Book Review: ‘The World of Star Trek’

Cover art by Ty Templeton MR. (C) 2016 CBS Studios and Comicmix LLC

In the summer of 1985 – sometime during my freshman year at Miami-Dade Community College – I purchased a paperback copy of a reference book titled The World of Star Trek by author, screenwriter, and cultural observer David Gerrold. Originally published in 1973 – during the “lost years” after Star Trek: The Original Series’ cancellation in 1969 – by Ballantine Books, The World of Star Trek had been reissued – in a “newly updated and revised edition” the year before by Bluejay Books and – per the book cover’s “above the title” blurb, included “information on Star Trek III.

At the time, I was truly getting into Star Trek; as a child growing up in Miami, I had watched several episodes of the 1960s’ sci-fi classic when they aired in syndication on South Florida’s then-independent WCIX Channel Six (now WFOR, a CBS owned-and-operated station), but I didn’t become a fan until I saw director Robert Wise’s 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.[1]

Alas, the 50th Anniversary Edition does not have over 100 photos! (C) 1984 Bluejay Books

By then, I knew that Gerrold – who also had a regular column in Starlog, the now-defunct science-fiction monthly magazine created by Kerry O’Quinn and Norman Jacobs – was the writer of one of my favorite Star Trek episodes (The Trouble with Tribbles). I didn’t – yet own any behind-the-scenes books about Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking television series, and I liked Gerrold’s writing style, so I bought the book.

The World of Star Trek is essentially an insider’s look at the series from the perspective of both a contributor (Gerrold wrote the teleplay for The Trouble with Tribbles and the story – but not the script – for The Cloud Minders, as well as the Star Trek: The Animated Series episodes More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem) and a socio-cultural observer.

Per the original publisher’s blurb:

Here are the worlds of Star Trek

GENE RODDENBERRY’S brilliant conception – the first viable science fiction world designed for a TV series

THE SHOW ITSELF, and the people who created it – the writers, the stars, the technicians

THE FANS – the world the show created – and how they kept Star Trek alive in the face of network opposition

I don’t know how many times I read that Bluejay Books paperback between 1985 – I bought it in the gap year between Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – and 1987, the year of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s premiere as a syndicated television series – the first of many Star Trek TV spinoffs that include Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, Lower Decks, and Picard. I can tell you, though, that I read it so often that it literally fell apart and I had to throw it away.

Luckily, several publishers have reissued the 1984 edition – curiously, Gerrold has never revisited The World of Star Trek except to write a new introduction for the 50th Anniversary[2] Edition published by Comicmix LLC in September 2016 – so 21st Century readers can travel back in time and look at Star Trek when the franchise consisted of two TV series – the 1966-69 live action show and Star Trek: The Animated Series from 1973-74 – and three feature films.

The 1984 version of The World of Star Trek is divided into five parts:

Part One: The First World of STAR TREK – Gene Roddenberry’s Dream

Part Two: The STAR TREK Family – The People Who Made the Enterprise Fly

Part Three: The STAR TREK Phenomenon – Saving STAR TREK

Part Four: STAR TREK – The Unfulfilled Potential

Part Five: The Return of STAR TREK

The 1984 edition was the first one to have five parts; the original 1973 edition – and its 1979 reprint – had only four. The 2016 edition doesn’t have any new material in the main text, nor does it have any photographs from the series or the first three films except as part of cover artist Ty Templeton’s front cover illustration.

Although I bought The World of Star Trek back in 1985 to better understand what is now known officially as Star Trek: The Original Series, I enjoyed it immensely because I liked Gerrold’s witty, informative, and often incisive writing. It didn’t matter if he was talking about the show’s production, its cast, its fans, its storytelling strengths and – especially – its weaknesses, or Gerrold’s speculations about Star Trek’s future, but Gerrold sure has a way with words.

In Part Four: STAR TREK – The Unfulfilled Potential, the author examines some of the series’ weaknesses in its storytelling, especially in the writing staff’s reliance on certain tropes – such as the “malfunctioning transporter” plot device, the “Kirk gets captured and must escape” bit, and the “Mary Worth” story – episodes in which the Enterprise and her crew meddle with a “new civilization” to dispense “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

Referring back to the original format of the show, Gene Roddenberry felt that STAR TREK could be stronger if there were a high degree of personal involvement by one or more characters aboard the ship in every story told. Personal involvement was a very basic part of STAR TREK’s original format. Unfortunately, it was also one of the most misused.

