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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1989) #19 – Once a Hero… (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

Once a Hero… is a notable story for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it’s Peter David’s last issue of DC’s monthly Star Trek comic, departing the comic book after a pretty bitter disagreement with Richard Arnold, who was overseeing Star Trek licensing at the time. Given that David wrote The Incredible Hulk for twelve years and remains a prolific and well-liked comic book creator among the comic community, as well as a guiding light in Star Trek tie-in fiction, that’s a pretty damning indictment of Richard Arnold right there.

However, Once a Hero… is also notable for being an in-depth exploration and reflection on the “red shirt” narrative convention that the franchise loved so dearly.

A grave adventure...

A grave adventure…

Red shirts are pretty much an established Star Trek phenomenon. Everybody is aware that Ensign Ricky’s minutes are numbered the second that he agrees to beam down to that desolate hunk of rock with Kirk, Spock, McCoy and/or Scotty. It’s a basic narrative trope of genre fiction that became inseparably linked with the bright red shirts worn by the countless slaughtered security staff tasked with keeping the main cast of the show safe from the threat of the week.

Of course, that isn’t their real job. Their real job is to convince the audience of how serious the threat of the week is. “Oh my god!” Bones will declare while searching futilely for a pulse. “They killed Ensign Ricky!” Who we just met this week, but we’re sure was a close friend to Kirk and/or Spock. His loss will be keenly felt by the people who knew him, even if the crew are too professional to be that bothered by his death, and even if we never see anything resembling communal grief.

Kirk really is hot stuff, isn't he?

Kirk really is hot stuff, isn’t he?

In other shows, these characters are given ham-fisted character development to make their death more tragic. Sometimes they are a few days from retirement. Sometimes they are old friends (or even family members) of the leads. Star Trek occasionally engaged in that sort of lazy plotting (see Operation — Annihilate!, where Kirk’s brother who was mentioned one time and is played by Shatner with a moustache is brutally murdered off-screen), but there was an admirable efficiency to the slaughter of a red shirt. No muss, no fuss. Just an instant dead officer and a slightly more serious threat than there was before.

Of course, they aren’t unique to Star Trek, by any measure. Countless shows and films use a similar plotting technique. The red shirt worn by the security division on Star Trek was just such an eye-catching visual employed so frequently (forty-three times over three years) that it stuck. The “red shirt” phenomenon has become so iconic that John Scalzi’s Redshirts – a novel playing with the narrative convention – won the 2013 Hugo Award.

Pipe down, me lad!

Pipe down, me lad!

It’s easy to see why this storytelling technique was so popular. Indeed, Philip Athans and R.A. Salvatore recommend a variant of it to aspiring writers in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, albeit with some stipulations:

Why did Star Trek work its way through so many guys in red shirts? Because someone had to beam down with Captain Kirk and have all the salt sucked out of his body so that Captain Kirk (and we, the viewers) would have some idea what the crew was up against. Supporting characters are ready-made victims, but that doesn’t mean you should spend their imaginary lives too cheaply. Even the guy who gets salt-sucked should be on the planet with the captain for a logical reason, have a name, and begin with some connection to the hero, the villain, or both. The more we care about that guy in the red shirt, the worse we’ll feel about his untimely demise, and the more worried we’ll be when Captain Kirk is in danger of meeting the same fate.

That is, in effect, the primary criticism in Scalzi’s Redshirts as well. The notion that these characters are too anonymous to really hammer home the dramatic stakes, and that killing them off so casually and in such large numbers that their deaths ring hollow. It’s not just bad writing, it is lazy writing.

"Well, at least we're safe in this encounter of the week..."

“Well, at least we’re safe in this encounter of the week…”

One of the best Star Trek comics ever written, and among the best Star Trek tie-ins ever written, Once a Hero… is a rather scathing criticism of that storytelling technique. As noted by fellow author Christopher L. Bennett, David is hardly telling an original story here. The final season of M*A*S*H offered a similar story in Who Knew? when Hawkeye offers to eulogise a nurse only to discover that he never knew her. The storytelling device of forcing a character to eulogise somebody they never knew is a common storytelling technique. (It was also the basis of the 1996 film The Pallbearer.)

It’s a powerful literary device to underscore any number of themes – the way that people tend to grow apart, the fact that people don’t seem to connect any more, the random tragedy of death, the way that people take each other for granted. Here, David uses it as an effective way to criticise the whole “red shirt” trope. It turns out that Kirk didn’t know that anonymous security guard any more than we did, after all. And far from being an effective way to raise the dramatic stakes, it’s actually rather tragic. There was a young man who died protecting our lead… and neither we nor Kirk know anything about him.

Spock maps it all out...

Spock maps it all out…

“Ensign Lee was…” Kirk begins, several times, trying to at least start on the eulogy. The closest he comes to completing that sentence is with the honest admission that Lee was “a complete stranger who who sacrificed his life to save me, and I wouldn’t even know his first name if it weren’t in the computer records.” Kirk spends the bulk of the issue digging around for Lee’s background or something personal, but all he can seem to garner is the silly episode-of-the-week plot that led the young man to his death. There’s no uplifting revelation here, no easy way out for Kirk – or for us.

