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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #43-45 – The Return of the Serpent! (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the benefits of a franchise as old and as diverse as Star Trek is the opportunity it provides for introspection and reflection. Star Trek has existed for almost fifty years. In those fifty years, the franchise has been written by a lot of different people at a lot of different points in time. As such, it makes sense that viewpoints shift and core principles are questioned. One of the more intriguing aspects of watching Star Trek grow older is watching the franchise question some of its earlier decisions and opinions.

The Return of the Serpent plays very much as a criticism of The Apple, a three-issue storyline dedicated to exploring just how wrong Kirk was to impose his own attitudes and beliefs upon the people of Gamma Trianguli VI. In some ways it can be see as both a spiritual successor to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and a precursor to the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Crossover, in that it is a story based significantly around critiquing a moral judgement made by James Tiberius Kirk and endorsed by the show.

Shocking twists!

Shocking twists!

The Return of the Serpent is an interesting story, because it consciously problematicises a story from the original Star Trek television show. It is essentially a story about how Kirk made a terrible decision that cost countless lives. This criticism is voiced more explicitly that the criticism of Kirk in The Wrath of Khan and half-a-decade before Crossover would make it to air. This is a very bold and brave tie-in from DC comics. It is hard to imagine a story like The Return of the Serpent being published during Richard Arnold’s tenure overseeing Star Trek tie-ins.

That said, Mike Carlin’s script is not without its own problems. For all that it challenges a decision that Kirk made during the original run of the series, the ending rather consciously avoids the implications of that decision. The Return of the Serpent seems to assume that Kirk can just reverse the damage he has caused by flicking a switch – by going back and repairing the original mistake. For all that The Return of the Serpent cleverly interrogates Kirk’s decisions and motivations, it is undermined by a rather clean and convenient resolution.

Into the belly of the beast...

Into the belly of the beast…

To be fair, the political climate had changed since The Apple had aired. In the late sixties, Vietnam was still heating up. It had yet to become an inescapable quagmire. While the writers on Star Trek clearly had very strong (and divergent) opinions on the matter, Gene Roddenberry’s writing in the early part of the second season seemed to support American intervention in Vietnam. Episodes like The Apple, A Private Little War and Friday’s Child suggested that there was a moral obligation upon the Enterprise to export values using military means.

However, opinion shifted. In fact, one could argue that the Tet Offensive was a massive turning point in the public perception of the conflict. In the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, Roddenberry would be among the signatories on a public letter urging peace. However, even more significant changes would occur after Star Trek went off the air. The optimism of the sixties gave way to the cynicism of the seventies, as people began to more openly question the moral authority around various government policies and methodologies.

"Hehe, same trick worked again!"

“Hehe, same trick worked again!”

This growing cynicism and skepticism only increased over time. By the time that the first issue of The Return of the Serpent hit the stands in October 1987, the United States had been rocked by revelations made by the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Transactions with Iran and the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition. In May 1987, it had been revealed that several prominent members of the Reagan administration had facilitated the sale and supply of arms to Iran.

It seems that Roddenberry’s own political views had shifted in the intervening years. The Iran-Contra Affair cast a significant shadow over the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Episodes like Too Short a Season and Conspiracy seemed rooted in that betrayal of trust and the idea that Starfleet’s moral authority might not be as absolute as the public would like to believe. All of sudden, the political and philosophical naivety on display in episodes like The Apple felt horribly misjudged.

We come in peace!

We come in peace!

The Return of the Serpent feels like an attempt to retroactively criticise the arrogance of Kirk’s decision to impose his own values on the people of Gamma Trianguli VI. In many respects, Mike Carlin feels like the right man to script the issue. Carlin was an editor at DC who had a reputation for adding “edge” to his titles – giving his books a bit more bite and flavour than many contemporaneous DC comics books. After all, DC had earned a reputation as the blander of the “big two” comic book publishers, with stories that tended to be safer and more straightforward than those at Marvel.

Carlin earned a reputation for bringing the sort of edge that one associated with Marvel to the books he oversaw at DC. “I used to think that, at the time, Mike Carlin was editing the best Marvel Comics around,” comic book writer Roger Stern quipped in one interview, “they just happened to star Superman and have a big DC up in the corner of the cover.” Carlin served as editor of the Superman line in the early nineties, during the high-profile (and somewhat infamous) Death of Superman. So, if you want an iconoclastic comics creator, he makes a solid choice.

