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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #9-16 – New Frontiers (aka The Mirror Universe Saga) (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.

Eight issues is a long time in the world of comic books, even by the standards of modern storytelling. Committing to the same story arc for two-thirds of a calendar year is a big decision, even moreso in December 1984. Nevertheless, DC comics committed to an eight-issue Star Trek story arc in the wake of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, on throwing Kirk and the crew into a truly epic adventure with the fate of the Federation hanging on the line. It is no wonder that The Mirror Universe Saga remains the gold standard for Star Trek comic books, reprinted and repackaged repeatedly over the years.

The Mirror Universe Saga is an epic in just about every sense of the word, spanning two universes and eight issues. Not only do writer Mike Barr and artist Tom Sutton find themselves handling the fallout from the last feature film, but they also dabble in an iconic piece of Star Trek history. The Mirror Universe Saga takes full advantage of its format to offer a spectacular and impressive adventure that would have been impossible to realise on film in 1984 – indeed, it is hard to imagine television or cinema doing justice to the scale of the adventure now.

Meeting of minds...

Meeting of minds…

However, The Mirror Universe Saga succeeds on more than simply epic scale and meticulous attention to detail – although Barr and Sutton provide those with gusto. Despite everything going on around it, The Mirror Universe Saga largely works because it never loses track of the characters at the heart of the story. While the Terran Empire might be plotting an invasion in the midst of an internal revolution, the more powerful moments of The Mirror Universe Saga come from throwing the characters into contact with their alternate selves.

In 1984, it seems like The Mirror Universe Saga had figured out what would be the core ingredients for the most successful follow-ups to Mirror, Mirror. It deduced that the mirror universe could not just be playground where everything is gloriously and campily evil; it had to retain some level of emotional reality or connection. What good is a mirror if it is not reflecting anything?

Set course... for eeeevil!

Set course… for eeeevil!

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Mirror Universe Saga is the decision to have the mirror universe doppelgangers interact with their regular counterparts. After all, Mirror, Mirror had done a like-for-like swap with the ensemble, meaning that nobody was interacting with their own alternate self. Recognising this missed opportunity, The Mirror Universe Saga takes great pleasure in having Kirk confront mirror!Kirk and devotes a big moment to the mind meld between Spock and mirror!Spock.

It is a very clever approach to the mirror universe, and it focuses the story in the characters. After all, when Star Trek: Deep Space Nine visited the mirror universe, the more successful stories were those anchored in the core characters. Crossover presented Kira with a twisted reflection of herself – a puppet ruler and collaborator ruling a version of Bajor that had sold its soul for power. The most interesting aspects of stories like Through the Looking Glass and Resurrection were invested in how the primary cast reacted to meeting counterparts to deceased lovers.

Hey, Kirk. Stop hitting yourself...

Hey, Kirk. Stop hitting yourself…

The Mirror Universe Saga takes care to explore what the existence of these alternate selves must mean to each other. Both mirror!Kirk and mirror!Spock express disgust and contempt for their regular counterparts, resenting the bitter reminder of the people they might have been. “I hate you… for you are all I can never be!” mirror!Spock confesses to his counterpart in a moment of honesty. Similarly, mirror!Kirk admits to his own alternate self, “For fifteen years, I’ve been haunted by you — by what you tried to do to my world, by your very existence!”

It is a nice touch – one which reinforces the idea that the regular Star Trek universe is a better world, one built on hope and faith in humanity and the larger cosmos. Our versions of Kirk and Spock exist as objects of envy and upset to their counterparts, their lives existing as proof that Kirk and Spock might have been able to live in paradise. It is a very nice – and non-preachy – way of reinforcing the idea that the world of Star Trek is much better than our own by stressing the possible contrasts.

Hey, Spock. Stop melding yourself!

Hey, Spock. Stop melding yourself!

In fast, The Mirror Universe Saga reinforces this distinction in Kirk and Spock’s reaction to their alternate selves. While mirror!Kirk and mirror!Spock are motivated by hate and revenge, Kirk and Spock can even find some measure of sympathy for their counterparts. “All I feel you is sorrow,” Kirk admits after defeating his alternate self, even after mirror!Kirk attempts to murder him. Kirk and Spock are not simply the product a better utopia system, they are also more willing to forgive and atone than their counterparts.

