Star Trek has a long history in comics. In fact, the very first Star Trek comic book began in 1967, at the end of the original series’s very first season.
This first series was published by Gold Key, an imprint of Western Publishing founded only five years before, in 1962. Gold Key experimented with the comics format, initially using rectangular word balloons and thought bubbles, to give their comics a sleeker feeling for a new era. Although Gold Key abandoned this, it produced big black-and-white hardcover reprints and slimmer original hardcovers, aiming at the book and department store market in a manner that prefigured the rise of the graphic novel.
Perhaps aiming at this wider audience, the publisher was known for its remarkably array of licensed properties. It’s hard to imagine a better staple of child-oriented fare than characters licensed from Disney (Uncle Scrooge), Warner Bros. (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck), Hannah-Barbera (The Flintstones), and Universal (Woody Woodpecker). But Gold Key also published characters licensed from King Features Syndicate (like Flash Gordon and The Phantom) and plenty of titles drawn from TV, including The Three Stooges, My Favorite Martian, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and even The Twilight Zone.
Yes, and also Star Trek.
Gold Key not only began Star Trek in 1967, when the TV show hadn’t even been on the air for a year. But Gold Key kept publishing Star Trek comics after the TV show was canceled in 1969. The comics series continued through the 1973-1974 Star Trek animated series, outlasting it too. Gold Key’s series finally came to an end in 1979 (#61, Mar 1979) — almost a decade after the original series had aired its final episode. The comic wasn’t cancelled due to low sales, but rather because Gold Key lost the Star Trek license to Marvel, on the eve of the first Star Trek movie (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which debuted on 7 Dec 1979).
In comparison, the first original Trek novel (Mack Reynolds’s Mission to Horatius, which featured illustrations by Sparky Moore) was published in 1968. It was the only such novel published while the original series was airing. The next (James Blish’s Spock Must Die!) didn’t appear until 1970. The next appeared in 1976, after the animated series was also off the air. Trek novels have been appearing regularly ever since, often enough to great attention and occasional acclaim.
But Trek comics? They were a part of Star Trek almost from the start.
Most Gold Key covers were painted, helping to make its comics visually distinctive next to the line art of other publishers’ covers. Instead, the first nine issues of Star Trek featured stylish photo-collage covers that were no less distinctive. Particularly successful was the multiple, differently colored Enterprises on the cover of issue #4 (June 1969), with text describing the story inside running across the cover along the same rising line as the ships. So too was the cover for issue #7 (Mar 1970), with a purple Spock gazing upward, while Kirk and Bones stare out from colored trapezoidal panels, joined between them by an orange line like some sort of mod, 1960s light fixture. Beginning with issue #10 (May 1971), Gold Key’s typical painted covers began, although with tiny photos of Kirk and Spock as a visual reminder of the original series (at least until #45, July 1977, when those too disappeared).
In fact, almost everything about the series’s presentation was stylish. The comic didn’t use the original series’s on-screen logo — which wasn’t nearly so iconic then. Instead, the comic had its own version of the Star Trek logo — a jazzy, wild thing that seemed to pivot along a central line, defined by a tiny, silhouetted Enterprise’s route.
Rounding out the comic, in the early issues, was photographic material from the show. In the first issue, for example, the inside front cover presents an image of the Enterprise herself and brief text adapting (sacrilege!) the voice-over heard during the opening titles. It’s a particularly stylish way of recapping the series’s premise (fulfilling the same function Marvel later did with awkward boxes at the top of its comics’ first pages). The inside back cover presented a couple photos along with text about Kirk’s greatness and the crew’s loyalty to him, in the style of a movie photo book. (The text incorrectly states that the ship’s crew numbers into the “thousands.”) The back cover is a rather suggestive image of Kirk, framed on the top and bottom by stylish, angled color swaths.
The Gold Key Star Trek stories had a unique format. Running 22-26 pages (a number that diminished over time), each story was broken into two parts (roughly of equal length). This break doesn’t add much, although occasionally it can feel like a representation of a commercial break, as if one is reading two acts out of a half-hour show (which is usually broken into three or even four acts, each separated by a commercial).
Each story also began with a splash page, teasing what would happen later in the tale, before jumping backwards to show how this situation developed. Silver Age DC comics often used this same device, frequently using the opening splash page as a kind of second cover, teasing the drama that was to come. Technically, Gold Key Star Trek comics would abandon the splash page, since it broke that first page up into multiple panels — but these first pages, despite having multiple panels, continued to jump forward in time and tease the story to come until Gold Key’s final issue.
