I said it before, I'll say it again: May the new year surprise and delight us all with magic, miracles, abundance, peace, health, joy—and love above all!
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
Today is the 94th birthday of the amazing and inspiring Stan Lee. In his honor, here's a short essay I wrote a few years ago...
Contemporary comic book readers can’t possibly understand how different the 1960’s Marvel Comics were from everything else on the stands. DC’s comics—for all their imagination and artistic flair—were pristine and sculpted, All-American and squeaky clean to the point of being nearly antiseptic: no rough edges, no raw emotions, nothing messy at all. If you looked at the Marvel books, especially in the early days of the line, it was all mess. The covers said it all: lurid colors. Captions screaming for your attention. Oversized word balloons with thick, black borders around them. Artwork so primitive it was frightening. The Marvel Universe was everything an adolescent boy in love with super-heroes and science-fiction could ever ask for. It exploded my imagination—and I’ve been picking up the pieces ever since.
There’s been much debate, down through the decades, about the relative contributions of Stan Lee (who was Marvel’s editor, art director, and head writer in that formative era) and his collaborators. From my perspective, Stan’s contribution was incalculable. Even if, hypothetically, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (both of whom were absolutely essential to the company’s success, it couldn’t have happened without them) plotted every single one of those stories on their own, Stan created the vibe and the mythos of Marvel Comics. He did it with cocky cover copy and the warmth of the Bullpen Bulletins pages, the hilarious footnotes and scripts that managed to be absurdly pseudo-Shakespearean and yet utterly down to earth at the same time. Most important were the absolutely relatable (especially to a boy on the verge of adolescence) characters, constructed of equal parts angst and humor and, most important, heart. Stan put his passion into those pages. They clearly mattered to him, and so they mattered to us, as well.
If Marvel hadn't cast its magic spell over the comic book industry, changing the creative rules of the game, there's a very good chance I would have left comics behind in junior high school (for the record, the first Marvels that hooked me were F.F. #54 and Spider-Man #40, at the tail end of the seventh grade) and never even considered writing them. And I'm sure there are dozens, if not hundreds, of comic book creators who would say something similar. You simply can't underestimate the impact that Stan had—and still has, all these years later.
Happy birthday, Stan! We're blessed to have you!
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 10:11 AM
Saturday, December 24, 2016
I'll be taking a holiday vacation from social media for a few days, so I just want to wish everyone out there a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa and anything else you may be celebrating. May the new year surprise and delight us all with magic, miracles, abundance, peace. health, joy—and love above all!
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 9:32 AM
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Here at Creation Point we have a long-standing Yuletide tradition, a short Christmas tale of mine called The Truth About Santa Claus: offered annually as a kind of cyber Christmas present, my way of wishing all of you who visit this site the happiest of holidays and the most magical of Christmases. I offer it again this year, along with three wonderful illustrations by my friend and Augusta Wind collaborator Vassilis Gogtzilas. So grab a plate of Christmas cookies, pull a chair up close to the fireplace and enjoy.
THE TRUTH ABOUT
“THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS!”
He’d been thinking about it for days—ever since he heard Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo announce it on the school bus—and he didn’t believe a word of it, not one word. (Well, maybe ONE.) But Cody had to be sure, absolutely, positively sure—
—and that’s why he was hiding behind the couch at midnight on Christmas Eve.
His mother was there, asleep in his dad’s old easy chair, the reds and blues of the Christmas tree lights making her look peaceful and happy and impossibly young.
The tree, by the way, had not ONE SINGLE PRESENT underneath it.
That didn’t make sense. If there WAS no Santa Claus, if his mother was the one who bought the presents, wrapped the presents, stacked them under the tree, then how come she hadn’t done it? How come she wasn’t awake RIGHT NOW arranging them all?
He got scared. Maybe there wasn’t going to BE a Christmas this year. Maybe Mom had lost her job and they didn’t have any money and so she COULDN’T buy him any presents and—
And then Cody glanced over at the windows and noticed that it was snowing.
Or was it?
If that was snow, it was the WHITEST snow he’d ever seen. It was snow as bright as moonbeams, as bright as sunlight, as bright as...
Quickly, but quietly (he didn’t want to wake his mother), he scurried to the window and looked out.
It was coming down and coming down and COMING DOWN all across town, whirling and whipping, spinning and gyrating, out of the night sky. Glowing so brightly that it almost hurt his eyes to look at it. And Cody saw that it certainly wasn’t snow, and it absolutely wasn’t rain, it wasn’t ANYTHING he’d ever seen before. But each drop, no...each flake, no... each BALL of glowing WHATEVER IT WAS, seemed to pulse and spin, soar and vibrate, as if it were alive.