Ensign Lee was a character who existed so that he could die to prove that the stakes were serious. There’s no point trying to retroactively flesh out his back story or give him any more depth or nuance. You might as well be honest about about it, and Kirk is brutally frank about Ensign Lee when he does eventually deliver his eulogy about the young man who died a meaningless death on a planet very far from home.

Far from ship shape...

Far from ship shape…

Kirk does try to glamorise Lee’s death, or to turn his anonymity into some triumphant inspirational story about how unimportant people can do important things:

There was absolutely nothing special about him. And it was the realisation that I perceived him as not being special that indicated there was something wrong with me. Just another man. Just another expendable security guard who won’t come back. How many have we lost? How many have we cared about? While we are busy exploring the unknown wonders of space, we must not lose touch with exploring the wonders of each other.

That’s an absolutely stunning indictment of the storytelling model that treats red shirts as walking threat metrics. After all, Lee’s death doesn’t mean anything to Lee. After all, Lee is dead; and, if he weren’t, Lee is a one-shot character who existed solely to be killed off. As McCoy notes, “Eulogies are written for the living, Jim. Not the dead. The dead couldn’t care less.”

Death of an ensign...

Death of an ensign…

The fact that nobody knew anything about Lee isn’t sad because Lee is a dead character in a comic based on a fictional television show. It’s sad because what that says about the television show itself. David is leaning rather heavily on the fourth wall here, as he tends to do from time to time. Kirk never seems particularly sad that Ensign Lee is dead; he seems particularly sad that he lives inside the kind of story where nobody seems to care too much.

“It doesn’t matter if he couldn’t care less,” Kirk responds to McCoy. “I should care more. I’m letting years of command numb me to individuals. Lives and deaths are blurring together. My people are becoming cyphers to me. That shouldn’t be.” Kirk could almost be speaking for David, as a storyteller. After all, “people are becoming cyphers” sounds almost like the self-criticism of an author guilt of writing one- or two-dimensional character.

Funeral for a friend...

Funeral for a friend…

Once a Hero… is pretty scathing of the approach traditionally adopted by classic Star Trek towards its supporting cast members. When Ensign Lee dares to speak up, Chekov is quick to put him back in his place. “Ensigns aren’t paid to think, Mr. Lee,” Chekov bluntly states. “Merely do as they’re told.” The irony is obvious. Chekov joined the cast of the original Star Trek as an Ensign. He was just granted more freedom to speak and develop because he happened to be a member of the main cast, rather than red shirted cannon fodder.

This attitude is so prevalent that it is practically engrained. Even the other security officers seem happy with their lot in this life – remaining anonymous background extras rather than developing into fully-formed characters. Kirk is appalled at this attitude when he speaks to the two security men who accompanied Lee on the away team. Hunter, a self-described “twenty-year man”, bluntly states, “I’m a grunt, that’s all.” Stopping just short of acknowledging he’s a silent extra on a sci-fi show, Hunter acknowledges the limitations of his role. “I’ll raise a glass but not my voice, he states. After all, he’s just an extra.

Hunter likes wine. Not whine.

Hunter likes wine. Not whine.

Kirk is confronted by the reality that most viewers have faced since the first or second season of the classic television show – only now does he realise how bizarre and surreal this status quo must be. “Death has blended into death,” he reflects. “He was just… another man in the ranks.” That’s a pretty damning revelation, and Kirk’s introspection condemns the entire ship for their callousness and their passive indifference.

David is doing something very clever here. The slaughter of red shirts was acceptable in a television drama airing in the late sixties. As a science-fiction franchise entering the nineties, it has to be less tolerant of these plot conventions and storytelling tropes. The red shirt, as a concept, needs to be banished into the past. In a way, this funeral for Ensign Lee is a symbolic funeral for the red shirt as a Star Trek storytelling trope. It’s an indictment of the franchise’s past approach to storytelling, and a scathing criticism of a technique that has really passed its “sell by” date.

Captain Sulu does have a nice ring to it...

Captain Sulu does have a nice ring to it…

And David is, of course, entirely correct. Once a Hero… was published in 1991. Star Trek: The Next Generation had already moved away from the red shirt phenomenon, partially by swapping the colours of the divisions, but also by accepting that killing crew members so casually undermined the drama instead of raising the stakes. Ronald D. Moore had made a similar argument in The Bonding.

More than that, though, The Next Generation was coming to realise that the dramatic potential of supporting cast members extended beyond colour-coded cannon fodder. The series had already begun introducing recurring characters to help give the show a sense of internal continuity that wasn’t possible on classic Star Trek. Characters like Barclay and Guinan (and later Okowa and Sito and Ro) helped create a sense that the Enterprise wasn’t just a bunch of grunts following the regular cast around, but a community populated by characters.

Spock meditates on the issue...

