12.21.2008

The Enterprise Experiment

IDW is the latest in a long line of comic publishers to take a crack at the Star Trek franchise. Over the years, Gold Key, Marvel, DC, Malibu and Wildstorm have produced Star Trek comics, but I’ve never been overly impressed with any company’s version. For one thing, Star Trek rarely seems to attract top-notch artists. And while Lucasfilm over the years has done an admirable job of coordinating all their tie-ins so they fit in one coherent overall storyline, the Star Trek series are all over the place, and don’t tie together well at all. Do the IDW books fall into the same trap?

The Enterprise Experiment was co-written by D.C. Fontana, who is a veritable legend among Trek writers, having been consistently involved with the franchise from its inception. Fontana has written episodes of Star Trek, the Animated Series, the Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, as well as the novel Vulcan’s Glory and the scripts for several Trek video games. She obviously has a very intimate knowledge of these characters and their universe, which comes through clearly on the page. I do have to question, though, whether the non-Trekkie who is not versed in the lore will be able to pick this up and enjoy it as straight science fiction adventure.

The first two issues of the Enterprise Experiment serve as a sequel to the classic TOS episode “The Enterprise Incident”, which was also written by Fontana 40 years ago. In that story, Spock hoodwinked a female Romulan commander and the Enterprise made off with the Romulans’ cloaking device. This book opens about 2 years later and the Enterprise has been selected to test out the Federation’s own version of the device. Unfortunately, all does not go as planned and the ship and her crew begin to slowly phase out of their proper dimensional plane. In the midst of this crisis, who should show up on the scene but a Romulan bird of prey, commanded by the very same commander who lost her cloaking device in the first place? (what, I ask you, what are the odds?) The majority of this two-parter consists of a running (and floating, when the artificial gravity goes out) firefight with a Romulan boarding party, while Scotty is frantically trying to solidify the ship before everyone fades out of existence.

The artist on this book is Gordon Purcell, who also has been associated with Trek for a pretty long time, having pencilled many issues of the DC Star Trek series during the eighties and nineties. I’m sorry to say that I find Purcell’s work to be competent and serviceable while being almost completely uninteresting and unexciting. In fact, the artwork is so dull that I almost dozed off just now while typing Purcell’s name. I feel like Purcell gets these gigs primarily because he is quite good at making the character’s likenesses match the real actors who play them. While that would be a neat bonus if Bones looks like DeForrest Kelley and Sulu looks like George Takei (Oh my!) it’s of much less importance to me than exciting storytelling and fantastic imagery, which this book unfortunately lacks.

By the way, the script doesn’t do Purcell any favors, either. Way too much of this book takes place in the interiors of ships and shuttles. It reminds me of “bottle shows” of bygone Trek series, where the producers needed to save budget so the entire episode would take place on pre-existing sets. This is a comic, for Surak’s sake, they can take the adventure literally anywhere and have nearly anything happen, yet we get page after page of constricting ship interiors. Even when the story calls for some eye-popping visuals they still blow it. At one point, in order to escape from the Romulans, Kirk decides to fly the phased Enterprise right through a pulsar. Surely that would make for an exciting page of visuals, right? For some unfathomable reason the decision was made to set this scene on the bridge with no exterior shots at all! The only panel to even suggest that they are flying through a star shows the bridge crew shielding their eyes from the blinding glare! (And by the way, couldn't they just turn off the viewscreen until they make it out the other side? Sheesh!)

The third and fourth issues comprise a second adventure, in which the Klingon Captain Kor gains possession of a powerful artifact of the ancient alien race known as the Preservers. The device resembles a similar device that messed with Kirk's head on the planet Amerind (in "The Paradise Syndrome"), and Kirk is desperate that the Klingons should not gain the knowledge of this incomprehensibly advanced technology. The crew actually gets to get off the ship in this one, going planetside and also storming the Klingons' base to steal the artifact back. Sulu gets a moment in the sun disguised as a Klingon and seeing some undercover action.

One of the strongest elements of this miniseries is how effortlessly Fontana and her co-writer Derek Chester weave together disparate elements of Trek continuity and work them into a coherent narrative. The final part of this tale leads to a confrontation with a member of the Organians, who previously enforced a policy of non-violence between humans and Klingons. In the final pages we learn some interesting tidbits about the Preservers, including that the Organians serve them, the Great Galactic Barrier was created by them, and that they predict Lt. Arex's race the Edosians have an important role to play in the future development of the galaxy. You will also see flashback cameos with Jim's nephew Kirk, McCoy's daughter JoAnna, Sarek, Carol and David Marcus. And the phasing/cloak connection clearly foreshadows the TNG episode "The Pegasus". Again, Trek fans will probably be intrigued by what I just wrote, everyone else is likely to scratch their heads and say "The what now?"

These IDW miniseries are being billed as Star Trek: Year Four, the premise being to show the fourth year of the Enterprise's five-year mission, if the show hadn't been cancelled when it was. Which seems a bit laughable because there are already roughly a couple of hundred books and comics covering this same time period. However, upon further examination while Fontana and Chester draw on tons of TV and movie references, this book pretty much ignores all the other previous tie-in material. For instance, a quick look at Memory Beta shows that, including this mini, there are now at least 3 different creators of the Galactic Barrier, and several different explanations as to why the Organians stopped intervening in violence between the Federation and the Klingon empire. Like I said, Star Wars expanded universe is well done, Trek expanded universe is a big incoherent mess.

I feel like I need to give The Enterprise Experiment two ratings, one for Trekkies and one for the non-initiated. I think that Trek fans will dig the characterization, the bits of Trek lore peppered throughout, and the interesting way the creators tie various elements of the history together, at the same time teasing intriguing future storylines. Those who don't know Trek are likely to see some blandly rendered gunfights, some chasing, a bit of trickery, and a lot of weird retro looking clothes and sets. This comic is preaching to the choir.

Trekkie rating: 7.5/10
Non-Trekkie rating: 6/10

1 comment:

Shem said...

I've been vaguely curious about this, and IDW's other tie-ins, but never quite curious enough to plunk money down for them, since tie-in comics are by and large pretty blah (aside from the occasional standout like Roy Thomas's Conan, or Doug Moench's appropriation of Fu Manchu).

The Preservers -- those are the super-aliens created by fanwankers to explain why so many Star Trek planets look just like pieces of Paramount's back lot, right?