Anytime you have a wild, and seemingly hostile environment around you, it is natural for the storytellers of that time to populate those places with heroes. Whether it’s Jason, Odysseus, Captain Nemo, Ishmael, or Horatio Hornblower with the sea or folk heroes Davey Crocket, Daniel Boone, John Henry, Paul Bunyan, and Pecos Bill with the American frontier, that which is unexplored is always the best proving grown for these mighty men. Naturally with the beginnings of the science fiction genre in the late 19th century and humankind beginning to dream of traveling to the stars, outer space would be populated by its own heroes.
There was Civil War veteran John Carter would fall asleep in a cave and mysteriously end up on Mars where he would win the heart of the beautiful Dejah Thoris in Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books. Exposed to a radioactive gas during a cave in, Buck Rogers would fall into a state of suspended animation for 492 years until he is awoken in the year 2419 and becomes Earth’s space faring defender. In an attempt to halt the collision of the Earth with the planet Mongo, Flash Gordon and his friends Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov would board a make shift rocket, only to end up tangling with Ming the Merciless.
It was these three characters who would pave the way for one of the most iconic heroes in the history of science fiction television: Captain James T. Kirk of the Federation starship Enterprise from the original Star Trek series. While the show spawned four spin-off TV shows, it was Captain Kirk who would lay the ground work for all who would come after. In fact among the Star Trek fans as to which there is much discussion as to which Captain they would rather serve under, Captain Kirk or Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Sure, there was Benjamin Sisko on Deep Space Nine, Kathryn Janeway on Voyager, and Jonathan Archer on Enterprise, but at the end of the day the eternal Trek debate will always be waged between Kirk and Picard.
To understand part of his appeal one must take a look back at the wild and turbulent era of the 1960s. The race to the moon between the US and Soviets was well underway. Heroes like John Glenn and Al Shepherd graced the covers of Time and Life Magazine. “Astronaut”, once seen as a flight of fancy, was now the cool career to have with school children proudly declaring that when they grew up they wanted to go to space. Naturally television would try to cash in on the momentous event, among them Lost in Space, Space 1999, and even I Dream of Jeannie.
Gene Roddenberry pitched his Star Trek series as a sort of “Wagontrain to the Stars” or basically a Western set in that new frontier of space. The original pilot episode entitled, “The Cage” was originally a much more cerebral show then what would follow, something more akin to the movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes that would not see a release until a few years later. His show was meant to be something more for grown-ups to watch. While the pilot would be re-shot, the philosophical undertones would remain throughout the series making it one of the smarter science fiction programs of its day.
Yet, despite the more highbrow status that Star Trek enjoys over Star Wars, there is still a pulp aspect to the show, namely in Captain James T. Kirk. As is noted in “The Pulp Connection” from the BBC2 that critiqued the Voyager Episode “Bride of Chatoica” and pointed out that while Trek has many intelligent and philosophical episodes it has no problem doing a fun pulp adventure,
“The impact of the early Buster Crabbe serials on the TV audience was enormous in terms of shaping perceptions of TV sci-fi. Perhaps reminded of the mold they had set, Paramount ordered a ‘less cerebral’ approach than that offered by the Star Trek pilot. More action and traditional heroics were required…The result was the recasting of the captain and the arrival of James T Kirk: a hero who explicitly echoed Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon exactly thirty years before. Captain Kirk is a Sixties version of the Flash model, albeit with the Shatner trimmings of puffed-chest and gusty delivery we know and love. “
Despite the perception nowadays of Captain Kirk as being campy, in contrast to other shows in the same genre at the time, his role on Star Trek was a breath of fresh air for sci-fi fans. Lost in Space was more about the kids and their misadventures on that strange world with Dr. Smith and the Robot. Larry Hagman may certainly have looked the part of astronaut Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie, yet one only needs to look at Darren Stevens, the hapless ad-man married to the witch Samantha Stevens on Bewitched which was on at the same time, and all the highjinks they both endured to see how arbitrary their careers were to the show. Captain Kirk, however, he was something else.