Spock meditates on the issue…

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would take this a step further, with the franchise’s widest supporting ensemble spanning any number of alien races and social groupings. The world of Deep Space Nine became especially developed and nuanced. When characters did die, they were generally developed a bit first – their death having a bit more impact. This wasn’t just Star Trek embracing better storytelling for the hell of it, this was Star Trek keeping up with contemporary storytelling techniques. More than being lazy, the concept of killing off anonymous red shirts to establish dramatic credibility was also hopelessly outdated.

So the approach taken by Star Trek: Voyager and the early years of Star Trek: Enterprise felt particularly backwards at the time. Voyager and – to a lesser extent – Enterprise both fell back on the “slaughtering the crew for drama” trope. This was particularly absurd in the case of Voyager, where the show’s very premise suggested that the ensemble should be tightly-knit and populated by characters who frequently reappear and interact with one another. Still, Star Trek was making moves in the right direction in the early nineties, and stories like Once a Hero… were very much an important part of that.

Looking for a little Lee way...

Looking for a little Lee way…

At the same time, Once a Hero… is an infamous story for another reason. It’s famously the last script that David wrote for the Star Trek comic he had launched nineteen issues earlier. David’s scripting brought him into conflict with Richard Arnold, Gene Roddenberry’s right-hand continuity man, who seemed to take exception to everything that David did. At one point, Richard Arnold even contacted David’s co-writer Bill Mumy directly to inform him how David was a terrible human being. Indeed, Arnold seemed to have a pretty heavy axe to grind with David.

The breaking point came when David submitted a script to Arnold under the alias of “Bruce Banner.” The script contained all of the elements that Arnold had criticised in David’s earlier work. One would have expected such a script to send Arnold through the roof, demanding the head of this most incompetent Star Trek tie-in writer. It didn’t. The ideas that were unacceptable when Peter David signed his name to them were suddenly a lot easier to swallow coming from another writer. Which is something that damages any of the credibility that Arnold had in any of his dealings with any tie-in writers.

Chekov checks in...

Chekov checks in…

Richard Arnold might have claimed to have been acting as a guardian of Gene Roddenberry’s legacy in his aggressive persecution of talented writers like Diana Duane or Peter David. He might even believe that. However, all Arnold really accomplished was restricting the output of some fairly fantastic Star Trek writers, many of whom got to work on the tie-in long after Arnold had been escorted off the Paramount lot following the death of Gene Roddenberry.

It’s also worth pausing to note the wonderful artwork on this single-issue story by Gordon Purcell and Arne Starr. Star Trek comics didn’t always have the best artist working in the business, but Purcell and Starr do fantastic work here. In particular, they demonstrate considerable skill in illustrating the faces of these iconic characters. Character likeness can be a tricky business, but Purcell and Starr do themselves proud. Once a Hero… looks absolutely fantastic.

Fear in the face of certain death...

Fear in the face of certain death…

There’s also a sense that Once a Hero… has become somewhat influential in the years since its original publication. It remains one of the few DC era Star Trek comics that current rights holders IDW have seen fit to release via comixology. In fact, the scene where Spock melds with a fellow crew member to held ease his death also occurs in Star Trek Into Darkness during the death of Christopher Pike. Given how Robert Orci has admitted a wide variety of influences, it doesn’t seem too unlikely that he could have ready Once a Hero…

(The story’s only real bum note is Kirk’s willingness to hand over his prisoners to a bunch of aliens that will gladly skin them alive. We get that Kirk is upset, but there’s no indication in the scene that Kirk is messing with them – and, to be honest, it’s a cruel sequence even if he is. It’s easy enough to understand the feeling David was trying to convey, but making Kirk a party to this sort of behaviour feels a little too rough for the character.)

Kirk of fate?

Kirk of fate?

Once a Hero… is pretty much a success all around, and one of the best Star Trek comics ever published. It’s a reflection on one of the franchise’s most enduring clichés, and a very thoughtful piece of criticism of some of the show’s excesses. It’s brilliant, well-constructed and fascinating stuff.

Read our reviews of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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2 Responses

  1. That was a great review of a excellent Star Trek comics. Interesting to find out that the concept came from a episode of MASH. I never knew that. You are right about it being metafictional as a commentary on storytelling techniques of the series.

    The lower decks episode of the Next Generation was something that I thought you may have referenced. That also has a innocent crew member who died. The final thing to mention is Aronld. David’s story about his “Bruce Banner” script is strange. Many times in the old letter columns they wrote that unsolicited stories were not being read. So how did this script get submitted?

    • Well, I can’t take credit for the M*A*S*H observation, that’s Christopher L. Bennett’s groundwork.

      I seem to recall, and I may be wrong, that Arnold received the scripts from DC. At DC’s end, Robert Greenberger was editor. Greenberger may have been in on this scheme, at least passively, and passed along the script to Arnold. But that’s what I’ve picked up over the interweb over the years. Greenberger has actually commented on the blog once or twice (with some nice insights), so if he does see this, I hope that he’ll be able to clarify.

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