While this device is rooted in comic books, it has a special resonance with Star Trek, which sometimes featured teasers — the brief segment before the title sequence — that were quite shocking and seemed to radically upset the status quo. One example is “The Enterprise Incident” (which aired as episode two of season three), which opens with Kirk, appearing somewhat emotionally disturbed, ordering the ship into the Neutral Zone against Federation law, where the ship’s quickly surrounded by Romulan ships. True, such episodes don’t then flashback to reveal how they got into these extraordinary situations — instead, these details are provided through revelations as the story unfolds, without flashback. Nonetheless, the opening flash-forward page of Gold Key’s Trek comics can, at best, produce some of the same sense of dislocation for the audience that some classic Trek episodes did.
Early Trek stories, outside of the original series, are often fascinating for how different they are from the show — which wasn’t yet considered a beloved touchstone of American culture and certainly wasn’t available on demand for all to see at their convenience. Even the animated series — which was endorsed by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, starred almost the entire original cast as voice actors, and even featured some of the original series writers (such as D. C. Fontana) — took liberties, adding force field belts to avoid animating space suits, casually inserted a holodeck onto Kirk’s Enterprise, and featured an episode (“The Slaver Weapon,” by Larry Niven) that massively rewrote the galaxy’s entire history in ways that would (thankfully) never be mentioned again.
But then again, the original series didn’t see itself as sacred either. Roddenberry refused to pin down when the series was set, preferring to keep it ambiguous, and several inconsistent references resulted. There’s a lot of silliness too — and not just the god-like beings that pop up every few episodes, nor people after Spock’s brain. Indeed, one of the things that separates the original series from its later spin-offs — besides that almost every episode, with a musical signal, goes into hand-to-hand combat mode at some point — is the original series’s humor. Part of the show’s charm was that, for all its intelligence and philosophizing, it never took itself too seriously.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that the first Trek comic series differed from the original series we remember (or think we do).
For one thing, the series’s first artist was the Italian artist Alberto Giolitti, who had never viewed the show and used publicity photos as reference. He didn’t have a photo for Scotty (played by James Doohan), so he essentially recast the role!
When artists had to invent a design for a car or a ship from scratch, knowing Star Trek was set in the future, they frequently designed sleek and futuristic vehicles — that often seemed powered by rockets. Such designs seemed to belong more to Gold Key’s Flash Gordon. Vehicle design on Star Trek, while often brilliant, also tended toward the boxy — because physical models of ships had to be glued together, often on the cheap, and filmed. Seeing a sleek hover-car that could be made of glass blows the whole aesthetic.
The Very First Star Trek Comic Ever: A Dead Galaxy, Tentacle Rape, Vore, and Genocide
More importantly, the series often had a somewhat different tone than the original series, and that’s visible even in the first issue. Titled “The Planet of No Return” (although the cover promises “K-G, Planet of Death!”), the tale opens with a splash page, showing crew members battling “a — a giant cannibal plant!” before jumping backwards.
Typical of Gold Key stories, the first page is followed by a Captain’s Log, beginning the actual story. This first one’s a little different. In fact, it doesn’t seem to understand the premise of Star Trek. Kirk narrates that the ship is “carrying out exploration of Galaxy Alpha. So far we’ve seen no exploration of life anywhere in the galaxy…” Of course, the TV show was set in our galaxy (which obviously has plenty of life in it, so it can’t be Galaxy Alpha). Outside of occasional stories featuring highly-advanced civilizations, no one’s bouncing from galaxy to galaxy in the Star Trek universe — much less so casually exploring an entire one, seemingly alone, as this caption suggests. (Of course, plenty of comics writers have confused the galaxy for the universe, so the error’s hardly unique; in fact, it’s indicative of a wider astronomical sloppiness, especially in comics.)
After finding a planet (in this otherwise lifeless galaxy) that’s teeming with plant life, the Enterprise… descends into the planet’s atmosphere. This isn’t something ever seen on the show, and it’s not clear why the ship does this. It’s certainly not to land or even to dispatch a shuttlecraft, because the landing party soon teleports down, as usual.
The descent into the planet’s atmosphere is convenient, from a plot standpoint, because it allows spores to attach to the ship, burrow through it, infect animals held in cages, and turn them into giant carnivorous plants, complete with grasping tentacles. Security soon dispatches the threat, however, making the whole business unnecessary — if it’s drama the story needs, it could arrive at it just as quickly after the crew teleports down to the surface (in a transporter that looks rather different than the one seen on the show). Unsurprisingly, there’s no mention of the fact that, had spores burrowed through the ship, it would obviously no longer be space-worthy.
