Sunday, July 21, 2013
Myriad Universes: The Planet Of No Return (Gold Key)
One of the key points frequently brought up in fan discussions about the differences between Star Trek, Star Wars and Doctor Who as large-scale science fiction franchises is that Star Trek supposedly has a hard and fast “canon”: A meticulously constructed and maintained Official History of stories that actually “happened” as opposed to ones that “don't count”. For better or for worse, this is seen as a major point of contrast between the three franchises: Star Trek's canon is supposedly absolute, whereas Star Wars' is more fluid and the subject of much debate. Meanwhile, true Doctor Who fans will be quick to point out their show has no canon at all: Every single Doctor Who story that has ever been told both did and didn't happen, depending on the perspective of the person making judgment calls about it.
I've never been especially fond of the idea of canon. Aside from the self-evidently rather silly notion of squabbling over which events did and didn't happen in a fictional world, to me the concept grows out of a particularly exclusionary mindset and approach to genre fiction I pretty strongly disagree with. While the fundamental goal may be to pay respects to a work's originator, and weigh their contributions to it accordingly, canon to me seems more typically used to lay down arbitrary and authoritarian rules as to who can and can't contribute to a developing oeuvre. There's a very good reason there's no mythological canon: Myths and legends belong to an entire people and their whole existence is built around the expectation that stories and ideas will be shared and retold constantly, and that new ones will be continuously added to the pile. If Soda Pop Art is going to serve a similar role for Western cultures, building a big gate, locking the door and only giving a podium to the people already on the inside isn't going to do anyone any good.
The first recorded use of the term “canon” (which is, of course, a word gleaned from Biblical studies) to refer to genre works is actually in a 1911 satirical essay by Ronald Knox, who was lampooning scholars interested in discerning a “historical Jesus” and sourcing the Synoptic Gospels by applying their methods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories (blog friend Andrew Hickey has more details in this excellent post). The problem is, as with most great satire, few actually got the joke and Sherlock Holmes fandom in fact latched onto the idea and attempted to construct a legitimate Sherlock Holmes Canon, which became no more and no less then every story Conan Doyle himself wrote, and set about trying to create a timeline to make it all fit together. It should go without saying this was expressly not Conan Doyle's intention for his stories, which he turned out on a fairly regular schedule to keep up with massive demand for more Holmes mysteries and keep himself employed as a writer (his numerous attempts to either kill Holmes or end his adventures went over about as well as trying to kill off a massively popular franchise does today).
But regardless of where the idea of genre canon came from, the fact of the matter is that it's something Star Trek latched onto and was a perspective Gene Roddenberry was clearly working from, isn't it? After all, the whole idea of a Star Trek canon comes from Roddenberry specifically saying only the TV and film stories counted, and as the shepherd decrees the flock obeys.
Well, not quite.
First of all, the idea of Gene Roddenberry being the sole torch-bearer and authority for all of Star Trek should already be a claim we should all be more than a little sceptical of. Secondly though, even if you for some bizarre reason want to grant Roddenberry the title of Godlike Creator, the fact is he never actually *said* anything like this. What he actually said was something far less concrete and more guarded: Early on in the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, while he was still de facto showrunner, Roddenberry was asked by a fan at a convention which stories “counted” among all the various Star Trek TV episodes, movies, novelizations and comic books. Roddenberry said that when he and the writing staff were making new episodes and needed to cross-reference something, they only looked at the TV episodes and movies, because there was just too much spin-off content for him to keep track of. Roddenberry also apparently asked Mike Okuda to come up with a solid timeline for the franchise at this point (something it had lacked beforehand) just to keep things easy for him and the production team, hence the first recorded mention of an in-universe calendar year in the Star Trek: The Next Generation season one finale.
It's very important to look very closely at what exactly Roddenberry's statement is, because it is manifestly not a declaration of the existence of a canon. Instead, this is rather an explanation by Roddenberry of a specific approach to writing the franchise that he uses to make life easier for him personally. It is not a decree from on high that certain stories “don't count” or are somehow less valid or less worth investigating because he and his team didn't film them for whatever reason, and to take this comment and use it as some excuse to throw out reams of Star Trek novels and comics, or to discourage fans from writing their own Star Trek stories (many of which are in fact leagues better than the stuff that actually made it to air), is at once more evidence of the annoying tendency to deify Roddenberry and hang on every word he said, as well as a clear misreading of those words and an attempt to weaponize them for a purpose they were never intended to be used for. There is, in point of fact, no such thing as a hard-and-fast Star Trek “canon” and nobody involved in making the show (at least from the first and second generation of writers) ever meant for there to be one in the first place.
Which is rather a roundabout way of both introducing this section of the blog, which looks at so-called “non-canon” works in a way designed to hopefully demonstrate their merit and value both apart from the television and movie stories and as a vitally important part of Star Trek history in their own way. The first story I've pegged to talk about is “The Planet Of No Return”, the debut issue of the spin-off Star Trek comic series from Gold Key. This series lasted an impressively long time, from July, 1967 to October, 1979, and was the first (and for a significant amount of time only) licensed comic book based on the franchise. The idea of a licensed tie-in comic is an important one, and this is far from the last time we'll be talking about it. A comic book based on a TV show is both an easy way for a publisher to squeeze more money out of the franchise, but it's also a way for fans to get new adventures featuring their favourite characters during the series' hiatus. It's also telling Star Trek got a comic book right away as opposed to other forms of spin-off media, as that rightly or wrongly tacitly implies a target audience of children (which the show in its earliest days seemed to be working hard to distance itself from), and indeed Gold Key was largely famous for licensed works based on cartoons (including distributing Carl Barks' Donald Duck stories in the United States for a time).
