V’Ger vs. Shatner’s new toupee, with Earth in the balance – Marvel Super Special #15, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”
In just over two months audiences are going to flock to the theaters for the follow-up to 2009’s Star Trek Babies, and then fans’ questions about that sequel will finally be answered. Who is Bernard Cumberbatch playing? Is he a British Khan Noonien Singh? Khan Winston Montgomery III, Earl of Suffolk? Will James T. Kirk, fresh off his promotion last time around from cadet to CAPTAIN OF STARFLEET’S FLAGSHIP, be made Emperor of the Known Universe (Padishah Emperor Tiberius IV) by film’s end? Will this Star Trek follow the unfortunate gravitational impulse of most of its forbears and set much of its action on Earth — Earth Trek? Are the filmmakers actually going to put the Enterprise under-bleeping-water, as the trailers and released footage seem to suggest? Isn’t that really profoundly stupid, a prime example of the Michael Bay School of Just Because Filmmaking?
Well, say what you will about the new J.J. Abrams version of Wagon Train to the stars, at least the first injected color and, yes, sex back into the franchise. Though there’s always been a baseline of success for every Star Trek film, a bedrock of built-in fandom that guarantees a certain level of box office take, the latter Next Generation efforts verged far into the bland, unremarkable aesthetic that seemed to rope in every single one of Hollywood’s celluloid Trek entries. In some respects this was understandable, as The Next Generation was always a show that relied more on themes and actual gen-u-ine thought than swashbuckling and bedding alien babes. And the movies centered on the original Enterprise crew? They had much to do with the inevitable doom of us all, even in the 23rd century: aging. The older movie-Kirk carried more than just that curly T.J. Hooker dead groundhog toupee of his. He was a man confronted by what he had missed during a life of adventure, and the emptiness that faced him now that he was stuck behind a San Francisco desk was tougher than anything stared down during the five-year mission.
Bottom line: These movies could be kind of depressing. (The Voyage Home being a notable comedic exception.)
And it all started with the first big screen adventure for the old gang. Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in its quest for gravitas worthy of the different format (as if new, expensive FX wouldn’t be enough), became stuffy somewhere along the way. Though, in fairness, it was the only film to inject a bit of awe into the proceedings, with a big threat to Earth that felt like A BIG THREAT TO EARTH, it scrubbed so much from decks. Gone were the blue, gold and red uniforms (hell, even the orange doors), and in their place were tight, drab, itchy-looking jumpsuits, tailored in the finest millennial death cult colors — Marshall Herff Applewhite would have been proud. (The poster even had more color.) As alluded, Kirk was less a charmer, more a starship fetishist keen to get back in that big comfy chair, desperate to make himself whole. Spock, having gone back to Vulcan to cast off the last remnants of human emotion (why, we never knew, as he had settled into a fine groove during the show), was a cold bore, devoid of the wry wit that had made him a verbal sparring partner for his shipmates. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the folksy country doctor, the human face of Trek, was pissed-off and grumpy at first, with a beard that would make Yukon Cornelius green with envy, and he never really climbed down off his scold perch. The whole cast, from Shatner to Nimoy to Kelley and everyone in between, walked around like they were drugged — mainly because they didn’t have much to do.
In short, director Robert Wise (whose West Side Story was a polar opposite) and the rest of the behind the camera bunch took Oz and made in Kansas. The Motionless Picture is an epithet that stuck.
This isn’t to say that the film they made was bad. It was almost/kind of/sort of good, with moments that verged into spectacular. And the film has the strange distinction of being one of the only films given a Special Edition that actually improved the original. Newly refined effects that aren’t intrusive — who woulda thunk it? (You reading this, Lucas?) The new version may even have added a half a star to the film’s ranking, whatever the original stellar consensus was. (I’d give the SE version three out of five, and find its first 75 minutes to be worthy of the best franchise entries, small screen or big. After the Ilia probe comes onboard? Well, then it’s downhill at warp speed.)
Of course, none of this was helped by having the cinematic yardstick for sequel badassery be the follow-up. There’s a lot of company in that cold Wrath of Khan shadow.
