Tom McLean is a writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles. He writes mainly about the entertainment industry for such trade publications as Variety and Animation Magazine, with a focus on animation, visual effects and comic book movies. He wrote the book Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen.
Though Starbase 12 was the best stocked store around, Comic Master was the most convenient shop for me to get my comics fix from in the mid-1980s. Located at 201-10326 82nd Ave. in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, Comic Master was found on the second level of a two-story building on the city’s cosmopolitan Whyte Avenue strip. You accessed the store by entering a door at the far left side of the front of the building and climbed the stairs, took a left into a small hallway and another left through the door into the store itself.
Comic Master was not a big shop, but it was open and benefited from a bank of street-facing windows that let in a nice amount of natural light (at least when there was some natural light to be let in). It had the usual racks for new comics with most of it space devoted to back issues. Comics of note were on wall racks for display purposes. And at the register, a large glass display case for more expensive books. I recall the layout of the shop changed more than once.
I recall stopping in one summer day to find the shop had found almost all of the remaining issues of Marvel’s Star Wars comic I needed at that point. I think these were mostly issues from 1982 and 1983, and included my copy of Star Wars #68, which I wrote about here.
What made Comic Master convenient was its location. I was attending high school not far from Whyte Avenue, so the strip and its shops were a popular after-school stop. It also was close enough to home to be easy enough to swing by on weekends. I recall one day in the autumn of 1985 borrowing the family truckster (it was a station wagon with faux wood paneling, I promise) to head over and get the new issue of Star Wars — issue #103, I believe. I forgot, however, that daylight saving time had ended overnight and found I had to wait for the better part of an hour for the store to open.
At the time, I was looking for recent back issues to the series I liked. One of which was X-Men, and I distinctly recall feeling lucky to pick up for a couple of bucks a copy of issue #171, a key issue in which Rogue joins the team. At the time, it was the oldest copy of X-Men in my collection!
There was an amazing bonus to visiting Comic Master, in the form of a second comic shop located right next door. The name of the store escapes me. There was no sign, and the shop was essentially a narrow hallway with racks of old comics on one side of the store. They were racked in all kinds of strange bags and were generally cheap and perhaps of slightly lesser condition. But when looking for those back issues, I almost always found stuff there I needed but had eluded me at other shops in town. I specifically remember scoring my copy of Star Wars #61 there, which was one of the best of the Marvel series with a great cover by Walt Simonson.
And if that wasn’t enough, another shop opened within a block of these two shops soon thereafter. But that’s another post.
We’re 83 minutes into Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Kirk has taken back command of the Enterprise from Will Decker to deal with a huge alien object heading toward Earth that destroyed some Klingon ships and a Starfleet space station. Decker’s day gets ruined further when his ex-lover, Lt. Ilia, shows up. Spock leaves behind his yoga practice on Vulcan to join up and then fixes the ship so it works. They arrive at the alien object, get sucked in, and Lt. Ilia is killed by a probe and re-incarnated in the shower.
And now, the conclusion of Star Trek: The Motion Picture!
Dr. Chapel examines Ilia in sickbay, mostly to use the set and make the point that even though Ilia’s now a machine she’s still capable of common biological functions like, uh, crying? And Roddenberry’s wife, Majel Barrett, gets in a few more lines to keep her a part of the series.
Decker sees Ilia’s still alive and she responds by whispering his name. Spock and Kirk both have the same idea: It can’t hurt if Decker distracts it with sex. It takes a big man like Kirk to admit the younger officer is better suited for this task, which according to Starfleet tradition falls to the captain.
The effect of Ilia bursting through the metal door is weak at best. They have to hide its cheesiness with quick cuts.
Spock proves how invaluable he is by recognizing almost immediately that Decker sexing up an alien probe is unlikely to solve his personal problem or make the movie more interesting.
Decker takes on his assignment with limited gusto, giving Ilia-lite a tour of the ship that the real Ilia never got to see. Kirk and Bones spy on them from the captain’s quarters. But there’s not much to see: The long gazes between Decker and Ilia are as cold as they are drawn out and boring. The big news is that Ilia reveals V’ger’s plan to digitize the Enterprise and store it in a library — like an early version of iTunes. Of course, Decker’s horrified, as any good vinyl man would be.
Back to Spock, who decides the only way to get this movie moving is to steal a space suit and penetrate V’ger himself!
Meanwhile, Chapel and McCoy are tagging along with Decker and Ilia. Since Ilia was only on the ship for about 10 minutes before she was vaporized by V’ger, it’s really not clear when she and Chapel became friends. I suppose they could have met on a previous assignment, but that’s exactly the kind of seemingly broken plot point the novelizations love to fix and, in this case, do not.
As usual, Bones has the best lines. When he notices Decker becoming aroused (either through those funky monitor belt buckles everyone wore or just by looking at his skin-tight gray pajama uniform), he basically tells Decker that fucking a machine is a terrible idea — an opinion he surely formed from watching first hand his pal Kirk in action. The pacing is really bad in this scene, with even Goldsmith’s score failing to give it any energy whatsoever.
The countdown to Spock firing the thrusters on his suit marks the return of the dreaded procedural aspect of this movie. He can just hit fire and it would shave a few moments of boredom off the proceedings. Everything about this sequence takes on a huge amount of innuendo. The V’ger “orifice” is very biological looking and the sequence has this weird sense of trepidation on Spock’s part. There’s also a sense of obtaining forbidden knowledge, of lost innocence or, perhaps more in line with Roddenberry’s predilections, deflowering. Nimoy does a good impression of Keir Dullea in “2001: A Space Odyssey” here.
Once he’s inside V’ger, Spock’s journey becomes one of the visual highlights of the movie. The images are all pretty great and spot-on, though it’s hard to figure how Spock travels through all of this so quickly.
Roddenberry’s influence can be felt here — there’s lots of tunnels. And balls. Heh.
Even the giant Ilia looks cool, and the mind meld was a good throwback to the elements that made the original series so much fun. It’s clearly trying to play to “2001,” and while it falls far short of that, it’s an admirable attempt and gets closer than you’d think.
Spock attempting to mind meld with the giant Ilia plays like he’s emotionally reaching out to his partner postcoitally. Of course, doing so breaks his brain — and gives him the tools to move on and get a life. As we’ll see later. And it is Kirk who comforts him after the trauma.
There is an alternate version of this sequence that sees Kirk join Spock on this journey. The two of them encounter a little bit of action inside V’ger, with some alien things attacking Kirk, and Spock fending them off. That version is in the Marvel Comics adaptation, and photos of the filmed sequence are easy to track down online.
There also is the extended version shown on ABC and released on VHS that show unfinished shots of Kirk standing in the doorway and jetting out to follow Spock. They are truly unfinished, meaning you can see the set scaffolding at the side of the screen because the matte painting effect wasn’t finished. Showing these on TV with the pan-and-scan 4:3 aspect ratio made it only slightly less obvious.
But the finished version is much, much better, even if Kirk is left out of Spock’s adventure and can only ferry him inside to see McCoy when it’s all done.
Having finally become a man, Spock sees the meaningless of his life so far and laughs at the joke that it is! This is very significant for the character and the story. Kirk and McCoy don’t look like they buy it. And they’re trying hard to make it work, but the script here is weak and the direction can’t save it. The grasped hand, knowing nods, Kirk’s flat summation of all this as “incredible” — it’s flabby, undefined and just plain weird.
Back on the bridge, it should be clear for even the densest of viewers with Spock’s reveal of a “radio” signal that we’re seeing a re-hash of the TV episode “The Changeling.” The let-down is palpable, even as V’ger threatens to kill everyone on Earth.