Once on the planet, the landing party almost immediately witness — surprise! — the plant spores transforming a crew member. This ought not to come as a surprise, since they’ve just witnessed this same thing happen to what look like caged rats. You’d think Spock or Bones would’ve run a test, since they’re landing on the planet from which these spores originated, to see if they could affect humans. Or someone might have said, “Hey! You know what? How ’bout we teleport down in space suits just to be sure!” Instead, no precautions seem to have been taken whatsoever.
Good thing, too, because the transformed crewman, now a giant tree, soon saves everyone else by battling a giant plant beast. Instead of teleporting back up to the Enterprise, the crew goes exploring — on a planet where anyone can be transformed into a giant tree at any time. Soon, the crew finds a plant civilization.
Now, this is cool stuff, and Alan Moore might have done great things with such a concept, were he to have featured this planet in Swamp Thing. But Alan Moore this ain’t. So instead, the crew’s accosted by the plant city’s sentries. The crew flees, but Janice (Rand, a blonde with whom Kirk had a mutual attraction on the show) can’t keep up the pace, letting Kirk casually call her “honey.” Ah, the Sixties.
And then Janice Rand is… captured by a giant plant’s… tentacles.
That’s right: decades before “tentacle rape” entered the common American vocabulary, it was teased in the very first Star Trek comic ever made. As the rest of the crew makes their escape, someone even asks, “What’s that loathsome thing doing with Janice?” In the next panel, as the plant’s tentacle pulls her in, she’s shown in silhouette, legs in the air, the tentacle running underneath them.
It’s like a Rorschach blot. It’s only dirty if you think it is.
Well, kind of. Because then we’re shown a crewman climbing a tree to get a look at what this thing is doing to Janice. The art isn’t clear, but the crewman tells us what he sees: “Oh, no… no! I-it’s terrible. J-Janice… she’s being put into a… a… cattle pen!”
Now, it’s kind of a cool twist that a living plant would treat humans the way we treat animals. Except we haven’t seen any animals on this planet yet — presumably, they’d be transformed into plants by those spores pretty quickly. So why does this tentacled, girl-capturing plant monster have a cattle pen handy?
Just to make this depiction worse, this is the cliffhanger ending of part one — Janice Rand at the mercy of a tentacle monster that’s putting her in a cattle pen.
This isn’t exactly the kind of cerebral, culturally challenging stuff that Star Trek came to be known for. Of course, it hadn’t yet. It was to many primarily an outer-space fantasy show, with lots of fistfights and weird planets — and yes, some damsels in distress too. Living plants were simply an idea too expensive for TV to film. There’s no denying the comic lacks the show’s overall intelligence, but one can see how, in 1967, this didn’t necessarily seem that out of sync with the show.
As part two begins, we see this cattle pen does have strange local animals in it. What’s more, there are sentient tumbleweed-like plants that herd the animals to an eating area. The animals are given vegetables to eat, and the Enterprise crew guesses that these vegetables are sentient too — but lower in the plants’ social hierarchy, and thus grown as food for the animal population, which is in turn devoured alive by larger, tree-like plants — which we soon witness.
It’s all incredibly trippy stuff, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense.
But of course, the focus of this is on the captive Janice Rand, who’s now going to be eaten alive by giant trees. So now you can add vore to the tentacle rape overtones.
As Janice tries to fight off the giant tree’s literally hungry advances, the male crewmen concoct a rescue plan: to have Spock, still on the Enterprise, blast the menacing plants from orbit. Naturally, this requires a great deal of precision, and there’s risk of hitting — and killing — Janice. It’s also a maneuver very rarely seen on the show, because it would be too powerful, if perfected, to allow many plots to continue their drama. Naturally, Spock succeeds, causing a great explosion on the surface, and Janice is rescued.
And then, Kirk and company teleport back up to the Enterprise. Which they could have done all along. Or just, you know, teleported Janice back to the ship from the cattle pen in which she was being held, herded, and menaced by plants intent on devouring her whole.
As he orders the beam up, Kirk exclaims, “Giant trees are trying to germinate us!” Germination being the process by which plants sprout from spores, suggesting the reproductive quality of what the plants are doing. Or rather, what the plants are really after.
So far, this has all been mildly inventive, sexually suggestive — and sexist — entertainment. It might be shocking to a culture that’s heard of things like tentacle rape and vore — and that’s more aware of the sexism of putting the only female member of the landing party into a cattle pen and having the men rescue her. But the most shocking development is the story’s conclusion.
Back on the ship, Spock informs the returning crew that the spores the ship encountered, in the atmosphere, actually enter into outer space, where they continue to survive. As such, they’re a threat to other planets, since they’d transform and destroy any animal life there.
