Star Trek #43-45 (DC) by Mike Carlin, Tom Sutton, Ricardo Villagrán, Michele Wolfman, Helen Vesik
Not every story has a hero, and not every moral is a good one. One side of a conflict can be wrong without their opponents being right. In situations like that, even if all of the parties come to an agreement, the results are bound to be bittersweet at best. I don’t know for sure that Mike Carlin set out to write a story in which everyone (and I do mean everyone) came across as one shade of villain or another, but that’s certainly what he accomplished in this three-issue arc. By the end of the story, a solution has been reached that is probably the best possible option for the problem at hand, but it’s still a resolution that makes me uneasy. It’s very much a lesser of two evils situation, a compelling and difficult philosophical question with no good answers.
The story is a direct sequel to a second-season episode of the original Star Trek series, "The Apple." In the episode, Kirk leads a landing party to the planet of Gamma Trianguli VI on what is supposed to be an exploratory mission. Their goals change quickly when the planet itself starts to attack them and interferes with their ship, preventing them from leaving. Meeting the locals, Kirk and crew learn that the entire planet, from atmosphere to wildlife, is controlled by an underground, super-advanced computer named Vaal. The citizens of G.T. VI worship Vaal as a god, feeding him periodically so he can stay powered up and continue to provide them with a paradisaical world in which to live. They are immortal, these people, no longer aging because of how ideal Vaal has made their environment, and all of them are in perfect health. But that also means they don’t have sex or even romance, that there is no progress or creation in their culture. They exist in a state of homeostasis, a never-ending cycle of feeding Vaal and having Vaal feed them in kind. They are perfectly content to live like that, as they have done for countless years.
It matters not to Kirk and company how happy they are, though. To the Enterprise crew, and Dr. McCoy in particular, Vaal is a tyrant robbing his worshipers of their free will. It is not life, says McCoy, but stagnation, and therefore it is the Enterprise’s duty to do something about it. Though Spock protests, Kirk agrees, and in order to free both themselves and the people of G.T. VI, the Enterprise destroys Vaal. Kirk tells the planet’s inhabitants that they’ll thank and understand him someday, and then abruptly gathers his crew and leaves. At the episode’s close, Spock argues that if G.T. VI was a paradise before, then killing Vaal was on par with the snake giving Adam and Eve the apple that got them expelled from Eden. Kirk laughs this off by saying Spock looks more like Satan than he, and the credits roll.
But Spock makes a valid point that should not be so quickly waved away, which is why Carlin names his sequel "Return of the Serpent." Technically, because Vaal is brought back to life, it could be that he is meant as the titular serpent. After all, the cave that houses him has an entrance in the shape of a huge snake or lizard head. It’s far more likely, though, based on what happens and where this story lands, that the Enterprise is the serpent in Carlin’s mind. It returns to G.T. VI to check in twenty years after "The Apple," and Kirk has to face how truly dreadful a mistake he made the first time around.
As soon as he and his team land, it’s obvious that something terrible has been going on. Where once G.T. VI was lush and tropical, it is now a barren wasteland. Looking for answers, the crew finds Makora, one of the only indigenous people whose name they learned twenty years before. He is now a freethinking man of some respect with a full harem and a bunch of kids, but his freedom has corrupted him and made him greedy, so he pulls a mad stunt to try and become the new leader of his race. Vaal was a god, and now Makora means to replace him; he sees himself as a deity and wants others to do the same. Despite the planet decaying rapidly, he is hell-bent to become the top dog of the hellhole. Or top god, as the case may be.
Not everyone agrees that Makora is a suitable replacement. Akuta, the only person with whom Vaal communicated directly when the Enterprise first visited, remains loyal to his fallen master, along with a small but fierce band of “Vaalites.” So the formerly utopian, pacifistic society of G.T. VI has fractured and is now in constant conflict. Meanwhile, the world itself is dying, almost completely uninhabitable already. It’s a dire state of affairs, which the Enterprise’s presence only exacerbates. Somehow managing to make enemies of both sides, Kirk and his crew find themselves captives first of Makora and then almost immediately of the Vaalites. Luckily, Spock decides to step in, perhaps as he wishes he’d done two decades back, and saves everyone on the planet by restoring Vaal to life. Though even then, he does it in about the most pig-headed and antagonistic way possible, refusing to explain to his friends what his plan entails. This creates needless tension and confusion, and even leads to violence between the Enterprise, the Vaalites, and Makora’s people. As I said, nobody’s really a hero.
