The last time J.M Dillard tried to mix Star Trek with horror, it didn’t turn out so hot. The idea scored some points for novelty, but the execution was lacking. But if at first you don’t succeed, so the saying try again, and in this case, the second time’s the charm. Now, just in time for Christmas ’87 comes a good old-fashioned Halloween yarn. Though the premise—”what if vampires, but Star Trek”—could have easily succumbed to risible goofiness, Dillard never allowed it to dominate the story and fortified it with some of her best character work yet. This week, we check out Bloodthirst, or, Porphyria and Loathing in Las Tanis.
Author: J.M. Dillard
Published: December 1987
Timeline: Circa season 3
Prerequisites: Previous Dillard Trek novels to fully grasp some original-character growth; otherwise, none
The Enterprise looks into a distress call from the Tanis outpost, which Starfleet told everyone to stay away from, but they didn’t get the memo in time. Dr. McCoy and security officer Jonathon Stanger (no relation to Millionaire Matchmaker Patti) find a single survivor, Dr. Jeffrey Adams, who looks like death warmed over—or perhaps more accurately, undeath warmed over: tests show Adams displays a number of the symptoms of porphyria, the so-called vampire disease.
Bloodthirst certainly features all the standard vampire trappings: sensitivity to light, pale skin tone, biting victims, craving blood, etc. But it is not really about that, which is a crucial difference between it and Demons and part of the reason why this book works so much better than that one did. The fact that a disease is causing people to turn gray and crave blood is not as important as what the existence of the disease implies about what sort of activities Starfleet may be sanctioning on the sly.
Spock and Bones quickly suspect biochemical warfare might be in the cards, so Kirk puts in a call to Admiral Rodrigo Mendez, head of weapons research, to see what’s shakin’. You may recall the name Mendez as also belonging to Commodore Jose, from the episode “The Menagerie”, and indeed, the two are related, though the elder Mendez is a substantially bigger jerk than his younger brother. Mendez doesn’t acquit himself to Kirk’s satisfaction, so Kirk calls in a favor with another admiral, an old friend named Quince Waverleigh, and convinces him to do some light espionage to see if anything is rotten in Denmark.
Meanwhile, Stanger, the aforementioned security officer, struggles with having been busted down from security chief to ensign after the TSA found a “burning” phaser in his luggage. He can’t break the habit of issuing orders, he keeps showing up late for duty shifts, and his volatile temper isn’t winning him any friends, least of all Ensign Lamia, an Andorian new to Enterprise security, who gets burned by Stanger every time she tries being nice to him. The only reason he’s on the Enterprise is because Kirk was wowed by his service record and believes in second chances. That’s an awful lot for one character to be carrying around on his shoulders. Redemption arc ahoy!
Jonathon Stanger is the standout in a field of great original characters, one of the strongest such groups yet assembled in one book. The love-hate tension between Stanger and Lamia that gradually yields to something warmer is the main draw, but another security officer named Lisa Nguyen has a decent arc where she’s torn between Starfleet and shacking up with some friends in Colorado, and I got quite a kick of Quince Waverleigh as well. Perhaps owing to Star Trek‘s origins as a barely-disguised Western gussied up in space dressing, I think Southern personalities and accents work really well in the TOS milieu, so I’m always up for characters, like Scanner from Dreadnought! and Battlestations!, that I can imagine as having that particular drawl and brand of charm.
What stands out most about Bloodthirst is the rawness of emotion on display. Almost every prominently featured character endures some sort of loss, most of which are either sudden or grossly unfair, and not infrequently both. Stanger’s demotion hurts all the more because he took the fall for his girlfriend hoping she’d do the right thing and confess, and when she threw him under the bus, it created trust issues that, in the present, keep him from getting as cozy with Lamia as he’d like. Lamia is disowned by her family for choosing Starfleet over a life of cranking out babies. Tomson still isn’t totally over losing Mohamed al-Baslama. And even though it’s an understatement to say you wouldn’t go broke betting that Nurse Chapel isn’t perma-dead after she contracts the virus, Dillard nevertheless pulls out all the stops to make the loss feel true. (The scene where Spock watches as McCoy unplugs her life support is the closest I’ve come to getting misty since The Wounded Sky.)
