Ship’s Log, Supplemental: Sting Operation
I’ve said before I’m no expert on comic books. I know I’ve spent basically the whole back half of this book talking almost exclusively about Star Trek comics, but Star Trek was an exception for me, like it was in a lot of other ways. My knowledge of the history of the medium and its important events and figures is functional at best, but, like a lot of people I should imagine, I did use to read them every now and again. Now I never read a ton of comics (at least, not US comics), but neither was Star Trek the only thing I followed in four colours at the time. I never read superhero comics (though I was aware of the characters from other media), but aside from Star Trek I did have a few books I kept an eye out for at the newsstand whenever I’d go shopping with my family. Probably unsurprisingly, they were all licensed titles: Archie Comics’ Scooby-Doo series, Gladstone Publishing’s reprints of Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge stories, and a monthly book from DC Comics published under the Warner Brothers name based on Looney Tunes.
Being that I was first getting into Cartoon Network in the summer of 1995, I was spending a fair amount of time exploring the archives of the Golden Age of Animation, and from this period I have to say that it was the Warner Brothers stuff that most interested me. I was and still am a huge fan of Disney’s Renaissance Age output (…at least on TV), but I have to admit their “Classic” stuff always left me feeling more than a bit…bored and annoyed (with the notable exception of Alice in Wonderland, depending on where you peg the end of the Golden Age being, which is naturally the one Disney movie everyone but me hates, except, apparently Japan). Looney Tunes, on the other hand, was energetic, anarchic, creative and exciting. I had a couple of VHS tapes with some select shorts on them beforehand, mostly Bugs Bunny and mostly a mixed bag, to be honest. But Cartoon Network gave me access to a whole lot more content than I’d ever had anywhere else before, so I eagerly used the opportunity to catch up on my animation history by way of the 1990s version of archive binging.
One of the things Looney Tunes was of course known for was its frequent parodies of then-current pop culture. Bugs Bunny would frequently mingle with representatives of famous celebrities of the time for example, and just as frequently impersonate them. There was also a famous short entitled You Ought to Be in Pictures from the earlier days of Warner Brothers animation that posited Porky Pig and Daffy Duck were actual actors employed at the WB studios and was an early example of blending live action with animation (a tactic, ironically enough, Walt Disney had hoped to use in his various abortive attempts to make an Alice in Wonderland movie prior to 1951). On paper this approach seems doomed to fail as logic would seem to dictate that this sort of humour would date almost instantaneously, and indeed some of them did. But given the sheer output of the Golden Age theatrical tradition the law of averages works in our favour, and the best have held up, perhaps in part because they emerged at a formative time for visual media, wherein the things they were parodying were all lucky enough to be seen as pioneering, though one does have to be careful: When the Renaissance-era Warner Brothers output attempted to repeat this trick with pop culture from the 1990s, the results weren’t nearly as successful, at least in my opinion. It’s called WB’s Silver Age for a reason, ironically putting them back behind rival Disney.
But comics and animation are different, which brings us to this. “Sting Operation” is the cover story for issue 18 of this particular Looney Tunes comic book. It’s a Daffy Duck/Porky Pig feature pegged as a sequel to the classic short Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, which was a simultaneous skewering of Cold War tensions and run-and-gun sci-fi film serials, namely, of course Buck Rogers. It’s also, incidentally, another absolutely stunning example of sci-fi animation art design from the Looney Tunes team-This and the Bugs Bunny/Marvin the Martian vehicle Hare-Way to the Stars are some of the most evocative SF I’ve ever seen put to film. A lot of fun connections to make here: Star Trek was always way more indebted to raygun pictures than its fanbase was willing to admit, and when I saw this short for the first time on Cartoon Network I always thought it was neat how it was supposed to take place in the 24th Century (well, OK, the “24½th”), which is when Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine take place. Not that the two look anything in common, of course.
Well, surprise surprise, “Sting Operation” is a Star Trek takeoff.
But hang on a minute, because this is actually really weird: Star Trek parodies are certainly nothing new in pop culture, especially the pop culture of the late-80s and early-90s, but firstly a Looney Tunes Star Trek riff in 1995 seems curiously late to the party, but more to the point what’s really interesting is the version of Star Trek it chooses to take on. “String Operation” is a parody of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, *not* Star Trek: The Next Generation (or indeed the then-imminent, and very much overhyped, Star Trek Voyager), but furthermore, it’s a parody of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine from *two years ago*. And it’s pretty blatant about it too: Following the Shaving Cream Atom disaster on Planet X (chronicled in the original Duck Dodgers and the24½th Century short) as well as another unspecified incident involving a disintegrator weapon and the general’s yacht, Duck Dodgers and his sidekick, Eager Young Space Cadet, have been reassigned to Starbase Deep Dish Pi, “a fifth-rate space station orbiting the planet Midden in the Shmattazoid sector”, the home of “the galactic dead-letter office”) and, according to Dodgers, “the most isolated post in the galaxy” with “visitors once a decade”.
Deep Dish Pi ( which is effectively two pie tins clamped together with three very docking pylon-esque vicegrips. The name is even written on the side of the station in the font used in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine title logo) is stationed near a wormhole (one with a pretty nasty sinus condition, according to Duck Dodgers and Eager Young Space Cadet) that every so often occasionally literally spits up a mail ship. Most of the mail they have to sort through is made up of returned unwanted holiday fruitcakes, which the crew use to terraform planet Midden. On this particular day though, they get an unexpected visitor: A small ship comes through the wormhole, and Dodgers is excited to potentially make first contact with a new civilization. Turns out though it’s actually the first vanguard of an invasion fleet from the S’keet’r Armada, a culture of slightly larger-than-average alien mosquitoes who have designs to conquer the Federated Conglomeration. Duck Dodgers and Eager Young Space Cadet initially don’t take the threat seriously, but are forced to change their tune when the advance soldier reveals its stinger is a raygun. Dodgers gets the upper hand with the Acme Alien Pest Eradicator, but soon reinforcements are called and it turns into an all-out war between the full might of the S’keet’r Armada and a mail room full of antigrav newspapers.
