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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1989) #35-40 – Tests of Courage/The Tabukan Syndrome (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.

Captain Hikaru Sulu occupies a very special place in Star Trek lore. Given the amount of spin-off material that Sulu’s command of the Excelsior has generated, Sulu often seems like the Star Trek spin-off that never quite materialised. The idea of Sulu commanding the Excelsior has inspired novels and comics and audio books, and was even featured in Flashback, one of the episodes produced to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the franchise.

While Sulu’s command of the Excelsior is open-ended, it is interesting to consider the various origin stories that might apply. As with Khan Noonien Singh, there are multiple tie-in stories that cover the same ground. Published in late 2007, the novel Forged in Fire, for example, offers one account of Sulu taking command of the Excelsior – assuming command from Captain Styles during a high-pressure diplomatic crisis. However, this was not the first time that the story had been told.

Crossing swords...

Crossing swords…

A year following the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, author Howard Weinstein wrote Tests of Courage. A six-issue arc set during the earliest days of Sulu’s command, Weinstein had originally hoped to collaborate with George Takei on the comic. Unfortunately, the two could not work out their schedules, forcing Weinstein to write the comic without Takei’s input. However, Takei did provide a glowing and enthusiastic foreword for the collected edition of the comic published two years later.

Tests of Courage is a fantastic piece of work, a suitably epic Star Trek comic that tells a suitably epic story – one with breadth and scope and drama and conflict that demonstrates just what a wonderful storyteller Howard Weinstein is.

Ships of the line...

Ships of the line…

Tests of Courage is a six-issue comic book arc. In the years since it was published, six issues has become something of the default length for comic book story arcs. After all, six issues being the perfect size for a snug paperback edition that can be sold in book stores and other reputable establishments. At six issues, a comic book becomes a “graphic novel” and can be sold as a more prestigious product. Still, six issues was quite a length for a Star Trek comic in the early nineties.

Of course, Star Trek comic book stories of comparable length are not unheard of. Howard Weinstein wrote his time-travel epic Time Crime in five issues. Mike W. Barr’s Mirror Universe Saga was eight issues long, and one of the earliest Star Trek trade paperbacks collected by DC comics. Michael Jan Friedman’s The Worst of Both Worlds! was an epic in four parts, while The Star Lost was told over five issues. Generally, a longer arc generally signifies that the writer is crafting something of an epic.

Roamin' Romulans...

Roamin’ Romulans…

Indeed, Tests of Courage is an ambitious story. Featuring two new civilisations, a troubled Federation colony, and a sinister plot by the Romulans, Tests of Courage has considerable scope and scale. The story unfolds across multiple locations, often splitting up the crew to pursue their own individual character arcs before bringing everybody back together for the triumphant finalé. It’s a story of war and peace, diplomacy and terrorism, trust and betrayal.

DC released a nice trade paperback collection of the story shortly after its publication. That collected edition didn’t just come with an afterword by Howard Weinstein himself, but also an introduction from George Takei. As such, it was clear that Tests of Courage was intended as a pretty big deal, even at the time. Filling in a rather sizeable lacuna in Star Trek continuity and telling an epic adventure, Tests of Courage hits a lot of the right buttons for a Star Trek comic. It is an epic.

Oh, my!

Oh, my!

In the afterword of the collected edition, Howard Weinstein confirms as much. He concedes that he crafted Tests of Courage as his own Star Trek movie:

Maybe I didn’t get to write a Star Trek movie – but, within the comic-book format, it was our goal to have Star Trek: Tests of Courage equal a movie in both size and scope.

Indeed, Weinstein counts Tests of Courage among his favourite Star Trek comic book work. It’s not hard to see why.

White heat...

In space, everyone can hear you detonate weapons of mass destruction…

Tests of Courage is a decidedly ambitious work. Slotted into continuity between Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it takes place at an important moment in the life of the Enterprise. Kirk is facing the reality that his crew may be moving on. He confronts the inevitable sense that all things must end. Sulu has taken command of the Excelsior, forcing Kirk to acknowledge that Sulu is no longer simply his helmsman.

However, Weinstein expands this idea into a recurring theme. He splits up the crew of the Enterprise. Sulu commands the Excelsior, struggling to balance his independence with the necessity of a support framework. Doctor McCoy insists on departing the Enterprise to render medical assistance to a colony under siege. Even Scotty gets to spend considerable time on the Excelsior, reflecting on his brief transfer to the ship during Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.

McCoy holds steady...

McCoy holds steady…

As such, Tests of Courage feels like it is developing the themes that underscore The Undiscovered Country – the sense that all things must past, and that eventually the band must break up. With its plots about secret conspiracies and covert assassinations, The Undiscovered Country doesn’t get to explore this as much as it might. There’s a sense that the crew of the Enterprise are outdated and on their last mission, but Kirk confronts his own obsolescence rather than the inevitable dissolution of the crew.

