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Thursday, May 11, 2023

About "Chekov's Gun"

Until this week, my attempts to write fiction have been undisciplined; typically, I just start writing. I usually have a theme in mind, and a loose plot, but I've never really made any effort to follow the formal structure of a short story--until "Chekov's Gun." So here's the story behind the story . . . 

Where No Earl Has Gone Before
For many years, I've thought there should be a Star Trek story that played on Ensign Pavel Chekov's name and that of playwright Anton Chekhov, who famously believed that if you introduce a gun at the beginning of a story, it must go off before the story is over. Otherwise, why put the gun there in the first place? "Gun," of course, could mean any significant story element, and Chekhov himself didn't always follow this principle. Even so, the pun was too delicious to resist, especially since Chekhov and Chekov are, of course, Russian. 

I was originally going to call the story "Chekov's Phaser" to align with Star Trek lore, but reverted to "Chekov's Gun" to make the pun even more apparent. 

An idea doesn't have much value unless it's used to create something, and at first I had in mind a murder mystery involving the theft of Chekov's phaser and its use in the murder of a visiting alien diplomat. But mystery writing requires knowledge and techniques that I simply don't have. I'd have to come up with something else. 

Spectre of the Gun
Guns, and weapons in general, loom large in human culture and our collective artistic tradition. Guns are particularly potent symbols because practically anyone can wield the power of life and death in one hand with barely any training at all; to kill has become practically effortless, and that reality has resulted in millions of deaths in just a few centuries. 

In action-adventure stories, guns and their consequences are often trivialized or even fetishized; they're tools of empowerment that allow heroes to overcome evil or villains to slay innocents. Film noir, crime stories, and mainstream literature sometimes treat guns with greater ambiguity, treating the problem of violence more seriously; revisionist westerns do this, too. 

But by and large, it seems to me that most people, if they think about weapons at all, probably have a neutral or positive view of guns as tools for hunting or defence. 

In Star Trek and nearly ever other science fiction series, guns are ubiquitous. But unlike, for example, Battlestar Galactica, Space: 1999, Babylon 5, and so on, weapons in Star Trek are usually seen as a last resort; we see this repeatedly through character dialogue and actions. 

That suggests there exists a strong cultural taboo in the world of Star Trek against indiscriminate use of lethal force--much stronger, I would say, than the real world of today, in which petty criminals and innocents are far too often killed by the very police who are theoretically supposed to protect them; where wars continue to rage, and are seen as justified; where mass shootings kill children and trigger only thoughts and prayers. 

Patterns of Force
On the other hand, we've seen many characters on Star Trek take lives. In the very first episode broadcast, Doctor McCoy kills a clearly sapient alien who's threatening Captain Kirk. Commander Riker guns down an alien assassin (after warning her several times to stop threatening her victim). Captain Picard kills at least one of the terrorists attempting to rob materials from his ship. Miles O'Brien kills several Cardassians during a prisoner rescue. And that's not to mention the scores of deaths resulting from starship combat. Worf kills the man who murdered his wife. Major Kira made a career of killing Cardassians during her time in the Bajoran resistance. 

Even so, if a heroic character in Star Trek kills someone, there's usually a justifiable reason for it; or if not justifiable, at least the killings are (mostly) legal in the world of the show. 

Still, it bothers me that we never see anyone on Star Trek go through any kind of emotional trauma after they've vaporized someone or chopped them in half with a sword. In a television production, we can assume that this trauma occurs offscreen. But I think it would be valuable to Star Trek if the creators devoted at least one episode to the costs of killing, even when the circumstances seem to leave no other option. 

The Enemy Within
Here, then, was my theme for the story; the price of killing. I wanted to explicitly show that even if it appears the characters on Star Trek sometimes take lives without seeming to feel any remorse, I think if we are to have any sympathy for our heroes we have to believe their consciences weigh heavily in the aftermath. 

Once I had my theme in mind, I just needed to put poor Chekov in a situation where he would be forced to kill--and be forced to face the consequences of his choice. 

A Private Little War
Once putting my thoughts in order, I turned all the way back to grade school Language Arts classes to recall the structure of a short story: exposition, complication (or conflict), which together form the rising action; the climax; and the falling action, including the denouement or resolution. Following this structure ensured I put the right elements in the story in the right places without missing anything important. 

Wink of an Eye
Following a formal structure helped clarify my thinking and gave me the confidence I needed to try some little tricks; for example, while Chekov's phaser is the obvious "gun" referenced in the title, it's not the only one: Chekov's esper rating and the bronze gunk he gets on his clothing also play key roles in the plot. 

I have one aside: During revision, I discovered a continuity error, and at first I wrote it out--but then, indulging a bit of playfulness, I left it intact. Why? Because the original series had all kinds of continuity errors, and inserting one by accident tickled me a little. Can you spot it? 


Sean Woods said...

I think "gun" instead of "phaser" was a good choice for the title of your story. "Gun" is a much more visceral word, full of meaning and the possibility of violence and trauma. "Phaser" is a much safer word and doesn't carry the same emotional impact.

Earl J. Woods said...

Great analysis, Sean--I hadn't been able to articulate my choice, but you nailed it exactly.

Jeff Shyluk said...

You have just one continuity error? I counted five.

1) Kirk wearing command yellow. By the time Chekov shows up, Kirk was given a green-tinged shirt so as to stand out from the rest of the command crew. It's no secret Spock uses every opportunity to run his hands over Kirk's broad shoulders whenever he crosses the bridge because he (and presumably all Vulcans) are preternaturally fond of green.

2) Chekov's hairstyle changes. It common knowledge that Pavel Chekov spent his final Academy year as bald as a cue ball due to an unfortunate incident when he stuck his head inside a mechanical rice picker. In his first few days on the Enterprise, he wears a wig until McCoy can grow back his hair. However, in Chekov's Gun, you've treated Chekov as if he already had a full mop of hair. The scene where the wind was blowing hard should have whipped off his toupee in a trice.

3) The Shuttle Klapaucius. For unknown reasons, you changed the name from Klapaucius to Copernicus. Of course, Klapaucius is Stanislaw Lem's hero robot who saves the universe, and who is box-shaped just like the Enterprise shuttlecraft (the other shuttle naturally being Trurl, equally boxy). This is all in honour of Stanislaw Lem being the world's biggest fan of Star Trek.

4) The thirteenth being. In the dinner scene preceding the away mission to the planet, the twelve beings and their leader take time to break bread and drink some wine. Fatefully, this was to be their last supper together. "One of you will betray me." "Not I, Blob!" "Certainly not I!" Yet the thirteenth being does indeed allow the others to go down to the planet and perish, knowing full well that he was sending them to their doom in order to save themself. You never wrote this, but unseen the thirteenth being escapes and spend the rest of his days writing counterfeit Woody Allen screenplays. The funny ones, as it happens.

5) Time troubles and chronometer conundrums. Throughout Chekov's Gun, time is unnaturally fluid, either running too slow or too fast. For example, Chekov spends five and a half hours alone planetside without bothering to communicate with Spock or the Enterprise. However, the true paradox occurs when Chekov runs into TENET Chekov, whose anachronistic wristwatch runs backwards (correct), who is wearing a supplemental oxygen mask (correct), and who is played by John David Washington (incorrect). Of course when they fight, we have the suspicion that Chekov is really fighting himself, but when he pulls off his own mask and he turns out to be black, that's a bit jarring.

Honourable Mention: I should have seen the pun. I blame Ensign Enalerty.

Earl J. Woods said...

Those aren't the continuity errors I was thinking of, Jeff, but I appreciate you catching them all the same!