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Has it really been 40.5 years since ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ came out? Part 2

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. 

Next: Trek's theatrical shakedown mission.

TMP Poster

Has it really been 40.5 years since ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ came out? Part 1

Bob Peak’s distinctive artwork for the release poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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.

All the fun stuff on this one is in the details, so let’s get into it. Most of the information here I’m pulling from several books, including Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ Star Trek: Phase II — The Lost Series, the 1984 edition of David Gerrold’s World of Star Trek, William Shatner’s Star Trek Movie Memories, Gene Roddenberry and Susan Sackett’s The Making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Herb Solow and Robert Justman’s Inside Star Trek: The Real Story.

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.

At the center of it was Star Trek creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry, who himself was a source of much controversy. Roddenberry-approved versions of the show’s history always portray him as a lone creative voice fighting unimaginative network executives. But other points of view from folks like Harlan Ellison, Shatner, producer Bob Justman and exec Herbert Solow are decidedly less flattering toward Roddenberry as both a person and a producer.

Spock Walk
Mr. Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, explores V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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.

Leonard Nimoy, Robert Wise, Gene Roddenberry, DeForest Kelley and William Shatner on the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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.

Enterprise o'er V'Ger
The USS Enterprise hovers over the surface of V’ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

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 Kind had 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 Odyssey or 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.

In a scene cut from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, William Shatner’s Kirk is attacked by unknown particles while exploring V’ger in a space suit.

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.

Next: Is the movie any good? And why?

Byrne’s The High Ways veers off course

John Byrne is at his best when he’s doing science fiction. Take Next Men as the ultimate example. That series followed the old-school rules of science fiction, by setting its premise and following through as realistically as possible. Byrne’s affection for classic Star Trek (i.e., the good stuff, not the recent reboot flicks from Jar Jar Abrams) and its attempts very early on to be the TV version of classic science fiction literature is obvious.

A lot of that drives The High Ways (IDW, $3.99 each) a four-issue sci-fi series that should be better than it is. The story begins with rookie Eddie Wallace joining the crew of the space freighter Carol Anne, along with first mate Marilyn Jones and Captain Jack Cagney. After Wallace is appropriately initiated into space life (always wear your suit!) the Carol Anne heads out to pick up some cargo on Europa. That’s where the mystery begins, with a strange creature spotted outside the science base there and no cargo for Cagney to pick up.

What follows is an odd story with a bunch of twists and turns that end up feeling very random instead of satisfyingly twisty. This is the kind of story that attempts to avoid the common sci-fi criticism of scientific inaccuracy by being as scientifically realistic as possible. And it achieves that aspect of it, but in doing so it fails to give its characters any real personality or tell a story with sufficient emotion or reason for the reader to fully engage in this world.

Byrne’s art remains consistent and I still think no one draws spaceship-style tech stuff as well as he does. The storytelling is very solid and Byrne’s style has evolved over the years into something looser and more expressive than his classic 1970s and 1980s work on X-Men, Fantastic Four and Superman. It’s quite a nice change if you can just let go of expecting his work to have that same clean and pristine quality and just enjoy it for what it is, and what it is is some damn fine drawing.

I would check out a sequel to The High Ways — I think there is something in the approach and style. A more engaging story could build this up into something really cool.

Comics Wandering: From Gold Key Star Trek, to Howard Chaykin and more

Wow, time sure flies when you’re too busy to read comics. What have I been doing? Well, I’ve got a toddler, a new puppy, I did a lot of interviews and wrote a lot of articles for the just-concluded awards season, tried brewing beer, and I’ve been focusing on learning to play the guitar well enough that it doesn’t sound like a chainsaw cutting through a chain-link fence. I also made a guitar from a kit — a Lake Placid Blue Telecaster style that, after much tweaking and adjustment, is at last starting to play well.

And I have been reading comics, when there’s time and comics I want to read. It’s just been very inconsistent reading and a bit of an oddball selection compared to the weekly superhero habit. I am finding the overall comics habit is very hard to break, if not impossible for me to break at this point in my life. I admit to slipping back into some old habits, but I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.

