“Explore strange new worlds."
“Seek out new life and new civilizations.”
Discovering previously unknown alien species continues to serve as Star Trek’s basic mission statement, dating back to the opening moments of The Original Series’ very first episode in September 1966. While that inaugural adventure of Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise demonstrated such contact isn’t always pleasant, many other episodes illustrate how befriending peaceful civilizations from other worlds remains the primary goal. Loftier still is Star Trek’s hope that interactions with such a diverse range of peoples might teach us something new about ourselves.
Over the course of more than 50 years and hundreds of hours of television episodes and feature films, viewers continue to watch the crews of the different Star Trek series traveling to distant worlds and meeting the beings who call them home. In 1996, 30 years after that very first episode, fans got to see how Earth became the host for such a visit. Star Trek: First Contact showed us humanity at perhaps its lowest point following years of devastating war in the mid-21st century, only to receive an uplifting visit by travelers from the stars. The Vulcans who greet Zefram Cochrane in Bozeman, Montana, bring with them the promise of a brighter future we see come to pass in the decades and centuries ahead.
As a prequel Star Trek: Enterprise built on this promise. Following that historic meeting and after decades of work and dreams, Earth’s first truly interstellar spacecraft, Enterprise NX-01, allowed humanity to travel to distant stars not in years but in months if not weeks or even days. As Admiral Maxwell Forrest states in “Broken Bow,” Enterprise’s first episode, “For nearly a century, we’ve waded ankle-deep in the ocean of space. Now, it’s finally time to swim.” NX-01 along with Captain Jonathan Archer and his crew provide humanity the opportunity to make all manner of new friends…along with a few enemies.
Closer to home, the series also depicts how humanity’s relationship with its first interstellar friends, the Vulcans, had its share of difficulties. Divergent opinions, goals, and attitudes are shown to be a constant source of tension in the decades following First Contact. Ultimately, both sides accept there’s strength in their diversity, with much to learn and appreciate from one another. It’s this very philosophy which inspired Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, who once stated, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.”
Thanks to Star Trek: First Contact, we know the official date of that pivotal meeting between humans and Vulcans occurred — or will occur — on Thursday, April 5th, 2063. The date has become one of celebration for Star Trek fans each year as something akin to a real-world “historical event.” Perhaps it’s also one in which we pause for a moment to reflect upon Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s central tenet of celebrating diversity.
Now, since I’m a writer by trade, this is the part where I point you toward some memorable “first contact tales” to be found within the pages of just some of the many Star Trek novels published over the years. Along with the episodes and films themselves, such stories share a history nearly as long as the franchise itself. We’ll start with a couple of easy ones:
Star Trek: First Contact by J.M. Dillard: A novelization of the film, released alongside the movie’s premiere in November 1996. As she’d done with similar adaptations of the previous three Star Trek films, Ms. Dillard takes the opportunity prose affords and gives the reader expanded information and backstory the movie just didn’t have time or space to provide. While the book’s hardcover and mass-market paperback editions are long out of print, it’s still available as an eBook and an abridged audiobook narrated by Dr. Beverly Crusher herself, Gates McFadden.
The film’s story was also adapted into comic form and released by Marvel Comics alongside the movie’s premiere. Written by veteran Star Trek novelist John Vornholt, the adaptation features art by Terry Pallot, Rod Whigham, and Philip Moy. Like the novelization, this comic is also long out of print and physical copies are hard to come by, but as a special tie-in to this year’s First Contact Day celebrations, IDW Publishing is offering a special digital facsimile edition.
The long history of Star Trek stories in novel form includes a number of notable meetings with new alien races. I promise you I’m only scratching the surface with the titles listed below. There are so many more from which to choose across all the different Star Trek series, but these are the ones most cited when I posed an informal question/poll to the readers of my Facebook page while preparing to write this article.
The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane (December 1983): A new form of propulsion makes warp drive look like you’re standing still, but its effects on Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew are just the beginning as the new drive system creates a hole to another universe. This novel was the basis of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Where No One Has Gone Before” and remains available in eBook format.
Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan (January 1985): As the title indicates, Lieutenant Uhura takes center stage when the Enterprise is sent to assist a planet in the grips of a deadly plague. The key to a cure lies in a song shared with Uhura long ago by a representative of the planet, which indicates their race originated on another world. One of the most popular of all Star Trek novels, you can still find it in eBook format.
Strangers from the Sky by Margaret Wander Bonanno (October 1987): This book depicts its own version of humanity’s first contact with aliens, in the form of a Vulcan survey ship crash-landing on Earth. And did I mention the plot also involves Kirk and Spock traveling through time and getting mixed up in everything? Despite being rendered “out of continuity” with the later release of Star Trek: First Contact, the book remains a fan favorite and is currently available in eBook format as well as an abridged audiobook read by George Takei with Leonard Nimoy.
Masks by John Vornholt (July 1989): A classic Star Trek first contact conundrum complete with an arrogant Federation ambassador, and you can still find it as an eBook. Hoping to establish relations with the people of the planet Lorca, Captain Picard and Commander Riker find themselves immersed in a culture in which citizens wear masks to denote their place in society. They’re also embroiled in the scheme of a madman hellbent on seizing control of the planet.
Prime Directive by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (September 1990): First contact with the Talin race goes horribly wrong, resulting in the near destruction of their planet. Kirk and the Enterprise crew stand charged with violating Starfleet’s most sacred law. Since its initial publication, Prime Directive continues to serve as a benchmark for quality Star Trek fiction. Be sure to check out the eBook, but there’s also the audio version read by James Doohan.
Enemy Territory by Keith R.A. DeCandido (March 2005): Want a change of pace? Try first contact, Klingon style with this third entry in DeCandido’s Star Trek: IKS Gorkon series (later renamed Star Trek: Klingon Empire). Just don’t think you’ve got it all figured out because Klingons are involved and that must mean conquering everything. Oh no. It’s never that simple. Today is a good day to read this glorious title in eBook format.
Dead Endless by Dave Galanter (December 2019): The sixth Star Trek: Discovery novel finds the ship trapped between universes and within the mysterious mycelial network which lies at the heart of its astounding interstellar travel capability. With his final novel, my good friend Dave Galanter, who left us far too soon, presents readers with an atypical first contact tale that’s also a thoughtful examination of the relationship between Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber. The book is available in trade paperback and eBook editions, along with an audiobook read by voice actor Robert Petkoff.
There are plenty more where these came from. As Mr. Roddenberry once said about the “human adventure,” your reading journey is just beginning.
Happy First Contact Day!
Dayton Ward (he/him) is a New York Times bestselling author or co-author of numerous novels and short stories including a whole bunch of stuff set in the Star Trek universe, and often working with friend and co-writer Kevin Dilmore. As he’s still a big ol' geek at heart, Dayton is known to wax nostalgic about all manner of Star Trek topics over on his own blog, The Fog of Ward.