I spent some time last week with a friend I haven’t seen in 30 years. He’s seventeen, he wants to be a science fiction writer, and his name’s Steve Wilson. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I recently sat down and read, for the first time in a looooonnnggg time, the first piece of fiction I completed once I realized that, whatever else I did with my life, I wanted to spend most of it writing.
I read it because, in the course of preparing my website and making it the complete guide to all things me, I wanted to make my fan fiction available to anyone who should care to read it. Since I started writing back in the dim time before the WordPerfect, email and PDF (hell, the IBM Personal Computer was experiencing the terrible twos around that time!), making it available means taking it off paper, running it through OCR and then verifying that the OCR worked. On fanzines 30 – 50 years old, OCR rarely works very well.
Interestingly, long before the Trek films were made, a lot of fans wrote stories which speculated on what life would be like for Kirk and crew when they were in their forties, fifties and sixties, as they were in the films. Jean Lorrah had the wonderful Epilogue, and my own mother-in-law, Bev Volker, had Phase II (so named several years before that title was given to the ill-fated second Trek series that never happened.) Most of these stories emphasized continuation, hope for the future, and the fact that being middle aged or old didn’t mean your story was over. So I was following a long Fandom tradition when I decided I wanted to write about these older characters and their children, and fill in some of the gaps in their stories left by decades during which no episodes or films were produced.
When I plotted Enterprise Regained (after abandoning the pretentious, Shakespearean title “A Noble Mind is Here O’erthrown”) I started by sitting down and writing a few pages of notes on where the characters would go after Spock’s death, what their unanswered questions would be, what their ambitions were. I thought that The Wrath of Khan was a great jumping-off point for a new TV series, with Kirk and his officers acting as mentors for a new, younger crew even as they themselves continued to live and grow. (And I do believe the possibility was even then in the heads of producers and studio execs.)
So my story was pretty much, in structure, suitable to be adapted to a one-hour pilot for a new TV series. It gave Kirk a motivation to take back the Enterprise, gave Sulu, Uhura and Chekov promotions in fact, not just in rank, and made Saavik a full and important part of the crew, alongside a couple of other young officers. Several of the characters did have their problems, including Chekov having a drinking problem. (I didn’t know a hell of a lot about alcoholism at seventeen, I’m pleased to say.) These were resolved, but gave them, I thought, more texture, more back-story. I didn’t speculate on or hint at Spock’s resurrection. I figured dead was dead, until Harve Bennett and company decided to fix that. I fiddled a little bit with Kirk’s euphoria at the end of Wrath of Khan, figuring it probably wouldn’t last. In the end, though, I restored his spirits and left him feeling young again. In fact, I wrote the emphasized line “he was young.” Now that I’m so close to the age Kirk was at the time, it’s nice to know my seventeen-year-old self still considered someone that age young. Thanks, kid.
Going back and reading it now, I still feel that those characters, at that age and in that situation, could have made for a very interesting Trek series. Of course, it was not to be. Spock was resurrected, David was killed, the Enterprise was destroyed, and, after all that epic action and drama, this group of elder adventurers were left right back where they started, with none of the younger generation anywhere in sight. It might have been okay for Kirk and Spock, but it defied belief for me that Uhura, Chekov and Sulu would be happy at 50 doing the same jobs they’d done when they were 25. It felt stagnant. The movies were great, but they left the characters a bit lifeless in their wake.
So, by the time I got to write Trek professionally, my ardor was somewhat cooled. I still enjoyed it, but I was writing about people whose fates were already carved in stone. It wasn’t as much fun as writing about a future where anything could happen. Worse, by the 1990s, Trek had become quite dogmatic. There was an orthodoxy in place, and a licensed writer did not dare violate it. A handful of people not the original creators were empowered to say “that would never happen in Star Trek,” to people who had just as long a history with the show as they did, and, sometimes, more experience writing it.
I encountered this in 1994 or 1995 when I proposed a story about a slave girl who had escaped captivity and managed to forge an identity as a Starfleet officer. Captain Kirk was in the unfortunate position of having to enforce Starfleet regulations, which said that identity theft was a crime and she couldn’t stay. Dr. McCoy wouldn’t stand for it, and resigned his commission, fleeing the Enterprise so that he could hide and protect the girl. Friend and editor Bob Greenberger said upon receiving it that he was definitely green-lighting that one, because he loved seeing McCoy go out on a limb to take a moral stand. (Of course, Kirk eventually did too.) As another editor got hold of it, and we faced Paramount’s licensing office, I heard the words which astound me to this day. “Slavery does not exist in the Star Trek universe.” I asked the speaker if she’d seen the pilot episode of the show, with a scene set in an Orion slaveowner’s palace. I was told it didn’t matter. “Roddenberry wouldn’t approve.” Roddenberry, by the way, was dead at this point.
I realized that the “franchise” which was still alive and going by the name of Star Trek was not my beloved Trek, and not the Trek which had fueled the imaginations of so many fan fiction writers. It was politically correct, homogenized fiction-by-committee. I was discouraged. I still would have written Trek if they’d offered me the job, and I was excited when I was told I was going to be the regular writer on a Captain Sulu comic series. Alas, it never happened, and it’s probably just as well. I needed to write things I cared about.