So thank god for Kirk! When you have an omnipotent, logic-driven, god-like mechanism threatening you, he’s the guy you want on your side. He invented this defense, and quickly sets about — with help from the newly enlightened Spock — shutting down V’ger’s logic with a contradictory emotional argument. This bargaining also plays into the poker element that was part of Trek from the start (“The Corbomite Maneuver”) and continued to play a major role in The Next Generation.
I wonder if anyone working on the movie thought it was weird that V’ger’s yonic orifice gets all electric as soon as it gets “angry.” And as soon as Kirk complies, it opens up for him.
We’re now 105 minutes into the movie.
It’s somewhere around here that a key scene was deleted. It shows Spock shedding a tear for V’ger, claiming that as Spock was before he came aboard the ship after failing to achieve Kohlinar, so now is V’ger. This is a pretty important scene to cut! This gives closure to Spock’s arc for the movie and helps establish the mental framework of V’ger that leads to its decision to merge with Decker. Everyone involved admits this omission was a mistake, and every subsequent version of the movie
I always hated the matte painting of the ship as they exit for the final walk to V’ger. The proportions are wrong. They fixed this in the Director’s Cut.
The reveal of V’ger is pretty impressive. By all accounts, this was an impressive set but also a dangerous one because it was elevated off the stage floor to accommodate all the light effects and more than one crew member took a tumble.
The use of the Voyager 6 probe was pretty smart — it connected Star Trek to then-current space projects, such as the early Voyager and Pioneer probes that captured such amazing photos of Jupiter, Saturn and beyond. Star Trek always relied on having just enough real-world scientific plausibility to be convincing and this really establishes the movie as a work of science fiction as opposed to the space fantasy or space opera of Star Wars.
And it could have been really almost profound in that 2001 way — if only it hadn’t been done before multiple times in the original series of Star Trek.
On thing that couldn’t have been done on the original series was to have the human and god-like alien consummate their love in a cosmic merger. The patterning of Ilia shows itself to have had a greater impact on V’ger than might be evident on a first viewing. V’ger-Ilia now has enough emotion in it to get all doe-eyed and whiny about needing to lose its virginity to its god.
That’s a damn weird idea to think about, and this movie deserves credit for at the very least squeezing it in at the last minute. It’s a shame it’s not more rewarding, as neither Ilia nor Decker have developed personalities that make the audience care for them as much as they do for the classic crew members or even the Enterprise itself.
While it kind of makes sense for V’ger, I have no idea what’s going through Decker’s mind beyond the prospect of being somehow re-united with Ilia inside V’ger. But to do that, he’s giving up being a starship captain, and even his humanity. I’d think Starfleet captains would be a little more dedicated to their missions to fall prey to a trope that’s essentially “going native.”
Despite all the story problems, the movie does a fine job selling the merger of Decker and Ilia thanks to some good practical effects and visual effects. The light and wind blowing on Collins on set works extremely well with the glitter effect added later. And Ilia’s little swagger as she walks over to join him finally gives viewers an idea of why she’s so unforgettable to Decker.
Even better, the glitter effect spreads rapidly and effectively. It’s one of the cooler moments in the movie, watching it spread from V’ger as Kirk, Spock and McCoy haul ass back to the ship, and then it dissipates in a massive cloud of light that reveals — with a great flourish from Goldsmith’s score — the Enterprise triumphant.
And just like that, we’re ready for our denouement. This scene could have been taken straight from one of the episodes, which gives viewers a sense of hope that future adventures would be a bit more fun.
And to complete the weird double entendre undertones of the movie, the climax has produced what Dr. McCoy calls a “baby.” Spock, having now found peace for himself, is happy to stick with the ship as it heads off on more adventures.
So we end with another loving shot of the Enterprise being caressed by Goldsmith’s rousing score before it warps off into expected sequel land, indicated by the final card before the credits.
As most fans know, the critics were not terribly kind to the movie. Neither were many fans.
The movie opened Dec. 7, 1979, with a solid $11 million opening-weekend gross. It went on to a domestic gross of $82 million, which is pretty impressive. Other reports put the worldwide gross at $139 million.
The old rule of thumb was that a movie had to make two-and-a-half to three times the production budget to earn a profit. What the exact budget was on the movie ranges from about $35 million to $45 million. By that metric ($45 million times three is $135 million), Star Trek: The Motion Picture defied its troubled production and poor critical reception to become profitable solely via box office receipts. So profits from licensing and merchandising for everything from action figures, toys, novels and comic books to soundtrack albums, costumes and McDonald’s Happy Meals is gravy on top.
And that doesn’t include the revenues from the then-nascent home video market. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a hit on videodisc, video cassette, pay TV services like HBO, and — as mentioned in a previous post — garnered a big broadcast deal with ABC that saw the extended version air as a three-hour Sunday Night Movie event.
To bring this all back around to comics, I’ll next take a look at Marvel’s adaptation of the movie and the short-lived monthly comic book series thast followed. Stay tuned!
I don’t recall if this was the very first comic book shop I ever patronized, but it was the first one I remember looking forward to visiting. It was located at 10627-101st Street in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, just south of the big Brick furniture store, which remains a prominent local retailer.
The first time I visited Starbase 12, probably in summer of 1985, my dad was with me, and he thought it was the craziest thing he’d ever seen. Even the idea of a comic book shop was still a novelty back then.
I used to take the bus from school downtown to the shop, pick up some new and back issues, and then head to my dad’s office, on the 16th floor of what was once the CIBC building and is now known as Bell Tower, at 10104-103 Ave., and hitch a ride home.
The shop had a bi-level back issue rack in the middle, by which I mean there was a top level of comics and a lower level. They were all filed alphabetically by title, as is the norm. Back-issue comics were bagged but not boarded, and the shop would put the comics in the bags with the flap on the back side of the comic. The price tag was put along the top of the front side of the comic, and the flap taped over the price tag. I assume that was to prevent people changing the prices.
The back issues were the big draw. For someone just starting out, they had plenty of copies of recent issues of most books, going back a year or two. For some reason, I remember the rack as being orange in color. Prices were usually a dollar, or $1.25, for recent back issues, which wasn’t bad considering the cover price on Marvel and DC comics at the time was 95 cents in Canada and 75 cents in the U.S. On the plus side, there was no sales tax in Alberta, so you didn’t have to allow for that calculation when trying to maximize the $10 bill in your pocket.
New comics were on racks around the perimeter on about three sides in all. These were multi-level racks, so there were, I think, three rows of comics on the top level, and the same on the lower level.
The fourth side had a small glass display case for more expensive comics, and a rack for larger items like the old Marvel Graphic Novel books.
I have strong memories of buying a number of comics there: Marvel Star Wars comics, early issues of Power Pack and Cloak and Dagger, as well as my first X-Men comics, which were issues #203, #204 and Annual #9. I also remember going in there the day Classic X-Men #1 came out in the spring of 1986, and also coming home that day with an Alpha Flight Annual #1 and X-Men #209. I also remember buying Marvel Age #36, with the David Mazzuchelli cover, and Power Pack #20 there around Christmas 1985.
In 1986, the shop was celebrating Marvel’s 25th anniversary by having a drawing for a copy of Fantastic Four #1. I remember seeing that book in the display case, blown away that it was selling for a whopping $100! I don’t remember what condition it was in. I entered, but did not win.
The last time I visited the shop, sometime in 1986, they had put a rack of discount back issues in the front lobby. (You came in the building’s front door into this small lobby, and opened the door on the right for Starbase 12 and the door on the left for whatever business was in that part of the building.)
I don’t know how long the store lasted, though I recall noting on a subsequent visit in 1988 or 1989 that it was no longer there.
But perhaps because it was the first really well-stocked comic shop I frequented, it set the bar for the many shops I would frequent in the future.
