Josh Marsfelder of Vaka Rangi, a critical history of Star Trek (he’s just started The Next Generation) and related topics (including an essay on Doctor Who), writes on the Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover comic by IDW. Also, speaking of comics, no reviews this week I’m afraid – won’t be around to pick up my books due to those Cleveland talks.
Let me preface this by saying I am not a comics person. My first, and only, sojourn into the world of mainline United States sequential art was around the time there were several different Spider-Mans running around Marvel while at DC Supergirl was some kind of pink alien goo matrix or something. I took one look at that, promptly decided comics were fucked up and never looked back. I am, however, apparently something of an authority on Star Trek, which is why Phil has so graciously invited me to say a few words about the first, and to date only, time that other big polyauthored science fiction TV franchise crossed over with Doctor Who.
The one exception I made to my self-imposed rule of avoiding US comics at all costs came anytime there was a four-colour adaptation of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine during the late 80s and early 90s, during the tail-end of the period I’ve come to call the Long 1980s. Back then, you couldn’t just queue up Netflix or Hulu (or other places) to rewatch your favourite show-You had to wait for it to be re-aired, which was if not rare, at the very least unpredictable, or wait for it to come out on VHS, which took a long time. And, at least if you were someone like me, collecting TV shows on VHS was simply out of the question: Not only was it expensive (I’ve never been a terribly wealthy person), but it took forever for home video releases to come out, and it was hard to keep enthusiasm going that long. If I wanted new adventures with my favourite Star Trek heroes, I was limited to my imagination (which I daresay I’ve been blessed enough to have in abundance), or to the tie-in comic lines from DC and Malibu. Indeed, especially in the case of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, much of my memories of and perspective on the show came not from the TV episodes themselves, but the comics.
It didn’t hurt that this was something of a golden age for tie-in comics: Most of them were written by talented authors and artists who also happened to have a deep appreciation for the source material they were tasked with adapting. Indeed, Ron Moore said a number of times that he was a big fan of Michael Jan Friedman and Pablo Marcos’ run on the DC Star Trek: The Next Generation book, because it was the only way he could actually experience new stories with a cast of characters he’d come to love as a member of the audience. Oftentimes, these comics put out stories that were on par with, if not demonstrably superior to, anything being done on the television shows themselves. A lot of the reason I still have a deep fondness for this era of Star Trek is that from the beginning it was clear to me this was a kind of modern myth structure that a lot of different people could have contrasting, though equally valid, conceptions of.
In fact this was so much the case, there are some Star Trek episodes I can go back and watch today that feel somehow…off, or out of tune: They don’t jive with the mental picture I have of who these characters are and how they’re supposed to act, because I’ve spent so many years drawing that based on things I’ve gleaned from comics and other “secondary” sources. I didn’t watch any Star Trek, or at least any worth mentioning, between Summer 1994 and Fall 2000 and only just now, with the recent (and frankly astounding) high definition restoration of Star Trek: The Next Generation am I starting to seriously collect it on home media. Apart from the Season 1 and 2 DVD box sets of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine I picked up when they first came out (in what constituted something of a major investment for me), this is the first time I’ve actually owned a substantial portion of the television phenomenon that’s meant so much to me for so long.
So Star Trek comics have always been particularly special and important to me. A new comic set in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will strike a chord with me in a way even the announcement of a new piece of Star Trek visual media can’t (this is one reason, among many others, I was left cold and underwhelmed by J.J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzmann and Roberto Orci’s recent efforts). Naturally, I was immediately intrigued when I heard IDW had acquired the license to publish new Star Trek books in 2006, and were kicking off their new line with a miniseries based on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Unfortunately, any hopes I might have had for the success and longevity of that line were immediately dashed upon actually reading said miniseries.
Whereas earlier Star Trek comics seemed to have been made by people with a deep fondness and appreciation for the series, they also, most crucially, demonstrated they had a very keen understanding of how it worked and what was important about it. At my most charitable, I’d say IDW was staffed by very passionate science fiction fans who might not always have been science fiction writers. At my least, I’d say their stories tended to be exercises in pointless fanwank with wooden dialog and little-to-no conception of basic plot and narrative structure done solely to cash in on a big-name license. IDW has a very small group of creators for the size of imprint that it is, and regularly leans on a select handful of writers and artists to handle basically all of their properties. You can gather this leads to a somewhat changeable average baseline of quality.
With a few exceptions, like John Byrne’s surprisingly excellent Star Trek Crew that tells the life and times of Majel Barrett’s Number One, in the case of Star Trek, IDW almost exclusively employs an in-house team of sibling co-writers by the name of Scott and David Tipton. Sadly, the Tipton brothers do not have a particularly impressive track record for quality, being between them responsible for some of what I consider to be the worst of IDW’s catalog. Their most egregious offering to date for me had been the embarrassing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Fool’s Gold, which rather memorably turned Benjamin Sisko into Samuel J. Jackson, Kira Nerys into one of Kate Beaton’s “Strong Female Characters” and Elim Garak into Scrooge McDuck. The miniseries boasts an insipid and shaky plot to match that just barely holds together about “an alarming number of visitors” coming to Deep Space 9 who it is revealed are all on an interstellar treasure hunt.
