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Admiral! There be whales here! – Star Trek Movie Special #2, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

August 28, 2011

As the winds and rain of the hell-bitch Irene lashed my little corner of the universe yesterday, my brainwaves stretched to one of the more enjoyable films of my youth, one that had the Earth’s oceans whipped into an extinction-level frenzy by a singing space-stogie. Star Trek IV is neck and neck with The Wrath of Khan in the race for being the best film in the series, and with that predecessor forms a delightful trilogy within the overarching franchise. After the harrowing, sad events in II & III — the death of Spock, the destruction of the Enterprise (the only lady James T. Kirk ever truly loved) and the murder of David Marcus — the lighthearted journey back to primitive 1986 was a welcome relief, and the humor (unlike some of the frivolous douche-chills in the next two movies) rang true throughout. I could go on and on about how good The Voyage Home is, and how well it holds up in our brave new iPhone world.

By God, I will go on and on about it — though not for too long — by highlighting the DC adaptation that accompanied it, brought to our eyes by the long-running Trek comic book creative team of that era.

A note about said team. Mike W. Barr wrote his share of Star Trek comics in his day, but when one harkens back to 1980s Star Trek comics, i.e. the comics that helped shape my perceptions of that universe, it’s the art of Tom Sutton (pencils) and Ricardo Villagran (inks) that springs to mind. I don’t know that I’d call their art pretty. I don’t know that I’d call it articulate, and later teams may have hewn closer to the character likenesses. But it works. It has an edge. When I think of those splendidly apocryphal stories they helped craft, tales that would be wiped out whenever the next movie came out, I can’t help but smile, and a big part of that joy is the visual vocabulary they brought to the table. If you ever want a true romp, then go pick up the trade that collects their “Mirror Universe Saga” (also scripted by Barr). The return of Evil Kirk and Evil Spock (with goatee!) is an utter delight.

Sutton and Villagran bring their best to the table here in translating ST IV (aided by Howard Chaykin’s artsy cover, as well as Ric Estrada, who did uncredited work pencilling the second half of the book). Even though the movie pissed all over what they had been working on up to that point.

One of the first things the strikes me about any comics adaptation is the amount of variation with the film itself. It all depends on what the adapting team has to work with, whether it’s storyboards, stills, or what have you, and how far along in the production they get it (see the Close Encounters post). With effects-laden efforts like this one, it can be an impossible chore to match up with the finished product, try as they might. This is most glaring here with the central plot point of this whole thing, the Probe itself. In the film it’s a slow, craggly black tube with a glowing blue testicle (that’s what it always reminded me of, sorry) descending on a shaft of light. Here it’s, well, it’s just about the complete opposite of that:

Okay, so in this version it’s a bolt of lightning or a magic wand or something. Just roll with it.

At least the memorable bits of humor are all intact. There’s Spock adopting his “too much LDS” disguise:

There’s Kirk using his first “colorful metaphor” on the voyage (though without the whole crew tagging along):

And there’s Spock dealing with a loud punk in a way I’ve fantasized about many times while riding D.C. public transit — and note he delivers the nerve pinch of sweet justice from behind, not from across the bus:

Kudos to DC folks for including the “metaphors” and middle fingers. It adds some welcome, I don’t know, truthiness to the proceedings.

I kind of closed my eyes a little when coming to one of the more beautiful and transcendent moments of the film, when the temporally transplanted humpback whales talk to the Probe and get Earth out of its pickle. I read or heard somewhere, perhaps on the DVD commentary, that studio execs gave a note to Nimoy and co. that it might be a good idea to have subtitles during the whale song. This bad idea (one that offers further proof for my theory that studio note-givers are little more than ambulatory semi-sentient plankton) was, thankfully, ignored, and that quiet, searing moment, where you can understand and interpret what’s being said on your very own, was preserved. I was relieved to find that the comic stuck to that preservation (though without the touching bit with the whales and the Probe matching positions):

Sadly, the buoyant (in more ways than one) scene that followed, with the Enterprise crew, whales George and Gracie and whale-gal Gillian all frolicking in the water, and Kirk dragging the desert-born Spock into the drink, undergirded by the lilting score, was omitted. Perhaps this was necessary for the sake of brevity, and perhaps the joy of that scene was a spontaneous outburst that was thrown in during the editing process and wasn’t in the script. Whatever the case, it was the happiest onscreen moment the original crew ever shared, and I kind of miss it.

Finally, it wouldn’t be an adaptation without a two-page blast. Here’s Kirk and crew coming home:

So endeth the comic.

There’s a rather fascinating little bit of follow-up to IV which I can’t resist making folks aware of. Four or five years after it came out I saw some ads in book stores for a novel that would be a sequel to the events in the film, called — you guessed it — Probe. I eagerly awaited its release, but its publication date kept being pushed back. And back. And back. Then finally it came out. I read it and kind of liked it, especially its thinly veiled connection of the Probe to certain uber-villains that warped around in cube-shaped ships. Then, many years later, I read about why the book, whose authorship was credited to Margaret Wander Bonanno (always thought that was a great name), was held back for so long. It’s an interesting little tale of the clash of franchise licensing and artistic prerogative and how things can go sideways fast. Look into it if you’re interested.

Anyway. I realize some may not like The Voyage Home. They may find it too silly. I don’t. I like it quite a bit. Perhaps not to Khan levels, but pretty damn close. It never fails to pick me up. And seeing the Barr/Sutton/Villagran trio adapting it is a double nostalgic whammy. It helped me ride out Irene.

And I still — STILL — can’t figure out for the life of me how Shatner’s toupee stayed on underwater. 23rd-century glue, I guess.

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