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Star Trek (DC Comics, 1984) #39-40 – The Return of Mudd (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.

By its nature, Star Trek had very few recurring guest stars – outside of recurring extras and the supporting senior staff.

Star Trek was a prime-time science-fiction show in the sixties. As such, it was strongly episodic. More than that, it was a show that included its stated goal – “to explore strange new worlds” – in a narration over the opening credits. As such, the show did not tend to bring back too many recurring characters. Gene L. Coon had tried to introduce a recurring foil for Kirk in the second season, but Robert Justman had vetoed the reappearance of Kor in A Private Little War and Coon would depart before he could follow through on plans to make Koloth a recurring adversary.

Our man Mudd...

Our man Mudd…

Of course, this has not stopped Star Trek fans from seizing on various one-shot characters from the three seasons of the original Star Trek. Despite only appearing in Errand of Mercy, Kor has become a frequently recurring character in the Star Trek mythos. Gary Seven has spun off from Assignment: Earth into a string of novels and comics. Christopher Pike only appeared with Kirk in one single story, but there is a huge amount of literature dedicated to him. Still, this means that the elements which do recur are given a bit more weight.

Klingons, Romulans and Vulcans are a vital part of the Star Trek mythos. Khan Noonien Singh only appeared in Space Seed and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but his memory haunts the franchise to the point where he was revived for Star Trek Into Darkness. Harry Mudd has the distinction of being the only non-crewmember to recur within the original run of eighty episodes. So it is no surprise that Harry Mudd has become one of the most frequently recurring guest stars in the history of the franchise.

Kirk meets quirky...

Kirk meets quirky…

Not only does Mudd warrant a verbal shout-out in Star Trek Into Darkness, he also appears on both versions of The 25th Anniversary. Mudd was one of the few guest stars to appear in Star Trek: The Animated Series. The novelisations of Mudd’s appearances in classic Star Trek were packaged with an original short story as Mudd’s Angels. Mudd frequently pops up in novels and comics across the franchise’s nearly-half-century history. Simply put, Harry Mudd is an important character in the history of Star Trek; even if he is primarily important because he had the fortune to appear twice on the show.

It is worth noting that both monthly DC Comics series did their own variations on the return of Harcourt Fenton Mudd. The first series published a two-issue The Return of Mudd in 1987; the second series published a three-issue The Return of Harry Mudd in 1991. It seems that there was quite a demand for the intergalactic hustler – right down to the titles and branding of the stories in question. The return of Harry Mudd was not a detail to be thrown in lightly. It was the entire point of the story.

Commanding presence...

Commanding presence…

The Return of Mudd comes at an interesting point in the life cycle of the 1984 series. Despite the fact that the comics were being published between Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, DC had boldly decided to forge ahead with their own stories launching from the end of the individual movies. So Kirk had an adventure with the Klingons and Organians after The Wrath of Khan, then journeyed to the mirror universe and took command of the Excelsior after The Search for Spock.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with this approach. That is what happens when you try to write a monthly series set in the gaps between a trilogy of tightly-connected movies released over half-a-decade. DC demonstrated a wonderful ambition in deciding to tell its own stories without waiting for the movies. Sadly, this sort of approach is less-and-less common in the world of licensed comics. It is hard to imagine IDW’s monthly Star Trek comic offering anything as breathtakingly ambitious (and as sure to be ruled “out of continuity”) as The Mirror Universe Saga.

Space warped...

Space warped…

Nevertheless, with the release of The Voyage Home, a bit of a tidy-up was needed. After all, Kirk could not be riding around the cosmos in the Excelsior after Starfleet went to all the trouble of building a brand new Enterprise for him. So the comics needed to move more in line with the film, removing a lot of the clutter that had built up in the first three years of the series. Despite the fact that the movies would not have Kirk take the new Enterprise on its first mission until Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, the comics immediately installed Kirk and the crew on the bridge of the new Enterprise.

