Sunday Slugfest: Star Trek--Assignment: Earth #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Marx Pyle, Jason Sacks, Ray Tate, Thom Young
"Brighter than a Thousand Suns"

Marx Pyle:

After a quick recap, we are thrust into a story of espionage in 1968. The futuristic spy, Gary Seven, aided by his sidekick Roberta Lincoln and his cat Isis must figure out what the Soviets are planning for a secret project called Hercules that could lead to a global disaster. A few twists and a betrayal lead to Gary Seven and friends saving the Earth yet again.

The 1968 episode "Assignment: Earth" of Star Trek: The Original Series was a strange one to me. It was Gene Roddenberry's backdoor pilot for a proposed spin-off. It just seemed odd to me when I first saw the episode, because of how different it was compared to the typical Star Trek episode. I just wasn't sure what to make of Gary Seven (Robert Lansing), Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr) and Isis (Victoria Vetri when she chooses to look human – don't ask). I never would have expected that years later someone (a.k.a.John Byrne) would make a comic book series out of it.

This actually isn't the first comic book adventure of Gary Seven and friends, but I think it is safe to say that it is probably the best executed.

John Byrne has done a great job picking the story up after the ST: TOS episode. Byrne's art and Tom Smith's coloring works well for the 1960s feel, but Byrne's writing comes out very strong bringing to life a series concept that actually works really well. Assignment: Earth feels like what would happen if James Bond and Doctor Who had a baby raised in America. I'm surprised and eager to see what happens next. Will we find out who the mysterious aliens are that trained Gary Seven and other humans like him? Will we find out what the heck Isis is? Will Lincoln get a little more "street" smart? Will there ever be a crossover with Doctor Who (you know you want to see the servo against the sonic screwdriver)?

IDW has been doing an excellent job with their use of the Star Trek license. They have captured the feel of Star Trek so well that I actual feel like a Star Trek fan again. They have another success with Star Trek—Assignment: Earth. There has been a great deal of buzz (rightly so) with Dark Horse's Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Season 8 and Star Wars books, and IDW's own Angel: After The Fall. But readers should add IDW's Star Trek books to that list.

Final Word: Fun. Yup, that about sums it up. A pleasant surprise from a spin-off that's 40 years overdo.

Jason Sacks:

It’s been years since I read a comic that was written and drawn by John Byrne. I used to be a fan of the man's work back in the day, and really admired his work on his most famous series. Lately, however, I've just not been interested in his recent work. A revival of the Atom? A new take on the Doom Patrol? A new take on the Demon? None of these were on the top of my list for stories I want to read.

But now Byrne has launched a new series exploring the adventures of the mysterious Gary Seven, from the original Star Trek TV series. This is a series I found myself interested in reading. So I jumped back into the world of Byrne artwork, not quite knowing what to expect.

What I found was kind of a mixed result. Byrne still has some wonderful storytelling skills and the ability to quickly and concisely present a world in comics form. At the same time, his artistic choices can be a bit frustrating and sometimes seem to undercut the story he's telling.

Take page one, for instance. This page is directly pulled from the Star Trek episode that inspired this comic, and features Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock saying goodbye to Seven and his assistant. Byrne chooses to play this page in middle-distance shots, keeping Kirk and Spock at a kind of arm's length from the readers. He also draws Kirk and Spock in profile views, never showing their faces directly.

This decision is a bit baffling to me. Why not put Kirk and Spock closer to the readers? Why have them be distant presences when they were clearly intended to ground the reader in the book and give us a nice little landing place in which to start the story? Perhaps a clue is in the final panel of the page, where we see Byrne's awkward rendering of Captain Kirk. In that panel Byrne draws a character that vaguely looks like William Shatner, but only vaguely. A reader is left wondering if perhaps Byrne doesn't trust his ability to effectively draw Kirk and Spock.

But then, flipping the page, readers see one of the classic storytelling tricks that help make Byrne such a tantalizing artist. On the top of page three is a nice little three-page sequence where Seven opens a window. Byrne cleverly arranges the panels so that the eye effortlessly follows the panel progression, and the moment progresses nicely. It's subtle, effective and professional--just what one would expect from a man with so much experience in the industry.

Byrne has a similarly nice progression on page 21, when a bad guy gets shot. This scene is a little showier than the one on page three, but nonetheless is clever and quite effective. This book is filled with that sort of back and forth element. There are times when Byrne seems at the top of his game, while there are other times where his art and storytelling seem tremendously awkward.

