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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #1-6 – Errand of War! (Review)

This July, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

After Marvel lost the Star Trek license in 1982, there was a period where no monthly Star Trek comics were being published. One of the consequences of this was that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan didn’t receive an official comic book adaptation, until IDW decided to go back and fill in the blanks in 2009. Eventually, DC comics managed to secure the license for Star Trek comics, and they began publishing in 1984, the year that saw the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. DC would maintain the license into the mid-nineties, making it one of the most stable licensing agreements ever reached about Star Trek comics.

Unlike Marvel’s 1979 agreement with Paramount, DC reached an agreement that allowed them full access to the Star Trek mythology. Marvel had been restricted to using characters and concepts from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a rather restrictive agreement. In contrast, DC had access to the whole of the Star Trek canon. Indeed, reading Mike Barr and Tom Sutton’s run on Star Trek, it seems like their opening six issues were designed to showcase the sheer breadth of continuity available to them.

At the same time, Barr’s scripts have a pulpy charm that makes them highly enjoyable, even as trying to tell an unfolding Star Trek story set between the events of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock seems ill-advised.

Warp speed ahead...

Warp speed ahead…

What’s interesting about Barr’s early issues of the Star Trek tie-in comic is how tightly they are woven together. They are, in effect, a serialised narrative. Even if the primary story of the Klingon/Federation War wraps up in four issues, the effects linger on. The two following issues are dedicated to cleaning up after the mess – the Enterprise trying its best to maintain a fragile peace agreed in the wake of a brutal conflict.

This sort of continuity was completely unheard of in Star Trek up until this point. The television series had aired a single two-part episode, and even that was more the result of necessity than intent. References were very rarely made to earlier episodes, and characters recurred infrequently. There was no real sense of episode-to-episode continuity, and most episodes could have been broadcast in just about any order and been followed with relative ease.

There's Klingons off the starboard bow!

There’s Klingons off the starboard bow!

Oddly enough, the live action Star Trek franchise only embraced serialisation when it moved from to the big screen. Perhaps this was a result of the success of the Star Wars films, demonstrating an audience for large-scale big-budget serialised science-fiction. Perhaps it was simply a necessity dictated by Leonard Nimoy’s decisions concerning Spock. Either way, the second through fourth Star Trek films represent the first properly serialised narrative in Star Trek history, with events from each echoing into the next.

So Barr narrowly beat them to the punch. Star Trek comics had done multi-part stories before, but those multi-part stories tended to self-contained – much like the episodes themselves. Consequences rarely rippled from one story into the next, with no sense of how the events in question were impacting or shaping the wider Star Trek universe. Barr’s Star Trek comics feel like a single story unfolding across multiple chapters. Events have consequences, and the Enterprise crew deal with those consequences.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

According to Mike Barr’s essay in the back of the first issue, this is due to editor Marv Wolfman. Wolfman had written the comic book adaptation of The Motion Picture, and was clearly a Star Trek fan. More than that, though, Wolfman was an experienced comic book writer whose work tended to fit that long-form serialised “chapter of a larger work” model:

“Don’t be bound by the television format,” said Marv (who by now wanted to be called “Admiral Wolfman”), “take the characters, the concepts, the universe, but do comic book stories, with comic book pacing, sub-plots, even continued stories. That,” he intoned, dramatically, “is your Prime Directive. Beam me up, Scotty.”

It’s something that immediately set Barr’s work apart from many of his predecessors, and gave this volume of Star Trek a unique flavour. This feels like a genuinely epic story, reflecting the transition that Star Trek itself had made between television and cinema – moving towards larger and more sweeping narratives.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

Of course, there’s a strange irony to all this. The cinematic Star Trek was already in the middle of its own sweeping epic story. So trying to set a comic between the events of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock seemed like an ambitious piece of work – particularly since The Search for Spock was well into production by the time the series was launched, and everybody involved knew it began hours after the end of The Wrath of Khan.

One of the more interesting – and amusing – aspects of DC’s first Star Trek comic series was watching the comic trying to keep in step with the continuity of the films. Logistically speaking, this comic can’t be unfolding in the same universe; but occasionally Barr will slip in references to the Excelsior or something similar, just to reinforce the connection. The series would contort and bend to try to keep in step with the big-screen adventures of the Enterprise crew, often struggling to do so.

Kor values...

Kor values…

These are not comics that you can give to a continuity-obsessed Star Trek fan. They obviously don’t fit. It’s not quite as awkward a fit as the infamous Gold Key Comics from the sixties, but there’s a sense that we’re watching some strange alternate Star Trek that broke off after the end credits of The Wrath of Khan and became its own unique world with its own unique rules to enforce and stories to tell. That’s part of the fun of all this.

