The Christopher L. Bennett Interview

With twenty-five published works of Trek fiction under his belt, you might call Christopher L. Bennett one of the bright lights of contemporary Star Trek fiction. His works have explored nearly every facet of the franchise, and have often served to fill in the overall timeline with stories that have become beloved.

“Ex Machina”, for instance, is his well-received follow-up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the story, the after-effects of the V’ger Incident are explored, as is the fallout of interfering with the Yonada asteroid several years previous. With “Ex Machina“, Bennett established a reputation for exploring secondary characters without detracting from the main cast and crew.

His equally skilful look at Jean-Luc Picard’s history in “The Buried Age” manages to introduce fans to first encounters with Guinan and Deanna Troi, while keeping the focus on the evolution of Picard in the years between the Stargazer court-martial and his command aboard the Enterprise.

Bennett this month turns his attention to James Kirk and the events surrounding his first captaincy. Nobody gives command of a front line ship to an untested commander, so Kirk’s story has to begin somewhere.

Of course, nobody gives the keys to Star Trek to an untested author, so let’s start by examining where Bennett first made his connection to the franchise we all love.

Christopher L. Bennett is no stranger to Star Trek readers. He’s been spinning tales in the final frontier for two decades now, and he never fails to impress. Join us for our interview with Bennett as he gives us a look into “The Captain’s Oath“, coming later this month from Gallery Books.

TS: With the success of Star Trek: Discovery, and the expansion of the franchise, a lot of fans new fans are being attracted to the Trek universe. How did you first make a connection with Star Trek?

CLB: I discovered Star Trek as a 5-year-old. I saw commercials for what looked like a show about a strange-looking aeroplane flying around at night, and I was puzzled and curious, so my parents let me stay up and watch it with them. My first episode was “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and I was immediately hooked. Star Trek introduced me to space, science, and science fiction, and it set the course of my life from then on.

TS: Your forthcoming novel, “The Captain’s Oath” takes readers into a relatively unexplored period in the Star Trek universe – Kirk’s first command. Is this a story that has been long in your mind, or did it coalesce for you more recently?

CLB: I’ve been curious about Kirk’s first command for some time now. I’ve always liked exploring the underdeveloped gaps in Trek continuity, ever since my first novel, the Star Trek: The Motion Picture followup “Ex Machina”. Kirk’s first command, a smallish “destroyer-equivalent” ship, was established in The Making of Star Trek in 1968 and has been briefly mentioned or glimpsed in only a few works — it was the Saladin in DC Comics’ first annual by Mike W. Barr, the Lydia Sutherland in Vonda N. McIntyre’s “Enterprise: The First Adventure”, the Oxford in Howard Weinstein’s “Star-Crossed” in DC’s ST Volume 2, and more recently the Hotspur in David A. Goodman’s “The Autobiography of James T. Kirk”, though I hadn’t read that yet at the time I began pondering this idea.

I started thinking about it seriously a few years ago as a potential pitch for Pocket’s Star Trek e-novella line — either Kirk’s first Enterprise mission or his previous command, but I couldn’t decide between them or settle on a specific plot that would make it worthwhile. Then the novel line was put on hold for a couple of years due to delays in renewing the license, and when it came back, my editors Ed Schlesinger and Margaret Clark asked me to pitch a “major” story in the TOS era — something more than just a routine adventure, but something in the time frame of the 5-year mission, since that’s the perennial best seller. And I needed to come up with it fast, to make up for the delay. I was stymied at first — how could I tell a “major” story within the episodic context of the 5-year mission, where everything had to reset to normal at the end? But then I remembered my idea to cover Kirk’s first command or his first Enterprise mission, and I realized I could do both of those at once, with the latter as a frame for the former.

(CBS) Ships like this aren’t given out to just any Starfleet captain.

TS: There have been some previous attempts to open elements of the story to fans – the aforementioned: “Enterprise: The First Adventure” being the first one that came to my mind. As you said, other novels have given hints, and comic stories have explored bits and pieces, but no single definitive story has every seemed to settle with fans. What has inspired you to dive into telling this story at this time?