And the stuff, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS (and he knew now that it was magic. He just KNEW), wasn’t collecting on the streets, wasn’t piling up on the rooftops. It was MELTING INTO (that’s the only way he could put it: MELTING INTO) every house (no matter how small) and apartment building (no matter how big).
EVERY house and apartment building.
He looked up.
And there it was: coming RIGHT THROUGH THE CEILING of Apartment 3F, HIS apartment, swirling, like a tornado of light, around the chandelier and then down, down, down—
—STRAIGHT FOR HIS MOTHER.
At first he almost yelled out a warning, “Mom! Wake up! MOM!” But something made him stop.
Instead of yelling he ducked back behind the couch and watched, eyes peering over the top.
Watched as the light-tornado wheeled around his mother, so fast, so bright, that he could hardly even SEE her. But he COULD see her. Most of her, anyway.
And what he SAW...
The light poured in through the top of her head, through her eyes, through her chest, through her toes. It lifted her up—still sleeping!—and carried her out of her chair and across the room. And as she floated—
—she started to change:
Her hair became white, her nose became red, her belly ballooned like the most pregnant woman in the history of the world. Her feet grew boots, her head grew a hat, her nightgown grew fur. An overstuffed sack sprouted, like a lumpy angel’s wing, from her shoulder. And then—
AndthenandthenandTHEN, it wasn’t his mother there at all, it was him, it was SANTA CLAUS! STANDING RIGHT THERE IN CODY’S LIVING ROOM! Santa Claus who, with a laugh (exactly like the laugh Cody always knew he had, only better) and a twinkle in his eyes (exactly like the twinkle he’d always imagined, ONLY BETTER) reached into his sack and pulled out package after package, present after present, and placed them, carefully, like some Great Artist contemplating his masterpiece, under the tree.
When he was done, Santa Claus stood there, grinning and shaking his head, as if he couldn’t BELIEVE what a beautiful tree this was, how wonderful the presents looked beneath it. As if this moment was the greatest moment in the history of Christmas, as if this apartment was the only place in all the universes that such a Christmas could ever POSSIBLY happen.
And then the MOST amazing thing happened:
Santa Claus turned.
He turned slowly. So slowly Cody couldn’t even tell at first that he was moving at all. And—slowly, SLOWLY—those twinkling eyes, that Smile of smiles, fixed itself on the two boy-eyes peering, in wonder, over the top of the couch.
And what Cody felt then he could never really say: only that it was better than any present anyone could ever get. Only that it made his heart so warm it melted like magical WHATEVER IT WAS, trickling down through his whole body. Only that it made him want to reach out his arms and hug Santa Claus, hug his mother, hug his father (and FORGIVE him too, for running out on them) and his aunts and uncles and cousins (even his Cousin Erskine who was SUCH a pain) and Big Mouth Jenny Rizzo (who really wasn’t so bad most of the time) and all his friends and teachers and the kid in his karate class who always smelled SO BAD and, embarrassing as it sounds, it made him want to hug everyone and everything in the whole world including rabbits and snakes and trees and lizards and grass and lions and mountains and, yes, the EARTH HERSELF.
Cody wanted to hold that gaze, to keep his eyes locked on Santa’s, forever. (Or longer, if he could.) Wanted to swim in that incredible feeling, drown in it, till GOD HIMSELF came down to say: “Enough!”
Except that he blinked. Just once. But in that wink of an eye, Santa was gone. Cody’s mother was asleep in the chair again and, for one terrible moment, the boy thought that the whole thing must have been a dream.
Except, under the tree: THERE WERE THE PRESENTS.
Except, out the window: THERE WAS THE SNOW, the rain, the magical WHATEVER IT WAS, shooting up, like a blizzard in reverse, from every house, every apartment building. Shooting up into the heavens, gathering together like a fireball, like a white-hot comet—
—and fading away into the night: going, going...
Without so much as a tinkling sleigh-bell or a “Ho-ho-ho.”
Not that it mattered.
Cody looked at his mom.
Cody kissed her.
“I love you,” he said. And he was crying. Happy tears. Christmas tears. Like moonbeams, like sunlight. Like stardust.
Mom stirred in the chair, smiled the softest sweetest smile Cody had ever seen. “I love you, too,” she said.
And then she drifted back to sleep.
Cody sat at her feet, warming himself, warming his SOUL, by the lights of the tree.