So, back to Enterprise Regained… The first name mentioned in the story is not the name of a Trek character. It’s this guy Terry Metcalfe, a young Lieutenant who’s on top of the world because he’s just been assigned as helmsman about the famous USS Enterprise. After an exchange of insults with his best friend Kevin Carson and his shipmate Sernak (“one of the Vulcans.” I guess I assumed they were now joining Starfleet in droves) he shakes the dust off his heels and boards his ship of dreams. If you know anything about my series The Arbiter Chronicles, you recognize those names. Metcalfe is my stalwart hero, Carson his loyal friend, Cernaq, not Sernak, is a telepath they serve with. He’s not a Vulcan, of course.
I created the Arbiters that long ago. (Probably in a 1983 re-write.) Metcalfe was just a name to place on the helmsman who took Sulu’s place, of course. Carson and Sernak were throwaway characters, meant to add texture to the opening scene. I never really meant to do anything else with them. Metcalfe, yes, I had plans for. He was going to be a romantic foil for Saavik, part of a triangle with David Marcus, and he was going to have an affair with an older woman, one of my favorite minor players from the original Trek, Angela Martine Teller. But, on the strength of Enterprise Regained, I was asked to write for other zines. The editors of Destiny’s Children wanted stories that focused on the secondary characters of Trek, so I plotted a story about Sulu on Border Patrol. He needed a crew, and I had said in that throwaway scene that all these boys were fresh of Border Patrol with Sulu, so…
Gradivus was a longer novella about Sulu and his young crew. For that, I created the female Arbiters, Kaya, Aer’La and Dr. Celia Faulkner. This “Sulu” story was far more about them than it was about Sulu. When I wrote two sequels to Enterprise Regained, reconciling my alternate reality with Star Trek III, and, later, Generations, these characters were very much a part of the action. My stories became less and less about Gene Roddenberry’s characters and more and more about mine. I think that’s because mine could grow.
So, when I became disillusioned about Trek writing, I already had the skeletons of a cast of characters in my head, around whom I could build my own space opera. Faster-than-light ships, galactic federations and military peace enforcers were not unique to Star Trek. They date back to Doc Smith, and have their roots in Horatio Hornblower and Jason and the Argonauts.
My Arbiters may have been born in my version of the Trek universe, but they’re citizens of a reality all their own. It’s a largely unexplored place (and I mean it to stay that way) where anything can happen. My universe is not a utopia. Its politicians are corrupt and petty, its military hierarchy ridden with incompetence. Humanity has settled many worlds, but those world-nations are only allies, not friends. Members of different groups live in different places. Like Trek, I assume genetic engineering will play a part in our future. Unlike Trek, I don’t think it will be quietly shelved after we try it once. I think we’ll use it, just like we use other technologies, and build our civilization on it.
Reading my old story, I was struck by something many people might gloss over. When he gets his orders for the Enterprise, Terry Metcalfe walks away from his friends, telling himself they’re not his future. (He was wrong, ultimately, even in my Trek fiction.) This is simply not something that the real Terry Metcalfe would do. He would never walk away from friends. I realized, as I read that, that the Metcalfe and Carson in my Trek fiction had no back-story. Essentially, Metcalfe was a spoiled, career-driven suburban kid, and Carson was just his annoying friend. Compared to the Metcalfe who comes from abject poverty, who lost his mother and baby sister to plagues, who had no choice but to join the Navy to get the hell off Terra, this Starfleet kid pales. His Carson is just kind of a frat boy, not the tortured soul who hides a secret love for his best friend. I was going to kill him pretty quickly, had I kept writing those stories. Likewise, Aer’La was tough, but hadn’t been through the wringer which made her the kick-ass-and-take-names character she became. I’m being a little hard on this version of the characters. Obviously, they grew into characters I loved. But when I re-created them into their own universe, I didn’t actually go back to this source material. I just pulled the broad strokes and used their names.
I’m probably proudest of Kaya and Cernaq. Kaya was created only to be Metcalfe’s foil and first love. She had no background. Sernak was just a Vulcan with perhaps a little more interest in what made humanity tick than Spock had. Around these two, to give them back-story, I had to build whole civilizations. Kaya was from one of the wealthiest families in the galaxy, an up-and-coming leader on the uber-capitalist world of Rigel V. Cernaq was from one of those “themed” colonies, where people of like minds had gone to live, free from harassment by those that didn’t understand them. He was raised by intellectuals who conformed to the ideals of Ayn Rand. They were all telepaths, because telepathy is, in their opinion, the most ideal form of communication for the rational individualist. I’ve had great fun telling stories about their worlds. Celia Faulkner, likewise, I made a witch, literally. I haven’t had much chance to explore her world of Hecate, but I plan to.
I remember, the first time we presented an Arbiters story as a radio play, one of my friends saying, “I was thrown by this. I assumed the Captain would be the hero, but it’s really all about the rookies, isn’t it?” Yes, it mostly is. And the Captain I created, Jan Atal, while he is an intrepid adventurer when he needs to be, is also a family man. He’s Kaya’s father, also rich and powerful in his own right, but I don’t think he shares too much common ground with any Trek captains. There’s far more of Sherman Potter than of James Kirk in him. And I guess there’s a lot more of M*A*S*H in my Arbiter Chronicles that you might expect in a space opera. Like any storyteller, I’m influenced by all the great storytellers I’ve ever heard. My Trek fiction shows how heavily one set of such tellers influenced me. I’ve grown beyond a lot of that influence, but it’s there, and I don’t think it’s fair to deny it. Nor is it fair to deny or hide work I was proud of when I was that seventeen-year-old. He didn’t call me too old, I won’t call him too young. If you’re curious about what else he had to say, well, you’ve got the links.