Comic books usually begin with stories. Then there are, of course, a wide variety of approaches to the art that illustrates the books. One approach that ran its course in the late 1970s and early 80s was the photonovel. This format was originally designed to act as a personal copy of an episode before video tape, DVDs and streaming. In a fun twist, IDW has brought back the photonovel in its Star Trek New Visions as a way to extend original Star Trek stories beyond the end credits.
Writer John Byrne creates photo montage’s from original Star Trek episodes with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and crew populating the scenes, perhaps moving a character here or there, but mostly using images as they are. And then he does the real magic: his take on what happened after…
In “Cry Vengeance,” for instance, Byrne explores what happens after the “Doomsday Machine” (episode #25, first aired October 20, 1967) has been rendered inert. This is a great example of how these books fill in missing pieces of the Trek universe, albeit ones that don’t fall into the ST cannon. Originally “Doomsday Machine” was followed, on air, by “Catspaw,” the fun, but completely disconnected halloween episode. Many modern television viewers expect stories that span not only episodes, but seasons. Byrne’s take offers one way to rewind time and to make ST TOS feel more modern.
The photonovel proves a great vehicle for Byrne, a true aficionado of the original Trek, as it lets him manipulate his memories, scrapbook style, and then wrap his story into and through the images.
Byrne’s writing has been honed on everything Trek, from movie backstories to comics filled with classic characters. He has probably been inside the heads of the Star Trek TOS characters more than the original cast, and certainly more than any of the original writers, save Gene Roddenberry himself. The cadence of Kirk’s dialog, Spock’s dry humor and McCoy’s good old boy country doctor’n prove spot on throughout the books.
The “Doomsday Machine” was, as Director Nicholas Meyer once quipped about Star Trek battle scenes in general, essentially a submarine battle. The strategic pacing proved ideal for contemplative thought and analysis of command, weapons, engineering and sick bay. In fast moving action sequences like those in Star Wars, nobody has time to worry about why things are happening, only time to respond to them. Byrne does an excellent job of bringing back the thoughtfulness so lacking in current space-oriented Sci-Fi.
The “Cry Vengeance” book also includes a short, which covers some of the research and history of the Trek universe that eventually produced Mr. Data. In ‘Robot’, Doctor Ursula Becker offers up a very robotic looking robot. The crew acknowledges the robot’s anachronistic appearance, which Byrne puts to good use, actually creating a contrast between what is happening in the robot’s mind versus its rather mechanical visage. It is just the kind of story that Roddenberry liked to explore. What’s cool about these extensions to the original Trek universe is that Byrne and IDW create the kinds of stories that made Star Trek so powerful, just without worrying about receiving notes from the network.
The photonovel approach creates a platform for carrying on the legacy of Star Trek. It avoids the issues of aging actors, or those the world has lost. By using the original cast in context, the books paint nostalgic journeys even as they purposefully move beyond the plots of the core 79 Star Trek episodes.
In terms of production, the new material added to the stories is of mixed quality. The content could benefit from more artistic attention. While the alien in ‘Cry Vengeance’ works pretty well, as does Alex the robot in the accompanying short, some characters are little more than new heads placed on existing bodies. In some cases, previous actors and actresses adapt to new roles with simple cosmetic changes — and the new space vehicles, for instance, don’t match the realism of Star Trek photo caps at all. But if you stick to Byrnes dialog, you’ll easily forgive these artistic shortcomings as they float by.
IDW has done a great service to the Star Trek franchise. Unlike the six movies based on the original show, we don’t have to wait for years between productions, or watch as script writers help actors deal with aging characters. Byrne and team thrust readers back into the 1960s with conviction. If you are a true, old school Trek fan, then these are the books best positioned to take you back not only to the worlds of the original Kirk, Spock and McCoy, but the world of your younger self, spread out on a couch, letting Roddenberry and company guide you into the future.