Sunday, March 9, 2014
Myriad Universes: Doug Drexler's comic work
This post exists mostly to introduce someone who will go on to play an important role in the future of Star Trek. Doug Drexler is a versatile visual artist and passionate Trekker who has been, at multiple points in his career, a makeup artist, a set designer, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a dedicated archivist for Star Trek's production history and, briefly in 1977, a comic book creator.
A first generation fan, Drexler briefly ran a Star Trek boutique in New York City in the mid-70s before authoring and editing some early magazines and technical reference works and, after sneaking onto the set of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, made a promise to himself that he would be involved in the franchise professionally some day. It took Drexler awhile to fulfill his dream, though: He spent the early 1980s doing makeup work for movies like Amityville 3-D and C.H.U.D. and while he struck up a correspondence and friendship with Michael Westmore during the pre-production of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he was unable to secure a job on staff.
Drexler eventually won an Academy Award for his work on Dick Tracy in 1990, after which he stunned Westmore by going back to the TNG office and asking for a position, as Oscar winners don't typically go out of their way to take a dramatic pay cut jobbing for TV. Drexler worked in the Next Generation makeup department for the rest of its run, before seizing the opportunity to pursue his true calling, graphic design, by jumping into the art department for the newly announced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. When the time came, Drexler moved over to Star Trek Voyager, and finally Enterprise. After Star Trek wrapped for good, Drexler for many years maintained a blog called Drex Files, an invaluable source for behind-the-scenes anecdotes and information. He's also known for his work on the yearly Star Trek: Ships of the Line calendar.
It was during his time in New York that Drexler came in contact with the production team on Gold Key's by this point staggeringly long-running Star Trek comic book. Drexler wasn't terribly pleased with the quality of the book, and the exchange led him to supervise and consult on two issues of the series: The September and October 1977 issues, to be exact: “This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit” and “Sweet Smell of Evil”. Well, if nothing else we can say Drexler certainly has a firm grasp of what makes a good Star Trek title. Actually, we can say the same about the rest of these stories: As one might expect of a passionately dedicated fan with professional aspirations, Drexler's stories are, by and large, solid executions of familiar, standard Original Series story structures.
“This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit” concerns the Enterprise stumbling upon a trio of giant capsules of pure energy in deep space that resemble seed pods. After whacking the ship with a pulse of energy the temporarily drains the power systems, the crew pursues the pods to Beta Niobe III, where they reveal themselves to be energy beings seemingly motivated by pure destruction. After departing the planet, the Enterprise chases the creatures to their home planet, while Spock hypothesizes they're from a hyper-advanced alien species, roughly on the same evolutionary level as the Organians. Upon arrival, the crew discover a gigantic tree growing thousands of miles into the sky, curated by an immortal man named Zyopha, the “lone inhabitant of this, the first world in the first galaxy of the first universe”, who claims that this is the Tree of Life and his energy beings are simply fulfilling the natural order of things by proving the maxim of “survival of the fittest”. Kirk and Spock counter that evolution is the province of nature, not humans, despite Zyopha's immortality. Kirk than proposes a contest, pitting himself against one of the beings to prove gluttony and dominance is toxic and counter-productive.
In “Sweet Smell of Evil”, the Enterprise is assigned to transport Federation botanist Patrick Moore from M317, where he's been leading a survey of the planet's ecosystem, to scientific conference on Beat Aurigae. Beaming down, Kirk and Spock meet Moore's assistant William Terrens, who curates an arboretum where he tends to a crop of Tojufu trees, a newly-discovered species that produces an incomparably sweet fragrance that inspires commercial ambitions within Terrens (an aside: here's another sign the Original Series universe was not post-money, along with numerous references to pay and betting wages in The New Voyages). Returning to the Enterprise after picking up two other scientists, an Andorian named Stoy Aaraka and a human named Emilie Bowers, it soon becomes clear that the crew has unwittingly created an environment of extreme tension as both Bowers and Aaraka were former colleagues of Moore's whom he apparently used and mistreated to advance his career. Not long afterward, Moore is found dead outside his quarters holding a scrap of paper mentioning “Tojufu”, and Kirk puts the Enterprise on lockdown until the killer is found and brought to justice.
