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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #28 – The Last Word (Review)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home form a trilogy that tells a single story, covering Spock’s death and resurrection, the loss of the Enterprise and the construction of its replacement and Kirk’s journey from washed-up old commander to saviour of the planet Earth. Although the three films weren’t planned as a single story, they worked out surprisingly well as a Star Trek epic told across three films and four years.

Four years is a remarkable turn-around for three franchise films, let alone three well-received franchise films. However, it’s worth conceding that the storyline had a fairly significant impact on the tie-in media. Books could be published set in the existing gaps in chronology, but DC’s plan for their first volume of Star Trek comics was to feature stories set in the contemporary film universe. Since that universe was in the middle of its own story, and the comic publishers had no idea how it would play out, the results are interesting.

Lighten up...

Lighten up…

Given that DC started publishing the comics the year that The Search for Spock came out, the decision to set the comics contemporary to the movies presented a bit of a problem, as the writers and artists found themselves telling stories in the middle of one bigger story that would play out in a way they weren’t aware of ahead of time. It would arguably have made more sense for the comic to adopt an approach similar to the tie-in novels, set in the past where continuity was certain. It may have been interesting to explore the remainder of the five year voyage, or to tell stories between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan.

However, for whatever reason, this didn’t turn out to be the case. Instead, the comic book series told stories set after The Wrath of Khan before The Search for Spock was released and after The Search for Spock before The Voyage Home was released. It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest that the continuity of these stories is a little intriguing, as the company tries to keep the comics roughly in step with what has already been presented without contradicting the possible direction of the films to come.

Call off The Search for Spock...

Call off The Search for Spock…

After the destruction of the Enterprise and the return of Spock’s katra in The Search for Spock, it seems that editorial shrewdly realised that Kirk getting another Enterprise would be a major plot beat in The Voyage Home. So, with that restriction in mind, the creative teams forged ahead with a status quo (quite similar to that initially proposed by writer Harve Bennett) where Kirk was placed in command of the USS Excelsior, as glimpsed briefly in The Search for Spock and fleetingly mentioned in an early draft of The Wrath of Khan. The HMS Bounty was quickly forgotten and Kirk and his crew were back working for Starfleet immediately.

This must have been infuriating for any continuity die-hards reading the comics at the time. Indeed, given the target market for DC’s Star Trek series was the overlap between “Star Trek fans” and “comic book fans”, it’s fun to imagine how frustrating this must have been. Still, taken on its own merits, DC’s first Star Trek series produced more than its fair share of gems, most notably writer Mike W. Barr’s Mirror Universe Saga. Diane Duane also did some interesting work.

Doctor, doctor...

Doctor, doctor…

The Last Word is a weird little story because of where it exists in continuity. In the on-going comic book series, Spock had been resurrected and restored. He was commander of the Surak, a Vulcan science ship. However, here, Kirk and McCoy seem to talk about him as if he were still dead. Mourning the loss of a crew member, and the potential loss of another, McCoy reflects, “Jim… we’ve seen a lot of pain, a lot of death, this last while. And I’m not standing it as well as I used to.” Kirk offers, “Bones… I don’t know what to say to you. If Spock were here, maybe he would.”

In many ways, The Last Word seems like an attempt to provide closure for the events of The Wrath of Khan, with Kirk and McCoy coming to terms with life without Spock. In particular, McCoy seems to struggle with his role on the ship without Spock to provide a counter-balance. Read in isolation, without any knowledge of the comics around it, The Last Word could be read as McCoy trying to accept that things change and that his friend is gone – gone in the more permanent sense than “reassigned to a Vulcan science ship.”

My mind to your mind...

My mind to your mind…

Indeed, he seems to be trying to compensate for Spock’s absence. When Kirk asks for his input, he offers, “I hate to theorise without data.” Kirk immediately notes how out of character this is for McCoy, observing, “Lord, Spock has been getting to you.” McCoy responds, “It comes of being stuck with his marbles so long, I suppose.” It makes it sound like Spock’s mindmeld at the end of The Wrath of Khan almost consolidated their characters, and that this is McCoy coming to terms with the loss.

When McCoy ventures into the mind of a wounded crew member to help convince him to struggle on, he talks about loss and death in a way that makes it clear he’s speaking from personal experience. “It hurts,” McCoy advises the officer. “It’s going to hurt for a while. But live.” When McCoy discovers a figment of Spock living inside his mind, there’s no real reference to the living and breathing version outside. Instead, it plays out like one last argument between the pair. “Are you real, or are you a figment of my imagination!?” McCoy demands. Spock, clearly enjoying getting a rise from McCoy, replies, “Yes.”

A morning period...

A morning period…

To be fair, there’s nothing explicit here that contradicts the status quo established in DC’s Star Trek series. Indeed, when Kirk talks about Spock, he does talk about him the present tense, the mournful tone notwithstanding. At the same time, the subtext of the issue seems much more funereal, much more about coping with death and loss than it is about dealing with an old friend moving far away. It could serve as a surprisingly charming coda to the McCoy and Spock relationship, had Leonard Nimoy decided not to return. One final argument, and an obvious mutual respect, even if neither can bring themselves to explicitly articulate it.

In a way, this feels very much in keeping with Diane Duane’s approach to continuity. Duane has carved out her own niche in Star Trek tie-in fiction, to the point where it’s relatively easy to spot stories set in her own little pocket world. This is arguably most obvious with her Rihannsu books, which exist separate from the on-screen Romulans, but it’s also obvious in the way that she has developed her own supporting cast of characters. There’s even a reference to Duane’s Horta Starfleet officer here.

Alarms are going off...

Alarms are going off…

Duane’s approach to tie-in writing would fall out of favour once Richard Arnold asserted tighter editorial control on the line. Most obviously, Duane would have to wait quite some time before she could finish her Rihannsu cycle, and her 1990 novel, Doctor’s Orders, featured a rather curtailed version of her own expansive supporting cast. It’s a shame, as there’s something to be said for the philosophy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

The Last Word is a fascinating piece of work, if only because it reads remarkably different depending on how you approach it. It reads better as a piece responding to the climax of The Wrath of Khan than as part of DC’s on-going Star Trek series, more powerfully as a reflection on a lost member of the crew than as a study about what happens when your crew mate moves to another ship.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

4 Responses

  1. This is a really good review. You make good points.DC actually did a nice job of not letting there own stories contradict the what was going on in the movies by having it fit in. Spock was on the U.S.S. Surak after the events in Mirror Universe saga. There were two issues of Spock’s adventures on the Surak without any of the other regular members. Have you read those? Also Len Wein made this all fit by having the crew of the Surak by infected. Only Spock survived and went into coma and so the crew had to take him back to Vulcan. This everything “sort of” fit with the movies. I say sort of because the script gives no indication that there are have been any other adventures since the last movie.

    • Yep. It’s a very weird status quo, where you can see the scripts trying to be accessible to those who came from the movies (Spock’s gone away, McCoy is sad) and also part of its own narrative.

  2. Speaking of the Horta,are you going to review the previous two issues Diane Duane wrote? The Horta appeared in both issues of that story. It was a much more humor oriented type story than this issue was.

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