And soon, he, too, was drifting off to sleep. And as he drifted, a wonderful thought rose up, like a balloon, inside him. Rose, then POPPED—spreading the thought to every corner of his mind. Giving him great comfort. Great delight:
“One day,” the thought whispered, “when you’re all grown-up, when you have children of your own. ONE DAY,” the thought went on...
“It will be YOUR TURN.”
Story ©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Art ©copyright 2016 Vassilis Gogtzilas
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 3:21 PM
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
Thirty-nine years ago this month—and, yes, it astonishes me to write those words—I sold my first comic book script to a ridiculously young, and ridiculously gifted, DC Comics editor named Paul Levitz. Here's an edited, and slightly updated, version of the story (last shared here back in 2011) of how that happened.
Comic books were a passion that grabbed me at a very early age (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: I don’t recall a time when I didn’t read comics) and never let go. Sure, I moved on to Dostoyevsky, Bradbury, Hesse and Vonnegut but I never abandoned Lee, Kirby, Broome, Kane and the other comic book masters who inspired and nurtured me growing up.
I was always creative, obsessed with drawing, playing guitar, writing stories and songs. In many ways, these things weren’t just my passions, they were what defined me. They were me. Which meant I didn't just want to read comics, I wanted to write them—as desperately as I wanted to be a rock and roll star. (I’ll save the story of my musical adventures for another time, but if anyone’s interested in hearing some of my songs, feel free to click here or here to check out my l997 CD, How Many Lifetimes?)
I made several aborted attempts to enter the comic book business before my success with the legendary Mr. Levitz (who was, I think, all of twenty at the time. He’d been working at DC since high school): Five years earlier, I’d written a script sample and sent it to Marvel Comics. I had no clue what a comic book script looked like and I’m sure that what I submitted was less-than brilliant. The assistant editor who read my sample thought so, too, and told me just that, in no uncertain terms. (I’ve learned, over the years, that it’s important to encourage new talent regardless of the face value of their work. Even if the samples you’re evaluating are abysmal, you have to find something encouraging to say. Humans—especially the sensitive, neurotic, artistic variety—desperately need encouragement. The smallest crumb of kindness becomes a mountain of hope. I suspect that nameless assistant editor was overwhelmed, having a rough day, and he simply couldn’t bear to plow through yet another wretched submission. But he could have made my day much brighter by simply saying, “You’re not there yet, kid, but keep at it. Don’t give up.”)
A year or two later, DC began a short-lived apprentice program: a rare opportunity for novices to be trained by seasoned pros in the craft of writing for comics. Aspiring writers were encouraged to submit their work and those with the best submissions would be chosen for the program. (David Michelinie—a wonderful writer who went on to script Spider-Man, Iron Man, Avengers, Superman and many other titles—got his start as a DC apprentice). I decided to write a Justice League script, a fact I now find hilarious: Team books are difficult for even the most experienced writer—I don’t think I’ve ever mastered the form—but there I was, nineteen years old, and ready to give it my all.
I didn’t make it into the program—frankly, I didn’t deserve to—but I received some extremely helpful feedback from a woman on the DC staff named Val Eades. It was the first time I was encouraged by a professional and it meant the world to me. Understand: I was just some kid from Brooklyn who grew up in a lower middle class family. My father worked for the New York City Parks Department, raking leaves and shoveling snow in a local park. My mother was a switchboard operator. Growing up, I’d never encountered anyone even vaguely resembling a professional writer or artist. (My best friend’s older brother was a working musician, part of a Las Vegas lounge act: that was the closest I ever came to hobnobbing with the rich and famous.) Making it as a writer seemed about as easy as scaling the Monolith from Kubrick’s 2001. Which is why that small encouragement from Val Eades was so important to me. (Ms. Eades, if you’re out there, God bless you!)
A few years later, a fellow student, and comic book fanatic, at Brooklyn College—his name was Warren Reece—actually made it over the Monolith: he got a job at Marvel, working in the production department. Warren, very kindly, submitted some of my material to the folks at Marvel Editorial, but I never received a response (which, in some ways, was worse than being rejected). Warren then encouraged me to submit some samples to Crazy magazine (Marvel’s attempt at a Mad-style humor publication...although I don’t think Mad was worried). Truth is, I had no interest in writing for Crazy—I possessed zero skills in that arena—but, miraculously, editor Paul Laikin bought one of my pitches and, even more miraculously, I got a check in the mail with Spider-Man’s picture on it. (So blessings to Mr. Laikin and Mr. Reece both.) I’d hoped that selling something to Crazy would get me an “in” with the comic book side of Marvel, but it didn’t. Still, it allowed me to say that I was a (kinda/sorta/maybe/but not really) professional.