As is noted in Roddenberry’s outline for the Captain was the proposal to NBC,
“The “skipper”, about thirty-four, Academy graduate, rank of Captain… might be “A space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower”, lean and capable both mentally and physically. A colorfully complex personality, he is capable of action and decision that can verge on the heroic – and at the same time lives a continual battle with self-doubt and the loneliness of command. As with similar men in the past (Drake, Cook, Bougainville, and Scott), his primary weakness is a predilection to action over administration, a temptation to take the greatest risks onto himself. But, unlike most early explorers, he has an almost compulsive compassion for the plight of others, alien as well as human, [and] must continually fight the temptation to risk many to save one. ”
With America’s race to the stars underway, Kirk was just as much the perfect poster child for the dream of space as John Glenn and Al Shepherd were in real life. Hailing from a small town in Iowa and possessing the looks of an All-American athlete, Kirk is the living embodiment of what President John F. Kennedy envisioned as he urged America to take the lead in the race to the moon in his speech to Rice University,
“We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war.”
As Ted Anthony of the Associated Press noted in “Captain Kirk, American icon? New Frontier Renewed”, which was featured in the Salt Lake City Tribune around the time of the release of the 2009 Star Trek film, that examined the cultural legacy of Kirk in the 60’s and looked at his reimagining in 2009,
“He’s JFK – a deep thinker and voracious seeker of knowledge who disdains intellectualism when it is untethered from common sense. He’s Andrew Jackson – populist and anti-elitist, as at home in jeans and an untucked shirt as he is in his full dress uniform. He’s Vince Lombardi, rejecting the no-win scenario and pushing on to victory…He’s Humphrey Bogart, the darkly driven loner intimate with fisticuffs. He’s Edison, always thinking outside the box. He’s Elvis – robust wooer of women, intergalactic California blondes in particular. And, as we learn in an episode that re-enacts the shootout at the O.K. Corral, he’s Gary Cooper – not only a gangster of love but a space cowboy descended from frontiersmen.”
But what is it that makes him such a great captain? When most people think of Captain Kirk, they tend to think of the womanizing playboy who seemed to have a girl on every planet. It’s a horrible misconception, and in fact Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy had more than their share of love interests over the course of the run of the original TV series. The film Star Trek: The Motion Picture lampshaded this reputation when one of the ship’s new crew members Ilia informed Kirk that her oath of celibacy was on record. Viewers also see him as a risk taker, and the kind of guy who shirks responsibility and has a problem with authority. This was certainly the case of the younger Captain Kirk in the 2009 movie.
As Larry Womack notes in “In the Defense of (the original) Captain Kirk” from the Huffington Post,
“Chris Pine was a fantastic choice and the first film’s screenplay was pretty damn good, as far as action movies go. But the J.J. Abrams Kirk is the Kirk of parody: Kirk the womanizer, Kirk the rule-flouting powder keg, Kirk the prideful egomaniac. Kirk the caricature. It works in a broad sense because that’s the idea of Kirk that people who’ve never actually seen Star Trek have imprinted in their minds.”
Kirk’s greatest asset was and is his keen mind. Despite his play boy reputation, Kirk was actually intelligent. In the 2009 film, Captain Pike even refers to him as “the only genius level offender” in terms of his intellectual abilities. One doesn’t make it to the ranks of captain by being an idiot. In fact in the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” Gary Mitchell, Kirk’s friend from this days at the Starfleet Academy says,
“Hey, man, I remember you back at the Academy; a stack of books with legs! The only thing I ever heard from an upperclassman was, “Watch out for Lt. Kirk! In his class, you either think, or sink!…If I hadn’t aimed that little blond technician at you…”
As Anthony noted further in in “Capt. Kirk, American Icon?” ,
“Kirk, …embodies a different, distinctly American duality: the tension between exuberance and impetuousness on one hand and seriousness and intellect on the other. All at once, Kirk manages to be both Democrat and Republican, hawk and dove, humble and arrogant, futurist and traditionalist – and, in the most American duality of all, childlike and completely adult.”