Personal involvement – if it is superimposed onto the primary conflict of the story – is little more than a dramatic device…

The involvement of a familiar character in a conflict heightens the tension we will feel as the story reaches its climax. There is a stronger identification with the story, thus there is more involvement on the part of the viewer with the crisis to be confronted.

But when a device is superimposed on a weak story – and when it is done continually – the cumulative effect is to focus the viewer’s attention on the device and not the story. Again, the overuse of this device is a symptom of creative bankruptcy.

Given a weak story, how do you make it stronger?

James Blish, a noted science fiction writer in his own right and author of nine STAR TREK books, once said quite simply: “Analyze the basic conflict. Ask yourself, ‘Who does it hurt?’ That’s your story.”

A weak writer, however, takes the easy way out. “Well, you see, Kirk falls in love with this girl…” Or, “Well, you see, Spock falls in love with this girl…” Or, “Well, Scotty falls in love with this girl…” Or, “Well, McCoy falls in love with this girl…” Or, “Chekov falls in love with this girl…” Or, “Well, you see, Uhura…” Never mind.

Once, or even twice, this story might be interesting. “The City on the Edge of Forever” was Kirk’s love story. “This Side of Paradise” was Spock’s adventure of the heart. It should have stopped there. Kirk shouldn’t have been allowed to fall in love again for at least thirty episodes. Same for Spock. And the other characters should have had other kinds of stories told about them – not love stories. The cumulative effect is that the ship is crewed by 432 incurable cases of satyriasis. (Or nymphomania, as the case may be.)

(C) 2016 Comicmix LLC and CBS Studios

As a media critic – I have been writing reviews since I was in high school – and a storyteller, I was drawn to Gerrold’s analysis of Star Trek’s weaknesses in writing. After reading The World of Star Trek I understood why I loved some episodes – Balance of Terror, say, or Amok Time – but can’t stomach others – The Return of the Archons, The Lights of Zetar, or The Apple. Before, I couldn’t explain to other Star Trek fans why I liked some episodes but disliked others. Now, I could!

If you were a reader of Starlog magazine in the early to mid-1980s, some of the commentary about the first three Star Trek films in Part Five: The Return of STAR TREK – especially Gerrold’s review of the then-new Star Trek III: The Search for Spock will have a familiar ring. That’s because much of the ’84 edition was based on Gerrold’s regular column in Starlog – indeed, its original byline read “Written by David Gerrold, in association with Starlog Magazine.”  

This was done because the book’s tight publication schedule didn’t give Gerrold the time he needed to interview – or reinterview – many of the Star Trek cast and crew involved in the making of the first three films in the long-running (13 as of February 2021) series of features released by Paramount Pictures. Starlog’s publisher Kerry O’Quinn allowed Gerrold to use previously published material related to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, a film for which Gerrold had mixed feelings in 1984.

I was hoping that the 2016 edition – which I have in hardcover – would include an epilogue in which Gerrold talks about Star Trek: The Next Generation – a series which addressed some of the storytelling issues of The Original Series that the author describes in The World of Star Trek – and the franchise as a whole. The only new material to be found here is a third introduction for the 50th Anniversary Edition in which Gerrold talks about the current state of technology – we can now play Star Trek games on our Swiss Army knife-like smartphones, he says – and how much more humanity must change before we can live up to the ideals of Gene Roddenberry and “the series that could not be killed.”

A small personal disappointment, sure, and definitely not one that should dissuade Star Trek fans from buying this otherwise outstanding book. I enjoyed the Bluejay Books reissue so much when I was younger that it fell apart; getting this 2016 reprint was a joy, even if the book lacks photos or freezes Star Trek history when the franchise was just about Captain Kirk and the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701).   

[1] Technically, my first glimpse of Star Trek was when I saw a few dubbed-in-Spanish episodes when it aired – as Viaje a las estrellas – on Colombian television sometime between 1969 and 1972. I was too young to understand the show’s premise, even though I was a smart child who read above my grade level and was a big space buff thanks to the then-ongoing Apollo lunar missions.

[2] Of Star Trek, not the book!

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

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