Burning Dreams

While waiting for this Thursday’s premier of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I decided to spend some time with one of the novels featuring Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the days before Captain James T. Kirk. Soon after I had watched the second season of Star Trek: Discovery season 2, which introduced Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and Ethan Peck as Spock, I dived in and read D.C. Fontana’s novel Vulcan’s Glory which is also set in this era along with reprints of Marvel Comics’ great series Star Trek: The Early Voyages. As you might imagine, Fontana’s novel focused on Spock and I picked her novel since she was so involved in Star Trek’s development and the development of Vulcan culture. I wasn’t disappointed and was treated to an enjoyable look at Spock’s early years aboard the Enterprise. For my recent read, I chose Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno which focused on Captain Pike.

Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno

Burning Dreams was released in 2006 as part of Star Trek’s 40th anniversary celebration and it’s a sweeping novel that covers much of Captain Pike’s life and career. In the two-part original series episode, “The Menagerie,” we learn Captain Pike was grievously wounded saving cadets during a training voyage. He becomes a quadriplegic who can no longer speak. Spock takes him to the planet Talos IV. The inhabitants there have phenomenal powers of illusion and can create an environment where Pike’s active mind can express itself. What’s more he has a companion, the survivor of an earlier crash named Vina, who was also seriously wounded and relies on illusion for a happier life than she would have in human society.

The novel opens in the 24th century. Several decades have passed since Captain Pike was left on Talos IV. Spock is an ambassador and he’s summoned to Talos IV. He remembers leaving the captain on the planet. We then shift to Pike’s point of view where he meets Vina again and begins telling his life story. We learn that Captain Pike’s family terraformed worlds for the Federation and we learn how he developed his love of horses. Once Pike is grown, we follow him on a transformative mission where he served as first officer under a hawkish Starfleet captain. Then we follow one of his adventures aboard the Enterprise. The novel tells us that Pike commanded the Enterprise for two separate five-year missions. The novel ends with Ambassador Spock reaching Talos IV, where he learns Captain Pike has died. Despite that sad, but expected news, we are treated to the kind hopeful ending the best Star Trek episodes excelled at.

Around the early 1980s, Gene Roddenberry and a few people in his inner circle went to some effort to define Star Trek’s “canon.” By that point, Paramount Studios had granted licenses to create tie-in media such as books and comics. Understandably, with an eye on the series’ future development, Roddenberry wanted to define the official continuity of the series and no one monitored the continuity of that tie-in media. That said, this process was taken to extremes. Whole series and movies were declared not part of the canon and I’ve seen fans get into intense arguments over what is and isn’t canonical Star Trek.

I’ve seen indications that the current Star Trek production team has a friendlier approach to the tie-in media and I’ve heard murmurings that they have tried to find ways to work in certain elements from the tie-in media that play well with the established continuity, but don’t over-constrain the current writing teams. Enough details about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have appeared in the media to make it apparent that its story differs in some details from those presented by Margaret Wander Bonanno in her novel. Still, there are a few tantalizing hints that the series and novel may dovetail in some interesting ways.

In a world like Star Trek where they’ve established that multiple universes exist and they’ve even created new canonical universes through time travel stories, I find it hard to get too worked up about what is and isn’t part of the canon. I was glad to meet Margaret Wander Bonanno’s version of Captain Pike. It delighted me that she used aspects established in D.C. Fontana’s Vulcan’s Glory and the Marvel comic series. I would love it if elements from Burning Dreams appeared in the new TV series. If they don’t, I’m still glad to have spent some time with this novel’s version of Captain Pike. All I ask is that TV series tell a similarly compelling story.

Revisiting the Cage

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts in just a few days. It will follow the crew of the Starship Enterprise under the the command of Captain Christopher Pike. Captain Pike, his first officer, Una, and his science officer, Mr. Spock appeared for several episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season. That noted, Discovery was not the first time we encountered the Enterprise in the days before before Captain Kirk. Strange New Worlds is a series inspired by Star Trek’s original pilot film from 1965 called “The Cage.”

Like many Star Trek fans of my generation, I first encountered “The Cage” cut into the original series’ only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.” In that story, we learn that Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Pike was grievously wounded in an accident saving cadets. Spock hijacks the Enterprise and takes his former captain to Talos IV. It turns out that a visit to Talos IV is the only death penalty offense in Federation law. Kirk and a commodore catch up to the Enterprise and put Spock on trial. In the trial, as part of his defense, Spock plays a recording of the Enterprise’s first visit to Talos IV, which also happens to be the original Star Trek pilot.

Screen shot from “The Cage” (CBS)

“The Cage” has a somewhat unique place in television history. Most of the time when a network turns down a pilot film, that’s the end of the story. In this case, the network liked the pilot just enough to commission a revised pilot. The sets were updated, new people were cast to fill critical rolls and the producers went for a more action-packed script. All of this became the original Star Trek series most people are familiar with.

I first became aware of “The Cage” during my pre-teen years. I knew Gene Roddenberry occasionally screened a personal print at conventions, but there were few opportunities for most fans to see the episode except as part of “The Menagerie” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite that challenge, I wanted to experience the original pilot. My solution was to use an audio tape recorder to record the parts of “The Cage” that had been cut into “The Menagerie.” With that, I had my own audio play of “The Cage.” A few years later, “The Cage” would be released on home video and it was finally aired on television for the first time in 1988.

