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Star Trek – Crew by John Byrne (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry was the first lady of the Star Trek franchise, in more ways than one. She was married to Gene Roddenberry and remained a part of the franchise after his death. She guest starred on the shows occasionally, continued to lend her voice to the computers and offered the occasional interview to the press. Although her actual influence on the television shows was relatively minimal (and she was occasionally prone to protesting various plot developments including the Dominion War on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), she did remain involved in Star Trek until she passed away in 2008.

However, she was also involved from the start. She had the recurring role of Christine Chapel throughout the original television show, and appeared in the unaired pilot, The Cage, as Christopher Pike’s first officer. Identified only as “Number One”, this almost made her the literal “first lady” of Star Trek. I’m surprised that Number One hasn’t been used more often as a character, with her appearances in tie-ins generally restricted to her time on board Pike’s Enterprise.

John Byrne’s miniseries might have the title Crew, and feature supporting roles for Christopher Pike and Mister Spock, but it is very much the story of Number One. Published a year after her death, and dedicated to her memory, Crew feels like a fitting farewell to the actress responsible for one of the franchise’s earliest and most intriguing supporting characters.

Fate protects fools, little children... and ships named Enterprise.

Fate protects fools, little children… and ships named Enterprise.

The story of what happened to Number One is relatively well known. Roddenberry wrote The Cage to feature an alien science officer and a female first officer. The network did not respond enthusiastically, and neither did test audiences. When Roddenberry was given enough lee-way to produce a second pilot, the episode which would become Where No Man Has Gone Before, he was told that he could choose to keep the alien or the woman, but he could not keep both. Majel Barrett Roddenberry jokes that he kept the alien and married the woman, and it’s unlikely Leonard Nimoy would have tolerated the reverse arrangement.

To be fair, Roddenberry cheated a little bit. He consolidated the stoic and emotionally restrained character of Number One into the personality of Mister Spock. Modern audiences watching The Cage might be surprised at how emotional everybody’s favourite Vulcan is. In the first pilot, Number One was the rational and logical member of the crew. Despite the assertion that she was only using her logic to hide her obvious sexual attraction to Pike, Number One is arguably a stronger character than any female character to appear on the show after her departure.

Keeping the sick at bay...

Keeping the sick at bay…

It wouldn’t be until Deep Space Nine gave us Major Kira that we’d get a truly strong female regular character. Even the character that Barrett Roddenberry came to play on the aired version of Star Trek – the recurring role of Nurse Christine Chapel – was defined by her relationship to men. She had an ill-fated crush on Mister Spock and her only character-centric episode, What Are Little Girls Made Of?, revealed that she also had a crazy fiancée. When Barrett Roddenberry returned to The Next Generation as the mother of regular character Deanna Troi, she was cast as a shrewish man-eater. Neither role made the most of Barrett Roddenberry as an actress.

So this five-issue comic book miniseries from artist and writer John Byrne feels like a fitting tribute to the first lady of Star Trek, acknowledging that her best role on the franchise was her very first. Byrne has an obvious affection for Number One. She makes a cameo appearance in his Romulans: Pawns of War comic as a commodore in command of a starship, a clever way of skirting the “no female captains” nonsense from The Turnabout Intruder. This comic book series is concerned with the early days of Number One’s career in Starfleet, and her path to her position in The Cage.

To beam or not to beam?

To beam or not to beam?

It’s clear that Byrne has paid a lot of attention to The Cage. His early version of the Enterprise even uses “time warp” velocity, instead of simple “warp.” Although, he does stop short of attempting to replicate the cheesy special effects in his panels. His version of Number One fits almost perfectly with the version presented in that pilot, even if he steers clear of the whole “she’s a woman so she must be attracted to Christopher Pike’s rugged manliness” nonsense.

