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Star Trek – Debt of Honour (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.

By all accounts, Debt of Honour should be an unqualified success.

It’s a prestige graphic novel from DC comics, produced around the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek and the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It is written by celebrated comic book scribe Chris Claremont, fresh off his career-defining stint on Uncanny X-Men. An avowed Star Trek fan and comic book veteran, this should be in his wheel house. The art is provided by Adam Hughes, one of the most celebrated and respected artists of his time.

Talk about kicking off a comic...

Talk about kicking off a comic…

By any measure, Debt of Honour should count as some sort of hallmark for DC Comics’ Star Trek tie-ins. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case. A rather muddled storyline that is hopelessly devoted to Star Trek continuity while awkward interfacing with it,  Debt of Honour is just packed a little too tight. Charting a story from the earliest days of Kirk’s career to the aftermath of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Claremont bites off more than he can chew.

Over the course of Debt of Honour, Claremont introduces a vague alien threat that has apparently been haunting Kirk for his entire career, a new arch-foe or love interest for Kirk, and even a supporting role for Kor. Along the way, he packs in cameos and shout-outs to various parts of Star Trek lore. He even explains why Klingons suddenly had ridges around the time of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Ultimately, Debt of Honour is ambitious, but a little over-stuffed and quite over-cooked.

Warp speed ahead!

Warp speed ahead!

Chris Claremont is one of the most influential comic book writers who ever worked in the business. However, he got his start at Marvel working as an intern. Apparently it was his encyclopaedic understanding of comic book continuity that brought him to the attention of the right people. Recognising a continuity problem caused by a flashback to Nick Fury’s childhood, after earlier issues established Fury as an orphan, Claremont quickly produced a convoluted explanation for that apparent contradiction.

Working on Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years, Claremont put that continuity awareness to good use. Characters would get drawn into his run from elsewhere, plot threads would play out over years, dangling threads from earlier stories would pay off years later. Claremont was very skilled at navigating the logistical demands of a monthly comic inside a shared superhero universe. He brings that sensibility to Debt of Honour, for better or for worse.

... and a star to sail her by.

… and a star to sail her by.

(Rather tellingly, Claremont’s contribution to the celebratory twenty-fifth anniversary issue of DC’s on-going Star Trek comic book series was an essay called Moments to Remember. The essay itself didn’t dwell on particular continuity or episodes, but the title does seem to reflect Claremont’s attitude towards the franchise. In that essay, he describes it as “a world and structure of relationships that invited the audience to join in”, an effective summary of a particular approach to Star Trek as a franchise. Debt of Honour is – in many ways – a trip through a collection of those moments to remember.)

Debt of Honour is very much a Chris Claremont comic. It is packed with the writer’s stylistic quirks. Continuity is just one part of it, obvious from the opening page. That opening sequence – one of Kirk’s nightmares – is set on the Genesis Planet at the climax of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The next few pages give us cameos for David Marcus and Khan Noonien Singh. Then Kirk wakes up on a yacht he is sharing with Gillian Taylor after the events of The Voyage Home. However, that’s only the beginning.

Ain't that a kick in the head?

Ain’t that a kick in the head?

Outside of the appearance of Kor, Claremont seems to have a fondness for the continuity of the second season of the classic Star Trek. We get a flashback set during Kirk’s time on the Farragut, unfolding around the same time as the back story to Obsession. Later on, Kirk has another alien encounter directly following on from the events of The Doomsday Machine. Nobody points out the heavy thematic connections between the stories.

Later on, during one of the stranger little touches of continuity, Kirk reveals that Richard Daystrom – from The Ultimate Computer – has provided a “core artificial intelligence” for Kirk’s latest adventure. It seems like a continuity reference for the sake of a continuity reference. After all, The Ultimate Computer ended with Daystrom in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Even if Daystrom had recovered, he didn’t seem to have a strong relationship with Kirk in the first place.

You heard the man!

