For us, this weekend, it’s been all about Star Trek.
We have always been a Trekkie household. I’ve told the story before in this space of how I first fell in love with the James Blish paperbacks back in the day, with those magnificent Lou Feck covers. That was right around the time the Filmation cartoon started airing, and from there I went on to acquire all the books, and I even bought the Gold Key comics for a while, but the series was canceled just as I was getting into it. Eventually we started to see original novels and I was all over that action. When Marvel picked up the license to do Trek comics after the first movie, I was right there for those too.
For the better part of twenty years I kept up with all the novels and comics and everything… until finally, with three different TV shows airing concurrently in the 90s and each with its own set of spinoffs, I decided it was too much and started pruning. Even at that, I still have a LOT of Star Trek books and comics and original audioplays and, well, stuff.
I married a girl who was an even bigger fan than I was. (Here’s all you need to know about Julie and me. When I was single and trying to date, discouragingly often a woman walking into my apartment would see the walls lined with books, recoil almost reflexively and say, “Have you actually READ all those?” At that, I would feel a slight sad twinge at knowing there was no future for the two of us, and end the evening as early as possible after that. But Julie, the first time she saw the library I live in, joyously burst out, “You have all the Star Trek books! That is so cool!” We were married within a year. QED.)
For the most part, we enjoy all the different iterations and spinoffs and ancillary series– yes, even Voyager and Enterprise— but at the end of the day, we are pretty much original Star Trek fans. Our Enterprise is the one captained by James T. Kirk. To get even more specific, we love the classic Star Trek, when Gene Coon was producing it and Dorothy Fontana was story editing it and it was really starting to cook; from about halfway through the first season to the last third of the second season, or thereabouts. If you’re a Trekkie you’ll know. The shows that were pretty evenly split between adventure, social commentary, and character humor.
So of course we were at Star Trek Beyond yesterday, and we loved it. Because it’s very much striving for that.
I’m not going to do a full review, because there are about a million bloggers doing that already this weekend. But I will say that the disappointed reviews I’ve seen saying that it felt like ‘just a regular episode, but bigger’– what the hell is wrong with that? I don’t know what kind of Star Trek you all are hungering for, but me? That’s exactly what I want. I want one that’s not an origin story or a remake or a re-imagining or any of that stuff. I want NEW stories about Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew, seeking out new life and new civilizations, going where no man has gone before. Ideally I want them done in the grand old style, with enough actual content that it’s not just pyrotechnics, but also with enough adventure and character humor that it’s a story and not a lecture. Well, as far as we were concerned, Simon Pegg and Doug Jung’s screenplay checks off all those boxes, and the cast really sold it. It felt like what Julie and I think of as ‘the real thing,’ and every character had a nice piece of business (though as always, Karl Urban pretty much stole it out from under everyone else whenever he was on screen.)
Without putting too much weight on it, the movie even slid in a nice little allegory about the dangers of the military mentality and civilian expectations of soldiers that was not nearly as club-footed about it as Into Darkness had been. Best of all, it wasn’t set on Earth, there was no threat to Earth, it was all Out There. On the Final Frontier.
So we were just ridiculously happy with it. But Beyond wasn’t the ONLY Star Trek premiere this weekend.
Here in Seattle, it’s once again time for Outdoor Trek, the annual gender-flipped stage adaptation of classic Star Trek episodes from Hello Earth Productions. This summer it’s “Space Seed,” the story that introduced us to Khan Noonien Singh.
And it’s huge fun, as always.
(If you are not a Northwesterner, you can find many of these productions up on YouTube. Here’s Amok Time from last year.)
So we are just wallowing in the adventures of the Enterprise crew this weekend. In talking to Julie about the movie and the play, and all the parts we enjoyed the most, it occurred to me that when I use the expression “old-school Trek,” that’s what I mean; it’s not really about the actors or the effects or any of that stuff. It’s the story, and more, it’s the tone. We saw both ends of the spectrum this weekend– Beyond is the massively overproduced Hollywood spectacular, and Outdoor Trek is the scruffy fan effort done with virtually no budget at all…. but we adored them both. Because they both managed to capture the things we love most about Star Trek, it was the right voice.
Thinking about that a little more, I realized that version of Star Trek shows up more in the comics than anywhere else. What’s more, very often the comics will course-correct when the ‘official’ version goes off the rails. Just to take the closest example, the IDW Star Trek ongoing, despite being very ostentatiously about the new version of the Enterprise crew as seen in the Abrams movies, nevertheless features a crew that behaves much more like the one on the original TV show. There’s not nearly as much shooting and blowing stuff up as there is in the movies, despite the unlimited special-effects budget you have in comics. Scripter Mike Johnson is consistently nailing it, and though the artists tend to rotate through fairly often they’ve all been good.
The comics also have done really wonderful work in filling in backstory and exploring odd bits of Trek lore, more even than the novels. In fact sometimes there is a delightful synergy between them, as for example when during the course of the DC Comics Trek series, both Howard Weinstein and Michael Jan Friedman decided to go back to “Assignment: Earth” to do another adventure with the mysterious Gary Seven, and bits from those stories served as background to Greg Cox’s novels.
John Byrne, especially, has a real gift for this sort of thing. Whether he’s recounting the history of Captain Pike’s Number One or telling us about what Dr. McCoy was up to between the end of the original series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or even remixing stills from the show into brand-new stories, the story always feels like it could have been an extra episode of the show itself.
Likewise, both Mike W. Barr and Peter David have written some terrific fill-in-the-blank comics to cover this or that bit of Trek history. You can find many of them in the DC trade collection The Best of Star Trek.
I’m especially partial to Barr’s “The Final Voyage” and David’s “The Trial of James T. Kirk” but really the whole book is great. Sadly out of print, though bits of it show up here and there in the IDW Archives collections, or you can find it from used-book dealers online for not too terribly much.
I could go on and on. There’s Debt of Honor from Chris Claremont and Adam Hughes. There’s the delightful Blood Will Tell, scripted by Scott and David Tipton with a wonderful art job from David Messina. There’s the epic The Mirror Universe Saga from Barr and Sutton.
All times the comics managed to equal or better the stories being told in the ‘official’ version on television and film. In fact, I’d say the comics hit the mark a lot more often than the novels. It’s a property that seems to bring out the best in people.
So if you can’t make it to the movie or the play, well, settle in with a comic. Odds are are you’ll enjoy it just as much, and there’s lots of great ones to choose from. I only scratched the surface, but I imagine folks will remind me of all the ones I left out in the comments below.
See you next week.
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