So let’s go through the theatrical cut of Star Trek: The Motion Picture:
Right from the start, everything is much more serious than it was in the original series. In case you don’t know why there’s a long blank screen while “Ilia’s Theme:” plays, it’s because this was one of the final movies Hollywood released with an overture. These were common on prestigious pictures especially in the 1950s and ’60s, though the practice had largely faded out by the early 1980s. I remember the 1980s well, and the previews — once accurately known as trailers for appearing after the credits of a feature — ran before the movie. These days, there’s about 20 minutes of rules and previews before most movies, so I doubt anyone would have the patience for an overture.
The credits also are serious, appearing as white text on a black background as the theme music plays — over and done with, lickety split. This movie has two possessive credits: A Gene Roddenberry Production and A Robert Wise Film. I’m not a fan of possessive credits because they suggest that one person (or in this case, two) made the film, which is (almost) never true. But it does reflect the behind-the-scenes jockeying for position detailed in the previous post.
Of all the parallels with Star Wars, the opening is the most obvious as the camera imitates the massive Star Destroyer zooming overhead with a loving pans and pivot around a trio of powerful Klingon warships on their way to intercept V’ger.
The Klingon design here is much more extreme than we’d seen in the original series, or would see later in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek: The Next Generation. The ridges on the Klingons’ skulls are huge and they have fangs.
Mark Lenard, who played a Romulan commander in the original series and Spock’s father, Sarek, in the original series, features and TNG, is unrecognizable as the Klingon commander. It is nice, though, that they gave the role to a fan-favorite instead of an unknown actor.
And the Klingon theme and development of a gutteral Klingon language all have stood the test of time.
The new Klingons are nothing to V’ger, who at this point is so amorphous a presence that it’s not easy to always know exactly what’s going on here. As with most sequences in this movie, the opening is overly long. There’s lots of procedural shots showing how the Klingons order the firing of photon torpedoes, etc. And the Starfleet response on the Epsilon 9 station is a scene that similarly takes an indirect route to achieving its purpose in the story, which is revealing the threatening object is headed for Earth.
What’s disappointing is the Klingons appear here and are done with. I think some good action elements could have been brought into the movie if the Klingons returned later in the movie to conflict or cooperate with Starfleet in solving the V’ger mystery.
Mark Lenard, left, as the Klingon commander in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The visual effects here are elaborate but definitely shaky. Adopting the techniques ILM used to great effect in Star Wars, the models are detailed and the motion is smooth and to scale.
The compositing is the tricky bit and it shows the limitations of the era’s techniques. There’s lots of lighting mismatches and an obvious patchwork look to many of the effects. All of this was very hard to do, by the way, working with film and pre-digital optical printers. Even ILM struggled to get it right, as you can see from the transparent matte effects in the original version of The Empire Strikes Back.
David Gautreaux as Epsilon 9’s Commander Branch.
Epsilon 9 offers a first look at the new Starfleet, which is sleek and posh and unimaginably dull at the same time. The new uniforms can’t help but look like pajamas, with their muted pastel tones and leisurely cuts. I’ve read Gene Roddenberry always thought we’d evolve to unisex clothing and that the sexy bodies underneath the clothes would shine through no matter what. Obviously, not an accurate prediction — ever, I’d say — but it does save on costume designs, if not fitting and fabrication.
Behind-the-scenes photo of Leonard Nimoy as Spock on the Vulcan set.
Next, we cut to Vulcan, which looks terrible. Our first image is a glimpse of Spock as a Vulcan monk with long, ragged hair looking up at the hot sun amid. It’s supposed to look like a rocky plain with steam from lava rising up, but it comes across like Spock’s looking for dropped quarters and empty bottles in the parking lot of a cheap Hollywood liquor store. The matte painting is awful. The supposed giant statue looks like the work of a small child and the moving planets are scientifically inaccurate and just plain dumb.
Shot of Vulcan that’s mostly a matte painting.
To be fair, this was not how this sequence was meant to look and this was one of the big casualties of the visual effects production difficulties. But to spend that much money on this movie and this is the result is … unfortunate, as Spock would say.
Storywise, we find out Spock’s been trying to achieve pure logic, a state the Vulcans call Kolinahr. He’s about to graduate, when the siren call of V’ger spoils it and the priestess declares he’s failed. Further mucking up this scene is the dubbing of Vulcan language over actors who are obviously speaking their lines in English. The lip synch is bad and the trick obvious, cheesy and, well, unfortunate.
Kirk’s shuttle zips past the Golden Gate Bridge to Starfleet Headquarters.
We then cut to Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco. I think this is the first official reveal of its location, as Kirk travels past the Golden Gate Bridge in an air shuttle on his way to reclaim command of the Enterprise. Again, the matte painting of the interior is weak and obvious. You can see the borders of the matte painting and the figures in the distance are not moving.
Shatner looks good as Kirk — he’s in shape, had his hair done (or at least Shatner could afford a new toupée), has a spiffy white admiral’s uniform, and brings some energy to a short exchange with a hapless Vulcan named Sonak.
Interior of Starfleet Headquarters. Most of this is an unfortunately very-obvious matte painting.
By the time we get to the next bit of dialog, the movie’s pacing problems are already becoming clear as the next setting, an orbiting Starfleet station, is over-established with multiple long, slow shots of its operations and more of Goldsmith’s lush score to tell us how majestic it all is.
Kirk beams up to an orbiting office platform where Scotty tells him the transporters aren’t working, so he has to drive Kirk over to the drydock where the Enterprise is preparing to launch. Slowing down the movie even more is some clunky exposition explaining the unlikely circumstance of the Enterprise being the only ship Starfleet has around its home planet to send out to intercept this mysterious object that’s threatening its home world.
The refitted USS Enterprise is revealed in drydock.
The reveal of the Enterprise is a sequence I happen to adore, despite going on and on and on some more, while advancing the story exactly not at all. Most of it has to do with Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing musical score, which gives all the loving shots of the upgraded, ready-for-action, all-new Enterprise its 2001-inspired gravitas. The cuts back to Kirk and Scotty “watching” all this as a grip moves what looks like a garden lattice in front of the lighting is pretty bad, as are the optical effects placing them in the pod. But the shots of the Enterprise are gorgeous, lush and detailed. This is the USS Enterprise that the fans always wanted to see, and even though everyone deep down knows this sequence is masturbatory, it’s still quite, ahem, satisfying.
Now, things start to pick up a bit. Kirk returns to the bridge and is welcomed back by Uhura, Sulu and Chekov, who are still right where we last saw them. I do like that some of the new crew are loyal to Decker and wary of Kirk. Had this become a series, that would have been an interesting conflict to resolve.
There’s a couple odd things I always notice in this scene, which is much longer in the extended edition: One is the practical effect that looks like they hung a pair of legs from the ceiling with a disc attached to the feet to make it look like they were using some kind of levitation technology to change the lightbulbs.
The second is the blurring effect from Wise’s use of a split-diopter lens. That’s a lens that splits the frame into more than one depth of field — in this case, a character like Kirk is in focus in the foreground and the background immediately behind him is blurry, while the other half of the frame has a character further back on the bridge in focus. I find it distracting and puzzling since it’s so obvious.
A split diopter lens was used in this shot to create different depths of field.
Now we get at our first look at one of the longest-running sets in Trek history: the engine room. This was revamped and reused all throughout The Next Generation and well into other series and Next Gen sequels, complete with the silly little elevator between levels.