“The Planet Of No Return” is apparently nobody's favourite Star Trek comic, despite its historical value (and corresponding exorbitant collector's value). Much of the disdain for this story comes from, naturally, its apparent flagrant violations of Star Trek canon. The transporter is called a teleporter, the bridge looks nothing like the bridge on the TV show, nor does, actually, the rest of the ship, and Kirk and Spock talk about using TV and radio frequency scanning instruments. In some later issues of the Gold Key Star Trek book, there are some rather infamous scenes of the Enterprise acting like a rocket ship and leaving ignition trails. It is true that Gold Key's writers in the earliest days of the comic frequently had no working knowledge of the property they were ostensibly trying to adapt, but given that obvious handicap Star Trek actually doesn't turn out too badly and, in fact, “The Planet Of No Return” is probably closer to the actual TV show in 1967 than many fans would probably be comfortable admitting, if not outright superior to it in some areas.
Firstly, the fact the ship's interior looks nothing like Desilu's backlot is actually a *plus* as far as I'm concerned. A comic book naturally has more space and resources to experiment with elaborate artwork and design then a TV show, and that actually shows here. The Enterprise bears more than a passing resemblance to its TV counterpart (which is more than can be said for Kirk, who looks absolutely nothing like William Shatner. Spock, McCoy and Rand don't look too off by contrast), and actually looks far more visually evocative, with pleasingly curvaceous instruments and meticulously detailed rooms, which give the ship a sense of scale it never had on TV. There's also a variety to the decks, with the various science labs looking rather dark and claustrophobic as Spock and McCoy huddle over monitors, which is contrasted to with openness of, say, the transporter room. The Enterprise here actually looks more than a little like a convincing hypothetical halfway-point between the Orion and the Enterprise from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The story is also quite attention-grabbing: Nonsense technical jargon about travelling though “Galaxy Alpha” aside, the Enterprise is very explicitly on a mission of exploration here, conducting a survey with the express intent of finding new and undiscovered forms of life. That may not sound too revolutionary, but coming off a season that, contrary to the pop perception of the Original Series, was about 90% comprised of stories where Kirk and the crew are on routine patrol duty enforcing space laws, is a genuine breath of fresh air. This is the first time the Enterprise has been consciously designed as a ship of scientific exploration, and the fact this momentous change happens in the silly spin-off comic book that “doesn't count” is frankly absolutely delightful. Said new life is also interesting in its own right: The crew stumbles upon a planet inhabited by a civilization of intelligent, sentient plants who reproduce by seeding spores throughout the galaxy that turns animals into plant creatures. It's not the most original or engrossing premise, but for a 12-cent action sci-fi adventure comic it's more than serviceable, and a damn sight more imaginative than the parade of identical Earth colonies we got in the Roddenberry era.
The rest of the book is standard pulp stuff: The crew beams down to investigate, gets menaced by plant monsters (including one eye-rolling scene where Rand gets kidnapped and tossed into a plant cattle farm, which is mercifully of the slaughterhouse variety instead of the dairy one), laser gun fights ensue, as do a charmingly heaping helping of silver age expressions like “Great Galaxies!” and “Howling Crashwagons!”. That said, the story does have one more surprise up its sleeve in the treatment of its token redshirt: When the security-guard-of-the-week gets predictably infected and mutates into a plant beast, he sacrifices himself to protect the rest of the landing party and there is almost a full page dedicated to the crew mourning his loss and remarking on what a good friend and officer he was before burying him in an impromptu service on the planet's surface. This is the most care and attention Star Trek will *ever* pay to a redshirt death, and it displays a level of awareness about the limitations and drawbacks of its genre that's decades ahead of its time. He's obviously only there to get killed off, but the crew still treats him as a person who had relationships and aspirations. Once again, the supposed silly spin-off work is doing things better than its parent property.
The final aspect of “The Planet Of No Return” that Star Trek fans are most likely to raise a fuss about is the resolution, where Kirk has the Enterprise sterilize the planet, thus totally wiping out a civilization he himself regarded as intelligent and sophisticated, to prevent the spores from spreading throughout the galaxy. This could be seen as a pretty flagrant violation of Starfleet ethics and philosophy, not to mention a generally morally bankrupt thing to do. However, this scene is, disturbingly, not quite as removed from the sorts of things we've been seeing on television this year as we may like to pretend it is. After all, let's not forget that in “A Taste of Armageddon” Kirk gave a standing order to destroy all signs of life on Eminiar VII should he fail to convince the Eminians of the true horrors of war and almost facilitated genocide of the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark” before he came to his senses. So really, a scene where the Enterprise uses its phaser banks to salt and burn an entire planet because its native civilization is based around intergalactic parasitism is a depressingly reasonable thing to expect of Star Trek in 1967.
But really what we have with “The Planet Of No Return” is a book that's doing exactly what a spin-off work ought to do, which is provide more adventures when its parent property is off the air that are in keeping with the spirit and tone of the original while doing things that it couldn't do constrained by television. It's not a book I'd necessarily recommend to someone looking for a sterling example of how Star Trek's spin-off and fan works improve the franchise on the whole, but it's everything we could reasonably expect a Star Trek comic book circa 1967 to be like. And the time will come on more than one occasion where stories like this will be the franchise's torch-bearer, because something like Star Trek can only be native to a medium like television for so long. This is a theme that is every bit as important to learning about what Star Trek is about as figuring out what Gene Roddenberry's words meant or what the original point of the Klingons was: It's stories like this, the “non-canonical” and the “ones that don't count”, that will keep Star Trek alive for years to come.