(Previously in the series: Abraham Lincoln in space)

It’s a big universe out there, why go back to the TOS [Kirk and Spock] crew? Why not the time period between the Enterprise [Scott Bakula] time period and the [Shatner] time period?

A movie trilogy about the Federation/Romulan War could work. Also, how about explore the politics of the Alpha and Beta quadrants post DS9 [Deep Space 9] and Voyager?

[...T]he Cardassians were blasted almost to extinction, how are they faring? Did another group, like the Borg, pop up to cause trouble knowing that all the major powers in Alpha and Beta quadrants are recovering from a rather nasty war? Is the Borg still around or did Janeway actually wipe them out? I know the books have explored this, but in Trek, only movies and tv episodes are canon.

– “Star Trek” fan comment found on Fark.com, April 2009

Feeding Vaal

The above plea suggests how far the obsession with Star Trek “canon” had gone by the time J.J. Abrams came along to rescue Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The Federation’s most awesome had been buried since about 1994 under a heap of spin-offs and not-so-legendary characters, who wore Coast Guard-like uniforms while frowning over the wars that would break out mid-series whenever it turned out that their Rick Berman-produced show hadn’t started with a good enough concept.

This is the baggage of the starship Enterprise, a rising pile of Dominion Wars and retcon CGI Gorn Warriors and the guy from “Quantum Leap.” And important Federation historical milestones of the 24th century hinging on Jeri Ryan and her catsuit, with room carved out for a distant post-Patrick Stewart future that has the dramatic power of waiting for the heat death of the universe.

By May, 2009, canon had become so sacred to a segment of the fan base that when this vocal element realized Abrams planned to overwrite it like an erased hard drive, they were so incensed that you’d think the “Lost” director had set out across the jungles of Gamma Trianguli VI to blow up their lizard idol (above). Caught up in the mania, even the Associated Press was reporting on opening day that anticipation among Trek fans boiled down to

one word — a word that contains much of the passion behind Gene Roddenberry’s imagined world of the 23rd (and, later, 24th) century.

Canon.

Really, AP?

Before I continue, I just want to say that my co-writer and I are the kind of Trek nerds who welled up with emotion Friday seeing J.J. Abrams’s deft re-imagining of the series, after crossing the Canadian border to do so. We may hide our Star Trek III Burger King glasses when guests come over, but we are not haters.

Anyway, if you can just head down this path with us into the jungles of Gamma Trianguli VI…

Gene Roddenberry’s Canon-Free Zone


The strongest argument for “canon” is that it was a concept consistently dictated by the late Mr. Roddenberry, the series creator. But go back to 1979 and that proposition gets hazy.

What would you say if a Trek reboot came along in which Kirk has a wife named Lori Ciana…looks at things through a dead-serious New Age perspective…and has a mind implant that shows him visions of galactic crises?

Let’s say this reboot was hyped as taking place in a more mature, “realistic” future than previous Trek. With apologies to Patrick Stewart in Ricky Gervais’s Extras, this re-imagining would ask, what if you had a ship like the U.S.S. Enterprise IN THE REAL WORLD?…Forget that Trouble With Tribbles shit, this is what the future is really going to be like.

In this new Trek, after 200 years of social change, 23rd century human beings won’t be regular folks as we know them but “New Humans”…a more evolved race who don’t go in for 20th century customs like first names, or monogamy. This is a reboot so different in tone that it actually calls out the original Trek as just a kid’s show in comparison, like the original BSG with the robot dog.

Who would be so crass as to dump on Gene Roddenberry’s Trek canon like that?

Well, so check this out…

Back in the 1970s, Trek seemed to belong to everybody. The Trekker subculture that had lobbied since the 1969 cancelation for a return of the series had kept the flame going with publications like The Best of Trek, which you could pick up at Waldenbooks. BOT was illustrated by fans’ “Live Long & Prosper” needlepoints and sketches of Kirk with idealized hippie lovers of his, the two of them staring meaningfully out there into the rim of space.

