Tuesday Trekkin’: the Star Trek “Fotonovels.”

To the surprise of perhaps no one, my most recent attempt at an “irregularly recurring” blog feature has unfolded pretty much in keeping with my master plan. It’s been four months since the last installment of “Tuesday Trekkin’,” which at the time I was thinking could be a monthly thing. Sounds like government, amirite?

So, what’s the point of “Tuesday Trekkin’?” It’s basically an excuse for me to wax nostalgic about some facet of old-school Star Trek fandom, merchandise, fond memories of various “milestones” or convention memories or whatever else tickles my fancy on any given day. For this latest entry, I’m reaching up to the top shelf of older books and focusing on twelve little jewels; ambassadors for Star Trek from a truly bygone era.

Covers for Star Trek Fotonovels 1-4.

Published in 1977 and 1978, each of these “Fotonovels” takes an episode of the original Star Trek series and retells it in a neat little hybrid of paperback book, comic book, and film strips (anybody remember film strips from school?). Each installment boasted “300 Full Color Action Scenes” from the selected episode, with dialogue and exposition presented in “comic book style,” with word and thought balloons and so on.

A 2-page spread from Star Trek Fotonovel #1, “City On the Edge of Forever”

The selection of episodes to adapt into Fotonovel form – as well as the order in which each book was released – appears to have been largely random. The 12 installments include six episodes from Star Trek‘s first season, four from its second year, and two from the final season. While most of these rank among my favorite episodes from across the series, prominent installments such as “Arena,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “Mirror, Mirror,” and “The Tholian Web” among others are conspicous in their absence. I mean…an “Arena” Fotonovel? Shut up and take my money.

Perhaps the selected episodes represented favorites of writer Thomas Warkentin, who was tasked with crafting scripts adapting the episodes for the books’ format. Fans of Star Trek comics may recognize Warkentin as one of the writers who later worked on the Star Trek comic strip which appeared in newspapers via the Los Angeles Times Syndicate between 1979 and 1983. For his work on the Fotonovels, he chose the images from each episode and also added captions, thought balloons, and other bits which weren’t present in the episodes themselves or even their original scripts.

The first one of these I remember buying was #4, “A Taste of Armageddon,” sometime in 1978 or 79, when I happened across it in a local department store’s book section. I don’t remember, but I’m sure at least one or two of the Bantam Star Trek novels were also occupying space somewhere on those shelves, along with other popular science fiction and fantasy novels of the day. So, for $1.95 I was able to revisit this particular episode over and over, and of course the hunt began to find the other books in the series…a quest which would not be completed for several years, as I recall. Over the years, the Fotonovel copies I had as a kid deteriorated to the point that a few of them were coming apart, but being an adult generally means having more disposable income, so as circumstances presented themselves I eventually replaced all twelve books with pristine copies lovingly sealed in mylar bags.

“Photo novels,” from what I’ve learned over the years, were fairly popular in other countries as far back as the 1950s (including editions of American TV shows and films), but it seems as though no one attempted the concept in the U.S. until the 1970s. So far as Star Trek is concerned, the Fotonovel was indeed a neat concept, particularly for me as a kid, in the days before home video let alone on-demand streaming.

Other shows and films got the Fotonovel treatment during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Among the “cooler” ones I own are Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the first telemovie for The Incredible Hulk, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as large trade paperback versions for the original Alien film and the movie Outland. However, as VCRs became more common in the 1980s and the costs of printing entire books of slick, glossy, full-color pictures became increasingly ginormous, the concept faded into near-obsolescence.

With the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979, Pocket Books revisited the concept with a “Photostory” book, adapting the film in much the same manner as the original Fotonovels. A similar tome was released in conjunction with the second movie, 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but this time black and white photos on regular paper replaced the glorious full-color glossy pages of Fotonovels past, and the comic-style dialogue and thought balloons were swapped out for captions beneath each photo. As one might imagine, this edition wasn’t quite as well received as its predecessors, but it remains a collector’s item to this day. Both “Photostory” editions were written by Richard J. Anobile, who also was behind several of the other film and TV Fotonovel/”Video Novels” of the time.