But it takes more than book smarts to make a great Captain. In the episode “Who mourns Adonis” the being who claims to be Apollo refers to Kirk as the “son of Odysseus”. While Captain Kirk may not be able to directly trace his lineage to Odysseus in a metaphorical sense, Kirk and other modern day heroes, like Iron Man, Batman, James Bond, and Indiana Jones, are the literary and cinematic heirs of Odysseus, and it’s not just because they all have a string of gorgeous female admirers.
They, like Odysseus, tend to find themselves facing certain death and always come out on top. These characters may not possess great strength or power, but they tend to use their brains to think up a way out of the situation using and whatever gadgets they have at their disposal. These heroes are excellent at reading a situation and finding a solution. We love these characters because not only are they human, but we’d like to hope that we, like them could do as Captain Kirk did with the Kobiashi Maru.
In Wrath of Kahn it is first revealed that Kirk had tampered with the simulator so as to save both the crew of the Kobiashi Maru and defeat the Klingons. This moment was actually shown in the 2009 Star Trek film. In the end in the original time line Kirk was given a commendation for original thinking. When Spock insists he cheated,
“I didn’t cheat. I don’t believe in a no win scenario. Find a way to turn death into a fighting chance. ”
These moments for heroes such as Kirk to think on his feet quickly to resolve the problem. This is best seen by his favorite game, which we learn in the episode “The Carbomite Manuever”. The Enterprise comes up against an alien entity known as the Balok. They have exhausted every move, and when asking Spock for advice, the Vulcan replies that sometimes in chess, the game is over. However, Kirk sees the situation as a different game, poker. Chess may be about strategy, but poker is about being able to bluff an opponent to win, and Kirk is not above bluffing.
In the case of the Balok, he informs him,
“This is the Captain of the Enterprise. Our respect for other lifeforms requires that we give you this warning. One critical item of information that has never been incorporated into the memory banks of any Earth ship. Since the early years of space exploration, Earth vessels have had incorporated into them a substance known as corbomite. It is a material and a device which prevents attack on us. If any destructive energy touches our vessel, a reverse reaction of equal strength is created, destroying…destroying the attacker! It may interest you to know that since the initial use of corbomite more than two of our centuries ago, no attacking vessel has survived the attempt. Death has little meaning to us. If it has none to you then attack us now. We grow annoyed at your foolishness.”
Similarly in the Episode “A Piece of the Action” Kirk and Spock find themselves on a world that is influenced by the culture of the 1920’s gangsters. In dealing with them, he quickly assumes the persona of a gangster in order to survive long enough for Scotty to make the necessary repairs to beam them out, telling the mobsters,
“Now, listen, sweetheart, the Federation’s movin’ in. We’re takin’ over. You play ball, we’ll cut choo in for a piece o’ de pie. You don’t, you’re out – ALL de way out, you know what I mean?
He also knows well enough that when it comes to playing his hand, not only does he need to know how to bluff his opponent but how to read them and their weaknesses. This comes in hand the first time he goes up against Kahn Noonian Sing in both the classic episode “Space Seed” and the film The Wrath of Kahn. Kirk can quickly sees how egotistical Kahn is and keeps him talking long enough in Space Seed to learn his full plan. Later in The Wrath of Kahn he goads Kahn into following him into a maelstrom that severely damages the stolen federation ship.
This mind is put to the text in the episode “The Arena”, in which the crew finds a star fleet base desolated, having been ravaged by the Gorns. Pursuing the ship, they cross into an area of space governed by a mysterious race known as The Metron. They do not approve of the hostile is n their space so they select Kirk and the captain of the Gorn ship to fight in a gladiator style competition on an empty world. It is a narrow battle, but in the end Kirk is able to eventually overcome the Gorn by constructing a crude canon with elements present on the world with a large bamboo shoot for the gun, uncut diamonds for projectiles, and sulfur, potassium nitrate, and coal to make gun powder.