The Super Special adaptation, like others of its ilk, is interesting for its divergences from the story and the way it handles some of the more static, into-the-cloud “action” at the heart of the film. Scripted by Marv Wolfman, with art from Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson, it does its level best. And in a strange twist, the slow, meandering space FX sequences, which feel the most like things rendered inert by a comic panel’s four sides, are the hardest to translate.
TMP has one of the best opening space scenes of the whole big screen run, with the three Klingon battleships, their nifty flyby, and their shoot-first diplomacy with the V’Ger cloud. (Not to mention our first encounter with that great electric V’Ger riff, which sounded like strings slapped on the world’s largest unplugged bass guitar — so great, it was brought back for the V’Ger-less sequel.) In the comic, it all plays out on one page, and takes on an odd Book of Genesis bent:
Admiral Kirk gets the Enterprise back early on, and his, as well as our, first lingering look at her gussied-up refit takes just under thirty minutes. The new Jerry Goldsmith theme that plays over his shuttlecraft flyaround might as well be replaced by “The Stripper,” and at times you want to tell James T. to get a damn room instead of ogling in front of us like that. It’s like he should have a fistful of folded dollar bills clutched in his hand. And the moment when the shuttle joins with the Enterprise’s inviting docking station? Sometimes a shuttlecraft isn’t just a shuttlecraft, if you know what I mean. Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.
It goes a lot faster (mercifully) here:
She will be mine. Oh yes, she will be mine. (They really still use paper in the 23rd century? In San Francisco, home of acute, refined liberalism? THE ULTIMATE FAILURE OF THE GREEN LOBBY.)
The long journey of the Enterprise into the gigantic V’Ger vessel is simultaneously awe-inspiring and dull, a monochromatic trip through the 2001: A Space Odyssey star-gate. If you’re invested in the story, it’s transfixing. If you’re not, it’s soporific, like some endless “It’s a Small World” boat ride from hell. The comic lacks the grandeur, and could have used Jack Kirby’s unique gigantic machinery touch:
One of the planned scenes jettisoned early on in the production would have had Kirk accompanying Spock on the EVA rocket-ride deep into the V’Ger interior, and not just waiting for the unconscious Vulcan to be spat out like a watermelon seed. The comic, produced from a script that was honed right up until the end of filming, has this earlier version:
In the next panels Spock is, of course, zapped. Kids, here’s a lesson: Never mind-meld with a glowing bead in a homicidal alien vessel that’s throwing off lightning bolts left and right.
(An aside: Gene Roddenberry once commented that V’Ger’s planet of living machines, which Spock glimpses on his one-man journey, might have been the Borg homeworld. It’s my understanding that this has been incorporated into some of the penumbral Trek fiction, and indeed, it really does put a more interesting spin on it all. And Spock does at one point say that “Any show of resistance [to V'Ger] would be futile.” Oooooh.)
The comic follows the rest of the beats, right up until the ending with Commander Decker and Ilia (early prototypes of the Starfleet officer/alien babe Riker/Troi dynamic) having a threesome with Voyager 6 and becoming a new life form (or something — the wheels were coming of the script bus at this point). There’s even another Bible reference to bookend it all. And the final analysis? The Super Special — also reprinted as the first issues of the dreadful and relatively short-lived Marvel series — is a capable adaptation, but one that doesn’t live up to the few things that the film did really, really right. The main problem is that there just wasn’t all that much for the crew to do in this one, and few opportunities for an adaptation to ride a narrative wave. Extended scenes of a bridge crew staring with slack-jawed wonder are hard to move to the realm of sequential art, and the combined capabilities of Wolfman, Cockrum and Janson, talented as they are, weren’t enough to climb that mountain. What we’re left with is a capable if underwhelming adaptation of a capable if underwhelming film.
No great loss to humanity, and what else were we expecting? But still, like the film, it’s a bit of a letdown.
The extra features at the back of the book chronicle the long, strange return journey of the U.S.S. Enterprise to fans’ eyeballs, from an animated series, to a TV show that was supposed to anchor a new network, to the film. There’s also a two-page shot of Miss NCC-1701 (half on paper, half on interior cover paper), which we’ll end with. Take a good, long, leering Kirk look at her nacelles and curves: