Monday, May 29, 2006

New comics 5/24/06

Just a few housekeeping items before we get started.

R.I.P. Alex Toth. If nothing else, he played a big part in getting so many of us to read superheroes through his work on the "Super Friends" shows. Of course, he was also a fantastic comics artist with a dynamic style.

The 50 Best DC Characters post is done over at The Great Curve, so please check it out. There has been some controversy already, which I accept, but I am pretty proud of the writing and the pictures nonetheless. Equal parts labor and love, I would say.

A few weeks ago, DC announced a Terra-themed Teen Titans paperback out for the fall, so the pressure's on for me to get through "The Judas Contract" before then -- hence, the "Runaways" post below. I also intend to finish the Star Trek series, especially after seeing Patrick Stewart in the new X-Men on Friday night.

Speaking of which, I saw it with our neighbors and their kids (the Best Wife Ever is out of town this weekend), and afterwards the youngest boy wailed, "That was the dumbest movie! Just a buncha naked women and kissin' and making out!" The children are our future, Brett Ratner! For shame. For shame.


The cover of 52 #3 (written by the Gang of Four, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencils by Joe Bennett, inks by Ruy Jose) advertises Lex Luthor, but the inside's more about Black Adam and his new "pre-emptive" approach to governing. I like Black Adam more as a villain, so I hope this plot takes him further down that path. Still, it produces a couple of very grisly moments (one involving a "SPLORCH"), which I thought were behind us. More wackiness with Booster and Skeets, Luthor employs a strategy last seen when Waid (appropriately enough) guest-wrote an issue of Action about nine years ago, and Steel is in a couple of scenes too. Part 2 of Dan Jurgens and Art Thibert's History of DC focuses on Earth-1 and Earth-2, confusing me even more about whether a post-Crisis Crisis ever happened. The main story's still good, though.

One question about Supergirl and the Legion #18 (written by Mark Waid, pencilled by Barry Kitson and Adam DeKraker, inked by Mick Gray and Drew Geraci): how many people did Waid expect would get the "Rol Purtha" joke at the end? Do that many of us have D&D backgrounds? Good issue overall. Supergirl is a fun addition to the team, maybe because she has Homer Simpson moments where she doesn't take the 31st Century that seriously. The plot is a nice mix of robot fighting (the fighting of robots, that is) and interplanetary incidents fueled by Brainiac 5, and DeKraker is starting to mesh well with Kitson's layouts.

I liked Checkmate #2 (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by Jesus Saiz) probably more than #1. This is an intermediate issue which advances the plot without feeling decompressed. Much of it is character moments involving Sasha Bordeaux, so it feels more focused than #1, and the political discussions made me feel kinda smart, for whatever that's worth. The art seemed better this issue too -- there was some Kevin Maguire in Saiz's faces, I thought -- and I could tell people apart more easily.

I want to like Hawkgirl #52 (written by Walter Simonson, drawn by Howard Chaykin), and I have a feeling that Simonson and Chaykin are going somewhere with these dream sequences, but right now it feels like they're turning Kendra into a combination of Nancy Drew and Mary Tyler Moore. This issue concerns a blackmailed patron of Kendra's museum and features a bewildering cameo by Bruce Wayne, who shows up for a couple of panels and then disappears. I know that's his schtick, but usually writers don't play the Bat-card so subtly. Maybe next issue. Anyway, what can I say against Chaykin art? (Although it is pretty cold, apparently, in St. Roch these days.) The writing's bringing down this series.

Green Lantern #11 (written by Geoff Johns, pencilled by Ivan Reis, inked by Oglair Albert) was fun. Hal goes to Oa to get permission from the Guardians to track down the ex-GLs who want him dead. Hal and Guy get into a bar fight with current GLs who want Hal dead. Hal and Guy fight a planet full of Manhunters, only to encounter a formerly-annoying Superman villain at the cliffhanger. I am looking forward to next issue, because I am going to enjoy Hal and Guy's beatdown of this particular character.

Secret Six #1 (written by Gail Simone, pencilled by Brad Walker, inked by Jimmy Palmiotti) picks up well from Villains United. Our intrepid band of anti-heroes break one of their own out of North Korea, and then take care of personal business before being stalked by the remnants of the Secret Society. Walker and Palmiotti bring a slightly different style to the art -- more like Tim Sale in spots, although the figures have the weight of a Paul Pelletier. I was going to wait for the paperback of this, but I'm glad I didn't.

Batman #653 (written by James Robinson, pencilled by Don Kramer, inked by Wayne Faucher) is a Two-Face spotlight detailing his selection by Batman to be Gotham's vigilante for oh, about a year. I like this storyline, but I have to say, in the longer view this appears to be yet another Bat-plan gone horribly wrong, and I hope Robinson shows us the Bat-Backup (the Question, for instance) in the next couple of issues. The issue itself is fairly decent, and concludes in a pretty gruesome fashion that makes up for its being otherwise predictable.

Finally, I was pretty disappointed in Fantastic Four: A Death In The Family (written by Karl Kesel, pencilled by Lee Weeks, inked by Robert Campanella and Tom Palmer). I know not to trust Marvel's hype machine, but in hindsight it was really trying to sell a story which might have otherwise only been fit for a Secret Files-type special. Oh, wait, there are Who's W-- I mean, OHOTMU pages in the back! It is a Secret Files-type special! Anyway, there's also a Franklin Richards backup by Chris Eliopolous and Marc Sumerak, and a reprint of John Byrne's FF #245, featuring the adult Franklin. An odd mix of stories that feel crammed together under the pretense of a Big Event. Silly Marvel -- we know what the events look like by now!
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Sunday, May 28, 2006

This Is Your Brain On New Teen Titans #s 26-27

Something about these two issues just discourages me from reading them. Not that they're bad; probably that I've read them so much and I just want to get on with the rest of NTT Year 3, which is more soap-operatic. However, this time I think I may have figured out where they fit into the bigger picture.

(You have probably already done so, but humor me.)

Since these were the issues that put the Titans on Nancy Reagan's just-say-no radar, it's easy to look at them as devoted completely to gritty, street-level explorations of serious teen problems. However, they're also filled with standard superhero subplot maintenance. In particular, New Teen Titans #26 (December 1982) is a very busy issue.

Its first few pages get the Titans back to Earth and, in so doing, establish that Starfire and Robin are free to see each other. (Why this was an issue is never spelled out, except for Dick's statement that he had just put the nail in the coffin of his last relationship, and a bit in the lettercolumn about Batman writer Gerry Conway giving Dick/Kory his blessing. Not to get all inside-baseball, but I thought it was curious.)

There's also a short sequence introducing Terra, an earth-controlling terrorist who tries to destroy the Statue of Liberty before Changeling runs her off. She's not an insignificant threat, either. Although she doesn't do any damage to the statue, her geological feats include creating and animating a rock monster (or, as Fred Schneider might say, a "ro-oooo-ck monn-sterrr!") and escaping using her own mini-volcano.

As for the runaways themselves, I will not make fun of their plights, and they are treated very earnestly and respectfully. Unfortunately, Mike Taylor, the one who looks most stuck in the late '70s, is the first to die. He leaves his mother because she beats him; Lizzie Angelo is kicked out by her dad because she's pregnant; and Luis Gomez just wants to make a big score -- his parents plead for him to stay. Eventually (we are told that "several weeks" pass between pages), Mike tries to hold up Adrian Chase and his wife. Dick and Kory witness this while in line for a Broadway show, but they hold off on helping because of secret identity concerns. Chase stops Mike, but during the struggle Mike gets away and runs out into the street, where he's hit by a car and killed immediately.

While out with classmates, Raven senses Lizzie's pain, and she and Cyborg take Lizzie to a shelter. Chase is there as well, wanting the Titans to help him bust a drug ring which uses teenagers. In a later scene where Chase briefs the team, Robin gets a strong Batman vibe from an intense Chase.

Luis surfaces as a waiter for Chase's target, mobster Anthony Scarapelli. However, he fingers another teenager, Paul Taylor, who's been skulking around the fringes of the story, and Paul gets a beating from Scarapelli's men. He manages to get to Cyborg's apartment, where the Titans find him.

If that sounds like a lot of characters and plot, it is, but everything's balanced out nicely and nothing really feels forced or shortchanged, even though Mike and Paul aren't named until issue #27 (January 1983). In this issue, things get a little clearer after Raven heals Paul, who reveals (shock!) he's Mike's brother. Back at the runaway shelter, the Titans run into Roy Harper, who's working as a civilian liaison between law enforcement agencies. Remind me again -- how old is Roy, and how long has it been since Black Canary got him off heroin? Is this a civil-service job? (Actually, since Roy was involved with Great Frog, a band of Driveshaft-level popularity, maybe it's an Elvis-meets-Nixon circumstance.) Of course, Roy and the Titans are old friends, and Roy talks back to Adrian Chase, who has popped up again.

Blah blah blah, Paul's not spilling what he knows because he wants in on the bust, Raven pulls it out of his mind, the Titans get ready to rumble, Roy puts his Speedy costume on again, and the big drug distribution network, she is smashed.

Now, that's a pretty flip way to summarize the rest of the issue, when it really deserves a little more. Sprinkled throughout were one-page, nine-panel "interludes" showing snapshots of the various runaways' recruitment. The issue opens with Luis recruiting one Sylvester Johnson, a fairly innocent-looking kid who by the second interlude has become Luis' right-hand man. When Sylvester ends up killed in a crossfire during the Titans' bust, it's a slow-motion moment that crystallizes the scene. Considering that Sylvester has, to this point, been a fairly minor figure, Wolfman and Perez still get some pathos out of his death.

And that, I think, is the point of the arc in a nutshell. Essentially, the runaway teens introduced in these two issues are meant to come into the Titans' lives without a lot of buildup, but they still get their share of dignity. In a way, the kids even feel more "real" for their brief appearances -- if they'd turned into recurring characters, it might have cheapened them somewhat.

In fact, though, Lizzie is perhaps an unintentional foreshadowing of Tara Markov, who will get a much bigger role in the book starting with #28. Lizzie and Tara both have the same shade of four-color-blonde hair, big eyes, and freckles, although Lizzie is a little younger. I never found the Titans quite believable as teenagers, and having Perez draw Lizzie realistically for her age emphasized that.

Still, this story was meant to show the Titans as teens, dealing with the problems of kids just a few years younger, and for that it does a decent job. The exposition about runaway shelters doesn't sound sufficiently "More You Know"-ish to be distracting, either. I didn't read these issues when they first came out (I borrowed a friend's a couple of years later), but only now do I realize I would have been in the target age for this story. That's a little sobering.

Next issue: Terra's back, Speedy's still around, and the Brotherhood of Evil returns!
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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

STICKY: Take The 50 Best DC Characters Survey -- Please!

I'm coordinating a survey of the 50 Best DC Characters over at The Great Curve. Of course, it was inspired by Andrew Wheeler's 50 Best Marvel Characters list.

Check out the rules, and then e-mail me your entry at brainallgone at prodigy dot net.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

New comics 5/17/06

After compiling data from dozens of 50 DC Characters entries I've received over the past few days, it's nice to sit down with a stack of new funnybooks.

