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Star Trek (IDW, 2009) #13 – The Red Shirt’s Tale (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.

The IDW monthly comic series that launched after the release of Star Trek is an interesting beast.

Writer Mike Johnson has been on board since the title launched in September 2011, lending the comic a sense of creative consistency. Much has been made of the involvement of Roberto Orci as “creative consultant” on the title, as if to imply that the comic might somehow be legitimised in relation to the blockbuster franchise that spawned it. Certainly, the series does not enjoy the same loose attitude towards contemporary continuity that characterised the DC comics series published during the mid-eighties.

Suit up!

Suit up!

At the same time, it is not as if IDW’s on-going Star Trek comic series can claim a closer relation to canon. After all, the events of the comic’s first arc were rendered explicitly non-canonical by a casual conversation between Pike and Kirk in the first twenty minutes of Star Trek Into Darkness. This is not a problem of course – any more than continuity issues were a problem for the mid-eighties DC series – but they do suggest that the series’ fixation on continuity is perhaps misplaced.

This weird fetishisation of “continuity” defined the first year or so of the title’s existence, with issues dedicated to essentially re-telling classic Star Trek stories using the new cast and crew. (Indeed, only one story from that year – Vulcan’s Vengeance – was not based on a classic episode.) The Red Shirt’s Tale serves as something of a half-way marker as the comic began to transition away from these sorts of continuity-heavy retellings, focusing a bit more on the new characters and the new world. The issue is a retelling of The Apple, but in a way that is more thoughtful and playful than a lot of what came before.

Colour-coded...

Colour-coded…

Of course, there is a valid argument to be made that the transition marked by The Red Shirt’s Tale was not entirely positive. After all, barring the inevitable tie-ins to Into Darkness, the on-going Star Trek series transitioned from one sort of continuity fetishism to another. The adaptations of The Galileo Seven and Return of the Archons gave way to the secret history of the Botany Bay in Lost Apollo and the continuity mash-up stylings of The Q Gambit. This cannot help but seem a little disappointing, particularly given that the monthly comic book is one of very few regular sources of Star Trek available these days.

That said, this emphasis on things past makes a certain amount of sense. It is not as if the classic DC comics were ever particularly shy about continuity references or shout-outs. These are tie-in materials very consciously aimed at fans. Similarly, Mike Johnson’s style is very much in keeping with the tone of the movies that inspired it. There is – after all – a very reasonable criticism to be made that the two Abrams films exist to repackage the “greatest hits” of the Star Trek canon.

Shooting together...

Shooting together…

Both borrow liberally from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, while Into Darkness features the Enterprise burning up in orbit from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and a crashlanding in San Francisco from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Coupled with elements like the inclusion of Leonard Nimoy, the recurring presence of tribbles, verbal shoutous to Harcourt Fenton Mudd, the use of Section 31… there is a clear sense that the two movies are really throwing the iconography of Star Trek into a blender and distilling the results.

Of course, there is an argument to be had over whether this is a bad thing. After all, JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films are not the first time that the franchise has blatantly tried to repeat The Wrath of Khan, even if there is a brazenness in actually using Khan himself. (Of course, that brazenness is offset by the decision to hide from the name for half the film.) Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Nemesis both riff on The Wrath of Khan less overtly. The fourth season of Star Trek: Enterprise featured a three-part homage that even made reference to the Botany Bay.

A cure for what ales you...

A cure for what ales you…

More that that, though, there is a certain logic to trading on the iconography of Star Trek on the big screen. Star Trek works differently in cinemas that it does on television. Most obviously, Abrams reinvented Star Trek as a tentpole franchise, largely built around pop culture nostalgia – in that context, as something aiming to attract millions of viewers from around the world as a cinematic “event”, it makes sense to draw from the franchise’s big iconic moments to the point where the plot seems like connective tissue forming around them.

There are elements of this with The Red Shirt’s Tale. The must unsatisfying element of the comic is the fact that the first twelve pages are dedicated to telling the reader stuff they already know, complete with a half-splash page of Kirk fighting Nero from the climax of Star Trek and Hendoroff’s observations about most of the main cast. While these are interesting in theory, they are frustrating in practice; most of the observations are stock and familiar. While every comic could be somebody’s first, it seems safe to assume that readers have seen the film inspiring the spin-off.

Better red than dead...

Better red than dead…

Perhaps the closest that The Red Shirt’s Tale comes to making this work is in allowing Hendoroff to voice a frequent fan criticism of James T. Kirk’s character arc in the first film. Hendoroff offers a pretty compelling counter-narrative of the first film. “And then the Romulans attacked,” he relates, “and suddenly we’re taking orders from somebody a lot of us know best as the guy who cheated on the Kobayshi Maru. Suddenly they’re handing him the flagship.” This is a criticism of which Roberto Orci was well aware, even trying to include it as a plot point in Into Darkness.

The problem is that the scene does not go anywhere; it can’t. From an in-universe perspective, a security officer cannot be see to dress down his superior like that and keep his job. From an external perspective, Kirk is very much the hero here and so can’t really explore these flaws outside the big budget blockbusters into which the comic is tied. Hendoroff can’t be seen to make a humbling criticism of Kirk, so he almost immediately concedes that Kirk is a super-awesome captain, even though the idea of Kirk fighting to win the crew’s respect is a much more compelling narrative arc for everybody involved.

Fading from black...

