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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1989) #1-12 – The Trial of James T. Kirk! (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.

The late eighties and early nineties saw a change in the world of Star Trek tie-ins. During the eighties, tie-in writers had typically been afforded a great deal of freedom in telling their stories – allowed to explore the fringes of the Star Trek universe with little regard to how things matched up. The period saw a number of truly spectacular Star Trek tie-ins that count among the best work ever released with the Star Trek brand on it – John Ford’s The Final Reflection or Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally.

However, with the release of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the broadcast of the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a shift in how the franchise approached tie-in novels and comic books. Gene Roddenberry had arguably lost control of his creation, with the Harve Bennett and Nicholas Meyer taking control of the feature films while Rick Berman and Michael Piller were the driving creative forces on the television show.

Crossing swords...

Crossing swords…

As such, the tie-ins became a place where Roddenberry and his “people” – including Richard Arnold and Susan Sackett – could make their influence most heavily felt. So, in the late eighties and early nineties, a conscious effort was made to re-tool the novels and the comic book tie-ins, with Richard Arnold maintaining a much tighter grip on the reigns. DC’s first volume of Star Trek comics was cancelled after fifty-six issues, and another volume was launched to coincide with the launch of the Next Generation comic.

Writer Peter David had closed out the first volume of the Star Trek comic, and was drafted in as the writer of the new on-going series. However, he almost immediately came into conflict with Richard Arnold. Pages of the first issue had to be hastily re-drawn when Richard Arnold vetoed the use of a supporting character from Star Trek: The Animated Seriesafter the comic had been drawn. In many respects, this set the tone for the comic, which was victim to all sorts of weird editorial mandates.

The Andorian Incident...

The Andorian Incident…

While writer Michael Jan Friedman remained the writer on the on-going Next Generation comic for most of its run – only occasionally getting another writer to fill in – Peter David departed the Star Trek comic before the end of the book’s second year on the stand. This is especially frustrating when one considers the pedigree of Peter David. An accomplished novelist and comic book writer, David had a wealth of experience in the medium that was being maliciously squandered by Arnold.

It’s a shame, because the opening twelve issues of DC’s second volume of Star Trek make for a delightful read and a fitting substitute for a live-action Star Trek television show unfolding between the movies.

Warp speed ahead...

Warp speed ahead…

Richard Arnold pretty much strangled tie-in Star Trek literature in the late eighties and into the early nineties. He had a particular problem with Peter David, which may have begun when Peter David objected to his assertion that Gold Key was the platonic ideal of Star Trek comic book writing. Over the course of his run on Star Trek, David butted heads with Arnold repeatedly:

The fact is that Richard Arnold’s notes became increasingly ludicrous, such as shutting down a romantic interest for Kirk by asserting that Kirk was no longer interested in women. We were reaching the point where it was becoming impossible to get stories approved. Richard rejected one story with the assertion that there was “too much violence,” even though the violence consisted of a sustained fist fight scene with Kirk (as if they never had those in Trek). As a test, I submitted a script under a fake name which sailed through the approvals process even though it had far more violence than the previous script which was rejected for that reason. When that was approved, I knew that it had nothing to do with the stories and everything to do with Richard’s enmity toward me (a far longer story to go into.) At which point I resigned from the book since I felt I could no longer do the job I was hired to do, namely provide stories for DC.

While Arnold was undoubtedly within his rights to demand these changes, he did so in an incredibly petty and unprofessional manner. His comments frequently came in after pages of work had been done; were contrarian for the sake of being contrarian; seemed to exist just to generate more work for everybody.

The way of the warrior...

The way of the warrior…

The editorial mandate isn’t just something that became obvious in hindsight. Fans noticed it as soon as the book came back, observing that the cast had been trimmed and the mood had been changed. Editor Robert Greenberger addressed this in the letter column, with a succinct (and surprisingly frank and honest) appraisal of the situation:

To set a few facts straight: Richard did not come up with these dictates by himself. He speaks for Gene Roddenberry and this must mean that it is Gene, not Richard, who wants to ignore animated series and our supporting cast. I’m obviously not happy, but so be it.

While it’s hardly a call to battle, it’s a statement that makes Greenberger’s (understandable) frustration with Richard Arnold and Gene Roddenberry rather clear. There’s no need to read between the lines to get the sense that the team at DC comics were less than thrilled with all these dictates coming down the pipeline.

There's Klingons off the starboard bow!

There’s Klingons off the starboard bow!

