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Star Trek (Marvel Comics, 1980) #4-5 – The Haunting of Thallus!/The Haunting of the Enterprise! (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.

Marvel certainly had an unconventional approach to publishing Star Trek.

The company had licensed the comic book rights following the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. They had released a successful adaptation of the film as part of their Marvel Super Special line and had re-package the three-part adaptation as the first three issues of an on-going Star Trek comic book. Written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Dave Cockrum, it was clear that Marvel had big plans for Star Trek. However, it also quickly became clear that they had no idea where they wanted to go with the comic.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

After all, they immediately followed up the big three-issue opening arc with a comic where the Enterprise discovered a haunted house floating in space. While it was certainly a catchy image, it wasn’t exactly a quintessential Star Trek premise. It seemed that Marvel had no idea what to do with the comic. Writer Marv Wolfman wrote the first of the two issues comprising the storyline, handing the second issue over to Mike W. Barr. He would only stick around for two issues before handing the comic over to Tom DeFalco. DeFalco wrote a single issue before moving on.

It is a rather disjointed comic book, one which lacks the strong narrative voices that DC would give to their late-eighties licensed Star Trek comics. Then again, it is probably easy enough to deduce all of this from the fact that the first original Star Trek storyline published by Marvel featured a haunted house floating in space.

In space, everyone can hear you scream...

In space, everyone can hear you scream…

To be fair, this isn’t the worst possible idea. Marv Wolfman is building off a rich tradition of nonsensical and out-of-place imagery in Star Trek. Is finding a floating haunted house any weirder than the giant hand from Who Mourns for Adonais? or space!Lincoln from The Savage Curtain? When Kirk and his away team beam over to the haunted house, is the weird gothic interior any worse of a fit for the twenty-third century than Trelane’s estate in The Squire of Gothos or the haunted landscape in Catspaw?

The classic Star Trek television show could be wilfully bizarre at times. The show revelled in the absurdity, with the Enterprise coming face-to-face with Jack the Ripper in Wolf in the Fold and facing a giant planet-eating monster in The Doomsday Machine. For all that Star Trek might have wanted to be taken seriously, the show had a very pulpy streak that ran through. This could lead to trash like The Gamesters of Triskelion, but it also played out in the iconic climax to Amok Time.

It'll do in a pinch...

It’ll do in a pinch…

The later shows tended to steer away from the more bizarre and surreal imagery associated with classic Star Trek. It is very difficult to imagine Picard or Sisko taking the lead role in a story like A Piece of the Action or Patterns of Force. Over the years, it seemed like Star Trek took itself more and more seriously. Seriousness is not a vice, and it lead to many great things for the franchise. However, it also meant that the series drifted away from some of the colourful and memorable imagery that had made Star Trek so iconic.

While it is still a strange choice to open an on-going Star Trek monthly comic book with a two-issue “haunted house… in space!” storyline. Then again, it does serve as a really weird pallette cleanser in the wake of the sombre and contemplative adaptation of The Motion Picture. It is also a script that is only thirteen years away from Catspaw or eleven years away from The Savage Curtain. The Haunting of the Enterprise! would have looked very strange to contemporary fans, but not quite as strange as it does to fans looking at it from the distant future.

Sound and fury...

Sound and fury…

Wolfman and Barr commit to the premise whole-heartedly. After all, there’s no point hesitating with something like this. If you are going to do a “haunted house… in space!” story, it might as well go all-in on it. The result is a delightfully bizarre and off-kilter Star Trek story which features all sorts of horror clichés laying siege to the Enterprise as they stumble across “a horrifying object that no man born in the twenty-third century has ever seen outside the flickering images of a history tape”, fresh from the mind of “a horror film archivist.”

The Haunting of the Enterprise! is a story from two writers, and each half plays to the sensibilities of the writer in question. Marv Wolfman writes the opening half. As you might expect from the writer who worked on Tomb of Dracula, he revels in his horror movie clichés. A young couple making out in their quarters are menaced by a strange beast. Kirk is forced to escort “a half-insane prisoner” who refers to Thallus as “a living death.” There is a sequence where Kirk and his away team visit a cobweb-infested Victorian house.

