Myriad Universes: James Blish and Bantam Star Trek

Nowadays, fandom-at-large tends to balk at the idea of a version of a Star Trek episode existing in another medium. It’s inconceivable to many in an age of Netflix, BitTorrent and Blu-ray season box sets to think that the televised story might not be the most memorable and recognisable version of it. But, in an era when television was still just starting to shed its reputation for being disposable entertainment and before commonly available home video recording technology, the only way for fans to archive their favourite episode were from their translation and recreation into other media.

Thus, the concept of the television novelization is a particularly historical, and historically significant, aspect of media studies inexorably dated to this era, and largely this era alone: Indeed, the 1970s are essentially the last point in the history of TV where novelizations play a significant role: The first Betamax VCRs came out in 1975 with VHS coming the next year, and by 1978 both types of devices were mass-production, at which point the age of the novelization was for all intents and purposes over. Which is perhaps fitting for our purposes, as the Bantam Books series of Star Trek novelizations by James Blish is a strange beast even by novelization standards. Like its parent show, Blish’s novelizations oftentimes felt like a leftover relic from a previous age, and their peak and subsequent decline in the early-to-mid 1970s in many way mirrors the twists and turns of Star Trek itself during this period.

The choice of James Blish to take on adapting Star Trek for mass-market paperback is at once curious and also somewhat telling. Blish was already an accomplished science fiction author and had been publishing stories decades before he began his association with the franchise. He was also, as you might perhaps expect, firmly and resolutely in the Golden Age tradition: Blish’s background was in biology and after training at Rutgers and Columbia University, he became a medtech in the army during World War II. Afterwards, he became chief science editor for Pfizer. Before that, he was a member of the Futurians who were in fact not, as I initially suspected, the time travellers from the far future who sent a mutated King Ghidorah to fight Super Godzilla in Tokyo in 1991, but were actually a group of sci-fi fans-turned writers who got their start in the Greater New York Science Fiction Club. Outside of Star Trek, Blish is most known for his Cities in Flight series, which depicts a future where anti-aging drugs and antigravity devices are commonplace, and space travel has progressed to the point where entire cities can be propelled through the stars on their own volition, and his “Pantropy Trilogy” of short stories, exploring how humans might be biologically augmented to survive in extraterrestrial environments, thus removing the need for planetary terraforming.

At first glance then Blish appears to be possibly the most bog-standard Golden Age-style science fiction writer we’ve seen since Isaac Asimov. His biography does, in fact, seem to paint him as almost stereotypically so: If one were to come up with a list of qualities that might comprise a model Golden Age writer, well, Blish ticks pretty much all of the boxes.…

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