It’s Star Trek, Jim, but not as we know it

If you were a boy in the second half of the 1960s, there is a good chance that you will remember TV 21, the boy’s magazine that ran comic strips based on Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL 5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds, presented as if they were current stories in a 2060s newspaper.

Much less well known is Joe 90: Top Secret. TV 21’s ‘newspaper of the future’ format was extremely successful at first, but as the 1960s neared an end, sales began to fall. The initial readership had aged into their teens, and potential new readers were now too young to have watched the earlier Anderson shows. Attempts to reboot the ‘Anderverse’ with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Zero X (the latter was a spaceship that featured in both Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet) failed to halt the decline.

So, in January 1969, Joe 90: Top Secret was launched as a companion to TV 21. Like its parent publication, it ran comic strips based on science fiction-themed TV shows, although this time there was no attempt to link them into a shared universe. In addition to the eponymous Joe 90, the magazine featured Irvin Allen’s new series Land of the Giants, the British spy series The Champions, and an unfamiliar strip featuring the adventures of Captain Kurt and the crew of the Universe Star Ship Enterprise. Yes, this was my introduction to Star Trek, six months before it made its first appearance on British television.

Star Trek had been running in the States since 1966, and it was now well into its third and final season, but it did not debut on BBC television until 12 July 1969 – just over a week before Neil Armstrong’s ‘giant leap for mankind’. Consequently, most UK readers of Joe 90 had never heard of the show. Two decades later, Star Trek: The Next Generation and its spinoffs would also take several years to make their way across the Atlantic, but by this time – even before the internet – Star Trek was a global phenomenon and the tabloids were making execrable jokes about “to baldly go” in reference to Patrick Stewart’s lack of hair long before Captain Picard and the Enterprise-D first featured on BBC television in September 1990.

Writer Angus Allan doesn’t seem to have had much Star Trek source material to go on at first, but his inventive story lines, and the artwork by artists including the legendary Mike Noble, more than made up for this.

The Universe Star Ship Enterprise left Earth’s atmosphere to embark on a five year deep space exploration. Massive in proportion and manned by thousands, the Enterprise’s mission is to make peaceful contact with any form of life in the universe.

In addition to ‘Captain Kurt’, the bridge crew included ‘the strange Mr Spock’, helmsman Sulu, and navigator Bailey. The latter appeared in only one episode of the TV series: the first-season episode The Corbomite Manuever. It seems probable that that excerpts from this episode were the only source material initially available to the Joe 90 artists and storywriters.

In the first story arc, hostile robots take over the Enterprise and land the starship on their planet. Not until Voyager would TV viewers see a Federation starship make a soft-landing on a planet (albeit the movie Generations featured the saucer section of the Enterprise-D making a crash-landing). Other oddities included shuttles that resembled miniature versions of Thunderbird 2 and ‘repair waggons’ equipped with grapples. The Enterprise was armed with turret-mounted lasers rather than the more familiar phasers and photon torpedoes.

Gradually, the UK Star Trek strip caught up with the TV series. The error with Kirk was soon corrected; Dr Mc Coy joined the crew for the second strip, and Scotty, Uhura, and Chekov soon followed. The transporter (albeit referred to as a teleport) appeared in the third strip and the sixth strip (which coincided with the belated appearance of Star Trek on British television) saw the Enterprise equipped with phasers and more conventional Galileo-class shuttles (albeit misspelt). However, readers had to wait until early 1970 before the Klingons and the Romulans made an appearance.

Joe 90 survived for 38 issues before it was merged into its parent publication TV 21, which ran for a while as TV 21 & Joe 90 before reverting to its original title. Star Trek survived these changes, and a later merger with Valiant. It ran until the end of 1973, a total of 257 episodes before it was finally dropped.

This offbeat incarnation of Star Trek was then largely forgotten for forty years. The stories were never published in the United States. Eventually, in 2016, thanks to the endeavours of enthusiast Rich Hanley, they were brought back into print. Between March of that year and September 2017, the entire series was published in a three-volume collection.

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Arena

First broadcast on 19 January 1967, the Star Trek episode Arena is generally regarded as being one of the most memorable episodes from the Original series. The screenplay was written by Gene L. Coon and officially it is based on a short story of the same name by Fredric Brown, first published in the June 1944 issue of Astounding magazine. Brown receives a story credit at the end of the episode. However it has been claimed that the similarity between the short story and Coon’s screenplay was only noticed after the latter had been written and that Brown was totally unaware of this when he agreed a fee for the use of his work!

In the Star Trek episode, the USS Enterprise goes in pursuit of a Gorn warship which has made a seemingly unprovoked attack on the Federation outpost on Cestus III, but as the chase leads into an unexplored sector of space, both ships are brought to a grinding halt by omnipotent beings calling themselves the Metrons. Kirk is informed that he will be teleported to a life-sustaining planet together with the captain of the Gorn ship. He will have no weapons or means of contacting the Enterprise and he must fight the Gorn to the death. The winner and his ship will be allowed to go free, but the loser will be destroyed, together with his ship. He will be provided with a recording device and the planet will contain the resources needed to make weapons.

