“The Undiscovered Country”: To Serve All My Days
We’re told birthdays and anniversaries are celebrations of people and of life, but they remain, to a degree, backwards-looking: A ritualistic remembrance of a date long since passed, that seems to grow ever further distanced with each reiteration of the ritual. Western culture is fixated on dates, numbers, patterns and schedules. Nonmodern societies have seasons and cycles, the West has calendars and planner books, endlessly tallying up time and counting down to the next obligatory observation. Perhaps that’s why so many people in the West view birthdays not as a time to reflect on themselves, but as a time to become overcome with an impending sense of dread at the fear of mortality and the inevitability of aging. Once you decide time is linear, it has to end somewhere, because humans can’t accept a ray.
2006 was the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek, but it wasn’t a birthday, or rather, if it was, it was one of those birthdays we celebrate of people who have already died: “Such-and-such would have been this old today”. Enterprise had signed off a year prior, and with its cancellation came the sense that Star Trek was actually dead. It was a puzzling thing to bear witness to Star Trek fandom around 2006 and 2007: I don’t recall any talk about continuing Enterprise or any of the other Star Trek series (except for in the obligatory tie-in Pocket Books lines, but those sorts of things will always exist), or coming up with unique and transformative takes on them: Instead, there was a lot of solemn reflection about what Star Trek was, what it used to mean and where it all might have gone wrong.
What few ideas I do remember almost universally revolved around a “Star Trek XI” motion picture made out of the long-abandoned “Kirk and Spock at Starfleet Academy” pitch from the mid-1990s. And then, of course, there was always Star Trek: New Voyages. In every way, Star Trek fans tried to dowse their future by feverishly digging up the skeletons of their long-departed past. Perhaps it was the shock of Enterprise‘s cancellation combined with the holdover belief from 1990s fandom that Star Trek, as an extant mass media Soda Pop Art franchise, was a thing that would continue on in perpetuity, forever coasting on the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. For people who can’t conceive of rays, for a time there Star Trek fandom was remarkably quick to embrace them.
So it’s fitting that for Star Trek’s wake, it should once again call upon D.C. Fontana to bury it, if not to praise it. For as much as “To Serve All My Days” is a character study about Chekov, who, thanks to exposure to radiation finally succumbs to the illness he survived in “The Deadly Years” and comes face to face with his mortality, it’s also a story about the legacy Star Trek leaves behind as it transitions into a new form. Let’s address the bombshell right from the start: Yes, Fontana kills off Chekov here, supposedly an episode set before the film series in which Chekov very obviously appears (at the request of Walter Koenig, who wanted closure for his part in Star Trek history and who gives the literal performance of a lifetime as the aged and dying navigator) and yes, this pretty blatantly flies in the face of established canon. This, predictably, caused a massive furor within Trekker fandom, about which James Cawley had this to say:
“New Voyages is STRICTLY adhering to ‘CANON’ Trek, which is the episodes that have been produced by Paramount for the last 40 years and that includes the animated series (at least in our book!)
I know that some are put off or confused by the ending of TSAMD, but, do you honestly think, some very serious conversations did not take place before we filmed it? I would ask all of you to take a deep breath and think…….. Was Scotty killed in “The Changeling”? Did Spock remain dead in the features? Did the Enterprise get destroyed and not rebuilt in the features? Were these things wrapped up? I set out to tell a tale that would be meaningful, and thought provoking without diluting the ending. It has sparked some genuine debate, and gotten a few very riled up. I have accomplished what Gene Roddenberry loved to do. We made you think. We provoked a reaction. That is MORE than anything that Canon Trek has done in several years!
Now that I have you thinking let me say this. Chekov IS in the next episode and I am sure that somewhere in that one hour if you pay attention, you will smile. After all, I AM THE BIGGEST FANBOY OF THEM ALL!”
I find Cawley’s statement to be possibly the most quintessentially Trekker declaration: He proclaims up and down that he’s being nothing but strictly loyal to the precious canon when his actions demonstrate basically the exact opposite. He tries to handwave away the ramifications of his story, self-consciously flashes his Fanboy Card, makes promises to satiate his rabid fanbase and genuflects before the altar of Gene Roddenberry, but he’s still brought in one of Star Trek’s boldest and most challenging writers to pull off the ultimate hat trick of killing off Star Trek through a regular character. These are the sort of odd concessions we have to make in Star Trek fandom: A strange Janus dance of trying to explain how this pointedly subversive and experimental work doesn’t actually pose a threat to irreducible, untouchable monolith of canon when the whole point is frequently to do precisely that.
(As if to drive the point home, there’s an alternate ending for “To Serve All My Days” which declares the whole thing was, no kidding, Chekov’s vodka-induced hallucinations, which feels gleefully petulant and deliberately unsatisfying.)