Robin #150 (written by Adam Beechen, drawn by Freddie Williams III) was decent, but I'm ambivalent about picking it up again on a regular basis. This is not because I'm shocked and appalled at the treatment of another Bat-character within its pages, but maybe instead because I haven't really followed the character central to the storyline. These three issues have been a good showcase for Tim's one-year-better abilities, and this issue in particular hints at a further complication for his civilian life, but I still don't have a sense of Tim as a person. The art bears some responsibility for this, as Tim varies from somewhere around college-age to early high school. (He's still high-school-age, apparently.) Also, I don't like that the new costume doesn't have a red vest.

Sgt. Rock: The Prophecy #5 (by Joe Kubert) was a good, cathartic issue. Not only does it feature lots of Nazis getting killed, Easy Company kills them protecting a very sympathetic family. There's also a good, cathartic fistfight at the end. I can't say much more without spoiling the surprises. The issue also features a very innovative first-page recap which actually makes sense in the context of the story.

Aquaman: Sword Of Atlantis #42 (written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by Butch Guice) pulls back the curtain on a fair amount of the One Year Later backstory, so it has kept me interested for at least another month. I was starting to forget the details of this storyline, since the first couple of issues had blended together in my memories, but this issue grounds it more in the surface-dwelling DC universe. Also, last night I was looking through the DC Encyclopedia (that survey again!) and was reminded that King Shark was an early-90s Superboy villain, so that helped too.

52 #2 (written by GJ, GM, MW, GR, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Jack Jadson) was much better than #1. Who's kidnapping mad scientists? What's the cryptic message on Sue Dibny's tombstone? Why do Renee Montoya and her fling sleep in their bras? This book feels like the window-on-the-world 52 promises. It takes the details and tone of a shared superhero universe (where a newspaper subhead can read "Mystery of the Wandering Witness") and presents them as the realities of everyday life -- without trying to conform them to our world's reality. Hope it's this good in, say, October.

On to Superman/Batman #25 (written by Jeph Loeb, pencilled by Ed McGuinness, inked by Dexter Vines) .... You know, there's a right way and a wrong way to do universe-spanning storylines with multiple versions/analogues of the main characters. There's even a right and wrong way to have omnipotent beings dictate the whole thing. This issue just doesn't feel right. It basically boils the "With A Vengeance!" storyline down to a satire poking fun not only at Marvel, but probably also at the book itself. (How else to explain Batzarro's narrative captions?) That's not a bad idea in and of itself, but as I probably said several months ago, the satire just lands with a thud. I can't hate this book, because it was obviously made with love. However, I can say that it is often painfully obvious, and often finds no new ways of approaching very old topics.

Speaking of which, here's All-Star Batman & Robin, The Boy Wonder #4 (written by Frank Miller, drawn by Jim Lee and Scott Williams), which I almost didn't buy because I thought #4 must have been published already. What happens this issue? "Dick Grayson visits the Batcave." That's pretty much it, except for brief appearances by Superman and Vicki Vale. Still, Miller does manage to frame explicitly Batman's rough treatment of his future sidekick in a way which might alter fans' hostility to the series. Unfortunately, a shot of the still-pneumatic Vicki on the operating table might pick at another scab....

In Fantastic Four: First Family #3 (written by Joe Casey, pencilled by Chris Weston, inked by Gary Erskine), the proto-FF fights the monster from the cover of FF #1 (1961). While the cover's not specifically re-enacted in the issue, it still shows the team creeping closer to the events of the series, and it's pretty well done otherwise. Maybe next issue will be the rematch.

Captain America #18 (written by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Steve Epting) was a great start to "Twenty-First Century Blitz," the story which takes Cap to London for a reunion with the Winter Soldier. It's more superheroic, perhaps, than even the Iron Man and Falcon issues from a few months ago, but it still has the understated spy-novel sensibility you'd expect from Brubaker and Epting. Plus, more Nazis!

I guess I went into Marvel Legacy: The 1970s Handbook expecting more spotlights on the major figures of '70s Marvel -- Spider-Woman, She-Hulk, Howard the Duck, Killraven, etc. Those must have been covered in the regular OHOTMU, because apart from a couple of entries for the Avengers and X-Men, the entries here approach the bottom of the barrel. That doesn't mean they're not fun, though. I had been ambivalent about getting the '60s volume (and the surely-forthcoming '80s volume), but now I'm interested in seeing what was in it.

Finally, I opened Star Wars: Rebellion #2 (written by Rob Williams, art by Brandon Badeaux) and started reading about ... Starbuck? Yep, Deena's a short-haired blonde with a fondness for tight tanktops and booze, so it's hard not to draw the comparison. The main plot still revolves around Luke and his old buddy (now Imperial lieutenant) Tank, and the ending is spoiled somewhat by the cover. The art is a bit stiff as well, with Leia in particular not looking quite right. I may give this one 'til the end of its story arc before deciding whether to continue.

Now back to the spreadsheet....
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Monday, May 15, 2006

Just Because It's Mass Transit Doesn't Mean It Can't Be Funny

I am not the most city-fied or worldly of people, but I am not a stranger to buses either. Still, I had to chuckle when I saw a local bus advertising its particular color-coded route ...

... the Tan Line.

(Notice that the Powers That Be are trying to call it the "Brown Line" in the page title -- but it'll always be the Tan Line to me!)
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Sunday, May 14, 2006

New comics 5/10/06

(Kate, I just saw your comment after posting this -- I missed doing them too.)

I don't think I ever consciously decided to discontinue these weekly wrap-ups, but somehow I just got out of the habit. We'll see how long I can keep this up. 52 is a big part of my desire to return to the weekly habit -- if it's coming out every week, I don't want to get behind.

