The Spinal Frontier: Star Trek TOS Pocket Books #50 – Doctor’s Orders

When Leonard Nimoy died, I was reminded of a book on my shelf that I’d repurchased in the near past but not read since I was probably 11 or so: Doctor’s Orders by Diane Duane, the first of a handful of Star Trek trade paperbacks I read as a kid. My leisure reading has slacked off significantly in the past year-plus, and I was slow in starting this book, since it seemed a touch embarrassing to be re-entering a beloved activity with expanded-universe sci-fi—authorized fanfiction, if you’re feeling particularly uncharitable. However, I’m happy to report that Doctor’s Orders is even more excellent now than it was when I was on the precipice of adolescence—honestly, I’m not sure how I understood anything going on in the book back then—and the only thing that makes me upset is that it took the impetus of Leonard Nimoy dying to move me to revisit it.

Obviously, going by the title, it’s not the real-life Leonard that’s the focus of Doctor’s Orders, but the fictional one—McCoy, that is. After Bones gets back from visiting a friend in Switzerland on shore leave, the Enterprise heads off to make first contact with the races of 1212 Muscae IV, a.k.a. Flyspeck. Yes, that’s races plural—Starfleet is ultra-psyched about getting all three intelligent races on this planet into the Federation, because it’s the first time anyone’s ever encountered a planet with three intelligent races. Those races are the Ornae, protoplasmic beings who use their own bodies as tools and building blocks; the Lahit, tree people; and the ;At, giant featureless boulders that appear shrouded in a dense fog in scans and can phase in and out of linear time. The bureaucrats at Starfleet, here portrayed in a particularly crusty and impatient way that makes you wonder how the Enterprise crew manages to make the strides for humanity it does with all that red tape in their faces, make it clear that batting anything lower than 1.000 will be viewed as a massive disappointment.

With Starfleet breathing down their necks, the crew is exhausting itself trying to establish a linguistic foothold. Early conflict manifests in the form of difficulty calibrating the Universal Translator—you know, that magical piece of technobabble that renders everything for the crew in English. It’s hard to imagine Doctor’s Orders working as an episode of the show when for a while one of the biggest sources of conflict is basically “WE NEED MORE VERBS, DAMMIT”, but on the other hand it’s exactly the kind of scenario best suited to print that an author couldn’t properly explore in one hour of television, making it an extra-special treat.

In the same vein, there are also a lot of department head meetings that sound like a colossal bore on the face of it, but end up being very important in the way that they pull you out of the sly trap of thinking of the secondary and tertiary characters as merely second and third and fourth bananas to the captain. They’re not just navigators and engineers and switchboard operators; they’re department heads, and they’re on the bridge because they’re the best of the best and they’ve proven their mettle time and time again. In addition, jokes and chuckles are in plentiful supply, and there’s a really nicely understated thread where Chekov nervously but proudly presents his own survey report with the gentle encouragement of his mentor Spock.

Throughout the crew’s hard work, McCoy needles Captain Kirk about working too hard and getting the proper amount of rest, implying it should be much easier for the captain to do so since all he has do is sit in the big comfy chair and wait for data to pour in. After one jab too many, Kirk turns the tables on Bones and gives him the conn while he goes planetside. It’s a bit of a shaky premise, but Duane is so comfortable with the bridge crew’s dynamic and confident in Kirk’s reasoning for leaving McCoy in command that you end up going along with it without any major complaints. Of course, things go far more awry than expected, first with Kirk disappearing from all sensor readings, then the Klingons arriving, then an even greater threat showing up, and Starfleet all the while wanting to know how the hell the doctor got to be in charge of the ship and what he intends to do about it, and Dr. McCoy learns the (very) hard way that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.

McCoy is the star here, but another character that subtly gets a lot of great development is Uhura. Duane is smart to recognize that “Communications Officer” means a lot more than sitting at the switchboard opening transmissions and whatnot. She might well be the most important character in the establishment of linguistic understanding between the Federation and the three races of Flyspeck, and she’s also full of great tactical ideas to help McCoy and Spock deal with the Orion pirates. Every main bridge crew character gets at least one juicy passage in the limelight, but outside of the typical Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate, she definitely gets the biggest steak to chew on, and it’s a treat made all the more pleasant by its unexpectedness.

I can see why young Jess really dug this book, even if he only comprehended about a quarter of it. It’s of a piece with the other Star Trek works that were resonating with me at the time, in the way that it’s light on action (only one space battle) and heavy on diplomacy and consciously choosing to push back against your baser human urges. The first chapter is an iffy start, and it wraps up a pinch too tidily with a deus ex machina (albeit a really cool one), but everything in-between is solid. Of the ten or so TOS Pocket Books I read in my pre-adolescence, this was not only the first but my favorite, and as I continue to explore this kick I’m on, it’s set a high bar for what I expect from other Trek stories.

Parts that amused/intrigued me that don’t fit anywhere above: McCoy’s first transmission with Commander Kaiev … the reason the Klingons are interested in the planet … McCoy describing the Orion pirate ship as “a brick covered in frozen spaghetti” … “McCoy thought about writing a paper on dehydration in personnel on battle stations” (p. 250) … the apparent importance of arsenic to the Klingon diet.

Recommended if: You’ve ever been interested in the potential obstacles facing a first contact … you like slightly goofy “what if?” scenarios … you’re fascinated by how the crew comports itself when danger is afoot and their captain isn’t around … you’re intrigued by large swaths of text where Captain Kirk is absent from the action.

Star Trek TOS #50: Doctor’s Orders
Written by Diane Duane
Published June 1990
290 pages

Doctor’s Orders is available for the usual one cent plus shipping from numerous Amazon Marketplace sellers, and also in a Kindle edition for six dollars, which is actually kind of a ripoff when you realize it’s $4.50 on the spine, so don’t do that.

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