In Praise of James Blish’s Star Trek adaptations
By Alex Bledsoe
I was a second-generation Star Trek fan. I discovered the series in syndication between the end of the show’s network run in 1970 and the first movie’s release in 1979. The reruns were broadcast on Channel 13 out of Memphis, usually the fuzziest of the three or four stations we could get out in the swamps.
That’s an important bit of context. We had no cable TV back then; instead, we had a thirty-foot aluminum antenna that someone, usually me, had to physically turn while someone else, usually my dad, shouted whether the picture was better or worse. Weather determined a lot of what we watched: the ABC station in Jackson was closest, so its signal was strongest. There was no other reason I would have ever watched that many episodes of The Love Boat. More often than not, during an hour-long show like Trek, the signal would go in and out, reducing chunks of the episodes to snowy static.
Thank the Great Bird of the Galaxy, then, for James Blish.
Blish was already a noted science fiction author when he took on the task of novelizing episodes from the original series. His Cities in Flight series, the Pantropy stories and many others had already placed him among the best serious SF writers of the Fifties and Sixties. He even, according to Wikipedia, coined the term “gas giant.”
I’m not sure if Blish felt a special affinity for Trek, or if adapting the show was just a job. But for a fans stuck is pre-internet isolation, these books were crucial. There was no such thing as “home video” in any form; the best one could do (and I did) was make audiotapes of the episodes by holding a tape recorder up to the TV speaker. For a lot of us, the Blish books were the only way to experience the episodes without being at the mercy of TV station programmers, our parents’ whims (“That show’s just weird!”) and the weather.
The first volume, originally published in 1967, presented seven episodes from the first season. Although two of them got retitled (“Charlie X” was called “Charlie’s Law,” and “The Man Trap” retitled “The Unreal McCoy”), Blish did not do a hack job. He brought his full writing skill to bear, translating the scripts into genuine prose and turning out short stories that, while not “original” in the true sense, nevertheless worked as literature.
What writer wouldn’t envy this as an opening line:
When the Romulan outbreak began, Capt. James Kirk was in the chapel of the starship Enterprise, waiting to perform a wedding. (“Balance of Terror”)
Nobody, it was clear, was going to miss the planet when it did break up. (“The Naked Time”)
Even if you know nothing of Trek, these are grabbers.
In 1970 Blish also wrote the first original Trek novel, Spock Must Die! It’s an odd read now, with the characters stiffly thrust into a hard-SF plot. But it was the first genuinely new Trek adventure outside fan fiction. It also gave me my first hints about how professional publishing works: the book’s editor, clearly no fan, changed McCoy’s nickname from “Bones” to “Doc” throughout, something Blish apologized for in an author’s note.
As the adaptations progressed, Blish became more faithful to the actual scripts. I don’t know if this was a function of his health issues (he died of lung cancer in 1975 aged 54), or simply an attempt to give the readers what they really wanted: Star Trek at their fingertips. Either way, it was my introduction to the details of Trek, and through Trek, to science fiction as a whole. It allowed a nerdy teenage redneck in the swamps of west Tennessee to feel connected to something bigger than himself. And without that connection, without the belief that there were more people like me out there, I wouldn’t have become the kind of writer I am. So thanks again, Mr. Blish, for bringing that final frontier a bit closer.
Accompanying illustration 1: a photo of my original copy of the first Blish Trek, which I still have. Illustration 2: Bledsoe-The Next Generation
Alex Bledsoe grew up in west Tennessee an hour north of Graceland (home of Elvis) and twenty minutes from Nutbush (home of Tina Turner). His novels include The Sword-Edged Blonde and Blood Groove.