However, we start with the immensely enjoyable Superman #652 (that number again!), written by Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns, with art by Pete Woods. This story arc has been something of a revelation in its simplicity: a powerless Superman, a scheming Luthor (together with old Silver Age allies Toyman and Prankster), and a sort of winking acknowledgement that things will be back to normal before you know it. At the risk of gushing too much, as I read the opening pages (featuring Clark vs. a tall building), John Williams' 12/8 beats started thrumming in my mind's ear. When a Superman book spontaneously inspires the theme music, it's done its job well.

Also pleasantly old-school, as usual, is Firestorm, The Nuclear Man #25 (written by Stuart Moore, pencilled by Jamal Igle, inked by Keith Champagne), in which Stormy squares off against Killer Frost and Mr. Freeze. The story expands Frost's powers in ways which don't seem entirely plausible in hindsight, even for superhero comics, but it's refreshing to see the various parts of Firestorm having to work together to think their way out of problems. There are also cute moments with Gehenna and Jason's dad. The obligatory Batman appearance doesn't feel gratuitous, and gets its own funny little twist.

Apparently people have been talking (here, for example) about the sexual politics of She-Hulk #7 (written by Dan Slott, art by Will Conrad), and from what I've seen, they're doing a fine job without me. I have no particular problem with making Starfox an irredeemable lech, since I have no real emotional attachment to the character. However, I do wonder, as a practical matter, how someone with his abilities would get a fair trial. Isolating him, as the story does, seems to be the best short-term solution, but as Jen argues, it also pretty much admits that if he were physically present, he would use his powers to influence the jury. I suppose that a better solution for future reference might be to incorporate his isolation into voir dire before the trial even starts ("My client will appear via closed-circuit TV -- will that influence your deliberation in any way?"). As it stands now, Starfox should be in a whole lotta trouble with the State of New York, and a mistrial has probably been declared. You know, if only Marvel-Earth's governments had some kind of way to, say, keep track of its super-people....

With regard to the issue itself, it was the most "Ally McBeal"-like this series has been, and that's not necessarily good. I thought Slott handled the main issues appropriately, and the art was good too, but it just seemed like everything revolved around romance and sex. Not that I have a problem with that, but "Ally McBeal" was fixated upon those things, and it got tiresome. Looks like civil liberties are going to preoccupy She-Hulk for oh, about seven months.

It was good to see that Captain Atom: Armageddon #8 (written by Will Pfeifer, art by Guiseppe Camuncoli and Sandra Hope) hadn't forgotten Cap's marriage to Plastique. However, I'm not sure what this miniseries is supposed to accomplish beyond giving DC-centered readers like me a taste of the WildStorm universe. I spent most of the issue trying to figure out whether Majestic or Apollo was the better Superman analogue. The rest of it seems like the Captain Atom version of "Russell Crowe Fightin' 'Round The World." We know from Infinite Crisis that Cap survives, and we can probably guess that Earth-WildStorm will too, so I guess the burden is on issue #9 to make all these fight scenes worthwhile.

I liked the wrinkles introduced in American Virgin #3 (written by Steven T. Seagle, pencilled by Becky Cloonan, inked by Jim Rugg), but again, it looks like the conclusion of the first arc next issue will determine how this series will continue on an ongoing basis. I do like the series as a whole, because it raises valid questions about how we react when what looks like God's plan for us gets torpedoed by, well, an Act Of God.

Finally, here's 52 #1 (written by Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, and Greg Rucka, breakdowns by Keith Giffen, pencilled by Joe Bennett, inked by Ruy Jose -- whew!), and I'm not sure how to evaluate it in monthly-comic terms. As Part 1 of a month's worth of story, totaling 80-odd pages, I suppose it can afford to be a little decompressed. Wisely, it sticks with the story of Booster Gold's humiliation (and we know he's going to be humiliated, because the cover practically tells us so). The other major players (Renee Montoya, the Question, Ralph Dibny, Black Adam, and Steel) were pretty much just teased, so I'm holding off on evaluating their stories until some kind of format starts to take shape. For all the chefs stirring this particular pot, it held together fine, and was a good palate-cleanser after Infinite Crisis. I do wonder how accessible this would be to a new DC reader who (for some inexplicable reason) decided to start with this instead of all the Crisis hoo-rah. I don't think it would be so bad, because by and large these characters have been on the periphery for the past couple of years.

That felt good. Let's do it again next week!
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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Keep Me Humble...

Please let me know if I ever get (or, indeed, am getting) this bad. Full Post

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Star Trek: The Middle Years

The Star Trek movies are not Star Trek: they are the Star Trek movies. They have an identity, they have a statement that is their own, that is in a true sense based on the television series created by a great man. [...] My Star Trek is: these are fascinating people, [...] in the middle ages of their lives as I am. This is what I identify with, this is what the first movie did not have, here's where the riches are. [...] "Wow, it sure doesn't have much to do with Gorns, and it doesn't have much to do with guys with black and white faces," and I say, "Correct." And you are in a different world now. You are in Star Trek -- The Middle Years, as opposed to the original series or Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Harve Bennett, in The Star Trek Interview Book

We're getting closer to Grand Unified Theory, but I still have a few points to make about the 23rd Century.

When the Enterprise left the Genesis Planet at the end of Star Trek II, the series had a wide range of options. The junior officers could have their own command opportunities, like Chekov on Reliant. Saavik and/or David Marcus could head up a second generation of crewpeople. Spock's return was advertised none too subtly, but the status quo need not have been restored.

More to the point, Kirk himself was arguably at his most fully realized, with the death of Spock having "freed" him (for lack of a better term) from the dramatic confines of an allegorical triangle, and even from being a starship captain. Nevertheless, Star Trek III: The Search For Spock had Kirk restore the former, if not quite the latter.

