Sunday, 14 April 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: The Weight of Worlds

Gravity defying weapons, Uhura in command and Kirk and Spock trapped in an alternative universe....all in a day's work for the crew of the USS Enterprise...surely?!

Greg Cox's latest novel for Simon and Schuster, The Weight of Worlds, is a bit of a curious piece. A typical action/adventure Star Trek story from first impressions, it actually feels that it was more a combination of the Animated Series crossed with the 2009 JJ Abrams reboot once you get into the meat of the work. Probably a curious statement to make so I'll set out my thoughts like so...and beware there are definitely SPOILERS ahead.

Set during the fabled five year mission the Enterprise warps to the aid of a scientific institute that finds itself under attack from an incredible enemy - one capable of using gravity as a weapon and apparently focused on converting all they meet to assist in their single-minded Crusade to share the Truth with the universe. Beaming down to the surface, Kirk, Spock, Sulu and Ensign Yaseen (redshirt) are soon drawn into the activities of the mysterious and powerful Ialat.

So, a pretty grandiose setup idea for the novel and I've got to admit that using gravity as a weapon is brilliant. It's not something that jumps to my mind immediately but it's definitely unique. Concern rose quickly that this was going to become quite a plot device as the story evolved and also the likely cause of the resolution. Luckily neither came to pass. The main trouble is that the story is very, very jumpy. Not a lot happens and then - and when something does happen - it all occurs within a flash of a couple of pages before settling down again. While I was hoping for something generally straight-forward to read with The Weight of Worlds I might have paid more attention to the title as it was anything but a light read. It's standard fayre for the most part with the landing party placed in mortal danger while the crew on the Enterprise in orbit are also having to deal with their own problems. Where this standard starts to feel a bit uneven is in the creation of the Ialat.

In appearance I had massive problems NOT imagining them as Davy Jones from The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy because of the description of their facial hair. The Ialat themselves came across more as something I would expect to find within the media of the aforementioned 70's animated series or even a CGI creation lurking in the background of a seedy bar in (gasp) Star Wars. I just couldn't quite grasp them as a Star Trek protagonist even given their superior weaponry and dimension-hopping abilities. As things progress it becomes apparent that not all of the Ialat are happy with this Crusade and from being under threat at the Federation institute we're suddenly thrown into another galaxy where some of the action sequences would not be out of place in the recent (and upcoming) JJ reboot. I just don't feel comfortable with the written airborne action sequences here and the gravity weapon/uses seem a little bit overused and relied on by the mid-point in the novel. It seemed like a great idea to begin with but The Weight of Worlds becomes reliant on it and also quite bogged down by this handy plot device.

This is the first novel I've reviewed for Some Kind of Star Trek where I've not wanted to get it finished. It's dragged a bit. But why? Why have I not found myself gripped by this mission?

Well i thought that in the context of the original series the antagonists weren't that antagonistic which was a shame because their history actually looked to be really interesting. It was certainly well conceived and I felt could have been expanded much further. A lot of the time in the alternate dimension for instance is spent running around getting back to the portal and we don't really get much of a sense of the place. What I would hasten to add is that my comment earlier in regards to the animated series and the 2009 reboot might also be something of a compliment. After all, given a larger budget and without the constraints of 1960's TV production, we might have seen a lot more detailed and extensive action sequences as per the chases and final events. What I have to thank Greg Cox for is avoiding at least one of my expectations in that Kirk doesn't get the girl - although she's not really a girl if I'm honest.

High Priestess Vlisora is the most developed of the secondary characters within The Weight of Worlds because of the time she spends with Kirk and Spock evading the Crusade and acting as our guide to the Ialat homeworld. While she perhaps is flared with the overdramatic at times, her purpose is well played out through the book and her character is certainly more than meets the reader's eye. In the case of development she easily overshadows the ruler of the Ialat realm even though by a technicality he's everywhere. When we do meet him it's only towards the latter stages of the novel and then it seems a bit of a let down after such a long journey to reach him. It seems that once we do face him with Kirk it's all over too soon and perhaps too easily. Like JJ Abrams' take on Star Trek it's certainly fast paced but on occasion another 20 or 30 pages might have helped us take a breather because there seems little development and more movement from one set piece and moment of danger to the next but yet we don't appear to get anywhere until the last 70 or 80 pages. 

As you'll know by now, one of the things I always like to drill away at is how authors lovingly - and in some cases badly - reference other Star Trek episodes and materials. Admittedly I found myself bracing for the onslaught of sledgehammered event drops and 'it was just like that time on Cestus III' lines however Cox did a great thing in making several of Kirk's previous missions from the Original Series integral to the reason why the Ialat are so interested in him. I liked this in particular as it's almost a dig at the Enterprise captain who might have himself to blame for ending up assisting a rebellion. On an additional note there's even a one lone reference to The Next Generation that made me raise a smile. 

I found Cox's interpretation of the captain to be a different from either Shatner or Pine as he seemed fairly argumentative a lot of the time and given to the odd jibe at the expense of his first officer. Given the situation both he and Spock find themselves in here it's hardly a surprise that humour helps them to get through the ordeal and that the captain is a bit ratty (although he only has himself to blame...!). While I was chomping at the bit to say that Greg Cox might have missed the mark with James T, it made me think outside the box - surely the novels should be about personal interpretation of the characters (after all they're not classed as canon) just as Abrams is doing now on the silver screen. The Ialat homeworld appears to be a rich environment yet we are very limited in our exploration of this unusual dimension, visiting only the God-King's pyramid, the rebellion's travel system and... that's about it. I found that Greg Cox's eye for action meant that we lost atmosphere in the story and the experience of this place which could have been very different - a nice addition though is the gravitational safety net that exists. We could do with a few of those in this dimension I'm sure! While the alien homeworld is left mostly unexplored, the lack of immersion within the environments even extends to the Enterprise bridge which seemed strangely silent. That said, the Ephrata Institute is perhaps the most realised of all the environments as well as the most explored through Sulu's eyes.