That said, Barr does lean a little bit too heavily on continuity. His opening four issues are a gigantic homage to the episodes Errand of Mercy and The Savage Curtain, featuring a wealth of returning faces and references to established continuity. Kirk casually drops a reference to Tycho IV from Obsession. Koloth from The Trouble With Tribbles commits suicide. Kor teams up with Kirk, quoting Kang from Day of the Dove. At one point, a broadcast is received from “Kahless IV, Emperor of All Klingons.”

An Organian's home is his castle...

An Organian’s home is his castle…

The sixth issue – a stand alone tale in the wake of the Federation/Klingon War – features the return of Robert Fox, “ambassador-at-large” from A Taste of Armegeddon, and the shape-shifting technique used by Garth from Whom the Gods Destroy. It is also a gigantic plot reference to Journey to Babel, as the Enterprise’s escort mission to Babel is disrupted by an Orion agent who sneaks on board disguised as an Andorian – and a domestic drama plays out in the background. Barr clearly loves his Star Trek.

However, it’s the smaller and sweeter references that resonate best. Reflecting on Spock’s birthday gift from The Wrath of Khan, Kirk reflects, “… a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever –“ Acknowledging a deleted scene from The Wrath of Khan, Barr explicitly identifies Sulu as the ships’ new second-in-command, and puts Sulu in command of the Enterprise in Kirk’s absence – rather than Scott, as in the show.

All-out brawl...

All-out brawl…

And it seems like Barr understands a lot about how Star Trek works. In essence, his opening four-issue arc is an extended critique of the sorts of “higher being” stories that popped up regularly on the show. Featuring the Organians from Errand of Mercy and the Excalibians from The Savage Curtain, the comic sees the Klingons and Federation manoeuvred into a brutal intergalactic war to satisfy the curiosity of the more powerful entities watching.

The story ends with the firm rejection of the peace enforced by the Organians at the end of Errand of Mercy. Ever the cynic, Gene Coon suggested that the only way that peace might be possible between the Federation and the Klingons would be if that peace were enforced by a stronger power. Barr rejects this suggestion, contending that the only way that such a peace could be sustainable would be if it were reached by the two parties themselves, in good will.

We are not worthy!

We are not worthy!

“I only know that both the Klingons and the Federation are now free to chart their own destinies, solve their own problems!” Kirk  offers, in an affectionate homage to the character’s cheesy summation speeches from the show. “An infant — whether an individual, or a race — matures by making its own mistakes, not by the guidance of some omnipotent babysitter! The responsibility for our conduct is ours again, and I welcome it!”

It’s a sweet sentiment that seems to sit half-way between the cynicism of Gene L. Goon and the utopianism of Gene Roddenberry. Humans might not be as perfect as Roddenberry would like to think, but they are capable of improvement. They can be better, if they are allowed to learn from their mistakes. It’s an endearing moral, perfectly in keeping with the philosophy of the franchise – a demonstration that Barr “gets it”, so to speak.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

That’s not to suggest that Barr isn’t cynical. While the Excalibians might want a war, the Federation and Klingons are eager to provide one. “We control only the supreme commanders, Captain,” the Excalibians explain, “the spark of war burns in you all — to fan it to a flame was but the simplest of tasks!” It’s telling that part of the Excalibians’ plan involves getting Kirk and Kor back into space, suggesting that Kirk and Kor still embody the attitudes that will lead the two interstellar empires to war.

Indeed, Kirk is quite bloodthirsty in the first issue, leading a raid on a secret military installation. “Damn it, Bryce, fire!” he urges one of his officers. “They killed your father… do you want to be next?” It’s easy to see how that sort of attitude could lead to galactic war. Similarly, the implication is that one single Excalibian could not have produced the propaganda that saturates the Federation viewing channels – making the case that the Federation is more war-like than it would like to believe.

Gorn to be wild...

Gorn to be wild…

The chapter title The Only Good Klingon… invites the reader to question their own blood lust, as Barr makes a point to develop the Klingons as characters in their own right. The story broaches the issue of audience complicity in all of this, asking whether the readers want this action and spectacle to occur. The Excalibians talk in theatrical metaphors. “The play is about to begin!” they advise Kahless IV. “Be silent, human, and let the drama unfold!” they order the Chief of Starfleet. This is all just drama to them.

That said, Barr does run into a bit of bother when it comes to characterising the Klingons. It’s clear that Barr wants to make the case that Klingons are not monsters. When the Excalibians explain that they have chosen the Federation to represent “good” and the Klingons to stand for “evil”, Kor pointedly objects, “Evil? We Klingons are not evil!” Even under the coercion of the Excalibians, Kahless IV is reluctant to commit to war with the Federation. “N-no! Such a war will destroy my people, as well!”

Way of the warriors...