Obviously I got a huge kick out of reading this in the summer of 1995. They idea of Looney Tunes taking on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was utterly delightful, and even though I wasn’t necessarily as “into” Star Trek at the time as I had been (someoneelse was on my mind that summer), I certainly enjoyed it whenever I got the chance. This was still two of my favourite things coming together, and it meant a lot to me that Looney Tunes gave the old ore processing facility such an affectionate shout-out. And yet, this still brings us back to how unusual this pairing really was for the time: Certainly Star Trek seemed like something “old” to me in 1995, or at the very least distantly removed from my life, because I wasn’t watching it anymore (I couldn’t), but notwithstanding my positionality the fact is this is a curious way to parody Star Trek in 1995.
The elephant in the room is of course the aforementioned choice of Star Treks. Instead of the already-acknowledged modern classic Star Trek: The Next Generation or the hot new Star Trek Voyager that was in all the industry rags, Looney Tunes instead chose to quite explicitly invoke the failed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (them’s fighting words to be sure and we’ll need to pick out what precisely “failed” means in this context, but that’s for another time and place). And this is no malicious parody either: That’s firstly not the Looney Tunes way, but even so it’s very obvious this is an incarnation of Star Trek the creative team on this story have genuine affection and fondness for. The references are too noticeable to be unintended, but they’re references to Star Trek as it existed three seasons ago. The backstory is effectively a humourous take on “Emissary”, with Duck Dodgers filling the role of a pre-revelation Ben Sisko and the amazingly-named Midden basically being Bajor prior to the discovery of the wormhole. And while there is a wormhole here, it’s a shitty one, possibly a shoutout to the way the wormhole always had to have some weird quirk if the show’s creative team ran out of ideas one week. Or if their comic book adaptation decided to just absolutely throw a landmark crossover with Star Trek: The Next Generation.
(Speaking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the title of the story uses the Next Generation font while “Shmattazoid” can’t help but put me in mind of Betazoid.)
Meanwhile, the S’keet’r Armada seems, to a modern reader, an obvious reference to the Dominion, who had made their debut just over a year ago and had long been established as the current Star Trek Big Bad. But this is actually not as straightforward as it might seem at first glance, and a 1995 reader might have read something different into this gag. I know I did. Of course I didn’t know what the Dominion was back then because I conveniently stopped watching literally right before they were introduced, and I didn’t even make the possible connection here until I reread this story in prepping for this essay. So maybe I’m not the best judge, but I still think something a bit different is going on here. First of all the USS Defiant (or a reasonable facsimile) is nowhere in sight, which should be worth taking note of, but also the advance soldier literally says “Resistance is Futile” when threatening Dodgers and Eager Young Space Cadet.
Now things become a bit more clear: The S’keet’r are not the Dominion, but rather the Borg, and really this should make a lot more sense-Not only were the Borg far and away the most iconic Star Trek Bad Guys at the time, but they were even originally meant to be insectoid and, of course, played a major role in the plot of “Emissary”. Indeed, it’s probably even more accurate to read the S’keet’r Armada as a double shout-out to both the Borg and the classic “Let’s see what’s come through the Wormhole” plots that characterized Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in its earliest weeks. You could even read Dodgers and Eager Young Space Cadet’s inability to take the threat seriously before getting “swarmed” to be a callback to a common interpretation of “Q Who” from *all* the way back in 1989.
This is actually far from the last time Looney Tunes will engage with Star Trek through Duck Dodgers, and maybe we’ll talk about that more some other time. But for now, this is the evidence I wanted to call. In 1995, Looney Tunes, famous for their current and on-point pop culture parodies, did a Star Trek riff by mashing up elements of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: The Next Generation, *not* Star Trek Voyager and the Dominion War. Even this late then, the populist understanding of Star Trek was being defined by a version of the brand the license holders were actively trying to retire. The explanation for this is very simple: This was the version of Star Trek the overwhelming majority of people at the time (not Star Trek fans) had seen, recognised, knew and enjoyed. And there are reasons for this that go above and beyond whatever judgments about quality you may or may not want to make about the versions of Star Trek that fall on either side of this divide: Remember all that fuss over syndication packages? Well, reruns of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine going back to 1993 and reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation going back to *1987* were still airing every week. It didn’t matter whether the episode was new or not so long as the affiliates had something to stick in an empty timeslot. So chances were you were actually *more* likely to see an older episode than a new one, unless you were *specifically looking for them*.
I mean, I would assume. That’s how I understood it worked based on what I’ve been led to believe. I of course wouldn’t be able to tell you from experience.
But whatever the reason, it does seem like it’s Star Trek’s Long 1980s output that remained evergreen long into the franchise’s twilight years. And Duck Dodgers is far from the only example…
John G. Wood
April 19, 2017 @ 6:30 pm
Ha! So you haven’t quite disappeared from the narrative after all!
April 19, 2017 @ 8:14 pm
Well, we’re still in 1995…
There are a few more odds and ends to tie up before this section of the project is put to bed for good. But Species is still the major milestone turning point, yes.
April 19, 2017 @ 7:02 pm
Out of curiosity, are you still thinking about covering Project A-ko?
April 19, 2017 @ 8:17 pm
I’m hoping to cover Project A-ko in two parts as bonus essays for the book versions: One on the movie in the TNG book and one on the Malibu series in the TNG/DS9 book (this one).
A-ko may also find herself into another project of mine that’s still in the very early preliminary planning stages. We’ll see.