Book Review: Star Trek, The Rings of Time

Star Trek: The Rings of Timeby Greg CoxPocket Books, 2012Star Trek fans will remember the date like it was yesterday - the Stardate, that is: 3113.2, when the original U.S.S. Enterprise (no bloody A, B, C, or D) encountered a 'black star' and, while warping away from it, threw itself backwards in time to Earth of the mid-20th century, where plot-twists quickly ensued. Our crew accidentally introduces U.S. Air Force Captain John Christopher to their future world ("I never have believed in little green men," an astonished Captain Christopher tells Mr. Spock, to which the Vulcan science officer deadpans, "Neither have I"), and a quick scan of the ship's library tells them they must return Captain Christopher or Earth's time-line will be altered. Not because Captain Christopher himself contributes anything noteworthy, but because his son, Colonel Shaun Geoffrey Christopher, will lead the first manned Earth expedition to Saturn ("I don't have a son!" blurts out Captain Christopher, to which the inevitable answers is: "Not yet").The episode is "Tomorrow is Yesterday," and by a curious chronological phenomenon, some of us actually watched it for the first time in the mid-20th century, an era that now feels as distant and unrecognizable as ancient Sumer. And what we saw was pure, classic Star Trek: fine acting all around (especially Roger Perry as Captain Christopher, imbuing the character with such immediately accessible humor and stubborn bravery that more than a few of the show's fans thought he looked natural standing on the bridge of the Enterprise), comic bits done so well they're still funny, elements of pathos sharply directed by Michael O'Herlihy, and some wonderful writing by D.C. Fontana (when Captain Christopher is preparing to leave the ship, he wistfully recalls always dreaming of getting a chance to go into space, to which Captain Kirk responds, "Take a good look around, Captain - you made it here ahead of all of them"). And there was that one extra point, that Gene Roddenberry magic: hope. Missions to Saturn, when mankind had only just reached the moon.On one level, it seems as natural as falling off a ladder that some Trek writer should want to tell the story of Colonel Shaun Geoffrey Christopher and that first mission to Saturn - and that's what veteran writer Greg Cox has essentially done in his latest novel, Star Trek: The Rings of Time, a tightly-done and entertaining adventure that manages to work in Captain Kirk and his crew without too much violence to willing suspension of disbelief. Fans of the original series will find their loyalty amply rewarded here: hardly four pages go by without some reference to the jam-packed world of Star Trek, from mentions of Gorn and hortas and Ferengi to more abstruse allusions to characters like Janice Lester and (for all us Voyager fans) Shannon O'Donnell. Cox even finds ways to bring up some of Kirk's old loves, sentimentally-recalled names like Miramanee and Edith Keeler, and he's kind enough to name Colonel Christopher's Saturn mission partners Fontana and O'Herlihy.But on another level, this novel's very existence is, as Captain Kirk might say, damn peculiar. After all, this isn't the Star Trek we're supposed to be caring about anymore, right? In 2009, director J. J. Abrams gave the world a new Star Trek, in a new movie that jettisoned the entire continuity of the old show and movies in favor of a clean slate. This was an eminently practical solution to the baggage-train that tended to follow any Star Trek movie into the theaters, but it means the antics of Colonel Shaun Geoffrey Christopher (and this Kirk, and this crew) happened in some alternate universe that doesn't involve our current versions of these characters. It seems odd that Paramount would want to draw attention to that fact by continuing to publish adventures of an Enterprise that will never again fly on film.Then again maybe not so odd: that Enterprise has lots of fans, after all, and fans buy books (at least, old fans do - any prospective fans of the new Star Trek have been given precious little fiction set in that version of the show's reality). And Cox spins an entertaining story, paralleling two plot-lines dealing with ringed planets experiencing weird orbital disturbances. In the 23rd Century, Kirk & co. are investigating the deterioration of the rings around Klondike VI, while in the 21st Century, Colonel Shaun Geoffrey Christopher & co. (plus Zoe, a vivacious young blogger who stows away on their ship to watch the mission up close) reach Saturn only to discover the exact same kind of ring-deterioration. When Zoe wonders if a mysterious comet approaching the planet is somehow an act of aggression, Colonel Christopher says, "Don't be silly. Who'd bomb Saturn?" To which she replies: "Pluto? Maybe it's still pissed off about not being a planet anymore."The comet turns out to be a super-advanced alien probe, and Star Trek fans know how much fun those can be. Cox works this maguffin for all it's worth, but, like D. C. Fontana before him, he also keeps an eye out for hope and heroism wherever he can. When Colonel Christopher decides to investigate just what's going on out there Saturn-way, his colleagues warn him that perhaps they should all wait for instructions from mission control. His responses is worthy of Captain Kirk himself:

"Screw the mission plan ... We're not robots, following a programmed script. What's the point of sending actual flesh-and-blood humans into space if we can't react to unexpected circumstances and take advantage of amazing new opportunities?"

For what it's worth, Zoe says, "I think you folks are acting like real starship heroes."And they are - so much so that readers may find themselves wishing Cox had decided (or been given corporate permission) to simply tell that story, the story of the first manned mission to Saturn and the weird adventures the crew had during that mission, with no loopy time-travel plot grafted on in order to bring in Kirk and his crew. The 2020 Saturn mission segments of the book come alive with snappy patter and lively characterizations. Few such sparks fly in the Enterprise segments, probably because Cox had a less free hand with what he could do. As it is, the end result - although entertaining - almost feels disrespectful to the very future it's supposed to be celebrating. A manned expedition to Saturn isn't heroic enough, without phasers and space probes thrown in?