Book Review: The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek

It’s been said before, but in many respects the original Star Trek really was the perfect television show. On the one hand, between all the fist fights, phasers, time traveling, villains (be they Romulans, Klingons, or Khan), not to mention Captain Kirk’s weekly love interest, Star Trek delivered all the action and adventure a viewer could ever want. Yet at the same time, there was almost always some sort of lesson or message at the end of each episode. It was a show that really did work on a number of different levels, one of the few American television series to transcend its own medium and become part of literature itself.  After all, literature is that which binds us from one generation to another. We write about it, talk about it, and allude to it until it eventually becomes permanently etched in our culture.

That’s certainly the case with Star Trek. In the 40 years since its original network premiere, Star Trek has spawned a horde of original novels, memoirs, reference guides, magazines, articles, web sites, movies, radio and television series, memorabilia, and, of course, annual fan conventions—not to mention the sheer number of scholarly books that have used Trek as a vehicle to explicate science, physics, biology, philosophy, religion, ethics and other fields of study. All of which speaks to the unique form of literature that is Star Trek.
Star Trek not only is a form of literature, it’s always been rooted in literature. Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and, of course, Harlan Ellison were among the notable sci-fi novelists who wrote for the Original Series, while all five Star Trek series are replete with classic motifs. It was only a matter of time before someone came along to discuss the various literary themes in the Star Trek canon.

Enter James Broderick and The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek (McFarland, 2006) a fun book that “explores specifically how Star Trek makes use of some familiar stories and themes in Western literature,” from the journey of the hero found in The Odyssey and Beowulf, to the mythic Old West originated by Owen Wister in The Virginian, to America’s fascination with gangsters and mob culture as personified by The Untouchables.  Each theme-based chapter introduces a classic play, novel, epic, short story or motion picture screenplay whose influence can be seen throughout the Star Trek universe. Hamlet, Ulysses, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Pygmalion, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland, Scarface and The Pit and the Pendulum are among the various works explored by Broderick, a professor of English and journalism at New Jersey City University. 

The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek is an interesting read. Broderick has certainly done his homework, and unlike most academic treatments of popular TV series, his book is refreshingly non-linear. “The chapters can be read in any sequence,” Broderick notes in his Introduction, “following whatever impulse is motivating you when you pick up the book.”  The chapters are short in length, but long on insight and chock-full of examples from Trek. Broderick also includes two handy appendices listing the literary works discussed and the Star Trek episodes and films that allude to them. 

Broderick’s book is not your average Star Trek companion guide. Then again, Star Trek is not your average television series. With the Original Series now on TV Land, it’s worth picking up The Literary Galaxy of Star Trek to keep up with the host of literary themes in the Star Trek universe.

Ed Robertson

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