But if these spores pass into space, why did the story need to have the Enterprise enter into the atmosphere — which it doesn’t do on the show — to encounter them? That wasn’t necessary for the story, anyway, but now it’s doubly illogical. And if the spores are in space, why haven’t they continued to menace the Enterprise, while the rest of the story transpired?
But there’s a deeper problem here. Remember, the Enterprise is exploring Galaxy Alpha, which is apparently completely uninhabited, as far as the Enterprise can tell, with the exception of this planet. So what exactly are these spores menacing?
Spock’s solution to the interstellar spore problem? To orbit the planet, over and over, firing phasers (or “laser beams,” as Spock calls them) until it has eradicated all life on the planet — which Spock, with uncharacteristic judgmental language, calls “that hideous little globe.”
And that’s just what the Enterprise does. It burns the entire planet from orbit, flying around it and around it, killing and killing, until it’s exterminated all life. In the Captain’s Log that closes out the story, Kirk characterizes the mission as one of “total destruction.” And we’re treated to the image of the Enterprise, firing phasers onto the burning surface, where the sentient trees are on fire, helplessly fleeing the eradication of their entire planet.
If this doesn’t seem very Star Trek, that’s because it isn’t. On the show, Kirk and company go out of their way to protect life, and they almost always figure out a way to do so. Here, they casually eradicate, without a single moral question, what as far as they know is the only inhabited planet in this galaxy.
That’s right: in the very first Star Trek comic, produced during the actual show’s run, Kirk and crew casually commit genocide. More than genocide — the genocide of every species on an entire planet. And even more than that, potentially the genocide of every species in an entire galaxy.
All in a day’s work for the intrepid explorers of the cosmos, apparently.
What makes this even weirder is that the next two pages featured kids’ cartoons. That’s right: read your casual genocide, then look at these cartoon animals! Such bizarre juxtapositions weren’t invented by 1980s TV news.
And don’t forget: this planet’s inhabitants may be plants, but they’re sentient plants. The story made a point of depicting that they have a civilization, which is developed enough to have agriculture. And of course, there are animals on the planet too, which are presumably exterminated right along with the plants that keep those animals as cattle.
You’ve got to wonder whether there are other cultures, elsewhere on the planet. Perhaps ones that wouldn’t capture Earth girls with tentacles and try to eat them alive. If these other plant cultures or nations exist, they burn too. Heck, maybe that’s them, running in fear and on fire in the final panel.
If it’s worth mentioning, these planets don’t seem to have developed interstellar flight — outside of their spores, which are presumably not exploring the cosmos or relaying information back to the homeworld. So this plant civilization is presumably covered by the Prime Directive. There’s no thought to this, in the story — the crew just lands, and it doesn’t have a single worry about interfering, when it comes to a civilization made up of dirty plants. Matter of fact, instead of trying not to interfere, Kirk approves Spock’s plan to kill everyone.
No attempt is made to preserve specimens from this planet, which might be the only life in this entire galaxy. Just burn the whole thing down, orbiting the planet with phasers firing in a pattern that makes absolute certain that everything living is exterminated.
What’s most remarkable about this is perhaps that it’s totally unnecessary, from a plot perspective. Of course, it’s only “necessary” at all due to a threat to other inhabited planets — which the Enterprise hasn’t found so far in this entire galaxy. But more than this, this systematic extermination is only “necessary” because Spock tells us, on the last panel of the penultimate page, that those spores can travel through space. There’s absolutely no reason to think the spores could do this, until he tells us so at this point. And then the last page is given over to full planetary extermination.
Of course, it’s really symbolic male vengeance, for the kidnapping and symbolic rape of Janice Rand.
Kirk may be a womanizer who’s probably got kids on half the planets in the Federation — and plenty of planets that aren’t. Not to mention space stations. But when you mess with an Enterprise girl, we will take the time to burn your entire planet into dust.
Do not. Mess. With the Enterprise.
It’s certainly not one of the better Star Trek stories. But it is fascinating — and not only for how it confuses the show’s appeal for imaginative ideas like plant societies, which is fine as far as it goes. The story also suggests that the violence and sexism, sometimes just under the surface of the original series, might have been part of its appeal. Of course, the show almost always balanced this with humanitarianism, often of a quite thoughtful — or even philosophical — variety. Strip this away, though, and perhaps you’re left with this kind of blend of imaginative ideas and brutal titillation.
If “The Planet of No Return” is a kind of dumbed-down Star Trek, that doesn’t mean what it preserves or emphasizes wasn’t already there, once the show’s intelligence is stripped away. In this way, even bad stories reveal.