Here, Weinstein foregrounds the issue. He suggests that Kirk is like a parent dealing with the fact that his children must eventually leave home. “Let Sulu stretch his command legs,” McCoy urges Kirk, who struggles with his desire to protect his former helmsman. Kirk doesn’t exactly respond rationally when McCoy suggests that he should lead a medical team down to help a local colony while the Enterprise continues on its way. “The hell you are,” Kirk responds, matter-of-factly.

They should bottle Scotty's water...

They should bottle Scotty’s water…

“They can’t all stay forever, Jim,” McCoy informs him, shortly before making his own decision to leave the Enterprise to care for the wounded on Epsilon Kitaj. In a line that seems particularly ironic after years of hearing Takei protest about how Shatner sabotaged Sulu’s promotion, Kirk objects to McCoy’s insinuation. “What are you saying Bones–?” he demands. “That I didn’t want Sulu to get his own command–?!”

Sulu is replaced by Saavik, who was introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as a potential replacement for Spock. Weinstein seems to be pushing this idea that the crew of the Enterprise must eventually face the idea that they will have to go their separate ways. After all, they served together for a quarter of a century. Change is inevitable and not altogether undesirable, even if facing that change presents a challenge to Kirk and his crew.

Excelsior, Captain!

Excelsior, Captain!

This idea that the cast need to disperse, and the tension that this idea creates, even finds expression among those who are left behind. “Feeling left out, Chekov?” Uhura asks Chekov at one point. “You look like the last kid left on the sidelines after everybody else has chosen up teams.” Of course, it’s worth noting that Chekov was really the first member of the crew to fly the coup, serving as the first officer on the Reliant during the events of The Wrath of Khan. No wonder he feels restless.

Weinstein weaves this recurring theme into the background of Tests of Courage. The plot of the six-issue story arc sees the Federation and the Romulans playing a dangerous game by proxy. The Federation are assisting a minor Alpha Quadrant power with the disarmament of their weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the Romulans are acting by proxy to destabilise the region and to undermine galactic peace.

Ship under siege...

Ship under siege…

This adds a rather nice political dimension to the story – the sense that conflicts between major powers don’t always play out directly, instead taking place in smaller theatres by proxy. Here, the Romulans do not challenge the Federation directly. Instead some low-level operators known as the Maroans serve as “Romulan surrogates.” (“Who in blazes are the Maroans?” McCoy asks at one point, demonstrating just how insignificant they are in the grand scheme of things.)

In many respects, Weinstein is writing a story that resonates with the geopolitical realities that often get overlooked on Star Trek. While the original show featured episodes like Friday’s Child or Errand of Mercy or A Private Little War where the Klingons and Federation would compete to influence smaller planets and cultures, there was always a sense that the Klingons and the Federation were always squaring off against each other.

Spaced out...

Spaced out…

In contrast, Tests of Courage portrays a very different approach to diplomatic relations, but one very grounded in realpolitik. The idea of major powers using minor states as pawns is quite old, one particularly prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century. Indeed, Weinstein is simply elaborating and expanding on the type of troubled relationship that existed between the major powers during the classic Star Trek show.

(The use of the Romulans rather than the Klingons as the villains of the piece is interesting. Perhaps it serves to hint at the pending alliance between the two major powers, or perhaps it reflects the change in Romulan and Klingon culture that occurred in the franchise during the late eighties. The Romulans on Star Trek: The Next Generation were just as devious and treacherous as the Klingons on the classic Star Trek, and vice versa. Perhaps Weinstein is foreshadowing that somewhat.)

The Romulan Way or the high way...

The Romulan Way or the high way…

As with characters like McCoy and Sulu, the supporting players find themselves struggling with questions of autonomy and independence. The Maroans are trying to court the Romulans, operating within the parameters set by the Romulans but with their own objectives and their own plans. Indeed, the Maroans have much to prove. While the Maroans try to demonstrate that they can be a worthy ally to the Romulans, Maroan Commander Vodrin goes rogue in order to prove his own worthiness and prowess.

Acting unilaterally, he decides to embark on an ill-advised occupation of a colony, claiming it in the name of Maroan Dominion. “Then the Federation and the Romulans will give us the respect we deserve,” he vows. Vodrin desire for independence and autonomy has horrific results, leading to a tragic and unnecessary loss of life. Vodrin is not able to hold on to the colony for any significant length of time, but he does cause untold suffering and hurt during that period.

A smashing success...

A smashing success…

Weinstein is ably supported by Rod Whigham and Gordon Purcell both do nice likenesses of the characters involved. In particular, they are careful to make sure that the bridge staff on the Excelsior sync up with the characters featured in The Undiscovered Country. It is also worth mentioning Whigham’s design of the Romulan starship. It’s a wonderful intermediate design between the cruisers featured in The Enterprise Incident and the warbirds that appeared on The Next Generation.

Tests of Courage is a fantastically ambitious piece of work. It finds space for character work with Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and Scotty, but also for some densely-plotted space opera that feels just as politically charged – in its own way – as The Undiscovered Country.

“Commander Rand” first officer.


“Romulan surrogates.” Power player.  Command Vodrin decides to go rogue. (Like Dr. Wilson did.) (


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