You heard the man!

Claremont’s continuity mounts up incredibly quickly. When Kirk decides to launch a personal vendetta – having learned nothing from Obsession and The Doomsday Machine – he is joined by the crew of the Enterprise. Apparently that includes a whole bunch of random characters from all corners of the show. “I don’t believe this!” Kirk declares. “Garrovik! Riley! Bailey! Kyle! Styles! Carolyn Palamas! Mira Romaine!”

Claremont even finds a way to explain the issue of Klingon foreheads. Apparently there is political upheaval in the Klingon Empire. T’Cel informs Kirk of “a growing schism between the two main branches of the Klingon race” at the time of The Motion Picture. This explains why the Klingons with the bumpy foreheads have suddenly become the face (and, er, forehead) of the Klingon Empire.

Explosive action...

Explosive action…

Published before the release of Blood Oath, Claremont heavily-features a version of Kor with a flat-forehead.  He dutifully explains why the flat-foreheaded Klingons were no longer seen after Day of the Dove. “Banished to the farthest reaches of the Empire, stripped of the right to call ourselves Klingon. Stripped of our honour. The council will never rescind that order. The political cost would be too great.”

All of this creates a story that feel contrived and convoluted, as if Claremont is struggling to cram as much of the history of Star Trek as possible into this celebratory comic book without an appreciation for how it is all meant to fit together. Cutting very close to the aired episode – picking up as soon as the end credits begin on The Doomsday Machine or expanding Kirk’s story in Obsession – it seems like Debt of Honour is more an exercise is filling in unnecessary blanks than in telling an interesting story.

Something truly Alien...

Something truly Alien…

This isn’t the only are where Claremont stylistic quirks come into play. We get several of Claremont’s strong female characters, particularly when working with a property that has never been entirely good at handling strong female characters. Claremont introduces a new female Romulan commander, named T’Cel. T’Cel shares a chemistry with Kirk, while managing to remain a powerful authority figure.

She isn’t alone in this regard. Claremont reinvents Jaime Finney from Court Martial as a badass in her own right, fighting off an aggressive Klingon and earning the respect of Kor. In fact, Claremont proved so fond of Jaime Finney that he wrote a follow-up story featuring Kor and Finney – Cry Vengeance, published as a back-up feature in a Star Trek: The Next Generation annual a couple of years later.

Dead space...

Dead space…

However, Finney and T’Cel are not alone. The alien horde produces an avatar in the form of a female character – hatched from an egg inside a biological horror. In some respects, the entire climax of Debt of Honour evokes the movie Alien, with an alien ship that is profoundly and unsettlingly foreign. Again, this isn’t too much of a surprise. Claremont is quite fond of Alien. The movie has served as a significant influence on his work.

There are other stylistic quirks here. Claremont’s wonderfully purple prose fits surprisingly will with the Star Trek universe – particularly the sensibilities of the motion pictures starring the original crew. “The sky is fire,” Kirk reflects in the comic’s opening lines. “Flames leaping to the stars as the Genesis Planet around us tears itself to bits.” One can almost hear William Shatner providing the monologue with the suitable gravitas.

There's Klingons off the starboard bow...

There’s Klingons off the starboard bow…

To be fair to Claremont, he does have a grasp on the characters. His attempt to capture DeForrest Kelley’s accent might be a little distracting, but the banter between Spock and McCoy feels organic – as does their chess game. Similarly, Kirk’s character struggles fit quite comfortably with his character arc across the feature films, as Kirk grapples with issues of responsibility and authority. In particularly, Claremont fleshes out his relationship with Gillian Taylor just a bit, making it clear that the people around Kirk seem to understand Kirk better than he knows himself.

Debt of Honour is a mess of a comic. It has some clever concepts and some nice art, but it just feels too scatter-shot and too random to coalesce into something profound or insightful. It’s ambitious and bold and perhaps a little too stuffed with ideas.

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