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Star Trek (Gold Key) #56 – No Time Like the Past (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.

It’s remarkable to think that Star Trek was kept alive in the decade between the airing of The Turnabout Intruder and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The most popular television show to air in the 1968 and 1969 season was Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, a show that was apparently lucky to receive two “best of” DVD collections in the early part of the last decade, collecting a grand total of eight of the 140 episodes. Given that Star Trek didn’t even rank among the twenty highest rated shows of that broadcast season, it’s incredible that the show endured for so long.

To be fair, there is a lot of material which fills the gap between the last episode of the live action television show and the first feature film. There was Star Trek: The Animated Series, perhaps the most high-profile release. There were a few novels, even if the tie-in line wouldn’t necessarily take off until the eighties. And there were the comic books, produced by Gold Key, notable as perhaps the largest publisher of non-superhero comics in the seventies.

These comics weren’t classics. It’s hard to argue that they are essential additions to the mythos, or that anybody would miss anything be ignoring them entirely. However, there’s a weird pulpy sci-fi charm to these stories that makes them interesting, even when you would wonder whether the artist or writer had actually watched any episodes of the show they were apparently adapting.



Walter Irwin and G. B. Love’s Best of Star Trek offers an overview of some of the more fundamental problems with the comics, being harsh but not unfair in their observations:

The main fault for the poor quality of research and preparation probably lies with Gold Key’s system of producing comic adaptations. Before condemning that system, however, it must be stated that this system did produce many, many fine adaptations of movies and television series over the years.  It is just that, in Star Trek, Gold Key had hold of something more complex and more cared-about than their usual product. Their main failure was not realizing this fact and acting upon it.

Errors abound in the Gold Key issues. The blame must be equally shared by the company, the writer, and the artist (although it is likely that the writer lives and works in this country and should have been able to at least watch the show once in a while). However, many of the errors (but by no means all) would only be noticeable or disturbing to a Star Trek fan; many comic book adaptations have been successful, even in a series, without being mirror images of the originals. What the Gold Key Star Trek comic books lacked was good and entertaining story lines and art. The Gold Key series simply failed to capture any of the spirit of the series or what it was trying to say. The adaptation became space opera of the simplest kind, unabashedly aimed at a juvenile audience.

That’s a fair summary. Apparently the Italian artists working on the title couldn’t even secure a photo reference for Scotty, so he spends quite a few of the early issues as young and blonde.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

To be fair, the series did get a little better with time. When writer Len Wein took over, for example, he added an element of quality that had been sorely lacking from the work of his predecessors. For the first time, it seemed like the script was actually written by somebody who had watched the show. Not in a sense of extreme continuity or in-jokes, but in a broader sense of atmosphere and feeling. While the characters never really looked like their television counterparts, the art also become a bit more consistent.

No Time Like the Past comes rather late in the comic’s publication history, after Len Wein had moved on. It’s a pretty solid example of what Gold Key could do with Star Trek at their creative peak. Which is to say, of course, that it’s not really very good, but it bears some passing resemblance to Star Trek and a generous portion of ideas provided with a healthy dollop of crazy sauce.

Not too far from stone knives and bear skins, eh?

Not too far from stone knives and bear skins, eh?

And I don’t hate it. Perhaps deciding to write a sequel to The City on the Edge of Forever was a mistake, particularly for a comic book company like Gold Key more interesting in the wacky adventures than in character or even commentary. Asking any writer to tackle one of the best-loved episodes of the original Star Trek is asking for trouble, as the resulting work is inevitably going to be compared to one of the most highly regarded stories in the franchise’s extended history.

So a wacky story involving insane dictators and giant elephants and time-traveling time bombs probably isn’t going to hold up too well. And No Time Like the Past is rife with problems and plot holes. We join the story as Kirk is hunting down the “deposed dictator, Trengur, who escaped from an insane asylum” on Oorego IV. Despite the fact that this is the first we’ve heard of him, Kirk seems to know him quite well, asserting, “I know… Trengur is a megalomaniac… he can’t stand to be ruled by any man!” It’s hardly a massive logical leap (megalomaniacs tend to have authority issues), but it seems weird that Kirk asserts it with such confidence.

You know, for a "Guardian", he really doesn't do too much guarding...

You know, for a “Guardian”, he really doesn’t do too much guarding…

However, the problems really begin once we get past the introduction and into the “sequel to a beloved story” part. Trengur makes a run for the Guardian of Forever, as you might expect from the fact this is a sequel to the story which introduced the Guardian. However, this raises all sorts of questions. You’d imagine Starfleet might want to keep the existence of a weapon that can re-write history a secret. If the has-been insane dictator of some world we’ve never heard of before knows about it, what about the Klingons or the Romulans?

There clearly hasn’t been too much thought put into the comic’s concept, and it almost seems like the writer wasn’t even paying attention when the episode aired. For example, apparently the Guardian of Forever works like a Stargate, with a defined entry and exit point. Fleeing the battle, the Starfleet officers exposit, “The only way to return through the Guardian is by way of this cave…” I seem to remember the Guardian just dropping Kirk, Spock and McCoy home after their jaunt.

Great Scott!

Great Scott!

Despite the fact that this device which can re-write history is apparently widely known, the Guardian of Forever sits alone and unguarded. You’d imagine that Starfleet might want to build a space station or something, even if they’d be reluctant to put boots on the ground given how McCoy’s saunter to the past wiped out all of existence. And when Trengur arrives at the Guardian, he takes a trip back to Hannibal’s time. On Earth. If I were a dictator of an alien planet, surely I’d go to the history of my home planet. Although maybe Oorego IV is a colony or something.

