Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Assignment: Earth Revisited As A Graphic Novel . . . Poorly.

The Good: Interesting concept and time to revisit in the Star Trek universe
The Bad: Light on character development, Artwork is mediocre, Fairly bland or obvious stories.
The Basics: With bland artwork and mediocre stories, Assignment: Earth tries to create a tangential story to Star Trek and fails to be engaging.

It seems that the efforts of Joss Whedon and his followers have paid off; the graphic novel and comic book has become the ultimate way to continue a television series after it is canceled. After all, to bridge Firefly and Serenity, Whedon released the wildly popular Serenity: Those Left Behind which has kept fans happy for years. The amusing element of Whedon's ambitions, which have continued the television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer as a viable comic series - "Season Eight" has been a hit with fans and booksellers - is that other television series' that were not serialized or even semi-serialized have picked up the notion and are running with it.

So, for example, Star Trek - which was never even remotely serialized - has begun a Star Trek Year Four comic book series. Ironically, the comic books have picked up obscure loose ends and even undeveloped ideas by Gene Roddenberry. It is widely known, for example, that the Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth" (click here for my review!) was a pilot for a Gene Roddenberry program by the same name that was never put into production. Now, however, the comic book series has picked up the idea and continued the idea of "Assignment: Earth" as a comic book. The first five issues of that comic book series have been anthologized in a trade paperback collection, Assignment: Earth. Written and illustrated by John Byrne, Assignment: Earth continues the adventures of Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln to save Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

With five stories, each representing a year from 1968 to 1972, the trade paperback collection of Assignment: Earth comics has interstellar spy Gary Seven working with his airheaded assistant to save the planet from aliens, clones and meddling from the U.S.S. Enterprise! The stories, "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns," "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," "My Name Is Legion," "We Have Met The Enemy...," and "Too Many Presidents," seek to fill in the gaps in the Star Trek timeline and does so with mediocre results. For example, in "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow," Gary Seven and Roberta are on a mission to save Earth when the Enterprise appears in the sky and interrupts their efforts to save the planet! The appearance of the Enterprise is from the episode "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" and the initial novelty of squeezing Gary and Roberta into the story wears off as Gary Seven has to explain to Roberta the mechanics of time travel (namely that the Enterprise crew that has appeared two years after their initial meeting is actually a year younger than they were during their first encounter).

Similarly, the idea of an alien invasion in "We Have Met The Enemy..." is hardly enough to hold the reader's attention; besides having never mentioned an alien invasion in the '70s, it is hard to get any real tension up in a story when the reader knows that the invasion must be thwarted for sure. The story, then, becomes a story of process: HOW Gary and Roberta thwart the invasion and it is hardly unique, compelling or even terribly interesting. As well, author John Byrne seems to have a limited number of ideas for the book as both "My Name Is Legion" and "Too Many Presidents" both involve cloning. Just because one involves the creation of supersoldiers and the other has a replicated Nixon preparing to replace the real Nixon after the China trip in 1972 does not make the idea any more original.

What hampers Assignment: Earth from the very beginning is the lack of ability for the comic series to create realistic tension. "Assignment: Earth" worked so well as an episode of Star Trek because in the late 1960s there was a paranoia that the U.S.S.R. might bomb the U.S. off the map or the other way around. The mood in mainstream society was a weird mix of carefree and tense and there was a pervasive concern that the end of the world could be a real possibility any day. So, John Byrne's task in the mid-2000s is to: 1. Adequately recapture the mood of the time and create stories that play into is and 2. Fill in gaps in the Star Trek universe.

The first task is a near impossible one. The five stories within Assignment: Earth are necessarily Earthbound. As a result, Gary Seven's adventures are limited to history and the secret history that happened behind the scenes of reality. Actual history informs readers that the world survived the 1960s and, in fact, made it at least forty years beyond that turbulent decade. The result is that every time Gary Seven nervously declares the world is in absolute jeopardy, the reader simply shakes their head, shrugs and says, "Yeah, but we survived it, so . . ." As for the history behind the scenes, Byrne has a great deal more leeway with that and, unfortunately, he blows the opportunity for anything truly meaningful as missions like stopping the alien invasion never come close to the broad-reaching potential the concept dictates they could have. In other words, because the world obviously was not publicly invaded by extraterrestrials in 1971, thwarting the spread of alien technology and invaders must occur early or else . . . well, we would know about it. Thus, Byrne creates an unfortunately predictable storyline.

The second task is one Byrne ought to be able to excel at - one would suppose, given that he was given the assignment - but Byrne is given an almost impossible task to work with. The problem Byrne is running into is that the history of Star Trek and reality diverge and Gene Roddenberry was content to have such a divergence when he created the show. Most notably, there are references to the Eugenics Wars in the 1990s wherein genetically-engineered superhumans take over most of Earth and World War III in the early 21st Century (there's still time!) wherein much of the planet is baked in a nuclear war. The problem is that later custodians of the franchise (you know who you are!) did not care about continuity and as a result had adventures set in places like 1990s Los Angeles where there are no superhuman clone warriors. So, Byrne must decide which side his comic book Assignment: Earth stories are going to tread toward.

Byrne, as writer and illustrator of the Assignment: Earth comic book series, seems to be attempting the same tactic as novelist Greg Cox, who wrote Gary Seven adventures for the Pocket Books novel collection. Cox tried to reconcile the divergence by creating a secret history of Earth, explaining away the Eugenics Wars as more of a conspiracy that later became common knowledge. Valiant effort, Mr. Cox! In the Greg Cox Gary Seven adventures, history is made only in the shadows. Byrne seems to like that idea as Gary Seven thwarts obstacles that never make the newspapers and his creation of the supersoldiers in one story might be a foreshadowing of the Eugenics Wars. But one has to ask "what is the point?" then. After all, Greg Cox already did this for Star Trek fans. Beyond that, Byrne seems content to make pointless vignettes that do not affect actual history in any noticeable way.

Unfortunately, Byrne is working with an "odd couple" that is hardly interesting. Roberta Lincoln is vacuous and boring, using transporter-like technology to perform a fashion show for herself. Similarly, Byrne plays with Isis, the cat/woman exactly as the episode did. And while Gary Seven is an interesting character, there is no real character development in these stories. Instead, these are plot-intensive stories that do not offer a lot of room for characters to grow and change as the "conspiracy" in each story needs to be unraveled and that takes time and a steadfast protagonist who does not evolve much.

As for the artwork, it is brightly colored and Byrne's greatest strength is that there are so few references he needs to incorporate into his book. As a result, Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln only have an episode worth of material to use for a visual reference. All other characters are new and Byrne has some artistic license to play with. Unfortunately, known characters, like the Enterprise crew and even Robert Lansing's Gary Seven and Teri Garr's Roberta Lincoln seldom look like their source material.

At least the colors are bright and in the trade paperback, the colors do not bleed onto one's fingers. But beyond that, Star Trek fans have more interesting incarnations of the Gary Seven adventures to fall back on.

For other trade paperback anthologies related to movies and television, please check out my reviews of:
The A-Team: War Stories
Legion: Prophets


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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