Boarding the Enterprise, a review: challenging and fascinating insights into the original series

Boarding the Enterprise is an atypical Star Trek book. It is a philosophical, scientific and cultural examination of the original series’ goals, messages and influence. The brainchild of notable and noted Canadian science-fiction novelist Robert J. Sawyer, the collection of essays is a serious and analytic examination that will gift even longtime Star Trek fans with new insights. 

Despite that, Sawyer told me it was not a publishing success.

I am very proud of that book. And it tanked. It came out for the 40th anniversary of Star Trek and had a nice cover reminiscent of the Star Trek: The Motion Picture rainbow and it just did not sell for some reason. I was stunned when it didn’t leap off the shelves. With that cover and David’s name…I don’t know what went wrong. Maybe around the 40th anniversary there was too much product available. 

The David is David Gerrold, another science-fiction powerhouse. He came on board as co-editor. 

I asked David, ‘If I pitch a book to Glenn [Yeffeth, editor at BenBella Books], will you do an essay for it?’ I said that to him one morning at a convention and he came back to me later in the day and said, ‘Oh good news, I’m going to edit that book with you.’ So suddenly it went from being my book to being David’s and my book. But I thought, ‘Well, I can’t go wrong.’ I also figured it would do better, because David has the cachet in Star Trek

David said we have to have something from Norman Spinrad and we have to have something from DC Fontana and from some other people. So [the essayists were] two worlds coming together: the people who had actually created the show and the people who had been influenced by the show as science-fiction professionals.

And yet, it didn’t sell. That is not, I think, because there was a glut of 40th anniversary material, but rather because it didn’t fall neatly into the two categories of Trek non-fiction that do well: gossipy personal accounts written by the actors or detailed production diaries that please behind-the-scenes nerds like me. It was doomed by its uniqueness, which is really unfortunate because it is full of insights that will resonate with thoughtful TOS fans. (Interestingly, Sawyer convinced BenBella to release a slightly updated version for Star Trek’s 50 anniversary.)

A photo showing the two editions of Boarding the Enterprise: the original and the 50th anniversary reissue. The covers are text-based, with no images.

Here are thoughts on just two of its essays.

No identification of self or mission

Actor, writer and civil-rights activist Eric Greene used the Prime Directive to tackle Star Trek’s relationship to the real-world events of the 1960s, primarily the Vietnam War. He wrote:

In the course of the series, the Prime Directive was often debated, occasionally derided, but rarely obeyed. The Prime Directive was not a directive as much as it was the Prime Question: how much power should a superpower use when dealing with other peoples? That very question, the central tension driving the stories of Star Trek, was at the heart of American politics and popular culture at the time.

TOS hid its Vietnam commentary in the clothing of science fiction. DC Fontana, quoted in Boarding the Enterprise, said “no one was allowed to talk about [it] on television…but under science fiction we were able to get in commentary on Vietnam.”  

Among the most biting of these is Errand of Mercy. Kirk risks his life and his ship to prevent innocent and seemingly powerless people from being taken over by an aggressive, technologically superior force. That’s laudable. But it is also the same role America cast for itself in Vietnam. As Greene writes:

Seeking to “deny” Organia to the Klingons and to win Organia’s allegiance to the Federation, Kirk offered Organia medical, educational, technical and military assistance — the trademark nation-building and counter-insurgency tools the U.S. used to “deny” developing nations to the Communists.  

The Organians, however, refused the proffered benefits. “…we really do not need your protection,” Claymare tells Kirk. When Ayelborne adds that they have nothing anyone would want, Kirk replies “You have this planet and its strategic location.”

The irony is that, in this at least, the Federation is the same as the Klingons. As Sawyer said: 

The Federation could have shown up at any time to offer all [that help] to the Organians, but it didn’t, until Organia turned out to be strategically useful. So, it was not like this was UNESCO going out to offer aid, it was ‘We will do all these nice things for you — because we need you.’

The difference, of course, is that the Federation would not take over the planet. Kirk tells the council “With the Federation, you have a choice. You have none with the Klingons.” That crucial difference allows us viewers to maintain our esteem for the Federation good guys, but the parallels to Vietnam are clear.

Also fascinating in the Vietnam context are The Apple and A Private Little War. Spock, Greene writes, argues in The Apple that the feeders of Vaal have “the right to choose a system that works for them…Whatever you choose to call it, the system works.” This exact argument was made by those who opposed the Vietnam War. Kirk, however, sees a people yoked unwillingly to a communal ideal of service: “They should have the opportunity of choice. We owe it to them to interfere.”

A screen cap from the Star Trek episode The Apple, showing the snakelike statue of Vaal being hit by the Enterprise's phasers

Kirk opts for force, using the ship’s phasers to destroy the foundational basis of this society, an ending that always bothered me. Is that choice consistent with his oath to uphold the non-interference directive? No, which is why The Apple does not work as an episode. But it does work as allegory. Watch The Apple as a debate about the very real problems of the Vietnam War, and it is effective. 

