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Star Trek (Gold Key) #1 – The Planet of No Return! (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

The Star Trek comics published by Gold Key are somewhat infamous additions to the Star Trek canon. The company began publishing comic book tie-ins in July 1967, in the gap between the first and second seasons of the original Star Trek show. They continued to publish those tie-ins until 1978, when the license passed to Marvel. These early comics have become the source of much derision over the years, with fans dismissing them as hollow cash-ins produced by people with little understanding of the franchise itself.

However, recent years have seen something of a reappraisal of these early comic books. Once IDW Publishing secured the rights to produce tie-in Star Trek comic books, they devoted considerable effort to archiving and releasing classic and little-seen material from the franchise’s history. They released the Star Trek newspaper strips in a two-volume set, before turning their attention to the classic Gold Key comic books. It is a very worthwhile attempt to provide fans with a glimpse of oft-overlooked chapters in the franchise’s history.

Plant life...

Plant life…

The Gold Key Star Trek comics are messy. A lot of the criticisms hold true. There are all manner of continuity errors in the production of the comic. Artist Alberto Giolitti takes quite some time to figure out what Scotty looks like, and the colourists take a bit of time to figure out what uniforms various cast members should be wearing. The writing is similarly clunky, with characters sounding a little out of sort as the basic plot details seem to stand at odds with still-relatively-small Star Trek canon had been established by the closing credit of Operation — Annihilate!

And yet, despite all these considerable flaws, these comics do make for an interesting time capsule. They don’t feel quite like Star Trek so much as an impression of what Star Trek would look described to somebody who has never seen it, filtered through the lense of fifties and sixties science-fiction comics. The early issues feel like three blind men describing an elephant, and it is glorious.

Branching out...

Branching out…

To be fair, the Gold Key comics were produced in a time before home video was common. It was not as if the studio could ship out copies of first season episodes to help the writers and artists make sense of the series. The comic was probably not a high-enough priority to merit attentive oversight from anybody directly involved in the production, and was likely produced on too tight a schedule to allow the writers to browse a season-worth of scripts. Artists did not visit the sets or meet the actors; they worked from photographs.

So there are quite a few incongruous elements at play here. The Enterprise, we are told, is “carrying out exploration mission through Galaxy Alpha.” This seems rather surreal, given how big a deal leaving our own galaxy was in Where No Man Has Gone Before. Kirk and his away team beam down to the surface of an alien planet from “the teleportation chamber!” Leonard McCoy wears yellow and apparently straps guinea pigs to the outside of the ship, because mankind is still at the stage where it wonders what happens when you put animals in space.

Forbidden planet...

Forbidden planet…

These are all significant continuity issues, and any Star Trek fan reading the Gold Key comics will feel like they have wandered into the uncanny valley. It looks and sounds just enough like Star Trek that the differences are vaguely unsettling. However, those differences make more sense in context. It seems like the writers at Gold Key were writing Star Trek in the style of an old fifties or sixties science-fiction adventure. Forbidden Planet is frequently cited as an influence on Gene Roddenberry, and the Gold Key comics feel half-way between the two.

This is most obvious in the story and design of the first story, Planet of No Return. The story has a decidedly pulpy title and a wonderfully trashy opening splash page. The Enterprise, wandering through the stars, discovers a planet of sentient plant creatures that send spores through space as a means of colonisation. Kirk and his landing party beam down, wearing shiny grey uniforms that look like they were stolen from the MGM lot after shooting wrapped. The planet is even drawn in the style of a studio back lot, with lots of awkwardly-shaped rocks and wide open spaces.

A rocky adventure...

A rocky adventure…

The crew of the Enterprise are not characters in their own right so much as generic science-fiction explorers. Characters are prone to surreal comic book exclamations like “great hannah!” or “s-suffering solar showers!” None of these characters seem to have any personality traits beyond square-jawed heroism, with the female member of the party ending up abducted by these strange alien creatures so that Kirk can mount a heroic rescue mission against all odds – showcasing the strength of the Enterprise.

To be fair to the staff working on the Gold Key comics, it is not as if the first season of Star Trek had particularly tight internal continuity from which they could work. Uniform designs were prone to change, characters would move between departments, the history of the universe would change from one episode to the next. The Federation and Starfleet did not exist until about half-way through the run. Early episodes seemed to suggest that Vulcan had been conquered, rather than a willing member of an interstellar coalition.

Seeds of dissent...

