Book Trek #8: Star Trek: The Original Series – ‘First Frontier’

In an attempt to try and tackle the onerous job of looking into the Star Trek book universe, thanks to the help of Memory Beta’s chronology section, I am intending to look at the saga in book form from stories which take place earliest in the franchise’s timeline onwards. This hopefully should provide an illuminating and unusual way of examining the extended Star Trek universe.

Part of this story takes place 64 million years ago.

Sometimes you just click with a novel and sometimes, as in the case of First Frontier, you just don’t. For an indefinable reason, Diane Carey’s novel co-written with scientist Dr. James Kirkland was easily my most arduous reading experience of the Star Trek tie-in universe yet. This could well be a level of personal preference and, as always with my pieces on Cultural Conversation, I’ll be looking conceptually at First Frontier and what it does as a novel. I would, however, be lying if I said it was an enjoyable read.

First Frontier is an interesting tie-in novel, the seventy-fifth in the line of The Original Series books, for several reasons. For a start, there is the inclusion of Kirkland in the writing process. Carey is someone who will be well known to many who read Star Trek tie-in fiction, given how she was one of the most prolific novelists in the franchise, particularly throughout the 1990’s. Kirkland, however, is a scientist first and writer second, at least in terms of fiction, and came to co-write First Frontier, as a self-confessed major Star Trek fan since the 1960’s, after Carey read an article in Discover magazine about Kirkland’s discovery of the ‘Utahraptor’, one of the biggest dinosaurs ever found.

As Kirkland states in the foreword to First Frontier:

Diane wanted to know how the heck I knew this animal hunted in packs. Now, I knew here was someone who wanted the inside scoop. Not many people will call the editor of a national magazine and harass him until he gives up the phone number of a source. The conversation with Diane ultimately strayed to her line of work, and for me this was too good to pass up. I told her about a story I had come up with during one of those long nights around the campfire.

Kirkland’s story was based on an intellectual idea that the dinosaurs, arguably Earth’s most famous species other than human beings, could have had the potential to evolve—at least their most intelligent variant, the troodons—into what he describes as a ‘technical’ species, had their existence not been cut short thanks to a well-known asteroid sixty four million years ago. This brings me onto the second interesting aspect to First Frontier, in that while The Original Series didn’t turn the concept that intelligent dinosaurs may have evolved into a space-faring species, Star Trek: Voyager much later *did*.

In the show’s third season episode, ‘Distant Origin’, easily indeed one of the best episodes of Voyager across its entire seven-season run, an alien race from the Delta Quadrant, the Voth, have their beliefs challenged when one of their scientists—very much a Galileo Galilei figure—discovers evidence in their pre-history that they may have descended from what we know as dinosaur life on Earth. Voyager introduces the idea that millions of years before human evolution, dinosaurs may well have evolved to a point they developed the technology to travel off-world and end up seeding life in a distant part of the galaxy. It sounds a ridiculous notion, but First Frontier makes a salient point.

How much do we *really* know about Earth’s truly ancient history? Humanity’s ancient history we aren’t even entirely sure about, but the dinosaurs are primarily these days popularised through modern cultural reference points; the Tyrannosaurus Rex of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park series, or the BBC documentary Walking With Dinosaurs. We know they became extinct thanks to a cosmic happenstance but who’s to say some level of their species didn’t gain equal or greater intelligence to humanity? Just because we haven’t found the evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, and this is the science-fiction concept First Frontier—in a markedly different way to ‘Distant Origin’—deals with.

First Frontier, ironically, ends up being a cautionary tale for the evolved dinosaur species in this story, Clan Ru, when the crew of the USS Enterprise show them the results of their efforts to prevent the Federation curbing their aggressive galactic expansion by changing history, preventing the extinction of their species. Carey & Kirkland suggest that the dinosaurs, had they evolved to the stage of being intelligent and capable of great achievements, would also be capable of humanity’s opposite: war. Nuclear war, in fact. Written a few years in the wake of the end of the Cold War, a conflict fuelled by the threat of nuclear destruction, it feels like the kind of potent allegory The Original Series often delighted in.

This is why I’m particularly confused as to why I just didn’t get on with First Frontier. On paper, it’s a fascinating and thought-provoking story; admittedly containing perhaps too many elements to have been an episode of TOS itself, certainly on a kitsch 60’s budget, it nonetheless takes a classic science-fiction idea and runs with it. Yet the prose often feels stodgy, nor do the characters always truly sound like their on-screen personas. Plus, and this is purely from a nerdy Star Trek canonical position, Carey and Kirkland introduce certain concepts about Starfleet which don’t fit at all – the idea that Kirk is just one of twelve Captains in all of Starfleet! This may well have been originally established in the 60’s show but it doesn’t sound accurate at all.

From a plot perspective, First Frontier also takes a long time to truly delve into the central conceptual idea. Carey & Kirkland spend a great deal of time having Kirk and his crew, having arrived in an alternate reality seemingly due to an experimental test of ‘warp shielding’ (which much like ‘spore drive’ it seems Starfleet quietly forgot about in future…), end up figuring out and understanding what’s going on while encountering alternate versions of warring Klingons and Romulans. They also suggest that the galaxy is only truly civilised as ‘good’ because of the presence of the Federation and humanity, which ties into the utopian, neo-colonialist accusations often levelled at Star Trek that only human beings can truly pave the way for a peace-loving galaxy. Azetbur from The Undiscovered Country’s “homosapiens only club” indeed.

Perhaps my issue, and why First Frontier felt like such a slog, is precisely because often it feels less like a rollicking adventure story or piece of thrilling science-fiction, and more like a paleontological explanation manual. Kirkland’s understanding of the dinosaur species, and theoretical ideas about their evolution certainly lend the kind of authenticity to the book many other novels would lack, but Carey doesn’t always manage to balance that in telling an exciting, propulsive story in its own right. First Frontier didn’t have to be pulpy silliness akin to what you’d find in a ‘Mirror Universe’ story to be entertaining, but I was left wishing for more fiction, less science.

Still, these are in many ways personal preference issues, and many will undoubtedly get more from First Frontier than I did. There are some interesting concepts in here but, for my money, ‘Distant Origin’ is a much more fascinating and rewarding Star Trek take on these ideas. How about that? Recommending Voyager. You won’t see me do that very often!

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