CLB: Expediency, basically. As I said, I needed something TOS-era, “major,” and readily on hand to pitch. The basic premise of “Kirk’s first command” and the character arc I had in mind was enough to get a contract and let me work out the specific plot details later, which was good because I was quite broke and needed to get a new book contract as soon as possible.

TS: You have earned a strong reputation among Trek literature fans as an individual who conjures worlds with ease. What challenges did you encounter in setting the story in the zone between what we are seeing now in Star Trek: Discovery and the second TOS pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”?

CLB: I was actually advised to avoid overt Discovery references; now that I’ve seen how season 2 ended, I can understand why that was the case. Mostly I based this on what we know of the time frame from earlier canon. However, I did incorporate some subtle allusions to things that Discovery has established about the period, e.g. including characters with bionics.

TS: Speaking of the challenges posed by the setting, how has the evolution of Star Trek: Discovery’s production design influenced your own writing process? Did you find yourself somewhat ‘siloed’ to a pilot-era TOS look as you envision settings and scenes, or did you find the look and feel of Discovery pulling on you?

CLB: I tried to be ambiguous about certain descriptions so that readers could interpret it in whatever way they preferred. For instance, in some scenes with characters communicating over subspace, I remained vague about whether they appeared on a viewscreen or as a hologram. And I didn’t go into specifics about what uniforms the characters were wearing.

(CBS) How do Kirk’s formative experiences prepare him for Mr. Spock and the crew of the Enterprise?

TS: Given Dr Dehner’s line in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” about Kirk asking for Mitchell aboard his first command, one would naturally assume that Gary will play a role in your story. Is this the case, and if so, what qualities of Kirk do you feel Mitchell helps to highlight about the young captain in “The Captain’s Oath”?

CLB: Gary is present in TCO, but not as central as he’s been in other works exploring this period. I didn’t just want to rehash what’s already been done, but instead I wanted to show events and people from Kirk’s past that we didn’t already know about, interspersed with more familiar ones.

But I have leaned into how the second pilot and the early first season portrayed Kirk as a very serious, disciplined officer, while Gary was the kind of roguish womanizer that Kirk has come to be perceived as in later decades (and portrayed as in the first two Kelvin Timeline movies). So Gary’s presence let me contrast my vision of the young Kirk with the cultural assumptions and stereotypes that have grown up around the character.

TS: Returning to the concept of influences, are there episodes or films that you might point a reader to watch before reading “The Captain’s Oath” in order to refresh or, in the case of new fans, develop a deeper sense of who Kirk is?

CLB: Certainly “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” and the early first season in general. Also “Court Martial,” “The Deadly Years,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “Obsession,” “The Ultimate Computer,” “The Omega Glory,” “The Mark of Gideon,” “The Cloud Minders,” and maybe a few others have elements that are referenced in the book.

TS: It’s always fun to see the cameo appearances that Trek authors pop into their storylines. What factors do you consider when selecting a previously seen character in one of your books – especially one that may pre-date their on-screen or in-print appearances?

CLB: In this case, the main factor was whether a character was an established figure from Kirk’s past. As I did with Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Buried Age”, I wanted to fill in gaps in Kirk’s biography and show how he’d first met and interacted with characters that TOS showed or implied that he had a history with.

However, it was also important to avoid going overboard with the use of established characters. Even though the story spans four years and has room for Kirk to encounter a number of significant people during that time, piling on too many “first meeting” stories would be overkill, so I had to choose which characters were most important to feature and where it was better to use an original character instead. For instance, I initially wanted the climactic mission in the flashback portions to show Kirk’s first time working with Spock, before they came together on the Enterprise, but Margaret Clark shot that down, and she was right; that portion of the story worked better with new characters, as well as contrasting better with the Enterprise frame story where Spock is included.

