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  • Ric Crossman

2.1.14 The Cat That Walked By Himself

The Slaver Weapon

The slaver weapon itself.
"Broken... broken... hairdryer."

The Animated Series brings out the big guns.


You can see how "The Slaver Weapon" worked on paper.

This is true in two senses. Niven’s short story “The Soft Weapon”, on which his script for this episode is an entirely serviceable slice of classic sci-fi, when the ink is pressed into pulp. Also, though, it’s not at all difficult to see why the show’s producers saw hiring a novelist at the peak of their critical and commercial success as a sound plan. Drafting in a heavyweight of genre prose had already paid dividends with Harlan Ellison, after all. Indeed, without wanting to take anything at all away from DC Fontana, Ellison’s contribution to TOS ended up being so successful it ended up helping to prop up this show as well.

Attempting to repeat the same trick with the writer of the internationally-renowned Ringworld made sense, then. And for sure, someone needed to do something, if this first animated series was going to offer anything but a slew of disappointments in its back half.

There was, of course, a problem. Ellison and Niven were clearly similar in some ways, but they were very different in others.

And it was the differences which ended up mattering. Ellison had written for eight other television programs by the time he delivered “City On The Edge Of Forever”. He’d ably demonstrated the ability not only to switch between writing prose and writing screenplays, but to be safely left playing in other people’s sandboxes.

Niven, in contrast, had never written for television before, and it showed. In fact, it showed even before he started working on what would become the final scripts for the episode. Two first two pitches Niven made were original ideas, and both rejected as unsuitable. Eventually, the producers suggested he just adapt “The Soft Weapon”, presumably out of a mounting sense of panic.

The result was predictable. After his pitches demonstrated he lacked either the capacity or the interest to adapt his ideas to the show he was writing for, Niven turned in a script that demonstrated he lacked either the capacity or the interest to adapt his ideas to the show he was writing for. He simply filed off the serial numbers, and a rough edge or two, and then crammed the resulting mass into a screenplay. It’s as though he loved his Known Space universe so much he couldn’t even comprehend of there being other galaxies to tell tales in, and other ways to tell them.

All of which the man seemed totally oblivious to. Niven has spoken about how he had to think for a while before he ultimately decided to “give” the Kzinti to the Trek franchise, but notably he doesn’t seem to have spoken at all about the more pressing issue of why anyone should feel grateful for the gift.

Sandboxes And Litter Trays

Let’s talk adaptations. Broadly speaking, I can think of three useful questions to ask when judging a port from one medium to another. First: how good was the story in the first place, and what has been made of the chance to improve on it? Second: how much advantage was taken of the opportunities an alternative format allows for? Third, the flip-side: how much thought has gone into making sure the best elements of the original aren’t hamstrung by the different abilities and demands of the new set-up?

There’s an additional question we can ask in these particular circumstances, where the adaptation has switched not just media, but franchise: how well has the original been reshaped to fit snugly into its new context? If you’re sending a rug to someone else’s house, you want to be sure it’ll match the decor.

Probably the most remarkable thing about Niven’s self-adaptation how completely disinterested he is in answering any of those questions. “The Slaver Weapon” is the laziest adaption imaginable. The story’s original dialogue is merely truncated, rather than being, you know, rewritten to sound like something an actual human being could actually say. The characters focused on are chosen based on how similar they are to the protagonists of “The Soft Weapon”, and then bent out of shape to fit those templates more closely. Every scene plays out as though Niven blocked it by photocopying sections of his story and scrawling atop each page “Let the animation show the following”. The goal seems to have been to preserve the integrity of the short story, rather than actually making an episode of a TV show that works

The harsh truth of the matter is that, at this point in the show, none of that actually makes “The Slaver Weapon” uniquely bad. A lazy port of an essentially solid sci-fi short wasn’t going to be the worst thing the viewer would have to suffer through this season. That’s not the criteria we’re employing here, though. If you’re bringing someone in to stop the rot in your basement, finding out they didn’t particularly make it worse doesn’t actually constitute a job well done.

I’ve already sketched out what’s gone wrong here, but let’s dig down a little; figure out the precise dimensions of the failure. Let’s start with the dialogue. Even on paper, this has never been Niven’s strong suit - he rarely rises above the workman-like, and, as indicated, it’s not improved in the slightest by forcing actors to try and make it sound convincing when spoken aloud. It’s actually worse than that, though, because the absence of prose means our characters aren’t just awkwardly reciting the story’s original dialogue, they’re having to spout its exposition, too.

It’s an essentially impossible job, so I mean no criticism of the principal cast when I say they can’t make it come together. Doohan does fairly well with the miserable, neurotic Telepath, but otherwise the phrasing is simply too leaden for anyone to soar. It shouldn’t be possible to make what was supposed to be a breezy run-around with angry space-cats feel this bloated and heavy, but here we are.

This is particularly damning because of how much of Niven’s lumpen exposition is completely unnecessary here. All the material he drags over from his Known Space universe, Kzinti and Slavers and the Tau Ceti Accords, is completely needless in the context of making the episode work. All that was needed here was a mysterious box from the past, and an unfriendly alien race who try to make a grab for it. I mentioned above that Niven agonised over whether or not to bring the Kzinti into Roddenberry’s franchise, missing completely the fact that the episode would have been markedly better if he hadn’t. Use the name if you must, use the description if you think it will translate (though even that is uncertain – the Kzinti in this episode lack the dark stripes of Niven’s creations, because they’d simply have been too difficult to animate). Porting their backstory over makes everything more complicated, to no good purpose. By insisting the Kzinti appear here as Kzinti, and thereby having to spool out reams of information about who and what everybody is, Niven engages in a classic case of an author sabotaging their work through self-indulgence – making the conscious choice to make a story worse, so he can pack more of his own mythos into it.

