Saturday, September 24, 2011

Comics: Star Trek!

Scrappy upstart comics publisher IDW this week began a new "Star Trek" series based on the 2009 Hollywood reboot of the original TV series. It's not the first IDW "Star Trek" title I've read, but it's the first new adventure of any kind I've read that's set in the brand-new continuity created by that long-ago 2009 movie (why on Earth it's taking this long for a single sequel is utterly beyond me - perhaps we could speed things up if all the actors sychronized their rehab stints), so of course I was interested. As I've mentioned here before, Paramount's curious reluctance to 'expand their brand' into the fictional world of this new "Star Trek" continuity is puzzling, especially since nothing that happens in spin-off books or comics can affect the 'canon' of the movies. Perhaps the studio is worried any such adaptation might accidentally stumble upon the plot of the next movie, since the free-range of your average screenwriter's imagination has in recent years become so degraded that Aaron Sorkin's Dada-esque turn in "The Social Network" can be held up as genius. Perhaps that worry is present in the launching of these new comic-book stories set in the reboot Trek-verse.

Except that 'new' is a bit of an exaggeration. True, the issue opens with Scotty down in the engine room tinkering with the machines while the creepy gnome-like creature he brought on board in the movie just sits around and watches (somewhere along the coked-up scripting process of that movie, somebody thought it would be clever if the U.S.S. Enterprise's Chief Engineer came with his own gremlin, and somehow, nobody at any subsequent point noticed what a flamingly dumb idea that is, so now we have a mute and hostile unvetted alien masquerading as a Star Fleet officer engineer, and I guess we're supposed to believe nobody on the command crew has had a minute to notice. Sigh.). But then the action shifts to the young Captain Kirk (the visual template here is obviously pint-sized tobacco addict Chris Pine, from the movie) getting checkmated in three-dimensional chess ... by his best friend Gary Mitchell.

And every long-time "Star Trek" fan in the galaxy suddenly starts paying attention.

Gary Mitchell! The cocksure, swaggering Enterprise helmsman who appeared in the show's first real episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," way back in 1966 was characterized - there and here - as Captain Kirk's best friend. In that original TV episode, the Enterprise is on a mission to leave the Milky Way galaxy when a battered space-recorder is located adrift. It belonged to the SS Valiant, which disappeared with all hands some 200 years previous, and when our crew analyzes its data, they learn that at some point that earlier ship's crew grew frantic, and their captain ordered his ship to self-destruct. Shortly after uncovering these unsettling facts, the crew is jolted when the Enterprise encounters a massive 'energy barrier' at the edge of the galaxy. Passing through it causes massive electrical malfunctions throughout the ship - and also causes both Gary Mitchell and psychologist Elizabeth Dehner (one of Gene Roddenberry's classic 'remote' women, described as "a walking freezer unit") to begin developing exraordinary powers of telekinesis and telepathy. They start to lose their humanity as well, and Kirk is eventually forced to kill his old friend rather than loose him on the galaxy. The episode is the first time we see Captain Kirk, the first time we watch him favor passion over logic in a debate with Mr. Spock, the first time we hear the note of personal tragedy that will mark so many of his adventures, and the first time we see him display a willingness to go toe-to-toe with just about any adversary and win (sadly, this last trait would not be passed on to future Enterprise captains).

It's effective stuff, but still: why on Earth would IDW and writer Mike Johnson choose to overlay the events of that episode onto the new "Star Trek" continuity? Wasn't the whole idea of the reboot to free the franchise from the gigantic continuity it had built up over forty years? To create the possibility that Kirk & Co. didn't have those same adventures we all know by heart? In the movie, young James T. Kirk (in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" he infamously has a different middle initial, quickly fixed) doesn't seem to graduate Starfleet Academy with any close friends other than Doctor McCoy - yet here's Gary Mitchell. And although the idea of mapping our new crew and sensibilities onto those old episodes is interesting, why this episode? It's in many ways a clunker - the 'energy barrier' at the edge of the galaxy is never explained (the real explanation would be lack of knowledge on the part of episode writer Samuel Peeples), for instance, nor is the ridiculous idea that the flagship of the Federation would be sent outside the galaxy in the first place. When modern-day viewers watching the episode for the first time learn that exposure to the barrier causes massive extra-sensory powers to develop in those crew members who have high "ESP quotients," they naturally wonder why Mr. Spock isn't affected, given that he's the only actual telepath on board. The answer is simple: when the episode was originally written, Mr. Spock was a work in progress - nobody had thought yet to make him a telepath. Those are the kinds of gaffes that Star Trek fiction (and later episodes) expend lots of work explaining away - why invite them, when you've got a clean slate and all the galaxy to choose from?

Johnson and artist Stephen Molnar do a clean, professional job here - this is an entertaining comic, and it's a series I'll certainly follow to the bitter end. But there are distinctly uneven bits: Molnar, for example, decides to anchor his depictions of the crew on actual photographic likenesses of the supernaturally attractive young cast of the reboot movie, rather than on idealized forms that would be just as recognizable and not have the tendency to look like, well, awkward drawings of real-life people (his Kirk fluctuates in age from roughly 15 to roughly 20). And Johnson's changes to the script of the original episode are sometimes bizarrely counter-productive. For instance, we're told that Elizabeth Dehner won't be joining us this time around ... because she's still upset about a nasty breakup she had with Doctor McCoy! And worse, at the climax of the issue Mr. Spock makes the astonishing admission to Captain Kirk that while the mutating Gary Mitchell was sedated, Spock mind-melded with him and discovered that "no one is there," that whatever's inhabiting Gary Mitchell is completely alien.

First: mind-melding with a sedated sickbay patient, without their permission? So is anybody on the Enterprise safe, then? And second: a good deal of the drama of the original episode derived from the fact that the super-powers he acquired only enhanced Gary Mitchell's megalomania - not that some alien entity replaced his entire personality. Where's the tragedy in that?

Re-doing some of those original-run episodes must have been one of the pitches for this new series, and perhaps the dramatic impairments inherent in that approach can be overcome with some imaginative storytelling. I'd have chosen the first issue of the series to actually show some of that imaginative storytelling (quite a bit of the scripting of this issue consists of virtually line-by-line transfers from the original episode), but that's just me. We'll see what happens in the next issue.


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