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Star Trek: Alien Spotlight: Romulans

Posted: Friday, February 29, 2008
By: Shawn Hill

John Byrne
John Byrne, Leonard O’Grady (c)
IDW Publishing
Plot: John Byrne crafts a back story for "Balance of Terror," one of the most revered of Season One episodes of the original series.

Comments: "Balance of Terror" was our introduction to Romulans as one of the Federations primary rivals in space colonization. The previously unrealized connection between Romulans and Vulcans briefly got Spock in some pretty hot water. Mark Lenard, who of course went on to impress for years as Spock’s father Sarek, made his Trek universe debut as the doomed Commander, charged with engaging the Enterprise as a tactical maneuver in a new military campaign for his leader. It’s where we learned all about the Cloaking Device, and where we started to see the Romulans as inherently sneaky, duplicitous and Machiavellian.

Well, not so bad as all of that, because the Commander behaved like a soldier doing his duty, earning Kirk’s respect, and making some pretty nifty strategic moves of his own in the Trek universe’s ongoing arms race in Kirk’s swashbuckling era.

I’m all for the latest trend, clever marketing though it is, of selling comic tie-ins as new “seasons” of lost shows in another format. Buffy Season Eight and Angel: After the Fall have both proven capable of carrying their respective torches quite well, where it counts in stories that keep true to the characters, and occasionally with art that attains an epic scope.

IDW is currently offering Season Four of the original series, and if too much time has passed for it to feature direct ties with Desilu Productions, well, hiring an interested fan who’s also a triple-threat master of the new format might just be the way to go. Byrne does stellar work here, bringing us to Romulus, and revealing in every one of the Commander’s “gloomy” expressions his sure knowledge that this beautiful and fast new ship will speed him to his undoing.

But he can’t turn down the commission, because the new Praetor wills it so. The original episode has been compared to an old-school submarine war movie scenario, and to that military fantasy adventure Byrne ads a dose of I, Claudius. Though the Commander is wiser by far than his leader, he’s in no position to question the whims of Caligula, no matter how misguided and destructive.

Byrne invents this Praetor as a pompous dandy, giving him a rather retro (but not inappropriate, considering sixties casting rituals) fey and slender appearance. With his Joker-ish smiles, he’s the opposite of the smoldering, sturdy Commander. Byrne also invents the Commander’s family, a poised and confident wife who, as a “General’s daughter,” knows well the call of duty. Their son fits a classic Trek mold, loyal to his mother, confused and easily angered by his father. The last thing the father wants is for his son to be “promoted” to the same fatal flight he’s bound to take, but he’s forbidden to even explain his misgivings.

Byrne has given us an added chapter of richness to an already stellar episode, and if his Romulus seems a bit more Roman than alien, well, that’s fitting to this era too, I suppose. He opens with an impressive (and traditional, though not usually from an enemy perspective) “touring the ship in space dock” sequence, and keeps full control of the subtleties of communication between a large cast. His current style is simplistic on embellishment, but expertly composed and controlled. The tragedy has already been told, but here we witness the betrayals that set a noble soldier up so inexorably for a fall.

Note that the issue offers four alternate covers: one by Byrne, one by Zach Howard, a photo cover from the episode itself, and an uncolored sketch version by Byrne.



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