I know of a few attempts to resurrect the format in recent years (the Charlie’s Angels film, The Blair Witch Project, and the first Fantastic Four movie), but they didn’t catch on. Why bother with something like this, when the movie’s available for home viewing a few months after it leaves theaters. That’s even more true now, as we’ve moved into the realm of simultaneous releases of films to theaters as well as on-demand streaming.

That said, Star Trek wasn’t quite done with the idea.

In late 2013, IDW Publishing – who currently holds the license to create Star Trek comics – tried an experiment. Legendary comics writer and artist John Byrne, a self-professed fan of the original series, employed photo manipulation and other techniques as he selected images from various episodes of the show to create “Strange New Worlds,” an all-new Star Trek story using these edited and enhanced photos instead of comics. Images from the show, so familiar to so many fans, were inserted into all-new backgrounds and environments generated by Mr. Byrne’s imagination and computer. The story, a sequel to the series’ second pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (and which was – coincedentally – adapted as one of the original Fotonovels), was popular enough and sold enough copies that it spawned its own series of follow-ups.

Published under the umbrella title Star Trek: New Visions, 22 all-new stories were presented by Mr. Byrne in this format between May 2014 and June 2018, along with a special issue adapting the original pilot, “The Cage” released in 2016 as part of celebrating Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary. While several of the issues were sequels to episodes from the series, there also were wholly original tales, each one lovingly constructed using what had to be an intense process of image selection and manipulation to achieve the desired effect. As this usually meant selecting a character with a pose appropriate for the new scene and inserting them into a new panel of Byrne’s creation, part of the fun for readers was trying to guess from which episode a particular character or pose was drawn.

(Okay, maybe it was only fun for me.)

EDIT: Friend and comics guru Rich Handley reminded me that in addition to the 24 “Photonovel” comics, Mr. Byrne also created three special shorter stories. One of these, “Eye of the Beholder,” was included as bonus content to the second Star Trek: New Visions trade paperback collection. The second story, “More of the Serpent Than the Dove,” supported a special online sale of Star Trek digital comics a few years ago. It was later included in the fifth New Visions trade paperback collection. The final short, “Dream A Little Dream,” was included as a bonus in the eighth collection.

There’s no denying the “Fotonovel” is well and truly a relic of Yesteryear, likely appealing only to the older or hardcore collector, but those 12 little gems carry with them many fond memories from my childhood.

That said, if anyone wants to make that “Arena” one…..I’m still here and I’ve still got cash, all right?

10 thoughts on “Tuesday Trekkin’: the Star Trek “Fotonovels.”

  1. I’ve never seen those last four photonovels – quite fun. Back in the day, we fans didn’t have many ways to relive and enjoy this show. If a local station happened to be showing Star Trek in reruns, it was great, but if not, you were out of luck. Today we can watch any episode any time on Netflix or CBS All Access or on Bluray or DVD or … these photonovels were a spectacular way to relive an episode, scene by scene, moment by moment.

    I’ve also liked the John Byrne books, picking up on this photonovel theme. In particular I enjoy the later books which include characters not drawn from the series (presumably friends of his) complete with 1960’s style costumes.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep. If you missed your favorite episodes in the rerun package, you had to wait for them to cycle back in the rotation. These and the Blish adapations helped fill the void. 🙂

      Like

  2. I was disappointed when they stopped at #12. Some of the picks for printing left me scratching my head though… Some of the most popular episodes were overlooked (I.E. The Doomsday Machine, Mirror Mirror, etc.). I was young then. I watch these now with a different perspective but really questioned the choices back then. Still have the set. They’re awesome.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly right, and it’s an experience common to TOS fans of that period. Add in the Technical Manual, the blueprints, the Gold Key comics, The Making of Star Trek, maybe the Inside Star Trek newsletters — these were so important to us.

        Liked by 1 person

Lay it on me.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s