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Star Trek – Untold Voyages (Review)

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

There’s something of a continuity lacuna that exists between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Although the movies were released three years apart, more time appears to have passed for the characters themselves. Some of the changes are quite startling. After fighting so hard to get the Enterprise back in The Motion Picture, Kirk has retired to Earth once again at the start of The Wrath of Khan. After putting the Enterprise back in action in The Motion Picture, it has been converted into a cadet cruiser in The Wrath of Khan.

A lot of stuff has happened, and the gap is relatively under-explored by tie-in material. In contrast, the gap between The Turnabout Intruder (or The Counter-Clock Incident) and The Motion Picture is filled with all sorts of material designed to offer the show the type of closure that it never got on television. The same is true of the gap between The Cage and Where No Man Has Gone Before, with books and comics eager to offer accounts of Pike’s time in command and the transition to Captain James Tiberius Kirk.

Star Trek: Untold Voyages is a five-issue Marvel Comics series published in 1998 designed to bridge The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. Although it wallows a bit in continuity and references, writer Glenn Greenberg uses the series to make some very clever and introspective points about Star Trek as a franchise – in effect, cleverly transitioning from Gene Roddenberry’s “future humans are the best” attitude toward Nicholas Meyer’s more reflective and introspective take on the characters and their world.

Shining star...

Shining star…

There’s a strain of gentle criticism that runs through Untold Voyages, and Greenberg tries to deal with some of the inconsistencies and contradictions inherent in filling in the gap between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan. The Motion Picture was really the point at which Gene Roddenberry’s utopian philosophy was pushed truly to the fore – the idea that mankind can do absolutely anything. In contrast, The Wrath of Khan is powered by the belief that James T. Kirk’s genius and charm are balanced by an arrogance and lack of foresight.

It’s a tough line to walk, and Greenberg rather cleverly devotes several of the done-in-one adventures in Untold Voyages to putting the Enterprise crew in their place. He points to a sense of untouchable hubris in the characters, something that crept into Gene Roddenberry’s version of Star Trek, finding ultimate expression in the first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation with episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us, which were devoted to the idea that the galaxy had a lot to learn from humanity, rather than vice versa.

Everybody walk the dinosaur...

Everybody walk the dinosaur…

After an easy enough opening issue that pits the Enterprise against a Klingon armada, Greenberg devotes the rest of the miniseries to exploring the arrogance of the Enterprise crew. The second, third and fourth issues are all predicated on assumptions made by the crew that happen to be wrong. In one, a planet of “dinosaur-like” aliens prove perfectly capable of defending themselves against an external threat without the assistance of the Enterprise. In the next issue, McCoy’s past comes back to haunt him. In the following story, the Federation arrogantly writes off a lifeform as non-sentient only to discover that it is very much self-aware.

“Makes us remember — that we’re not the supreme beings we often think we are!” McCoy remarks at one point. A significant portion of Untold Voyages is dedicated to establishing a sense of scale – reminding the audience and the crew that the galaxy is full of wonders, and that it’s easy to forget that. At times, the Enterprise crew’s lack of self-awareness is harmless, as with the planet of the dinosaurs. At other times, their arrogance has serious consequences.

Let's hope the food isn't very cold in space...

Let’s hope the food isn’t very cold in space…

Perhaps an affectionate nod to the connection between The Wrath of Khan and Space Seed, the third issue forces the crew to confront the consequences of another first season adventure. Miri might not be the episode most demanding of a sequel, but Greenberg rather cleverly plays with the idea of the Enterprise crew as arrogant interlopers who believe they have the answer to everything. “Y’know,” McCoy muses, quoting a beloved episode, “I grew to think I could almost cure a rainy day. What a way to find out how wrong I was.”

The penultimate issue features the Enterprise crew preparing to move a life-form from its home environment to a research facility. Nominally, this is being done for the greater good – the creature lacks awareness, the crew tell themselves; there is a lot to be learned. However, there’s also a keen strategic value to relocating the creature, granting Starfleet a technical and tactical advantage. Access to the creature means access to a whole host of future technology that could revolutionise space exploration.

And the children shall lead... (Wait, wrong episode!)

And the children shall lead…
(Wait, wrong episode!)

Greenberg plays the set-up straight, inviting the audience to buy into the rhetoric in the same way that the crew do. However, at the episode’s climax, the creature has enough of the Federation’s petty squabbles with the Orion Syndicate. It decides to venture off into the universe itself. It turns out the creature is not as primitive as Starfleet thought. “Having finally met us, well… I think it’s had enough of what we call ‘civilisation’,” Sulu observes. He also acknowledges the entitled imperialist attitudes that the crew had unconsciously adopted. “As much as it didn’t belong to the Orions, it didn’t belong to us, either.”

Indeed, the crew’s arrogance and lack of self-awareness extends beyond their interactions with aliens. Greenberg even turns his attention to the “how did Khan know Chekov?” plot hole from The Wrath of Khan. Greenberg offers the most obvious answer here, suggesting that Chekov was serving on the Enterprise during the first season, even if he wasn’t a part of the main cast. However, Greenberg pushes the idea a little further by having the bridge crew themselves oblivious to Chekov’s presence. “Just because I vas not yet part of the bridge crew does not mean that I vas not yet on board! You mean no one remembers?!”

Talk about alien aliens...

Talk about alien aliens…

The implication is that the Enterprise senior staff tend to be a very insular bunch. Chekov only really began to matter when he got transferred to the bridge and became buddies with Sulu. This attitude is so casual that there’s an unspoken assumption that Chekov simply couldn’t have been on the Enterprise before the senior staff came to know him. There’s a clear lack of self-awareness on the part of the Enterprise crew, a sense that the crew don’t generally get too worked up about whatever is outside their immediate field of vision, fitting quite well with the perspective offered The Wrath of Khan.