Not long after that, I sent another batch of samples to DC. (I still have them filed away in my office: a Superman script, a Plastic Man script, and an original piece called Stardust—which was a very raw prototype for what would, seven or eight years later, evolve into Moonshadow.) I got a letter back from Somebody's Assistant saying, "We're not going to buy Superman scripts from a writer we've never heard of, but Paul Levitz is looking for material for House of Mystery and Weird War Tales." These were two of the many anthology comics that DC was publishing then. I never read those titles, hardly knew they existed, but you can bet I ran out and bought a stack of them, devoured them, and quickly (perhaps too quickly) developed some story ideas that I mailed off to Paul.
Paul’s reply, dated August 22, 1977 (yep, that's still in the files, too), very politely, succinctly—and accurately—tore my stories to shreds. The last line was a classic: "You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future, but I suggest you use a professional typing service or type more slowly. The physical presentation of your manuscripts leaves something to be desired.” He was right: This was the troglodytic era before computers and, in my hunger and enthusiasm, I had crossed things out, scrawled in the margins, written up and down the sides of the paper.
Paul’s criticism didn’t bother me. The only thing that mattered was that wondrous phrase, “You’re welcome to submit more ideas in the future.” Which is what I immediately did: submitted again (and again) until, finally—this must have been November of that year—I made an appointment to go up to the DC offices (a thrill in itself) and meet with Paul. I remember sitting across the desk from him, nervous and intimidated, pitching ideas. When Paul actually liked one of my stories and asked me to work up a draft, I had a moment of dizzying, euphoric confusion: Wait a minute...WAIT a minute! Is he saying he actually wants me to WRITE THIS?!
The story in question—which eventually saw print in House of Mystery—was called (brace yourselves) "The Lady Killer Craves Blood." (I warned you.) It was based on the Son of Sam killings that had traumatized New York the previous summer. In my version, the Sam-like maniac murders a woman, not knowing that her husband is a (what a brilliant twist!) vampire. The vampire then hunts down the serial killer and, still mourning his lost love, submits himself to the obliterating rays of the morning sun. All in eight pages!
A week or so later, back to DC I went, script in hand, ready for Paul's dissection of my work. "No more than five panels per page," he wrote, on a piece of yellow lined paper (I've got that in the files, too), "no more than thirty-five words per panel, no more than two sentences per caption, clear transitional captions, don't forget your splash panel." I raced home, wrote another draft, incorporating Paul’s suggestions (well, as far as I was concerned, they were orders. My philosophy in those early days was simple: the editor is always right. I didn’t want to argue, I wanted to learn) and then, to my astonishment and delight, the next time we met, he bought it. What came next was one of the greatest moments of my professional life: Paul shook my hand, looked me square in the eye and said, "Welcome to the business."
I didn't need the D-train. I could have floated back to Brooklyn.
It took a few more years of struggle, elation, depression and head-banging to get regular work that I could actually depend on (for one thing, I had to survive the infamous DC Implosion that rocked the comics world six months after that first sale), but "The Lady Killer Craves Blood" was the Big Breakthrough and I have Paul to thank for it. He was a busy guy, he didn't have to take the time to guide an overeager newcomer, possessed of raw talent but very little skill, through the comic book maze. That he did take the time speaks volumes about the man. Please picture me bowing, elegantly, in sincere gratitude.
So here I sit, almost forty years on, looking back on a career that has allowed me to write most of Marvel and DC’s iconic characters (from Spider-Man to the Justice League) and birth original visions from the deepest, truest parts of my soul (from Moonshadow to Brooklyn Dreams to Augusta Wind). Just as important, my work in comics has opened magical doors into the worlds of television, film and children’s books. The journey hasn’t always been easy—some of it has been incredibly difficult—but I’m grateful for every bit of it. All of which, I suppose, is my long-winded way of reiterating advice I've offered before (and I'll no doubt offer again):
Don’t get sidetracked by practicality. You’re a writer. If you were practical you’d be doing something else. Let your passions carry you forward and don’t listen to the Naysayers and the Practical People who are always around to tell you exactly why your dreams can never be realized. I’m here to tell you that your dreams CAN be realized, if you pursue them with all your heart. FOLLOW YOUR BLISS.
If it worked for this clueless kid from Brooklyn, it’ll work for anyone.