I admit it: My name is Tom and I’m a comic-holic. I especially still love single issue comics. The collecting part of the hobby remains one that I find satisfying in a way that reading a collected edition is not. This isn’t true for everything, but it is for things like superhero comics, which are still written and drawn for the serial comic format, no matter how quickly they got to collected editions.

So, what have I been reading? Lots of Image comics, which for all the variations in the quality of its output, remains the only dependably creative publisher of mainstream superhero, adventure and genre comics.

I’ll just run down some of the cool stuff I’ve read and liked since my last, long-ago post to this blog. I will be unsurprised if no one is reading or still checking this blog, but just in case there’s a few of you out there, thank you! If you’re new, please be sure to check out my book, Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, available in print from Amazon and on Kindle.

Last summer, I had two comic book pursuits, both inspired during a trip to the excellent Queen City Comics in Cincinnati, Ohio. First was completing my collection of Gold Key Star Trek comics, which I now have done. I have been a Star Trek fan ever since I first saw the show in the fall of 1975, when ITV began re-running the series weekdays at the perfect hour for me to catch it after coming home from a hard day in Grade 1. As a kid, I remember buying a few issues of the Gold Key series off the stands, but it never impressed me very much. I thought the stories were silly, such as issue #46 (Aug. 1977), in which aliens gave Spock a giant brain and he became slightly villainous before Kirk talked him down.

I got into Trek comics much more seriously in the late 1980s, when DC started publishing its second ongoing Star Trek series and launched a regular series for Star Trek: The Next Generation. On TV, The Next Generation was really kicking into high gear and I just fell right into being a pretty serious Trek fan for the next seven or eight years. In addition to collecting all of the DC output from that point on, as well as the Malibu Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stuff, I collected all the previous DC series, the Marvel series and made a pretty good start on the Gold Key series. My interest in Star Trek peaked by the mid-1990s, and Marvel’s second round of Trek comics just was not very good, in my opinion. (Remember the Star Trek/X-Men crossovers? Yikes.)

Cut to about 10 years ago, when a friend of my Dad’s had come across a large collection of comics from his parents‘ old book shop and set about sorting them and selling them on eBay. He reached out to me right at the start because he knew nothing about comics, so I helped him with the basics about getting an Overstreet guide, conventions and what to really expect from eBay sales. In thanks, he let me pick out some stuff when I was over visiting and came across a near-complete set of the Gold Key Star Treks. These were easily accessible and time was short, so I took them as compensation and was very pleased. I still had a few holes, though, and would every once in a while fill one in when I came across an issue I needed in a shop or convention.

But this past summer, when I hit Queen City Comics, they had pretty much all but two or three of the issues The prices and conditions where great, so I bit the bullet and bought them. That lead to me heading onto eBay to fill in the last two or three issues I needed, and finally the last issue — #9, with the photo cover of Spock from the episode “Amok Time” — arrived to complete the set. These are cool comics and I really dig them now in a way I did not twenty or so years ago. Yes, they’re goofy and at times completely contradictory to the show itself, but they have a unique energy and the art is often terrific. Plus, I still enjoy the tactile experience of reading an old comic printed on slightly yellowed newsprint.

My second summer comics pursuit involved the works of Howard Chaykin. This pursuit also started at Queen City, where I found mint condition copies of both Time2 graphic novels and the Epic collected edition, The Complete Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, which I had never even heard of before seeing it in the bin. All were cover price, and I scooped them right up. I also found a few other 1970s Chaykin bits, including the Monark Starstalker issue of Marvel Premiere (which I wrote about last summer) and a couple of Dominic Fortune tales. Chaykin’s art has always been a joy, especially when he’s doing painted work printed on high quality paper.

Along with this came The Art of Howard Chaykin, written by Robert Greenberger and published by the nice folks at Dynamite! (As an aside: Greenberger used to edit the DC Star Trek comics and printed a couple of my letters way back when. I always thought, based on his thoughtful letter columns, he was one of the most professional and likable editors in the business.) I worked my way through these books and really enjoyed them, following them up with a few digs into the archives for some other Chaykin stuff from the 1990s, such as Midnight Men and Power and Glory.