Byrne recognises that Number One plays the role that Spock would come to play on the television show itself. So he wisely minimises Spock’s role in Crew, relegating him to a supporting appearance in the final issue, The Ends of Eternity. Instead, he characterises Number One as a woman of logic, the straight-talking no-nonsense member of the crew. “Do you always have to be so literal?” one of her colleagues asks in the first issue, as she plays the role of straight woman.

From the outside, looking in...

From the outside, looking in…

Byrne even acknowledges that many of her attributes would play into the characterisation of Spock, which would play into the characterisation of Vulcans. Of course, Byrne acknowledges this and references it by suggesting that the character is a human influenced by Vulcan philosophy. “You’re starting to sound like a Vulcan!” another co-worker protests in the third issue, Ghosts. She replies, “Nothing wrong with looking at things rationally.” In the next chapter, she confesses, “I’ve been reading a lot of Vulcan philosophy lately.” In The Ends of Eternity, it is revealed that she speaks Vulcan.

It feels pretty great to have an entire miniseries dedicated to the character of Number One, and it’s obvious from reading it that the writer and artist has a lot of affection for his source material. In particular, I like the fact that he is very clearly drawing on a version of Star Trek produced in the sixties, rather than attempting to update to correspond to modern times. For example, when the away team arrive in a community modelled on Earth in Ghosts, Number One observes, “Looks like they were trying to recreate the early 1960s.”

Time for transport...

Time for transport…

It doesn’t matter that the comic was written and will be read in the twenty-first century. Byrne is writing Star Trek as a product of the sixties, which is a valid artistic and creative choice. So when they arrive on a planet that is very clearly modelled on contemporary Earth, it is a version of Earth modelled on the sixties. That would have been when the episode would have aired, had it been a television show.

Indeed, Byrne does a nice job channelling the b-movie science-fiction vibe of the sixties. There are mysterious and unexplained aliens in The Bottle. The ghost town in Ghosts seems to call to mind those idealised towns used for nuclear weapons testing during the forties and fifties. The villain is a robot gone wild, manufacturing duplicates of the townspeople. It plays off fifties paranoia films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Even Number One acknowledges, “That was a time of great global paranoia.”

Blast from the past...

Blast from the past…

In fact, Ghosts hinges on so many classic Star Trek clichés that Byrne openly acknowledges it. Trying to figure out how they’ve come across yet another Earth-like planet in the vast cosmos (“ten light years from the Neutral Zone”, to add another cliché), one member of the away team timidly suggests, “Another failed colony?” I really wonder if, given episodes like Miri, A Piece of the Action, Patterns of Force, Bread & Circuses and so on, Starfleet has published a guide to figuring out why a given planet looks so like Earth.

Still, Byrne is well-versed in Star Trek storytelling, and one of the most interesting aspects of Crew is that way that the writer and artist plays with those tropes and acknowledges the show’s recurring theme. I like that, in Ghosts, the stagnancy of the human colony is an immediate warning sign. “But I don’t understand why there was no progress,” Number One remarks. “They’d brought some sophisticated equipment from Earth.” It recalls one of the first signs that something is wrong in This Side of Paradise and even the colonists’ lethargy in Operation — Annihilate!

Do the robot...

Do the robot…

Byrne has been quite honest about his attitudes towards Star Trek. He is a massive fan of the original television show, but doesn’t rate any of the spin-offs very highly:

Newsarama: You’ve said that there should have just been “one Star Wars and one Matrix but without sequels Star Trek would have died with The Motion Picture.” However, should it have gone on to spawn nine other sequels, with a reboot prequel in the making, and four other spin-off TV series?

John Byrne: A big part of my brain says no!! Star Trek should never have been anything but a fond memory of a series that lived and died in the 1960s. But that’s also very selfish. I don’t care much for the later iterations, but a whole lot of people do.

There’s nothing wrong with this perspective. Byrne acknowledges that it is his opinion, and that there are people who do value the spin-offs. They just aren’t for him. That’s fair. After all, there are quite a few writers who tend to have a particular preference among the Star Trek shows. Diane Carey, for example, often seems quite unhappy to be writing anything except the cast of the original Star Trek show. However, despite his preferences, there is a very clear sense that Byrne respects that franchise as a whole.

