Thursday, November 27, 2014
Myriad Universes: DC Star Trek: The Next Generation Volume 1
DC's first Star Trek: The Next Generation comic book, a six issue limited series that ran from Fall, 1987 until Summer, 1988, is one such work. The first issue, “...Where No One Has Gone Before!”, was quite obviously penned before “Encounter at Farpoint” had aired (as you can probably guess just from the title) and is endlessly fascinating because of it: The characters are all drawn from broad-strokes assumptions about what they'd be like, presumably because the creative team only had access to Gene Roddenberry’s writer's guide. Captain Picard suffers the most from this, being even grouchier, angrier and more stringent than he was early on in the show, although the series does do a decent job balancing this out with a sense of hardened isolation and introspection he feels brought on from his years of experience in deep space. Commander Riker, by contrast, tends to alternate between being barely visible and forgettable to being a generic heroic Star Trek lead.
The other characters, however, are eminently more interesting: Deanna Troi is more prominent, commanding and fleshed out than I think she ever is until season six of the show (well, discounting for the moment her development in the later DC comics, that is): Perhaps owing to DC being a publisher mostly known for superhero books, Deanna is treated as an essential member of the team whose psychic powers, which are far, far more powerful than they are on the show (think Professor X but without the telekinesis) prove absolutely critical on more than one occasion. She also gets a whole lot of speeches, and brings every other character down to rights at least once over the course of the series. Data, meanwhile is fascinating because he is quite overtly emotional, and *extremely so*: He gets emotionally overwhelmed at every little thing (he's even sad to have “adrenal pumps”), both positively, or at least inoffensively, in the first issue to dangerously negatively in issues four and five.
Die-hard fans might recoil with shock and horror at this, but let's stop an actually think about Data for a moment. Is it ever actually said anywhere at any point in the first season, in particular this early on in the year, that Data is emotionless? Sure, he doesn't understand a lot, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel anything. At the very least if Brent Spiner is supposed to be playing an emotionless character he does an abjectly terrible job of it, because Data is permanently smirky and wry for the entire year. And, much as I loath to bring up “The Naked Time”, Data was affected by the polywater intoxication in that episode just as everyone else was. And furthermore, Data has hopes and aspirations, things that we would normally call very emotional reactions. So while later developments in the series retcon Data's pursuit of his humanity as a pursuit for emotions, that's very clearly not what was originally going on with his character, and this comic series serves as an interesting limit case in this respect because it survives as an artefact reminding us the accepted narratives of Star Trek: The Next Generation weren't always so set in stone.
Also getting a major upgrade is Tasha Yar, who is not only leagues ahead of her television counterpart in just about every respect, she takes an active role both onboard the ship and on away team missions, actually plays a major part in five out of the series' six issues and kicks more alien ass than every other character combined. The first issue is her most first-pumpingly triumphant moment, as she singlehandedly subdues a giant mech that had been commandeered by the children of an extraterrestrial dignitaries who were supposed to meet with Captain Picard and used it to hunt down the away team. Tasha acts straightforwardly like what we'd expect her to be here: A more toned-down and sanitized version of Private Vasquez.
In the trilogy that makes up the bulk of this series, her backstory as a survivor of a failed colony becomes crucial, as an energy weapon that's crippled the Enterprise has knocked out the away team as they were investigating a derelict starship leaving them each afflicted in different ways: Tasha ends up being plagued by hallucinations of her past which turn out to be connected to a person who is none-too-subtly implied to be a *sexual predator* who assaulted her when she was younger and who stowed away on the abandoned vessel. Tasha overcomes her hallucinations through sheer force of will, tracks the guy down all by herself, throws him around and then throws him in the brig. It's glorious. It eventually turns out everything was the work of the Q Continuum, who were further testing the Enterprise crew to see if they could live up to their ideals of self-improvement. Because Tasha was so resolute and proved she could move beyond her past, while still acknowledging it was a part of her, this convinced Q that humanity would indeed continue to better themselves to the point they would eventually be able to reach the next stage of evolution, and furthermore that Tasha and her crewmates were the people who would help bring that about.
As dodgy as parts of her arc here may be (I'm a bit iffy on having Tasha spend most of an issue lying in sickbay hallucinating, and the cover art she's in is *really* questionable), it's still worth noting these six comics give her more development and more respect than she got in the entire seven years of the actual TV show.
Also interesting is how Q itself is handled: Q is depicted as essentially a collective consciousness, albeit one who tends to manifest in the form of John de Lancie. But what's really neat is that the comic actually pulls a minor redemption job on the character himself: The story eventually ends up being essentially “Deja Q” three years earlier, except not terrible: The Q of “Hide and Q” is shown to be just one aspect of the larger entity, and he's depicted growing more and more unhinged and vengeful thanks to spending too much time apart from the collective, to the point he actually becomes human...and suicidal. Picard knocks the Q's phaser away, accidentally killing Geordi in the process, which sends Data into a blind, hulking rage that takes the combined efforts of Tasha, Deanna and Riker to subdue. Q eventually sacrifices his life to protect the rest of the crew when Mr. Rapist escapes the brig and tries to commandeer sickbay, and this selfless act causes Q to re-accept him as part of the body, reviving Geordi in the process.
