On Tuesday, the third Star Trek: Discovery tie-in novel arrives. Fear Itself is focused on the character of Saru, and takes place on the USS Shenzhou prior to the events of the pilot episode of the series. TrekMovie talked to the novel’s author James Swallow – a veteran writer of many Star Trek and other tie-ins and video games – about Fear Itself and how he got inside the head of our favorite Kelpien.
Saru isn’t just a fraidy cat
Does Fear Itself have significant ties to past canon characters, like the previous two Discovery novels?
In terms of named characters, there really isn’t any of that. There are canonical connections to different factions and different groups that fans will be familiar with. You will see a particular threat force turning up in the story that if you are a fan of The Original Series, will be very familiar, and it is an alien race we haven’t seen in Discovery yet and I was very pleased to put them into the story.
We also have got a couple of alien cultures that have been in the background of TNG and TOS, but who haven’t had a lot detail about them and I have been able to add some about their culture, and the culture clash between the two. And the Shenzhou crew find themselves in the middle of that culture clash.
The focus of this book is Saru, what do you see as the essence of Saru? What is his emotional core and motivation as a character?
Wow, that is a good question. He is very complex. To drill down to his core is that we are presented with him originally as this prey species and the superficial look of him is he is a perennial fraidy-cat character who is always on the verge of panic. But that is a very superficial view and I think he is much more complex.
To me, he is somebody who is very, very driven. He is the first of his species to be in Starfleet. He is very much a loner and trying to find his place. He has this idea of where he wants to go, as the captain of his own ship, and he is navigating this complex world with various species he hasn’t encountered before. And he is trying to find the right path through it.
And he has this inherent relationship with fear, because of his background. He is out there in an environment completely different than the one he was born to. So, to me, he is forever outside of his comfort zone. We each have our safe place and on board the Shenzhou, and later the Discovery, Saru is looking for his safe place, and he doesn’t have it, certainly at this earlier part of his story. And that is an interesting drive for this character.
Tying into the show
We know so little about Saru, and even less about Kelpiens as a species. How do you prepare to write a tie-in book, with so little to work with? How much did the writers room help you out with that?
Actually, it was kind of the other way around. Very early on, the novel was markedly different than the final version. For the original take on the story, I was going to do a complete origin story; where he came from and how he ended up being in Starfleet and what he went through to get to where we see him at the beginning of Discovery. As we went on, it became more and more likely that was going to be done on the show. At the end it was that “This is too good a story to tell in a novel, too big and too important to leave just on the page.” If this is a story that needs to be told, it needs to be told on the show.
In the end, we ended up telling a slightly different story. But, in the process of all that happening, one of the things I did early on was I worked up an entire backstory. It was an origin of not just Saru, but the Kelpien species and how their society worked and the dynamics of that and how that shaped who he was. How much of that will eventually appear on screen, I don’t know. But, that was the basis I used to inform me about where Saru had come from, so I could write about where he was going.
Can we expect to see all that backstory stuff on the show?
I honestly don’t know. The three novel writers – myself, Dayton Ward and David Mack – we together a sort of writers bible for the three of us to work on. For a while, we were all working together from the same source document. And of course, that all becomes property of CBS and goes to the writers room. If they chose to use it, that would be terrific. But, if they decide they want to go in a different direction, maybe they won’t use it. They have the final word, of course.
In addition to Star Trek, you have done tie-in writing for a number of other properties, including Stargate, 24, Doctor Who and others. Was working on Discovery different?
When we were working on these novels during the first season of the show, the degree of cross-connection between us and the show was absolutely unprecedented. I have been working in tie-in writing since the early 2000s, and I never had this level of access. We were signed on a year before the official announcement went out and every day I would log into my computer and I would find that I would be emailed the latest draft of an episode script and sent a bunch of production pictures from filming the previous day.
I did really feel this wasn’t a one-way street. With other tie-in stuff you get a bunch of material and sometimes they give you a completely free hand, because some licenses don’t really care, frankly. Some will be really prescriptive on what you can or cannot do. Certainly, on the other Star Trek tie-ins, we had a reasonably free hand, because we haven’t been working alongside an ongoing show. So, we could add things without worrying about being contradicted or stepping on the toes of anything.
With Discovery, as we were writing these novels alongside the creation of the show and the changes – because every script that is written is not the exact thing that is going to turn up on screen. Some of the scripts that I saw the first draft of had changed quite a lot. It was very much of an organic process. There was very much of a sense of us as the novel guys being able to put a little back the other way, and that is all due my good friend, and fellow novel writer, Kirsten Beyer. As a Star Trek novelist, she is the bridge that allows us to crossover and have these two mash-up together.
How much did the three Discovery novels inform each other?
Yeah. Dave Mack was the guy who lead the charge on this by being the guy to put together the writers guide for this. And he was the one who decided to create backstories for all of the Shenzhou bridge crew. Before that it was just communications ensign so and so or someone with just a surname, if they were lucky. Dave said we should make them into characters and give them more life. So, all of that is connected and that is also something that has paid itself back into the TV show. For example, Detmer, the young lady with the cybernetic implant, Dave came up with a backstory on her and her first name of Keyla, and that has now become TV-show canon. They didn’t have a first name for her, but they said “If you guys have one, then that is what we are going to use.”
Dreaming of the ultimate Star Trek video game
Let’s switch gears. You are also known for writing for video games. You are probably best known for the Dues Ex series. So the world of Star Trek games has not been the best corner of Star Trek…
Let’s be generous and say it has been “uneven.”
So, if you were king of the licensing and video games, do you think there is a great Star Trek game that hasn’t been made? And if so, what kind of game would it be?
That is a really good question. The closest we got to a quintessential game now is Star Trek Online, which is still going. That is probably as close as you can get to simulating the day-to-day Star Trek experience. I would love to see something along the lines of a big open world, action RPG game. Something like Deus Ex, or the Mass Effect series, or Horizon Zero Dawn, or Skyrim. The kind of game where you can play a Starfleet character and get into lots of interesting branching narratives so you can have a lot of choice and consequence. I would have that with you following a character through a complex story, with 70 hours of gameplay and lots of sidequests. That is the sort of thing that I think would make a terrific Star Trek game.
Which era, which universe?
Another good question. Commercially, it would probably be best to do a Kelvin timeline story because that is what most people are familiar with and obviously you want to make a game that wouldn’t just appeal to Star Trek fans, but also appeal to gamers. And as I think of it, the Kelvin timeline would be better fit because you would have a freer hand in terms of storytelling without being tied down to too much canon and continuity. They tried, with a first-person shooter from the first Star Trek 2009 movie, which was okay. But, it didn’t really push the envelope as far as they could have.
Any other Star Trek work coming up?
I am not currently contracted to work on any upcoming Star Trek project. There is something we are discussing, but it is very early days, and I can’t reveal anything about that.
How about your other upcoming work?
As well as doing tie-in stuff, I am also writing a series of contemporary action-adventure thrillers. The third book in that series – which is called Ghost – is coming out in hardback in the UK. The first novel in the series – Nomad – that will be released in the United States by Tor in September. I’m hoping some of my Star Trek reader audience – if they like a kind of Mission: Impossible/Jason Bourne-style action-adventure – might want to give it a read. Beyond that, I am working on some unannounced videogame projects.