The popular image of James T. Kirk is greatly at odds with the character as originally conceived and presented. The idea of Kirk as a galactic lothario, a maverick captain with no respect for the rules is one that evolved out of the later episodes and films, further embedded in the public consciousness by many parodies. The version of Kirk we meet in the Abramsverse movies – womanising, rebellious, disrespectful and unrepentant – is a world away from the youthful Kirk we heard about in the first season of Star Trek, a studious, rule-bound young man who was still quite restrained even when he took command of the Enterprise. Amusingly, the Abramsverse version of Kirk is far more like Picard was at the Academy than the Cadet Kirk of the Prime timeline.
With The Captain's Oath, Christopher L. Bennett provides his own account of Kirk's early time as a starship captain. It's far from the first such attempt; aside from the 2009 movie's alt-timeline version, there's Enterprise: The First Adventure by the late Vonda McIntyre and various flashbacks in the comics over the years. Still, it's an under-explored part of Star Trek's history, and Bennett provides what might be considered the definitive version, at least as far as the literary continuity is concerned.
Rather than focus on one particular mission, Bennett provides an array of adventures from Kirk's early career, all of which shape him into the man we see in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and Star Trek's first season. Some of these – such as the rescue of the pre-warp Chenari people from imminent extinction – we've heard of before in passing. Others are entirely new inventions by the author. The novel is split into three main timeframes, covering Kirk's first command posting on the USS Sacagawea, a planetside posting and return to the Sacagawea and his eventual award of the command of the Enterprise. The story jumps back and forth between these timeframes, with the consequences of events sometimes being revealed before the events themselves. It's a deftly plotted book, and Bennett handles the multiple storylines well. He makes it look easy, which is the mark of true skill.
We meet various characters, both recognisable and new. It must have irresistible to portray the first meetings between Kirk and McCoy, Spock and Sulu. They feel at once momentous, due to what we know of the characters' futures, and ordinary, just another day on the job. We know what's coming, but the characters don't. Their storied futures are still to come. We also get to spend a great deal of time with Gary Mitchell, a character who is far more like the clichéd version of Kirk than the man himself. Of the original characters, my favourite is Rhenas Sherev, an Andorian archaeologist and long-time friend of Kirk, who recurs throughout the novel's different timeframes. She's a strong-willed, stubborn character who bucks authority when she's got a personal mission to complete.
Kirk's various missions give the novel a real sense of adventure. There are clashes with Klingons, first contacts and diplomatic overtures. Again, some of these involve elements fans will recognise – the early negotiations with the Acamarians from “The Vengeance Factor”, for example. Others are wholly new, included an ingenious sidestep to the planet Nacmor, a world at a 20th/21st century level of development where fictitious alien invaders are being used to keep the populace in line. Along with a later storyline involving the Aulacri, the problem of misinformation, whether it's withholding facts from the people or all-out “fake news” is a running theme.
There's one plot thread that runs throughout the novel, impacting multiple worlds. Without wanting to go into too much detail, because the fun is in discovering the truth along with the characters, it involves a new alien race that are novel in conception, and potentially pose a major threat to the Federation. As is often the case, though, things are not as they seem, and again Bennett uses a sci-fi setting to discuss the problem afflicting the USA and the world at large today. Exactly what Star Trek should be doing.
Throughout the novel, Kirk learns some sober lessons about command, learning when to follow orders, when to protest, when to stick to his guns, when to let others change his mind. He becomes less rule-bound, more willing to bend the rules or even break them, but only when it's the right thing to do. We see the impact his more relaxed friends and colleagues have on him, but never does he stray from the truer representation of the character that Bennett is striving to recreate.
Like much of Bennett's work, there's a clear intention to fill the gaps in Star Trek's history. Along with the many references and appearances by familiar elements, it steers close to fanwank, but the overall impression is that Bennett is someone who has really thought about this fictional universe and how it could work. For all the intellectual exercises and introspection in this novel, it's also tremendous fun.
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