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 12:53 PM
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Monday, December 5, 2016
Back in the early 80s, I wrote a story, in Captain America #292, where Cap (embodiment of the modern spirit of America) faced off against Black Crow (the embodiment of Native America). The battle reached its climax when Cap realized that violence would never end their conflict, which had roots going back hundreds of years; so he laid down his shield and bowed before Black Crow as a way for the New America to seek forgiveness for its sins against the First America. The pair then embraced and (in comic books, at least) a new day dawned for our country. (My plan was to eventually have Black Crow become Captain America, but that, sadly, never came to pass.)
What happened Sunday at Standing Rock, when a group of veterans, led by Wesley Clark, Jr, knelt before the native elders to ask their forgiveness for our nation's treatment of their people, reminded me of that old story—but, of course, so much more powerful and soul-shaking, and so vibrant with hope, because it's real. (You can see video of this incredible moment here.)
Captain America and Black Crow would be pleased.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 7:50 PM
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
A quote from Ram Das keeps coming to mind as we enter this new chapter in the American story: “You may protest if you can love the person you are protesting against as much as you love yourself." I'm not that evolved, if only I was!, but it's certainly a worthy challenge, a goal worth aiming for.
Some healthy, focused anger (and, yes, I believe you can be angry and remain rooted in love) can ground us in our personal power, give us the courage to speak truth to power; but hate consumes everyone and everything, leaving nothing in its wake but scorched earth and shattered hearts. As Buddha said: "Never in this world has hate ever cast out hate. Love alone wins over hate."
We don't always see it mirrored in the Big Events—there's just too much noise, too much shouting and shaking of fists—but in our day to day lives, in our one-on-one interactions, love and compassion are the most vital, valuable and transformative qualities we can cultivate. And if the microcosm is the macrocosm, then every act of compassion and love, no matter how small, how seemingly insignificant, will echo out into the wider world.
One more quote, from Avatar Meher Baba: "Love is essentially self-communicative; those who do not have it catch it from those who have it. Those who receive love from others cannot be its recipients without giving a response that, in itself, is the nature of love. True love is unconquerable and irresistible. It goes on gathering power and spreading itself until eventually it transforms everyone it touches."
Even if that's not true—I believe it is, but even if it's not—I would rather live my life choosing love over hate, compassion over division. Even if it's just a dream—what a beautiful dream it is.
There are spiritual traditions that say the entire universe is a dream. If that's so, then perhaps a collective dream of love can actually transmute (so-called) reality and change the world for the better.
Worth a try, isn't it?
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 8:11 AM
Friday, November 11, 2016
Just finished a post-election detox with two days off social media and a twenty-four hour news fast. A powerful way to remember that there is a truer, deeper reality than the one the media feeds us on a daily basis. There is something far more beautiful, and far more transformative, hidden beneath the skin of the world; and, by grounding ourselves in that deeper reality, we are better equipped to deal with the dance of illusion that we so often take to be reality.
I need to make this part of my regular regime.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 10:44 AM
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Now, more than ever, we owe it to ourselves, to our families, to our world, to seek, and nurture, the light that unites us all. As Avatar Meher Baba said, "You and I are not we, but One." It may be hard to find that light right now; but I believe, to the bottom of my soul, that it's there.
And, with that, I'm taking a social media vacation for a few days.
And, with that, I'm taking a social media vacation for a few days.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 9:22 AM
Friday, October 14, 2016
The Adventures of Augusta Wind: The Last Story has turned into one of the most creatively satisfying, and joyful, projects of my career. It's hard to break through the wall of Big Two Superheroes with personal projects like this, so I hope folks that have enjoyed my work (especially books like Moonshadow and Abadazad) will give Augusta a chance. Second issue is on sale now, so it's a good time to jump on. And you can find a preview of the third issue right here. (And, yes, I realize I hyped this a couple of posts back, but this series really mean a lot to me.)
Update: If you prefer digital to print, the fine folks at Comixology are having a 50% off sale on all IDW books, including Augusta.
Update: If you prefer digital to print, the fine folks at Comixology are having a 50% off sale on all IDW books, including Augusta.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 1:36 PM
Sunday, October 9, 2016
As anyone who has followed this site for more than five minutes knows, no musician has impacted my life more powerfully, and more permanently, than John Lennon. His extraordinary songs—which form the greatest musical autobiography in rock and roll—shine on, speaking to our world today as powerfully as they did all those years ago. Happy birthday, John.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 1:35 PM
Friday, October 7, 2016
Next, a gentle reminder that the second issue of The Adventures of Augusta Wind: The Last Story is on sale now. I loved working on the first Augusta series with my wildly-talented collaborator, Vassilis Gogtzilas, but this second series, which wraps up Augusta's epic story, has been one of the most exhilarating creative experiences I've had in years. It's hard for originals like this to make their way across an ocean filled with Marvel and DC relaunches and licensed books based on hit movies and TV shows, so I'd love it if folks could spread the word about this series. If you enjoyed Moonshadow or Abadazad (to name two), I think you'll enjoy this.