Although the volatile mix of Spock's katra in Bones' brain puts both in jeopardy, at the end of the movie Kirk makes it about himself. He tells Sarek "if I hadn't tried, the cost would have been my soul," and later tells Spock "the needs of the one outweighed the needs of the many." Before this devolves into an is-it-really-selfless-if-you-feel-good debate, in terms of the series it is, really, about Kirk. He can either go along with Starfleet and leave Spock's and Bones' fates to others, or he can chuck his Starfleet career -- which, by the way, made those friendships possible -- in favor of rescuing his friends.

Because he conceives the whole escape-to-Vulcan plan without Spock and McCoy, arguably TSFS demonstrates that he doesn't need either of them to be the "James T. Kirk" built up by the series thus far. There are no Kirk/Spock/Bones debates in TSFS, obviously; and no Guest Stars Of The Week learn life lessons thanks to the Enterprise crew. TSFS is the first Star Trek installment that serves only the interests of the series itself. It showcases the characters as people, not Starfleet officers or plot devices. It destroys the Star Trek format in the name of preserving it.

The politics of TSFS, and Kirk’s reaction to them, also signal a paradigm shift for the series. Star Trek postulated that any starship commander (including the ones that went renegade) was, almost by definition, the arbiter of Federation policy out there on the edge of the galaxy. In so doing it set up the Federation itself as a utopian society guided by principles so strong they could be transmitted to strange new worlds solely through its Starfleet. That’s a pretty strong symbiosis between captain and home base, and it speaks to high levels of trust on both sides. It takes a lot for you to betray the Federation, because you have to think the Federation is made up of people with the same basic principles, hopes, and fears as you. Yeah, yeah, infinite diversity and all that, but with the Federation you figure at least all the policy decisions are well-reasoned.

To counter this notion, TSFS presents a trio of officers so devoted to rules and regulations that anyone would be crazy to follow them. This may well be Star Trek's answer to putting a new crew on the Enterprise: you want the ship commanded by one of these jokers? I'm sure their hearts are all in the right place (no jokes about poor Capt. Esteban, please), but come on. Kirk's crew has apparently benefited from the five-year mission like none other in the entire fleet, such that it would be hard-pressed to find others similarly qualified to crew the Enterprise. As for a new generation, TSFS offers Mr. Adventure and Ensign Insensitive ("Will there be a reception?") against David and Saavik, and by the end of the movie Saavik's outnumbered.

In fact, TSFS hints pretty broadly that if this is what Starfleet, and by extension the Federation, have become, it's no place for Kirk's crew anyway -- so why not go out in style? "I give, and give, and she takes!" Kirk once said about the Enterprise, but it wouldn't be surprising if that applied to Starfleet as well. Can't they see he's better off with a healthy Spock and a refurbished Enterprise?

Not for a while -- and maybe Starfleet isn't too trusting of Kirk, either, but we'll come back to that.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was, in many ways, a return to the classic format. There was social commentary, a guest-star helped by the crew, and the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic, all framed by 23rd-Century sequences designed to get Kirk back in harness. TVH's two major accomplishments were making Kirk a Captain again, and launching the Enterprise NCC-1701-A. The first effectively ended Kirk's yo-yoing up and down the chain of command ("don't let them promote you," he tells Picard), and the second made a lineage of Starships Enterprise possible.

It is curious to me that Star Trek attaches such significance to the name Enterprise and the NCC-1701 registry. In series terms I think these have to do with propaganda. Each starship has its number painted on the hull and well-lit. Each probably broadcasts its name and registry electronically, as well. Now, regardless of whether the various Enterprises through the years have all looked alike, at least subconsciously, seeing that 1701 probably resonates with the Klingons, Romulans, Tholians, Gorn, etc., who have encountered an Enterprise or two. (Yes, like the "Batman dresses like Superman" argument.) Of course, this means that every Enterprise has to live up to its predecessors, but if Starfleet only puts the best on whatever ship has that name, that ought to go a long way.

So, the end of TVH finds the newly-demoted Captain James T. Kirk in command of the new U.S.S. Enterprise -- but why is he joined on the bridge by Captain Spock and Captain Montgomery Scott? Again, I think this is Starfleet engaging in a little public relations. Starfleet has to deal with six troublemakers and a Vulcan whose katra has just been put back in its body, but it can't really punish them, because they've just saved the capitol of the Federation. Why not put them all on one ship? Don't demote Spock, because he was an innocent bystander throughout all the rule-breaking. (He did do something similar in taking Captain Pike back to Talos IV in "The Menagerie," but it's not clear whether Starfleet ever found out about that.) Don't demote anybody else, in fact, because they've all had pretty clean records. Most importantly, they can all keep their eyes on Kirk, who now doesn't outrank Spock or Scotty.

In terms of series format, I really don't have a lot to say about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, except to note that it was the first opportunity to have a classic-format adventure that didn't have to worry about major structural changes to the series. I will say that the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic is on full display in TFF, and that Kirk's speech about dying alone speaks clearly to his recognition of how important his two friends are to his life.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country was, in some ways, the first "Next Generation" Trek film, because it was made against the backdrop of TNG's growing popularity. It showed the crew moving on, and doesn't quite say how long it's been since they've all been together. (Sulu's been captain of Excelsior for three years, and Kirk still has to ask where he is.) It is the tale of an era's end -- not that Klingon glasnost means that Kirk's crew has lost its motivation for exploring, but it does provide a capstone of sorts. The Klingon ambassador's "There will be no peace as long as Kirk lives" from Star Trek IV makes the viewer wonder if that prediction will bear out, especially since TNG's backstory describes that peace.

Therefore, TUC serves as both a sendoff to Kirk's crew and a lead-in to TNG's future. There is some social commentary with the Klingon/Soviet parallels, but it's not as prominent as TVH's ecological message, and it's wrapped up pretty quickly with Kirk's speech to Azetbur.

