Friday, November 19, 2010

Before You See Star Trek, Check Out Star Trek: Countdown For The Backstory!

The Good: Interesting, if simple, story, Leads into the film perfectly, Good character work on Spock/Nero.
The Bad: Some of the artwork, Expensive, Short
The Basics: When Spock teams up with a Romulan named Nero to save the Romulan Empire from impending disaster, both are hampered by politics in Star Trek: Countdown!

Movie tie-ins are nothing new. I recall, for example, when I was much younger, thrilling to Return Of The Jedi in part because there were Return Of The Jedi cookies put out right before the movie. I was absolutely convinced that when Leia meets Wicket the Ewok, she is feeding him one of those cookies. But now I have stumbled upon what I believe to be a very interesting phenomenon: characterization for a film being presented almost exclusively through a product tie-in. Having now seen the latest cinematic endeavor Star Trek (click here for that review!), I can honestly say that to get the most out of it, it sure helps to read Star Trek: Countdown.

Star Trek: Countdown is a four-issue mini-series of Star Trek comics that is not anthologized in trade paperback form as a single volume to explain the backstory of the events that lead into literally the first frames of Star Trek (the new movie). Bridging a series to a film through a comic book is not entirely new. When Firefly made its leap to the screen with Serenity, die-hard fans were given a series of comics called Serenity: Those Left Behind to explain how the characters ended up where they began the movie at. Taking it a step further, the writers of the film Star Trek provided a story for comic book writers Michael Johnson and Tim Jones to prepare audiences for the new cinematic endeavor. In Star Trek: Countdown, readers are given all of the information on the main villain and the backstory that the film either glosses over or neglects entirely. And, it is worth writing right up front that Star Trek: Countdown does what it intends to remarkably well, but it is not great literature by any means and what it sets out to do is ridiculously simple.

A respectable amount of time after the events of Star Trek: Nemesis finds the Romulan Empire in disarray. Five years after Ambassador Spock was able to become a legal citizen on Romulus, a threat emerges unlike any the galaxy has yet experienced. A star has begun to transform itself into a supernova and the process has created a wave that continues to exponentially consume matter it encounters. As a result, the supernova is actually spreading and consuming star systems with great speed. The problem is diagnosed by Spock and when he attempts to convince the Romulans to save their planet using Vulcan technology and Romulan-harvested "red matter," he is met with resistance.

However, he is aided in the Senate by the captain of a mining ship, Nero. Nero and his crew decide to go rogue with Spock, mine red matter enough to give to the Vulcan scientists and save Romulus. Unfortunately for Spock, proposing the solution to the Vulcans is met with the same style of resistance and he, too, must go rogue in order to save Romulus and possibly the galaxy. With the aid of Ambassador Picard, Captain Data and the retired engineer, now ship designer Geordi La Forge, Spock and Nero attempt to harvest red matter into a powerful tool to remedy the situation. Unfortunately, when the disaster reacts in an unpredicted way, Nero and Spock are caught off-guard and the ramifications will change both men forever!

Everything that the cinematic endeavor Star Trek is lacking in terms of details and technical sensibilities, especially of Nero and the red matter are investigated fully in Star Trek: Countdown. This 98 page story (the trade paperback has a few additional pages of character sketches afterwards) makes Nero a fully-realized character. He has a promise to his pregnant wife, he is an honorable man caught between violating the mandates of politicians and fighting for what his conscience demands, which is to trust the Vulcans despite generations of hostilities between the Romulan and Vulcan peoples. So, when the supernova reacts in a way that leaves him bereft of hope, Nero is emotionally motivated to a bad place.

And while Spock works to save Romulus and the rest of the galaxy, Nero only becomes more frustrated with the status quo. The result is that Nero ends up in command of the ultra-powerful retrofitted Narada. There is enough temporal ambiguity to explain how the U.S.S. Kelvin would survive as long as it does against the Narada at the opening of Star Trek (whatwith a battle between the 24th Century Enterprise-E shortly before the climactic events involving Spock and the red matter) and the concept is sound enough to be interesting and allow for a wealth of stories to be told in the aftermath of Star Trek: Countdown which do not become a part of the alternate universe created in Star Trek.

The character the writers get right, though, is Spock. Spock, having worked for twenty years on Romulus to bring peace between the Romulans and Vulcans (and, by extension, the Federation), is the perfect blend of the ambassador and science officer and the character works for the story. By extension, he becomes a character fans will look for even more eagerly in Star Trek and there he does not disappoint, as he does not disappoint in this comic form.

Furthermore, Picard and Data's respective statuses are explained easily enough. Glossed over are the concepts behind where Geordi and Worf are in their lives, but their inclusion truly makes this book feel like the final hurrah of the unresolved Next Generation cast. And because the film showcases the relationship between Kirk and Spock, the attention on Nero as a character who holds his own against Spock in Star Trek: Countdown is welcome. Nero is interesting, hardly monolithic, though he is not surprising either. Through this graphic novel, he is introduced as a worker and a patriot and the depth of his sense of loss in the cinematic endeavor that follows this is made sensible and is drawn out beyond the few lines that Nero has on the subject in the film.

What robs this graphic novel of enduring quality and greatness is twofold. The first is that it is truly an exercise of love for the fans of Star Trek who want to be primed and thrilled (more than they might already be) for the film. Second, the artwork is not the best (pardon the pun) in the galaxy. Comic book sketches that look more like comic strip sketches accompany obvious computer backgrounds. So, for example, on page 46, the top panel is a computer-generated landscape of Vulcan with blurry photorealism with Picard and Data drawn atop it looking more like manga caricatures than quality character sketches of the officers.

Most fans will not care, but for those looking for quality as well as a must-have collectible, more objective readers will feel a bit let down. That said, before taking in Star Trek, anyone who truly wants to get their money's worth out of the full richness of the experience ought to pick up and read Star Trek: Countdown. Those fans will go in most ready and appreciate where the film came from, instead of simply what it is.

For other Star Trek graphic novels, please check out my reviews of:
Mirror Images
The Best Of Gary Seven
Assignment: Earth


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

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

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