Not phased in the slightest...

Not phased in the slightest…

The opening monologue has Kirk explain that Starfleet has sent him to do something of a retrospective analysis of his visit. “Myself and a landing crew have been sent to record exactly what effect our last visit had on this world and her inhabitants.” Once the team beams down, Kirk is confronted with absolute horror. “This cannot be the same planet! Everything is just as I hoped it wouldn’t be!” Kirk killed the being that these people worshipped as god, with no real understanding of local culture nor the role of the computer known as Vaal. That will have consequences.

On landing, Kirk discovers that Gamma Trianguli VI has fallen into holy war. The two factions are led by two of the characters that Kirk met in The Apple. First, Kirk encounters Makora, the character played by David Soul in the episode. Makora has built up a cult around the Enterprise and sought to secure his own power base. Having learnt a lot from Kirk, he has used that knowledge to dominate his fellow citizens. He has the most wives and the most children, the measure that Kirk had set as a necessity for a thriving society in The Apple.

Crosses to bear...

Crosses to bear…

However, Makora is a dictator now. He has learned that he likes the taste of power. He conspires to murder the away team as a public show of force, to prove to his followers that he can slay a deity. Makora stands in opposition to the “Vaalite” movement, a traditional religious organisation that still worships their murdered god. Kirk just abandoned Gamma Trianguli VI at the end of The Apple, making jokes to gloss over the fact that he had up-ended their religious, political and social systems without a second thought.

The Return of the Serpent is quite scathing in its assessment of Kirk. The character confesses, “I’ve turned this planet of paradise into a primitive medieval war zone!” Later, he notes in his log, “I made several decisions that have apparently turned this veritable Eden into a warring dark age hell!” Spock does not pull any punches in his own summary of the situation. “What we did then was wrong,” Spock reflects to Kirk. “Our mission was to explore new worlds and new civilisations — not to interfere in their ways of life.”

Real troopers...

Real troopers…

Indeed, the most damning aspect of The Return of the Serpent is not that Kirk had the arrogance to murder god. It is that the society that grew up in the wake of his visit was consciously modelled on the values that he imparted to the citizens. “Now I will use your ‘civilised’ methods to restore what you have taken from us!” Akuta warns Kirk. Makora has built a religion around Kirk for his own sinister purposes. Kirk left Gamma Trianguli VI with nothing more than a few trite philosophies, but those philosophies have done incredible damage.

The Return to the Serpent is a scathing commentary on the sort of jingoism at play in episodes like The Apple. However, the comic runs into a number of problems on its own terms. Most obviously, Kirk and Spock manage to save the day by turning Vaal back on. This feels like a rather simplistic approach to these large problems, assuming that flicking a switch back two decades later can reverse everything that has happened. After all, the morals involved in turning Vaal back on are not as simple as reversing the decision to turn Vaal off in the first place.

The Pits...

The Pits…

Kirk has just restored a fascist system of government on an alien planet. The fact that a religious war is being waged would suggest that a significant portion of the population do not want Vaal turned back on. The Return of the Serpent works hard to justify this decision. Both Akuta and Makora are absorbed by Vaal in one way or another, becoming part of the same machinery. However, this seems to assume that their followers will all fall into line. Historical evidence suggests that conflict resolution does not always work that way.

The Return of the Serpent also attempts to justify Kirk’s decision by explaining that Vaal is necessary to hold the planet itself together. Vaal not only figuratively links the individuals living on the planet, but literally prevents Gamma Trianguli VI from falling to pieces. As such, Kirk and Spock’s decision to turn Vaal back on seems a little too clean, a little too neat. After all, the choice becomes either “turn Vaal back on” or “let everybody on the planet die.” The second option is so bad that it’s hard not justify turning Vaal back on again.

Soul mates...

Soul mates…

It seems like The Return of the Serpent writes around the problem it creates. It avoids the really tough questions. Can Kirk and Spock be justified in interfering again, even to fix an earlier error? If more interference is justified, then should Kirk and Spock commit to a long-term peaceful solution rather than attempting a clumsy quick-fix. For all the clever criticisms that The Return of the Serpent makes of The Apple, it still ends with Kirk warping away from the planet having radically changed their system of government; never looking back.

Still, the clumsiness of the resolution aside, The Return of the Serpent is a thoughtful and intriguing piece of Star Trek, one not afraid to reflect quite harshly on some of the morality displayed in the classic Star Trek television show.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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