Speaking of Geordi, apart from being temporarily dead for a few issues (which is far more poignant and handled with far more maturity and gravity than absolutely anything in “Skin of Evil”, I might add), he's pretty much the same as on TV, although he gets considerably less page-time even when he *is* alive. Worf, meanwhile, is brilliant, to the point it's extremely easy to map a great deal of his later personality onto the character we see in this book, just without all the comedy stoicism. He certainly gets more to do than he did on the show at this point in time. The Crushers, however, aren't so lucky: Beverly debuts as a shallow, vapid, vain, self-absorbed prima donna and Wesley is written to be every bit as excruciatingly insufferable as he came across on screen: He's a genuine spoiled brat, which is kind of how it should be, and one keeps wishing he'd take a wrong turn somewhere and get blown out into space. At least Beverly got better as the series went on and the creative team were able to catch up with the TV show-Wesley...doesn't.
And oh yeah-This series has its own original characters too. A husband and wife team of crewmembers called the Backleys who seemingly only exist to make fun of the fact that there are families on the Enterprise because *literally all they do* is squabble and bicker with each other. Seriously, every single stereotype of sitcom married couples you can think of, these two blithering idiots have it. And they're in *every issue*. One wonders how the Basil and Sybil Fawlty of the stars ever got married, let alone got a commission for the Enterprise.
The art here is completely ridiculous. It's got every bit of that proto-Rob Leifeld style of art that was starting to come into vogue at the time, so everything is overtly stylized, everyone is laughably ripped with black hole singularities for waists and strike poses that defy all known laws of physics. For some reason, Captain Picard resembles an ancient Greek statesman more than he does Patrick Stewart, and the Enterprise itself looks absolutely ghastly, as if none of the artists had ever heard of, let alone seen or used, a reference picture. (Deanna, meanwhile, actually benefits from this: She's drawn very elegant and statuesque, a humourous contrast with Marina Sirtis' lean, stocky build). I find this strange, as one of the names on the credits is Pablo Marcos, who will go on to handle some of the art duties on DC's regular monthly Star Trek: The Next Generation book that premiers next year, and I've always been a huge fan of how well that art captures the look and mood of the show. Although that said, the art here certainly does make a unique contrast with the stark photorealism that will define later Star Trek comics from both DC and Malibu.
Apart from the Q trilogy, the standout story for me from this miniseries is issue 2, which is a Christmas special. Yes, you read that right, and no, I'm not kidding. Entitled “Spirit in the Sky!”, the story chronicles the Enterprise's encounter with a species called the Creeg during midwinter celebrations. At the same time, an energy being manifests on ship, although at first it's only noticed by Deanna, Wesley and Geordi. The being can pass through people leaving them with feelings of warmth and friendship and is being pursued by The Creeg, who turn out to be an entire race of literal Grinches from How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and who want to capture and imprison the energy being. The entity can take on many different forms, as is shown when the crew chase it through various decks of the Enterprise inhabited by non-human crewmembers and their families, but appears to the human crew as Santa Claus. Every single sentence I have just written is a thing that actually happens.
The reason I like this story, apart from the fact it is self-evidently amazing, is because it goes out of its way to spotlight every single main character and depicts the Enterprise as a genuinely multicultural community. Each character gets a small scene where they speak directly and privately to the audience about what the season means to them and why this year's celebrations, their first on the Enterprise are important to them. I also really enjoy the scenes where the crew are chasing the entity through the various decks and we get to see the creative team come up with all kinds of wild and imaginative scenes and creature designs the show absolutely could never have done. It does away with Star Trek: The Next Generation’s bothersome anthropocentrism, at least temporarily and on a superficial level, in a way only comics could have done and makes the ship feel vast and alive. Oh, and the crew's custom Totally '80s formalwear from their personal wardrobes looks absolutely killer, especially Tasha's and Deanna's.
As much as I laugh at this series for being silly, which is definitely is, I do confess a fondness and appreciation for it. Some of the ideas it's working through are genuinely provocative, if occasionally undercooked, and it's quite obviously trying to make the best stories it can out of a source material that doesn't quite know what it wants to be yet (or, perhaps to be more accurate, doesn't know *how* to be what it wants to be yet). It's a constantly intriguing look at how people looked at Star Trek: The Next Generation before everyone knew what Star Trek: The Next Generation was supposed to look like. And because of that, while DC's second volume will go on to hit astronomical heights thanks to bringing in a visionary writer, it's first stab at Star Trek: The Next Generation shouldn't go completely overlooked either: It's an artefact reminding us of the potential that exists in all stories that's sometimes only visible when stories are at their most ethereal.