In those pages the closest thing to “canon” was found in a regular column, “Star Trek Mysteries–Solved,” offering Trek apologetics. Author Leslie Thompson explained away the inconsistencies between episodes. For example, if Starfleet officer Gary Mitchell has become a godlike being, why can’t he get Captain Kirk’s name right when he erects a tombstone for him? It says JAMES R. KIRK on it, and I think Thompson suggests that it could just have been an inside joke of theirs from the Academy.

Then, in 1979, the first Trek movie arrived, and so did a novel of the film, written by Roddenberry. Strikingly, the book ignored everything that had ever happened in the show.

Roddenberry’s novel of TMP begins with the conceit of a foreword by Admiral James T. Kirk. (Excerpted here.) We’re not past the first paragraph before Kirk is explaining how he was named for his mother’s “first love instructor,” also named James. (Damn it, Abrams, how could you have betrayed Roddenberry’s vision by leaving this out of the Kelvin sequence?) It’s the first of several references to the 23rd century’s daring new heterosexual swinger mores. Not your father’s Star Trek, indeed!

Next Kirk tells us about a Federation divided between the “New Humans,” who are “willing to submerge their own identities into the groups to which they belong” –uh, in other words, everyone is joining ’70s cults–and the last of the “primitives,” like himself, who still indulge ancient Earthling customs, such as taking the last name of your father, in this case George Kirk, the guy with a soft spot for the dude who taught his wife some new things.

I’ll spare you a review of Chapter 1′s discussion of the “Mind Control Riots,” which forced the Federation to become very hush-hush about installing cyborg equipment in Captain Kirk’s head, and just focus on Roddenberry’s explicit declaration, in the foreword, that the TV show–from the perspective of the Star Trek universe–is not what really happened…

I quote from Kirk, who is depicted in the novel as “amused,” in this chilly new way of his, when he watches episodes of the original series…

our five-year mission was so well documented, due to an ill-conceived notion by Starfleet that the return of the U.S.S. Enterprise merited public notice. Unfortunately, Starfleet’s enthusiasm affected even those who chronicled our adventures, and we were all painted somewhat larger than life, especially myself.

Eventually, I found that I had been fictionalized into some sort of “modern Ulysses” and it has been painful to see my command decisions of those years so widely applauded, whereas the plain facts are that ninety-four of our crew met violent deaths during those years-and many of them would still be alive if I had acted either more quickly or more wisely. Nor have I been as foolishly courageous as depicted. I have never happily invited injury; I have disliked in the extreme every duty circumstance which has required me to risk my life. But there appears to be something in the nature of depicters of popular events which leads them into the habit of exaggeration. As a result, I became determined that if I ever again found myself involved in an affair attracting public attention, I would insist that some way be found to tell the story more accurately.

…get that? That’s James T. Kirk, and he’s personally telling you the Star Trek original series isn’t canon. Think about that for a second, did that just blow your mind?

The Mystery Box vs. Jolene Blalock

From the first episode, part of the genius of Trek was the effortless confidence with which it brought TV audiences into a coherent future world with its own rules, as if the show had been going on forever and you had tuned in after 10 years.

But it’s our position that fans have worked against their own interests by mistaking the show’s loose ends, the little details that gave Trek that sense of huge possibility, for strands that are best neatly tied up. What crisis, exactly, led Jeffrey Hunter’s Captain Pike to that castle under the killing moon of Rigel, crossing swords with that barbarian? We can only imagine. How did they invent the transporter? Well, are we that better off for having found out in a canceled TV series with a theme song by Diane Warren?

Before the timely arrival of Mr. Abrams, fans demanded–and won, in the case of the unloved “Enterprise”–a weaker version of Star Trek that gave them what they might have been happier being denied. “Enterprise” gave us one answer after another to questions that shouldn’t have been answered. This fan hunger for side tangents: It’s as if Trek is an alternate universe under construction, and when every t has been crossed, and every reference explained, they will be able to escape into it.