Along with his cunning mind, Kirk was more than willing to go on the away missions, usually with Spock and Bones in tow. Contrast this with many of the later Trek TV shows that saw the captain commanding from the bridge, while the first officer often led the team. As Alex Knapp notes in “Five Leadership Lessons from James T. Kirk” from Forbes,
“Whenever an interesting or challenging mission came up, Kirk was always willing to put himself in harm’s way by joining the Away Team. With his boots on the ground, he was always able to make quick assessments of the situation, leading to superior results. At least, superior for everyone with a name and not wearing a red shirt. Kirk was very much a hands-on leader, leading the vanguard of his crew as they explored interesting and dangerous situations.”
Kirk was never willing to send his crew members on a mission he himself didn’t want to go on. Every episode sees him leaving the ship to accompany the away team on a mission, usually with Spock and McCoy in tow. This was one of the things that was able to garner him such loyalty from his crew. In “Space Seed”, Kahn tried to rally the crew to his side in a mutiny only for it not to work as the crew refused to betray Kirk. This is a man who would lead them anywhere and risk anything for them.
Along with his mind, Kirk’s compassion was s other great driving force. When the Gorn destroyed the base on Cestus III he was determined to seek them out to punish them for the deaths. However when he had defeated the Gorn captain in single combat and had a flint knife at the lizard creatures neck, he refused to kill him. The Gorn had promised to kill Kirk swiftly, calling it a mercy, but Kirk saw it differently telling both the Gorn and Metron,
“No. No, I won’t kill you. Maybe you thought you were protecting yourself when you attacked the outpost..: No, I won’t kill him! Do you hear? You’ll have to get your entertainment someplace else!”
This was part of the reason that Kirk would often defy orders from Starfleet, in particular the Prime Directive. It was not necessarily a cocky, devil may care attitude that fueled him, as much as a feeling that too often the rules got in the way of doing what was morally right. Starfleet would have allowed Spock and Dr. McCoy both to die due to a ruling regarding the Genesis Planet in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, decreeing it a no fly zone and only allowing science vessels to explore. However, for Kirk could not risk losing his two best friends and therefore himself in the process.
Later in Voyage Home, Earth was under threat from an alien space probe. Kirk and his crew were ordered to stay away from Earth, but Kirk could not allow his home to be destroyed so he not only defied orders but had his crew figure out what the probe was searching for: humpbacked whales. Traveling through the past he recovered two whales and brought them back to the future in time to save Earth.
Despite his defiance of orders, even the Federation could admit that Kirk got results and was the best Captain they had. Kirk, at that point, became Admiral but he was never meant to be a desk jockey, thus the Federation President declared,
“James T. Kirk. …It is the judgment of this Council that you be reduced in rank to Captain, …and that as a consequence of your new rank, you be given the duties for which you have repeatedly demonstrated unswerving ability. The command of a starship. …Silence! Captain Kirk, You and your crew have saved this planet from its own short-sightedness …and we are forever in your debt.”
This was why, despite all appearances, Kirk was never court-martialed for his apparent defiance of orders. Kirk was exactly the kind of person they were looking for in a captain for a star ship. Intelligent, resourceful, cunning, and above all compassionate. Spock in The Wrath of Kahn even told Kirk that he should not have accepted he promotion, and that being a captain was Kirk’s best destiny and doing otherwise was wasting resources. As Mary P. Taylor notes in the introduction on Captain Kirk from the book Adventures in Time and Space: Star Trek All Series, which summarized some of the best Star Trek books that highlighted key points of the Star Trek mythology,
“James T. Kirk was a cowboy captain when the Galactic community was still a frontier to Earth and when the United Federation of Planets needed starship captains who could operate independently of home and authority. Kirk and his crew were often required to provide justice and civilization to sometimes outlaw and always dangerous frontier. In so doing, they encountered civilizations both advanced and primitive, malicious and benign. They sometimes interfered with developing civilizations that arguably violated Starfleet’s Prime Directive but invariably had their best interests at heart.”
