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Star Trek – Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne (Review)

The August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

It’s fascinating how few stories take place around Star Trek: The Motion Picture. There’s a rake of tie-in material that exists to flesh-out the Enterprise’s five-year mission, and a large volume of material set during the period from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan straight through to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. However, the space around The Motion Picture has been somewhat overlooked by writers delving into the expanded world of Star Trek tie-in fiction.

To be fair, there are reasons for this. Although it was a box office success, looked stunning for the time, had a rake of big ideas and welcomed the crew to the screen, The Motion Picture isn’t generally considered to be one of the high points of the franchise. As such, it seems reasonable that it garners less attention, the affection shown by a few writers aside. There’s also the fact that The Motion Picture opens with the crew of the Enterprise broken up, scattered amongst the cosmos.

The Motion Picture sees Kirk putting the band back together after the universe seems to have forgotten about them, pulling them out of mothballs. Any story set in the lead-up to The Motion Picture would have to feature the ensemble all separated and going about their own thing. This limits the kind of stories that can be told in the setting, and makes it less appealing than other settings in Star Trek continuity.

John Byrne’s Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor gives us a glimpse of what a project set between the end of the Enterprise’s mission and the start of The Motion Picture might look like. It’s essentially a solo adventure series focusing on one member of the cast, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

These are the voyages of the Starship... Yorktown...

These are the voyages of the Starship… Yorktown…

Byrne has done a lot of Star Trek work in comics, but he has generally steered clear of using too many prominent characters. His Romulans: Pawns of War featured various Klingon guest stars, and Kirk has popped up a few times over his work, but Byrne has gone on record arguing that actor likenesses were never really his strength. As a result, Byrne’s Star Trek comics have tended to explore more esoteric parts of the canon. Assignment: Earth was a sequel to the episode of the same name. Romulans: Pawns of War was an exploration of Romulan and Klingon politics parallel to the series. Crew was a biography of Number One and a look at the early days of the Enterprise.

In a way, Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor seems to suit Byrne quite well. After all, McCoy was introduced in The Motion Picture sporting a pretty impressive beard. That has to compensate slightly for Byrne’s difficulty with likenesses. However, it’s also suited to Byrne’s storytelling style because McCoy’s status quo before The Motion Picture was relatively loose. The character was apparently wandering around the universe on his own time, like some sort of galactic hobo.

The Doctor will see you now...

The Doctor will see you now…

In The Motion Picture itself, McCoy is presented as something of a relic, a character who never really processed the fact that times had changed and that the Enterprise crew had moved on. The show might have been set in the future, but McCoy was still very much rooted in the sixties. He looked like he may even have spent some time on a hippy commune. He was intended to represent a clear link to the very sixties aesthetic of Star Trek the television show, so that he too might be updated to fit in better with a big budget sci-fi epic from 1979.

McCoy seems the perfect central character for Byrne, for several reasons beyond his facial hair. Byrne is very clearly nostalgic. He has admitted that he really has very little interest in the franchise outside the original television show. “Star Trek should never have been anything but a fond memory of a series that lived and died in the 1960s,” he has argued. “But that’s also very selfish. I don’t care much for the later iterations, but a whole lot of people do.”

His beard has grown on me...

His beard has grown on me…

Byrne’s outlook seems quite similar to some of the character traits associated with McCoy, and especially his use in The Motion Picture as the crew member having the most difficulty acclimatising to the brave new world outside. The last story collected here, Scalpel, has McCoy contemplating the notion of tinkering with history. The issue was released just a year after JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek, and it’s interesting to see Byrne play with the idea of rewriting an existing history to “improve” it, to modernise it.

To be fair, Scalpel is very clearly a comic book story. McCoy is reunited with an old friend Alex, only to discover that Alex has been crippled and is now in a wheelchair. Interestingly, Byrne doesn’t design the wheelchair to emulate the version Christopher Pike used in The Menagerie, nor the version used by the title character in Melora. It bears a resemblance to the type of chair used by Admiral Mark Jameson in Too Short a Season. However, it also appears to be a shout out to something outside of Star Trek.



