This week, the Enterprise is making first contact with a world where three distinct species evolved from a common ancestor and peaceably coexist, and Starfleet is keen to get all of them on board for Federation admission. Kirk gives McCoy the conn for laffs, but when he disappears shortly after going planetside, it’s not so funny all of a sudden. Before he knows it, Bones has Starfleet and the Klingons, among other threats, breathing down his neck. What’s the most alien-sounding Earth language? Is Dr. McCoy a closet capitalist? When Naraht’s not on-screen, should everyone be asking, “Where’s Naraht?” It’s the book that reminds us that the universal translator wasn’t built in a day.
Author: Diane Duane
Published: June 1990
“I like to get in a little bridge time now and then. Stay on top of operations, tactical procedures. And the truth is … I like it. Not every doctor gets to command a starship—even if it is just the night shift.” —Beverly Crusher, “Thine Own Self” (TNG S7E16)
Dr. McCoy’s turn in the chair, of course, turns out not to be quite so uneventful. It’s been a pretty wild ride to get to this one, full of ups and downs. We’ve certainly waded through our fair share of garbage, but now, like Andy Dufresne, we’ve crawled through the sewage and we’ve earned our moment of victory in the purifying rain. Before we sink our teeth into it, however, I hope you will allow me a brief autobiographical indulgence.
Doctor’s Orders was the first Star Trek novel I ever read, back in 1994, when I was 10 years old. I purchased it at a Hastings (R.I.P., dear friend), . Of the 70 books I’ve read so far for Deep Space Spines, it remains my favorite, though a few have come close to unseating it. I also reviewed it back when I was talking more generally into the void about pop culture on a terrible free-domain Blogger site (later migrated to WordPress); said review can most likely be pinpointed as the inspiration for and proto-genesis of this entire website you are reading now. It is no exaggeration to say I wouldn’t be the Star Trek fan I am today if it wasn’t for Diane Duane and Doctor’s Orders.
Enough of my jibber-jabber, however. Let’s dig into the usual plot details. Dr. McCoy is visiting his friend Dieter in Switzerland, reminiscing about old medical school pranks involving stolen cadavers (ahh, youth!), but he and everyone else is called back to the Enterprise because a stunning discovery has been made: 1212 Muscae IV, a.k.a. Flyspeck, a planet with three distinct species all deriving from a common ancestor—i.e., true convergent evolution—and living harmoniously with each other. Those three species are the Ornae, blobs of pure protoplasm that can shape themselves into tools and buildings; the Lahit, walking mini-forests with a vaguely hive mind-ish consciousness; and the ;At2, giant rocks that can phase in and out of corporeality and act as caretaker and protector for the other two species. Starfleet wants very badly to establish diplomatic relations, and they make it very clear that any outcome short of 3-for-3 will be a massive disappointment.
As everyone hustles overtime trying to calibrate the universal translator and get a biological bead on the three races, Dr. McCoy periodically razzes Kirk about how easy he has it sitting back in his captain’s BarcaLounger and simply waiting for reports to trickle in. After one too many of these gentle ribbings, Kirk gives McCoy the conn while he pops down to check things out himself. But then Kirk goes off the sensor grid, and although Bones makes a valiant attempt to wheedle his way out of the center seat—dammit, he’s a doctor, not a captain—Spock bears the unfortunate burden of informing him that short of a total catastrophe, only the person who gave him command can relieve him. While McCoy fends off the triple threat of Klingons, Orion pirates, and Starfleet admirals, Kirk chills out with the ;At, attempting to help it understand humanoid species’ more limited concepts of time and reality while somehow convincing it how it can benefit from Federation membership.
As it happens, Doctor’s Orders is a pretty excellent stepping stone for those hoping to get into a geekier, science-wonkier version of the Star Trek they already know. One thing that has always struck me, on my first read in 1994 and still today, is how astutely it observes so many minutiae of both first contact scenarios and general life and work aboard the Enterprise. This was the first book that really drove home in my mind the potential power of world-building. It practically blew my doors off their hinges as it revealed just how many individual aspects of the franchise could be explored with such great depth of thoughtfulness. Ten-year-old me couldn’t have hardly chosen a better starting point for his literary Star Trek journey, even if his smooth babby brain comprehended less than half of it at the time.
Another point in favor of this one being great for casuals and/or beginners is that despite having the trademark Duane flavor, it features almost none of her usual motley crew of original characters. Harb Tanzer makes a brief appearance in the department heads’ meeting, but otherwise there’s no Naraht the Horta, no Athende the Sulamid, no Mr. Mahase filling in for Uhura at communications, etc. Perhaps she suspected that with three non-hominid species already in the mix, bringing in even more may have amounted to over-seasoning the stew. As much as I love the extra flavors her original characters bring to the table, however, it’s a good move in this case.
