If you haven’t followed my review of this storyline, here are links to reviews of DC’s Star Trek issue #43, issue #44, and issue #45 which came out today, collectively known as “The Return Of The Serpent”. The story is a sequel to the season two episode of the original series “The Apple“. For the record I haven’t seen the episode in a long time but thanks to that wiki link I’m up to speed on what I remember. In the episode the Enterprise comes to the planet Gamma Trianguli VI on a routine mission. Since it aired on TV you can guess it wasn’t as routine as they planned. On the planet they’re attacked by killer fauna and come upon a primitive society who worship Vaal, a computer that controls the planet. While attempting to not interfere events force them to do so. Or did it? The episode features one of the earliest discussions of the Prime Directive, a hands-off rule when it comes to pre-warp planets.
On the one side was Captain Kirk, who didn’t think people should be run by computers. On the other you have Mr. Spock, who figures they were happy and not being tortured or otherwise threatened by their computer god and just leave them be. In the end they end up destroying Vaal. Apparently this ending didn’t sit well with Mike Carlin, who wrote this three issue arc. Therefore he took the opportunity to undo the end of the episode by restoring Vaal and showing what the paradise world had become without they’re cybergod. I don’t have a problem with this. In fact I recommended all three issues as it is a real good story. As far as restoring Vaal, seeing the results of the heroes’ visits to planets can make for a good story. (Not always but we’ll worry about that when we get to those stories.) It’s also possible that other readers may agree with Carlin’s perspective. Star Trek has always been a morality play (not counting the Abrams movies) so the only time the franchise even today messed up was in the execution of those stories, and possibly even the points of view or portrayal of the characters. The comic gets the characters right, but I do want to question how Carlin sets about making his case and why though I see both Kirk and Spock’s point of view on the subject this particular three part story jumps through a few hoops to be right.
It should be noted on the subject of religion and Star Trek that the show was not always friendly to religion. Gene Roddenberry was an atheist and rejected it outright, which explains Kirk as a sort of “god slayer”, tackling everything from Apollo to Quetzalcoatl between the live-action and animated series, not to mention fighting a stand-in for Yahweh, the Judaeo-Christian concept of God (for the record I am a Christian and yes I enjoyed Star Trek). And yet when they came across a stand-in for Lucifer the story was about portraying “Lucien” as a fun-loving trickster, even calling out the Lucien/Lucifer connection at the end of the episode in case you somehow missed it in 1973. This was a stupid thing to do in the Saturday morning cartoon for kids, as it got them in trouble and led to my theory that Kirk is actually in league with Satan, which would explain some of his victories and bedroom conquests but that’s a joke for another time.
Kirk also has a history of going up against computers, especially when those computers act like gods. You have Landru, M5, NOMAD, and even his own ship’s computer a time or two. Kirk’s thinking on Vaal is certainly in line with his other adventures. Granted that unlike Landru Vaal was more benevolent to the servants in his care. It was visitors he didn’t like. All Vaal required of its “slaves” was to be fed, since it somehow turned food into its energy supply. Otherwise they lived in peace and ignorance.
The comic depicts the world without Vaal’s influence. Makota now leads the people, and is rather cruel. Akuta, who once fed Vaal and acted as his messenger, led a splinter group known as the Vaalites, who hope for their god’s return. Both have their issues with Kirk and company. Akuta of course hates him while Makota sees them as a path to gain more power…somehow. I’m not sure how you gain more power from beating one of them in battle and marrying the alleged goddess. Everyone seems more than happy to follow him except for the group that would never follow him anyway. This is the Gamma Trianguli that our heroes return to after 20 years and the planet itself is dying without Vaal maintaining it. (I guess nobody learned gardening.) The hope lies in restoring Vaal, which Spock eventually does, with Kirk realizing how wrong he was to destroy the computer god in the first place. At least as Carlin writes it.
There are a couple of issues and I want to address the minor one first. One of the ways Carlin tries to prove his point is by going outside of what little was established. The episode gives no indication as to where Vaal came from or why he exists. Carlin tries to solve this in the comic by claiming it was built by Sargon’s people. Sargon is from the episode “Return To Tomorrow“. The short version is that the people of Arret (not named in the episode but was apparently used in the directions of the script) had great mental powers and ended up destroying their own atmosphere during a war. It was also stated that they did their share of traveling and may even be one of the Vulcans’ ancestors. In the comic, it was these people who created Gamma Tranguli and Vaal hoping to not repeat their mistakes and blaming it on civilization. Their memories were wiped and Vaal basically kept them immortal. Without Vaal the planet itself is dying because it’s a synthetic planet, hence the computer. I’m not against the basic premise but why tie it specifically to Sargon’s people? It’s not like they’re the only people who wiped themselves out in Star Trek’s universe. It’s a possible explanation otherwise but nothing in the episode points to it so Carlin is making head canon in order to push his point.