And we meet Captain Willard Decker. It’s not overtly mentioned in the movie, but I always thought Decker was the son of Commodore Decker, who went mad and rammed the USS Constellation down the throat of the alien menace in the original series episode “The Doomsday Machine.” Playing Decker is Stephen Collins, who was a rising actor at the time who’d appeared in numerous TV guest starring roles. After Trek, he starred in a series called Tales of the Gold Monkey, which was a short-lived attempt to cash in on the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, was married to “V” star Faye Grant, and then starred as a preacher in the long-running series 7th Heaven opposite Catherine Hicks of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home fame, before accusations of sexual impropriety with underage girls effectively ended his acting career (and marriage). But that’s neither here nor there at this point.
Stephen Collins as Commander Willard Decker.
Decker personifies Kirk’s fears that he’s too old, too out of date, too washed up to live up to his glory days as a Starfleet captain. (I’m sure this reflects Roddenberry’s own insecurities after being unable to replicate the success of Star Trek.)
It stands in sharp contrast with the admiration Will Riker shows Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. I think Riker is a much more likeable character than Decker would have turned out to be, but we’ll never really know.
A pair of Starfleet officer die a horrible death without having to watch the rest of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The transporter accident is easily one of the most messed up and scary sequences in any version of Star Trek. I don’t know what made that screeching noise, but it’s damn creepy with the images of the figures distorting in the transporter beam. Kirk’s not too convincing in telling Janice Rand that it’s not her fault. And I really kind of want to know what the pile of flesh that returned to Starfleet headquarters looks like.
Another interesting note on this scene comes from the novelization of the movie, written by Roddenberry (much more on that later), in which he reveals Kirk’s romantic relationship with Vice Admiral Lori Ciani, who was the other person killed in the transporter accident.
Fans populate the extras in this recap scene from “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
At this point, we’re a half hour into the movie, so what’s a better idea than a plot recap on a huge, expensive and mostly unnecessary set? That’s exactly what we get as Kirk assembles the crew on the two-level recreation deck. The crowd here is full of fans who had helped keep alive interest in Star Trek over the previous decade. Among them: uber-fan and author Bjo Trimble and “The Trouble With Tribbles” scripter David Gerrold. It’s a straightforward update, then advances things a bit with Uhura taking a call from Epsilon 9 in which we learn the object is 82 AUs in diameter. AU stands for Astronomical Unit and is the distance from the Sun to the Earth, about 93 million miles. So 82 AUs is about 7.6 billion miles, making it at least as large as our solar system as measured by the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. There also is a nice, slightly scary moment in this scene in which a spacewalking astronaut is floating toward the camera as Epsilon 9 is digitized in the background. The figure moves abruptly as the shockwave hits, in a way reminiscent of how Stanley Kubrick moved his spacewalkers in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Stephen Collins as Cmdr. Willard Decker welcomes Persis Khambatta as Lt. Ilia aboard the bridge of the USS Enterprise in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
But before the Enterprise can launch, we still have a few more characters to introduce. First, there’s Lt. Ilia, played by the beautiful and exotic but (appropriately) stiff Persis Khambatta. I thought (and still do) that her shaved head is a great look. I think it would have been really fun to see that character on a weekly series, but it was not to be.
Roddenberry had put a lot of thought (probably too much) into the super sexed up Deltans, almost none of which makes it to the screen. I wonder if every TV show on Delta would be classified by humans as pornography? They were supposed to exude super pheromones that made all the human men around her crazy excited. I think it’s funny that the most obvious portrayal of this on screen comes from Sulu, as George Takei was not yet out as a gay man when the movie was made. Khambatta looks exotic but her performance is very reserved and almost robotic, so the sensuality she was supposed to exude doesn’t play at all in the movie. Her declared oath of celibacy comes across more like she’s some kind of a nun in a convent. Again, if this had gone to series, I’m sure the character and her impact on the men around her would have been more fully explored.
DeForest Kelley as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy accepts Captain Kirk’s request for his help in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
And, finally, McCoy comes along to give the whole shebang a few lively moments and remind everyone why they liked this stuff in the first place. First, he looks like he’s been having a great time with that beard, weird medallion and leisure suit. And, as always, McCoy gets the best lines, ranting against Kirk for being “reactivated” to Starfleet duty. DeForest Kelley was, by all accounts, a very gentle and kind man, but as a performer he was at his best when he was griping and complaining as he does here, with gems like: “And they probably redesigned the whole sick bay, too! I know engineers, they love to change things!”
With everyone introduced, the movie now — finally! — has to get going with its plot. We’re 35 minutes into the movie, by the way. And we get more fanfare and procedural jargon as Kirk orders the headlights turned on and Sulu obliges. It takes a long time to get this ship actually moving and out the door. The movie should be taking off, but it’s done so slowly, with Kirk staring at screens and even checking the rear view window — perhaps to see if the plot was following the ship — that it moves like sludge.
A time-distorting wormhole sneaks up on Kirk faster than the plot in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.”
The movie can no longer delay having something happen, but it looks like the filmmakers had yet to figure out the plot, so the wormhole sequence is dropped in like filler. Even more amazing, the big threat from the wormhole is that it slows down time. In a movie that’s struggling to find a heartbeat, it’s hilariously apt, even at the same time it looks pretty cool. The weird jiggling motion everyone does, but especially on Ilia, reminds me of the sequence in Airplane! with the line, “She’s starting to shake! She’s starting to shimmy! … ” Some of this approach to danger appears to come from Gerrold’s criticisms in his book The World of Star Trek, where he argues for scientific accuracy and the drama of a countdown as opposed to explosions rocking the actors out of their chairs.
Kirk takes criticism from McCoy and Decker in stride.
Livingston earns some of his paycheck here by tying all this into Kirk’s rather limited character arc for the movie. He pushes the crew to warp speed before they’re ready — we know this because McCoy literally tells him so — and then Decker has to come to the rescue because only he knows the new ship well enough to get them out of it.
This is rehashed in a decent sequence in Kirk’s quarters as Decker speaks his mind and McCoy backs him up. It’s well shot, well directed and well acted. The biggest difference between Decker and Riker is that the former is more confident — he’s already made the rank of captain and being demoted frees him up to criticize Kirk in ways that Riker never would have dared with his admiration for Picard. Kirk doesn’t come off well in this — he’s pretty clearly obsessed with regaining control of the Enterprise and Bones is correct in that it blinds Kirk to more important priorities. This idea came up more than once in the original series, but usually in a way that was flattering to Kirk and his devotion to the mission. Here, it’s a defect and a bit of a downer.
The orange-colored corridor on Deck 5 for the scene in which Ilia and Decker talk always has and always will remind me of an episode of “The Love Boat” I saw as a kid in which Captain Stubing was trying to get a specific, obscurely named color of paint for the Lido Deck. This scene would not have been out of place on that show. (And wouldn’t Roddenberry have loved to “cast” Charo on Trek.)
Thankfully, the wormhole incident has slowed down the plot enough for Spock to catch up with the Enterprise 45 minutes into the movie. The feature-level makeup for Nimoy is excellent, and Spock looks better and more alien than ever in his return to the bridge. There’s a weirdly corny bit here with the crew’s reaction to seeing Spock: Uhura gasps, Sulu says “Why, it’s Mister …” and Shatner completes it with “Spock!” And then repeats “Spock!” like he can’t think of any other words.
Leonard Nimoy sports an updated and much improved look for Mr. Spock.
Spock, of course, is a superstar. And everyone defers to his magnificence, including Decker. With Spock in charge, they get the warp drive working well. I always liked the warp effect in this movie, with the rainbow refractions and swirling stars. It was altered for the later movies, but this one is the sharpest.
Spock, Kirk and McCoy catch up in the fancy new officer’s lounge aboard the USS Enterprise.
The scene in the officer’s lounge is a good one, with Spock explaining himself to Kirk and McCoy. It works because there are obvious conflicts at play here, but it’s not until the end that the script goes completely on the nose. But the dialog is good and it’s well acted. Remember that, because it’ll be a while before you see it again.