Explosive action...

Explosive action…

The second issue, The Bottle, features the Enterprise under attack from an unidentified alien species. However, based on a fleeting glimpse of the ship, most Star Trek fans will recognise the aliens. Indeed, the title seems to be an allusion (changing a single letter) to another Star Trek story which features similar behaviour from the aliens in question. You could argue that this cameo appearance is a sly dig at the way that the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise used these same aliens in a rather clumsy way, centuries before first contact was made. “This is how you do a cameo from an alien who won’t appear until the future!” the comic seems too declare.

And despite the fact that Byrne seems to believe that the show should have “lived and died” in the sixties, he does take a great deal of care to link Crew to the film series, a film series that could be read as a coda to the original Star Trek. The double splash page near the start of the first issue seems designed to evoke Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The set-up of the plot to Shakedown seems to recall Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as a ship on a cruise manned by “a skeleton crew… and a former captain who is past his prime” finds itself under attack from some old enemies.

No decompression here...

No decompression here…

Indeed, Shakedown seems designed to evoke Star Trek: Generations, of all things. An ageing admiral oversees the early voyage of a new ship, only for things to go horribly wrong. Like Kirk on the Enterprise-B, Admiral Rasmussen sacrifices himself to save as many lives as possible. “This is my last chance,” he conceded. “My last chance to really do something with my career! Not to simply fade away like some forgotten old relic.” Perhaps it’s a sly dig at the way that Generations at least let Kirk die on the Enterprise, only so they could bring him back a drop a bridge on him.

Still, it’s interesting that Byrne links his Star Trek comic set at the earliest point in the life of the Enterprise to the last movie starring William Shatner as Kirk, representing the end of that particular era. “The end is every bit as much a part of life as the beginning,” Number One appeals to the aliens in The Ends of Eternity, the final issue of the miniseries. Which brings us to an interesting bit of subtext, perhaps a theme that was unintentional – or perhaps, as above, Byrne recognising that different people have different tastes, and that no taste in Star Trek is any more or less valid than any other.

Sleepers...

Sleepers…

Crew was published in 2009. It was an ending, in a way. Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the first lady of Star Trek, had died the previous year. Star Trek itself was off television for the first time in quite a few years. However, it was also a beginning. Star Trek would hit screens in 2009, rebooting the franchise and starting from scratch. It would close off the old continuity and take the series back to its roots. The movie was a very modern blockbuster, and represented a radical shift in the franchise.

However, despite the fact that Byrne’s Crew represents a trip back to a more traditional version of the franchise’s early days, the comic remains quite open-minded. The final issue, The Ends of Eternity, finds the crew arguing with the last few survivors of a stale universe, desperately trying to hold on to what they know, and reluctant to relinquish what amounts to a dying reality. Called “the One Hundred”, they could be read as particularly conservative Star Trek fans, wary of the new beginning that Abrams’ Star Trek represents.

Badge of honour...

Badge of honour…

“Their actions suggest an almost childlike mentality,” Pike observes. “An overly simplified view of space, time – and their place in it.” That reads like a pretty telling criticism of a part of fandom that would resent attempts to make their interest more popular and would seem unable to comprehend that – even if they weren’t happy with the direction the franchise had taken – a lot of movie-goers were impressed by Star Trek. It’s worth noting that Byrne himself doesn’t seem too fond of it (accusing “self-proclaimed True Believers” of swallowing “the raktajino”), so the subtext is probably unintentional. But it’s still fascinating.

The reboot of Star Trek represented the “death” of the old continuity. Anything and everything was up for grabs. So it was understandable that those people standing at the end of something they loved would try so desperately to hold on to it, even if perhaps the franchise might be helped by an updating. Pulling Robert April’s Enterprise forward in time, the ultimate collector’s edition, they find that time has not been kind. The ship is falling apart. It is old. It is no longer convincing.

