knowing Spock that well yet and whether he can trust him with certain operations. I also like how Mitchell unambiguously saves the ship here, helping to underwrite just how much Kirk had to agonise over him becoming a threat to it in Where No Man.

Probably the oddest decision here, though, is the genetically-engineered Klingons. This was at a time when there was no canon explanation for why Klingons in the original series (TOS) looked mostly human-like while those from the movie onwards have ridged foreheads. In the Deep Space 9 (DS9) flashback episode Trials and Tribble-ations, this is pointed out and Worf stuffily comments that it is something that Klingons do not discuss with outsiders. I recall one critic pointed out that an even better way of doing it might have been if Worf just loses his forehead ridges in the past-set sequences and nobody comments on it. Anyway, because Star Trek fans and writers have never seen a plot thread they don’t like pulling on, there were countless fanon explanations. Some suggested that, what with the Klingons controlling a vast empire that was a match for the Federation, there would be more than one race called ‘Klingon’, with one of the offshoots being named the Rumaiy instead. However, that kind of explanation stopped making sense when three Klingons from TOS appeared in DS9 with ridged foreheads.

Klingon with ridges.

Klingon without ridges.

Pictures courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A more common theory was the one Friedman uses here, where the ridged-forehead Klingons are described as genetically enhanced, and then eventually that became the norm for all Klingons. Ironically, the canon show would eventually go for the opposite explanation in Enterprise – the Klingons always had ridged foreheads, but then experimented with genetic enhancement based on Khan’s Augments from humanity’s past, and accidentally infected themselves with a virus that made them look more human as a result – which was presumably eventually cured. A lot of people felt this was not a question that needed answering, but oh well. And then Discovery came along and decided to do its own weird thing which everyone, including its own later seasons, quietly ignored.

Anyway, I feel it wasn’t a sensible topic to broach in the story. Other than that, and a few other nitpicks, though, overall I think My Brother’s Keeper succeeds remarkably well as a prequel. Friedman does not attempt to set forth a complete history of James Kirk, merely to show how his friendship with Gary Mitchell impacted on him and the weight he felt when forced to kill the thing Mitchell had become. We even get a brief scene at the end of book 3 with the Heiren aliens honouring the life of Mitchell, who helped save their peace. We now do not need Kirk to explicitly mention Mitchell in later episodes of Star Trek, knowing that we are reminded of him every time Kirk takes a risk or trusts his instincts. As Kirk opens his funeral elegy with, in the words of the third book: “Gary Mitchell was my friend.”

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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

Look To The West (5 book series)

N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)


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