My final convention appearance of the year is coming up in November, in Bangalore, India. It's been eleven years since my last trip to that magical country and this one promises to be very special, on so many levels. Really looking forward to it.
And, finally, let me point you toward the Hollywood Reporter, where they list their choices for "The 100 Greatest Superhero Comics." Both Justice League International and Kraven's Last Hunt made the list and, however arbitrary these things can seem, it always feels good to be remembered and appreciated. One of the things I liked about this particular list is that it includes some unexpected, and worthy, choices. Check it out.
This concludes today's gallimaufry. To paraphrase The Outer Limits, we now return control of your computers to you.
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 10:25 AM
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Much has been written about Star Trek in its fiftieth anniversary year and I couldn’t resist adding my voice to the many celebrating this world-changing, pop culture phenomenon. Since it was the so-called Original Series that kicked things off, and since I am firmly in the TOS camp, I’ve decided to list my favorite episodes from that groundbreaking show in chronological order. Please note, I say favorite, not best. Some of my favorites might be your designated clunkers and vice-versa. Please feel free to chime in, via the comments section, and let me know your top picks. (And, yes, this list could easily have been twice as long, but I had to stop somewhere.)
“Pilot: The Cage”
It plays more like a television version of the 50’s classic Forbidden Planet, but Roddenberry’s first Trek pilot—starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike—is a challenging and, for its time, mind-bending excursion not only into the deeps of space, but the deeps of human consciousness. Spock’s on board, but there’s an emotional vacuum here only William Shatner and DeForest Kelley could fill.
“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
Star Trek is still finding its feet in this second pilot—for one thing, there’s no McCoy, a vital ingredient to the show’s success—but Shatner and Nimoy have instant chemistry, the Kirk and Spock relationship hitting the ground running. One might say that the death of Kirk’s old friend Gary Mitchell, played by 2001’s Gary Lockwood, opened the door to the friendship that would blossom between the captain and his first officer. This episode also laid the groundwork for 1989’s much-maligned Star Trek V (a movie I’m very fond of, warts and all), with the introduction of the Great Barrier and its connection to god-like entities. It would have been something if, instead of the God-Thing the Enterprise faced in the film, Kirk had encountered a reanimated Gary Mitchell on Sha Ka Ree.
“The Enemy Within"
Written by Twilight Zone’s Richard Matheson. A transporter accident divides Kirk into two halves: one good, one evil. The science is shaky, even for Star Trek, but Shatner is having such a great time playing the dark side of Captain Kirk’s personality—and we’re having such a great time watching him—that it really doesn’t matter. “I’m Captain Kirk!!” Yes, you are.
“A Taste of Armageddon"
A prescient episode about technology’s ability to blind us to the horrors of war, this episode also features one of the great Captain Kirk speeches: “Yes, we’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” Once again, the Shakespearean-trained Shatner delivers the goods and, once again, Star Trek takes pulp adventure and illuminates it with Big Truths.
“The Squire of Gothos"
Trek always does well when Kirk is facing a strong antagonist and Trelane—given life by the wonderful William Campbell—is one of the best: an all-powerful cosmic brat who can bend reality to his will. Campbell returned to Trek as Klingon Captain Koloth in “The Trouble With Tribbles,” while Roddenberry would eventually evolve Trelane into The Next Generation’s Q.
“This Side of Paradise”
Written by the great D.C. Fontana, “Paradise” gives us a touching love story for Mr. Spock and the beautiful botanist Leila Kalomii (Jill Ireland), staged against the backdrop of an intriguing science-fiction mystery (“What are those mysterious spores and how do we stop them?”). And it’s all topped with a classic Kirk-Spock fight—with Shatner taunting a confused, then wildly angry, Nimoy. Star Trek always had a knack for memorable closing scenes and the closer of "Paradise," where Spock says “For the first time in my life, I was happy,” ranks with the best of them. Directed by Trek’s most lyrical director, Ralph Senensky.
“Errand of Mercy”
As both a producer and writer, Gene L. Coon was as invaluable to Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry. Coon brought humor and heart to the series—and he also brought the Klingons, who make their first appearance here (with the great John Colicos as Kor, perhaps the best Klingon baddie of them all). The story is about the futility of war, the stupidity of racial hatred, and our potential to transcend both (in the case of the Organians, the transcendence is literal, as they leave physical form behind to become beings of light). A great episode, capped by the powerful moment when Kirk and Kor both realize—to their mutual embarrassment—how passionately they’re arguing for a war that neither of them wants.