The Time2 books were especially fascinating. I found the plot a bit hard to follow on my first read, even though I thoroughly enjoyed everything else about the books. After reading the Greenberger book with Chaykin saying it was heavily influenced by his interest in jazz music of the 1930s, it made a lot more sense and my second reading was even more enjoyable.

During my one convention visit last year, to the Long Beach Comic Con, I stopped by and chatted with Chaykin — who I had met a number of times over the past ten years — and chatted with him about the books. The Stars My Destination is a really interesting adaptation. I had read the novel years and years ago and remembered a bit about it but it hadn’t made the deep impression on me that Frank Herbert’s Dune or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End had. I enjoyed (and surely understood) much more of the book as an adult, and really dug Chaykin’s interpretation of it. You can’t go wrong with a couple hundred pages of painted Chaykin art from the late 1970s.

And then, there’s Black Kiss 2. I waited until all six issues were out before sitting down to read this and was happily surprised with how great it was. It’s been a long time since I read the original Black Kiss (I have it in single issues and a collected edition — somewhere) but I remembered enough for this to make sense. It’s both a prequel and a sequel to the original, and it jumps around through a lot of different time periods that allow Chaykin to draw all the stuff he likes and/or is good at — cars, cityscapes, men’s fashion, jazz musicians and, of course, lots of dirty, dirty sex. All in crisp, beautiful black and white! I don’t know if the climax of the book was as satisfying as it could have been, but the ride was definitely worth it.

I haven’t read anything in the past year from DC’s The New 52 because it just plain fails to interest me in any way. I liked a few of the series at the start, but the way series suffered sometimes radical, unexplained, and usually arbitrary changes in tone, premise and creative teams debunked any true creative rationale for the relaunch. It made for a great jumping off point, and I’ve not missed any of those comics or characters. I keep hearing how great Batman is these days, and I am sure it is good because they do have some good creators on those books and Batman is far and away DC’s best character. But I still find myself uninterested. Having read so many good (and bad) Batman stories, it’s almost like my brain has no more room for Batman comics unless they’re truly outstanding, i.e. true classics in the making, on a par with Batman: Year One or the great Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams collaborations of the now-distant past.

I was always more of a Marvel fan, so my feelings for Marvel in general and the X-Men in particular are much more complicated and deserving of a post all its own.

A few more comics I’ve read and liked include Saga, Thief of Thieves, Grant Morrison’s Happy!, Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ The Secret Service, Harbinger, The Massive, the new Star Wars ongoing from Dark Horse, John Byrne’s new sci-fi series High Ways, The End Times of Bram and Ben, Star Trek: The Next Generation — Hive, and my favorite new comic in the last year, Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo’s Great Pacific. I’ll try to go into more detail on those in another post.

Here’s hoping it won’t be six months until I write it. Cheers!

Last issues: Star Trek #61 and Marvel Team-Up #150

For some reason, I’ve always found final issues of comic book series to be of particular interest, especially ones from the pre-Internet, pre-fan press days. I’m always curious to see if there was any kind of attempt to wrap up the series creatively, or whether there was any kind of notice or explanation to readers that the book was going away.

Here is a couple of examples:

Star Trek #61 (Gold Key)

Star Trek #61 (March 1979) was the final issue of the original Trek comics series, published from 1967-1979 by Gold Key. I’ve long been a huge Trek fan and have all but eight issues from this series. (I’m missing 9-11, 14-16 and 58-59, in case anyone is interested in selling to me.) The Gold Key series was a real mixed bag. Some issues featured stories that deviated so radically from the Star Trek style that they are Trek in name only. Others, especially the later issues, were much better. They always featured nice art and, except for a couple issues like this particular one, very cool painted or photo covers. Also, there were no issue numbers on the cover, at least until this issue.

Marvel had long wanted the rights to do Star Trek comics, but was unable to get them away from Gold Key. That changed when Star Trek: The Motion Picture came along in late 1979. Paramount was looking to emulate the success of Star Wars with the picture, and Marvel was by this point looking like a pretty hot partner for this kind of licensing given the huge success of its Star Wars comic. So the plug was pulled on the Gold Key series, with this being the last one.