The problem, of course, is that when you start explaining all the mysteries, your formerly dangerous and exciting universe can feel  chintzy, real fast. It used to be kind of cool in Star Trek II when Ricardo Montalban talks about being a prince on Earth 200 years ago, with power over millions, and leaves it at that. It is not really as cool that Memory Alpha, the Wikipedia site for Star Trek fans, now insists (against my efforts to delete it) that Khan is part of a group of “augments,” whatever that is…

Oh, OK: It’s retcon slang invented on Enterprise, perhaps by Dr. Giggles scribe and Enterprise head writer Manny Coto, now marring Star Trek forever. So the Botany Bay thugs are “augments“? That’s about as menacing as a Windows Vista patch.

Last month’s Wired has an Abrams essay on his belief in the “Mystery Box,” the story power of the unexplained. Leaving the Trek world wide open and dangerous, instead of caught up in all this stuff, really was the way to go.

* * *

In the next installment, co-writer and TNG scholar Patrick Runkle will look at how the rupture between Roddenberry and the Star Trek V team, in the late 1980s, led to the rise of canon. Hope you will join us.

19 Responses to “There Is No Star Trek Canon (Part II)”
  1. AndyTurnbull says:

    I wasn’t aware of the novelisation of the first movie but I agree with this splendid article.

  2. De says:

    Terrific article! I look forward to the next installment.

    I had totally forgotten about that passage in the novelization. Of course, the nerds will just retort that it doesn’t mean anything because it’s in a book.

  3. Thom says:

    So…Roddenberry ruined Star Trek?

  4. Evan Waters says:

    People seem to forget that in the very first episodes of TREK, the Enterprise is acting on behalf of the “United Earth Space Probe Agency”. Not to mention the episode where a bunch of crewmembers are trapped on a planet because the transporter’s broken and they hadn’t had the episode which introduced the shuttlecraft yet.

  5. GayProf says:

    I wish that I could have a love instructor.

  6. Matt says:

    I would like to believe I don’t need a love instructor…but I probably do.

    Great series–fascinating stuff–I love the dark weird corners of “canon” whether it’s Star Trek or Star Wars so I’m eating this up. It’s amazing the lengths to which fans will go to maintain the “reality” of a fictional universe.

  7. George says:

    Great post! Too bad Star Wars fans are doing the exact same thing Trek fans have done. Too much explaining. As a kid I used to wonder endlessly about one line in star wars about the clone wars, and as an adult the clone wars turned into the dullest thing imaginable. Speculation is fun, but once something is explained (or over explained) it is duller than dishwater example-Trek,Star Wars ,wolverine’s origin. I’m 38- so all guys my age had when we were young was Star Trek and Planet of the Apes until Star Wars came along. I read the STTMP novel when it came out and found it very weird and overly serious. I took my 7 year old son to see the new trek and he loved it and I did too. I thought it was a nice mix of updated and retro at the same time.

  8. Donald G says:

    I remember very well the TMP novelization. What I find amusing is how many many of the very qualities that Admiral Kirk criticizes about the highly evolved “New Humans” making poor space explorers in his preface Roddenberry later embraced in TNG.

    My novelization has many underlined segments that run counter to what was later accepted.

  9. Stanley says:

    Think about that for a second, did that just blow your mind?

    Yes it did. And a “hurrah” for keeping some facets ambiguous.

  10. Just to clarify: Gene R. did NOT consider his novelization to be canon. NONE of the novels are considered canon by Paramount, and where they differ from what is on screen, the on-screen version takes precedence. The ref to a “love instructor” wasn’t so radical, either, given the “free love” movement of the 60s (which got dampened by AIDS, but that is a whole other blog.)

    Now for the JJ Abrams PARALLEL UNIVERSE — because that is really what it is, not a re-boot. He didn’t ERASE the hard drive, he created a new root directory on the same harddrive. The old Trek universe is still there, and no doubt people will still watch it, write in it, play in it, etc. The new movie doesn’t wipe all that out. It simply gives us another parallel universe, rather like “mirror, Mirror” did in TOS. Bot universes are happening at once.