As for Kirk/Spock/Bones, once again Kirk and Bones are separated from Spock, with the latter spending most of his time guiding Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov through the conspiracy investigation. Still, near the end of the movie Kirk and Spock share a few moments about growing old and becoming irrelevant, with Kirk (naturally) brushing aside Spock's concerns. It's nice to see, given Kirk's own midlife crisis in TWOK.

TUC's conspiracy within Starfleet does, however, help bolster my theory about keeping Kirk and his troublemaking associates on one ship. The aftermath of that conspiracy's exposure also suggests that a lot of otherwise qualified officer candidates were court-martialed, making way for one John Harriman to ascend to the captaincy of NCC-1701-B.

And speaking of Star Trek Generations, for all its flaws it does present a Kirk who finally cedes the spotlight to the actual Enterprise captain. In Generations, Kirk pulls a Spock and sacrifices himself for the sake of the ship -- and that's just his first death. He dies alone twice, but the second time he gets to impart career advice to another Enterprise captain. Don't do anything that gets you out of the captain's chair, he tells Jean-Luc Picard, because it's the only place you can truly make a difference. Be the Decider, he might as well have said. He doesn't know anything about Picard except he's the current Enterprise captain, but somehow he knows that qualifies Picard as the Decider.

By the time of Generations, Kirk has been reduced somewhat, simply by virtue of his place in history. Like Christopher Pike before him, Kirk is now "an" Enterprise captain, and not "the" captain anymore. Once the spotlight was no longer exclusively on him, the series' dramatic perspectives changed accordingly. The uniqueness of Kirk's crew had ended a year after Star Trek IV, when "Star Trek: The Next Generation" premiered. TNG and its successors would attempt to take Star Trek back to its storytelling roots, but they would each have to abandon key elements of the Trek format to do so -- and that's where the Grand Unified Theory will start to emerge.
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Friday, May 05, 2006

"A Far, Far Better Thing I Do Than I Have Ever Done": Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan

Now that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is out of the way, is it time at last for the Grand Unified Theory Of Star Trek?

Not yet.

Almost everybody loves Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, even if it’s just for the “KHAAAAAAAN!” that bubbles up from somewhere past Kirk’s sternum. The movie more than makes up for the lack of growth afforded Kirk in ST:TMP. It is not so much a deconstruction (if I’m using the term correctly) of Star Trek as it is of Kirk himself.

TWOK begins with Kirk in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Promoted back to Admiral, somehow, he’s overseeing the training of Starfleet cadets with the Enterprise (or a simulator) as their classroom. He’s not out there himself, because “galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young.” Instead of Kirk being obsessed with regaining the Enterprise, as he was in TMP, he’s resigned to being supplanted by a new generation. Once again, McCoy is blunt with him: “Get back your command. Get it back ... before you really do grow old.”

TWOK’s strength is its treatment of Star Trek’s characters and settings. It’s not just Kirk getting older, either. The Enterprise herself was the most advanced ship in the fleet in TMP (some eight years ago, according to the Trek calendar), but now she’s relegated to training duty. We’ll see her replacement in the next movie.

Where TMP showed everybody promoted and/or otherwise upgraded, TWOK has them hitting career ceilings, even marginalized. Sulu and Uhura look like they would be pretty upwardly mobile officers, vying for their own commands, but they are apparently content to stay at this Academy gig. (From what I have heard, a subplot about Sulu getting command of the fancy new U.S.S. Excelsior first appeared in drafts of this movie, but it never made it into the final film.) At least Chekov has another gig, as first officer of U.S.S. Reliant (again, a job that may originally have been Sulu’s).

Still, the focus is once more on Kirk. As in TMP, a crisis provides an opportunity for him to regain command of the Enterprise. However, this time there is a clear chain of command, and Admiral Kirk is a lot more courteous to Captain Spock than he was to Captain Decker. In TMP Kirk turned in his flag rank for captain’s stripes, and forced Decker to take a step down in rank as well. Here Kirk and Spock have a conversation about how they’ll share the ship. There are a lot of practical factors which distinguish this situation from TMP, but right now let’s just note that Kirk is deferential to Spock and almost reluctant to take charge again.

There is one clear contrast, though. In TMP, Bones calls Kirk obsessed with the Enterprise. Here, both Bones and Spock tell Kirk flat-out to get back his command (Spock says it’s his “first, best destiny”), but Kirk isn’t in any hurry. Maybe there’s some self-awareness about his treatment of Decker earlier, but it seems like something happened to Kirk in those eight years (Trek time) between films. (The Marvel miniseries Star Trek: Untold Voyages offers an explanation, but I’m not including it here because I don’t want to get sidetracked.)

Anyway, if Kirk’s worried about his instincts being rusty, it doesn’t show. He fights off Reliant’s first attack and, while in the Genesis cave, suckers Khan into leaving the Enterprise alone. Throughout the movie Shatner gives Kirk an excellent balance of bravado and humility. Even “KHAAAAAAAN!,” with all its out-of-context cartoonishness, makes sense within the rest of his performance. I give Shatner a lot of credit for making Kirk really come alive, not just in the series or in a few of the movies, but over the course of his career. He allows Kirk to grow independent of William Shatner, and it’s nice to see.

Still, despite Kirk's heroics, TWOK’s message is that everyone must face the no-win scenario. Kirk has successfully avoided it his entire career, and it catches up with him with ... well, with a vengeance. His speech to his son David is a powerful description of his reversal of fortune: “I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.” David, who had seen his father as a manipulative, self-serving symbol of military control of science, now tells Kirk he was wrong about him, and he’s proud to be Kirk’s son. I’m not doing the moment justice, I know; suffice it to say that the scene lets us see Kirk as a person too, perhaps for the first time.

