COMIC REVIEW: “Star Trek: The Wristwatch Plantation” by Larry Niven (1982)

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I’m a huge fan of Larry Niven. Star Trek? Not so much. I don’t hate it, I just don’t care about it, in much the same way that I neither hate nor care about The Wonder Pets. It just sort of *is* and it’s clearly not meant for me, so I just kind of ignore it.

As such I somehow managed to miss the fact that there was a Star Trek newspaper comics strip that ran from 1979 to 1983. I also managed to miss the fact that Larry Niven wrote a story called “The Wristwatch Plantation” during the run of this strip. Now, this isn’t the first association between Niven and Trek: He wrote The Animated Series episode, “The Slaver Weapon,” which was basically a re-treaded version of his Known Space story, “The Soft Weapon.” It has the distinction of being the only TAS episode not to have Captain Kirk in it at all. And if you ever wondered why the “Star Trek Maps” thing from 1980 had Ringworld in it, well, now you know. It was reputed by my very unreliable sources that this story was a sequel to “The Slaver Weapon.”

“Wristwatch Plantation” was a story I’d never heard of, obscure, unchronicled, uncollected, unremarked upon, but seeing as I’m an obsessive compulsive, I *had* to read it. But where would I find a copy? These things were not freely tradeable for all manner of legal and copyright reasons. It seemed a completely lost cause. I’d simply never find it, short of hitting a library and going through thousands of pages of old newspapers on equally old microfiche. (Most of that stuff still hasn’t been converted to digital)

As luck would have it, however, I bought a used couch from the Salvation Army, and when I got it home, I found a complete copy of “The Wristwatch Plantation” stuck beneath the cushions.

I was a little surprised by it. When I started looking, I had assumed it was from the early/mid seventies. I was surprised when it turned out to be in the TMP era, though I don’t know why. Also, despite my unreliable sources swearing all up and down that it was a Niven solo story, it was in fact co-authored by him and Sharman DiVono, who’s primarily a TV writer these days. I don't know much about her beyond that.

Given its obscurity and interest to both Niven fans and Trekies, I thought, “What the heck, I’ll review it.”

PLAY BY PLAY

The Enterprise is pulled from their standard patrol duty, and assigned to assist a delegation of Bebebebeque, small bug-like aliens about the size of your fist. Being somewhat afraid of getting stepped on by humans, they generally zip around on little anti-gravity sleds at about eye-level. They’re continually zipping by crewment, or accidentally banging into them when a person moves in an unpredictable way. They have other annoying traits as well.

Given their diminutive status, the Bebebebeque are a very important species in the Federation, who more-or-less control any aspects of machinery and electronics that need miniaturization. Anyone who crosses them gets embargoed, and the Federation doesn’t want that. The Enterprise is to take them to a planet they colonized some years before, and then lost contact with. Alas, en rout the Bebebebeque manage to make everyone nervous wrecks, and more and more people end up on sick leave. Bones labels it “Bebebebequephobia.” Even Spock has some ill effects from it: The Bebebebeque are swarm creatures, and are uncomfortable in groups of less than twenty. Spock finds that much chaotic mental energy disturbing to his telepathic senses.

The only section of the ship that *isn’t* affected is Engineering, mostly because the Bebebebeque are naturally disposed to machinery, and so they immediately get along with Scotty.

Starfleet has thoughtfully assigned an “Alienologist” to help avoid problems arising between the Bebebebeque and the Human crew of the Enterprise. Not so thoughtfully, however, it turns out that “Alienologist” is just a cover for an alien cop named Mernat to track down some drug smugglers suspected of being in the Enterprise crew. Kirk pooh-poohs this notion. Mernat’s people are very competitive with each other, and fight for reproductive rights. “Theep” is a drug that improves strength and reflexes, and hence one’s chances for nookie.

So basically Mernat is useless with regards to the Bebebebeque situation, but it turns out he’s right about the drugs. A guy named Mike and a girl have indeed got two canisters of “Theep” hidden aboard ship. The problem here is that Theep is amazingly caustic, and will eat through anything, given time. (And this makes it a good drug because why again? “Well, I’m strong enough that I won that battle to the death for mating rights, so come here, honey, give me a little sugar. Oh, wups, my leg fell off…”) There’s a Space Station K-7-styled fight in the galley, which the smugglers use as a distraction. While moving the stuff around to avoid detection by the Bebebebeque, who are continually fiddling with various parts of the ship, they get discovered by an older crewman named “Pete,” who they agree to cut in on the action, provided he doesn’t tell anyone about them. Pete agrees. But of course, Mike and his girl - Is she his girl? Are they snugglers in addition to smugglers? This is never made clear. I think we’re supposed to believe they are, but the two exhibit absolutely no chemistry whatsoever. This happens with actors in TV shows all the time, we’re supposed to believe people are madly in love, despite talking to each other the same way they’d talk to a wet sock in the washing machine. This is a comic, however: They exhibit no chemistry whatsoever IN A COMIC STRIP! That’s just all kinds of wrong.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, so Mike and his maybe-girl are actually screwing Pete over, in that they have *two* cans of Theep, but they only told him about one.

