A Contest of Principles
(Star Trek: The Original Series)
By Greg Cox
Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) — November 2020
ISBN: 9781982134709 — Paperback — 387 pp.
Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise are ordered to the planet Vok, where the government there is holding its first democratic elections after a long period of authoritarian military rule. The Federation has been invited to watch over the elections as non-aligned observers, and ensure that the computer-based voting system proceeds without controversy or tampering. The outcome of the election will have broad repercussions for nearby systems as well. Vok has territorial eyes set on the planet Braco, viewed as their ancestral home. But the nearby planet of Ozalor also contests Braco as their own, and generations of animosity has now built up between the worlds. Adding to the eggshells that the crew of the Enterprise must step among, Ozalor maintains a fiercely isolationist policy, maintaining no diplomatic ties to the Federation, and keeping memory of last encounters turned hostile and deadly.
While Kirk visits Vok with Federation representatives to oversee the election, news of contagious disease outbreak on Braco draws Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel and a security guard to that nearby world via shuttle. It’s a trap! (Oh, sorry, that’s Star Wars) Ambushed upon arrival, Dr. McCoy is secreted off Braco by a majordomo to the royal family of Ozalor. The Princess of that planet is afflicted by a mysterious disease and McCoy has been kidnapped to help treat her. Spock meets up with Nurse Chapel and the security officer on Braco to investigate the doctor’s disappearance, but faces resistance from the controlling government there, who is eager to blame a political dissident group on their planet for the kidnapping. On Ozalor, McCoy tries to help his VIP patient,, despite the circumstances of his enlistment, but discovers himself then plunged into the machinations of the royal court.
The older mass-market paperback Star Trek novels stuck to the episodic format of the television series, with one major plot line and setting, plus a lighter, B side-plot somehow worked in. The newer novels have felt more expansive in scope, and A Contest of Principles continues that trend, with Enterprise crew members dealing with situations on not just one alien world, or two, but three. Each setting with its own cast of supporting characters and cultures.
Vok feels akin to present-day Earth, the US more specifically given our own recent election turmoils and polarizing partisanship. Braco bears resemblance to many other alien worlds of Star Trek where political differences have created a break-off group labelled terrorist, and the ruling factions thus increased the militarism of their police and security in response. Braco seems headed down that path of authoritarianism from which Vok is just now trying to move on from. However, whereas Vok directed the militarism externally to their enemies on Ozalor, Braco is now directing its militarism internally upon a population caught in the middle of the Vok-Ozalor feud, and thereby divided. With politics of a feudal monarchy, Ozalor feels the most different, almost like a culture from a fantasy novel. The healer/advisor to the court who is able to treat the Princess’ agony through seeming magic augments this fantasy vibe.
These three settings and the interconnected plot threads of each do work perfectly when writing Star Trek: The Original Series, because of the trio of characters that lead it: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. This has become the standard to the detriment of what stories could be done with a larger batch of the crew, or a different subset other than that expected trio. For the TV show, the actors playing those characters were the top-billed, indeed the only ones mentioned in the opening credits. But too often the media-tie in creations of Star Trek have then chosen to also just focus on those three.
I do get it, the charisma between the three are a large part of what made The Original Series work, made it beloved. They make a perfect trio, balanced and complimentary to buffer against the harshness or weakness that any of those individuals have on their own. Writers keep returning to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, because it’s a classic team and it works. But for these newer Star Trek books, I still hope for broadening beyond that easy, familiar setup of the primary three.
A Contest of Principles does put a bit of a spin on the trio in the sense that it is not putting them together to work off one another, but rather separating them and forcing them to manage as their pure, unadulterated selves, each unguided and untempered by their two friends. So while I may wish to see one of the secondary characters featured more than those three, again, at least we can see them manage on their own. On the other hand, Cox did the same recently with The Antares Maelstrom, and it could get old fast.
Cox does a great job writing each of the three leads, effectively capturing their voice and mannerisms. They act exactly as one would expect them to during the period in which the novel is set, the final year of the Enterprise’s original five-year mission under Kirk. They each are given a challenge and setting that most ideally plays off in opposition to their character traits as well. Kirk is a man of action, but is now placed in a role where he is to observe, severely limited in how much action he can take. Spock, of course a Vulcan of logic, is left to deal with a corrupt and illogical security force, and forced to turn to the arts of diplomacy that (at this point in his life at least) lie with his father Sarek, not he the scientist. McCoy is put up against a magician whose powers he can’t quite explain, to cure a disease that is not responding as his medical knowledge suggests it should.
Though this all may not then be particularly original, Cox writes it engagingly well. McCoy and Spock’s chapters I particularly found entertaining. Spock makes acquaintance with an animal/pet that is humorous and endearing. And, who doesn’t enjoy curmudgeon, but gold-hearted, McCoy chew some scenery? I’m less of a Kirk fan, but those who are will surely find familiar joy with his third of the story.
Thankfully this does work for the novel, as other parts of it succeed less well. The new characters are as one-dimensional as primary characters are able to be in media-tie in novels. The stakes can’t really be high for a crew we all know are going to be fine. But, those created just for this could contain greater depth. There isn’t much nuance to those on Braco or Ozalor, and they behave rather stereotypically. The characters on Vok do have far more nuance, to create intrigues of scandal and conspiracies, and something beyond clear-cut heroes/villains in the election. However, that gain becomes hampered by dialogue that can come across as corny. That issue of dialogue also represents the one negative that crept into the otherwise well-written Enterprise characters, with Kirk. I know Kirk has used the term ‘mister’ in his lines on the show (e.g. “you better think twice about that, mister!”) but when written it looks extra silly; Cox employs it often. The start of the novel went slower for me due to the dialogue writing of those secondary characters, but once more of the action started up I was able to get into the story and enjoy this as a decent Trek novel after all.
Recent Star Trek novels have also upped, or expanded, things in the theme department. A Contest of Principles, which takes its title from a quote regarding politics, of course is all about the themes of politics, comparing them across three unique situations/worlds. When I first read the summary of this regarding the elections and a pandemic disease outbreak I wondered how Cox managed to get things so right! The pandemic outbreak angle of course ends up being a lure for McCoy only, but the similarities between the recent US elections that were going on as this book was published in November are likely not coincidence. Many of course saw the capital riots coming – given they were announced and long-stirred-up, of course. I feel as though the situation on Vok wrapped up a bit too easily and neatly for realism, but nonetheless the look into politics there vis-a-vis our reality is a useful endeavor, as are those ‘contests of principles’ explored on the other two planets.
A Contest of Principles is going to work well for any fans of Star Trek, but it’s probably not one I’d strongly recommend for general readers who don’t care about the series. But for the fans of these stories and this crew, let’s just get some more of the other characters, please?