Good thing, too, because Spock’s death deprives Kirk of (arguably) the most important person in his life. (Also, please note – for the second movie in a row, the erstwhile Enterprise captain sacrifices himself.) Star Trek II forces Kirk to confront not just death, but also demystification. It’s easy to see the familiar swashbuckling Kirk from the series in the Kirk of TWOK, but the movie presents the character oddly removed from those exploits, like an athlete at an old-timer’s game. The Kirk/Spock/Bones scenes in this movie feel like the exercising of old muscles too, especially since there tend to be more Kirk-and-Spock and Kirk-and-Bones scenes than with the three together. In fact, this might not be entirely accurate, but it seems like Bones is there to guide Kirk through the “aging” scenes, whereas Spock’s scenes have more to do with Kirk commanding the ship.

In any event, TWOK has Kirk transcend his previous roles (as Captain, as allegorical figure) in favor of becoming a real person. If Kirk had been defined by those roles previously, he is defined by them no longer. Instead, TWOK leaves him with the ability to look back on his life honestly, and in so doing to chart his destiny accordingly. So what does he do in Star Trek III...?

We’ll get back to that soon enough, but first let’s see how Star Trek II expanded the scope of the series. For one thing, it showed audiences the first Federation starship that didn’t look like the Enterprise. By making Chekov the first officer of that ship, it showed that our crew could move on and still be part of the story. TWOK also hinted that a second-generation crew (or at least a second generation of crewmembers) could include Kirk’s son and Spock’s “daughter.” The movie ends with Kirk still an Admiral and the rest of the group presumably available to either be promoted off the ship a la Chekov or stick around with the Enterprise and her (new?) crew. In other words, TWOK offers a wide range of possibilities for a new Trek format involving all, some, or none of the old gang.

Nevertheless, few of them apparently included a scuttled Enterprise, David dead, and our heroes fugitives on Vulcan. We'll pick up there next time.
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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Star Trek: The Motionless Post

For the past week or so I have been wrestling with a gargantuan Star Trek essay. Yes, it is like unto V’Ger, growing from a simple thought to an unimaginably huge construct, devouring everything before it in the name of information accumulation. Appropriately enough, I tend to get bogged down talking about Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so by way of setting up the Grand Unified Theory Of Star Trek I want to write, enjoy these musings on the first movie.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture is both a distillation of classic Trek themes and a corner-turning moment for the series. It recalls the show’s early episodes even as it breaks with the traditions of those episodes. It is, in a sense, its own metacommentary.

(By the way, I am trying very hard not to sound either too pretentious or too stoopid. No promises, though.)

The classic Star Trek formula was very close to allegory. Spock was the Brains, McCoy was the Heart, and Kirk was the Decider. Together they would tackle the problem of the week, usually some other allegorical personification. This POTW might have been a passenger on the ship or a whole planet full of metaphor. Whatever the result, though, the Enterprise sailed away every week pretty much unchanged. Sure, the crew might leave a little sadder or wiser, but with very few exceptions, Spock was still the Brains, McCoy was still the Heart, and Kirk was still the Decider. They were there to serve the story, because the whole format was designed to facilitate a wide variety of storytelling styles.

Even after Star Trek was cancelled, plans to bring it back weren’t far off. I won’t go into the whole convoluted history of the early movie scripts or "Star Trek: Phase II," except to say that the bulk of stories had to do with the crew coming back together after their mission had ended. Some of this included contingencies for people like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy moving on, so when the dust settled, The Motion Picture had two new characters: Will Decker and his old flame Ilia.

Let me get this out of the way while I’m thinking about it: TMP was made with the fans in mind. This is not a movie that spends a lot of time explaining who the Klingons are, who Spock is, or why Kirk is jonesing for the Enterprise so badly. It is a movie that wants to be Bigger! Louder! and Techier! than the show could ever have been. It presumes that the viewer knows the show’s parameters well enough to see the degree to which they have been surpassed.

In that spirit, Kirk is now an Admiral, because why wouldn’t he be? But wait, the viewer wonders: if Kirk isn’t captain of the Enterprise any more, who is? After all, Kirk took over when Christopher Pike was promoted off the ship, and whether Kirk or Pike, the captain was always the storytelling focus of the show. Does that mean Kirk is no longer the center of attention?

Don’t be silly. Captain Decker is mentioned in dialogue before we meet him, but only to tell us he’s about to be booted out of the center seat in favor of James T. Kirk. Even so, TMP sends a little rumble through the old format by making the titular captain of the Enterprise into the guest-star-of-the-week.

Let's step back for a minute. TMP has three main characters: Kirk, Spock, and Decker. Each gets his own arc, and Kirk’s is the most prominent (of course) although it travels the least distance. Spock learns that logic is not enough; and Decker, through his union with V’Ger, gets to explore higher planes of being while being reunited with his one true love. Kirk gets thrown in the briar patch.

Decker’s story is actually pretty similar to that of David Bailey, the GSOTW in "The Corbomite Maneuver," the first episode filmed after the series went into production. Bailey was a whiny navigator who, when the Enterprise encountered an immense alien starship which threatened to destroy it, freaked out on a level equaled only by Guy Fleegman’s whimpering shuttlecraft breakdown. Kirk, Spock, and Bones took turns convincing Bailey that space was filled with grandeur and beauty, and never mind the giant killer starships. It ended with Bailey sipping tranya with the giant ship’s pilot, having agreed to an extended visit aboard the vessel. As for Decker, after Ilia is disintegrated by V’Ger, he snaps at Kirk, but next to Bailey he looks positively stoic.

Still, Decker, like Bailey, is a classic example of the passenger who finds what he needs during the voyage and leaves the ship somewhere other than his expected destination. This puts the crew of the Enterprise in familiar roles as facilitators, if you ignore the little detail of Kirk protesting Decker’s union with V’Ger. (It’s still in character for Kirk, who did spend five years defeating omniscient soul-killing computers.)