Not that I blame either Cawley or Fontana, of course: On the contrary, I find what they pulled off here to be incredibly and laudably brazen. Just as we’ve often tried to make excuses to spare Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise for working within the hierarchical power structure of Starfleet by pointing out how they can find ways to challenge the existing order and be subversive from within, so can we read “To Serve All My Days” as an example of doing the same within the authoritarian self-imposed structure of canon. Yes, Chekov comes back in the next episode and nothing *technically* contradicts the Almighty Canon because Cawley and Fontana were very careful to give themselves a lot of outs and trapdoors…But the fact remains that it’s impossible to read this story as anything other than the story of Chekov’s death. Everything, from having him interact with Ambassador Reyna Morgan (Mary Lynne Rapleye, who played Irina in “The Way to Eden”) to the Klingon B-plot to the actual character moments are explicitly designed to build this up as his final bow.
And it really did have to be Chekov, who was introduced in a deliberate attempt to sell Star Trek to an audience that was simultaneously more youthful and more Russian. More than any other character, he was the one who was pegged as the best evidence the Original Series was offering us a utopia where we’d put our differences and bigotry behind us. While Uhura and Sulu (mostly Uhura) made the biggest contribution to material social progress by being people of colour, they were there from the beginning and were at least partially the result of NBC’s commitment to diverse casting (mostly thanks to Herb Solow and Bob Justman). Chekov though was somebody Roddenberry himself brought on and could point at to score political points as proof Star Trek was firmly allied with the youth counterculture and was singlehandedly ending the Cold War, which looked really good when “Save Star Trek!” came around. Chekov was overtly designed as a potential audience surrogate, and, while he might not have been the character people projected onto, he was someone who spoke to a statement Star Trek at least wanted us to think it was making.
Chekov then, more than any other character, represents Star Trek’s officially sanctioned utopian vision, which is a vision that, in 2006, seems to have pretty conclusively failed. And Fontana is not coy about pointing this out, giving Koenig lengthy scenes in his quarters where the elder Chekov converses with the illusory version of his younger self, looking back over his life and trying to figure out if any of it was worth it. And, crucially, he’s not sure: He knows he wanted to be the best navigator and tactical officer in the fleet, but he also recognises that a life spent purely in service and dedication to work is a life wasted, as it leaves no room for anything else. And a major problem with the Original Series, especially early on, was its fixation on military procedure and glorification of things like “duty” and the chain of command above all else. But just as Star Trek proved it could be more than that by inspiring legions of fans who loved it enough to keep it alive and write wonderful things onto it because of that love (leading to shows such as this one), Chekov eventually realises he’s contributed to some good things over his life, and that helps him make peace with himself.
Like many D.C. Fontana stories, “To Serve All My Days” sets its character piece against a complicated political backdrop. This time though, it’s more than window dressing: There’s a B-plot about economic tensions and ruminations of war that’s just as intricate as the A-plot about Chekov, and they turn out to be separate manifestations of the same theme. Ambassador Morgan is travelling aboard the Enterprise following a disastrous economic summit on Babel (natch), where Federation ambassadors and policymakers utterly failed to come up with a solution to an interplanetary crisis of currency devaluation that’s so dire nobody is certain if the Federation will last out the year. This is such a perfect allegory for the Great Recession I assumed this episode had been made in 2008, and was a bit shocked to discover it actually came out two years prior: The Federation, extrapolation of Westernism that it is, is finally subjected to that most Western of catastrophes, and no manner of utopian rhetoric is going to save it this time.
(Those interested in post-scarcity themes will, of course, note how this gives even more credence to our theory that such motifs are not a part of the Original Series flavour of the Star Trek story.)
While the crew is dealing with all this, suddenly the Enterprise comes under attack by a Klingon battlecruiser, which suddenly decloaks and proceeds to utterly cripple the ship in a genuinely unsettling space battle. I have to single out the VFX work in this scene: This episode takes its battle extremely seriously, delivering shot after gruesome shot of visceral carnage, as the disruptor beams blast away at the Enterprise, marring and disfiguring its iconic visage. There are even images of crewmembers being sucked to their deaths out into space (and Scotty and Uhura take care to point out to Kirk that “we have lost crew”). This is no exciting ray-gun fight with a few stock ship-shakes, this is proper, “Balance of Terror” style brutality elevated to the next level.
Initially Kirk suspects Kargh, a reoccurring Klingon adversary who showed up in alternate universe form in the last episode as science officer of the Farragut. Kargh had launched an unprovoked attack on the shuttle escorting Ambassador Morgan to the bridge early on in the episode, but swears on his honour that he’s not responsible for this attack, and furthermore that the attacking ship wasn’t even Klingon, and offers to help the Enterprise crew track them down. Eventually, it turns out to be a front by one of the Federation delegates, representatives of a planet whose entire economy is based on warfare. Feeling the stress from the Galactic Recession and an already dwindling market for their weapons from a pacifist Federation, they hoped to start a war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire to turn their fortunes around.
As for how they got a cloaking device, Spock discerns that the Federation itself gave it to them, based on the specs from the Romulan device Kirk stole in “The Enterprise Incident” because they too desired a war they could use as an excuse to launch a new wave of expansionism and oh…*That’s* what Section 31 was doing on the Enterprise in Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment then…No wonder Reyna told Kirk to “watch his back”, for his real enemies are “behind him”.
