by Matt Derman
...reading comics from the year i was born!
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.
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.
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.
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, except 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.