There’s also a lot more unchecked hatred flying around than usual, especially directed at Dr. Adams from much of the crew, in particular Captain Kirk. It can be shockingly easy to effortlessly deify these characters when you like Star Trek a lot, so it’s interesting (to an extent) when authors let the characters’ masks slip a little and allow them to behave somewhat less than professionally. I’m not prepared to say Bloodthirst is a great book, but its willingness to embrace raw emotion did make me sit up and take notice after a period of complacency.
At the end of the day, the virus remains the primary conflict the Enterprise has to contend with, to figure out who’s behind it and to what end. But unlike with Demons, more (and better) characters are involved and Dillard finds more room for other struggles. By downplaying the importance of the vampire gimmick and focusing just as much on the theme of how various members of the crew deals with loss, Dillard gets water from a well that looked to have been a bust the first time around. (The reasons the virus manifests so much like a textbook vampire are eventually justified, well enough at least that I didn’t roll my eyes or make a noise.) Bloodthirst doesn’t quite transcend the sum of its parts, but those parts are a sight better than I had braced myself to expect after the synopsis had me believing it was liable to be just a goofy bit of monster schlock.
MVP & LVP
Starting this week, I’m putting a new section into each review that awards a most and least valuable player for each book. What I hope to achieve is not to objectively assess who the central character of the book was or necessarily who contributed the most to saving the day, but rather to single out exceptional instances of awesomeness and/or ownage, as well as representative examples of what makes such-and-such character the great character they are. Sort of like giving out a “game ball”, if you will. Similarly, even the best of the stories miss the mark in certain ways or with certain characters, and I’m not going to let the stinkers off the hook just because I have a soft spot for these books. So there’s a new little something for you to enjoy on the reg.
Anyway, without further adieu, my picks this week:
- My MVP this week is Lt. Ingrit Tomson. Tomson makes no bones about what she expects from her security team and doesn’t back down or go easy on anyone, but she also struggles inwardly with being misunderstood and coming across as overly unlikable. I’ve been lukewarm on the character in the past, but here I turned a real corner on her. At one point, Vampire!Stanger comes at her against his will and says “I don’t want to hurt you,” and when she steels herself for a fight and says, “Damn right you don’t”, I literally said “YES!” out loud. I’m usually in the tank for any character right away,
- LVP goes to Dr. McCoy. On the second search of Tanis base, McCoy gets stuck bending over halfway inside a crystal containment field, throws his back out, and makes a butt-stuff joke when Lamia tries to pull him out. Stay classy, Bones.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- The acknowledgments at the beginning of the book feature a guide on how to pronounce “Nguyen”. I was all ready to look down over the top of my glasses and chuckle condescendingly at the walnut-brained primates of 1987, but then I realized it probably wouldn’t hurt a lot of people in 2018 to refer to it either. Heck, I’m pretty sure I only know how to pronounce it because of Scrubs, so I’m hardly Mr. Special myself.
- For the most part, Bloodthirst is much better proofread than your average Trek novel, though two extremely bizarre typos did slip through the process: “security” was misspelled as “cecurity” at one point, and the word “whispered” appeared as “whispebed”.
- Dr. M’Benga’s first name is revealed here as Geoffrey; later sources will change it to Jabilo.
- p. 81: Spock went to Wimbledon once, but he didn’t seem to find the sport as engaging as T’Lera did.
- p. 228: Medical staff are some of the only folks who can go toe to toe with the captain without getting slammed with an insubordination charge, but still, M’Benga standing up to Kirk and challenging his approach to interrogating Dr. Adams is pretty rad.
I give Bloodthirst 3.5 out of 5 bite marks on the neck. This is much closer to what I feel successful horror-Trek should look like: accepting a monster-movie premise at face value and glibly rationalizing it without giving in to the urge to go full goofball, all while concentrating more on more grounded concepts like interpersonal relationships and inward feelings and motivations. I wouldn’t want to read gimmicky genre exercises like this all the time, but when they’re executed decently, there’s nothing wrong with them on occasion.
NEXT TIME: A fancy space machine called a “starship” makes its first voyage into the Final Frontier