“The City on the Edge of Forever”
The most celebrated episode of Star Trek—and rightly so. The story originated with science fiction titan Harlan Ellison, then went through the typewriters of Roddenberry, Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana. The result is a powerful story of love, loss, duty and heartbreaking sacrifice. Shatner’s finest TV performance as Kirk—only matched by his movie performance in Wrath of Khan. Joan Collins totally embodies the captain's love interest, Edith Keeler—a smart, sexy visionary who’s Kirk’s equal in every way—and DeForest Kelley shines as a drugged, disoriented McCoy, lost in a past he can’t understand.
A superb performance by Leonard Nimoy anchors a story that takes us into the bubbling, boiling depths of the Vulcan’s heart and soul and also gives us our first glimpse of Spock’s homeworld. What’s wonderful about the teleplay, credited to science-fiction great Theodore Sturgeon, is that, despite being a Spock-centric story, we get an illuminating look at the Kirk-Spock-McCoy relationship. More than anything, this episode is about friendship—and there have rarely been three greater fictional friends than Trek’s classic triumvirate. And let's not forget that incredible fight between Kirk and Spock—and the equally-incredible musical score by Gerald Fried.
Written by Jerome Bixby. A parallel universe! Spock with a beard! The Agony Booth! One of the great things about this episode—directed by I Love Lucy’s Marc Daniels (who was behind the camera for an impressive fifteen Trek episodes)—is that it gives the entire cast a chance to shine, something that rarely happened in a series primarily focused on Kirk, Spock and McCoy. We also get to meet one of Captain Kirk’s most intriguing love interests, Lt. Marlena Moreau—played to seductive perfection by Barbara Luna. Too bad they never followed up with Moreau’s double, introduced in the show’s final scene. She would have been a fascinating addition to the cast.
The tale of Zefram Cochrane, creator of the warp drive, and the ethereal creature called The Companion is one of strangest and most beautiful love stories in all of Star Trek. Directed with grace and elegance by Ralph Senensky, from a script by Gene L. Coon, the show also features Elinor Donahue as Commissioner Nancy Hedford, who becomes the Companion’s living vessel. Since Donahue’s mother on the 50’s sitcom Father Knows Best was played by Jane Wyatt, who also played Spock’s mother in “Journey to Babel,” does that mean that Hedford and Spock are related?
“Journey to Babel"
Written by D.C. Fontana. Another Spock-centric classic, this time introducing the Vulcan’s parents—played by "Balance of Terror's" Mark Lenard and the aforementioned TV ubermom Jane Wyatt—in a storyline that gives us family dysfunction, political intrigue, a climactic space battle and also introduces the blue-skinned, antennaed Andorians.
“The Trouble with Tribbles”
Tribbles! And more Tribbles! And still more Tribbles! Need I say more? Only that this episode—one of Trek’s most popular—is further proof that Shatner is a supremely gifted comic actor. But, really, the entire cast handles the comedy with just the right balance of absurdity and gravity. This is the first Star Trek script—and the first television sale—for David Gerrold, who went on to become an award-winning novelist and was also pivotal to the development of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“A Piece of the Action”
“Tribbles” may be the most celebrated of Trek’s humorous episodes, but “A Piece of the Action”—which posits an entire planet modeled on Chicago mobs of the 1930’s—is my favorite. Shatner’s in his element, hamming it up (in the best possible way) as the gangsterfied (or is that gangsterized?) Kirk—and he and Nimoy have such great comedic chemistry together that they could have been spun-off into their own half-hour space sitcom.
“Return to Tomorrow”
The story about ancient aliens—reduced to glowing orbs of pure consciousness—inhabiting the bodies of Kirk, Spock (Nimoy’s clearly having a blast playing a mischievous bad guy) and recurring guest star Diana Muldaur is fun, but it’s Kirk’s unforgettable “risk is our business” soliloquy—delivered with passion and power by William Shatner—that lifts this episode into the classic. The speech, written by Gene Roddenberry, encapsulates the essence of Trek. “Risk is our business…that’s what this starship is all about…that’s why we’re aboard her.”