A Private Little War premiered about five months later. It presents one interpretation of the Vietnam conflict in stark and obvious terms: two superpowers fight a proxy war by arming both sides with enough weapons to fight, but not with what Kirk calls “an overpowering weapon.” Greene wrote: 

The episode thus represented the roots of the Vietnam conflict as noble and necessary, [but] it also dramatized the dilemma of that policy: Kirk acknowledged no limiting principle, no stopping point and, significantly, no strategy for success, only a strategy for stalemate.

The sheer hopelessness of the tactic Kirk must adopt is grimly powerful. Robert Sawyer:

A Private Little War is a very tricky episode for me, because McCoy is right: ‘It went on bloody year after bloody year.’ And Kirk has to argue the position that we have to take an interventionist role. Now, the United States arguably started the Vietnam War to prevent lawful elections from happening in Vietnam that would have elected a Communist government. I think the most important line in the episode is when Kirk asks Scotty for a hundred flintlocks and Scotty replies ‘A hundred what?’ Kirk says ‘A hundred…serpents…serpents for the garden of Eden. We’re very tired, Mister Spock. Beam us up home.’ 

He gets to say they’re coming home at a time when all those soldiers in Vietnam didn’t get to say that. It’s a very powerful moment: he realizes that he is following through because he’s in it this deep and he is going to continue, but that is the moment he realizes that it is evil. A hundred serpents for the garden of Eden.

In these episodes, the two Genes — Coon in The Apple and Roddenberry in A Private Little War — presented to TV viewers the rationales and conflicts of Vietnam in a way no one else was able or willing to do. As Sawyer told me:

No one was dealing with any of these issues on TV, so the fact that they were even touching on this is so praiseworthy. This is a time when every other prime-time show tried to ignore the fact that the United States was at war and the teenagers were dying overseas, even putting aside the many, many Vietnamese who were dying. The American-as-apple-pie teenagers that we would see on other shows were being sent overseas to kill and be killed, and America just had blinders on about it. 

In both episodes, there’s a lot of arguing about whether what they were doing was right. And that’s good, because there were no clear-cut answers. If I had to choose, I’d rather watch A Private Little War, although both have terrible wigs in them, because it at least shows the cost of war when Tyree, after Nona is killed, decides he wants many more guns. You see a good person just destroyed.     

A screencap from the Star Trek episode A Private Little War, showing a standing Captain Kirk and the villager Tyree. Tyree is holding a flintlock gun and demanding that Kirk send him more.

Kirk slash Spock: fan fic love stories 

Slash fiction is fan fiction that focuses on romantic, usually sexual, relationships between characters of the same sex. The name comes from the / when people write “Kirk/Spock” or other combinations of characters.

The cover of slash fic work The Price and the Prize. It is a stylized drawing of a naked Kirk and Spock embracing.
Slash fic The Price and the Prize

If you are new to slash fic and curious about it, check out the 61,437 Star Trek stories at Archive of Our Own.

I have never been interested in slash fic. This is not because I have LGBTQ hangups; whatever consenting adults want or don’t want to do is fine with me. Rather, I have dismissed slash fic because it is not canon; there was never any hint during the series of a sexual relationship between the main characters. 

Because of that, I never gave slash fic much thought, but luckily Sawyer decided to examine it. “We had to track down an expert on slash fic,” he said, “because this had never been explored.”

The expert he found was fan fiction writer Melissa Dickinson, who explained why slash fic matters to many fans. 

If we look at the canon text of the show, and the weekly romantic interests…it provided for our complex, heroic, flawed characters, it becomes very quickly apparent that they lack two essential things: intimacy and equality. Those same bright, imaginative, educated female fans who identified with Spock, who admired Kirk for his ideals and courage (or vice versa), found it impossible to reconcile their admiration for the characters with the idea that Kirk could seriously fall in love with a pretty, emotionally vacant android in about fifteen minutes, or that Spock would get high on spores, leave his work and abandon his loyalty to Kirk for the vacuous Leila Kalomi, who so clearly didn’t get him at all.

These passionate fans weighed the popular 1960s images of romantic love and found them wanting. Instead, they wanted for Kirk and Spock what they wanted for themselves: an emotional unity based on shared ideals, equality, intimacy, and trust. They were busy throwing off the roles that society had tried to impress upon them — why would Kirk and Spock not do the same?

This is such a profound idea: that the deep friendship between Kirk and Spock would find expression in romantic love not because the characters are homosexual or bisexual but because specifics of sexuality are irrelevant, and that what actually matters is an intellectual and emotional bond that, perhaps, results in physical intimacy. 

Buy the book

Boarding the Enterprise is a deep well of insight, and I’ve only dipped into the surface here. It offers 14 essays, including pieces on religion in Star Trek, what happened to the space race, and a hilarious take on safety equipment in the 23rd century. Each could easily be an article in itself. Sawyer posted his introduction to the book on his site. Read that and then go buy the book. It’s available for a handful of dollars on your local Amazon site and as a Kobo or Kindle e-book. 

The book is a challenging, serious, even scholarly tome that requires intellectual participation from its reader, but that effort is worthwhile. It is among the most thoughtful of books on the original series.

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