And here’s where Roddenberry’s novelization weighs in with some real weirdness. After solving the warp drive issues, Spock heads off to meditate in the section of the Enterprise where crew members go for quickies.
Spock made his way to the extreme forward area of the engineering hull. It was here that a labyrinth of forcefield generators and spider-webbed hull supports provided a maze of odd-shaped cubicles which some architect-psychologist had designed into comfortable and private alcoves, each with its individual view of the stars. This was in some ways the most pleasant area of the starship, being as it was a casual design afterthought and without the purposeful efficiency of the rest of the vessel. It was popular as a place for the many pleasures which a crew member might find in solitude or in new friendships.
As he entered, Spock’s ears caught the sounds of humans at love, which told him that privacy was still respected in this area of the ship. He moved quickly on, wishing his hearing was not so acute at times like this — it was the beginning of coupling he had heard and it distracted him. Odd this human need to continually rub this and that part of their bodies together, particularly since humans conducted it while fully rational, sometimes even intermixing it with conversation, which was certainly far from any definition of passion by Vulcan standards.
— Pages 125-126, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture — A Novel” by Gene Roddenberry, Pocket Books, first printing, December 1979.
Imagine trying to get that past the NBC censors.
The USS Enterprises cruises over the surface of the alien V’ger.
Fifty-five minutes into this movie and the Enterprise has finally intercepted V’ger. For some reason, it reminds me of the scene in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, where you start to think that, thanks to Soviet technology of the time, Kelvin is going to drive to the alien planet and you’re going to watch it in real time. But at least we’re finally here. Commence the plot!
The Kirk-Decker exchange is good — Kirk is changing. Spock’s connection with V’ger is deeper and more telepathic than previously shown. The second probe attack has some weird timing issues and apparently a missing sound effect that makes the probe’s lack of impact anticlimactic. I’m sure Roddenberry came up with Kirk’s weird self-adjusting chair, which looks like it’s designed to cover up unwanted erections more than anything else.
George Takei tries to figure out what Lt. Sulu is looking at on the bridge.
As the Enterprise penetrates V’ger, it’s just weird to watch Ilia and Sulu staring at the screen with no idea what they’ll be looking at in the finished film. The images are in some cases very good and interesting and in others less so. The first view of V’ger is of a very yonic (look it up) structure. The images of the ship itself are much better than those in the cloud. But the movie is still yawning along at a terribly slow pace. We are now 72 minutes in as we see the mushroom and complete the first flyover of the V’ger ship.
V’ger’s probe attacks Spock while Ilia realizes she’s about to be written out of the movie.
I’ve always wondered about this strange effect during the scene where the probe is on the bridge. There’s a distortion around the vertical column of light that makes it look like the background behind it has been stitched together imperfectly from two separate images. I like Chekov’s line: “Absolutely I will not interfere!” And I think the images on the bridge monitor screen as V’ger scans the computer are from the Star Trek blueprints set you could buy in the 1970s. There is a bit cut from the sequence in which one of the security guards gets zapped. And it really is unclear why the probe chooses Ilia to digitize and store instead of, say, Spock, who smashed the computer to stop V’ger’s scan. Maybe the probe is a male and was attracted to her pheromones. Decker shows his potential as a series character with that final line: “This is how I define unwarranted!”
But before we can even miss Ilia, V’ger’s anus puckers up and sucks in the Enterprise. The biological look of all this stuff can’t be unintentional, but did it have to be so strangely graphic?
Chief DiFalco, who takes over the now-toasted Ilia’s navigation duties, is played by Marcy Lafferty, Shatner’s wife at the time. Spock’s line foreshadows the Borg: “Any show of resistance would be futile.” (The Borg and V’ger would likely get along like Deltans at a school meet and greet.)
And then Ilia’s back — in the shower, of course. They call it a sonic shower, but she’s clearly wet, so it’s not clear what the difference is. And how does that bathrobe appear?
Ilia steps out of the sonic shower wet and fully dressed. What?
It’s 84 minutes in and Ilia mentions V’ger’s name — the first time we hear it — and its desire to join with the creator. Pixar movies can evoke an entire range of human emotions in that time frame. And, once again, as Ilia is examined and it’s revealed every function of her body is duplicated in exhaustive detail, it becomes clear that this movie’s focus on exploring the unknown includes as primary concerns: What is this alien life form, and can we fuck it? And there’s no clearer acknowledgement of time’s passing and Kirk’s “maturing” in this movie than the machine’s preference for Decker.
Next: The rest of the movie, and the answers to the questions everyone is asking!
I became a Star Trek fan at the age of 6. I started grade one and all the kids on the playground were talking about how cool Star Trek was. This would have been in September 1975, and Star Trek had just started being shown locally in syndication five days a week in the late afternoon — perfect for kids to absorb after school and before dinner. I was an instant fan. My mother told me she and my father used to watch Star Trek when it first came on the air, and would make sure they were home the nights it was broadcast.
The show’s syndication success made possible a good amount of merchandise for the day.
The Star Trek Exploration Set model kit box. It looks like it’s not too difficult to land one of these.
First, it was model kits of the USS Enterprise, the bridge and the “Exploration Set,” which included a phaser, communicator and Tricorder. Each one came with an order form for iron-on transfers, and I sent away for as many as I could. I remember having to wait an unusually long time for one set to arrive as Canada Post was on strike and no mail was being delivered. There was one set that included the Starfleet symbols for Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty, and my mom would put them on the correct colored turtlenecks I seemed to wear a lot. I’m wearing my Kirk yellows in my Grade 1 school photo. (Side note: A few years back I was seated at a press event across from William Shatner and showed him this photo. His response: “That’s wonderful!”)
The offer for the iron-on transfers. I believe I ordered than one set of these.
There also was the Dinky die-cast USS Enterprise, for which I lost the shuttlecraft one day and was crushed never to recover it; toy utility belts and various cheap “ray guns” that came in Trek packaging despite looking like nothing on the show; some cool walkie-talkies; and the Mego dolls, or “action figures” as they would soon be called. I remember having quite a few of those, including a few hard-to-get ones (at least in Canada) that my parents brought back from a trip to the U.S. And I was lucky enough to get the Enterprise bridge playset with the cool transporter function for Christmas.
Die-cast USS Enterprise vehicle with shuttlecraft. It also had disks you put in the saucer and when you turned the bridge they’d fire out the front.
The USS Enterprise bridge playset from Mego was made of printed heavy cardboard with a vinyl coating on it. The chair and helm were very cheap. But the real attraction was the transporter. You’d put a figure in on side, spin the top and then press the right button to stop it on the other side and it emulated the look of the show! They used the same thing for the tornado in the Wizard of Oz set my sister had.
The Mego Star Trek Walkie Talkies were pretty cool. They were much bigger than the ones on the show, but they did work reasonably well.
These cheap utility belt toy sets were common in the 1970s, though this was easily the best, with accurate looking versions of the phaser, communicator and tricorder.
But time moves on, and a cooler space show came along the next year: Space: 1999. That was what my friends and I were all into in 1976-77, with season two episodes airing weekly on the CBC on Saturday afternoons, to be followed by a couple of curling matches and, hopefully, a good cartoon from the NFB before Hockey Night in Canada came on at 6 p.m. I was wearing my Space: 1999 costume, in fact, the night my parents shoveled us all in the car at the end of the school year to go to the drive-in and see a new movie called Star Wars. (That’s a whole other story.)
Back cover ad that appeared on August 1979 issues of Marvel comics. Note the shared screenplay credit for Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston. This scan was from a copy of X-Men #124. This would have appeared on newsstands in April or May of 1979.