The story by George Kashdan is pretty entertaining. The Enterprise and the Klingons are both looking to secure a source of dilithium from an alien planet. The mysterious leader of the planet strikes a deal first with the Klingons. Kirk’s not pleased by this, and he’s even less pleased when Spock finds out this dilithium is synthetic and therefore highly unstable. The mysterious leader is revealed to be Harry Mudd, whose scam now threatens to destroy the Klingons’ vessel and start a war between the and the Federation — unless Kirk can stop it. The art by Al McWilliams is nice and polished — it’s clear and attractive and tells the story simply in that Gold Key style. It’s a really fun Trek comic.

And there’s absolutely no indication that it’s the last issue of the title. There’s no letters page, no blurb on the cover, no nothing. I’ve read online that a script exists for issue 62, so the end obviously came quickly for Gold Key’s version of Star Trek.

Marvel Team-Up #150 (Marvel)

Going in the completely opposite direction is Marvel Team-Up #150 (Feb. 1985), which alters the logo to read “The Last Marvel Team-Up,” and features a dejected Spidey in the corner box. The cover itself is a great Barry Windsor-Smith portrait of Spidey and the X-Men as they follow the cover blurbs’ advice and observe “A moment’s silence … before the action begins — .”

The story itself isn’t exactly an obvious finale. Written by Louise Simonson, the story sees Juggernaut go after the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak so he can give it (and Juggernaut powers) to his pal Black Tom Cassidy on his birthday. Black Tom is less than thrilled, and chaos ensues as both Spidey and the X-Men get involved in stopping the destruction. It’s a solid, mid-1980s Marvel comic, which means it has an actual story, competent and clear art from Greg LaRocque and Mike Esposito, and a lot of action. (All things Marvel should think about putting in its current releases.)

There is a blurb on the letters page from editor Danny Fingeroth announcing that MTU is indeed ending, but will be replaced by a new series called The Web of Spider-Man in six weeks. Of course, the “The” was dropped, and Web had a long life of its own.

Wrath of Khan and X-Men Forever Make Me Unexplainably Happy

For the first time in a while, there were a couple of new comics out this week that I had to read as soon as soon as I got home. They’re both comics I had at one time really hoped would one day exist and now that they’re here on the same day, serve as bookends for a lot of my 1980s fan experiences.

Up first is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan #1 (of 3) (IDW, $3.99), adapting at long last the best of the Trek movies into comic book format. It’s hardly the sort of thing you can explain as an adult, but it really used to bother me that this film hadn’t been turned into a comic that I could collect and hold on to way back in 1982. For those who don’t know, the first Star Trek comics were published by Gold Key starting in 1967 and running 61 issues through 1978. With the coming in 1979 of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount did what George Lucas had done with Star Wars and Universal with the original Battlestar Galactica and went to Marvel for an adaptation and original series. Unlike with those other properties, Marvel’s Trek was a troubled mess and after a year was demoted from monthly to bimonthly publication and finally canceled in late 1981 after a mere 18 issues.

It took the success of the movie Khan to convince DC to give it a go starting in 1983, starting their stories in the post-Khan era and producing the first of several successful lines of Trek comics. I always liked the DC Trek comics best and have a complete collection of them bagged, boarded and long-boxed. DC adapted Star Trek III, IV, V and VI quite well, but it was always frustrating to have that one gap in there. And I know I wasn’t the only one frustrated by this, as the question came up more than once in the excellent letters columns editor Bob Greenberger used to prepare for the Trek comics. It was always held out as a possibility, but always a very unlikely one. And it became even less likely as the Trek franchise moved its focus to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

Reading the book at long last is satisfying. It’s a different animal, being produced so long after the fact, when the writer and artist can check every scene and line with the DVD. But it still has its own flavor and a few tics to make it lovable. I even like the use of the Bob Peak poster art on the cover of the first issue, though getting Howard Chaykin to paint a cover to match the ones he did for DC’s version of Trek III and IV would truly be amazing. Maybe for the eventual trade paperback.