My main gripe is the same one that the episode itself forgot halfway through in order to have the discussion of whether or not serving a computer god was morally okay and whether or not Vaal was ultimately good for the citizens or, as Kirk believed, was stunting their ability to grow (although again Carlin’s origin story says they shouldn’t grow, also proven by the state the people are in 20 years later). Spock’s vote is that they leave the planet alone and not violate the Prime Directive. What everyone seems to forget and what I realized having seen the episode years after reading the comic is that Kirk tried to do just that early on. After one of his crew was killed by the poison dart flower and they learned there was a primitive culture living there Kirk wanted to leave, but Vaal wouldn’t let them. The communicators were messed with, the crew was knocked out, and the ship was in danger of falling into the atmosphere. Vaal didn’t try to chase them off but kill them off. When Makota and his lady friend saw Chekov making out with his love interest for the episode and imitated it Vaal threw a fit. It was then VAAL who taught Akuta about killing and had him teach a few of the other men of the village. Maybe in Carlin’s interpretation he would wipe their minds of the whole encounter afterwards and they’d forget about sex and murder if Kirk hadn’t found a way to awaken the crew and have the Enterprise phaser the thing offline, but if Vaal had let them leave they would have had the planet declared off-limits like they did at the end of the episode anyway and not even known about Vaal, just assuming the planet had deadly plants and a society they’re forbidden from approaching except under special circumstances. Instead it shoots them with planets, hits them with exploding rocks, and throws lightning bolts at every redshirt it can aim at.
That’s where this story and the discussion in the episode both messed up, the special circumstances. The Enterprise trashing Vaal was in self-defense. I don’t know if this was canon during either the show or the first DC Comics run but if you recall from my review of the writer’s guide to Star Trek: The Next Generation there are rules that allow for it to be violated.
There are only two possible exceptions to the Prime Directive: 1)When the safety of the starship is jeopardized. 2)When it is absolutely vital to the interests of the Federation.
Any Captain who finds it necessary to violate the Prime Directive had better be ready to present a sound defense of his actions.
Vaal threatened the safety of the ship when he could have just let them go and not have to do anything. They even said, without knowing that a sentient godputer was listening in, that they needed to let the planet be. Otherwise Spock was right about the Prime Directive fitting into this situation. Again, from the TNG guide:
Starfleet General Order Number One says that we do not have the right to interfere with the natural process of evolution on any planet. We do not have the right to interfere with the culture of the people who live on the planet. We do not have the right to interfere with the natural process of life.
Based on that Kirk was wrong to invoke his own world view on the Vaalans. The episode devolves to only having the Kirk/Spock debate. McCoy is obviously on Kirk’s side, but he’s absent from the renewed debate in the comic as he was brought up to the ship at the end of the first issue and stays there for the other two. The whole story then is about proving Kirk wrong. However, it does so by offering extenuating circumstances, like having the primitive society fall apart, which makes a form of sense (though I have to ask where the huge dino-steeds come from), and making it a synthetic world that’s going to pull a Krypton in ten years. Apparently Carlin didn’t think he could sway opinions just by showing how the Vaalans devolved without Vaal so he threw in the time bomb planet and tied the idea to Genesis, further connecting it to the events of the second and third movie. It’s like he wasn’t confident in his own arguments swaying opinion that leaving them under Vaal’s control and protection was a good thing, since he’d just be rehashing the same debate. However, doesn’t that then make the theme itself just a rehash of “The Apple”, just with Kirk being called out for things he didn’t foresee rather then the exact concerns Spock had coming to pass. Even then I guess Kirk would have said he was still in the right because at least the Vaalans were finding their own way without being controlled by two of his hated enemies, gods and computers. So Carlin added the final countdown.
I don’t know why Carlin felt the need to tell this story. I have two potential theories mind you. One is that the episode could be seen as anti-religion (this is classic Star Trek) and Carlin was trying to in a sense defend at least the idea of a benevolent god doing good for the people. The other is that he was against them interfering with this simple culture and deciding what was best for them while being upset that the computer was deciding what was best for them without even trying to understand why this thing was here in the first place. (Even in the comic they only learn these things when Spock is connected to Vaal and he tells them about Arret and the upcoming destruction.) While I do enjoy the story and do encourage reading it the comic makes the same mistake the episode does partway through and forgets that this wasn’t just about deciding who gets to decide but also their own defense. Could they have tried to find a solution that didn’t involve godslaying? Maybe, but Vaal from the start wasn’t having it and I’m not sure what his goal was keeping the rest of the landing party there. Was he doing to indoctrinate them? What about the people on the ship? There’s a hole in the story (not necessarily the plot) that ended up being ignored for the sake of the debate on religion and who has the “right” to decide for these people, and the comic doesn’t really solve that problem. It just says “I disagree with the episode and I’m going to fix it”. If you agree with Spock, and therefore Carlin, you will be satisfied, but there’s a factor the episode forgot and the comic ignored and for me it leave the message a bit flat either way. It’s one of those debates that should have been left open to the viewer/reader as the crew fought to survive, or at least handled better. In this way the comic only adds to the problem rather than solving it, and as good as it is (again, I do recommend reading it for Trek fans as new people will be lost) this is where the story fails.