I don't want to seem like I'm nitpicking or dismissing Drexler's stories because they are largely quite good. He would never admit it, but what Drexler's done here is helped Gold Key to finally go and better the batting average of the Original Series: We have, in “This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit”, a needed twist on the “Kirk out-punches a God” theme by having the villains represent general selfishness, privilege and entitlement. The ending fight scene is a bit gratuitous, but it does drive home the point that these traits are inherently negative and self-destructive as the energy beings devour an entire planet and then turn on each other. Likewise, “Sweet Smell of Evil”, though reminding me in parts of “Journey to Babel”'s basic structure, is a straightforward whodunnit that still manages to come out and say that murdering people out of an interest in monetary gain, and really any kind of fixation on capitalistic greed, is a Bad Thing. I mean neither of these stories are anything particularly special or creative-They're almost reductively functional. But then again, many of the best Original Series stories were the same way (“Patterns of Force” comes to mind) and I certainly can't complain about Drexler's “morals”, simplistic though they may be, which is already a massive improvement over the source material.
I was also quite pleased to see the Gold Key series hasn't lost its ability to come up with completely bonkers and off-the-wall science fiction concepts like cosmic trees of life with sentient killer seeds, though this does touch on one particular drawback to at least “This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit”: This would have been a great opportunity for Drexler and the team to explore and play with the motif of the actual World Tree, which links the Heavens with the Earth and connects all forms of life as part of a sacred whole, but the actual story doesn't engage with any of this. It's possible to read the actions of Zyopha as a corruption of the scientific “tree of life”, which organises all the various kingdoms and phyla, given his inflated views of evolution, but again, there's not a whole lot of time or space to fully examine this idea and it too often feels a bit too much like window dressing for the God-punching of the week (or month, as it were). On the other hand, “This Tree Bears Bitter Fruit” could also be read as another much-needed shot at power and authority structures, and the arrogance of anyone positioning themselves as superior to and more-advanced than others, which is a lesson Star Trek really needs to always keep reminding itself of, especially going into the phase of it we're going into.
I really don't want to rake Drexler across the coals as by all accounts he seems like a terrific guy, he contributed a ton of great things to Star Trek and these two stories are literally the only published works of fiction and he's associated with and he worked on them when he was practically still a kid. Furthermore, I really want to avoid reductivisim or essentialism...But it's also unfortunately way too easy to see these stories as yet another example of the split in Star Trek fandom, a split that is very clearly along gendered lines. Flatly, this is very traditional Star Trek. It's very *good* traditional Star Trek and this means it's better than about 95% of the actual show, but, as D.C. Fontana showed us in Star Trek: Year Four-The Enterprise Experiment, traditional Star Trek is *extremely* problematic. But the larger point here is the fact that neither of these stories is remotely as interesting to me as the stuff from Star Trek: The New Voyages, and I sadly have to say the same about the majority of Star Trek fiction by male fans, or at least the writers who come out of the male-dominated parts of fandom. “The Sweet Smell of Evil” is a tight, well-done murder mystery aboard the Enterprise with a solid message and a sweet title, but it's nowhere near as creative, imaginative or, well, enjoyable as “The Reflecting Pool”, “The Winged Dreamers”, “Mind Sifter” or “Surprise!”.
Things will eventually change for the better. The Star Trek comics division is destined to go on to do great things, and so, as a matter of fact, is Doug Drexler. But I think what the past few stories have demonstrated the most clearly is that its time for Star Trek to change, and it's perhaps very long overdue. That's not to say the Original Series has to come to an end per se: As long as people still love these characters and their unique world, that will be enough to keep the negative aspects of this version of the franchise in check and keep their story going on forever. The New Voyages was just about perfect, and it came along more than a decade after the franchise began, and two years after there had been any Star Trek on at all. The Original Series, like everything it inspired, belongs to those who love it, something Doug Drexler of all people should know intimately. But the march of history is beginning to move on.