On the other end of things is X-Men Forever #1 (Marvel, $3.99), an ongoing biweekly series in which writer Chris Claremont and artist Tom Grummett go back to 1991 and basically pretend Claremont never left the series. Like Wrath of Khan, there’s no way to truly travel back to that point, but this does pick up the threads from that point and go forward with them in a way that satisfies the inner geek in me that always wanted to see what Chris would have done had he not left.

Somewhere on my hard drive, I have saved an interview Claremont did back around 1994 in which he described his plans for the series. They were fascinating, but apparently not going to be picked up in this series — which is just as well.

Part of me really hopes this revives the feeling of reading Claremont’s best work from the 1980s, and part of me hopes this series goes off on completely different tangents and creates a really cool alternate version of the X-Men that takes on a life all its own.

The big complaint (as always) is about Claremont’s style of writing. Yes, he goes overboard on the copy by today’s standards, but I also find a lot to appreciate in it reflecting a time when comics were a serialized medium of periodicals. When each issue had to stand in some way on its own and there was no “writing for the trade.” It always kind of made sense to me to try to pack each issue with ideas and as many bits of characterization would fit, if only to see what would stick. You always could — and Claremont often did — just ignore the stuff that didn’t work or hang on to it until he could work it in. I always thought the density of the X-Men was part of its appeal at the time — there was always something going on in the heads of each character, and Claremont put more thought and took more risks with that kind of stuff than most writers of that time did.

Coming as these events did — Khan in 1982, when I was still in junior high school, and the end of Claremont’s X-Men run in 1991, when I was graduating college — it’s impossible for my judgment on either to be anything less than nostalgic. But even looking beyond the nostalgia, some of the things that originally attracted me to these projects remains in these new comics, and I’m glad to see that sometimes these things remain the same no matter how many years pass.

