Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Comics! Star Trek!
IDW recently slipped something in under the radar (well, they might have been crowing it from the rooftops for all I know, but it sure as Hell slipped under my radar) that evoked two different kinds of nostalgia. The item in question is the first issue of a Star Trek series called “Leonard McCoy: Frontier Doctor,” and the first kind of nostalgia is the sweet kind, because the series is written and drawn by none other than John Byrne, and there was a time –it doesn’t feel all that long ago – when something, anything, written or drawn (to say nothing of both) by Byrne couldn’t have slipped under the radar of anybody even distantly connected with the world of comics. Byrne shot to stardom with his artwork on X-Men, made the cover of Time magazine with a drawing of Superman, and has been a fan favorite in the comics world for thirty years. Finding his latest work in an unheralded project by a company I’ve never heard of – well, it gave me pause (although again, IDW might be well known and just new to me, although the clerk at the Android’s Dungeon – Ho-Ho’s belly, too-tight black T-shirt, scraggly hair, you know the guy – made it sound like any actual Quality you find in an IDW title would be purely accidental in origin).
The second kind of nostalgia was bittersweet, because even a glimpse at the inside of the first issue is enough to tell any Star Trek fan the setting of the thing: the famous gap in the show’s continuity, the uncharted (officially, at least) span of time between the end of the 1960s TV series and the opening of Star Trek – The Motion Picture. When our original cast went off the air, they were still in space, boldly going where no man had gone before; when the much-maligned franchise-relaunching movie opens, Kirk is an admiral, Spock has gone back to Vulcan, and the Enterprise has been in refitting mothballs for months. I remember the little shock I felt, watching that movie in the theaters, thinking, our crew broke up.
This series opens with a shot of Admiral Kirk at his desk at Starfleet Headquarters – he’s got the Shatner pompadour of the period, the pajama-style uniform, the works. And he’s telling an assistant that overseeing the refit of “his old ship” has got him feeling nostalgic. Star Trek fans can instantly share that nostalgia (and instantly become annoyed with Byrne’s typically sloppy storytelling – Admiral Kirk obviously didn’t oversee Enterprise’s refit, since when he takes over in the movie’s emergency, he knows nothing of how the ship works), because this version of Star Trek was loudly and successfully supplanted in the movie theaters last summer. We don’t know yet if the new Jim Kirk will ever become an admiral – his history has yet to be written.
Those same fans have to wonder if it’s ever going to be written. The 2009 Star Trek movie launched to much fanfare and was more or less positively reviewed everywhere, and it did well at the box office. And yet there’s no sequel planned until 2012 (three years to make a sequel? Half the new cast will have od’d by then), and in the meantime there’ve been no novels set in the new continuity, no short stories (excepting the roughly one trillion ongoing soft-core porn fan fictions involving Spock and Uhura) – only a skimpy comic book adaptation of the movie (also by IDW) … nothing to keep this new vision alive. That’s not how we did things with my Star Trek (if it had been, there would never have been an original movie, let alone all the rest of this).
That new vision isn’t kept alive by “Leonard McCoy: Frontier Doctor” either … an old vision is. This is John Byrne’s take on some of what transpired during that famous gap between the original series and the first movie – this is his version of what Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy was doing in the missing years.
Fans will recall his scene-stealing appearance in the first movie, bearded (and sporting a kick-ass ‘70s medallion), grousing about the little-known ‘reserve activation clause’ Star Fleet used to ‘draft’ him back into service. This series takes place well before that moment – the beard is still in full force. McCoy has written an old-fashioned letter to his friend Jim Kirk, telling of his adventures with the Federation’s Frontier Medics program, and the story opens as McCoy is accepting the thanks of grateful Andorian colony-leaders for his help in delivering a baby (we’re left to presume there’s a lot more to why the Federation’s greatest medical mind would be needed for that instead of Hattie McDaniel – again, you’re wasting your time if you’re reading Byrne for the words). He and his assistant are on their way to their next assignment when two things happen: they discover they have a stowaway in the person of a feisty teen Andorian girl named Theela, and they receive an emergency summons to the planet Ophiucus III.
Turns out the surface of Ophiucus III is almost totally covered in an endless variety of planet life – the planet has no animal life, but it does have seed-pods that take wing like birds, and giant roots that migrate during the dry season. And it has one thing more: a deadly infection that’s spreading among the human inhabitants. The planet’s livestock are unaffected, as is Theela, who’s eventually pressed into service by an ailing McCoy to implement an antidote that’s long on convenience and short on plausibility. The issue wraps up neatly, and more issues are coming.
It’s not all that effective as Star Trek, but it took me a little bit to realize some of the strengths on display here, most especially in John Byrne’s artwork. True, he shows throughout a weird decision to make McCoy look like an elderly Chinese man, but his lines are clean and neat (his 23rd century nighttime cityscapes are quietly evocative in a way I like more each time I look at them) and relaxed – and that last one is the key: in this series, Byrne is completely freed from the typical comic book convention of bulging muscles and chiseled physiques – and despite the fact that Byrne made his entire reputation off those physiques, this style suits him infinitely better.
Having Kirk in the story’s framing device is a nice touch (nice and necessary, since it’s hard to picture McCoy having any kind of contact with anybody else from the old crew, especially Spock), and it raises a question I’m hoping (against hope, admittedly) Byrne isn’t too lazy to pursue. In Star Trek – The Motion Picture, Kirk quips “For a man who swore he’d never return to Star Fleet…” - But the McCoy of this series seems to bear no such animus. Let’s hope the coming stories angle closer to the interpersonal and away from the ‘one medical mystery per planet’ formula that’s enacted here.
And while we’re planning pipe-dreams, how about signing Byrne up to use this new, relaxed, dynamic drawing style to chronicle lots and lots more Star Trek adventures? With a couple of Trekkies looking over his prose for howlers, of course …