Cox's description of locales (and some may prefer this) left a lot more to the imagination that I might have expected. It left me a bit distanced from the story if I'm honest and reinforced the action-orientated nature of the narrative over anything else - another factor that made me feel it would have been suited to the 70's animated Star Trek. Indeed, the lack of any serious scientific/Treknobabble does open it up to the larger Star Trek audience and certainly won't alienate new fans who are used to the latest cinematic happenings.

For Greg Cox it seems Kirk is there to match wits and outfox his opponents which perhaps suits the author's choice of background reference material from the Original Series and how it plays into the main narrative of the tale. For once the captain's past actions have had repercussions and his own "awesomeness" has come back to haunt him in the least expected way. While this provides a great cliff for the story to dive off, it's also a wonderful (maybe unintentional) bit of humour as we get listed all the god-beings and super computers that Kirk has defeated through some stirling negotiation, blood, sweat and no doubt tears. was surprised that the good doctor remained on the ship here as his counsel might have been beneficial. There are some telling asides that Cox is aware of his characters relationships, notably that between McCoy and the Vulcan first officer but we don't get to see his take on it as they end up separated. Spock himself comes across as more than a little emotionless and bordering on Data-like apart from the implementation of a nerve pinch here and there. His role here at times seems like baggage as the focus remains more on Kirk especially towards the latter stages of play but Cox plays it well, tying it all back and providing all the key players with their flash of limelight if occasionally at a faster pace. 

 That's all well and good - but what of our familiar crew though? 

Circumstances play well into Uhura's hands here as she becomes the dominant figure on the bridge of the Enterprise for the bulk of the story. I am surprised that she's the most senior individual capable of commanding the ship once Scotty is placed on the bench given that there must be more command experienced officers on board? Out of 400+ people there's no-one more qualified (no offence to Uhura intended)? It gives the comes officer a significant amount more to do than open hailing frequencies which gets a review thumbs up and watching her make crucial decisions based on what she has seen over the previous few years is a good twist to show how she has been developing her skills under Kirk's command. This is definitely an Uhura more in the mould of JJ's reboot than the more passive figure that we might have experienced in the 1960's original and I have to say I like it. 

Sulu gets to run around on the planet surface for some time playing havoc with the Ialat Crusaders while attempting something of a romance along the way which eventually yields a result but seems to take an age to get there. The character certainly feels right and there's some nice interplay between him and Yaseen which is carried through. Perhaps this is something Cox might pick up again in subsequent novels. The main opposition to the Enterprise helmsman comes from the first Crusader we ever meet, Sokis, who also contends with Uhura in orbit. These two threads criss-cross over the duration of The Weight of Worlds however Sokis is a very bland henchman-styled villain following his master's orders but could have been developed so much more. This is one thing that can be levelled at the secondary players here; there seems to be little to make us interested in them as people save Vlisora even though with Sokis is present for a great deal of the story. 

Initially I wasn't sure if he was going to be the main threat due to the manner of his early introduction - and talking of introductions, Kirk is early on noted as knowing one of the scientists at the Institute, Doctor Elena Collins, whom we meet on the very first page of the book.  Bizarrely he seems totally unconcerned about her for most of the story even when he spots her on the surface during their initial away mission to the Ephrata Institute. I'm a little disappointed here because I thought this was going to be part of why Kirk would be so driven to defeat this invader but after a few chapters (pages) it seemed to get shelved. A lot of the incidents here seem to be over and done with at breakneck speed; whether it's escaping a mob or meeting with the resistance and I would have enjoyed the book more if we'd got to know the Ialat a bit more, understanding them and their struggles as well as having some of the more action-packed elements of the novel elongated ever so slightly.

Final bugbear? Poor underused/misused Chekov. Our young Russian navigator is used for little more than asides and sarcasm which belittles the character and made me hope that he just stayed quiet after his first appearance. Perhaps this is very much in keeping with the original vision for the character but here it gets irritating and he's a loose end - even Palmer and Kyle seem to get better lines.

Coming off the back of reading David R George's phenomenal Allegiance in Exile I guess I was hoping that the next novel featuring Kirk and crew would be in a similar vain, focusing on character rather than action but we can't expect every book to be the same or it would get very boring indeed. For me this would not be my first choice of Original Series story. While it certainly expands on the possibilities with some neat twists and ideas, it was just too action-orientated and in my eyes missed the vision that not only are the characters key to successful Star Trek but also that there needs to be some underlying substance to hold it together and set the scene believably. A brilliantly devised opposing force is one thing but it needs to exist to explore the crew. Greg Cox has produced a good quality action-adventure piece here which may be more suited to the new audience JJ Abrams is hoping to pick up with Star Trek Into Darkness and if this is the case then I would recommend new fans to head for the book shelves and purchase this novel. It's fast, set-piece filled and probably perfect to help guide you into the larger realms of the Star Trek universe following your encounters with the latest big screen versions. For more knowledgeable fans I would say it's worth a read if you want to fill a few hours here and there if you're missing some new Star Trek adventures. Even though I felt it had it's errors and moments, perhaps that's just enough to pick it up and see what you think. Oh; it's got a really nice cover too...

Star Trek: The Original Series: The Weight of Worlds is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99 ISBN 978476702834

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