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Star Trek: The Next Generation (DC Comics, 1988) (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode Encounter at Farpoint.

When Malibu comics launched their Star Trek: Deep Space Nine comic in 1993, the first season of the show had concluded. Due to licensing issues, Marvel Comics published the first Star Trek: Voyager tie-in comic in late 1996, after the show’s second season had concluded. The notoriously dodgy Gold Key Star Trek comics did run alongside the classic television show, but at least waited until 1967 to begin getting the details horribly wrong.

So publishing a tie-in to Star Trek: The Next Generation in early 1988 was an ambitious move by DC comics. By that point, the show’s first season was an ambitious prospect. The six issue miniseries was launched as part of a big publicity push at the start of The Next Generation, with editor Robert Greenberger explaining in the afterword to the first issue that Paramount had approached them “sometime early this year” to write the series.

This means that the comic was being written before Encounter at Farpoint was even finished. In the letters section in the second issue, Greenberger concedes, “As I write this, it’s mid-September and Star Trek: The Next Generation has yet to debut anywhere in America.” It’s no wonder that Michael Carlin’s series wound up so inconsistent and so decidedly strange. While it’s an interesting demonstration of just how firmly Paramount were pushing their new show, it’s hardly a triumph of tie-ins.

These are the voyages...

These are the voyages…

To be fair, Michael Carlin was writing from the show’s bible, helpfully provided by David Gerrold. The team were even allowed to tour the studio “as the sets were still under construction.” This explains why some of the locations used in the comic seem a little askew. Picard’s fish tank is decidedly more understated on the show, the battle bridge lacks a command chair in the comic and the transporter room looks decidedly surreal.

It’s clear – particularly on the earlier instalments – that Carlin was working from the show’s bible more than scripts or footage or even story ideas being thrown around the writers’ room. In the first issue alone, there’s decidedly awkward references to the back story between Riker and Troi and Picard and Crusher. These references add nothing to the plot, and seem to exist just to affirm Carlin’s continuity bona fides.

How the Grinch stole space!X-Mas...

How the Grinch stole space!X-Mas…

Occasionally, Carlin picks up on elements that would be underplayed or even overlooked on the show once it went into production. There’s a lot of emphasis on the families that travel on the Enterprise, including a bickering married couple who provide groan-inducing comic relief. “I’m swiftly growing weary of this sort of thing,” Picard remarks of the Bickleys on their first appearance, and they are gradually phased out of the six issue miniseries.

The Enterprise’s mission of exploration is repeatedly stressed across the miniseries. “Doctor, we’re light years further out than anyone’s ever been before!” Picard tells Crusher in the first issue. The last four issues make repeated reference to the Enterprise questing towards the unknown, in search of a new discovery. This is very much in keeping with the set-up of Encounter at Farpoint – the Enterprise extended beyond the edge of Federation influence – but also very much at odds with the subsequent portrayal of the Enterprise as a diplomatic courier or research vessel.

"Picard never hit me..."

“Picard never hit me…”

So we get a lot of emphasis on the few concepts that the show visits early on. The central arc of the miniseries involves the separation of the saucer section, a manoeuvre used during Encounter at Farpoint, but only fleetingly referenced again due to the costs involved in realising these special effects. Q, the character established as a recurring foe for the new series, provides the crux of the story arc, appearing from the third issue through to the fifth.

The character voices are obviously pretty far off what might be expected. Given Worf was a late addition to the show, his characterisation in the early issues is particularly off. When Riker reprimands him in the first issue, Worf insists, “A little small talk doesn’t hurt either.” That said, Carlin seems to be labouring under the assumption (shared by some early episodes of the show) that the Klingons have joined the Federation at this point. When Worf is suspicious of Q, Picard reminds him, “I seem to  an entire race of formerly malevolent beings being welcomed into the Federation in a similar fashion not very long ago.”

A death in the family...

A death in the family…

Similarly, Data seems to have been a tough voice for Carlin to crack. “It’s strange — when the bombs are falling — my adrenal fluid really gets flowing!” he declares in the first issue. “And there’s nothing like the threat of termination to make you really feel alive.” In the fourth issue, after Q appears to murder Geordi, Data flies into a murderous rage, pummeling Q and cradling his friend’s body in a pieta pose. “Geordi is innocent! It’s not fair!”

(There are also more generally surreal moments. For example, Deanna’s Betazoid abilities seem to involve a Vulcan-esque mind meld, and Picard and Worf are both fond of exclaiming “bull!” It’s worth noting that Picard is a lot more physical here than he ever was on the show, although that may just be the result of more dynamic comic book storytelling, rather than an error on Carlin’s part.)

Something fishy is afoot...

