Sunday, October 13, 2013

October is Spookey Month: Star Trek #19 in which a space criminal is frightened into incontinence...

The original Star Trek series sometimes combined science fiction with straight up horror, maybe softened a bit by a little dialogue about an "energy source" that creates whatever magic Kirk, Spock and the rest come up against.  But the idea was still using the old cliches to fill fifty minutes worth of story without being so obvious about it.  The very first episode to air, "The Man Trap" (September 8, 1966), featured a "salt vampire" that was pretty much just a version of a regular vampire story dressed up a little for a futuristic setting.  The crew met a witch in "Catspaw," written by Psycho author and H.P. Lovecraft protege Robert Bloch.  It ran just in time for Halloween (October 27, 1967, to be exact) and came complete with a black cat and a gothic castle.  And let's not forget "Wolf in the Fold" (December 22 the same year), also written by Bloch.  That's the one where we find out Jack the Ripper was possessed by some kind of immortal, incorporeal entity that feeds on fear.  When it gets into the ship's computer and starts screaming "RED JACK!  RED JACK!" over the intercom, Trek for the first time managed to scare me silly.  Even reading the James Blish short story adaptation of that particular episode frequently gave me the willies, the heebiejeebies, the whimwhams or small pox.

The Gold Key Star Trek comic adds ghosts to the mix in #19 (July 1973) , where (according to Comixology at least) writer Len Wein-- of all new, all different X-Men and Swamp Thing fame-- presents our daring space explorers with a supposedly haunted asteroid where something fearful dwells.  How fearful?  So fearful that after encountering it, this poor guy reverts to childhood and has to wear diapers for the rest of his life:

Because Starfleet favors the empirical over the metaphysical, the Enterprise warps to the asteroid for an investigation.  Kirk's old Academy pal Jay Nordyke goes down and comes back with selective amnesia.  Hypnotic regression reveals he's erased from his memory a horrifying encounter with a ghost.  At least he can still function as an adult.  Kirk, Spock, Sulu and some others beam down to check things out and gamble they're mentally tough enough to stay grown ups and in control of their bowels no matter what they face.

Aiding the ghostbusting is Dr. Krisp (first name Cookie) who, despite wearing a smart black skirt, proves a bit shaky in the field.  She and Kirk get down... to business (get your mind out of the gutter, please) and solve the mystery.  It turns out it's more science than supernatural, a variation on the old Scooby Doo, Where Are You? ploy of someone pretending to be a ghost to frighten people away when we all know that would only attract hordes of macho jackasses with night vision video cameras and heat signature detectors and a whole lot of pseudo-scientific bullshit to run around shouting at the walls for SyFy.

By borrowing heavily from the story of the Taj Mahal, Wein does a sweet job of setting up and then explaining the mystery.  There are some characteristically goofy moments because it's Gold Key, like hardened space travelers trained in scientific observation screaming "zombies" when what they're looking at is patently something else with which they should be very familiar given the Federation's technology.  And I love Alberto Giolitti's off-model artwork.  He sometimes all too obviously uses photo reference for some portrait-style panels, but most of the time it just seems like he had only the vaguest idea about the property he was working on.  As a result, a few things have been lost in translation, but a lot of charm has been gained.  Giolitti's art has its own Giolittian flavor, kind of fusion cuisine, some Trek, a side of Flash Gordon, a liberal dollop of European comics.  In the end, it proves a deliciously satisfying yet wild stew of different ingredients.  The exterior of the mausoleum looks Mughal, the interior gothic, the costumes strictly Ancient Egyptian.  At the same time, that's not too far from what the show itself used to do, where the set and costume designers seemed to lean on whatever was available in the prop and wardrobe departments at Desilu.

The ultimate solution is a surprise, but it fits the evidence and it's also made of stuff that's very familiar to Trek fans, so we'll accept it.  Or not.  That is to say, I'm fine with it but you'll have to make up your own mind.  This sets up a more traditional Star Trek dilemma where the crew now knows exactly what it's up against but still has to figure out how to escape an overwhelming power.  It helps that Sulu reveals himself to be a champion gymnast and Scotty a champion weightlifter.  I've always considered myself a solid Trekker, but I can't for the life of me remember either man possessing those skill sets.  I know Sulu is an expert fencer and botanist, and that Scotty can drink anyone under the table be it Klingon or godlike evolutionarily advanced super-being.  Neither of those apply here.

And what is it Kirk is good at, better than any other man?

Being a hard ass.

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