    In the real world, there was not much else he could do with a prequel. If we remained in the same universe, then the future stores would already be set. We would be gonig ho hum, here comes the Tribbles again… Plus the new versions of the characters would be little more than charactures of the old versions. By creating a parallel universe (which, BTW, branches off with the destruction of the Kelvin — that is the “butterfly effect” event), the possibility opens up to have a whole new set of stories.

  11. Sorry for the all typos in my post above — I can spell, I just can’t type LOL!

  12. Sir A1! says:

    The TMP novelization may not be canon in that only the TV shows and movies are generally considered “canon” but it certainly reflects Roddenberry’s serious wierdeness that would ham string TMP and later TNG when that first started. I remember an article in Cinefantastique about how Roddenberry had this whole thing worked out with the Ferenghi (sp?) about how they had huge genitals and could have sex 200 different ways; to him, it was an important plot point but everybody else started wondering how they could keep him off the Paramount lot.

  13. Oy vey…I really wish they had jettisoned the entire “canon” thing when they did the movie. The series could have benefitted (ala “Battlestar Galactica”) from a complete reboot. Why get bogged down in decades’ worth of backstory? Leave that to the British…and even they make a flub or two when it comes to all things Who-ish. I personally love to see different takes on established series. The books are fun, and I can hold the idea in my head that the stories told in other media may contradict stuff in the “official” TV series and movies. Without my head exploding. It’s like hearing your favorite song covered by a different artist. The new interpretation always brings something new to the table.

  14. Juan says:

    You know, I don’t concider the new movie canon to the previous star trek universe. I see it as a “Mirror Universe.” (like Star Wars Infinities, and Marvel Ultimates.) We should look at the TV shows and movies as one universe, the books as another, the animated series as another, and this movie and any upcoming sequels, (if any) as another universe.

    While there were some things I didn’t like about this movie, (Destruction of Vulcan, deaths of Spock’s mother and Kirk’s father…maybe they should hook up.) I am interested in seing what direction this Trek universe will take.

    I for one will go see any sequels of this movie.

  15. David Thiel says:

    You know, I don’t concider the new movie canon to the previous star trek universe. I see it as a “Mirror Universe.”

    That’s essentially what it is, except for the curious fact that it’s predicated on the actions of two characters from the “original” Star Trek universe, one of whom now appears to have taken up permanent residence!

    Me, I couldn’t care less about what is and isn’t canon. It’s impossible to reconcile every last off-hand reference made over the course of hundreds of televised adventures. And attempting to do so just makes things much more convoluted, obtuse to non-fans, and–as John points out above–less fun.

    “Enterprise” spent two entire episodes explaining how TOS-era Klingons lost their bumpy foreheads, but for my money, the best explanation is the one from DS9′s “Trials and Tribble-ations.” All we find out there is that there IS a reason for the real-world change to their makeup design, and that whatever it is, the Klingons find it deeply embarrassing. That’s much more satisfying than all the “Enterprise” hoo-hah about genetic viruses, and funnier to boot.

  16. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    I don’t remember if I read the STTMP novelization when it came out, but, by and large, I’ve ALWAYS assumed that stuff like different-looking Klingons stemmed from The Unreliable Narrator, probably some crew member telling stories to his great-grandchildren decades after the fact, and simplifying matters accordingly.

    But, dude. You dissed the Coast Guard. Not cool.

  17. Don says:

    Abrams believes in the mystery box?

    So why did he destroy the Kobayashi Maru sequence? He should have left it to the imagination of the viewer of Star Trek II.

  18. Dorian says:

    He should have left it to the imagination of the viewer of Star Trek II.

    You’ve really missed John’s point.

  19. Troy says:

    @Don

    Don’t forget, this may not have been how Kirk Prime cheated on the Kobayashi Maru, this was how Kirk 2.0 cheated.

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