Take the sequence on page nine, for instance. On this page, Gary Seven is being introduced to a group of nine scientists who are working at an atomic research facility. The scientists basically gather around in a circle to meet Seven, but I had an almost impossible time of figuring out where each of the people are supposed to be standing in relation with each other.

On this page, characters seem to move arbitrarily around each other, to the point where the whole page has a very confusing feel to it. Added to that is the fact that there is no background drawn on this page; instead, all of the characters seem to stand in a vague yellow limbo space. The characters therefore literally have no grounding in space, robbing the reader of the ability to easily discern where this scene takes place or why we should even care.

This page also has no real connection to the next page, even though the scenes on both pages are intended to be connected to each other. In the last panel of page nine, Gary Seven is surrounded by five people, and it is implied he's standing with nine people. But on the first panel of page ten, there are only two people close to him. Readers are given no explanation of why those characters just disappear.

We don't see the characters walk into another office or get a word balloon that explains where the characters have to go. Instead, the characters from the previous page seem to simply disappear into the panel borders.

Byrne also makes some strange decisions when it comes to story structure. There is a dinner date that sets up much of the comic's emotional resonance that lasts only three panels, but he then spends a full page (and more!) essentially presenting dossiers of each of the atomic scientists. The dossiers are dull reading and don't really serve to further the plot; in fact, they read like some of the dullest "Who's Who" pages you're ever likely to read.

Even worse, the profiles awkwardly continue onto a second page because Byrne didn't arrange page 15 so all the boring dossiers would be on one page. This is one of the weirdest and most annoying page arrangements I've seen from a professional cartoonist. It would have made the story much stronger if Byrne had dwelled on the dinner date for several more panels rather than present these dull and pointless dossier panels.

Star Trek—Assignment: Earth ended up being a very frustrating comic for me because of Byrne's inconsistencies. There are many moments where John Byrne is effective at presenting a good story well. But there are many others where his awkward storytelling choices undercut the flow of the story. Based on this, it might be a while before I seek out my next new comic by him.

Ray Tate:

The Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth" introduced Robert Lansing as Gary Seven, a young, button cute Terri Garr as Roberta Lincoln and Victoria Vetri as the briefly seen exotic alien womanly form of Isis though she was "meowed" by Barbara Babcock, also the voice of the Beta Five Computer.

The story was meant to be a back door pilot, but due to typical unimaginative studio disinterest, it instead remained only a classic part of Star Trek always turning up on the Sci-Fi Channel's favorite episode marathons. Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln have also had continued their adventures in Greg Cox's superb Star Trek novels: Assignment: Eternity and the first two volumes of The Eugenics Wars. Modern legend John Byrne now takes Gary Seven, Roberta Lincoln and Isis into new comic book exploits.

Byrne first imitates in art the last scene from "Assignment Earth." It's a wise selection because it tells the new reader everything she needs to know in an economical way. Byrne though does not merely copy the scene. He chooses different angles to place his camera and blocks his shots differently. This adds a flourish to the act for those who have seen it even dozens of times.

The story proper kicks off on page two with our trio literally out on a ledge. Byrne draws an excellent likeness of Robert Lansing, and as the story progresses you'll see some familiarity to the faces of the guest cast. I'd bet a thousand Quatloos that Byrne put a little Suzanne Pleshette in the countenance of the lovely Dr. Diana Winters. I should point out that Byrne does not photoreference. Rather he simply translates the sixties performers to his own style in a comic book form.

It's likely that people will immediately notice that Roberta Lincoln looks nothing like Terri Garr. This is not because of Byrne's lack of ability. Rather, Roberta's departure from model has more to do with licensing than choice. You need no permissions from the dead, but Terri Garr is very much alive.

While it would have been nice to see a Terri Garr facsimile holding Gary's hand as she hugs a building for dear life, Byrne instead mimics Garr's performance and body language for a character, nevertheless created with care. Roberta is very lively in the episode and in the comic book, and Byrne evinces his skill in natural body language with her looser, more youthful behavior. A case in point can be found in the playful scene where she smiles and looks over her shoulder at Gary. She also sounds like Terri Garr in the dialogue. Byrne has a very underrated knack for dialogue that identifies the characters. You can also easily hear Lansing's voice in Gary Seven's words.

