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Just How Heroic Is Star Trek's "I Don't Like to Lose" James T. Kirk?

Matt Melia
A Young William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk

Captain James Tiberius Kirk sets the benchmark by which we can measure the decline of the “hero” into anti-heroism.

For this writer, Captain James T. Kirk, of the USS Enterprise, has always been the most iconic and quintessential of television heroes and furthermore, possibly the most recognisable and identifiable as such. From a casual perspective, Jim Kirk embodies the most normative of heroic values: bravery, romance, adventure, leadership, nobility, instinctiveness as well as a penchant for recklessness (in the Season 1 episode “The Corbomite Maneuvre” he is also shown to be something of a gambler, bluffing of the alien, Balok, that the Enterprise is loaded with the non-existent substance Corbomite). But how may we further understand and define “heroism” and unpack it in televisual terms? How does Star Trek, as a cultural text, frame and interrogate the problematic and often contradictory concept of heroism, filtering its inquisitions through the character of Captain Kirk?

This essay sets out to discuss this and to understand Kirk as a benchmark for “heroism” in popular cultural terms, also asking just how heroic is he and what are the cultural traditions around heroism that Star Trek appropriates? Over the course of this article I will be referring exclusively to the components of the Star Trek universe across which the heroic Kirk character and mythos is developed and (de/re)constructed: the original series (1966-1969); the original film franchise (1979-1991) and the recent JJ Abrams cinematic reboots (2009-2016).

Defining Heroism

In their article "Heroism: A Conceptual Analysis and Differentiation between Heroic Action and Altruism" the psychologists Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo suggest that:

Heroism is frequently viewed as an apex of human behaviour; watching a heroic act is compelling -- literally commanding our attention. We often feel that while we as individuals would like to achieve heroic status, this goal must be a remote possibility reserved for an elect few with special skills or luck.

They go on to state that:

It seems likely that the contradictory nature of heroism is precisely what makes it compelling. Heroism is a social attribution, never a personal one; yet the act itself is often a solitary existential choice. It is historically, culturally and situationally determined, thus heroes of one era may prove to be villains in another time when controverting evidence emerges; yet some heroes endure across the centuries.

Furthermore, Franco, Blau and Zimbardo also offer a working or “operational” set of criteria for defining the “heroic”:

Social activity: (a) In service to others in need -- be it a person, group or community or in defence of socially sanctioned ideals or new social standard; (b) engaged in voluntarily (even in military contexts heroism remains an act that goes beyond actions required by military duty); (c) with recognition of possible risks/costs; (d) in which the actor is willing to accept the anticipated sacrifices; (e) without external gain anticipated at the time of the act.

Their discourse and criteria provides a helpful point of departure for this analysis and for understanding Kirk as a “heroic” character and persona whose cultural resonance has endured for 50 years, and whose status, fame and familiarity as a television hero is not limited simply to the fans or “Trekkies” (self-styled guardians and custodians of the Star Trek universe and its legacy): Jim Kirk exists as an iconic “hero” of 20th century culture, immediately recognisable in his signature gold jersey and Starfleet insignia to anyone with even the most basic acquaintance with 20th century television culture.

Franco, Blau, and Zimbardo’s discourse around the hero and the heroic act suggests that heroism is both culturally and socially ascribed and aspirational: the preserve of the charismatic, “special” individual. They also suggest that while it may be socially determined (one never declares oneself a hero, to do so would be hubristic and counter to what is notionally described as “heroic”) the heroic act itself is also a difficult personal existential and often ethical choice. “Heroism”, they suggest, also has no stable definition. In a Barthesian sense, it is a “myth” -- its meaning, conditional upon the specific context, time, culture, or ideology within which it is received or appropriated. As this essay will later discuss, Star Trek (the original series) frames, tests and interrogates this term within a variety cultural and historical traditions in order to examine what heroism means within the changing cultural climate of the ‘60s.

If these eminent psychologists offer an academic perspective, then what values do we ascribe to the screen hero? Someone who takes risks? Someone who is authoritative but anti-authoritarian? Someone who bucks the system, playing fast and loose with the rule book? Is a romantic? Who, in a Proppian sense, embarks on a journey or quest (“a five-year mission to explore to strange new worlds...” for instance)? Someone who embodies and defends a set of liberal, democratic values? Embodies impartiality and fairness?

Within the culture of science fiction television these are certainly criteria which describe Kirk’s British science fiction television contemporary The Doctor (of the BBC’s Doctor Who) and whose own “heroic” persona is regenerating, tied in with the utopian heroic post war British values of the welfare state, public service, democracy and anti-totalitarianism. They are similarly applicable to an understanding and questioning of the “heroic” Kirk persona (and here we might consider his fair treatment of the genetically improved superhuman tyrant Kahn Noonian-Singh and his followers at the end of the Season 1 episode “Space Seed”). Just as “The Doctor” may be considered a proponent of fair play; a patriarchal figure leading a family of companions through space (and time); one who leads with a moral compass, impartial yet a man of action: these are values that a similarly applicable to Kirk (whose own heroic persona, as we shall discuss is tied in with the progressive, liberal politics and technological progress of the Kennedy and post Kennedy era). Their mutual “heroic” personas are tested within their respective television shows as much through their ability to negotiate ethical dilemmas difficult choices as through their physical action.

