Christopher L. Bennet delivers a new Star Trek novel exploring the life of a young James Kirk as he comes into his own. Does the novel live up to the promise of its concept? Robert Lyons reviews “The Captain’s Oath”, now available from Gallery Books.
As James T. Kirk settles in aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, the crew of the Constitution class cruiser are adjusting to their new, young commander. With Gary Mitchell at hand, but many new voices to hear, the missions become interesting, challenging, and complex. Throughout, the reader is invited back to Kirk’s first command to observe the evolution of Starfleet’s youngest captain. Through missions with first contact, belligerent threats, and painful losses, James Kirk will become the seasoned, well-rounded commander Starfleet needs on in the centre seat of its most celebrated starship.
On the surface, it sounds like a straightforward task: “Tell us of Kirk’s first command.” As we discussed in our interview a few weeks ago with author Christopher L. Bennett, this is a story that has been hinted at from various perspectives several times over the years, but usually in oblique reference, and always inconsistently. Bennet’s overarching skill at both filling in ‘lost eras’ and creating environments for established characters to explore and grow in making him a perfect choice to take on the story.
Bennett does not disappoint. Inspired by real-world events, current scientific speculation, and a hefty dose of social allegory, “The Captain’s Oath” weaves adventurous wanderings with new alien life forms, interesting extrapolations of planetary environment theory, and a strong, passionate commentary on the challenges and perspectives that surround extending welcome to those who have lost everything.
“The Captain’s Oath” bounces around. The framing story is placed in the days between Kirk’s arrival aboard the Enterprise to succeed Christopher Pike, and the events depicted in the TOS pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, while the balance of the story takes place aboard the U.S.S. Sacagawea, a small border patrol vessel serving near Klingon space. While such jumpy stories can, at times, get confusing, Bennett ensures that each cut from the Enterprise to the backstory is purposeful and illuminating for the reader.
In his interview, Bennett shared with us his desire to make deliberate and purposeful choices surrounding cameos. By in large, his choices work to enhance the story. At times, a namedrop or cameo seemed a bit wedged in for comfort, becoming a bit of a distraction from the flow of the story, but they never detract from the overall quality of the tale.
The two most significant crisis points examined in “The Captain’s Oath” – one on the Sacagawea and one on the Enterprise – are very different in terms of setup, but riff nicely upon one another as they allow the reader to gauge Kirk’s growing edges as a captain. Balancing diplomatic, scientific, and defence missions with an underlying sense of both wonder and caution are examined as Kirk learns what it means to command. Both stories come to satisfying, if not predictable, conclusions; which themselves serve to comment upon two pressing issues of our own contemporary society.
While I found the story quite engaging and enjoyable, my surprises came up at unexpected spots in the story. Naturally, one expects a story about Kirk’s development to focus on his backstory; and to be sure, “The Captain’s Oath” does. So imagine my surprise walking away contemplated what I had discovered about Leonard McCoy. He is a relatively small part of the story in terms of scenes and lines, but his presence and the way Bennett touches him to Kirk’s growing edges really gives an insight to the McCoy character that I haven’t felt since David R. George III’s “Crucible” trilogy, released back in 2007. I feel I know the old country doctor better now, and through him, I have come to know Kirk (whom I first encountered some thirty-six years ago) in a more nuanced way.
I also found myself quite taken with Mehran Egdor, the first officer aboard the Sacagawea and, later, the Kongo. Though his appearance was brief and, on the surface, functional, his journey intersected nobly with Kirk’s. Watching both learn from one another and grow into not only more competent officers, but also respectful friends was a highlight of the story. I can see elements of Kirk’s interactions with Egdor as I think back across The Original Series.
Lee Kelso’s role within “The Captain’s Oath” came the closest to melodramatic in the entire book, but his experience with his new captain fulfils a needed aspect of the Enterprise story within the book, and allows Kirk’s humanity and care for his crew to shine forth.
As always, the author’s attention to creating alien species is magnificent. The Angi, featured in several of the cuts to the Sacagawea story, are well developed and unique, both biologically and technologically. The outstanding cover art by Stephan Martiniere helps with visualizing their ships, and their presence close at hand to Kirk and a diplomatic contingent really gives a sense of a truly alien people.
The Enterprise‘s mission to Karabos II allows the reader to experience a different alien race, one dealing with the long-term aftereffects of some of the same issues that have plagued our own species over the past century or so. Bennett effectively draws on Kirk’s past as fount of wisdom, while allowing him to step boldly, if still a bit tentatively, in a direction that we recognize as the path Kirk will develop along in the years to come. Loyalty, growing edges, and the broad implications of the Prime Directive come front and centre as he balances his broader duty with friendship and learning his new community.
Given the recent conclusion of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, I had expected in my mind to visualize this story with some degree of blending in my mind. Pike might be Anson Mount, the ships might visually come to mind in a more Discovery style. Truth be told, I had basically challenged myself to visualize things that way when I cracked the cover. It didn’t work much past page five. Bennett, as always, has the delivery of each classic cast member down cold. Jeffrey Hunter speaks from Pike’s lines. Leonard Nimoy – second pilot Leonard Nimoy – distinctly comes across as Spock. Shatner owns Kirk. The ships, the sets, the world… it is pure TOS, as originally envisioned. With his attention to detail, Bennett ensures that you waste no time trying to envision something that is already clearly defined… and gives you a broad, sweeping vista when he describes something new.
While the end results might be predictable (it’s not like Kirk was going to get killed off, right?), it isn’t so much the end of the story that a reader is engaging, as much as it is the journey to get to the end. While the main conflicts of the story are nicely tidied up in typical Star Trek: TOS fashion, the glimpses back to Kirk’s crucible of command is a welcome glimpse into the formation of he who is, arguably, Star Trek’s most iconic captain, and is deserving of a place on your bookshelf.
Gallery Books provided the reviewer with a copy of this book. This article presents the reviewer’s true and unbiased opinion. No financial consideration was offered or requested of the publisher or the author for the review of this book
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Robert Lyons is a life-long Star Trek fan who was quickly drawn into novels, comics, and models when his appetite for more couldn’t be met by the television alone. By day a hospital chaplain, parish priest, and Mind-Body Medicine practitioner, he lives in Greenwood, Indiana with his wife, Kristen, and their three children – who have also caught the Star Trek bug.