It really resembles the anti-gravity wheelchair associated with Charles Xavier in the X-Men comics, a franchise Byrne wrote for and illustrated repeatedly over his career. (Indeed, there’s even a handy “x” in McCoy’s friend’s name.) When Alex invites McCoy to join him under the surface, he takes him to a hollowed-out cave which seems to be illustrated to evoke the iconic Batcave, complete with the gigantic computer.

Byrne has a tendency to be slightly contradictory on matters of continuity. He has, on one hand, argued that if Marvel “had the stones they’d say “Screw continuity! As of January 2007, we’re hitting ‘rewind’ and resetting all the books to where they were in 1972—just set in modern time.” He has also, on the other hand, lamented the fact that the internet didn’t exist earlier so that fans would object to certain characterisations of Magneto by pointing out how it “violated the long standing continuity.”

Man of action...

Man of action…

So it’s hard to discern an entirely consistent attitude towards classic continuity. It seems that he tends to favour the continuity of the seventies, for admittedly personal reasons.  “… were I in charge of either of the Big Two, my “solution” to the ills of the industry would be to “reset” all the books to where they were at some arbitrarily chosen point in time. Usually I say 1976, for many reasons good and bad. Mostly because that’s the last year when, while actually still working in the Biz, I really still felt like a fan.”

He also seems to object to lazy retcons, despite his own willingness to just press “rewind” to reset comics back to his determined golden age, he seems to dislike the idea of just pressing “rewind” to erase his own work. “As I have said many times,” he has states, “I don’t care if they wipe away every trace of every book I have ever worked on. I just wish they’d stop doing so by pressing the “rewind” button. That’s just creative bankruptcy.”

A means of transport...

A means of transport…

As such, it’s entirely possible to read Scalpel as a none-too-subtle criticism of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, when it’s revealed that McCoy’s old friend has been subtly using time travel to re-write history and to transform the world into a more idealised form. It can be interpreted as a a jab at the way that the rebooted film series has “overwritten” the classic television show with a version more consciously aimed at modern tastes. It stands in marked contrast to the guarded optimism suggested by Byrne’s work in The Ends of Eternity, the final chapter of his Crew miniseries.

Of course, another reason McCoy works so well as the protagonist of Byrne’s comic is because his status quo allows for a variety of high-concept science-fiction adventure stories. Byrne certainly has no shortage of enthusiasm for high-concept science-fiction, and one of the stronger aspects of his work on classic Star Trek comics is the way that he very carefully pitches them to the style and era of the show itself. For example, in Crew, when the Enterprise stumble across a small American town, it’s from the 1960s rather than the 2000s, reflecting the era when the show was broadcast rather than the year when the comic was written.

The intermediate frontier...

The intermediate frontier…

That is suggested here, as well. Indeed, Medics seems to be written as something of a shout out to the classic 1969 Doctor Who adventure The War Games. In both stories, humans are taken to a world where they wage constant war. The Klingons here even explicitly refer to the planet as “a place of war games.” (The War Chief from The War Games even looks a bit like a classic Klingon.)

Doctor Who has been an influence on Byrne’s comics work before, with the writer and artist admitting that Day of the Daleks probably provided at least some of the inspiration for his wonderful Days of Future Past arc on Uncanny X-Men with Chris Claremont. That said, Byrne doesn’t make The War Games more than a reference here, with the Klingons doings something markedly different than the War Chief. These are, we’re informed, “games which Klingons watch and wager upon!”



When McCoy encounters Gary Seven, it’s a version of Gary Seven who came from 1970. His own chronology remains (relatively) consistent with that of the franchise. Positioned between the end of the show (broadcast in 1969) and the events of The Motion Picture (released in 1979), Gary Seven’s own chronometer syncs up quite well. Roberta talks about “sequential time travel”, which is a nice way of suggesting that the two times move in something approaching tandem. Star Trek will always be inexorably linked to the 1960s, Byrne seems to suggest, no matter when the material is actually written.

