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Star Trek: The Newspaper Strips – Called Home (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

It’s amazing how diverse and expansive the history of the Star Trek franchise is. Even odd little curiosities like the Gold Key Comics and The Newspaper Strips endure in one form or another – passed down over the years and lovingly maintained. There really are no truly forgotten pieces of Star Trek out there, and one of the great things about IDW’s management of the Star Trek license has been their willingness to dig into the annals of Star Trek history to produce some striking pieces of work.

(I am really hoping that their reprint programme extends at some point to include the British Star Trek comic strips, which were wonderfully dynamic pieces of work that were never properly reprinted outside the United Kingdom. However, given how thorough the reprint programme has been, it seems almost inevitable that those strips will see the light of day in some form or another.)

The Newspaper Strips were launched in 1979, débuting four days before the cinematic release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The strip only ran for until 1983, cancelled due to the fact that the market was crowded out with more popular science-fiction comic strips like Star Wars or Flash Gordon. Still, despite the ignominious finish for the strip, it is a fascinating piece of Star Trek history, an example of one of the many ways the franchise survived during its long hiatus from television.

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As with a lot of classic Star Trek tie-in material, The Newspaper Strip was the work of a wide variety of individuals holding a wide variety of views on what Star Trek should be. There really was no sense of a firm editorial hand, with the writers and artists given considerable lee-way to bring their own version of Star Trek to life. Like the tie-in novel line at this point in the franchise’s history, the results were often intriguing – occasionally brilliant, occasionally terrible, but mostly utterly fascinating.

The first story to run in the strip, Called Home, was written and illustrated by Thomas Warkentin. Warkentin would work on the strip from the launch in December 1979 through to April 1981. He occasionally collaborated on stories, but his artwork gave the strip a wonderfully consistent look for the first year-and-a-half of its lifespan. Warkentin enjoyed a rich and varied career. He worked on the Flash Gordon script in the nineties, and won an Emmy for his work on the cartoon Animaniacs.

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Reading Called Home, it’s striking how hard the comic tries to integrate itself with show and the high-profile feature film on the verge of release. Although the strip was released a few days before the movie, Warkentin took care to include the new character of Ilia in comic. Obviously Warkentin was not on the inside track for production information – the comic would carefully and quietly shuffle Ilia out in the months ahead, given that she leaves at the end of The Motion Picture.

However, there’s an sense that Warkentin was trying to keep up with the live-action Star Trek. The space suits that appear in The Motion Picture actually appear in the comic strip a few days before the movie opens to the public. It seems like Warkentin has been keeping track of all the publicity materials about the film, and has been working very hard to integrate them into his story as much as possible.

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That interest extends beyond superficial elements like new crewmembers or new uniforms or new equipment. Called Home seems to engage directly with the themes of The Motion Picture. Promotional material branded Werkentin as “a lifelong science fiction fan”, and there’s something very endearing about the way that Called Home attempts to echo Roddenberry’s philosophy as articulated by The Motion Picture.

The plot of Called Home features a large interstellar object on a mission that could be deemed religious or existential. The Enterprise wades into the mystery, trying to understand what this large organism is doing. Called Home hits on many of the more Roddenberry-esque themes of The Motion Picture, right down to the sense that humanity are hyper-evolved and might be seen as gods in some way or form. Two aliens who had been trapped on the surface of the moon are revived by the crew. They ask Kirk, “You are gods, are you not?”

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The cosmos is presented in almost religious terms. Just a V’Ger sought to make contact with its creator, Kirk finds himself drawn into another existential crisis here. The two aliens – discovering that their world is gone – decide to travel with the moon into the larger universe, perhaps mirroring the decision made by Decker and Ilia at the end of The Motion Picture. McCoy explains, “They believe that ‘moon’ is controlled by… gods… a sacred vehicle that will carry them to paradise.”

These themes were somewhat questionable in The Motion Picture, and they are just as questionable here. Kirk is remarkably willing to let these two shell-shocked survivors beam themselves over to the moon to save his ship. There’s no sense of curiosity about where the moon has decided to go, no theological debate. Everything is just accepted at face value, with a sense that Called Home just wants to wrap itself up rather neatly.

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There’s also an awkward undercurrent of “ancient astronauts”, with Spock suggesting sufficiently advanced aliens “seeded” life around the universe – although this is hardly anything new for Star Trek. The franchise has dabbled in Chariots of the Gods before, and would again, but it does sit a particularly uncomfortably in the midst of all the theological language and imagery in Called Home.

At the same time, there’s the same endearing humanism here that was at play in The Motion Picture. There’s a sense that mankind have come a long way, and accomplished great things. In particular, Called Home puts a lot of emphasis on the moon landing. The opening full-page colour strip features Kirk remarking, “Mister Spock, Doctor McCoy, meet me in the transport room in ten minutes, dressed for a moon walk…”

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In fact, it seems that the advanced aliens here treat moon landing as technological threshold for young species to pass. “They’re observation posts,” Spock explains of the moon-like objects, “programmed to return with those who reach the level of technology required to achieve a moon landing.” The symbolism should be apparent. The Turnabout Intruder aired just over a month before the moon landing in July 1969, something the show had actually predicted in Tomorrow is Yesterday.

The moon landing was very much the culmination of the utopian idealism embodied by Star Trek, the expression of space as Kennedy’s bold “New Frontier.” Mankind’s expansion into space was treated as a utopian dream – an expression of everything that mankind is capable of, and a demonstration of how far people had come in the years since the Second World War. The moon landing was supposed to represent the beginning of a new era in history. It was supposed to be proof that, to paraphrase the marketing for The Motion Picture, the human adventure was just beginning.

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Unfortunately, that was not to be the case. Mankind never reached further than the moon. The public lost interest in NASA. Funding was cut, missions were scaled back. The last American moon landing took place in 1972. The last moon landing of the 20th century took place in 1976. The idealism of the sixties was dying, the significance of the moon landing was fading. It was no long the opening paragraph of a new chapter, but a footnote in the history books.

The emphasis on the moon landing in Called Home exists as an affectionate appeal to those classic sensibilities – a reminder of what mankind has accomplished since the last time William Shatner stood on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. It’s a nice attempt to contextualise The Motion Picture and this new generation of Star Trek – to push the threshold for the series a little bit further out. The moon should no longer be an aspiration, it should be a launching pad.

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There’s an endearing romance to all this, one that makes up for all the shortcomings with Called Home. It’s a reminder that maybe – just maybe – the best was yet to come.

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