Meanwhile, the K’zin show up. For those not initiated in such things, the K’zin are a fierce felinoid species from Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. They are entirely carnivorous, predatory, aggressive, and about the size of grizzly bears. They were introduced to Trek when Niven adapted his story “The Soft Weapon” into an episode of TAS, but their backstory was substantially the same: Multiple wars with the Federation instead of Multiple Wars With Earth, and as a result of losing all those wars, they’re prohibited by treaty from having weapons beyond those needed by police. The K’zin government officially obeys the rules, but unofficially sponsors pirates to find high tech hoo-haws that will give them the ability to defeat the earthers/feds once and for all. Most of this was explained in “The Slaver Weapon.” Spock briefly restates it here, as well, and specifically refers to that episode.

Here we come across another K’zin pirate ship, which immediately attacks the Enterprise with some brand-new kill-o-zap weapon that messes up electrical systems on the ship. They lose gravity, and various other functions, including shields (Which were, stupidly, down when the K’zin approached) the Enterprise isn’t really damaged, but it’s incapacitated.

Meanwhile, the Theep eats through its canister and plays merry hell with the already-messed-up shipboard systems. Pete discovers Mike was screwing him over and they get into a fight. Mernat, meanwhile, gets exposed to airborne Theep and goes all Drazzi Purple/Orange on everyone, and has to be sedated. Meanwhile, Spock attempts to capture the drug smugglers, who are still fighting, but a transporter malfunction beams them off in to space. The End.

Oh, no, wait, there’s more:

So the Enterprise runs away from the fight at Warp 10, and heads to the Bebebebeque colony world, but the transporters are still goofy, so they decide to send down Kirk, Sulu, and Lt. JG Female Redshirt. Surprising no one except the crew of the Enterprise, it turns out the reason the Bebebebeque colonists haven’t called home in five years is because the K’zin took over the planet, and built a base. The shuttle is shot down and crashes while a K’zin fleet attacks the Enterprise.

Fortunately, the Kill-o-zap weapon that incapacitated the ship earlier was a prototype, none of the local ships have that yet. Vastly outgunned by the Enterprise, the K’zin basically try to hold them until the ship that attacked it earlier, “The Giant Killer,” can make it back to the system. (It was much, much slower than the Enterprise). On the surface, Sulu and Kirk and Redshirt come to, and are greeted by some Bebebebeque colonists, who have been enslaved by the K’zin, and are forced to build high-tech miniaturized machinery for them, including the kill-o-zap prototype, which is actually called “The Hamstringer.”

“This place has been a wristwatch plantation for the K’zin for years,” Kirk says. And hence then name…

In typical Nivenian fashion, this colony world was poorly surveyed: It turns out there’s a major predatory species that happened to be hibernating when the survey was done. When the Bebebebeque colonists arrived, they were overrun by these predators, called “Ravagers.” The colony promptly failed. Coincidentally, however, this world is just outside of K’zin space, and young K’zin males would occasionally come to this planet to fight Ravagers and thereby prove their masculinity. As it happens, one of these parties found the Bebebebeque survivors, saved them, and then enslaved them. Some of them, however, have been hiding tech in a secret base under the K’zin base, in hopes of eventually managing to escape or win their freedom.

A Ravager attacks the ship, but the Bebebebeque resistance beams Kirk et al back to their secret base. A couple K’zin guards arrive at the wrecked shuttle moments afterwards, and are ambushed by the Ravager. Kirk stupidly tries to contact his ship via communicator, which, again, is *below* the K’zin base. Alerted to it’s presence, the Kzin start tearing the place up, trying to find them. The guards return, but they left a blood trail, and a whole bunch of Ravagers follow it and attack the base.

Meanwhile, in orbit, the Enterprise has mostly destroyed the K’zin fleet, excepting a ship called “The Blood Gnat,” which lands on the planet as “The Giant Killer” arrives, and fires “The Hamstringer.” This time the Enterprise gets the shields up in time, but it’s wearing ‘em down. There’s a whole lot of running and shouting in several locations, most of which comes to nothing. Then the Bebebeque slaves tell Kirk the Achilles heel of the Hamstringer, which he radios to Spock. Spock uses it, the Giant Killer is effectively dead in space. The base is overrun and basically destroyed. It’s a bad day to be a Kzin.

Back on the ship, Kirk tells the Giant Killer to surrender, but they really can’t. If they do, they’ll be executed by their own government as pirates, even though their own government put them up to it. They blow up their ship rather than give in.

BUT actually they just transported themselves to the Blood Gnat, which takes them and the survivors from the base away.

“We will meet again, Captain Kirk!” swears the K’zin captain.

As far as I know, they never did.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Well that wasn’t very good, was it?

It’s disjointed as heck. The whole “Bebebebequephobia” plot is dropped once the drug plot shows up, and the drug plot is dropped once the K’zin show up, and none of this stuff ever ties thematically into the other stuff. There’s no unifying theme here, it’s just a bunch of stuff that happened. It doesn’t feel like a story, it feels more like three-and-a-half stories that were clumsily stuck together by banging nails through them.

