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What the Novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture Can Teach Us About Gene’s Vision

Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a novel based on the screenplay by Harold Livingston and Alan Dean Foster, was the very first Star Trek novel from Pocket Books. Published in 1979, it is the only novel by Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek.

It is one of the purest distillations of the themes of Star Trek. I consider it essential reading for the deep understanding of what Star Trek is all about: not the pretty girl, the planet or monster of the week, not the gumdrop console controls or torn uniforms or fistfights, but the underlying core value of the show: the love for all things within the universe, known or unknown, whether those things be Gorn, or Romulans, or Balok.

The Enterprise and Earth (CBS-Paramount)

“Love,” Gene continues, “is somehow integral to truth [.…] The Enterprise crew could be so humanly fallible and yet be some of those greater things, too.” (TMP novelization, page 11) This has always been the greatest beauty of Star Trek, which Gene describes as his “own private view of Earth and humanity in microcosm” (TMP novelization, page 10), and it is the greatest take-away of this book: that a franchise so flawed and so imperfect, written by writers as flawed and imperfect as the characters themselves, could nevertheless present us a vision of humanity, not as we are, but as we ought to be, and can one day be. The first indication that humanity is reaching adulthood, Gene writes, is that humanity moves beyond mere respect and tolerance for other life forms and ideas and moves on into perfect love for those beings.

The Motion Picture, the novel, is far from perfect. There are a staggering number of cringe-worthy sexual discussions. The misogynistic treatment of the women characters is disrespectful, dismissive and unworthy of the ideals laid forth in the preface. The prose itself makes clear that Roddenberry was a screenwriter, not a novelist. Some of his ideas for Earth in the twenty-third century are not in line with today’s understanding of best conservation practices. The intracranial implants and the belt buckle medical monitors raise troubling questions about ethics in Star Trek.

And yet. Every review I have read of this novelization gets hung up on the problematic elements and completely misses the depth of insight and the clarity of the original Star Trek vision that can be found in this book, if we look for it. So, let’s change that.

Kirk aboard the Enterprise (CBS-Paramount)

A preface purportedly written by James T. Kirk and recorded by Gene drives home the point that the popular culture image of Kirk is in opposition to the way the character was written and intended. In fact, the popular image of Kirk was carefully curated by Starfleet to create a figurehead for that highly political organization. This led to Kirk being fictionalized as a “larger than life […] modern day Ulysses,” a misconception that he seeks to put right in the novel. Rather than the reckless maverick that pop culture has portrayed him as, he is a deeply thoughtful man who is tormented by the ninety-four deaths under his command, constantly second guessing what he could have done to save those lives. He describes himself and his crew as “highly conservative and strongly individualistic.”

The novel also offers deeper insight into Kirk’s journey, from the ground-based assignment which Starfleet forced him to take, for the good of the service, back to his first best destiny: command of a starship – namely, his beloved USS Enterprise.

The preface further drives home the point that life aboard a starship in deep space is not all fun and games. There is a discipline that must be maintained, as it is essential to surviving the realities of deep space exploration. Kirk and his crew have willingly taken oaths of risk and they are proud of the courage that leads them straight into the mysterious cloud that threatens all life on Earth.

Spock with Vulcan elders, on Vulcan (CBS-Paramount)

There is deep insight into Spock and his mixed Vulcan/human heritage as well. In this novel, we learn the concept that is behind the deep serenity we see in the Vulcan persona: kaiidth. This translates to “what is, is.” It is a deep acceptance of all things, not as we wish them to be, but as they are. Spock undergoes his own journey of acceptance in this novel.

The novel further introduces us to the Vulcan concept of t’hy’la. This is a word of many layers of meaning and, like the pon farr, is veiled in Vulcan privacy and reticence. It translates as “friend, brother, lover,” but later insight into the word states that t’hy’la describes “the touching of two minds which the old poets of Spock’s home planet had proclaimed as superior even to the […] pon farr.” (TMP novelization, page 120) In a book so saturated with sexual innuendo, it is crucial to recognize that deeper things than the mere physical are being referred to here. Canonically, Kirk and Spock consider one another to be brothers (see “Whom Gods Destroy”). It is the ideal of Star Trek that two people from such vastly different backgrounds should come together to form a gestalt, and as human hand clasps Vulcan hand, that brotherhood is sealed.

Kirk clasping Spock’s hand (CBS-Paramount)

But the book’s deepest insight into the serenity and assuredness of the Vulcan soul comes from yet another footnote. Vulcans, we learn, have a seventh sense that is “a sense of oneness with the All, i.e., the universe, the creative force.” (TMP novelization, page 126) Rather than viewing this sense as a religious or philosophical belief, they treat it as a fact of existence, and no more complicated than the ability to hear or see. It is the goal of Vulcan meditation to connect with this consciousness of the All and to discover one’s place in it.

Spock’s journey ends in a deeper understanding that – without awe, delight, or beauty – all the logic in the universe is useless. His encounter with V’Ger teaches him that, as he says in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.” The novelization of The Motion Picture offers an opportunity to share Spock’s innermost thoughts on this journey.

As stated on the book’s front cover and with on-screen text at the end of the film, “The human adventure is just beginning…” This novelization can be a flawed but insightful guide to the start of the adventure.

3 thoughts on “Love for All Things: TMP Novelization

  1. Very nice review of a book I did not know existed. Alan Dean Foster did a number of books from the movie. My favorite is Alien. It adds missing elements that did not make it in the original film release but did so in the directors cut.

  2. Still have this original gem in my paperback collection. It’s asking for a re-read! Hmmm… maybe these holidays will yield me some time 😉

  3. I haven’t read the TMP novel in years, but now you’ve got me wanting to revisit it. I recall thinking Roddenberry’s take on the conclusion, his explanation of what V’Ger needed to do, was more complicated than the film’s, but that could just be my memory playing tricks on me. I do remember Kirk’s comparison of himself and his crew as “conservative” compared to the New Humans — if you haven’t yet read it (I haven’t read all of it), Christopher L. Bennett’s post-TMP novel “The Higher Frontier” delves into the New Humans quite a bit (again, at least in what I’ve read).

    Nice appreciation of a book that does indeed get a fair share of “razzing,” but which has a lot going for it, bringing philosophy and ideas to the surface as only prose can.

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