Doubtless there were and are plenty of Trek fans who didn’t appreciate Niven’s story talking about ancient galaxy-spanning civilisations they’d never heard of until then, or how Starfleet is revealed to have fought multiple wars against the Kzinti, conflicts never mentioned before or since. As always, I’m not really overly engaged with questions of canon beyond using it to kick-start fun but ultimately pointless conversations. To the extent I care about Roddenberry declaring this show non-canon, though, this episode provides as a strong a justification for that decision as can be found in practice.

Whether you care about the history alluded to in this episode being fundamentally incompatible with the franchise or not, though, it does highlight another problem here. Despite his claim, Niven didn’t “give” his creations to the Trek franchise. Or if he did, it was in the same way a kid “gives” his ball to his mates in the park, before demanding ownership of that ball gives them total control of what game is played and how, lest they take themselves and their gift home in a sulk. He hasn’t come to do a job on the show, he’s asked the show to pay to watch him as he works at his own job.

Niven's insists on dragging Roddenberry’s franchise into his own. This isn’t a Known Space story adapted to work in Starfleet’s universe. It’s a story that takes three Trek characters and puts them into Known Space.

This isn’t an adaptation. It’s a kidnapping.

The Puppeteer Show

Which brings us to the final major problem here – the use of Spock, Sulu, and Uhura.

First, the obvious point: there was never a time when giving Nimoy more to do constituted a bad idea, and that’s doubly true for Nichols and Takei. Removing Kirk from the board is also smart, especially considering Sulu is used here to replace the kind of generic bold space captain Kirk would have been the obvious fit for.

Choosing Sulu in his place is a nice choice, then, a nod to the fact that of all the original main cast members, it was always Sulu who felt most like a starship captain in waiting. It’s probably the smartest choice this episode makes, actually. But? But. The problem is, we’re not actually watching Sulu at all. We’re watching Jason Papendrou cosplaying as Sulu. Virtually nothing Takei is given to say here varies by any real amount from the dialogue in “The Soft Weapon”. There’s not a single moment here in which Sulu actually acts as Sulu. This is almost as true of Uhura, too. The only difference between her and Anne Marie Papandrou here is that Uhura gets to boast about she used to be a running champion. I’m sure I’ve written enough of these posts for you to figure out how I feel about the only reference you make to a black woman’s identity is that she can run fast.

Spock causes even bigger issues. There was no way Niven’s attempt to cram the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer sideways into the role previously taken by Nessus, a Pierson’s Puppeteer from the Known Space stories, was ever going to work. There’s just too great a distance between the two identities. Much is made for instance of how Chuft-Captain is appalled over being attacked and injured by a member of a pacifistic species. Vulcans aren’t pacifists, though. They quite clearly go to significant lengths to avoid violence, but that isn’t the same thing at all. Spock carries a phaser. He’s first officer of a starship with astonishing destructive capability, the closest his culture has to a warship. He’s able to use martial arts moves beyond the ability of most (all?) humans. Being kicked by a Vulcan in self-defence is not some kind of paradigm-shattering event, in the same way as being bowled over by a Pierson’s Puppeteer is. Indeed, in the original story, Nessus is explicitly stated as being insane by the standards of their own species – physical violence is utterly unthinkable for a Puppeteer under normal conditions.

Niven can’t declare Spock to be insane, though, so he just completely ignores the issue, either hoping no-one would notice or not caring if they did. As it happens, I both noticed and cared. It’s the final proof Niven chose to strip as much of Trek as a concept as he could, considering his own IP the superior oe. As a result, the episode ends up dripping with Niven’s disinterest in the intellectual property he is playing with (whilst fretting publicly about his concerns about how his ideas might be used by others, we should note). This isn’t Trek being written badly. It’s Trek being written contemptuously. And honestly, having now had the chance to compare the two, I think I actually prefer the former. A hard-working failure interests me more than lazy, disengaged partial success.

Like the Slaver weapon itself, Trek can reshape itself into a number of different states, for any number of different purposes. There’s a reason the IDIC is so central both to the show and to the way I wanted to write about it. The fact Niven couldn’t be bothered trying out any of them says a lot about him. Not every writer has to agree about the worth of Trek as a franchise, of course. Hell, not everyone who writes Trek has to agree on that – there’s plenty of examples of writers who came to the franchise with a healthy degree of skepticism, and put together some pretty interesting episodes as a result.

But even they put enough thought into the show(s) to know what they didn’t like about them, and what needed pushing back against. A critical dialogue is still a dialogue. Niven’s only critique of Trek here is he reckons his sandbox was better than Roddenberry’s sandbox. It’s a twenty-three minute advert for his own work, which was not only broadcast without him having to pay for it, but netted him a paycheck for the writing it.

There’s a way in which that’s brass-necked genius, I suppose. What it isn’t, at all, is Trek.


2. The Slaver Weapon

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