It also comes to light during the course of all this that the entire planet of Gamma Trianguli VI was built around Vaal. A man-made world, it’s very physical integrity depends upon Vaal being able to run the show. His followers were the descendants of colonists from Arret, a planet from another Star Trek episode that was destroyed by war. The thinking behind G.T. VI was that, if progress was rendered unnecessary, there’d be no war, and therefore the mistakes of Arret’s past could be avoided. So the stagnation that McCoy recoiled at so vehemently was, it turns out, the whole point. And it worked swimmingly right up until the Enterprise arrived twenty years ago.
The specifics of how Spock revives Vaal in the present are a bit convoluted. It has to do with him physically and mentally connecting himself to the computer to re-power it, but that only works up to a point, because Vaal also needs to process organic matter and turn it into energy. So ultimately Akuta sacrifices himself, and then somehow that leads to his spirit living on in Vaal or something. It’s not entirely clear how that works. Whatever the mechanics of it, Akuta becomes an omniscient floating head, and Vaal is returned to full power. And then, because of Akuta’s sacrifice, Makora is chosen to be the new liaison between Vaal and the rest of G.T. VI’s inhabitants. Thus peace is restored, and paradise begins to rebuild.
Sort of a miraculous solution, no? Almost religious, you might say
And that’s totally fine if that’s what Carlin was aiming for, but I don’t think it was. Or, if it was, I don’t know how convincingly he pulled it off. Because this story only favors religion insofar as religion promises eternal paradise, which is a claim nobody can definitively back up. Yes, if you could literally visit Heaven, and you looked around and it was exactly as described, milk and honey and choirs of angels, you probably wouldn't shoot God. So I agree that Kirk screwed up in "The Apple." He made a decision about the future of an entire race of people based on only the most superficial information, and tried to solve for them a problem that they did not agree they had. That’s hubristic to the point of being comical. I appreciate Carlin taking issue with that, but I’m not sure he brings me all the way over to the side of Vaal either.
Because on a theoretical level, having a planet full of sentient beings living in a weird, mindless, symbiotic relationship with a machine is a little unsettling, to say the least. All the things that McCoy says about giving people freedom of choice and opportunities for progress still stand as perfectly reasonable arguments. I understand why Kirk was convinced back in the day, just as much as I see why it so troubled Spock when they did what they did. If you visited Hell, and everyone there was blissfully ignorant of the eternal prison that was their lives, you might very well take a shot at the Devil. But would you be right to do so? It is, after all, his home you’re visiting.
Carlin does not necessarily pick a side. Though Akuta and Vaal are vindicated in the end, the former is played as a maniacal, power-hungry mad man for the length of the story. And the latter is still a computer, no matter how intelligent or important, so there’s no expectation that the reader would be cheering for him, no reason to ever feel invested in him on a personal level. Spock comes out of all this the best, but his holier-than-thou cryptic Vulcan attitude about the whole affair creates a lot of hurt feelings and hurt bodies that could have been avoided. Carlin makes him, if not the good guy, the best guy, because that’s the role he played in "The Apple," too. Although, he still makes plenty of mistakes. As for Kirk, he says out loud at the end of Star Trek #45 that he “was very, very wrong,” when he choose to kill Vaal initially, so there’s no question that Carlin isn't a huge fan of his. And Makora may be the worst of the bunch, a completely self-centered ruler who acts as a warning against the risks of free will. He is a rough collection of the basest human desires in a leadership position. And he loses all the power he’d gained, returning to the status of servant in the end. Not only are there no true heroes, there’s just no good flag to wave. Only a collection of violent men who each think they know best, trying to prove each other wrong.