Something fishy is afoot…

To be fair to Carlin, his work does improve once he has more material to work with. The later instalments read a bit better, particularly when he’s able to draw on episodes that have aired, or have entered production at time of scripting. Carlin is able to slip references into his scripts hinting towards Hide & Q and Datalore, even if the details seem a little ambiguous. That said, Carlin seems to have a weird approach to continuity. He feels the need to provide a rather strange back story to Doctor Soong and the Crystalline Entity, while also offering a cameo to – of all people – Bele from Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

Oddly enough, Carlin puts a lot of emphasis on Tasha Yar in this miniseries. Although a bit weird in retrospect, given how Denise Crosby’s departure reduced Yar to a footnote in the history of the franchise, it does make a great deal of sense in context. After all, Yar is the character with the most back story going into the pilot. She’s the character who has a nice traumatic background that can be mined for drama or angst. Given how Carlin seems to be seizing on history and continuity, the focus on Yar makes sense. Armed with the writers’ bible, Yar is the character with most history and continuity to seize.

Insecurity chief...

Insecurity chief…

The problem is that Yar’s history and back story is… questionable, to say the least. Although Carlin seems to go to great pains to avoid saying the words “rape gangs”, as the show clunkily used in Where No One Has Gone Before, the implication remains. Members of her old gang hold her in place and ask the leader “what now?” Yar’s arc here involves a former assailant tracking her down across the cosmos and terrifying her. “You all forced me to do things I didn’t want to do!” she accuses him, flashing back to her childhood on that failed colony.

The use of sexual assault as a convenient back story for a major female character is a questionable choice at best, because it’s easy to feel cynical or exploitative – it’s an easy way to generate drama and sympathy. As nice as it is to see Yar empowered (“never again!” she declares, hitting her rapist in the crotch), it would be better if Yar weren’t defined by her sexual assault. Yar would seem a much stronger presence if she were treated as her own character rather than simply a victim with issues to work through in order to generate some action beats.

Bad Data!

Bad Data!

There are nice touches. I like the idea of a relationship between Wesley and Yar. As Carlin astutely points out, Yar is a character who never had a childhood. So it makes sense to team her up with the child member of the ensemble. Carlin also hints that Yar hasn’t had the same freedoms and liberties that all her colleagues have enjoyed, and that she might be a lot less comfortable in paradise than they are. There’s not really a lot there, but Carlin hits on some nice story beats.

Interestingly, Carlin also seems to foreshadow Deja Q almost two years before it actually aired. You could argue that “depowered Q judged by his fellow continuum members” was an obvious direction to take the plot in the wake of Hide & Q, but it’s still proof that Carlin did have some solidly Star-Trek-kian ideas. (It’s also worth noting that his first issue also uses elements that Star Trek: Voyager would explore with Innocence, even if Star Trek: The Animated Series had already hit on them with The Counter-Clock Incident.)

Flying saucer...

Flying saucer…

That said, the second issue is particularly surreal. Released in March 1988, Spirit in the Sky! features the crew learning the true meaning Christmas, protecting a Santa-Claus-shaped energy field from some Grinch-like aliens. In the style of The Star Wars Holiday Special, we discover that most other alien races seem to celebrate their own religious holidays at about the same time. “My Klingon people celebrate the coming of our gods this season as well,” Worf tells us.

Somehow failing to pick up the (relatively late) revision to the humanity’s secularism or atheism in Roddenberry’s future (barring a Christmas party in Dagger of the Mind and references to Christianity in Bread & Circuses), Carlin has Yar remark, “My duties with the Federation since have kept me from keeping my faith.” It’s a rather surreal issue that seems like Carlin was just trying to fill space until he actually had more material to work with. The allusions to various other nerdy holiday specials does seem a little pointed.

Best sit this one out...

Best sit this one out…

That said, it’s interesting that this issue was released in March 1988. Coupled with holiday-related advertisements in the first issue, this seems to suggest that the miniseries was probably intended to launch in late 1987. That would have been ridiculously ambitious, and would have demonstrated an incredible attempt at synergy from the marketing and licensing department. David Gerrold’s novelisation of Encounter at Farpoint hit in October 1987, which was beautifully timed.

As it stands, the last issue of the series was released in July 1988, corresponding quite conveniently with the first original Pocket Books novel, Diane Carey’s Ghost Ship. Much like Ghost Ship, this six-issue miniseries feels like a bit of a historical curiosity rather than an interesting piece of Star Trek lore on its own terms. It’s an artifact of the series’ launch, and a demonstration of just how hard Paramount was pushing the show.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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2 Responses

  1. I love this comic! It barely resembles TNG, but it so fun to peek into the imaginations of fans of the period.

    • I have the CD-ROM with the letters pages, and they are absolutely fascinating reading, even if it’s clear that there was some selective editing going on. Then again, maybe what followed and the relative crappiness of the first season has made us all cynical. Was everybody really that happy with the first season of TNG?

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