Without any further ado, Kirk finds himself facing the Gorn on the hot, arid surface of an unknown planet (actually Vasquez Rocks, California). The Gorn is a huge, reptilian being and it soon becomes clear that Kirk is no match for him. Kirk hurls a rock at the Gorn, who merely hurls a much larger one back. Kirk then rolls a huge boulder on top of the Gorn. This which seems to have done the trick – but the Gorn revives and pushes the boulder aside. Kirk runs, but falling into a snare set for him by the Gorn. He manages to escape, but is injured in the process. By now he is tiring and the Gorn – by means of the recording device which is also a two-way radio – appeals to him to give up and promises to kill him quickly. Kirk also learns that the Cestus III outpost had been set up in Gorn territory, and the attack was made because the Gorn feared it was the precursor to an all-out invasion.

But Kirk then realises that there are indeed enough natural resources on the planet to make a weapon. Using sulphur, coal and saltpetre he makes gunpowder; this he loads into a gun barrel made from a bamboo-like plant together with some extremely large diamonds – “the hardest material in the universe”.

Kirk manages to disable the Gorn with this crude weapon, but he then refuses to kill his enemy. The Metrons are impressed by this “advanced trait” of mercy and allow both ships to go on their way.

Possibly because they weren’t bad guys after all, the Gorn never again made a major appearance in any Star Trek series. But if the Gorn were never seen again, the plot-line to Arena most definitely was.

It appeared in a second-season episode of Space 1999 entitled The Rules of Luton, set on an alien planet called Luton. You are reading this correctly. There really was an episode of Space 1999 set on a planet called Luton, albeit pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.

Plants are the dominant form of life on Luton, and when Koenig and Maya are dropped off by Verdecci in an Eagle spacecraft and begin helping themselves to some tempting-looking berries, the locals aren’t amused. They are ordered to fight a group of three alien trespassers to the death. Maya’s shape-shifting abilities prove to be a two-edged sword. She turns into a lion, startling one alien to the extent that it falls into a river and drowns. A second alien is soon dealt with but after Maya turns into a hawk in order to carry out some aerial reconnaisance, she is captured by the remaining alien and shut up in a birdcage.

She can only hold her form for an hour, at the end of which she will return to human form and be crushed to death. Why she doesn’t simply escape by turning into an insect (as she did in a later episode) isn’t made clear. How Maya can turn into creatures of such varying sizes and of course masses also remains unclear, but as noted in an earlier entry the screen writers of Space 1999 never let the laws of physics get in the way of a good story, much less a crap one like this. Inevitably Koenig rescues Maya and soon has the remaining alien at his mercy, refuses to kill him, and is allowed to go free by the Judges of Luton.

The writers of Blake’s Seven obviously believed they could improve on this lacklustre offering and came up with Duel, a title that at least subtly acknowledges the story’s origin. In this incarnation, the Liberator is recharging its batteries when it is attacked by a battlegroup of Federation pursuit ships, with the villainous Travis and his Mutoid pilot (exclusively female blood-sucking cyborgs that foreshadowed Star Trek’s Seven of Nine) in charge of the lead ship.

With escape impossible, Blake and co have no choice but to fight, but the battle is soon brought to a halt by a bunch of bare-breasted women on a nearby planet, who intend to show the combatants “the meaning of death”. Blake and Jenna are transported to the planet and ordered to fight Travis and his sexy sidekick to the death. The winners will be allowed to go free, the losers’ ship will be destroyed, etc, etc.

Jenna is soon captured and tied up, and the Mutoid, who is feeling a little peckish, begins eying her up as her next meal. But Travis insists on keeping Jenna alive to act as bait for Blake. Needless to say the plan backfires when the Mutoid is forced to snack on local wildlife and finds it disagrees with her. Blake soon rescues Jenna, has Travis at his mercy, refuses to kill him and impresses the bare-breasted women, etc, etc.

That to the best of my knowledge was the last TV adaptation of Frederic Brown’s tale, and it is to this which I now turn.

Carson (who like most SF heroes of that era doesn’t appear to have a first name) is the pilot of a small one-man scout ship on the outskirts of a huge battle fleet that is about engage a fleet of alien vessels. The aliens, known as the Outsiders have been involved with a number of skirmishes with Earth ships and colonies.

All of a sudden Carson finds himself naked in a small enclosed, circular area. His opponent is a red, tentacled sphere about three foot across, which he refers to as a Roller. A voice informs him that the stakes are rather higher than those that will one day be set for Kirk, Koenig and Blake – should he lose the entire human race will be destroyed. The story then develops into a battle between Carson and the Roller, but there is one major difference between Frederic Brown’s short story and all the TV adaptations it inspired.

At the climax of the story, Carson does kill his opponent.

© Christopher Seddon 2008