I was primarily aware of Star Trek: The Motion Picture from the ads that appeared on the backs of comic books in the year or so leading up to its release. I saw the movie the day after it opened, on Saturday, Dec. 8, 1979, at the Paramount Theater in Edmonton as part of a friend’s birthday party. I liked it a lot while I was watching it. What’s not to like? It’s space! It’s Star Trek! It looks cool! But the memory of the movie faded really fast. By Christmas, you would have had to remind me that I’d seen it.
Not anymore. I previously owned two copies on VHS: one the letterboxed theatrical cut and the other the home video extended cut. I have the Director’s Cut on DVD (more on that later). And now I have on Blu-ray the original theatrical cut, which I popped in the other night to run through one … more … time.
Note: This is a post I meant to write about six or seven months ago, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Stuff happened, but I still have a lot to say on this topic. So here’s a belated tribute to the movie’s anniversary, told in three parts.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of the most divisive entries in the decades-long canon of Star Trek.
Much like the return of Star Wars twenty years later, Star Trek: The Motion Picture faced high expectations from a fan base that had patiently waited a decade for a continuation of the beloved series. Weighed down by behind-the-scenes production problems that have become legendary in their own right, the movie upon release was heavily criticized for its languid pacing, meandering direction and lack of action. Coming just two years after Star Wars had sparked a sci-fi and visual-effects boom, the movie was not-unfairly dubbed Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and Spockalypse Now by fans and critics upon its release Dec. 7, 1979.
Despite its many flaws, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an unlikely hit. It failed to generate toy sales and licensing revenue along the lines of Star Wars, but Trek fans tenaciously indulged in enough repeat viewings to deliver an impressive domestic box-office take of $82 million and a worldwide gross around $175 million. That made it the No. 5 film of the year, ahead of Ridley Scott’s Alien and just behind Apocalypse Now, Rocky II and The Amityville Horror. Kramer vs. Kramer was the year’s top-grosser, with $106 million in domestic ticket sales.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture also ended up being a hit in the then-new secondary market of home video, becoming a top rental on videocassette and the short-lived videodisc format upon its release in 1981. And it was further boosted by its airing as an ABC Sunday Night Movie in 1983, which restored some 12 minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version. The restored scenes had a huge impact on the story, including as it does a scene where Spock comes to terms with his own internal conflicts and sheds a tear for V’ger. The extended edition was released on home video to become the definitive version for fans. And a director’s cut was released on DVD in 2000, with Robert Wise going back in to polish the edit and finish several sequences that fell victim to tight deadlines.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture had a long development history. Production on the original Star Trek series was never smooth, from the original 1964 pilot starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike that NBC rejected, to the then-unheard-of second pilot with William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk, through the fight to save the show from cancelation and its eventual demise. Most accounts from people who were there portray an often-chaotic production.
After Trek ended its original TV run in 1969, Roddenberry tried to move on to other projects with little success. He wrote and produced the feature Pretty Maids All in a Row, a screwball romantic comedy which starred Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, Telly Savalas, Roddy McDowell and featured Trek veterans Jimmy Doohan and William Campbell. If you’ve never heard of it, you’re not alone. And his Trek-like attempts to do more sci-fi concepts on TV struggled to find an audience, with Genesis II, The Questor Tapes and Planet Earth all airing as TV movies but failing to make it to series.
Realizing Trek would likely be his one and only golden egg, Roddenberry moved back to the property in the early 1970s as Star Trek’s syndication success was skyrocketing. He succeeded in getting Trek back on the air as an animated series, but that was (unfairly, I think) dismissed by pretty much everyone as kids’ stuff, with the real goal being a live-action reunion of the original cast on the small screen or the big screen.
Entire books have been written about the back-and-forth between Roddenberry and Paramount on the issue of reviving Star Trek. Those plans were constantly in flux, taking the shape at various times of a low-budget feature series similar to Planet of the Apes, a series of 90-minute TV movies, a weekly hourlong TV series and, again, as a feature film of some kind. What eventually clicked was a return to the TV series format as Star Trek: Phase II, which would premiere in 1978 as the flagship show of Paramount’s planned fourth television network.
Most Trek fans know what follows: Roddenberry reworked the series, taking on suggestions most notably from the detailed and loving critique offered by “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode writer David Gerrold in his 1972 book (revised in 1984), The World of Star Trek. Among the changes: Kirk was too valuable as the captain of the Enterprise to go into dangerous situations each week, so an executive officer was created to handle that part of the job in Willard Decker. Decker also had some emotional baggage in his relationship with the ship’s new navigator, Lt. Ilia, who was from a planet where sexual relations was just how they got along. (This idea was never explained beyond the idea that Deltans just had sex with each other at the drop of a hat and it was normal for them. Being promiscuous is one thing, but the idea that you’d go into, say, a business meeting and do something sexual as a form of greeting is, well, strange and, frankly, sounds more than a little exhausting.) Chekov got promoted to chief security officer and Nurse Chapel, played by Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett, was promoted to doctor. When Leonard Nimoy refused to return to the daily makeup routine that Spock called for, Roddenberry created a replacement in Xon, a full-blooded Vulcan science officer who instead of trying to control his emotional side like Spock sought to discover that side of himself as a way to better work with and relate to his crew mates. (If any of this sounds familiar, just change the names of Decker, Ilia and Xon to Riker, Troi and Data, and you’ve got half the crew set for Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
The success of Star Wars lit a fire under Paramount, which invested a lot in developing Star Trek: Phase II. What’s especially interesting is that the show never had a chance. Announced in the summer of 1977, it was clear by early August that Paramount’s fourth network didn’t have the support to ever get off the ground. In the book Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the Reeves-Stevens write that Paramount’s then chief Michael Eisner decided in a meeting Aug. 3 that the pitch for the pilot “In Thy Image” was feature worthy and in that moment the series was dead. But it was a secret kept in that meeting for four long months, during which time scripts were written that would never be produced and sets half-built while behind-the-scenes machinations progressed on the real project, which was the feature. The great expense was apparently justified by the idea that if Paramount decided a year after the feature to return to TV, they’d have a dozen scripts already in the can and ready to go.
Meanwhile, the production cast Stephen Collins as Decker, Persis Khambatta as Ilia and David Gautreax as Xon. Coming on as director was Robert Wise, a true Hollywood legend who started as an editor on Citizen Kane before directing such classics as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and West Side Story. Heck, even Leonard Nimoy agreed to come back, demoting Gautreaux to a cameo as the commander of the Epsilon 9 station in the final movie.
It looked at this point like a feature would be smooth sailing, but the production was anything but. The script, first and foremost, needed to be updated to work as a feature. Veteran TV writer Harold Livingston was brought on board and began running afoul of Roddenberry, who constantly interfered in the scripting process by poorly rewriting pages that didn’t need it and setting everything back with substandard work. Livingston quit and was re-hired several times by Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Roddenberry, it seems, was trying to earn a screenplay credit by any means necessary, with his rewrites providing evidence he could submit to the WGA to earn that credit — and the money that came with it. (Roddenberry pulled a similar stunt with original series composer Alexander Courage, writing lyrics to the show’s theme song that were never meant to be used as a way to earn half the writing credit and therefore half the royalties from the tune. Courage never again worked on Star Trek.) Final writing credits went to Foster for story and Livingston for screenplay. You can read one version of the script here.
So production began without a finished script, which is never a good idea. With the movie shot almost exclusively on sound stages, production proceeded largely in story order. That explains why the movie’s plot is so vague for so long, treading water with lengthy re-introductions of the crew members and the USS Enterprise. DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, as usual, point out the idiocy of this with one of the movie’s best lines: “Why is any object we don’t understand always called a thing?”