Niven is generally a great collaborator, people love to work with him, but I found myself wondering how this particular paring played out. Obviously Niven was in charge of the Kzin stuff, but did he have anything to do with the Drug storyline? Was he arguing for having Mernat in the story, or is he the reason Mernat abruptly disappears from the narrative? How much of this stuff was Larry, and how much of it was Sharman? How much of it was already in place when Niven came aboard?

Like the K’zin, the Bebebebeque are *also* stock aliens from Niven’s other stories. These ones are from his Draco Tavern series, however, not Known Space. Just as “The Slaver Weapon” was adapted from one of Niven’s preexisting stories, I found myself wondering if this one had as well. I can’t think of an immediate comparison, but there are still a few “Draco” stories I haven’t read. If anyone knows about this, lemme know three@republibot.com At the moment, however, I’m of the opinion that it’s *probably* mostly or completely an original, though it’s got some very obvious seams in it where several ideas were grafted together.

This is *not* a sequel to “The Slaver Weapon,” by the way, merely another story with K’zin in it. So if you’re obsessive about that TAS story, don’t knock yourself out trying to find a couch with this wedged in it. There’s little payoff in that.

As with all comics stuff, this is outside the Trek Canon, and there’s a number of elements that just don’t fit Trek as it emerged: Money, crime, drugs, though it’s important to remember that Trek wasn’t nearly so nailed down and nailed down in this point in history as it later became. It’s not sloppy writing or a lack of knowledge that included these elements, it’s simply that TOS and TAS both included money and crime occasionally. The Maoist Utopia that is TNG hadn’t really emerged yet.

The Drug Smuggling thing is very interesting to me. Rather famously, Harlan Ellison’s original screenplay for the TOS episode, “City on the Edge of Forever,” included a subplot about an engineer dealing drugs on the Enterprise. http://www.republibot.com/content/book-review-%E2%80%9Charlan-ellison%E2... This was quickly cut out amongst much moral indignation on the part of Roddenberry, who then wouldn’t shut up about it for the next thirty years, continually lambasting Ellison over something that was, frankly, just a bit of conflict in the teaser to get the story rolling. Roddenberry loved to exaggerate that one, claiming “Scotty was dealing drugs on the bridge of the Enterprise,” when in fact Scotty wasn’t even in the script at all, it was a random redshirt, and he wasn’t dealing on the bridge.

Anyway: most of the SF writers I’m aware of tend to take Harlan’s side on that one, and I found myself wondering if Niven had thrown in the entirely irrelevant drug plot here as a kind of in-joke.

Man, those TMP-era uniforms are ugly, aren’t they? Just no way of making people look good in ‘em. What *was* Robert Fletcher thinking?

The artwork is pretty good for a daily comic. Far better than, say, Dilbert and The Family Circus, somewhere between the levels of Mary Worth and Prince Valliant. It was drawn by Ron Harris, who did five stories in the run of this strip. His tenure was set after Thomas Warkentin (The original artist) and after he left, the strip seems to have used random artists for each story until the end of its run. He re-uses a *lot* of his drawings, however. A shot of the Enterprise taking a hit from a K’zin vessel is used at least five times in the story. A lot of the frequently-used locations, like the bridge, are so detailed and so static that I suspect Harris was using a fixed background, and simply changing out the foreground elements. Other locations, like on the K’zin ship are a bit more vague.

The “Hamstringer’ is kind of goofy, as it doesn’t do any real damage to the enemy vessel. I suppose the purpose is just to incapacitate it so more conventional weapons can take it out. However: the entire sequence with the Enterprise losing gravity was actually pretty clever and pretty interesting on a number of levels. Federation ships are *clearly* designed around artificial gravity. If you lose that, how *do* you operate the ship? Obviously you could hold on to the consol with one hand, and punch buttons with the other. Eventually they’re able to do just that, but how do you get around? There’s no handrails, nothing to hold on to, a lot of areas you really don’t want to bump into, no safety covers on the controls to prevent accidentally, say, dumping fuel or firing a photon torpedo. No seatbelts to hold you in place. No lids to keep your soup from flying out of the bowl and burning you. Nothing to keep you from banging around inside a turbo lift when it abruptly stops at your destination. That was something I’d never thought of before.

And that’s about it. Before you ask, I no longer have my copy. There was a bad smell coming from the couch, which I later discovered was Kathleen Turner folded up inside the mattress (Ah! That’s where she got to after her last appearance on Friends!). She was understandably mopey, but I couldn’t get her out. After several days of fiddling with it, I called Salvation Army and had them take the couch back, and - stupidly - I’d asked Kathleen to hold my copy of “Wristwatch” for me while I took out the trash. I realized after the fact that I never got it back from her before the guys on the truck folded the bed up and took it away.

Ah well. At least she’s got something to read.

Too bad it isn’t a better story.

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS STORY?

Insomuch as it injects human elements into the altogether sterile and communistic utopia that is Trek, sure. Inasmuch as it tells a decent story? No.

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