Kirk himself comes in for a bit of criticism and examination here – paving the way for the more nuanced approach to the character in The Wrath of Khan. In the final issue, Kirk is confronted by ghosts that have followed him around since the first season of the show. Gary Mitchell and Edith Keeler visit him to hold him to account, after he witnesses the damage that his legacy causes to a bunch of cadets trying to emulate his behaviour. “Is that how I’ll be remembered?” he ponders. “As an irresponsible maverick who never thought about the consequences of his actions?”

A black-and-white issue...

A black-and-white issue…

It’s a nice character beat, and it does explain why Kirk felt the need to get away from it all before The Wrath of Khan, as well as setting up the movie’s introspective tone. The Wrath of Khan is about Kirk facing the ghosts of sins past, so it makes sense to set that up with a little bit of foreshadowing. Khan and Carol Marcus might be two particularly striking examples of Kirk’s own coloured history, but there is a lot more material to draw on – a lot more of Kirk’s behaviour that merits examination and criticism.

Even Greenberg’s decision to integrate D.C. Fontana’s original pitch for The Way to Eden works very well here. Fontana had originally conceived a romance between Kirk and McCoy’s estranged daughter, Joanna. Greenberg uses that plot line in the third issue, but plays into the introspective themes of The Wrath of Khan. This is an example of the older Kirk trying to remain a young man, trying to fight back his maturity and his age. While Greenberg might lean a little too heavily on continuity references or foreshadowing, McCoy’s rebuke is cutting. “You’re not a father!” McCoy accuses. “No… I guess I’m not,” Kirk concedes.

You gotta be kidding me...

You gotta be kidding me…

Still, there are some problems. Most obviously, Greenberg leans a little too heavily on continuity references and in-jokes. “Lord knows, I can’t think of a worse fate than havin’ Spock’s voice in my head!” McCoy laments at one point, foreshadowing The Wrath of Khan. Two consecutive pages of the final issue make reference to “the next generation.” When Kirk and McCoy argue about the Prime Directive, McCoy supplements his philosophical arguments with continuity precedents. “I have just two words to say… Miramanee’s World!”

The first issue is particularly bad, in this regard. It falls into the trap of having the Enterprise fight the Klingons, because that’s what’s expected of Star Trek. John Byrne’s Crew falls into the same pattern. More than that, though, the entire issue hangs on references. Kirk defeats the Klingons by bluffing about a “new superweapon – the ‘omegatron'”, in an obvious shout out to The Corbomite Manoeuvre. Klingon Commander Krell even makes reference to The Enterprise Incident. “Your fleet never even incorporated the Romulan cloaking device you once stole.”

The next generation...

The next generation…

The issue’s plot hinges on a bit of technobabble from The Motion Picture. Kirk manages to defeat the Klingons using a design flaw that Decker drew attention to in the film. “Well, it’s a good thing I remembered what Will Decker told me during the V’ger mission — that the ship’s redesign increases phaser power by channeling it through the main engines!” Kirk remarks, accurately summing up the situation. As a result, it makes the comic feel like it’s dependent on The Motion Picture, that it can’t be enjoyed without that context or that information.

Though it is a nice touch that Kirk falls back into familiar patterns during the issue. He has an attack of self-doubt, based around the fact that he cannot easily defeat the Klingons in combat. “Maybe Nogura was right to want me back behind a desk! As much as I wanted the Enterprise back — my ineffectiveness here proves that I’m just not up to the task of commanding her anymore!” While this initially reads as an enthusiastic embrace of militarism, it feels a lot more pointed after the final issue.

(Aste)roid rage...

(Aste)roid rage…

If this is the measuring stick that Kirk measures his own ability to command, then the legacy explained in the final issue feels somewhat justified. If Kirk is so fixated on the notion of ship-to-ship combat, then it’s easy to understand how he could develop the reputation that leads the cadets to the slaughter. As much as Kirk might not like that legacy, it’s clear he puts a great deal of stock in the self-image that leads to it.

It’s a nice way of foreshadowing the paradox at the heart of The Wrath of Khan: Kirk is a brilliant commander, but he’s also arrogant and reckless. In fact those attributes are part of what make him so great, even if they have consequences.Untold Voyages works best as an attempt to transition between Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the franchise and Nicholas Meyer’s more reflective and character-driven version.

To Morrow, and To Morrow, and To Morrow...

To Morrow, and To Morrow, and To Morrow…

It’s an interesting glimpse at an intriguing gap in continuity, constructed cleverly and insightfully by a writer who clearly knows his stuff.

2 Responses

  1. Wow. This is one hell of an analysis, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thanks for taking the time to write about my work on the Star Trek comics–I hope you had as good a time experiencing UNTOLD VOYAGES as a reader as I did as the writer. I may not agree with all of your points–I’ll go to the grave defending that line from McCoy, “Lord knows, I can’t think of a worse fate than havin’ Spock’s voice in my head!”–but you made some very spot-on and intriguing assessments that have got even ME looking at the work in a whole new way.

    P.S. The scene about Chekov explaining that he was on the ship when Khan was aboard wasn’t so much a criticism of the bridge crew as it was a criticism of the anal-retentive fans who couldn’t reach the same conclusion I did for why Khan remembered Chekov. (And I got to end that scene on what I still think is a great punchline!)

    Thanks again.
    Glenn Greenberg

    • Thanks for comment, Glenn. I hope I was fair! I did enjoy the series, and it is nice to dive into that gap between the films. Being honest, it was Untold Voyages that largely convinced me to do this whole “month looking at movie-era Star Trek” tie-ins, along with Roddenberry’s novelisation of TMP. So, thank you very much!

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