Star Trek fandom circa the mid 1980s was a curious thing. With four blockbuster movies to its name, the franchise was most certainly not the expressly marginal phenomenon it had at least the appearances of throughout the 1970s. However, given the necessarily sporadic nature of cinema, it’s tough to see how Star Trek would have been seen as a truly ever-present thing (that is, a work that is unarguably current, which is somewhat different then the general ubiquity Star Trek has always had). That kind of presence requires, especially in the days before the never-ending sensory overload of publicity that today’s media artefacts enjoy, something akin to a regular television show, which Star Trek still didn’t have, though this would change now, in 1986, with the announcement of a new syndicated Star Trek series to premier next year.
This makes the appearance of “The Final Voyage” particularly well-timed, for, in addition to giving the Original Series a proper finale of sorts (it was a constant bugbear amongst a certain sort of fan that Captain Kirk talks about a Five Year Mission while Star Trek only lasted three seasons) that segues neatly into the film series, it also serves as a way of passing the torch to whatever the new Star Trek show would be, as it was largely assumed that the new series would follow a new crew and a new ship. That said, what’s the most interesting about all of this is the decision to do this story as a comic book instead of, say, a tie-in novel or errata to one of the movies. Comics had been part of Star Trek’s history forever, but, until recently, they had largely been resigned to doing “bonus stories”: At best, extra stories for when the TV show wasn’t on the air and, especially once the Original Series went off the air, bits of promotional merchandising to cater to the show’s fans and keep the brand in people’s minds.
This doesn’t mean the comics of the 1980s were written by and for what we know now as Nerd Culture: The larger melange of cultural signifiers we associate with this phenomenon today didn’t really exist yet (and certainly not for a franchise like Star Trek, which doesn’t really get co-opted by Nerd Culture until the mid-to-late 1990s), though if you wanted to be particularly reductivist you could maybe spot the trends that would eventually culminate in it a decade or so later. At this point, the comics division of Star Trek is in an interesting place, consisting as it does of a relatively big-name book series from DC that was pegged, however briefly, as a pseudo-official continuation of the story established in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was of course a task made significantly more annoying by the release of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and, predictably, anyone trying to reconcile all four works together would likely find themselves with a formidable headache.
However, by 1986 the movies were out and, more importantly,with the exception of The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan, DC had the novelizations of all of them, a fascinating trend that would continue all the way to 1994. While Pocket Books had the rights to put out trade paperback novelizations of the movies along with their regular line of tie-ins (beginning a long-running partnership with Star Trek that continues to this day), DC had their own adaptations too, and these versions were treated as equally important as the rest, if not more so. I find these sequential art translations to be overall the better adaptations of works such as these: There’s something about Star Trek that fits comics better than prose I feel, likely due to its serialized and highly visual heritage. And so, it fell to Mike W. Barr, a regular writer on DC’s monthly Star Trek book and the writer responsible for novelizing Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, to pen the story that bridged the gap between the Original Series and the feature films.
Really, DC couldn’t have picked a better person. With the perspective of history, Barr’s portfolio and legacy precedes him: Aside from his work on the early 80s series, Barr would go on to pen several stories for the second volume of DC’s Star Trek book when it rebooted in the second half of the decade, along with a number of classics for the later DC Star Trek: The Next Generation and Malibu Star Trek: Deep Space Nine books during what I consider to be the unabashed Golden Age of Trek, not just on television, but in comics too (and sometimes *more* in comics, but now I’m getting ahead of myself). But even in 1986 Barr would have obviously been the person for the job given his work with the film adaptations, and this shows throughout “The Final Voyage”: Barr nails the voice and personality of each and every one of his characters, from the Original Series cast to Will Decker, who makes his “first” appearance in this story.
This shows in other, more subtle ways too: Scotty has the moustache and streaks of grey hair he’ll sport in The Motion Picture, while Decker sports the redesigned uniform and communicator from that movie. This also leads to one of my favourite little moments in the book: After Scotty expresses his doubts about the look of the newly unisex Starfleet uniforms, Uhura flatly points out
“Is that so? Well, you might feel a little differently if you’d spent the last five years wearing a mini-skirt.”
Which is such a bloody perfect line Barr knows he doesn’t need to add anything else, so he just has Scotty stammer and walk away. Meanwhile, the Enterprise too looks as if it’s in an intermediary stage, with visual cues in the design of its interior that are reminiscent of both The Motion Picture and the Original Series: It’s as if the ship itself is in the processes of metamorphosing into a new form.
The actual story is, perhaps surprisingly, a somewhat low-key affair: Kirk and Spock receive word that the Enterprise‘s five-year mission has come to an end, and that they are to return to spacedock so the ship can undergo retrofitting and the crew can pick up their next assignments. On their way, the Enterprise stops to pick up Will Decker, and up-and-coming officer who’s going to take over from Kirk in the captain’s chair. It soon becomes obvious though that Decker may not be quite ready for prime time, as he harbours resentment and guilt for the actions of his father, Commodore Matt Decker, whose brazenly suicidal actions cost the life of the USS Constellation. Before the crew can process the prospect of life apart from the Enterprise, they’re plagued by traumatic and haunting visions and, stunned, realise they’ve somehow been transported to Talos IV. This turns out to be the work of Commander Koloth, who has led a Klingon invasion of Talos IV to annex the planet to the Empire and find a way to weaponize the Talosians’ power of illusion.