“Spectre of the Gun”
Written by Gene L. Coon (using the pseudonym Lee Cronin). Let’s face it: this episode could have ended up as silly as “Spock’s Brain.” (If you don’t know what that is, count yourself lucky.) Instead it plays like a Trek episode set in The Twilight Zone, as Kirk and Company find themselves in a surreal and disturbing version of the Old West, heading ineluctably toward a replay of the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. This episode proves that—despite budget cuts and other problems—Season Three of Star Trek had its share of classics to go along with the stinkers.
“Day of the Dove”
Written by Jerome Bixby. Yes, it’s all way over the top—there’s so much scenery-chewing in this episode, it’s amazing there were any sets left—but this story about the power of blind hatred, and our ability to ultimately move beyond it, still resonates. And Michael Ansara’s Kang is yet another great Klingon antagonist: his arrogance and hubris balanced by an underlying humanity.
“The Tholian Web"
Kirk’s dead. Or is he? While the captain floats around the Enterprise, trapped in other-dimensional space, Spock and McCoy are at each other’s throats, Uhura’s having visions, and one of the series’ coolest special effects wraps itself around the ship. “The Tholian Web” provides a great window into the Kirk-Spock-McCoy troika, especially in the moving scene where the doctor and first officer listen to Kirk’s “posthumous” message.
No doubt the limited sets were a result of budget-cutting, a way to make the episode as cheaply as possible, but the result—featuring nearly bare, dark stages illuminated by eerie shafts of light—is a bizarre, disturbing episode that plays like German Expressionism, by way of Orson Welles. “The Empath” is a tale of pain and, ultimately, compassion and it all hinges on Kathryn Hays’ portrayal of the mute alien named Gem. It’s a delicate, genuinely moving performance.
“Requiem For Methuselah”
James Daly is superb as the world-weary immortal Flint and Louise Sorel is heartbreaking as his android creation, Rayna. Yes, Kirk and Rayna fall in love with alarming (one might even say ridiculous) speed—a staple not just of Star Trek but of 60’s TV in general—but the emotions ring true nonetheless. The final scene, with a lost and vulnerable Kirk, a soliloquizing McCoy and a tender Spock, seeking to ease his captain’s pain, is one of the finest in the series. “Forget,” Spock whispers—but we can’t. The moment still resonates, almost fifty years later.
And, just for fun, here’s my ranking of movies with the original cast. It’s a wildly-uneven film series, but I always find something to enjoy, maybe even love, in all these movies:
6. Star Trek The Motion Picture
I’ll never forget the looks of disappointment and bewilderment on my friends’ faces as we emerged from a Manhattan movie theater in 1979. Still, we did get to see Kirk, Spock and McCoy again—even if they didn’t quite seem like their old selves. I’ve been re-editing this movie in my head since it came out. I still think there’s a far better film in there, waiting to emerge.
5. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
There are wonderful pieces in Leonard Nimoy’s first directorial effort, but the whole is a little too quiet, too restrained, too…Vulcan. Search for Spock also undoes Wrath of Khan’s forward momentum, resetting the status quo that TWOK so expertly blew up.
4. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
There are major problems with tone (is this a serious science-fiction film or The Three Stooges in Space?), and the finale leaves much to be desired, but The Final Frontier gives us great character moments—DeForest Kelly was never better than in the scene where McCoy relives his father’s death—and its heart is definitely in the right place. Cut down to an hour, William Shatner’s directorial debut would have made an excellent television episode.
3. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Director, and co-screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer doesn’t hit the heights of his Wrath of Khan, but he does provide a thoroughly-enjoyable send-off for the original crew. And it’s great fun to see the great Christopher Plummer gobble up scenery as the Klingon General, Chang.
2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Leonard Nimoy, directing from a script by Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, gives us a goofy story about going back in time and saving the whales in order to save the future. Only thing is it doesn’t seem goofy in the least. The Voyage Home is a comedy rooted in character (the Enterprise crew has rarely been as relatable as they are when they’re wandering around 1980’s San Francisco) and perhaps the single most entertaining Trek movie.
1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
"Khaaaaaaann!!" More than thirty years later, Nicholas Meyer’s Wrath of Khan remains the Citizen Kane of Trek movies. An epic—yet surprisingly intimate—story about friendship, loss, aging, death and spiritual rebirth, the film gives us a Captain Kirk who has never been more more vulnerable, more three-dimensionally human (it’s one of Shatner’s greatest performances) and provides a towering antagonist in Ricardo Montalban’s Khan. Spock’s death scene showcases the incredible chemistry between Nimoy and Shatner: Gene Roddenberry clearly knew what he was doing when he put these two together back in 1966.
©copyright 2016 J.M. DeMatteis
Posted by J.M. DeMatteis at 5:55 PM