At some point, clauses in the contracts of Shatner and Nimoy kicked in to give them story approval, so production slowed down again as everyone tried to figure out an ending to the movie. There were reportedly days where scenes were written in the morning for the cast and crew to shoot later that day.
The ending they did come up with is actually pretty good, though the middle of the movie is a serious slog. The alien object is revealed to be Earth’s primitive Voyager 6 probe, given the ability by an advanced race of alien machines to complete it mission of gathering all data possible and returning it to its creator. Along the way, it amassed so much data it became sentient. But it lacks the emotional side it needs to move to the next level. So V’ger seeks to merge with its creator, which it does with Decker, and moves into the next realms.
Having finished principal photography, Star Trek: The Motion Picture moved into its next disastrous phase: creating the visual effects. Again, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kindhad pushed visual effects to a new level and shown their storytelling potential. And in the wake of Luke Skywalker’s rush down the Death Star trench, there was no way effects like those used on the original Star Trek series or on more recent efforts like 2001: A Space Odysseyor Space: 1999 were going to cut it. But George Lucas and his team at ILM, which created those effects and innovated those techniques, were working on The Empire Strikes Back. That meant Star Trek: The Motion Picture had to go elsewhere to find work that lived up to that level — a very tall order.
By all accounts, the original effects team, Robert Abel & Associates, spent somewhere north of a million dollars and had produced almost no usable footage. Adding to the pressure, Paramount pre-sold the movie to exhibitors, who had forked over significant advances for the right to screen the finished movie on Dec. 7, 1979. That money had helped Paramount finance the movie, but it also meant the release date couldn’t budge. It was a mad scramble to finish the movie and several important shots and major sequences got lost in the shuffle.
Wise also was battling the studio over the final cut of the film, with the studio pushing a version that featured more of the expensive VFX it was paying for while Wise was trying to balance the story. The mad race to finish the movie left Wise without a chance to test screen the movie with an audience, which he said for years afterward would have helped improve the balance of VFX spectacle and story.
Standing out as a triumph amid this scramble is the iconic score composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Reportedly, Goldsmith’s original score was found lacking by Roddenberry, Wise and the Paramount brass. They wanted a triumphant theme along the lines of John Williams’ score for — you guessed it — Star Wars. Goldsmith came up with a theme on the spot that satisfied everyone and went on to become an iconic part of Trek’s musical history, returning in subsequent features and as the theme for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Finishing the film truly came down to the wire. Final effects sequences were cut by hand into each individual print of the movie on a Paramount soundstage occupied by hundreds of film canisters waiting to be shipped out. Wise himself carried the print shown at the Washington, D.C., premiere with him on his flight out of Los Angeles.
Fan reaction could be summed up as disappointed but grateful for the movie’s existence. The box office results were not in Star Wars territory, but they did reveal an audience existed for Star Trek. And the movie turned a profit despite the studio calculating a then-record production budget of $44 million that — fair or not — included all the development costs of Star Trek: Phase II and likely all the way back to the early 1970s.
That success opened the door for more Star Trek, albeit versions that were much less extravagant.
“Secret Six” #7 is another superior issue, suggesting the series could have done some really cool stuff it this wasn’t the final issue.
This period was a tough one for comics. The Silver Age was winding down, the industry was facing distribution issues amid a volatile economy and a new series was bound to struggle for sales. Of the “DC Experiment” titles Jacobs and Jones lauded in “The Comic Book Heroes,” none was a commercial hit. But, as they write:
“But the experiment had been an exciting one, and the field seemed suddenly flushed with the rcognition of its newly expanding horizons. Anything, it now appeared, might be tackled in the medium.”
Titled “An Eye for an Eye,” this issue strangly lacks credits for the usual creative team of E. Nelson Bridwell on plot, Joe Gill on script and Jack Sparling on art. The story shines a spotlight on Carlo Di Rienzi, who is back on stage pulling off impossible feats as an illusionist. Like this one:
Not sure why he doesn’t just walk around the wall, but OK, it’s comics.
On the way home, he’s kidnapped and chained up by some tough guys who want to know where to find Mike Tempest, a.k.a. Tiger Force. Carlo, of course, refuses and conveniently flashes back to that time he rebuffed mobsters pushing on him a protection racket. The result of that was the mobsters blowing up his house as he pulled up in a car marked “Carlo the Great.”
Page 8 is pretty effective in showing the aftermath, and generating a lot of sympathy for Carlo. Bat-fans will surely see some similarity between this and the famous “Death in the Family” storyline from Batman #426-429.
Torture’s terrible, but Sparling’s art on pages 11 and 12 look great. There’s a strong EC influence here, with a solid dose of noir that is, again, very unusual for DC books of the era, if not just about any entertainment of the era. The coloring on panel 4 of page 11 is a great example of how to use the simple options of the day to create drama.
Pages 13 and 14
All of it leads up to this cool spread in which King Savage and Crimson Dawn come to the rescue and deliver a Kirkian beat-down on these pug-ugly mobsters. Sparling does great work here and his version of King is the closest he’s gotten to channeling the influential power of Jack Kirby’s work. I love Crimson’s double-handed Kirk chop and wonder how and why that move was so popular in the 1960s. It’s clearly worthless, taking away all the leverage. It looks cool, though it also always reminds me of the fight scene between Nicolas Cage and John Goodman in “Raising Arizona” where Cage lifts his hands to deliver a Kirk blow and scrapes his knuckles across the rough popcorn ceiling. Excellent stuff.
There’s some great “Mission: Impossible” stuff on page 19 with a disguised dummy, followed by a great, moody finale with big, even wordless panels.
And then it’s all over. The final page is only a partial page, and “Secret Six” comes to an unexpected end without revealing the identity of Mockingbird and many interesting missions untold.
“Secret Six” wouldn’t return to comics form until 1988, when DC converted “Action Comics” into an anthology titled “Action Comics Weekly,” which featured 48 pages of comics a week. The debut of this format in “Action Comics Weekly” #601 featured the debut of a new “Secret Six” serial written by the recently departed Martin Pasko and drawn by Dan Speigle.
Action Comics Weekly #601 (May 24, 1988). Art by Dave Gibbons.
It was a continuation of the original series, though the intervening years had passed. The original Six was all still alive, though much older, as Mockingbird assembled a new Secret Six. The identity of Mockingbird was eventually revealed in one of the later episodes, and “Action Comics Weekly” only ran 41 issues before returning to its previous format as a monthly Superman title. And when DC revived Secret Six in the early 21st century, it used the name for a completely concept and set of characters.
Does “Secret Six” hold up? Yes and no. The early issues in particular are a real struggle to get through, but readers who stick with it will get to some really nice vintage storytelling that stands out for its time as well as for today. Definitely a fun one to visit — or revisit, as the case may be.
“Secret Six” #6 (March 1969) is the best of the series short run.
Up front, the cover really stands out amid the other books DC and Marvel were publishing in 1968. It’s gritty, with just a hint of sex appeal.
This issue puts the spotlight on Lili De Neuve, as a famous actress is murdered in her spa. The plot gets a bit complex, but it goes something like this: the murdered actress, Jeanne Gautier, years ago murdered a high profile producer whose death was blamed on Lili, who did visit the scene after the murder. Mockingbird arranged an alibi for Lili that saved her from being guillotined for the producer’s murder. But Jeanne is the only person beside Mockingbird who knows the alibi is false as she saw Lili at the crime scene. Got it?
So the Secret Six investigate the scene of the crime and link it to Marcel Valory, who was Jeanne’s ex-boyfriend.
King and Mike head off to find Valory and run straight into trouble at the Casino Royale. This is pretty great fight scene with the tough guys rolling up their sleeves and then figures flying through the air. Sparling brings a nice, cartoony style to this scene that’s just the right mix of tough and fun.
