The pioneering ‘Mission to Horatius’ is both a path-breaking and pedestrian ‘Star Trek’ tale

December 31, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 31, 2018

It’s safe to say that when Star Trek debuted in the late 1960s, its corporate masters had no concept of its potential. NBC considered axing the show in 1968, after ratings for the series’ second season sagged, but a fan-led campaign of protests, letters and postcards persuaded the network to extend the show for a third year. (There would be no fourth season, of course, although the show eventually inspired a number of books and toys before segueing into a string of movies and television productions.)

Given corporate America’s initial cluelessness over Star Trek, it follows that initial efforts at merchandising the show were rather spotty. I mention this because for no particular reason I came across a copy of Mission to Horatius, the very first licensed book containing an original Star Trek story.

The 1968 novel was written by Mack Reynolds, an obscure but prolific science-fiction author who died in 1983 at age 65. The story, which was purportedly aimed at a young-adult audience, is straightforward enough: The U.S.S. Enterprise has been dispatched to respond to a mysterious distress call originating from the distant solar system Horatius. Centuries ago, three of the system’s planets were settled by humans, but the colonists have long been out of touch with their ancestral planet of Earth.

Kirk, Spock and crew visit the three planets in turn all of which are far less advanced than the peaceful Federation. The residents of the first world they explore, Neolithia, live like Native Americans, while those of the second world, Mythra, enjoy a level of technology roughly equivalent to that of Earth’s 18th century. These two planets, which have no contact with each other, have one peculiar thing in common: They both have been raided by visitors from outer space.

This misfortune naturally makes the Horatians leery of the Enterprise crew, but a mix of quick thinking, good character and technological superiority allows them to defuse some of the most serious threats leveled at them. The crew is more seriously tested by the denizens of Bavarya, which boasts the most developed technological abilities and harbors a belligerent mindset not unlike that of Nazi Germany.

In this passage, the Enterprise’s landing party discovers that an unwary crewman has been tricked into sipping a drugged drink, leaving him in the thrall of Mythra’s autocrat:

Captain Kirk darted a look from the Mythran to Ensign Chekov and back again. “And now I suppose you consider that this junior officer of mine is in your power.”

The Supreme Exarch was examining [Chekov’s] phaser. “Its workings seem simple enough,” he mused. “More advanced than our own side arms. Undoubtedly you can supply us with an ample number, along with other weapons.” He turned his eyes to Ensign Chekov, who was staring happily at him. “You answer the captain’s question, my son. Are you in my power?”

Chekov said blissfully, “All power is in the hands of Your Extreme Holy. Command me; I obey.”

The Mythrans who were gathered about the throne chuckled. Their leader, also amused, turned back to Captain Kirk. “And you will feel the same when you have taken your anodyne, Captain.”

James Kirk looked at his officers. “Comments, gentlemen?”

Dr. McCoy blurted out, “They’ll have their work cut out getting me to take any of that poison.”

“Or me,” Scotty snapped.

The Supreme Exarch said with deceptive mildness, “I suggest to you, Captain Kirk, that the life of your young officer is in my hands. I have only to request it and he will gladly commit suicide. Does this affect your opinions?”

This is an exciting sequence, but Reynolds is hit and miss when it comes to capturing the character of Star Trek. It’s fine to have Kirk say “Comments, gentlemen?” once in a while; it’s repetitive and annoying and not Kirk-like to have him say this once every 20 pages or so. It’s also jarring to see Kirk say “Over and out” a number of times, rather than his more succinct “Kirk out.” On a slightly more pedantic note, I was annoyed to see him referring to firing a phaser on “stun effect,” rather than simply “stun.”

Reynolds’s book also suffers from seeming more like a pastiche of Star Trek episodes than a fully self-contained story. Neolithia’s world of Native Americans calls to mind “A Private Little War”; Mythra’s theocracy, “The Apple”; and Bavarya a mix of “Patterns of Force” (where the Enterprise finds a society modeled after Nazi Germany) and “Bread and Circuses” (where the ship’s crew is forced to fight in televised gladiatorial combat).

The novel, which runs a quick-reading 210 pages, also features an extended coda which comes off as a bit silly; it revolves around the crew fighting cafard, the deadly astronautic equivalent of cabin fever. This plot element doesn’t fit well with Star Trek canon because (a) it seems as though the ship would be capable of manufacturing such things as replacements for broken guitar strings and (b) in the year 2018, it beggars belief that 400 voyagers aboard a 23rd-century starship would run out of entertaining literature to read, videos to watch or games to play.

At any rate, Reynolds attempts to address the crew’s boredom — a key factor in triggering an outbreak of the deadly cafard — in humorous fashion. Unfortunately, the effort didn’t work well for this reader.

Mission to Horatius is perhaps of greatest interest as an oddity: A prototype, the first of its kind, but not a particularly successful one. (In this way, it mimics “The Cage,” the initial Star Trek pilot that was later reworked into the original show’s only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.”) It’s not that the book is bad — just that it’s thoroughly pedestrian. Only those with a burning interest in reading the very first original Star Trek book should feel obligated to undertake this journey.

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