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Star Trek (Gold Key) #61 – Operation Con Game (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 Gold Key comics came a long way, in the end.

The early issues were full of errors and contradictions – feeling like Star Trek as described across a crowded bar, the broad strokes present but the details never synching up. Those early comics – much like James Blish’s novelisations – suggest a missing link between Star Trek and fifties science-fiction. The earliest issues offered a glimpse of Star Trek through a prism. However, the comics grew more professional (and more familiar with their source material) as they went along.

Beam me down, Scotty...

Beam me down, Scotty…

Indeed, the series attracted a number of notable writers and artists, including Len Wein. Wein would go on to write for the franchise when DC procured the license in the mid-eighties. More than that, it was clear that the writers and artists had begun to watch the show. There were none of the early mistakes that come from working with publicity materials and without context. Although the earliest issue of the comics achieved infamy among Star Trek fans, the book ran for over a decade – stumbling a bit close to traditional Star Trek values as it went along, even if it never quite abandoned its more absurd tendencies.

Operation Con Game is the last issue of Star Trek published by Gold Key, and serves as an example of how far the comics have come.

Disrupting that thought...

Disrupting that thought…

Most obviously, the comic is populated with familiar elements. As the Gold Key comics went on, the writers and artists became more comfortable with the mythos, and sought to include familiar or iconic elements in their plots. The Guardian of Forever appeared, as did the Romulans and Zefram Cochrane. The final issue published before Gold Key handed the license over to Marvel, Operation Con Game features both Harcourt Fenton Mudd and the Klingons, among the most popular recurring elements of classic Star Trek.

To be fair, there are still some details that don’t quite line up here. Most obviously, the Klingons seem a little strange. Far from an alien army, the Klingons appear more like space pirates – wearing green shirts and gold medallions in place of black uniforms and gold armour. It seems like perhaps something was lost in translation between the artists and the source material. Spock seems a little out of character, as if the script is struggling to properly express his alien nature. On spotting the Klingons, he declares, “To invoke an ancient Earth expression, we have been ambushed… by Klingons!”

Harry Mudd seems just a little more bloodthirsty than usual. Both Mudd’s Women and I, Mudd portrayed Harry Mudd as a bumbling and ineffective conman, rather than a ruthless pragmatist. Indeed, one suspects that part of Harry Mudd’s problem is that even he buys into his own rhetoric. The version of Mudd presented in Operation Con Game is a more violent than any version seen on the show, betraying Kirk to the Klingons so that they might kill him and plotting to maroon McCoy to cover up his intergalactic hustle.

Here's Mudd in your eye!

Here’s Mudd in your eye!

Still, even with these inconsistencies and issues, Operation Con Game reinforces the sense that the comics have come a long way. While the earliest issues tended to insert the crew into stock science-fiction situations, Operation Con Game feels like a conscious effort to write a story in the style of Star Trek; one packed with familiar tropes and stock storytelling elements. In some ways, Operation Con Game feels like a checklist of familiar Star Trek plot devices and story elements, all streamlined into a single issue.

Kirk and the Enterprise arrive on an alien planet to negotiate for a natural resource, as in Mirror, Mirror or The Cloud Minders. While there, they discover the Klingons are competing against them, as in Friday’s Child. At the same time, it seems like some alien force has imposed itself as the unquestioned leader of the local population, as in The Apple or Return of the Archons. Even before Harry Mudd is revealed as the culprit, Operation Con Game plays as a “greatest hits” mash-up of Star Trek storytelling.

Everything is ship-shape...

Everything is ship-shape…

Initially, it seems like Operation Con Game is setting up a jingoistic chest-thumping propaganda piece like Friday’s Child. Arriving on the planet, Kirk and his away team are informed, “I assume you have come for the dilithium, captain! But this treaty gives exclusive mining rights to the Klingon Empire!” Kirk falls back on the same lines of criticism of the Klingon Empire that he uses throughout the series, “But you don’t understand! The Klingons are a warlike people! They’ll use the dilithium for conquest and subjugation!”

And then it is revealed that the dilithium is a sham. It is all a farce. Kirk and the Klingons would find themselves fighting over less than nothing – indeed, the dilithium is literally explosive. In a very wry way, Operation Con Game plays like a parody of Cold War politics in the style of Gene L. Coon. Kirk and the Klingons posture and pose over absolutely nothing. It feels like a logical descendent of episodes like Errand of Mercy or The Trouble With Tribbles, episodes that reduce the grand philosophical conflict between the Federation and Klingons to a farce, one exploited by conmen like Mudd for their own gain.

Kling-outs...

Kling-outs…

Indeed, an early conversation demonstrates how far the Gold Key comics have come, and how the writers have come to recognise the most appealing aspects of the Star Trek mythos. After arriving on the planet, Kirk firmly rejects the idea of just taking the dilithium without the consent of the native people. “Without dilithium there’d be no starships!” Kirk concedes. “Still, we can’t just move in and help ourselves wherev…” The sentiment might be cut short by a shot from an opportunistic Klingon, but the comic’s heart is in the right place.

The Gold Key comics have come a long way from an opening issue where the Enterprise wiped out an entire planet because it was different from them. While this would be the last Star Trek comic published by Gold Key, it does serve to illustrate how much more familiar the series had become with its source material over the ten years in publication.

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

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