(CBS) Any exploration of Kirk in the pre-TOS era has to include Gary Mitchell, right?

TS: Would we be safe in assuming, beyond Gary Mitchell, some well-selected cameos in “The Captain’s Oath”?

CLB: Yes — some, but again, not too many. In a few cases, I just made brief references to “offscreen” characters rather than piling too many into the story in “onscreen” roles.

TS: Ultimately, with the book in print and heading to eReaders, bookstores, and headphones in a matter of weeks, what aspect of “The Captain’s Oath” are you most proud of?

CLB: I guess I’m just glad that I finally got to fill in this rarely explored chapter in the continuity, much as I did with the movie era in “Ex Machina” and Picard’s missing years after the Stargazer in “The Buried Age”. For that matter, I seem to have accidentally worked my way back through Kirk-era milestones — “Ex Machina” was the first mission post-ST:TMP, “Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History” included a new version of the end of the 5-year mission, “The Face of the Unknown” was a transitional piece between TOS and The Animated Series, and now I get to chronicle the start of the 5-year mission and what came before it. So I’ve now bracketed the entire 5-year mission, chronicling both its beginning and its end as well as the beginning of the following one.

TS: You have submitted a story for to forthcoming anthology Footprints in the Stars, which just surpassed an important Kickstarter goal. What can you tell us about this anthology, and your story, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of”?

CLB: Footprints in the Stars is an original science fiction anthology published by eSpec Books, which published my story collection Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman last year. Its stories all revolve around the theme of evidence of alien life — not direct first contact, but other forms of evidence like artefacts, signals, etc. — and how its discovery affects humanity. Footprints feature stories by several veteran Star Trek prose authors including myself, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Robert Greenberger, Aaron Rosenberg, and Dayton Ward, as well as James Chambers, Russ Colchamiro, Vincent Collins, Bryan J. Glass, Gordon Linzner, Ian Randall Strock, and Danielle Ackley-McPhail, who’s also the editor. The anthology is expected to debut at the Shore Leave convention in Baltimore this July 12-14.

My entry, “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” is my third story featuring the Troubleshooters, the hard-SF superheroes of my 2012 novel “Only Superhuman” and its prequel story “Aspiring to Be Angels” from Among the Wild Cybers. It’s another prequel taking place a couple of decades before “Only Superhuman” and featuring an adventure of the founder of the Troubleshooter Corps.

(CBS/Modiphius Entertainment)

TS: Any other projects in the pipeline for you, Christopher?

CLB: 2019 is going to be a very active year for me. I’ve already got a record number of projects scheduled for publication this year, and that number may still increase.

My next two Star Trek Adventures standalone game campaigns should be out this summer in downloadable PDF form from Modiphius Entertainment. I also authored one of the ten campaigns in the print volume “Star Trek Adventures: Strange New Worlds: Mission Compendium Vol. 2”, which is due out in August.

Crimes of the Hub, collecting my second trilogy of “Hub” science fiction comedy stories from Analog Science Fiction and Fact, will be out sometime soon from Crossroad Press. Like the first collection, Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy, this is a revised and expanded edition with new material to bridge and flesh out the stories; but this time, because the stories are longer and form a tighter story arc, I’ve mashed them up into a short novel, making this technically my second original novel to see print. Crimes of the Hub will initially be released in e-book form, but a print-on-demand edition will follow before much longer.

I also have two stories coming out in magazines. Galaxy’s Edge, edited by SF legend Mike Resnick, will be publishing “The Melody Lingers”, the first fantasy story I’ve ever sold, in Galaxy’s Edge #39 (July 2019). And later this year, Analog will be publishing another Troubleshooter story, “Conventional Powers,” which at long last is not a prequel but will move things forward beyond Only Superhuman. It’s a lighthearted story examining what a superhero/sci-fi convention would be like in a future with actual superheroes. 

As for 2020 and further Star Trek projects, I’m working on something, but I can’t talk about it yet.

TS: Speaking for all of us at Treksphere, Christopher, thank you!