And here’s where it gets really fun, as Crimson heads to the beach to turn Valory’s head and distract him. The coloring gets strange on this page with a full figure of Crimson revealing herself on the beach in a bikini — I think those are supposed to be sunglasses she’s wearing, not a blindfold. Sparling shows off some really nice figure work here and makes Crimson a total knockout without resorting to the kind of oversexualized brokeback stuff that came in later comics.
And it gets better, with the first of two splash pages in this issue showing what happens when King Savage comes over and plays the bully to evoke a more aggressive response from Valory. Sparling again shows his figure drawing skills and proves he can draw men as well as he can draw women.
And that leads directly into page 14, wrapping up the sequence in great style. What makes this really great is the facial expressions: Valory in shadow and Crimson with wild smile. I also like Valory’s clenched fist, the way they’re holding hands and Crimson’s twirling of the sunglasses as King lies defeated in the sand. Great stuff!
This wraps up in typical Secret Six fashion, with Lili disguising herself as Jeanne Gautier to get a confession from Valory in front of a live theater audience. And yes, that’s as weird as it sounds. Page 20 has some great coloring, though, making the most of the three available shades of cyan to give the scene depth. And page 22 resorts to the old trope of using the sandbags whenever a chase scene heads backstage at a theater. Crimson, of course, delivers the final blow with a bit of panache.
In all, a really fun issue, but sadly there’s only one more to go before cancellation.
“Secret Six” #6 (Jan. 1969). Art by Jack Sparling.
If you needed more proof Crimson Dawn was the breakout star of “Secret Six,” the cover to issue #6 (Jan. 1969) should seal the deal. The cover is by far the series’ best so far, with Jack Sparling’s art having a clear sense of depth that’s accentuated by the excellent use of color and that nice, big logo pasted on at an angle. Good stuff.
The plot this issue is less important than how it opens the door for E. Nelson Bridwell and Joe Gill’s script to tell the tale of how Crimson Dawn got started. It involves stolen crown jewels that, if not recovered, will allow political forces unfriendly to Western interests to take power. The man behind the theft turns out to be Johnny Bright, the man who stole — and then promptly crushed — Crimson Dawn’s heart and finances.
Sparling again makes all this stuff work better than it should. On page two alone, he has inky black silent panels and a nice central image featuring the Secret Six in disguise that shows off Sparling’s ability to delineate character.
As with the previous issue’s venture into China, Crimson’s origin runs afoul of modern politically correct conventions by showing one of her major flaws to be that she’s fat. Of course, being large, she though no man would ever love her, giving Johnny the chance to sweep in and make off with the family fortunes. And now, Crimson’s family is so angry with her, she has to disguise herself — by losing all that weight and becoming a fabulous model, all thanks to Lili De Neuve’s luxe French spa.
So, furthering the plot, Crimson Dawn now looks so not-fat, that Johnny fails to recognize her at all and only her similar name — she was previously Kit Dawn — gives him pause to mention it all.
Sparling again does a good jobs playing with contemporary trends, with a handful of pages with odd angles to the panels and in a modern dress that is good-looking enough to avoid being too dated.
There’s some good “Mission: Impossible”-style action going on with people wearing disguises, etc. There’s a nice silent action sequence on page 13, another diamond-shaped panel layout on page 14.
Page 16 goes a step too far with the jagged panel layouts proving a distraction from the story, and Crimson’s now-dated line “That turns me on, Johnny!” (I can’t read that line without hearing Andrea Martin as perpetually harassed yet starstruck Miss Purdy in the classic SCTV sketch “The Nutty Lab Assistant,” where she says “How about it? John?” in asking musical guest star John Cougar [pre-Mellencamp] to sing his hit “Jack & Diane” for her again. See the clip below, about 6:55.)
It’s much the same on page 21, where Crimson reveals her real identity to Johnny. Of course, the jewels are saved, and everyone’s so impressed with Crimson that they wonder aloud if she could be Mockingbird.
Of course, readers are told to come back next issue to see if that might be true!
A mess of a cover for “Secret Six” #4 (Nov. 1968). Art by Jack Sparling.
The covers on “Secret Six” #3 and #4 are my least favorite things about those issues. Neither is strong but #4 in particular is a weird mess of an image muddled by an orange and brown mess of color and a too-small logo. I like big, bold logos that you can see from across the room.
The plot this time is a standard Cold War scenario given a touch of currency by being set in China instead of the Soviet Union. China was a closed society at the time as it underwent from 1966-1976 the Cultural Revolution, which was meant to correct the deficiencies of the Great Leap Forward five years earlier. Millions died in both events, though exact numbers are hard to pin down. I think pop culture would have dealt very differently with China in the 1960s had events been better known and understood in the West. Anyway, this story starts with disgraced General Pao waiting in his cell for execution, when King Savage enters and puts a real scare in him on the splash page.
Jack Sparling again shows he’s a good match for the material, giving the series’ unusual need for exposition a nice touch on pages two and three by really putting a sense of personality and even fun into the poses for each character. I especially like Mike Tempest showing off his muscles and Crimson Dawn doing much the same.
King Savage gets the backstory treatment this issue, starting off with his reckless youth racing dragsters and segueing into flying fighters in the Korean War. He’s shot down, captured and forced to talk by none other than General Pao, before Mockingbird arranges his escape and heroic return. Sparling pulls out the EC card for this sequence, delivering a really scratchy and moody sequence that fits the sequence well. The coloring, which is uncredited in the comic, also delivers some great mood with strange mixes of secondary color.
Speaking of color, things go off the rails a bit as the team arrives in China to extract Pao and bring him back to the West, as Lili DeNeuve makes up the team to pass for locals. That means unfortunate exaggeration of the epicanthral fold and a skin tone that bears no resemblance to that of any human. Neither would pass muster today. The coloring at least could be argued as limited by the technology of the day. There was no easy way to convey skin tones that weren’t white or black. The physical exaggerations in the art are really just awful, though thankfully not as bad as it could have been. Or even as bad as it is for some of the other characters in this issue, starting with General Pao. I doubt DC could reprint this today without some alteration, adjustment or apology.
And then comes page 11, which Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones chose to illustrate the entire series in “The Comic Book Heroes,” and it is a terrific page featuring a full-figure image of Crimson Dawn crouched undercover firing a rifle at a distant traveling car. This is a great example of using odd angles and panel shapes to create a dynamic story-driven comic page. It’s the clear highlight of the issue, which from here on out struggles to maintain that level of quality.
Crimson Dawn really emerges as the most interesting member of the Secret Six. After blowing out the tire of the car with her rifle, she kills the three men inside the vehicle and later during the climax of the caper, having positioned herself correctly, efficiently shoots Mike Tempest and Carlo Di Rienzi with her rifle. It’s all part of the plan, and her targets are soon revealed to have worn bullet-proof vests, but Crimson clearly has depths of dedication to this kind of work the others fail to show.
The plot in this issue has finally found a nice balance between the kind of careful machinations the premise requires and believability. This is far more realistic and compelling than the vacuum-cleaner plane from the first issue, and the street-level viewpoint and scratchy ink work make it a quite compelling read.
There’s a few pages that use gimmicky layouts, though not to too much distraction. Page 21 uses a diamond design featuring the team in the middle and other events wrapping up in the panels surrounding it. And page 22 has this chain design where Sparling draws images inside each link, leading up to the finale on page 23, which is one of those half-pages rounded out with an ad for Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey.
One final note from the letter’s column: Editor Dick Giordano answers a letter explaining that Nick Cardy got the gig of drawing the cover to issue #2 because he was in the office the day they came up with the concept. Springer wasn’t, so he missed out. That’s comics.