There’s a sense that the frustration felt towards Arnold crept into the comic. Most obviously, his name appears on a tombstone when Scotty visits a cemetery to pay tribute to Peter Preston. However, there are other points where David seems to be having a bit of a laugh at Arnold’s expense. In response to Arnold’s assertion that Kirk was not interested in women, David had Bones nearly choke on his drink when Kirk wondered, “Do I like women, Bones?”

More than that, though, the addition of a “protocol officer” to the staff of the Enterprise seems to a piece of commentary on Arnold’s authority. When McCoy asks what a protocol officer is, Kirk simply responds, “It’s a censor.” Spock elaborates, “A protocol officer is someone thoroughly versed in all Federation rules and treaties and who speaks on the Federation’s behalf.” Kirk clarifies, “Meaning that if I try to do something that meets with the disapproval of this Federation paper-pusher, he can override me.”

Shoom, shoom, shoom shake the room...

Shoom, shoom, shoom shake the room…

If you substitute in “Star Trek franchise” or “Roddenberry-ian” for “Federation”, it seems like a perfect fit for Arnold’s role in this second volume of Star Trek comics. Kirk’s observation that protocol officers are typically “totally unreasonable and impossible to deal with” sounds like the voice of David’s experience bleeding through. Indeed, much of Kirk’s resentment could be channelled from David himself. “They’re assigned to novice captains,” he remarks. “To assign one to a veteran…” Given Peter David’s experience in both comics and Star Trek tie-ins, it’s hard to take Arnold’s meddling as anything but an insult.

It is no wonder that Peter David felt forced to leave the book, despite having planned arcs out to the end of the comic’s second year. One of the truths of Star Trek tie-in fiction is the reality that writers tend to do stronger work when given a bit of freedom. It might not match the “house style” of Star Trek, but it affords more room for diversity and experimentation. Not all of those experiments pay off, but some do – and the results are more than worthwhile.

Klingon for dear life...

Klingon for dear life…

Peter David’s approach to Star Trek is perhaps a bit more light-hearted than most tie-in writers. The letter columns are packed with fans complaining that the comic has become too silly or too goofy. However, it’s worth noting that Star Trek has always been a bit goofy. In some respects, The Trial of James T. Kirk could be seen as the trial of Peter David, and it’s no coincidence that he decides to bring in the gangster from A Piece of the Action in as Kirk’s defence.

Star Trek has always been pulpy and silly. To deny that is to deny history, much like trying to edit the characters of Star Trek: The Animated Series out of the first issue of the comic book. Arnold’s attempts to impose something resembling a “house style” on the franchise belie the fact that Star Trek has always been pulpy and silly to one degree or another. After all, the show’s second season produced The Trouble with Tribbles, which is one of the best-loved episodes of the show and is incredibly silly.

Kirk's trial is going gangbusters...

Kirk’s trial is going gangbusters…

It’s not for nothing that Sulu wonders while watching the trial if somebody won’t decide to drop a few hundred tribbles on top of Captain Kirk. The Trial of James T. Kirk is very much about reminding readers that Star Trek is a franchise that is as much about pulpy fun as it is about serious and weighty issues. It is possible to take all this a bit too seriously, to get swept up in the thrill of important and heavy social commentary or science-fiction drama.

On the subject of weighty issues, it is also quite telling that the prosecution call a witness from the episode A Taste of Armageddon, one of the headier and more “issue-driven” allegorical Star Trek episodes. It’s this vision of Star Trek that is frequently set up against the more pulpy aspects of the franchise. Of course, most critics of “silly” approaches to Star Trek tend to gloss over that even the most serious and weighty episodes of Star Trek still work from goofy premises or in goofy constructs. A Taste of Armageddon is a great and thoughtful hour of Star Trek, but it is just as absurd and heightened as A Piece of the Action.

Not... Sweeney...

Not… Sweeney…

And, for all its goofiness, Peter David’s run on Star Trek is thoughtful and well-constructed. A series of twelve issues chained together into a year-long arc, David gets to run that gamut from issue-driven science-fiction to political commentary to absurd comedy to thrilling adventure. All those aspects of the franchise fit together quite well. David can include a character like the laser-goggle-wearing “Sweeney” alongside debates about the dangers of religious fanaticism.

Indeed, Sweeney is a delightfully absurd character. He’s a very British bounty hunter who wears a suit and tie and maintains a rather dashing pencil moustache. Fond of playing chess and seeming very polite, he is the most feared bounty hunter in the cosmos. He also claims to like Vulcans quite a lot. When Spock wonders why, he explains, “It’s because your ears are simply smashing.” How can one hate a run that finds room for a character like that?