The Other Side of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek

I saw Star Trek the other night and feel the need to write down my reactions to it here, even though Trek is not a comic-book property. My love for Trek, however, does extend to comics and my collection includes all but a dozen or so issues of the Gold Key run, everything from DC and Malibu, and some of the Marvel stuff from the mid-1990s, which was the point at which my interest in Trek began to fade. And I’ve never made a secret of my skepticism for this reboot, as evidenced by the article I wrote for Mania.com titled “10 Reasons to be Worried About Star Trek.” That article was written well before I saw the film and is definitely an exercise in playing Devil’s advocate. I would have been happy to have been proven wrong about all of those points and happy to agree some of them didn’t pan out. There’s no way I can write objectively about this new Star Trek. I have been a fan since Grade 1, when every boy at my elementary school rushed home each afternoon to watch this coolest of cool shows in syndication. I was already a space fan, thanks to a book my parents gave me about the planets and the moon missions, and classic Trek was the first and, I think, still the best pure science fiction show ever made. And I think that’s a point worth remembering. Trek came along and did science fiction — traditional science fiction, not the space fantasy with sci-fi trappings of Star Wars — at a time when there was none on TV. And while there were a few imitators, Space: 1999 being the most obvious example, none was as good or successful or worthy of re-watching as Trek. In the 1980s, the Trek movies were dependable and successful productions and the series was second only to the runaway success of Star Wars in terms of sci-fi. By the time of The Next Generation, there was no other science fiction on TV, and even TNG’s success didn’t do much to change that for quite a while. I think this is important because Trek really was a pioneer that had precious little company for a very long time. Many of the hipper, more fashionable shows that have come since — everything from The X-Files to Lost to the revamped Battlestar Galactica — owes something to Trek. So does the convention scene, which borrows a lot from the heydays of Trek cons. (I’m pointing this out for the benefit of the many bloggers out there who are bashing Trek as dated and talky, implying that Trek is something most of them would never watch were it not for J.J. Abrams finally coming along to make it cool enough for them to admit they’re interested.) That’s a long intro, so let’s get to the movie itself. While most everyone considers Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to be the best Trek movie so far (and I agree with that), this new Trek owes a lot more to 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact. That film had many of the same elements, including time travel, a nasty but attractive enemy in the Borg Queen, and some terrific action sequences that the TV version of TNG could have used a bit more of. Abrams and company take that example and amp the action way up, creating a wild, enjoyable and at times thrilling ride through the Trek universe. This is the most purely entertaining popcorn movie I’ve seen in a long time and most everyone I know who’s seen it was sucked in right away and stayed in love with it right through to the end. My take is a little more complicated. There’s plenty to like, but at the same time there’s a lot missing or glossed over that takes away from the qualities that used to define Star Trek. On the plus side, the film’s storytelling style is tight and economical. It even works well within the established parameters of the Trek universe. It also hits a lot of iconic moments from previous incarnations. Perhaps most amazingly, the time travel element manages to keep this new Trek in continuity with the old while explaining at the same time why a lot of things are different. That is a pretty impressive bit of storytelling right there, on top of the film having a nice, fast pace that never lets go of your attention. The next real plus is the cast, especially Chris Pine as a young James T. Kirk. I have been extremely skeptical from the start that anyone could step into this role and both convince you this was the same character and not do an impression or imitation of William Shatner’s performance. Somehow, Pine manages it far better than I would have expected, and with only a couple of exceptions I bought him as Kirk. He adopts a few mannerism Shatner used on the classic series, but they’re surprisingly subtle and pulled off well enough that they actually enhance rather than detract from the character. Zachary Quinto is a bit more of a mixed bag as Spock. His version of the half-Vulcan science officer is decidedly more human than Leonard Nimoy’s version. He’s more expressive and just seems softer in the role. I think fans will debate this one quite a bit, as the devotion to logic and amazingly relentless intelligence that came through from Nimoy’s version is missing and sorely missed in this film. The rest of the classic crew doesn’t get as much screen time as you may think. In fact, many of their best bits are already on display in the various trailers and clips. And it’s a real shame because the glimpses we do get of these characters, especially Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty, are spot on. The script cleverly and seemingly effortlessly concocts moments for each to deliver a trademark line — “I’m a doctor, not a physicist,” “She cannae take any more!” etc. — but not a lot more. In the case of McCoy, I think it’s sorely missed, as his relationship with Kirk in the classic series was a grounding influence that would have helped make Kirk’s arc a little more convincing.
Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a bigger role than Nichelle Nichols ever got on Trek, but it’s not necessarily an improvement as she’s unfortunately reduced to the role of hot chick where Nichols’ version had a competence and natural dignity that carried special significance in the mid 1960s but remain admirable qualities even today. Eric Bana does a good job as the villain of the piece, Romulan Captain Nero. But with so much ground for the film to cover he never gets the chance to make as much of an impression as Khan, the Borg Queen or even Christopher Lloyd’s Captain Kruge from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Also good but underused are Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike and Winona Ryder as Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson. And then there is Nimoy, returning for possibly the last time as Spock Prime (that’s how he’s listed in the credits). Nimoy’s presence is the only thing that lets the film slow down even a bit from its breakneck pace and allows some of that old-time Trek magic comes into play. It’s a welcome break from the explosions and monsters, and helps set up the rest of the movie. It’s amazing how much class his small role brings the film, bestowing on it through his generous act of continuity approval for this new direction. Definite negatives include the look of the film, which is all over the place. The bridge is a futuristic and modern set (which still looks to me like an Apple Store instead of a functioning command center), while on the lower decks of the Enterprise mundane industrial locations have replaced the Jeffries tubes and impressive warp core setup of previous Treks. The CG is top notch, but hampered by such short cuts that you rarely get more than a few moments to take in the new Enterprise in all its glory. There also was an annoying tendency to use lens flares wherever possible and some shots were out of focus. (I don’t know if that was just at the screening I saw, but it was distracting and pulled me out of the film.) The score also is a major misstep. The music was always top-notch on previous Trek outings, which featured sweeping and rousing classical themes. Here, it’s all percussion and unfortunately sounds like every other action film score of the past decade. There also are a few action sequences in the film that feel very unnecessary — such as one involving Scotty and a series of water pipes, and another in which a monster straight out of Cloverfield chases Kirk across an ice planet. They keep up the pace of he film, but don’t add much. I also don’t know how people who know nothing about Trek will deal with the film doing almost nothing to explain who anyone is. There’s a brief explanation of Starfleet early on, but the Federation, the Romulans, Vulcans are never explained and the standard tech — transporters, phasers and warp drive — are present but barely referenced let alone explained. So far, those are pretty minor complaints and most everyone I know who’s seen the film loves it unconditionally. But looking beyond the thrill ride, comparing the themes and drama to the humanity of previous Trek films, and Abrams Trek is as shallow as a theme park ride. It has great effects, amazing action sequences and appealing updated versions of its classic characters, but at the same time it has missed out almost entirely on the themes and ideas that made the original series so unique, enduring and popular. Star Trek was never just about fighting space battles. The Enterprise is not a warship but a vessel of exploration. The drama came from its crew facing the unknown with a courage that opened up the galaxy and lead to a better understanding of the universe and humanity’s ability to lead it to a better tomorrow. Very little of that is found amid the very appealing surface of this flashy and action-packed new Trek. To say as Abrams’ version does that Trek is mostly about cool space battles, hot chicks and quippy characters is like saying The Lord of the Rings is mostly about sword-fighting Hobbits, or Fahrenheit 451 is mostly about a fireman, or 1984 is about the crimes of a political traitor. The joy of spectacle is fleeting, and will be almost immediately challenged by such films as Terminator: Salvation or Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. (In the face of so much positive press, I’m actually somewhat relieved to see Roger Ebert and David Poland also raise some of these points in their reviews.) The ending of the film is predictable and lacking in logic, but at this point the film has done its job and left the potential for the franchise wide open. I think the sequel will be as much, if not more than, a challenge for Abrams and Co. to pull off, but potentially much more fulfilling. I hope they avoid the idea of trying to re-imagine old characters (everyone keeps bringing up the idea of a new Khan) and find a way to reboot the heart of this grand series rather than just giving it a facelift.