Because I worked so hard to experience “The Cage,” it holds a special place in my heart. There’s a lot I really like about Star Trek’s first pilot. I like Captain Pike’s vulnerability. I like that his first officer was a woman. Spock is emotional here and I like how he contrasts with the somewhat colder captain and first officer. I love the bridge design, which feels a little more “real” and militaristic than the brightly colored version of the set we got in the series. That noted, some things about “The Cage” have not aged well. The navigator’s name may be José, but it’s a very white cast compared to the production version of the series. Although we have women as first officer and captain’s yeoman, they’re presented as exceptions to a rule that most officers are men.

In the episode, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a ship that crashed on Talos IV. The Enterprise arrives and finds survivors. However, the survivors turn out to be illusions and the whole thing is an elaborate plot to trap Captain Pike for a zoo-like exhibit. In the exhibit is a woman who seems interested in seducing the captain. The woman, Vina, turns out to be the crashed ship’s sole survivor. The Talosians have become so addicted to their power of illusion, they can no longer maintain their own machines. This last idea seems to have become even more relevant in the years since the story was filmed. The Talosians want Pike and Vina to start a colony of humans who can build a new civilization. When Pike seems less than thrilled about this idea, the Talosians arrange for Pike’s first officer and yeoman to beam down as additional choices for Pike to breed with, leading to a famous, unintentionally funny line where Spock, left standing on the transporter pad shouts, “the women!” I like to think there’s an alternate universe version of this scene Vina is given the choice, only the men beam down, and Number One shouts “the men!”

I like the actors who will be portraying Captain Pike and his crew in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I like that we’re seeing a more diverse cast. I was fortunate enough to meet Ethan Peck who plays Spock in this version when he visited the WIYN telescope in 2019, so I look forward to seeing his work. I anticipate there will be moments that will make me groan or prove unintentionally funny, but I also anticipate moments that will inspire me, which has always been Star Trek’s greatest gift to me as a writer and a scientist.

Captain Pike’s Discovery

By coincidence, actor Ethan Peck visited Kitt Peak National Observatory the week Star Trek: Discovery’s second season was released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I enjoyed the first season enough, I had already planned to watch the second second when I could get it on disk. Meeting the actor who played Spock in the series provided even more motivation. When I finished my shift at the observatory, I stopped in Tucson and picked up a copy of the season on Blu-Ray. I finished watching the season earlier this week.

Season one ended on a cliffhanger. The Starship Discovery encountered a badly damaged Starship Enterprise. When the second season opens, Captain Christopher Pike beams over to the Discovery and announces that he’s been given temporary command so that he can investigate the appearance of seven mysterious red signals around the galaxy while the Enterprise continues to dock for repairs. We soon learn that Pike’s science officer, Mr. Spock, has committed himself to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Spock’s adopted sister, Michael Burnham, is the series protagonist and serves as Discovery’s science officer.

Soon after the season begins, Spock leaves the psychiatric hospital and goes on the run. He’s accused of killing his doctors and the Discovery goes after him. The ship is then stopped in its tracks by an ancient artificial intelligence at the end of its operational life. They end up downloading all of the AI’s data into their computers. At this point, Section 31, a covert operations division of Starfleet takes a strong interest both in the ancient data and in Spock. Saying much more about the plot will get into spoiler territory, but we do end up with a season of political intrigue and personal drama.

As a long-time Star Trek fan, the most satisfying aspect of this season was getting to know Captain Christopher Pike. Way back when there was only one Star Trek TV series, he appeared in one episode as the grievously wounded former captain of the Enterprise. During the episode called “The Menagerie,” Mr. Spock hijacks the ship to take his former captain to the mysterious world Talos IV. In the process we learn about the first time Pike visited Talos IV. During the episode we learn that Captain Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter, is conflicted about command. He regrets ordering his crew into dangerous situations and considers a new career.

In the 2009, Star Trek film, we see Captain Pike again. This time he’s played by Bruce Greenwood. The movie portrays Pike as something of a cool father figure. Anson Mount, who plays Captain Pike in Star Trek: Discovery, bridges these two portrayals and shows us a captain who cares deeply about his crew and is willing to sacrifice himself for others. Ethan Peck does a great job of playing a young Lieutenant Spock dealing with inner demons. In the process, we get a good sense of why he was loyal enough to Captain Pike to risk a court martial to help his mentor in the original series. We also see how Spock and Burnham influenced each other growing up and we see a fun brother/sister dynamic between the two characters.

The second season of Discovery includes a lot of action, which I enjoyed and I was glad to get to know the series’ regular characters better. The season-long arc format continues to suit Star Trek. That said, aside from our encounter with the ancient AI, we don’t seem to “explore new worlds” and “seek out new life and new civilizations” as much as we did in the original series or even Star Trek: The Next Generation. That said, the season’s end did set us up to go “where no one has gone before.” At the end of the season, we got a nice taste of Captain Pike’s Enterprise. I think it would be a lot of fun if we saw a spin-off series that gave us more of Captain Pike and Mr. Spock’s adventures before the more famous five-year mission.