You might have guessed by now that IDW put the Tiptons on the Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who crossover event comic Assimilation².
In regards to Doctor Who, my history is far more limited in this regard. I picked up Steve Moore’s run on Doctor Who Monthly at Phil’s recommendation, which I quite liked and that features what’s now probably my favourite version of Tom Baker’s Doctor. But that’s about it as far as my experience with Doctor Who comics goes. I haven’t read any of IDW’s offerings, though, if their Star Trek stuff is any indication I’m not exactly leaping with enthusiasm to check them out, especially for a franchise that unfortunately simply means considerably less to me (sorry…). But I certainly appreciate Doctor Who as pop culture staple and a work of narrative, and the idea of a crossover with Star Trek, in particular Star Trek: The Next Generation, is certainly something I would be excited about. If nothing else, it would be the meeting of the two longest-running and most iconic science fiction series probably in the world. Unfortunately, and predictably, Assimilation² completely fails to deliver on absolutely anything anyone would have hoped to see in the first teamup between the two elder statesmen of television sci-fi.
The Tiptons’ usual raft of problems apply, and I actually think this is the worst thing I’ve read from them. Namely, the brothers have absolutely no handle on voice or characterization of any sort: Not a single player sounds like who they’re supposed to, the dialog is so wooden and stilted and the plot twists are telegraphed so amateurishly one begins to wonder if the Tiptons might have missed their calling to work for Western Union. The person who gets shafted the worst by far is Geordi La Forge, because he’s first of all barely in the story at all, sounds nothing like LeVar Burton the few chances he *does* get to appear and gets a jaw-droppingly and flamboyantly loaded out-of-character scene near the beginning where he asks Data why he’s never considered “upgrading” himself. This upsets me a great deal because Geordi is my favourite character, and to have him say something like that is so catastrophic a misreading of who he his, what his relationship with Data is and the fundamental ethical position of Star Trek: The Next Generation I can’t even begin to put it to words. Meanwhile, Deanna Troi, Doctor Crusher and Amy Pond are all interchangeable, the Tiptons apparently assuming all women have an innate, built-in default personality of “generic and stereotypical Doctor Who companion”.
Of course, having the Borg team up with the Cybermen is the most dumbly obvious, rote and hackneyed idea for a Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who crossover imaginable. To the point, actually, that I have seen fanart on DeviantArt that handles this brief better than the Tiptons do. If you stop and think about it though, there’s really not a whole lot of material to work with in this setup: The Borg and Cybermen are superficially similar by being big monolithic cyborg things that go around assimilating people, but their intended symbolism and narrative function are actually quite different. The Borg are essentially a stand-in for the Federation’s dark side and a glimpse into its possible future, a future that could befall it should its worst tendencies go unchallenged (Well, except in Star Trek First Contact and Star Trek Voyager where they become the Cenobites from Hellraiser, but that’s beside the point). It’s a scenario where the grinding engines of capitalism and modernity basically take on a sentience of their own and, having absorbed everything else, start devouring themselves. The Cybermen, meanwhile, are, as Phil so brilliantly pointed out, supposed to be Qlippothic horrors: Star Monks who achieved a kind of dark spiritual enlightenment in the H.P. LovecraftXKenneth Grant sense…Or at least they were, until “The Moonbase” came along and fucked all that up so that now they don’t really have a purpose apart from “iconic legacy Doctor Who monster”.
And, credit to the Tiptons, they don’t actually depict the Borg and the Cybermen as interchangeable…They do something even worse. Apparently, while the Borg are dangerous, the Cybermen are *serious business* and *bad news*. This is according to The Doctor, who convinces Captain Picard to set aside his prejudice and forge a temporary alliance with the Borg to stop the Cybermen, who have gone rogue, from taking over all of space and time by giving him a quick trip in the TARDIS. There are about six trillion things wrong with that sentence, so let’s just concentrate on the major one as, unlike The Doctor, we are somewhat pressed for space and time here. The Enterprise crew does basically nothing to resolve the situation here, in fact, they just get in the way. The Doctor isn’t just the narrative prime mover, he’s the only proactive character in the entire story: He swoops down from On High to lecture Starfleet on their backwards ways (everyone except Data, natch, because everybody loves Data), hotwires the Enterprise so it can travel to the Borg homeworld in the Delta Quadrant and tells the crew every single thing they need to do to resolve the plot. Even Amy and Rory functionally only exist in this story to convince Captain Picard to listen to The Doctor because The Doctor has seen things and is wonderful and knows everything.
