Sunday, February 16, 2014
“Mars ain't the kind of place to raise a kid.”: Year Four # 6
As we've discussed previously, this series exists at an odd juncture between trying to fill a gap in the history of Star Trek and doing Original Series-style Star Trek for 2007 and 2008, and it's been on the whole a bit changeable on both fronts. Way back in the post on “Operation -- Annihilate!” I mentioned that the season finale it as we now conceptualize it didn't really exist at this point in the history of television. Most finales were, if not simply average episodes of the series, “big” episodes that were only subtly larger in scope or stakes than the norm, brought upon just as often by the production team feeling energized about going out on a high note than the writers consciously writing vastness into the script. And we can see this in Star Trek itself: Of its three season finales, only “Assignment: Earth” actually feels like anything remotely resembling a finale, and that doesn't really count. Then we go back to “The Omega Glory”...Which we really don't want to read as a finale. Actually in that season, it seems far more fitting to call “Bread and Circuses” a finale as there's a sense of closure about it and it's the last story Gene Coon worked on as a regular member of the creative team.
So, were issue six to be some grand, sweeping modern-style epic of a finale, that wouldn't be at all keeping with the tone of the original Star Trek circa 1969-1970. And, thankfully, it's not: We get a parting glimpse of the Enterprise warping away to its next mission that implies this chapter has come to a close, but more adventures are in store, and the rest of the book is pretty run-of-the-mill Star Trek: Year Four. This means, of course, that the story is nothing special: The Enterprise is investigating the disappearance of the starship Pasteur, last reported in the vicinity of the Gobi system. Beaming down to the third planet, Kirk, McCoy, a redshirt and Lieutenant O'Hara, the sister of the Pasteur's missing captain, find themselves suddenly transported to the decontamination chamber of a gigantic warehouse operated by a robot named Avatar (who seriously looks like a Star Trek version of Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons) who guards over and ships the planet's valuable merchandise.
After the redshirt goes the way of all redshirts, the landing party discovers the merchandise in question are genetically engineered infants artificially created from the genetic material of many different alien species, the end result of the native population's fertility experiments and now all that remains of their people. So, a brief scuffle ensues, O'Hara rescues a baby who has the same mismatched eyes her brother had and Avatar is shot by her “daughter” Adan, who randomly appears out of nowhere in the middle of the climax with no buildup or introduction, (it seems Avatar was “curious about the merchandise's potential”) when she tries to kill Kirk for interfering (there goes that Prime Directive thing again: Really one wonders why the Federation even bothers at this point). Spock arrives just in time, having been monitoring the situation from the Enterprise after growing suspicious when Kirk failed to check in and deducing he'd probably been captured and bails everyone out. Deciding her people now finally have a legacy of sorts, Avatar collapses and dies, but tells Kirk to take Adan and the infants with him, while O'Hara decides to settle on Pacifica to raise the child she found as her own.
Perhaps predictably, we once again have another puree of Star Trek tropes and motifs. There's a tragic extraterrestrial fighting to preserve the legacy of her people which is reminiscent of a lot of different things, though “That Which Survives” seems to be the one that most immediately comes to mind, even more so considering Avatar's mechanical nature. There's a dispute that starts off ideological and ends up physical and, somewhat gallingly, a Babies Ever After ending celebrating the potential and hope symbolized by children. Although that said this still manages to work better than the most egregious moments of the TV show that inspired this series: That this story would glorify youth for the sake of youth is a significant step above the far, *far* too numerous stories in the Original Series about how misguided and dangerous young people are, and while this has problems of its own (this probably isn't the place to get into reproductive futurism) it never does *quite* cross the line into an embrace of heteronormativity and “biology” a la “The Apple” (though it comes close at times). Finally, I would complain a lot more about O'Hara if A. She wasn't a woman of colour and B. There weren't other female characters to contrast her with: Uhura is enough at this point, but we also get Avatar and Adan, even though the latter is only in the story very briefly.
(That said it is more than a little creepy she's projecting her dead brother onto the child she adopts: That's all kinds of messed up and requires more of an analysis than I'm prepared to give.)
It's also possible to read this as as a kind of “issue” story. By this I mean that it was probably written as a response to and take on a particular contemporary political topic, and not an issue of a comic book series, though it is in fact that as well. The issue in question is likely that of “designer babies”: The possibility or trend of extremely wealthy people using sophisticated prenatal technology to determine specific traits about their children before birth and using this foreknowledge to “custom design” their ideal baby. This is, of course, horrible, because it removes the voice and agency of the children themselves, who should be allowed to make their own decisions about their own lives. Furthermore, it's not a huge leap from that to full-on eugenics, and indeed arguments have been made that this is just eugenics with a different name.
Star Trek taking this on is interesting because it of course has its own very sticky history with eugenics: After all, “Space Seed”, one of the most beloved episodes of the actual Original Series, was tacitly about how bad eugenics were and how they plunged Earth into its last global conflict, but the crew didn't hide their admiration for Khan's manliness, charisma and accomplishments. The show has frustratingly shied away from actually taking a firm stand against eugenics, perhaps because it at least subconsciously recognises that a Master Race of enlightened despots might actually be what the Federation fantasizes about when it's all alone. So in that light this story is reparative and serves a much-needed role: It has Kirk and McCoy come out and describe what Avatar is doing as slavery as she's literally selling entire generations of life-forms into forced servitude to their buyers from birth. On the other hand, this happens in one panel and the story doesn't really give itself enough room to fully develop these ideas and come up with a decisive position to take, which means this isn't quite as effective as it could have been.
Year Four has actually had this problem a lot, and I think it's because these are not only comic stories, but comic stories that are even comparatively short for the medium. It has just enough time to introduce a topic and get a few words out about it before it needs to wrap everything up, and it has to balance that with expositing the larger plot. However, I think that says more about the creative team than it does the medium: Issue four didn't have any of these problems at all, it was absolutely flawless and was just as long in page length as any of the other issues in this series were. Maybe if we didn't have to squeeze in so many fight scenes and kill off so many redshirts so McCoy could say “He's dead, Jim” we might have had more room to explore issues like this with actual depth and nuance.
I also want to briefly note the art this week: It's handled by Trek comic veteran Gordon Purcell, who worked on many of the great classic Star Trek comics from the 1990s, and let me tell you he makes a *world* of difference. It was folly for a project like this not to bring someone like him onboard from the very beginning. Purcell alone elevates this story considerably, though it's once again not an especially *terrible* outing for the series. But he also caps off what's really worth talking about with this story, and that's sort of the problem. Issue four aside, Year Four has been a surprisingly tepid and safe return for Star Trek. I appreciate the fact it's managed to avoid bottoming out *quite* as often as its source material did, but it never really seemed to make much of an effort to improve upon it either, and that's always going to be the fundamental problem with any kind of project with this pedigree.
Thankfully what we get next time looks a sight more intriguing.