Way of the warriors…

Klingons are shown to negotiate in good faith. Kor helps Kirk to save the universe. There’s a sense that Barr is trying to argue that Klingons are not inherently evil. They are just different. However, this is undermines a bit by the new character of Konom. Konom is a Klingon, but he’s treated as an aberration. Given he’s the only unambiguously heroic Klingon, presenting him as an aberration is a questionable decision at best.

It gets rather more problematic when the character’s heroism is consciously rooted in what makes him different from other Klingons. “There’s something… wrong with me!” he explains. “The killing and destruction done by my people have always repulsed me…” When McCoy studies him, he explains, “I… I’ve never been like the others… I’ve always feared pain… and dying…” Even the fact that he has a sense of humour is treated as an oddity.

The dogs of war!

The dogs of war!

In short, Konom is treated as hero because he’s not a bloodthirsty murderous inhuman animal. The obvious inference is that most Klingons must – then – be bloodthirsty murderous inhuman animals. That seems to suggest that the only good Klingon is a Klingon who behaves and acts like a human. This is troublesome, to say the least – and plays into some of the more awkward aspects of Roddenberry’s vision of Star Trek, a world where a single set of culture norms are held up as an ideal and others are inferior.

Still, while this characterisation does cause problems, it doesn’t overshadow the rest of Barr’s good work. In particular, it’s interesting how Barr seems to foreshadow so much of what would follow on Star Trek. For one thing, his new additions to the Star Trek cast included a friendly Klingon and human character with Native American heritage, years before either Worf or Chakotay would appear in the franchise.

"I want every crew quarters, jefferies tube, comm unit, rec deck and transporter room searched within a five deck radius..."

“I want every crew quarters, jefferies tube, comm unit, rec deck and transporter room searched within a five deck radius…”

Similarly, the first issue features the discovery of a stable wormhole, recalling the basic premise of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. In fact, the idea of a third power manipulating the Klingons and the Federation to war seems to foreshadow the fourth season of Deep Space Nine. (The Excalibians’ comment that they only had to replace two people to provoke all-out war also mirrors the observations made by the Changelings in Paradise Lost.)

This similarities are undoubtedly coincidental, but they are interesting. They suggest that Barr was quite in tune with the franchise, and that he knew what he was writing. Barr’s work on the Star Trek series can be a little surreal and all over the place, but it’s also great pulpy fun. This is a writer who clearly relishes the opportunity to work on the franchise, and to chart out his own little corner of the shared universe.

The continuing voyages...

The continuing voyages…

DC’s Star Trek comic ran for over fifty issues before it was cancelled. The arrival of Star Trek: The Next Generation saw the publisher tidying the comics up a bit and relaunching the series from scratch, with much tighter editorial control. When the initial fifty-odd issue series does get overshadowed somewhat, due to the crazy continuity issues and the relaunch in the late eighties, it is a fascinating addition to the canon.

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2 Responses

  1. Fascinating indeed. Had Star Trek relaunched as a TV series in the 80s, following TMP, it may have resembled this comic series. The reliance on continuity would probably not have been as heavy, but the attitude and spirit of the comic seem perfectly in line with Star Trek in the 80s.

    Star Trek is a world of What ifs and how this or that TV show might have gone is a What if question that gets asked quite a bit. With this comic, we have at least a taste of what might have been had Paramount sent Trek back to the small screen in the early 80s.

    You mentioned the pulpy fun of this series, and I couldn’t agree more. Not only is it the first Trek comic to feel like a comic, it employs a certain fan technique that is all too familiar to little fanboys of the 80s and 90s: building head canon and making sense of the times when Star Trek (or Star Wars, or Indiana Jones, or X-Men) didn’t make sense on its own. So we get to see the events following Spock’s death. But instead of cutting their losses and rebooting the comics after Star Trek III, they force their narrative to dovetail into the movie. And they do the exact same thing with their story arc that fell between Star Trek III and Star Trek IV.

    I love the wild world of Star Trek between the events of the movies. Some events that occur in the in-between would actually overshadow the events of the movies, in terms of galactic importance anyway. (Sort of like the Dominion War being more important than the fate of the Ba’ku.) But I’m glad they didn’t bother with such considerations and allowed themselves the freedom to explore..before the hammer came down.

    • I like that “head canon” explanation. And while the comic’s attempts to jump through hoops in order to make everything line up is dizzying, it’s also fun. I’m a big fan of Barr.

      I also think you’re right about the show, although I think Peter David and Howard Weinstein conveyed the sense a bit better – a sense that this is what a weekly Star Trek show starring the movie-era crew produced in the late eighties or nineties might look like. Indeed, it might actually have worked better as a television show than the earliest episodes of The Next Generation, if only because it wasn’t trying to recreate 1960s Star Trek, but instead conjecturing what a series of regular adventures in this world might look like in the eighties and into the nineties.

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