Aside from the Dominion War parallels and actually delightful connection to Fontana’s other work, “To Serve All My Days” is also very reminiscent, appropriately, of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with a third party trying to manufacture and manipulate a war between the Federation and the Klingons and the two sides needing to work together to find a way forward. But here, Fontana adds another interpretive layer: We see in Kirk, our new Kirk and his crew, the unironic embodiment of the ideals the Federation claims to hold to, while in practice doing the exact opposite. Reyna leaves with the implication that these are good people who will do the right thing, even if the organisational structure they work for is actually evil.
It’s similar to the tone she gave “The Slaver Weapon” in the Animated Series, but it’s much more effective here considering the rest of the heavy themes this episode is working through. The ideals people read in, and write back onto, Star Trek are more important than the material aspects of its Soda Pop Art franchise. And, so long as people continue to internalize and reinterpret these themes, Star Trek can still make a positive difference in the world. So, when Chekov finally passes on, he can take solace in knowing that while it’s time to move on, he’s lived a good life and the future is in good hands.
This is also why it’s important, as Chekov keeps pointing out, that he die at 25, because really, the original Star Trek died at 25 too, or at least it should have: The 25th Anniversary that Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country marked was actually about torch-passing. An acknowledgment that Star Trek did some good things in the past, but that version of it really ought to be consigned to history, allowed to retire with grace and dignity. This is not, again, to say that the story itself must end. Chekov does not cease to be; he very clearly moves on into an afterlife. But it does mean the story must keep changing and continuing to better itself, for as soon as Star Trek stagnates and starts to look backwards instead of forwards, it’s in trouble. Kirk has to watch his back in order to not repeat the mistakes of those who stand behind him.
“To Serve All My Days” is a sad story, but it is a story that needed to be told. It’s one final attempt at a bittersweet hand-off from Star Trek’s past to its present that finally gives us a definitive statement for what it all means. Star Trek Phase II has allowed D.C. Fontana to, at long last, craft an honest retrospective of the original Star Trek‘s legacy, and it brings all her themes from this era to a poignant head. It’s not a goodbye, as Star Trek can never say goodbye. It will always be here as long as people continue to love it, which is a statement fans in 2006 really needed to hear. And if we may make our own afterlives, perhaps we may make our own worlds too.
May 4, 2014 @ 8:51 pm
I thought that this was a really heartfelt piece of storytelling, just a shame that the ending was copped out on by creating the alternative ending. I think actually that it is one of the most lovely love letters to the show overall that I have seen. One of the high spots in Phase II.
May 10, 2014 @ 8:05 pm
Western culture is fixated on dates, numbers, patterns and schedules.
Good thing that Chinese culture, say, has no such dreadful Western weakness.
I mean, seriously, the kneejerk anti-Westernism is becoming self-parodic at this point.
2006 was the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek, but it wasn't a birthday ….
It was a puzzling thing to bear witness to Star Trek fandom around 2006 and 2007: I don't recall any talk about continuing Enterprise or any of the other Star Trek series
Well, 2006 was the year that Star Trek: Of Gods and Men was filmed, even if it wasn't released in full until 2008.
May 11, 2014 @ 5:14 am
"Good thing that Chinese culture, say, has no such dreadful Western weakness."
That wasn't a criticism, that was an observation. Humans in general seem to like those things, I was just trying to highlight the specific way it manifested in Westernism.
Seriously, I study synchromysticism. I pay more attention to dates and numbers than anybody.
"Well, 2006 was the year that Star Trek: Of Gods and Men was filmed, even if it wasn't released in full until 2008."
Yes, and what, precisely, wasStar Trek: Of Gods and Men and who was it aimed at?
May 27, 2014 @ 4:03 pm
Ever since this episode first "aired", I've been unable to exactly phrase my discomfort at it. It finally came to me, which is why I'm posting a comment so late.
The end of this episode bugs me primarily in light of the beginning. If this were a simple storytelling aberration (As Aaron Sorkin called it when The West Wing stepped out of canon to address 9/11), a "Don't worry about canon; we just want to tell this interesting story, and it'll all be forgotten next week," that would not have bothered me as much (I'd still prefer a narrative frame around it, because reasons). But this episode is explicitly a sequel to The Deadly Years. This is an episode which only works in a universe where the things we saw on-screen in the past can have consequences which unfold on-screen in the future. And that's what bothers me: it feels like a cheat to do a story that explicitly requires the events of a previous episode to continue to have consequences into the future, but which itself must also explicitly have no impact on the future. That feels wrong, and it feels like they're trying to have it both ways.
May 28, 2014 @ 9:28 am
I think this is another good example of the overwhelmingly net negative effect canon and canon fetishization has had on Star Trek: Cawley and Fontana could have given any reason for Chekov to suddenly be dying: They could have had it be the result of the radiation exposure, or send him through a time loop like they do Sulu in the next episode. But instead, they default to resurrecting a plot thread from "The Deadly Years", even in an episode that in all other respects ought to be a done-in-one one shot.
Fontana certainly has never been averse to fanwank in her writing in the past, but I do wonder if some of that is specifically because she knows her audience and what they want all too well. And because of that, we get things like James Cawley talking himself in circles.