Also, it turns out that Trengur is functionally immortal, rebranding himself “the Trengur” when he conquers Earth in the twenty-first century. Why he waits that long is a bit of a mystery, given that he seems to spend as much time as possible dicking around with Earth history in the most obvious sort of way. I’m not sure how killing George Washington or letting Hitler win the Second World War help his plan to conquer the world. They just seem like he’s messing with history just to wind up Kirk. Of course, the fact he is “insane” is a bit of a cop-out, but his plan still makes next to no sense.

Because fascists, that's why!

Because fascists, that’s why!

Which, to be fair, accurately sums up No Time Like the Past. It is pure nonsense, exactly the kind of “space opera of the simplest kind, unabashedly aimed at a juvenile audience” that Irwin and Love mentioned above. And yet, on that level, there’s something undeniably pulpy and enjoyable about it. This is a Star Trek comic which features two consecutive panels of George Washington getting shot by a nasty British person and Adolf Hitler holding a victory parade. It’s never going to be deep or thoughtful science-fiction, but it’s solid trashy fare.

The plot is paced in such a way that new and radical things happen with each turn of the page, even if they aren’t or foreshadowed or don’t make sense. Consider Spock’s rather blunt way of explaining why the Enterprise is now a weirdly fascist pirate ship, like the Condor from Ellison’s original draft of The City on the Edge of Forever, complete with salutes from Mirror, Mirror.

Looks like Spock struck a nerve...

Looks like Spock struck a nerve…

“By the mid-21st century,” he explains, “planet Earth had become an armed war-like camp, under the rule of a world dictator known as the Trengur! This, naturally, led to a mass exodus of refugees! They settled on Terra Minor, whose atmosphere is almost identical to that of Earth… Declared an outlaw planet, Earth was never admitted to the interplanetary Federation! The Enterprise belongs not to Starfleet, but to Earthfleet…” And I love how quickly he can ascertain that and how quickly McCoy and Kirk accept that.

But don’t worry, there’s no time to process all that. There’s more coming! “That explains the ‘mission’ we’ve just completed!” Kirk remarks. Bones walks into it, “What mission, Jim?” Kirk remarks, “According to my logs, bones, we were detailed to go back in time on a sabotage mission… wearing Starfleet uniforms, we infiltrated key Federation outposts, where we planted anti-matter bombs! Those bombs were set to detonate about nine minutes from now!” Spock even gets to add a “fascinating!”

Time to split!

Time to split!

Yes, the script turns Kirk into a time-traveling bomb-planting terrorist. Which is… very weird. Okay, Errand of Mercy confirmed that Kirk would be quite ready to turn himself to guerrilla warfare, but resorting to terrorism via time travel feels like the kind of plot point that requires more than a couple of lines of exposition. What could push Kirk to that? Surely there must be a better way? What about the innocent people on those stations?

And the idea of traveling back in time to set up something that will happen in your future is actually a very clever idea that deserves more panel time – allowing characters to “cheat” and change history without re-writing their own. Unfortunately, this plot point raises all manner of awkward questions. Also, why not use the Guardian to go back in time and assassinate Trengur or even simply “the Trengur”? Or plant a time bomb in his office to go off nine minutes from now if alt!Kirk was reluctant to risk changing history? Not only does the “bomb a Starbase” plot seem a little bloodthirsty, it’s also damn inefficient and a little uncreative.

Also, there are elephants.

Also, there are elephants.

This is all nonsense. There’s no real logic at play here. Just a bunch of cool concepts like “wouldn’t it be cool if The City on the Edge of Forever bled into Mirror, Mirror and then there were elephants?” It reminds me of the excesses of the show’s troubled third season, where any number of wacky concepts were pushed in front of the camera with little thought about what was going on. And yet it’s hard to truly hate No Time Like the Past, because at least it has some energy and vibrancy.

The biggest problem with Spock’s Brain isn’t that it’s nonsense, it’s that it is bloated boring nonsense. Here, we barely have time to react to the fact that Kirk is a fugitive and a terrorist who is about to blow up his only chance of getting home before Spock is lying to Scotty about the Captain have contracted bubonic plague. It’s pure hokum, but it’s delivered with enough energy and enough conviction that all you need to do is make it to the next logical twist.

Spock lays some logic on us...

Spock lays some logic on us…

I kinda like that the one thing the comic actually nails is the Guardian itself. In the episode, the being was prone to melodrama and seemed almost tragic for all its grandiose boasting about mastering time and space. The over-the-top dialogue that feels a little strange coming from Kirk or McCoy fits the Guardian quite well, as it spouts profound-sounding nonsense. “I, forever changeless, am being used for everlasting change!” it laments at one point, which totally fits the implicit suggestion in The City on the Edge of Forever that the Guardian might be going a little mad due to isolation.

So, as far as sequels to one of the best-loved science-fiction television episodes of the sixties go, No Time Like the Past isn’t a winner. however, it’s hard not to admire the sheer “throw everything at the wall all at once” energy of it all. If The City on the Edge of Forever was proof that Star Trek could do high-minded drama with the best of them, No Time Like the Past is just a reminder that it could do pulpy stupid charming nonsense to beat the band.

Just try and pretend this isn't awesome...

Just try to pretend this isn’t awesome…

And there’s something fun about that.

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


2 Responses

  1. Gold Key kept me going when I was a kid. TNG was on a channel we couldn’t ‘tune in,’ so I didn’t really get much Trek on TV until 1995, when Voyager came on.
    Between family viewings of the movies (usually IV, as that was tolerated by females), I’d get to the library to read tie-ins and I’d dig through my dad’s old comics to find these beauties.

    Here’s what I love about these comics (and, incidentally, Marvel’s Star Wars comics): “…it’s delivered with enough energy and enough conviction that all you need to do is make it to the next logical twist.”

    It’s the wild west of tie-in comics.

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