Byrne crafts a very likeable relationship for the duo. Even were you not aware of their entire history, you can tell in the artwork through their propinquity and interactions that Gary and Roberta have become friends since that fateful meeting with Kirk and Spock.

Gary, Roberta and Isis are on the ledge to take care of a shield that's blocking the sensors of the Beta Five Computer in Gary's office. Here again, Byrne follows the episode closely. The Beta Five Computer was so advanced that it had its own personality and could after a fashion think. These attributes are reflected in Byrne's dialogue for the unit. Her snippiness at Gary Seven also adds more humor and wit to the story.

The perpetrators appear to be Russians, but Byrne drops his first long game mystery in the scenario. While the tech is definitely of the period, the "energy levels" are not. Faithful Star Trek fans will note that in Enterprise Jonathan Archer and his crew became the chessmen in a Temporal Cold Front. I wonder if that time war hasn't come to Gary's little neck of the woods.

Regardless, the story in the first issue of Assignment: Earth is a stand-alone in which Gary Seven, Roberta and Isis must stop the testing of a weapon that's far beyond the politics of the world at the time. Through this story, Byrne keeps the details period specific, reinforces the philosophy of Gary, Roberta and Isis so they are consistent with the characters in the original Star Trek episode and gives the tale a nice chilling, cautionary feeling, as so many of Roddenberry's stories had. This fable is especially pertinent today given the capricious attitude the current Administration has toward the U.S. producing even more devastating weapons than those already in our armory.

A particular scene toward the end highlights the waste of war and global schism. The scenario generates a pall of sadness that sharply contrasts the feeling of daring felt in the opening pages. The expert staging and the meaning give Star Trek--Assignment: Earth far more weight than the typical Star Trek tie-in.

Thom Young:

My first exposure to John Byrne's work was Uncanny X-Men #111 (June 1978). I no longer recall why I bought that issue since I was otherwise only buying DC comics at the time--along with back issues of Jack Kirby's Fourth World books and Silver Age DC books.

Whatever the reason, I'm glad I bought that issue of X-Men. Byrne quickly became one of my favorite illustrators, and the Uncanny X-Men became one of my favorite comics. It wasn't long afterwards that I had all of the issues starring the "New X-Men"--from Giant-Size X-Men #1 to the most recent issue by Byrne and Chris Claremont.

As much as I appreciated the work that Dave Cockrum did in the initial stories starring the New X-Men, the series didn't really hit its peak until Byrne became the illustrator with #108--three issues before my first exposure. Since then, I've often enjoyed Byrne's work, though I haven't enjoyed anything of his as much as I did the 36 X-Men stories he illustrated from 1978 to 1980 (#108-143).

Likewise, I've also been a fan of Star Trek since the 1970s--when the reruns were being shown in syndication either right before or right after my family had dinner--and one of my favorite episodes during my childhood was "Assignment: Earth," the failed pilot for a spin-off series that featured the characters Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln.

In fact, I just recently saw that episode as part of the Star Trek Remastered syndicated series. Its flaws are now more evident to me than they were then, but I still enjoyed the episode enough to wish CBS had picked it up as a new series forty years ago when it first aired.

Anyway, with all that history concerning my affection for Byrne's work and Roddenberry's failed "Assignment: Earth" pilot, I came to IDW’s current Star Trek: Assignment: Earth comic book hoping to be immensely pleased with one of my favorite creators working on two of my favorite Star Trek characters. Unfortunately, I was merely mildly entertained.

This isn't a bad comic book, but it's not particularly good either. As with every comic published by IDW (that I've seen), it has cardboard covers and heavy paper stock for the interior pages. In this case, the interior pages are printed on paper that seems to be about the same weight and texture as the stock used by DC and Marvel for covers on their regular monthly titles.

In contrast to that high-end package, Byrne delivers a formulaic story that involves Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln breaking into a spartanly furnished office in a high-rise building in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1968 (three months after Kirk and Spock left them at the end of the Star Trek episode).

In that Albuquerque office, Seven and Lincoln discover that technology from Earth's future is being given to Soviet spies for the purpose of sabotaging a new type of atomic bomb being developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (or "San Lobos Atomic Research Facility," as it's called here).