Beaming down to investigate, Kirk, Spock and Decker are captured by the Klingons, imprisoned in the Talosians’ repurposed zoo cages and subjected to protracted mind torture along with the rest of the crew. I’m not a fan of this kind of scene as a general rule, but I have to admit it makes sense and is appropriate here, as the way the Klingons torture the crew is by forcing them to endure their greatest fears or relive their most painful memories: Decker is haunted by the *literal* ghosts of the Constellation, who blame him for his father’s failures and Scotty is finally unable to pull off the impossible at the last second and save his ship from destruction. But the most intriguing nightmares belong to Uhura, Spock, McCoy and Kirk: Uhura imagines she’s being held captive by robotic life-forms who weld a featureless mask to her face: In other words, what Uhura fears is a loss of her own unique identity and being forcibly absorbed into a monolithic, homogenous force. It’s the Borg four years before the Borg and even more meaningful in the context of Uhura, a woman of colour, as it’s a biting criticism of the teleological Gene Roddenberry version of utopia that so often defined the Original Series.
Spock imagines being back on Vulcan tormented by his childhood bullies and being unable to turn to his mother for help, as she has become a pure Vulcan as well and disowns him, calling him a failure. For Spock then, his worst nightmare is at once completely losing touch with his human side, but also being forever ostracized for it (ironically enough, this vision is the primary factor in Spock deciding to take leave from Starfleet and undergo the kholinar ritual, as he felt he allowed his emotions to get the best of him, which, brilliantly, fits as well). McCoy, meanwhile, imagines Joanna being critically injured an unable to save her, as he was so far away when it happened he wasn’t able to get to her in time, thus driving even more of a wedge between him and the remainder of his family.
What’s wonderful about these two scenes is they come explicitly out of character moments established by D.C. Fontana in places very much not the Original Series: We heard a little bit about Spock’s family life in “Journey to Babel”, but the character development that allows us to get this insight into Spock’s core really comes from “Yesteryear”. And of course, Joanna McCoy, and her relationship with her father, has always been something we’ve only ever been able to speculate about and is a bit of backstory that exists only as assumed fanon from a particular branch of fandom. Having Spock and McCoy’s defining character moments in “The Final Voyage” come out of these specific bits of Star Trek lore is a wonderful, affirmational declaration that the story of the Original Series crew is larger than the 79 episodes of live-action television and a touching acknowledgment of D.C. Fontana’s contributions to what’s become an evolving and ever-growing tapestry. This makes “The Final Voyage” feel a lot more like the capstone to an era instead of a bit of fanwanky fill-in-the-blanks writing.
Then there’s Kirk. Kirk doesn’t envision an imaginary scenario based out of any underlying self-doubt or anxiety, he actually has to relive his most painful memory: The death of Edith Keeler. The only difference between the version of the scene in “The Final Voyage” and the one in “The City on the Edge of Forever” is that the illusory Edith Keeler taunts Kirk throughout about his dedication and subservience to “the future”: The idea that he’ll sacrifice himself and others for some intangible and ill-defined long-term “greater good” instead of trying to make decisions that come out of a sense of kindness and justice in the present. And it’s a stinging critique, and more than makes up for the debatably hackneyed invocation of Edith Keeler and “The City on the Edge of Forever” when, speaking strictly in terms of the narrative of the original show and films, it might have made more sense to use Reyna, or even Carol Marcus here.
This was an instance where Kirk’s decision was very much made out of an eye towards a larger duty and obligation, but paradoxically also a sense, either conscious or subconscious, that he’s the protagonist Star Trek‘s entire narrative revolves around. Taking it even further, there’s the ever-worrisome imperialist subtext to the original story, where apparently it’s trying to teach us pacifism is inherently wrongheaded and will make us go soft and will lead to a future run by Space Nazis. Edith rightfully points out that this is bullshit, and calls Kirk out on betraying the values he himself holds to in the name of a higher authority, which he constantly tries to excuse away as “honour” or “duty”. And Kirk snaps, breaking free of his illusions and just wails away at his Klingon torturer, giving us the one thing the Original Series, in all its indulgent voyeuristic “two-fisted diplomacy”, always shied away from: Pure, unbridled rage and bloodshed. The ultimate cause and consequence of all violence.
Furthermore, this scene plays into the black hole gravity “The City on the Edge of Forever” exerts on all manifestations of the Original Series story, and how much it’s trapped by all the unpleasant implications and connotations that episode embodies. As much as Star Trek in this form may try to stretch its wings and evolve beyond its roots, its roots are far too often too problematic to fully cast aside without some serious rehabilitation. And that’s what “The Final Voyage” is encouraging us to do: Take a good look at everything Star Trek is and wants to be at this point in its history and use that knowledge to better ourselves as we go forward. Which is just about the purest Star Trek message you can find. And, having finally acknowledged its past and present, no matter how ugly it can get at times, Star Trek is free now to grow up and move to the next stage of its life. So, when the lights go off on the bridge and Kirk walks off to take up his new assignment, it doesn’t feel like the end of a story, but rather the beginning of the next chapter of one.