Indeed, the most wonderful twist of The Mirror Universe Saga comes early on, when it is revealed that mirror!Spock did not even attempt to overthrow the Terran Empire as Kirk had urged at the climax of Mirror, Mirror. “I said I would consider such a move, Admiral… and I did — until I realised that what you proposed was, in the final analysis, illogical,” mirror!Spock rationalises. “For one man to oppose the empire would mean the death of that man, not of the empire!” It seems that the problem is not just the mirror universe itself, but the people inhabiting it. mirror!Spock is just a pale reflection of his other self.

Saucer separation!

Saucer separation!

In the opening issue, Barr cleverly contrasts the relationship between James T. Kirk and Carol Marcus with that of mirror!Kirk and mirror!Carol. In the regular universe, Carol can forgive Kirk for the death of their son as an indirect result of his actions; in the mirror universe, mirror!Carol resents and blames mirror!Kirk for the death of their son, leading to a cycle of violence where mirror!Kirk kills mirror!Carol and destroys the Regula I laboratory. (“You took my son and murdered him!” mirror!Carol accuses mirror!Kirk, providing a nice mirror to the events of The Search for Spock.)

Indeed, mirror!Kirk provides Barr with an interesting vehicle to explore the heroism of James T. Kirk. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan plays as something of a cynical deconstruction of James Tiberius Kirk, as one of the character’s past mistakes comes back to haunt the crew. There is an argument to be made that much of the pain and suffering that occurs in The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock can be directly or indirectly attributed to Kirk’s past decisions – from marooning Khan without telling anybody to his son’s ego in meddling with the genesis device.

As above, so below.

As above, so below.

However, The Mirror Universe Saga reaffirms the idea that Kirk is a hero despite his errors in judgment and occasional over-confidence. Rather tellingly, the story makes the case that mirror!Kirk is a solid example of an evil version of Captain Kirk, one that quite resembles Khan Noonien Singh. Not only does mirror!Kirk murder everybody on board Regula I, he also tricks a Federation ship the same way that Khan tricked the Enterprise. When mirror!Spock plans to arm the ship’s formidable weapons, mirror!Kirk boasts, “We have a far greater weapon on our side, Mr. Spock… that of trust!”

Barr and Sutton clearly have a lot of knowledge of and affection for the Star Trek canon. In particular, Tom Sutton manages the almost impossible task of fashioning an evil sexy version of the movie-era uniforms, beautifully and cleverly combining the designs from Mirror, Mirror with those of The Wrath of Khan for some delightful results. The series is populated with all sorts of loving references and acknowledgements, from the restatement of “let me help” from The City on the Edge of Forever through to the presence of mirror!Kahless IV from the comic’s own opening arc.

"One big happy family."

“One big happy family.”

In fact, Barr cleverly uses his knowledge of the Star Trek canon to provide his own origin story for the mirror universe – suggesting that the Terran Empire is the direct result of Earth losing the Earth-Romulan War. It is a clever twist, one that builds on historical narratives about the First and Second World Wars. Barr seems to suggest that cycles of violence are self-perpetuating and that these atrocities tend to spiral outwards until they are eventually stopped by either internal decay or external force.

The Mirror Universe Saga suggests that the Terran Empire is plotting its own invasion of the mainstream Star Trek universe. Diane Duane would use a similar idea in her own novel, Dark Mirror. The idea is that empires tend to expand and will continue to expand until they collapse. Imperialism will only fuel more imperialism; it is never possible for an expansionist power to be sated. There is something quite harrowing in the idea of an empire so hungry for conquest that it would march across the multiverse to satisfy that lust.

Again with the Klingons!

Again with the Klingons!

It is interesting to note that Barr and Sutton have some skepticism of Starfleet as an institution. This is not Roddenberry’s idealised utopia. The final issue in the story follows an intrepid young reporter trying to cover news within the Federation. Her colleagues have become lazy and complacent. “All you have to do is sit tight and wait for Starfleet to hand you a story,” one comments. It is hard to believe that such a system contributes to a healthy and functioning democracy.

When the reporter acts on her own initiative, she receives a stern rebuke from Starfleet’s press liaison. “We have no record of a request from you to publish the story you released over your service,” Commander Dennison states, matter-of-factly. It seems like the Federation treats freedom of the press as a theoretical rather than a practical concern – that the administration doesn’t mind reporters, so long as the reporters merely parrot what they are told. It is a very clever way of problematicising the Federation, one at least a decade ahead of the television franchise.

She's got her antennae to the ground...