Seven and Lincoln then infiltrate the San Lobos (Los Alamos) facility with forged identities as nuclear physicists sent by "the commission"--presumably the Atomic Energy Commission, which is actually a civilian organization that oversees non-military use of nuclear energy. In reality, though, nuclear weapons development is sanctioned by the Department of Energy (which then "loans" those weapons to the Department of Defense). We'll attribute this lack of verisimilitude to "artistic license" and not worry about it.

However, I’m not so forgiving about Byrne not bothering to give us an explanation for why Gary Seven is dragging Roberta Lincoln around as an agent on this assignment. She was little more than a secretary in the Star Trek episode--albeit one who got involved in Seven's mission through circumstances--so Byrne probably should have added some exposition about Seven putting Lincoln through extensive training as an assistant field agent during the three months after "Assignment: Earth" ended.

Anyway, after infiltrating Los Alamos (San Lobos), Seven and Lincoln meet all the scientists assigned to "Project Hercules"--which is the codename for the development of an "enhanced fusion bomb." Of course, one of those scientists is actually the Soviet spy whose mission is to sabotage the project and obliterate all of New Mexico and the surrounding area in the process.

It's up to our plucky protagonists (well, at least Roberta Lincoln is "plucky") to determine which scientist is the Soviet agent. They suspect it might be the not-so-happy defector from Communist China--which is odd since the spy is supposed to be Soviet rather than a Maoist, but I guess all communists are the same in the eyes of people in the 1960s (even those trained on another planet by extraterrestrials).

The entire plot is pretty standard stuff as far as these types of stories go. Seven even falls for the head scientist on the project, Diana Winters, after he takes her out for dinner. In another instance of poor verisimilitude, we only see Mr. Seven and Ms. Winters interact for five panels: at the restaurant (three panels), the car ride back to her apartment (one panel), and at her apartment as she invites him in for a glass of wine (one panel). Yet we're supposed to believe that he developed strong emotional feelings for her by the end of the story when Roberta Lincoln asks Seven if he's going to be okay because "you really cared about her, didn't you?"

I guess we're to assume that more than just conversation over a glass of wine occurred in her apartment that night. Still, the emotional weight at the end of the story doesn't seem authentic because Byrne took too many shortcuts in this issue--with the plot, with the characterizations, and with the illustrations.

As with the story, his pencils (which he also inked) don't nearly approach anything like his best work. The illustrations are often flat--with figures that look stiff or awkwardly posed (or both), and with either sparse or no backgrounds. This work is hardly of the quality that I've come to expect from Byrne.

For instance, the issue opens with the final scene of the Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are saying "good-bye" to Seven and Lincoln before beaming up to the Enterprise. Byrne draws these iconic figures as little more than hastily sketched caricatures that would be more appropriate as a one-page satire strip in Mad Magazine (except that the dialog is straight out of the original TV episode).

Yet, because of his more than 30 years of experience at his craft, Byrne is able to make such scenes work adequately enough even when he's taking shortcuts. Additionally, there are also a few pages in which he turned in much better work--showing what he can do with his pencils and inks when he puts in the effort.

Similarly, there are aspects of the plot that are more intriguing than the formulaic story that made up this issue. Granted, these other plot points are also somewhat formulaic, but they're nevertheless interesting bits that will extend into subsequent issues--such as the mysterious cowboy-like figure who delivers the future technology to one of the nuclear scientists (a scientist who was not the Soviet spy, by the way).

We didn't learn that scientist's story (though he seemed to also be trying to stop the Soviet espionage), just as we didn't learn the identity of the mysterious cowboy-like figure referred to someone as "Number One."

Oddly, Captain Christopher Pike, who preceded Kirk as the captain of the Enterprise, referred to his female first officer as "Number One" in the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage"--just as Captain Picard would later refer to Commander Ryker as "Number One" in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I don't think the mysterious cowboy-like character is supposed to be Jean Luc Picard, but could he be Christopher Pike? I don't know, but I'm intrigued enough that I'm considering buying the next issue.

However, for $3.99, I would rather have more effort from Byrne as writer and illustrator--even if it meant less deluxe packaging from IDW (with the high-priced paper stock for the covers and interior pages).

In fact, I might prefer this story be printed like a comic book from 1968--on newsprint that will turn yellow with age and with old color separations that have the little dots that created the appearance of more than four colors being used in the printing process. I would not expect it to cost only 15 cents, though.

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