How Nicholas Meyer’s Literary Love Saved Star Trek

If one believes the Trekker superstition that every odd-numbered Star Trek film is bad and every even-numbered one is good, the big news is that the superstition can be explained like this: Nicholas Meyer is involved in some capacity on every single even-numbered original cast Star Trek film. Meyer wrote or re-wrote aspects of the screenplays for The Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country and directed both The Wrath and Country. He’s is a highly literate multi-talented guy that recognized the things that made Star Trek great, and made them better. And he did it with literature.

In order to convince the audience that Zachary Quinto is indeed and in fact Spock in the 2009 Star Trek film, the writers made sure he said lots of Spock things like “logical” and “fascinating.” But perhaps the most telling quip Quinto’s Spock utters is “When you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Even if you’re not a rabid Sherlock Holmes fan (like me) many could still probably indentify this aphorism as originating with the famous detective and not with the Vulcan scientist. Not to mention, Spock spoke this exact same line in Star Trek VI.

Back in the fall of last year, I got a chance to speak to Nicholas Meyer on the subject of Holmes for an article I was writing for Clarkesworld Magazine. Meyer told me he thought the link between Spock and Holmes was fairly “obvious” and because part of the story of Star Trek VI is a mystery, detective references were highly appropriate. As a Holmes buff, I told Meyer my favorite thing about Spock quoting Holmes is the way he prefaces it by implying Sherlock is literally his ancestor, indicating they inhabit the same fictional universe. And if Holmes had children, it could have been only with one woman, the blackmailer Irene Adler from “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

“So, can I assume then that Irene Adler is Spock’s great great great great grandmother on his human side?” I asked him. To which Meyer answered; “Correct.” What’s revealing about Nick Meyer geeking out with me about Holmes is how much he respects classic methods of storytelling. If you listen to his audio commentary on the DVD for the directors cut of The Wrath of Khan, Meyer bemoans the problems of film, insofar as he worries that the images and the sound “do it all for you” and little is left to the imagination. Meyer says on that same commentary that he always looks for places to “withhold information” from the audience. Why would he do this? To bring the story back to a classical way in which the best literature works; by firing the imagination.

If you caught our excerpt from Meyer’s memoir on Tuesday, you already know he figured out the relationship between Kirk and the novels of C. S.Forrester. But with both The Wrath and Country, he went hog-wild with references to all sorts of great literature. Khan is obsessed with Moby Dick, General Chang with Shakespeare. In fact, we get a double literary reference in Star Trek VI when General Chang says “So, the games afoot, eh?” This phrase is often attributed to Sherlock Holmes who actually borrowed it from Shakespeare’s King Henry V.

 

But what does all of this quoting from Dickens, Doyle and Shakespeare do for us? Well for one thing, it grounds a far-out science fiction adventure in themes that pretty much anyone can understand. Am I saying Nicholas Meyer dumbed down Star Trek by putting in all this classical literature? I suppose it depends on how you like your science fiction. Meyer (like many of us) seems to enjoy the parallels contemporary stories have to the best stories and themes of the past. He also doesn’t dance around these references; he tackles them head-on and peppers them into his projects. It’s also not like Meyer invented having the crew of the Enterprise be well read or cultured in the classics; Shakespeare references have existed in Trek since the classic episode “The Conscience of the King.”

Because science fiction is the genre of big ideas, a kinship with really soul-searching lit like Dickens or Shakespeare is bound to happen. What Meyer did is give us our medicine of culture without us even noticing. Even without his influence, this kind of literary crossover probably could have happened in other realms of science fiction and in Star Trek specifically. In fact, it kind of did. Picard is quotes Shakespeare all the time. (Even using it in one instance to threaten Ferengis into giving up Lwaxana Troi…) J. Michael Straczynski has Tolkien references strewn throughout Babylon 5 like nobody’s business. Ronald D. Moore talks about Hemingway on Battlestar Galacitica commentary. Obviously one has to know a thing or two about literature and renowned writing in order to be a good writer.

In relation to his work on Star Trek, Meyer is the most remembered for doing it well. Meyer wrote some of the best-remembered lines in Star Trek VI, but some of the even more memorable lines were written by Shakespeare. I may have never picked up Moby Dick if it weren’t for The Wrath of Khan and I might not have been near as into Hamlet as I am now as an adult, if it weren’t for The Undiscovered Country.

People talk a lot about how Star Trek inspired astronauts and scientists throughout the years, but for me, I think it inspired interest in classic literature just as much. Literature is a huge part of my life thanks to Star Trek and that, I think is largely due to Nicholas Meyer. Because Nicholas Meyer didn’t just save Star Trek by helping a mainstream audience understand it, he reeducated it too.


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He talks about literature in science fiction all the time and plans to do so until they throw him in Rura Penthe.

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