Dead to the world...

Dead to the world…

At the same time, there is room for commentary. David deals with an issue that Star Trek refused to tackle for over a decade – the issue of AIDS. As McCoy struggles to cure the Brinden plague – a mysterious illness that manifests in lesions and which is apparently causing a health panic – he finds himself butting up against social prejudices. “Something about the biological makeup of the lower caste made them particularly susceptible,” he explains to Kirk. “So much so that the upper caste thought they couldn’t contract it… and ignored it. After all, it was only killing off ‘less important people’.”

The parallels are obvious – right down to the disinterest shown by society as a whole until the disease demonstrated an ability to stretch beyond a certain segment of society and affect people deemed “important.” It’s a beautiful example of David using Star Trek to tell an allegorical story, and something that the larger franchise was afraid to engage with for quite some time after this point. It puts paid to any assertion that David was writing something that wasn’t suitably Star-Trek-ian.

He knows this ship like the back of his hand...

He knows this ship like the back of his hand…

Similarly, the political context of the series is very much rooted in the late eighties. David doesn’t just blindly adhere to the formula as established two decades earlier, he tries to engage with contemporary concerns. So, for example, he introduces the Nasgul, who seem analogous to Iran. Something of a deep space theocracy, the Nasgul are devoted followers of “the way” and are led by the mysterious, robed and bearded “Shallah.” (Perhaps an amalgamation of “Shah” and “Ayatollah.”) They are described as “fanatics” within the narrative, perhaps reflecting concerns about the theocracy installed in the wake of the Iranian revolution.

David also peppers the run with beautiful character moments. For example, he finds a couple of pages to spend with Sarek and Spock discussing the concept of friendship, in light of Amanda’s inevitable death. As with a lot of Peter David’s Star Trek writing, there’s a sense that the writer is working through some of the more questionable attributes of the original Star Trek show. For example, Once a Hero… is very much a criticism of the Red Shirt phenomenon. Here, Kirk finds himself wondering about his attitudes towards women.

Not very sporting...

Not very sporting…

“Do you think I’m someone who feels uncomfortable being subordinate to, or on par with, a woman?” Kirk asks McCoy at one point. “Am I someone who relegates each woman I meet — especially good-looking ones – to the status of either ‘I want her’ or ‘I don’t want here’?” This would seem to be a very valid criticism of Kirk’s attitude towards the other gender over the course of the original Star Trek. David pushes the idea to the fore, trusting Kirk to acknowledge this character flaw and work through it.

David even finds room to develop characters off the back of the elements that came baked into Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. For example, Uhura and Scotty discuss the events that took place while they were brainwashed by Sybok, turning into an insightful glimpse at two officers well past their primes. Similarly, McCoy deals with his guilt over the death of his father, as revealed – and then glossed over – in the same film.

You can see why he's such a good ambassador...

You can see why he’s such a good ambassador…

At the same time, David reaches a little further back. Kirk reflects on the fact that his nightmares are still haunted by the destruction of the Enterprise in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. “All this time, and I still, in my nightmares… I see her flaming wreckage, a comet over the genesis planet.” Scotty visits the grave of Peter Preston, who gave his life in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

David’s run on Star Trek is steeped in continuity. The comic makes all sorts of casual references to past adventures. This is occasionally a little distracting, but it also demonstrates David’s clear affection for the material. Was it necessary to see Ariel Shaw and Samuel T. Cogsley return from Court Martial? Probably not, but there’s something nice about knowing that the guest characters on the show sometimes got happy endings.

Miracle worker...

Miracle worker…

More interesting is the idea that Peter David essentially picks up most of the recurring threads that William Shatner ignored during the production of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Rather tellingly, the arc opens with a shot of the Klingon Ambassador taken from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, declaring that there would be no peace while Kirk lived. In many respects, the entire twelve-issue run is propelled by that dangling plot thread, as Peter David seeks to tidy up the bits and pieces left over.

(It helps that some of the in-jokes are rather funny. In particular, there’s a short scene featuring the Federation President conversing with an advisor. The advisor is named “D’Falco”, and appears distinctly avian. However, he also bears an uncanny resemblance – down to glasses and moustache – to comic book legend Tom DeFalco. It’s a small gag that isn’t too distracting, but gives a sense of how playful Peter David could be.)

Welcome back...

Welcome back…

It’s a shame that Peter David’s Star Trek run was cut so short by editorial meddling. In many respects, this is the ideal monthly series to fit between the events of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, allowing David to take these old characters out for a few more adventures between their last couple of missions.

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