Sunday, July 6, 2014

Marvel's Marvelous Movies #3: Star Trek: the Motion Picture (December 1979)

I'm going to tell you upfront this was one of my favorite individual comic book stories when I was 11 years old.  I have no idea how many times I read it.  The following year, Marvel's Empire Strikes Back adaptation would knock this one (and just about every other comic I'd ever read and loved prior to encountering Al Williamson) down a spot or two on my personal hit parade, but I still have a deep and abiding love for Marvel Super Special #15.  I'd been a Star Trek TV show fan for as long as I could remember, and this was in the wilderness years of the 1970s.  Back then, you had to find Trek at odd hours on some local station.  Ours came out of Tallahassee on Saturday afternoons, subject to atmospheric interference.  When your station dropped whatever Trek syndication package they'd licensed, you lost touch with the crew until they popped up somewhere else within antenna range.  In the interim, you could read the James Blish short story collections with episode adaptations, and the often silly Gold Key comics.  Or collect and play with the Mego action figures.  That was as Treky as we got before 1979's Star Trek: the Motion Picture came out and relaunched the franchise as a movie series.

It almost didn't.  The movie, directed by two-time Academy Award winner Robert Wise and based on a premise written by series creator Gene Roddenberry, made money, but it was expensive to produce and wasn't as big a hit as Paramount had hoped for.  It certainly looked fantastic, with a sleeker, updated Enterprise and everyone in pajamas for a sweet slumber party atmosphere.  But it suffers from endless shots of the Enterprise slowly drifting along set to repetitive music cues and people staring in awe at light shows.  It's like watching the audience at Laser Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon.  The film allows its characters to ask existential questions, but when it comes to answering them, the result is akin to a 2001: A Space Odyssey where, after boring you for more than two hours, Stanley Kubrick has the astronauts explain to each other (and the audience) exactly what the monolith represents and why it does what it does.  The cheaper, more action-oriented Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan turned out to be the franchise's salvation, not this glacially-paced epic.  But in 1979, for me, it was enough seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov (along with Janice Rand, for cripe's sake!) back in action.

And, after watching this movie again on Blu-Ray recently, I've decided I'll take it with all of its flaws and dull stretches over either of the terminally stupid "reboot" flicks any day of the week.  Star Trek The Motion Picture at least has ideas and something to say about the basic human dilemma ("Is this all there is?  Is there nothing more?"), things it takes very seriously.  Can you imagine a major studio nowadays dropping this kind of money on a sci-fi flick starring a lot of middle-aged people and without any meta-humor or product placement?  There's not even a sky-diving sequence!  There's barely any sex!

But let's talk about the comic.

It must have been a daunting challenge to adapt into an entertaining comic a story that consists mostly of long sequences of nothing more than the Enterprise gliding over the giant V’Ger ship and then small groups of characters conversing about it in staff rooms and small corridors.  The comic really benefits from the deft way Marv Wolfman condenses scenes.  Wolfman ruthlessly edited down long scenes into a few panels, quickening the pace and generally tightening things up.  Wolfman uses his narrative captions-- always a strength of his writing-- to clarify character motivation and add descriptions and exposition to guide readers along.  We're engaged throughout.

For the art team, which consists of Dave Cockrum on pencils and Klaus Janson on inks, the problems are finding ways to make all the conversations work visually and reproducing the movie’s many, many special effects shots.  Cockrum, a master of crowded team compositions and action-packed superhero action, comes through with strong "acting" from the principals, downplaying the usual Marvel dynamics but upping the emotional content of various scenes.  His Commander Decker in particular comes alive with various angry faces and hand-chop poses emphasizing his frustration.  The likenesses are consistent throughout, a real plus when dealing with familiar, iconic characters.  The results aren't photographic, but Cockrum never confuses the readers.  Kirk has his poofy hair, McCoy his sharply arched eyebrows and drooping, lived-in face.  Of course Spock is easy to get right, but even more conventionally good-looking people like Uhura, Sulu and Chekov look pretty much the way you expect.  Every so often there's a dead face, but they never become a distraction.

What an ink job Janson provides, too.  While he and Walt Simonson outdid themselves on innovative lighting effects in Close Encounters, here he and colorist Marie Severin use color holds to reproduce Douglas Trumbull's lightning balls and wormholes.  This kind of stuff is easy to do these days with digital inking and coloring.  It's nothing to isolate an element and change the color channels to whatever you want.  But when Janson and Severin tackled Star Trek, they had to rely on acetate or vellum overlays.  It must have been a tedious, time-consuming process because they use one or more on practically every page.  The results are nothing less than astounding.

For all its pacing flaws, the film is effective at making space seem like an infinite frontier full of dangers.  It's not just that there are Klingons and V'Gers out there ready to zap unfortunate astronauts and Starfleet personnel.  Space itself is dark and perilous.  For one thing, the ships have to provide their own exterior lighting.  None of that Star Wars stuff where everything in space is brightly lit no matter how far away it is from an actual light source.  To the human mind, space appears largely empty, dark and vast.  Even the vaunted technology its space explorers count on for survival turns on them.  The transporter goes awry in a shocking incident and, later, the warp drive throws the ship into what the characters call a “wormhole.”  Contending with these, the Enterprise crew truly seems to be going boldly.  This isn't sailing along to some cute world where you find 1920s gangsters or the White Rabbit out of Lewis Carroll.  You could end up a data stream in a godlike machine's memory banks or transformed into a robotic copy of yourself with a lighted jewel embedded in your throat.  Or merge with the overmind into a stream of light.  Wolfman’s script reproduces each of these episodes faithfully and Cockrum, Janson and Severin provide some spectacular visuals to match them, with all the production design details faithfully reproduced.  Ultimately, this is an extremely accurate recreation of the film's look and mood, minus its shambolic tendencies.

The story also appeared in three monthly issues (Star Wars, a much shorter but action-oriented film, ran in four, which is further evidence of how Trek should have been pared down a bit) which led to a short-lived Marvel Star Trek comic.  I never read a single issue of that.  After all this time, I'm not sure why, especially considering how much I enjoyed this one.  Maybe it was enough for me Wolfman, Cockrum, Janson and Severin had already provided fabulous glimpse of what a Star Trek comic could be, one-upping its cinematic source material.  Too bad they didn't get a chance to take on Khan.

Looks like I forgot to talk about the Bob Larkin fully-painted cover.  That's just as well.  I'd have written a paragraph consisting only of superlatives.  I look at it kind of like Kirk, McCoy, Decker, Ilia and the rest gaze at Laser Floyd.

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