The story also has a weird relationship with violence. In almost every instance, it is shown as the worst possible solution to any problem, but still a popular one. Makora’s attack on the Vaalites could not come at a worse time, and when the Enterprise’s soldiers join the fray, things only get worse. It was phaser fire that drained Vaal of his power twenty years before, and it is phaser fire that puts his rebirth at risk now, prompting Akuta’s death. Big picture, Carlin displays violence as easy, lazy, and always wrong. But then there’s Konom the pacifist Klingon, whose personal character arc sends the opposite message.
At the beginning of the story, Konom refuses to use his weapon, even against an attacking dinosaur. But the longer he spends on G.T. VI, the more violence he is exposed to, and, over time, he begins to feel that he has no other choice but to use it. This progresses until, by the narrative’s close, he’s just another trigger-happy redshirt, which seems to suit him just fine, and maybe even be something he enjoys. He definitely gets encouragement from his crewmates. Also, though the consequences of violence are very much a part of this story, Konom never suffers them too greatly himself. When he fights, he tends to win with little emotional or collateral damage. Why is he the exception? Why would his smaller story give an inverse view of violence than that of the larger story in which he’s a player? Perhaps this is just Carlin trying to be thorough, to give all sides a fair chance. Or maybe the use of violence, like so many of the ethical dilemmas raised in this comic, is a complicated thing to discuss. Rather than provide a firm opinion on the matter, Carlin presents a few points of view and leaves any final decisions to the reader.
That’s clearly his approach with the main narrative. He writes several almost equally unlikable sides, and an ultimate solution that is so specific to this situation, and settles the issues of G.T. VI so unsatisfactorily, that the larger debates are left open-ended. Is survival more important than freedom? Is happiness worth mindlessness? What is a god, and do humans need them? None of these questions are any more concretely answered at the end of this story than they were at the start. But they have all been teased, explored, and turned upside down through the singularly strange example of Vaal and the planet he was built to control.
While an enjoyable and thought-provoking tale, I don’t think "Return of the Serpent" needs or even particularly wants to be a comic book. Not that Carlin was upset with the medium or ill-suited for it as a writer, it’s just that this specific story isn’t very interested in its visual elements. It’s a long-winded, multi-faceted ethical, philosophical, and theological debate. There is a lot of fighting, a handful of dinosaurs, and some cool details in the caves that hold Vaal, so it’s not void of stimulating material. Yet there’s often a lot of talking even in the action sequences, and an almost constantly-running discussion of the past, present, and future of the planet. I wonder if Carlin might not have made even stronger points and fuller arguments if he’d written this as an essay, an overt critique of "The Apple." But then he’d lose the ability to put the words in the characters’ own mouths, which is pretty important.
I don’t mean to indicate that the art is bad in these issues. Tom Sutton draws highly realistic characters, and can do crowded scenes in small panels without sacrificing that level of detail. Some of the largest battles are hard to follow in places, but only because everyone from G.T. VI is more or less dressed the same, which makes sense in the context of the story. The large central cast of Star Trek all look distinct and very much like themselves, and that’s probably the top priority when you’re doing a comic book based on a TV show, anyway.
So the art is never boring, sloppy, or unclear. And the story is never boring, either, even in its most talkative moments. But the two elements don’t necessarily mesh all that well. The things that are interesting about the visuals aren't the same things I care about in the narrative; they’re a bit disconnected in their priorities. The art always accurately reflects what’s happening in the script, yet it still feels like the two aren't especially worried about what each other are doing.
Carlin does not offer many solid answers, opinions, or lessons. He asks the questions and presents numerous possible reactions, but the ending he settles on leaves many of them up in the air. If there is something to be learned from "Return of the Serpent," it’s that making a decision about anything without having all the facts first is the wrong call. Kirk did it in "The Apple" and almost destroyed a world. The Enterprise does it again when they send down an armed team, when they follow Spock into Vaal’s cave, and when they then attack Vaal in the middle of him trying to return to life. Every one of those moves is a mistake that comes far too close to ruining everything all over again. It is the one wholly consistent truth in this narrative, that looking before you leap is a bad idea. Beyond that, "Return of the Serpent" can function as a call to religion, an anti-violence piece, a case for humans trying to build utopia, an argument against free will, or just an interesting and thoroughly written sequel to a decent episode of a classic TV series.
NOTE: An earlier version of this review appeared on The Chemical Box.