However, despite his courage, his cunning mind, and his compassion, Kirk had his share of flaws. In listening to his heart and doing what was morally right, he would often times fail to think his decisions through carefully. This was where his two friends McCoy and Spock came in handy. Spock in particular, as Kirk said in regards to his first-officer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,
“You’re a great one for logic. I’m a great one for rushing in where angels fear to tread. We are both extremists. Reality has brought us somewhere in-between.”
Kirk also harbored a deep seated mistrust in the Klingon people. As the enemy of the Federation this was to be expected, but his mistrust grew to hatred when one of them killed his son, David, on the Genesis Planet. Kirk didn’t even know about the young man until events transpired to bring the two of them, and his son’s mother, Dr. Carol Marcus, together. He only knew his son for a short time, yet that did not make his death mean any less to Kirk.
His distrust for the Klingons came to a head in The Undiscovered Country when Kirk was assigned to help escort key Klingon diplomats to Earth for a peace treaty between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. The Klingon moon of Praxis IV had exploded, causing an ecological disaster for the once mighty Klingon Empire and they desperately needed help. Kirk was reluctant to offer any help saying in his personal log
“I’ve never trusted Klingons, and I never will. I could never forgive them for the death of my boy. It seems to me our mission to escort the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council to a peace summit is problematic at best. Spock says this could be an historic occasion, and I’d like to believe him, but how on earth can history get past people like me?”
Kirk’s words would later bite him in the rear when they would be used against him as evidence in a trial in which he and McCoy were framed for killing the Klingon Chancellor. The true culprit was found and the two of them rescued, but not before Kirk was given a lot of time to think about his words, actions and place in the universe. They arrived at the host planet for the accords just in time to save the life of the Federation president. He had seen a Klingon General who had been just as unwilling to accept change as he was and knew where that could lead. As he explained to Chancellor Gorkon’s daughter, who had assumed her father’s role upon his death,
“It’s about the future, Madame Chancellor. Some people think the future means the end of history. Well, we haven’t run out of history quite yet. Your father called the future – “the undiscovered country”. People can be very frightened of change.”
In the end, despite all he had done, Kirk and his crew were decommissioned. This came as a low blow for all of them. Kirk had sacrificed much for the sake of the galaxy, even family. He even says to Spock and McCoy on a camping trip during their shore leave in The Final Frontier, when McCoy points out that most people, when they had leave would go spend it with their families, that men like them don’t have families. At his core, despite having his share of beautiful women in his life, Kirk’s first and one true love would always be for the Enterprise and her mission.
This was why in Star Trek: Generations he gave some advice to Captain Picard before the two went to defeat a mad scientist by the name of Dr. Soren. Kirk had been stranded in a temporal nexus for 75 years and was given the choice to help Picard or stay in his own personal paradise. Kirk was initially reluctant but knew where his first and best destiny lay; a destiny only a few, like Picard, fully understood. As he told Picard,
“Captain of the Enterprise, huh?…Close to retirement? …Well let me tell you something. Don’t! Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do *anything* that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there… you can make a difference.”
FILM: Abrams, JJ ( Dir.) Star Trek. Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Eric Bana, Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Winona Ryder, Chris Hemsworth, Jennifer Morrison,and Leonard Nimoy. Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (writers). 2009. Paramount Pictures.
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FILM: Meyer, Nicolas (Dir).Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Kim Catrell, Christopher Plummer, David Warner, Rosanna DeSoto, and Iman. Nicholas Meyer, and Denny Martin Flinn ( Writers) 1991. Paramount Pictures.
FILM: Nimoy, Leonard (Dir.)Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Merrit Butrick, Robin Curtis, Christopher Lloyd, Dame Judith Anderson, and Mark Lenard. Harve Bennett ( Writer). 1984. Paramount Pictures.
FILM: Nimoy, Leonard (Dir.)Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley , James Doohan, Walter Koenig , Nichelle Nichols, George Takei, Catherine Hicks, Robin Curtis, Jane Wyatt, and Mark Lenard. Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Nicolas Meyer, Harve Bennett and Leonard Nimoy (Writers). 1986. Paramount Pictures.
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1967 Paramount Pictures/CBS Studios/Desilu Productions.