Writer Len Wein was drafted in to help smooth the transition, providing a mini-relaunch with “The New Voyages.” Wein was an inspired choice, a veteran comic book writer perhaps most famous for setting up runs that would become all-time greats. Along with Bernie Wrightson, Wein created Swamp Thing – the character that would enjoy an iconic mid-eighties run under the pen of Alan Moore. Wein also wrote the first adventure of the “All-New X-Men”, before handing the main X-Men book over to Chris Claremont; Claremont would turn Uncanny X-Men into one of the industry’s biggest (and most influential) hits.

Beyond imagining...

Beyond imagining…

More to the point, Wein had actually written Star Trek comics before. One of his earliest jobs had been writing for Gold Key, and had contributed eight issues to the Star Trek comic there. He would take over DC’s monthly Star Trek series with its thirty-first issue. With the thirty-seventh, the comic would alter itself to fit the continuity suggested by the ending of The Voyage Home. Spock was back on the bridge, after the comics had reassigned him to his own ship. Characters from The Animated Series, Arex and M’Ress, became recurring members of the crew.

So The Return of Mudd makes a great deal of sense for DC Comics’ 1984 on-going Star Trek series. Mudd is just another way for the comic to reaffirm its connection to the larger Star Trek universe. The Return of Mudd is such a logical development that you can almost forgive the decision to spoil the first issue’s cliffhanger on the cover of the comic. After all, structuring an issue heavily publicised as “The Return of Mudd” so that the actual return of Mudd is treated as the issue-ending cliffhanger (and the half-way point of the story) is more than a little clumsy.

More Mudd for you!

More Mudd for you!

The Return of Mudd is very much a conventional Star Trek story, hitting on many familiar plot beats and ideas. The opening of the issue bears an uncanny resemblance to I, Mudd. The Enterprise is exploring the universe – only to be hijacked and forced on a strange new course. It turns out that Harry Mudd has wandered into another situation on an alien planet with forces beyond his control, and those forces have kidnapped the Enterprise to keep him company. Even before Mudd appears, it is hard not to get a sense of déjà vu about the whole thing.

That said, I, Mudd is not the only episode from which The Return of Mudd borrows liberally. The idea of a planet that can bend itself to the whims of any visitors reflects the world visited in Shore Leave. The final revelation that the entire planet is a nursery for an all-powerful child reflects the twist ending of The Squire of Gothos. There is a sense that Len Wein is deliberately crafting a very old-school and traditional Star Trek story, full of stock elements from the franchise’s long history. And that’s before we get to the references to “Wrigley’s Pleasure Planet” or “Used Tribbles.”

Walk into the light...

Walk into the light…

In fact, the story seems wryly aware of all this. Kirk doesn’t seem to flustered by all the absurdity happening around him. The crew take it in their stride. Confronted with the all-powerful artificial intelligence running the planet, Scotty seems more exasperated than terrified as he declares, “Aye, just what we needed — another bloody god machine!” There is a sense that this sort of thing is just business as usual for Kirk – that absurdity, as much as risk, is his business.

A large part of the charm of The Return of Mudd comes from its readiness to embrace absurdity. Len Wein’s script and Tom Sutton’s artwork feel delightfully silly. At one point, the crew encounter a refugee from Dr. Seuss, talking in enigmatic rhyme. “Please — there is no cause for alarm,” the creature assures them. “I mean you no harm.” As the situation becomes more and more unhinged, Spock admits, “This situation appears to defy all logic.” It certainly does, and there’s a goofy appeal to all this.

Just what the doctor (Suess) ordered...

Just what the doctor (Suess) ordered…

It is hard not to enjoy a story that has Kirk and his crew wander into The Wizard of Oz, following the yellow brick road to meet the master of the realm. “We’re off to see the wizard,” Kirk quips. The Return of Mudd casts Harry Mudd in the Professor Marvel role, a trick that works very well. (The script even wryly acknowledges as much, with Mudd boasting, “How marvelous to see you again!”) Both are fast-talking hucksters who actually have no real control over their situation. It is a very weird and surreal juxtaposition, two classic American fairytales wandering into brief contact with one another.

The Return of Mudd would be Len Wein’s last story for the monthly comic book, but it is a charming little tale that exists primarily to reassure readers that the end of The Voyage Home might have changed some of the internal continuity of the series, but that the comic was still very much classic Star Trek.

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

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