Comics Ate My Brain

December 12, 2007

Extending the Final Frontier: Thoughts on DC’s Star Trek

Filed under: star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 3:22 am
I’m pretty excited about Star Trek Week over at Dave’s Long Box, because it means he’ll probably be talking Trek comics for the next couple of months.

Anyway, his latest post is on DC’s Star Trek vol. 1 #35. I am full-to-bursting about a certain aspect of this comic, but didn’t want to hijack Dave’s comments.

For those who don’t know, DC got the Star Trek license in 1983, following Star Trek II. However, editors Marv Wolfman and Bob Greenberger wanted to do contemporary stories. This meant picking up from where The Wrath Of Khan left off, which in turn meant switching out Spock for Saavik.

It worked out well enough for the first eight issues. The first four issues were a “Klingon War” storyline involving some familiar omnipotent aliens. A couple of done-in-one issues followed that, and then a two-part “Origin Of Saavik” story had David Marcus come back into the mix to transfer Saavik to the U.S.S. Grissom. By this time it was the summer of 1984 and DC had to lead its readers into Star Trek III.

The problem, as you might guess, was leading out of The Search For Spock with anything resembling contemporary stories. Indeed, Star Trek vol. 1 #9 began with our heroes on Vulcan, wondering how to finesse their surrender to Federation justice. Luckily, an invasion from the Mirror Universe provided a handy opportunity for Kirk & Krew to save the Federation from (goateed and/or scantily-clad versions of) itself. Starfleet couldn’t prosecute such heroic figures, so Kirk and most of the regulars (including Saavik) were assigned to the starship Excelsior.

For reasons I can’t quite remember, though, Spock was given command of the Surak, an Oberth-class science vessel, and sent to explore a different corner of the galaxy. I’d say this was done not only to preserve the initial Spock-less lineup, but also to make sure that, whatever happened between movies 3 and 4, Kirk was still getting to know the “new” Spock by the time Star Trek IV rolled around. I’d say the same applied to a new Enterprise — DC couldn’t have one in its comics if Paramount hadn’t introduced it on the big screen.

Accordingly, from issue #16 through #33, DC’s Star Trek was mostly about the voyages of the starship Excelsior, exploring strange new worlds, yadda yadda yadda. DC even did a twentieth-anniversary issue where the original crew (overshooting the 2260s on their way back from “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”) met their movie-era selves aboard Excelsior. Nevertheless, it all had to be rolled back again, to get ready for Star Trek IV.

That’s where Dave’s Star Trek #35 comes in. If memory serves, “The Doomsday Bug” makes Vulcanoids go nuts. It affects a shipload of Romulans and Spock too. Kirk & Ko. become involved in an intergalactic incident, Spock’s neural pathways start to degenerate, and the Excelsior high-tails it for Vulcan so Spock can get the help he needs and the others can find sanctuary.

I think this is fascinating (ha ha) for a couple of reasons. First, Paramount apparently let DC have as “traditional” a setup as the events of the movies would allow. On one hand this seems eminently appropriate, because who’d want to come cold to a Star Trek comic only to find two years’ worth of “Kirk On The Lam” stories? On the other, though, why wouldn’t Paramount want to let the movies tell their own stories, and require DC to publish flashbacks in the meantime? The Star Trek novels still focused on the pre-TWOK era (although designated adaptation writer Vonda McIntyre fleshed out the movies with her own subplots and transition sequences). Indeed, DC’s second volume of Trek comics began after 1989’s Star Trek V, and at first included the Klingon characters from that movie, but soon dropped its own continuing characters and subplots for a series of standalone stories. Certainly those weren’t unpopular, because Vol. 2 lasted 80 issues, but after a while it felt less … personal, I suppose, than Vol. 1’s attempts to create its own continuity.

In short, I thought it was pretty gutsy of DC to do its own thing with the Trek movies. To me it helped justify the comics’ existence, because it added a soap-opera element that the TV show never really had. The fact that it worked even within the movies’ own cliffhangers and (relatively) tight continuity was also pretty impressive.

The second fascinating aspect of “The Doomsday Bug” is its rollback function. It’s the narrative equivalent of cleaning up after that wild party you weren’t supposed to have while your parents were out of town. Everything has to be put back just like they left it. In hindsight, this makes parts of the story pretty ridiculous. For example, the Klingon Bird-Of-Prey apparently sat in Excelsior‘s shuttlebay for some twenty issues, without being appropriated by Starfleet for further study.

Still, the point of a parents-are-away party isn’t to obey the rules. The point is to take advantage of the freedom, however fleeting it may be. DC definitely did that. In fact, its “Excelsior period” was designed to give readers the kinds of stories they expected, without strip-mining the familiar five-year mission or even the less-familiar post-Motion Picture era. (Besides, Marvel’s series was set post-TMP.) I like the rollback because it acknowledges that those stories existed and could reasonably be incorporated into the movie timeline. After years of superhero comics’ simply pushing the reset button, an old-fashioned transitory story is almost quaint.

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