With the eagerly anticipated new Star Trek film, Into the Darkness, just weeks away, I wanted to dust off my old LEGO-constructed phaser, don my rubber Vulcan ears, and ask that all important question: would the original Kirk even like the modern Kirk?
Captain Kirk has become identified as the "cowboy" who'd never met a rule he wouldn't break or a woman he wouldn't bed. An image both celebrated and ridiculed...sometimes simultaneously. Yet equally (often in Star Trek novels) he is portrayed as an order barking martinet. Partly, that reflects the contradiction in what human culture (and especially American culture) tends to lionize: the soldier and the maverick. Two, arguably, incompatible ideals.
Yet Kirk was never quite the rule breaker he's been imagined to be. Rule bender -- sure. But many an old episode hinged on Kirk struggling with what he wanted to do...and what he was duty-bound to do. And he wasn't quite the chain-of-(his)-command stickler some imagine him as being, either. More than a few reviews of Star Trek over the years have actually criticized Kirk's liberality in allowing underlings to talk back, and for being chummy with his crew.
One could make the case the original Kirk (William Shatner) would regard the current Kirk (Chris Pine) with some skepticism. Now, due to the alternate reality paradox of the 2009 movie, arguably the current Kirk isn't the original. And he's a brash, youthful Kirk. Yet there were clues in the original series that Kirk had been a dour young man.
You could argue the character dynamic of the original series was never meant to be emotional Kirk in contrast to logical Spock. Rather, Kirk was the Mama bear bridging the extremes of Spock's logic and Dr. McCoy's passion. The lesson being moderation in all things.
Likewise, was his now notorious libido simply a reflection of the 1960s Mad Men/James Bond ideal of what a "man" should be?
'Star Trek Into Darkness' photos
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The focus on Kirk's liaisons may reflect a failure to grasp the niceties of storytelling, and how the Star Trek writers perhaps viewed the stories as short stand-alone movies, rather than episodes in a continuing narrative. Romances added a human dimension to abstract plots and allegories (Star Trek has been popularly credited with attracting female fans to what was previously viewed as mainly a "boys"' genre with little deep emotion). Excise the romance from many old episodes and you wouldn't just lose a few soft focus shots of pretty gals, but in many cases, the emotional engine that was driving the plot!
All this is to say: should Kirk be defined as he appears to us in hindsight? Or in relation to the mores of whichever era his adventures are being conceived? Should a modern Kirk be a womanizer or, if we assume the original was not intended to be atypical in the context of 1960s mores, should then a modern Kirk be less of a tomcat? For that matter, Kirk wasn't technically promiscuous. He seemed genuinely committed to any given relationship...it's just he'd have a new relationship a few episodes down the line!
(James Bond is another character who is both vicariously celebrated for his womanizing -- and ridiculed as a sexist dinosaur. The filmmakers justify his wantonness as them simply being true to the character, yet the Bond in the Ian Fleming novels didn't sleep around with quite the same superficial abandon as his movie counterpart!)
The original Kirk was a man of action, but also of intellect and study (supposedly nicknamed the walking encyclopedia in his youth) who knew his Milton, Masefield and Shakespeare. Does the modern Kirk seem like he'd know who Shakespeare was?
Kirk was an intriguing portrait of a hero, capable of trading blows with the best of them, and ready with seductive smile when a pretty woman hove in sight. Yet there was an undeniable vulnerability to him, both as written and as played by Shatner (watch how Shatner plays the death of Spock scene in Star Trek II or the death of David scene in Star Trek III -- not the way macho heroes usually play such scenes). Shatner was -- is -- a hammy actor, and so Kirk likewise could wear his emotions on his sleeve (even when he was being stoic, Shatner played emotions beneath the surface).
Above all, Kirk's defining characteristic could be summed up in one word: compassion. Even series creator Gene Roddenberry, in an early pitch to the network, specifically identified compassion as being at the heart of the captain role. Kirk on more than one occasion would implore his adversaries -- with Shatner-esque emoting -- to let him "help them!"
By the time of the 1980s movies, the character is being torn in different directions. He's still Kirk -- certainly in contrast to gun-toting action heroes of the big screen -- even as he's being nudged towards them. Kirk (or other crew members) given to occasional fist pumps when zapping enemy vessels (or wessels if you prefer). In Star Trek III he makes the effort to save the life of the Klingon who killed his son...but it's really just a set up for the cathartic thrill of watching him kick the guy off a cliff.
Fast-forward to the 2009 re-imagining -- Kirk's a likeable guy, to be sure, but all testosterone and barrelling ahead bravado. Grief is portrayed, not in uncomfortable scenes of grown men collapsing to the floor, but in the more socially acceptable form of anger and fighting. Real men don't get sad -- they get even. When in the climax of the movie Kirk offers to rescue the villain, he almost heaves a sigh of relief when his offer is rebuffed. Mercy is something to which you pay lip service, seems to be the message, it isn't something you act upon.
In commercials for the new Star Trek: Into the Darkness, a key line promises a "vendetta" on Kirk's part. This isn't about "boldly going", apparently, nor about a Shakespeare quoting hero imploring his enemies to let him "help" them. This is about a no nonsense action hero taking names and kicking ass.
And as much as I suspect I'll enjoy the new film, I suspect I'll miss the old Kirk, and what he said about our definition of "hero."