Fading from black…

(Much more effective, if still somewhat awkward, is the suggestion that Spock is suicidal in the wake of Vulcan’s destruction. Here Uhura criticises him for putting himself at risk, foreshadowing similar disagreements in Into Darkness – she complains about him taking “… another risk, like you’re trying to get hurt out there!” However, it does seem a little forced, because Spock did not really take that obvious a risk – and faced a similar problem in the earlier timeline without the same back story.)

However, The Red Shirt’s Tale remains frustrating because it comes so close to working, only to find itself hindered by its fascination with continuity and its need to anchor itself in the world of Star Trek. The idea of building an issue around Hendoroff – aka “Cupcake” – is ingenious on multiple levels. Focusing on a background character is a great way to see the ensemble in a new light – it brings some novelty to a familiar perspective. After all, Lower Decks was one of the most refreshing episodes of the final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, for broadening the focus beyond the regular ensemble.

And like that... he was gone.

And like that… he was gone.

In particular, the idea of focusing on a security officer on the original Star Trek crew is fascinating. After all, the departments seemed a lot more rigidly defined there than they would on later shows. There are lots of reasons for this. The colours (and, thus, the divisions) were more firmly pronounced on the classic Star Trek uniforms. Also, in the later series, roles on staff seemed less firmly defined by uniform colours – Data and Harry Kim were as much science officers as operations officers, but wore yellow; the “command” colour also seemed restricted to the two highest ranking regular leads on later shows.

And The Red Shirt’s Tale touches on this idea. It is telling that the two crew members who enjoy the strongest relationship with Hendoroff are Uhura and Scotty, who also wear the division colours. At one point, Hendoroff compares the security and engineering divisions as “the blood that keeps the heart of Starfleet pumping.” It is a very clever analogy, and not just because so much of it ends up spilled over the course of the Enterprise’s five year mission. Indeed, The Red Shirt’s Tale cleverly hints at a class division between the various uniform colours.

First contact...

First contact…

On the original show, Scotty and Uhura were arguably more working class than the other series regulars. Sulu was a renaissance man, Chekov was a youngster with a lot of enthusiasm and romance. McCoy was a doctor, Spock was a scientist. Kirk was an all-American hero. In contrast, Uhura frequently found herself reduced to operating the show’s switchboard, while Scotty kept the mechanics of the ship in operational shape. There is an uncomfortable subtext in that Uhura was a black woman and Scotty was… well, Scottish.

The Red Shirt’s Tale also offers a rather gleefully subversive take on The Apple, an episode that was notoriously ruthless in its massacre of red shirt supporting cast members. Mike Johnson makes heavy reference to the episode, while avoiding the most iconic element. The memorable and distinctive snake’s head does not appear, so there is some sense of ambiguity about the whole thing. However, there is no doubt about which adventure is unfolding. Lightning, poison-pin launching plants, land mines; this is very much Gamma Trianguli VI.

Pinned down...

Pinned down…

However, it is a version of Gamma Trianguli IV where no crew member dies as a cheap way to increase suspense. The episode acknowledges this, albeit clumsily. “Who knows?” Hendoroff ponders. “Maybe in some alternate universe everything happens differently and this table’s sitting empty.” It is a very bold a very daring twist on a classic Star Trek story, because it doesn’t just invoke the iconography of classic Star Trek; it makes a legitimate criticism of the show. This is quite a bold move for a Star Trek tie-in, given how defensive Star Trek fans can be about the franchise; particularly the classic series.

The Red Shirt’s Tale seems to suggest that there is a better version of The Apple to be told, one that doesn’t treat anonymous Enterprise crew members as leverage that can be slaughtered to raise the stakes. It dares to suggest that perhaps – in some small way – this rebooted and reworked version of Star Trek might be considered an improvement on what came before; a proposition that likely seems sacrilegious to certain segments of Star Trek fandom. And yet, despite that, there is some evidence to support the position.

So Nero and yet so far-o...

So Nero and yet so far-o…

There are legitimate and valid criticisms to be made of the rebooted Star Trek films, but the movies also make a conscious effort to improve and revise some problematic aspects of the classic Star Trek canon. Whatever problems the movies might have with objectifying the female form (which – though serious – are no more severe than similar problems on Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Enterprise), Uhura is a fully realised character here. Uhura’s language skills are emphasised, rather than her function as Kirk’s secretary; Uhura is allowed to participate in the movie’s big action set pieces.

Star Trek‘s leading trio are no longer three white guys. For a franchise that prides itself on diversity, this is a big deal. In fact, the reboot movies are more careful about giving the members of the ensemble stuff to do than much of classic Star Trek; the original Star Trek television crew did not really gel into an ensemble until around The Search for Spock, almost two decades after they started acting together. Scotty, Chekov, Sulu and McCoy each get moments amid the action sequences.

What a world...

Trouble in paradise?

(Of course, the rebooted movies don’t quite get full marks for diversity. It would be nice to have another high-profile fully-formed female character beyond Uhura; Carol Marcus does not receive quite enough development to count. Casting a white British actor as an Indian Sikh is a questionable choice at best, even if he is great in the role; just as questionable as casting a Mexican actor in the same role. Still, it does represent a more diverse – and arguably, developed – ensemble than that featured on Enterprise.)

The Red Shirt’s Tale is an intriguing comic book, one that feels almost cheekily provocative. It is a script that dares to point to some of the weaknesses of classic Star Trek, and is brave enough to suggest that it might be set in a better world. If only the rest of the monthly series were quite so bold.

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

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