So Byrne plays to that particular era in the science-fiction stories that he crafts. Weeds references the environmental movement of the sixties and seventies, very much in the same style as The Devil in the Dark. In Medics, when McCoy and his friends find themselves on an alien war world, it feels like a reference to Vietnam. Indeed, Roberta even admits that her boyfriend is serving in Vietnam, contextualising the conflict.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

It’s also worth noting that Byrne sticks relatively loosely to the format and the style of classic Star Trek. The franchise was largely episodic until it stretched one single storyline across Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. So, appropriately enough, Byrne pitches all of his stories here as “done-in-one” adventures, which is a lot tougher within a twenty-two page comic than with an hour of television. (Especially ambitiously, the last issue actually includes two stories.)

That said, there are some interesting indications that Byrne is beginning to carve out his own corner of a shared Star Trek universe, in much the same way that writers in the eighties (like Diane Duane or Margaret Wander Bonanno) were wont to do. For example, in Medics, Gary Seven shows up to resolve a plot thread that’s been running through Byrne’s Assignment: Earth and Crew comics. We get explicit proof that the commander of the Yorktown is Number One. And one of Byrne’s original characters (a Klingon named Kloor) shows up.

Floating an idea...

Floating an idea…

There’s also a very clear sense that Byrne is more consciously anchoring Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor in the character’s past adventures more than the franchise’s future entries. The refit of the Enterprise is on-going, and the characters all wear movie-era uniforms, but most of the gags and in-jokes point backwards. The cover for the first issue features McCoy in his iconic blue shirt. The references to earlier episodes come quick and fast. McCoy relates the events of Mirror, Mirror to a crew member. There are repeated references to Friday’s Child. (In a nice little gag, Byrne even has Nurse Chapel and Number One – two characters played by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry – directly interact.)

In Hosts, Byrne crams an impressive amount of continuity nods into a single story. One patient is implied to be the daughter of McCoy’s expert on Vulcan physiology, M’Benga. There are shout outs to Gary Mitchell and Elizabeth Denher from Where No Man Has Gone Before. Talking to the alien intelligence, Chapel evokes memories of Redjack from Wolf in the Fold, noting, “That laughter! It’s chilling! Like… like an insane child!” Number One hints that the strange disease might be an off-shoot of the infection from The Naked Time, asking, “Drunk? Are you serious, Doctor? A drunk disease?”

Beaming up with Scotty...

Beaming up with Scotty…

Interestingly, Byrne steers clear of using continuity as a story crutch. The resolution to the plot has nothing to do with any of these references, which makes them all the more notable. Given that Hosts, a story celebrating continuity, is paired with Scalpel, a story about re-writing that same continuity, it seems a rather pointed observation from Byrne.

Still, Byrne has great fun with the metaphysics of Star Trek. Few of his ideas hold up to rigorous scientific analysis, but they’re bold and clever concepts. Error features a bunch of aliens using the transporter to become functionally immortal. While I’m not convinced by the logic Byrne offers, it’s a fairly clever twist on the use of something Roddenberry and the show created as a means of saving budget. It feels something of a kindred spirit of James Blish’s line of reasoning in Spock Must Die!

The full Montgomery!

The full Montgomery!

Similarly, the notion of intelligence and live evolving separately in Hosts is a wonderful philosophical notion, with Byrne returning to the question of what life and awareness are, distinct from biological definitions. It’s the sort of bold philosophical inquiry (and somewhat questionable science) that one expects from Star Trek, and Byrne seems to relish broaching these intriguing questions in tightly-packed narratives.

Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor occasionally feels rushed, by virtue of the format. Trying to fit an entire plot into twenty-two (or eleven!) pages is a little awkward, and Byrne occasionally has to fall back on clunky exposition or monologuing to explain everything the reader needs to know. The stories are hyper-compressed, and it seems like Byrne is using every inch of space on the page. It’s a shame that there isn’t more room afforded to each issue to allow Byrne to breath a bit.

The write stuff...

The write stuff…

Still, these aren’t huge problems. Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor is a fascinating read from John Byrne. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his opinions of the franchise, but it’s clear he has a lot of enthusiasm for the material.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:



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