I’m generally not much of a re-reader, but I’ve read Doctor’s Orders five times throughout my life, and few works across all media have brought me as much joy or continue to do so. Depending on one’s point of view, I either owe Diane Duane an enormous debt of gratitude or have her to blame for the depth of my Star Trek love. I’d put it on my Mount Rushmore of Star Trek novels without hesitation, and even with almost 600 books left to read, it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine it somehow getting unseated from the pantheon. Easiest recommendation I’ve made yet.
MVP & LVP
- Diane Duane’s favorite character is clearly Dr. McCoy. There’s nothing she loves more than putting him front and center and giving him at least one speech of brutal ownage, if not three or four. That said, I think the MVP of this story is secretly Spock. He could have huffed and puffed and been all Vulcan about the situation, and sure, he does a little of that—but then he buckles down and invests fully in helping Bones succeed in a nearly hopeless situation. Along the way, he cracks lots of jokes at McCoy’s expense and even implicitly endorses less-than-above-board means of getting Starfleet bureaucracy off his back. It can be easy to lose sight of the fact that Spock has a human half as well, but Doctor’s Orders never lets that fact out of its crosshairs. Their unique brand of banter has never been written better than it was here.
- LVP this week goes to Harb Tanzer. Normally he probably wouldn’t move my needle one direction or the other, but in a book where no one from Duane’s usual OC rogues’ gallery shows up, his brief appearance and lack of added value stick out like a sore thumb. Honorable mention to the Lahit, who would be frustratingly glacial in almost any book but really eat everyone’s dust in a story where even the conferences are kinetic and briskly paced. They at least show off their natural defenses once, however, so it doesn’t seem right to give them the whole megillah.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- p. 51: “Janice Kerasus glanced up from her own tricorder, which the Ornaet she was talking to was examining with interest. ‘I need more verbs,’ she said, sounding a bit desperate.” I believe that is what the kids these days call a “mood”.
- Spock, p. 94: “I believe the Captain would say, ‘You should have gone before we left.'” I’m not sure why I’m always so tickled when bathroom talk comes up in these books, but I love it. Probably because I am mentally eight years old.
- McCoy, p. 183: “Spock, department heads’ meeting this evening. We’ll want to make sure everybody is as ready as they can be for this gymkhana.” I’m not sure how I’ve read this book 5+ times and never been even the slightest bit curious about the word gymkhana. Looking it up has only raised further questions.
- p. 202: McCoy is furious at the idea of Kaiev not being able to afford a liver regen procedure, as if it’s something you’re supposed to “be able to afford”. That’s right: our health care system is as backwards as the Klingon Empire’s. Let’s chew on that for a while, shall we?
- Sulu, p. 210: “Massive vessel, Commander. Braking down hard from point nine nine. Point eight nine, seven nine, seven, five nine—” This is an outrage. No “six nine”? I have been denied the opportunity to say “Nice.” THIS WILL NOT STAND.
- I had to look up “gwyddbwyll” (p. 223) to make sure it wasn’t a made-up alien thing. It’s not. But it is a good reminder that Welsh is probably the closest thing Earth has to a totally alien language.
- McCoy doing some thinking on p. 249: I could be a rich man if I worked out an anti-palm-sweat preparation to sell to starship captains. Hmm, aluminum hydroxide … no, too harsh—maybe restructuring the sweat glands; you could take a protoplaser and—No, then you’d only have to do it once, what’s the point in that? For a guy living in a society where profit motive is all but dead, he sure does think like a late-stage capitalist.
- The reason the Klingons end up being so interested in Flyspeck turns out to be because it’s an excellent source of tabekh, a leaf they convert into a condiment called tabekhte, which is rich in arsenic, an element essential to the Klingon diet. There’s so much to unpack in that one sentence that I think I’m just going to let it marinate.
I give Doctor’s Orders 5 out of 5 tabekh leaves. Standalone stories don’t get much better than this one. It takes a juicy high-concept “what if” premise and infuses it with near scientifically perfect doses of action, humor, tension, nerdy deep-diving, and that unquantifiable but undoubtedly real Trek feeling. It’s a great entry point and first impression for those interested in what the books have to offer. I wouldn’t say Doctor’s Orders is Diane Duane’s best Star Trek book, but it is still my favorite,3 and it’s the purest distillation of the essence of she who I consider Trek lit’s greatest author.
NEXT TIME: Geordi, Worf, and Data find themselves on the wrong end of the law in Doomsday World