Decker’s joining V’Ger is also reminiscent of the choice presented to Captain Pike in "The Cage." Pike, burned out on command, is kidnapped by big-headed Talosians who want him and their female human captive, Vina, to repopulate their planet. The Talosians offer to use their vast mental powers to create convincing fantasy lives for the two of them, but Pike refuses, knowing that behind the illusions he’ll still be in a cage, father to a race of slaves. Naturally, Pike escapes, but Vina stays behind, because the Talosians’ illusions help her forget her horribly disfigured body. Indeed, Pike returns to Talos IV in a later episode, following his own crippling accident. Pike leaves his useless body behind so the Talosians can free his mind from it; and similarly, Decker gives up his corporeal existence for the exploration of higher realms.

Spock's arc may have the most emotional resonance for longtime Star Trek fans, but structurally it seems the least connected to the rest of the plot. Spock has spent the past few years on Vulcan, purging his mind of all remaining emotions. Finally, at the moment he's ready to graduate to a state of perfect Vulcan logic, he gets walloped with the psychic whammy of V'Ger's exactingly logical thought patterns. This stirs something in Spock's human half, causing him to fail the final exam. He links up with the Enterprise, en route to intercepting V'Ger, but Kirk and Bones suspect he has his own agenda.

Indeed, he sneaks out of the ship to mind-meld with V'Ger's CPU, and again the experience fries his brain. He awakens in sickbay to realize that for all its knowledge (V'Ger is basically a probe, reporting back to its creator after having analyzed the universe for almost 300 years), V'Ger is barren and cold. Spock's human half has given him the answer that V'Ger still seeks: logic is not enough. Spock sees himself in V'Ger, and realizes with a chuckle that he has, at last, come to terms with his human and Vulcan backgrounds.

I should mention here a couple of obvious episode parallels. The movie itself strongly resembles a grander version of "The Changeling," wherein NOMAD, an Earth probe from the late 20th Century, is lost in space, damaged, and rehabbed by an alien race which gives it immense power. NOMAD thinks Kirk is its creator, Jackson Roykirk, which allows Kirk to control it somewhat. Spock's story also recalls, at least superificially, the episode "The Immunity Syndrome," in which he pilots a shuttle on a suicide mission into the center of a giant one-celled organism.)

You can see how Spock's experience informs Decker's. Decker's human psychology helps complete V'Ger. Furthermore, I suppose the argument could be made that since V'Ger has absorbed and at least replicated Ilia's psychological emphasis on sensuality and (shall we say) more intense emotions, it can use those as well. Those three components, naturally, mirror the id/ego/superego trinity that the Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic symbolize -- so, in a way, Decker, as the mediator between V'Ger's pure logic and Ilia's pure emotion, has, at last, become Kirk.

That brings us, of course, to the man himself. Kirk is, in many ways, the most important figure in TMP. All of his actions in the early part of the film are meant to recreate his glory days as Enterprise captain. Indeed, Kirk recommended that Decker succeed him, and recommended a Vulcan to replace Spock. (When Sonak dies in a transporter accident, Kirk still wants a Vulcan.) It's a little on the creepy side, almost a Vertigo situation. Bones calls it an "obsession," in the course of upbraiding Kirk for not doing his homework on the ship's new capabilities. (Kirk learns from this -- in Star Trek II, he says "We're only alive because I knew something about these ships [Khan] didn't.")

And yet, he loves the Enterprise and her crew, and they love him. A mouthy ensign snits that Captain Decker has been with the ship every moment since her refitting, but Uhura puts him in his place with "Our chances of coming back from this mission in one piece may have just doubled." Kirk's story plays just on the "driven, decisive" side of obsession, like Vertigo when you think Jimmy Stewart has finally figured things out.

The positive aspect of Kirk's story is mentioned as he tells Decker he's back: Kirk has "five years, out there, dealing with things like this," and Decker doesn't. Metatextually, this suggests to me that Kirk has to be in command, because those five years as The Decider have made him better qualified. You don't just get to be The Decider overnight, after all.

It also suggests that Kirk had come to define himself by his role, both dramatically and in terms of career. I don't mean Shatner had become so identified (although of course he had) -- rather, Kirk the allegorical personification couldn't play the same kind of dramatic role as a desk-bound admiral, and Kirk the admiral similarly couldn't traverse the final frontier. This is why Kirk drafts Bones back into service, telling him "I need you -- badly!" It's why he wants a Vulcan as science officer. The character is returning to his comfort zone, and the show is restoring its familiar format.

What Kirk's arc ignores, and indeed what TMP was somewhat forced to ignore, is the ability of Star Trek to absorb changes in cast in the name of preserving format. Only Spock survived the housecleaning from the first pilot to the second. Likewise, "Star Trek: Phase II" was prepared to absorb the loss of Leonard Nimoy. It would have replaced him with Xon, a young Vulcan lieutenant who wanted to act more human. By the time Star Trek did return to television in 1987, Xon had evolved into the android Data, just as Riker and Troi were clear descendants of Decker and Ilia.

Therefore, to me, Star Trek: The Motion Picture contains the seeds of its own criticism. It offers different permutations of the Kirk/Spock/Bones id/ego/superego dynamic, but it doesn't spend a lot of time on them. Instead, it prefers to focus on reuniting the originals. Once that's taken care of, though, it settles into some very familiar rhythms, because it has to attend to the guest-star-of-the-week. As a bonus, it allows Spock some significant character development. Unfortunately, everyone else will have to wait until at least the next movie.

By confirming Kirk and company as the only viable crew for the Enterprise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture also laid the groundwork for a more definite shift in the series' format. The next movie would force the series to choose whether it was going to be about the characters, or about the voyages.

The Blogging Adventure Is Just Beginning... (I hope)
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