To be fair, he also took the X-Men in his stride...

To be fair, he also took the X-Men in his stride…

Wolfman even welcomes Star Trek to the Marvel universe with a guest appearance from Dracula. In fact, the vampire takes his brief trip to the Star Trek universe in good humour. “So, I have been resurrected aboard a starship, have I?” he wonders. “Very good!” This is very clearly the same version of the character who Wolfman wrote in Tomb of Dracula. Artist Dave Cockrum is careful to illustrate him in the style of Gene Colan, while Spock explicitly references the Marvel character Quincy Harker. The Enterprise is officially part of the Marvel universe.

Indeed, there is a very clear influence of Alien on The Haunting of the Enterprise! This makes a certain amount of sense, given that Alien has been described as a “haunted house in space.” Artist Dave Cockrum had already created “the Brood” with writer Chris Claremont on Uncanny X-Men, alien creatures that were obviously inspired by Ridley Scott’s iconic science-fiction film. Here, the alien prisoner that Kirk is tasked with escorting bares an uncanny resemblence to the xenomorph from those films, and the Klingon weapon looks quite a bit like a space jockey.

Alien attack!

Alien attack!

In contrast – and as one might expect from the writer who would become inexoribly linked with Star Trek comics over the next two decades – Mike W. Barr is much more interested in the Star Trek aspects of the story. The Klingons show up at the cliffhanger, and Barr is the writer who tries to stitch together a pseudo-scientific explanation for what is going on. He marginalises the “half-insane prisoner” who got the previous issues’s cliffhanger and opens on the obligatory death of a random ensign to prove that the peril exists.

Barr is keen to emphasise that elements of The Haunting of the Enterprise! that might anchor the story in the Star Trek universe. Kirk makes it clear that these are not real monsters attacking, through clever use of technobabble. It turns out that the Klingons are using “an image projection technology beyond any the Federation possesses.” To be fair to Barr and Wolfman, they both acknowledge the absurdity of the plot. “Rather a trivial use of sophisticated technology!” Spock observes. The Klingon counters, “We are merely testing the effectiveness of our weapon…”

Jockeying for position...

Jockeying for position…

The eighteen-issue Marvel Comics Star Trek tie-in was hamstrung by a number of production problems. It was never as successful as their tie-in comics for Star Wars, which were among the industry’s top-selling comics. The licensing agreement infamously limited the content available to Marvel. The writers could only use material from The Motion Picture – not the television show. This restricted the amount of world-building possible. The Motion Picture did not offer too many toys for Marvel to play with, particularly when it killed off new additions like Decker and Ilia.

The Haunting of the Enterprise! is a very weird Star Trek story. Neither Wolfman nor Barr explains quite what an archivist with an interest in mid-twentieth-century horror cinema was doing on a prison ship when he got captured by the Klingons. Nor does it suggest how the Klingons plan to exploit the weapon, or why they would test an unknown quanity in combat against the Enterprise as opposed to some unknown pre-warp civilisation that would never clue the Federation into their schemes. It appears the Klingons subscribe to the Xindi school of beta testing.

Gotta love Spock's deadpan delivery...

Gotta love Spock’s deadpan delivery…

The Haunting of the Enterprise! is a goofy two-issue storyline that suggests Star Trek comics had only come so far since the infamouse Gold Key comics. While Dave Cockrum knows what the cast look like, and while Wolfman and Barr clearly know the show, this is still a comic book series that will feature a Scottish witch and the Loch Ness Monster attacking the starship. There is some pulpy fun to be had here, but there is a sense that Marvel aren’t entirely sure how to transpose Star Trek fully from the screen to the comic book panel.

This is the kind of entertaining and diverting absurdity that is only possible with Kirk and the original cast. It would be an awkward fit for any other Star Trek ensemble. However, even with all that in mind, positioning this story as the first original story arc in a new monthly Star Trek comic book feels a little ill-judged. History has not been kind to this initial eighteen issue series, and there are a lot of valid reasons. The Haunting of the Enterprise! is silly fun that is enjoyable on its own terms. However, it isn’t the most compelling advertisement for a new monthly comic book.

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

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