Seeds of dissent…

Planet of No Return feels like a victim of some of these shifts. Most obviously, the story features Janice Rand as a central character – reflecting early plans to have the character as a member of the core ensemble. Indeed, the illustrations of Rand even feature a red hairnet that she wears over her distinctive bee-hive hairdo. Of course, by this point in the show’s run, Janice Rand had been written out. She had not appeared in an episode since midway through the first season, serving as a suggestion that perhaps not all the continuity issues were down to Gold Key themselves.

In fact, the most odd moment in Planet of No Return has nothing to do with continuity. Once Kirk and his team beam back to the Enterprise, Kirk is ready to leave orbit. Spock stops him. Arguing that the space spores represent a real and immediate threat to galactic civilisation, Spock advises Kirk, “We must orbit that hideous little globe until all foliage upon it is decimated by our laser beams!” In essence, the first issue of the Gold Key Star Trek tie-in comic ends with our heroes committing genocide, wiping out an entire species with no attempt at negotiation or reason.

Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise...

Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise…

In a way, this serves to draw a line between Star Trek and the types of pulpy science-fiction stories that came before it. To be fair, Star Trek has on occasion featured Kirk resorting to genocide – killing the last creature of its kind in The Man Trap, destroying a society of androids in What Are Little Girls Made Of? and wiping out the invaders in Operation — Annihilate! To be entirely honest, Star Trek did have to deal with issues of colonialism and imperialism, and the show didn’t always come out looking particularly good.

However, it is the casual nature of the brutality that is so striking in Planet of No Return. Much is made of the “intelligent society” on the planet, but they are different from Kirk and his crew – so they can be casually exterminated in two panels at the end of the story. In essence, that final page clearly delineates between the legacy of fifties and sixties science-fiction and what Star Trek would eventually become. The serious would not always succeed at being something more optimistic and hopeful, but it certainly tried.

Explosive action...

Explosive action…

The fact that this off-hand ending is so jarring half-a-century later helps to illustrate just how far Star Trek moved from the baseline of pulp science-fiction. Fans and critics often overlook how casually racist or sexist or imperialist the series could be, but Star Trek did try to get past some of the attitudes and outlooks that seemed almost baked into Golden Age science-fiction – the idea that mankind had dominion over the entire universe, and that the alien primarily existed to be met and destroyed.

To be fair to Gold Key, the comics would improve over the next couple of years, as the writers and artists became more familiar with the show they were adapting. However, these early comics serve as an effective illustration of just what made Star Trek different from the wealth of other genre material around it.

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

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve never read any of these old Star Trek comic books, but I’d certainly heard of them. Going by your descriptions and the panels that you scanned in for this post, I have to agree with your assessment. It seems very likely that the writers & artists who were assigned to this adaptation were probably provided with a handful of production stills, a little bit in the way of paperwork loosly detailing the characters & series’ premise, and probably not much else.

    This reminds me of interviews with artists who worked at Charlton Comics in the 1970s. It was virtually impossible to get any even halfway-decent reference material from studios when they were doing adaptations of TV shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man and Space 1999. Often they ended up with were photocopies of black & white production stills, which were almost totally indecipherable. Joe Staton describes how he and his wife had to actually watch the pilot episode of The Six Million Dollar Man on television and take photos of the TV screen in order for him to get any sort of reference that was at all useful.

    In any case, judging these Star Trek comic books by those standards, the artwork at least looks quite good. As far as the writing goes, back in those days I doubt anyone at Paramount gave much of a glance at these comic books to guarantee accuracy.

    • There are all sorts of stories about these comics. For example, headshots of James Doohan were not included in the original documentation, so Scotty spends the first run of issues looking rather… unScotty-like. Or that the powers at the studio only started paying attention to the comics when fans wrote letters complaining about it.

      I am sympathetic to the circumstances of production, and I think the Gold Key comics are a fascinating Chinese Whispers version of the franchise, a bunch of people crafting stories based on what they’ve been told of the source material.

  2. Good on you for giving this thing a spirited defense and describing the behind-the-scenes morass on the early days of these comics. I have the old DVD-ROM containing the entire Gold Key run (plus the Marvel and DC output), but didn’t get more than a few issues into these and moving onto better stuff. While the comic was a bit jarring for me, I appreciate your putting it in the proper historical perspective!

    • I do think the Godl Key comics get a bit of a bad wrap. They are very pulpy sci-fi comics, even if they emphasise the type of science-fiction away from which Star Trek would transition. I don’t think they are unsung gems, but they are definitely worth a look for fans interested in the grey area between fifties and sixties sci-fi.

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