I know perfectly well why this story turned out like this. It’s because Doctor Who is right now more popular than it’s ever been and is the darling of science fiction communities the world over while Star Trek: The Next Generation, even though 2012 was its 25th anniversary, is still an ancient show that was popular before today’s kids were even born and that, statistically speaking, nobody has given a shit about since 1994. I’m not, as I’ve written elsewhere, jealous of Doctor Who’s success: I don’t hold that kind of petty and irrelevant grudge. I’m not just reacting badly to this because I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’m not just upset because Star Trek: The Next Generation means more to me than pretty much any other television show and is among my most beloved pop culture memories. I mean, I *am*, because I felt after reading Assimilation² that the Tipton brothers were belittling and dismissing my favourite show and that hurt me quite badly. But my main objection is that this is a terrible, terrible way to do a crossover event. Indeed, letting one team completely overshadow and wipe the floor with the other is just about the most basic, fundamental failing you can make when writing a crossover event. Not to mention the fact the Tiptons’ apparent preference for Doctor Who over Star Trek: The Next Generation has me somewhat concerned that they’re in charge of the, er, *Star Trek* wing of IDW, though I guess that would explain a lot.
(There’s even an entire issue that’s little more than a pointless and strangled excuse to get Tom Baker’s Doctor interacting with the Original Series crew. One really does get the sense the Tiptons would rather be writing literally anything else.)
There are a ton of great concepts for a Star Trek/Doctor Who crossover, any of which would have worked considerably better than Assimilation² does. It’s an idea that’s been around for a long time, too: Doctor Who has been aware of Star Trek since at least the Terrance Dicks/Barry Letts/Jon Pertwee era, and the Star Trek production teams of the Long 1980s were all demonstrably avid Whovians. Commander Riker uses a sonic screwdriver in “The Naked Now”, which was the only fun thing about that episode, there’s the somewhat famous list of the first six actors to play The Doctor that flashes onscreen briefly in “The Neutral Zone” and Doctor Crusher adorns the walls of her sickbay on the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D with roundels from the TARDIS.
The most high-profile idea for a crossover though came from Russel T. Davies himself. Davies a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation (describing the fifth season story “Darmok” as featuring a brief that has forever inspired and “haunted” him, to the point it apparently led him to write the episode “Midnight”), and had wanted his New Series to visit and pay tribute to Star Trek from the beginning: In fact, it was one of the first ideas he had. That show would have been Enterprise, and the concept of linking its own Temporal Cold War to the Last Great Time War of the new Doctor Who is such a stupefyingly obvious and brilliant idea it’s little wonder it never happened. Indeed, in the Enterprise episode “Future Tense”, the NX-01 comes across a mysterious time ship with a human pilot that a bunch of major powers are vying for. Designer Mike Sussman wanted the ship to transform into a blue British police call box, but was shot down. Think how much fun that might have been. Meanwhile, Assimilation² seems like it was done just because it had to be done, and that’s perhaps its biggest crime.
The Classic Series also almost interacted with Star Trek: The Next Generation: Had the show been renewed for the 1989-90 season, Andrew Cartmel and his team were working on serial for that year that would have a pastiche called “Earth Aid” where Ace briefly has to take command of a vast starship in the employ of an Earth-based Starfleet. Change that from a parody to a full-on crossover and you’d have a delightful brief for a special: Imagine Ace on the bridge of the Enterprise trying to act like Captain Picard, or indeed imagine her getting to talk to Tasha Yar (in my mind, this is an alternate version of “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). Hell, imagine how the *actors* would have got on. That would have been something to see. For you Big Finish fans, “Earth Aid” was redone as one of those “Lost Stories”, though I can’t speak for how good it is this removed from its original context having not heard it. Also on CD is another Sylvester McCoy serial, “Bang-Bang-a-Boom!”, which is a bang-on parody of the po-faced 1990s grimdark that sunk the Dominion War era of Star Trek done as a Christmas pantomime.
Even though “Bang-Bang-a-Boom” is skewering Star Trek, I still like it and still think it works because it has a degree of affection for its source material. That’s what Assimilation² utterly lacks: There’s no sense of fun or excitement anywhere here, for either Star Trek: The Next Generation *or* Doctor Who, which rather seems to defeat the purpose of doing a crossover in the first place to me. I mean, if you can’t find anything happy or joyful to take home from bending license regulations to get two groups of beloved iconic heroes to meet and fight evil together, why bother? Not just with the crossover itself, but with this kind of writing in general. Doctor Who and Star Trek: The Next Generation are among a select group of pop culture ephemera that have transcended their origins to be part of our shared cultural history; modern myths to help show us how to live better lives and be better people. These are precious things to be treasured, nurtured, shared and passed on to younger generations so they too can maybe find something meaningful in them. You shouldn’t be in the business of curating if you can’t find any love in your heart for them.