She’s got her antennae to the ground…

Barr and Sutton also cleverly use their knowledge of continuity in other ways. The most interesting aspects of continuity in The Mirror Universe Saga are those aspects of character continuity carried over from the events of The Search for Spock. Barr doesn’t have the luxury of knowing how Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home will play out, so he boldly goes in his own damn direction. He doesn’t stall or procrastinate. He launches directly into what he would expect from a follow-up to The Search for Spock.

In fact, the story seems to pick up almost immediately where the film left off, opening on a splash page of a recovering Spock. The addled half-Vulcan remarks, “Jim. His name is Jim.” Meanwhile, the crew struggle to put their lives back in order. “My friends,” Kirk announces to his crew, in a scene that is mirrored in The Voyage Home, “I have a task to perform. Your company would be appreciated, but is not ordered.” Of course, in The Voyage Home, Kirk is returning to Earth to face the political fallout from his actions; here, he faces more personal consequences.

An empire marches to war...

An empire marches to war…

Barr and Sutton include a sequence of Kirk visiting Carol Marcus, allowing the scientist to grieve for her dead son. Interestingly, Vonda McIntyre would include a similar sequence at the start of her novelisation of The Voyage Home, following Carol Marcus as she attempts to visit the relatives of all those brutally murdered as a result of Khan’s rampage. Understandably, The Voyage Home pitched itself as a comedy; it had no room for scenes like this. However, it is nice to see these little elements play out.

Indeed, The Mirror Universe Saga skilfully demonstrates the benefits of having a monthly comic book series to compliment a movie series; it gives the franchise more room to breath and develop. The Voyage Home is too small to properly process all the lingering threads from The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock; it is also tailored to a broader audience that cares little for a character who appeared as a supporting character in a film half-a-decade ago. Tie-ins and spin-offs make room for elements like Carol Marcus.

By any other name...

By any other name…

In fact, Barr and Sutton do a much better job with Saavik than The Voyage Home does. The fourth film in the series simply deposited Saavik on Vulcan as the original crew went on their way to have bold new adventures. Here, there is room to explore what all this means to the new supporting character who was only introduced in the film that conspired to kill off Spock. “I know it’d make me feel like a real stranger,” Scotty assures her. “And I’d feel uneasy about tryin’ t’fit in, tryin’ t’belong…”

(In a very nice piece of dialogue, Barr even makes reference to Sulu’s promotion. The line was ultimately cut from The Wrath of Khan, but Barr still obliquely acknowledges it. “Before we began that ‘little training cruise’, I was in line for my own command!” Sulu complains to Chekov. “Do you think I’ll ever get it now?” Even for those who don’t know about the cut line of dialogue, the conversation seems particularly ironic; Sulu would eventually receive his own command, even if he had to wait until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.)

It all blew up in his face...

It all blew up in his face…

The eight-part epic remains a high benchmark for Star Trek comics. The Mirror Universe Saga is an ambitious piece of work on its own terms, cleverly structured as two four-issue stories mirroring one another: a prologue and an epilogue tidying residual clutter; the first four issues featuring the invasion of the regular universe, the next four featuring the exploration of the mirror universe. It holds up very well as a story on its own terms, enjoyed and appreciated as a thoughtful piece of Star Trek.

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

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4 Responses

  1. DC comics somehow thought it was a good idea to predict what was going to happen after the 3rd film… and they could not have been more wrong. The timeline to this story takes place weeks after the ST:III, however ST:IV has Kirk stating that they were on Vulcan for 3 months which makes sense since Spock would have needed more time to recover. Here, it just happens instantly because the writers have no time for actual character development, or coming up with anything new or different. The presentation is convoluted and I had to read very slowly to guess the continuity of one frame to the next.

    To say that ST:IV had a better storyline and characterization than this, is an understand statement. This is just another bad guy has to be stop, The Voyage Home actually had the crew using their wits and skills to save the day and it didn’t involve another space battle and a hand to hand fight scene. Thank god this become non-canon.

    “The eight-part epic”

    … man, are you easily amused and seem to understand nothing of what Star Trek is suppose to be…

    • “… what Star Trek is supposed to be…”

      Interesting. What is Star Trek supposed to be?

      (And, to be fair, the comic was always “non-canon”, just as every novel was always “non-canon.” Canonicity is not a measure of quality and worth. After all, Alliances and Tattoo are both explicitly canon, which does not make them good.)

  2. Thanks for writing about this, I’ve heard about this story arc but never read it. It sounds like a fun alternative/addition to Trek IV.

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