Comic du jour: Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 (Aug. 1974)

I bought this comic recently at flea market pretty much only because of the title. In general, swamp monsters and 1970s horror comics have never held much interest for me, but this was a lot more fun than I expected.

I imagine a lot of that comes down to writer Steve Gerber, who gives the story a kind of hip, tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps things lively. How else can you describe a story in which some occultists worship The Golden Brain, which falls into the swamp and emerges as a blank slate in a perfect body and joins a sort of hippy commune based on alternative energy sources. The cultists, who lost the brain during a scuffle with the Man-Thing, are ruled by a guy name Yagzan, who looks a lot like Richard Nixon. (And yes, there’s a bit of serendipity with a Nixon lookalike in an issue cover-dated with the month he resigned as president.)

There’s also a hip city radio reporter named Richard Rory, who looks a lot like Marvel’s then editor-in-chief Roy Thomas. Of course, Yagzan conjures a muck monster to fight with Man-Thing and the Man-Thing wins out, with Yagzan during to stone or something and sinking into the swamp. All of this is pretty fun, with fun art from Mike Ploog and Frank Chiaramonte and that color palette that only existed in the 1970s from Petra Goldberg.

All in all, a cool story, but there also was a great trilogy of backup tales reprinting monster tales from pre-hero Marvels drawn by Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. I get why some folks really love these little oddball gems — they’re simple and fun diversions — even though I’m not likely to spend the big bucks on Marvel Masterworks or Omnibus editions because while the art is good, the stories just remind of other versions that I think work better (even though these comics came first).

For example, the ending of Ditko’s “Ice-Monster Cometh” reminds me of the gorilla gag at the end of Trading Places, while the plot device in “Goom! The Thing from Planet X,” in which the rampaging alien turns out to be a child, falls short of many similar tales told later on in the various incarnations of Star Trek. (I’m thinking in particular of “The Squire of Gothos.”) And I can’t help but evoke in my mind the bass player for U2 when the scientist in “I Was the Invisible Man!” introduces himself as Adam Clayton.

All in all, a cool comic with a funny name.

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