Into the wild black yonder...

Into the wild black yonder…

Number One appeals to “the One Hundred” to accept the inevitable. In a way, Byrne seems to be using Number One to channel Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the franchise’s voice of reason, who had tried to uphold her husband’s vision after his death. Byrne allows here that role one more time, trying to help these god-like beings accept change. “Perhaps all that awaits you is oblivion,” she concedes. “But perhaps the universe will be reborn somehow. And you will be a part of that.” That’s optimism. That is very Star Trek. It’s fitting, then, that Majel Barrett Roddenberry got to add a sense of continuity to Star Trek by voicing the Enterprise computer one last time.

There are other nice touches as well. Byrne’s first issue, Shakedown, features the Klingons trying to capture the Enterprise during her initial cruise. Given that the Klingons only appeared in Errand of Mercy towards the end of the first season of Star Trek, even as we were assured that they had been engaged in a long-running cold war with the Federation, a lot of writers working with early Star Trek continuity have tried to incorporate the Klingons as a means of grafting continuity. Byrne would do the same, much more thoroughly, in his Romulans: Pawns of War comics.

Trust Spock to get all emotional...

Trust Spock to get all emotional…

There’s also a rather bleak ending to the comic’s fourth issue, which is still a little confusing. It is rather unlike any ending to a Star Trek episode, with the Enterprise effectively conceding that there is nothing they can do to help the planet of war-like humans below. Number One protests, “You mean… we’re just going to warp away and do nothing? Those are human beings down there!” Pike explains, “They are and they aren’t lieutenant. And either way, they represent one of the darkest periods of our species’ history. It does not seem likely they could be effectively folded into normal society.”

It’s certainly a challenging ending, and I appreciate it on those grounds. One of the criticisms levelled at the classic Star Trek is the fact that the show justified the moral values of the crew by allowing them to fix whatever situation they encountered. David Gerrold, writing in Inside Star Trek, was quite self-critical on this point, conceding that “never did they run into a situation that might have been better off without their intervention.” Perhaps, creating a situation that the Enterprise can’t fix, Byrne is acknowledging that. Although the planet is not demonstrably worse for the landing party’s interference, it’s certainly not better.

New worlds, new civilisations...

New worlds, new civilisations…

And Byrne is quite candid about the consequences of the Enterprise’s inability to help. Number One acknowledges, “War is all they will ever know, until they’ve slaughtered each other down to the literal last man.” By using humans to tell the story, Byrne avoids the Prime Directive, and thus creates a situation where the Enterprise should be able to help. And yet he twists it, irony of ironies, so that they can’t. At least, I think this is what Byrne was going for and – if it was – it’s a nice twist on a Star Trek formula.

Byrne’s artwork is, as ever, quite great. The artist can be quite tough on his ability to do likenesses. That’s one of the reason he was reluctant to do a comic starring Kirk or Spock. While his likenesses aren’t perfect here, they are good enough, and Byrne has a knack for comic book storytelling. His panel layouts and his pacing are always fun. Even if Byrne might not be the highest profile writer and artist in comic, having been quite frank about his difficulties working at the two major companies, he is still a master of the form.

Dirty cowards...

Dirty cowards…

He opts to tell five one-shot stories, which is ambitious and lends the comic an episodic feel quite like the original Star Trek. On the other hand, it does mean that stories like The Bottle and Shadows of the Past just sort of end. To be fair to Byrne, he structures those stories so the abruptness of the ending is kind of the point. In The Bottle, the crew never identify their attacker, and it’s meant to be a random act of space violence. In Shadows of the Past, the adventure ends with the Enterprise accepting that there is nothing they can do.

Still, Crew is a great little Star Trek comic, and a fitting dedication to Majel Barrett Roddenberry. It’s a wonderful piece of Star Trek, and it’s not too difficult to imagine Byrne – had he been born ten to twenty years earlier – working on the writing staff of the classic Star Trek.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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