In the 1975 story “Genesis of the Daleks”, having travelled back in time to the creation of his arch enemy, The Daleks, The Doctor wrestles with the choice to wipe them out at their birth by simply touching two wires together and thereby saving millions of lives in the future, but questions whether he has the right to commit such an act. Later in this essay we shall note how Kirk faces a similar dilemma in the episode “City on the Edge of Forever”. The “No Win Scenario” is essential to understanding and questioning the heroic nature of Kirk’s character (as we will presently discuss).

However, while The Doctor’s alien-ness sets him apart, and mark’s him out as “heroic” and “charismatic”, conversely, Kirk’s ordinariness also marks him out as “special” despite the fact that he is the Captain of a starship, “Boldly going where no man has gone before.” Wagner and Lundeen states: “Captain Kirk, the prototypical Star Trek hero is the ultimate “neutral” human: a white Midwestern, American, middle class male” (Star Trek, Hark, 2008: 15). We will presently discuss Kirk’s “ordinariness" as an integral part of the conflicted “heroic” persona.

Star Trek, Heroism and Television

Television is constantly re-drawing and re-defining what it is to be heroic. In the cultural landscape of modern contemporary television, the outwardly heroic (e.g., Captain Kirk) has been replaced by the outwardly anti-heroic and morally ambivalent. Characters like Walter White (Breaking Bad), Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy) or Jimmy McNulty (The Wire) all embody a millennial and post millennial male malaise and crisis of identity. These characters and texts call into question our traditional and romantic suppositions about what it is to be heroic as their acts are at best questionable and at worst corrupt and destructive.

However, their actions are nevertheless imbued with a sense of nobility and pathos due to the “difficult choices” forced upon them (the “no win situation”, to borrow a term from Star Trek) by virtue of the economy, family, politics and political structures or systems (of varying kinds), their placelessness and the diminishment of (male) power in the changing ideological and cultural climates of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Furthermore, the anti-hero is being met and increasingly further displaced with the anti-heroine (e.g. in the neon-noir of Marvel’s hard drinking Jessica Jones), hence heroism is no longer the preserve of the (white) male ego.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk, by contrast it may be argued, sets the benchmark by which we can measure the decline of the “hero” into anti-heroism. Sitting, in his seat of power or throne, on the bridge of the Enterprise, flanked by his Vulcan first officer Spock and his chief medical officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (personifications of cold logic and human compassion and conscience), Jim Kirk cuts a king-like figure. The bridge itself is a panopticon with Kirk the centre of power surrounded orbitally by his immediate (globally diverse) crew to which in his absence he devolves and delegates power: “Mr Sulu, you have the con.” Kirk embodies a set of (heroic) American, progressive, democratic, liberal values; it’s difficult not to see the structure of the Bridge as an analogy for America’s own perception of its global status and the desire to re-establish a liberal, progressive and democratic centre in the wake of the death of Kennedy, the threat of communism and the escalation of Vietnam.

However, Captain Kirk’s own brand of romantic and mythic heroism and heroic action is encoded with and embedded within the American frontier myth of male heroism, popularised by the Western which enjoyed popularity not just in film but also as part of post war American network television. Gene Roddenberry had previously written for the television Western (as well as for cop shows) and famously envisioned Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Within today’s contemporary television culture of the conflicted anti-hero this brand of heroism appears to have been left to posterity, anchored to a certain point (or stardate) in the post-war mid-20th century.

In 1966, Captain James T Kirk also stood at a televisual cross-road with one foot in the conservatism and idealism of the post war years and another in the new liberal thinking and freedom of the emergent counter-culture. Bradley J.Birzer, writing for The Imaginative Conservative, critiques Kirk as a: “Sort of conservative New Frontier Democrat [who] dealt out American-style justice wherever he could.”

By placing Kirk within the context of post-war American network television, comparisons may be drawn with some other well-known TV “heroes” of the era (when after the Second World War, the notion of heroism is centralised and brought under media scrutiny): Detective Joe Friday of Dragnet (1951-59) -- a series which had made the transition from Radio where it ran concurrently from 1949-1957, and which returned to television screens for another run in 1967: the year after Star Trek’s initial broadcast; Prohibition Agent Elliot Ness of The Untouchables (1959-1963); and the hunted, haunted Doctor Richard Kimble from The Fugitive (1963-1967). Friday and Ness are stoic, conservative pillars of male strength, righteousness and virtue, signifying a desire for stability and the continuation of ideal male values in the wake of World War II; Kimble, on the other hand, is an establishment figure turned figure hunted by the establishment, on a quest to clear his name and find the one-armed man who killed his wife: he is an itinerant, lonely figure set apart from society and one of male displacement (and the displacement of traditional “heroic” values at the start of the ‘60s).

The technicolour “heroic” persona of Captain Kirk re-negotiates the construction of the television hero, reconstructing it for the cultural climate and progressive of the mid-‘60s: he is a figure who personifies stability, steadfastness and moral righteousness (like Friday and Ness) but whose character also works to establish and stabilise a new type of male hero apposite to the changing climate of the ‘60s. Significantly, Star Trek was first broadcast two years, ten months and five days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It is difficult not to see Kirk, the youngest Captain in Starfleet, as an embodiment of the romantic, youthful, charisma and liberal values of the late president. Like Kimble, he is also a placeless itinerant figure: the mission of the Enterprise to spend five years journeying through space to see what they can find (interestingly in this way comparisons may also be drawn between Kirk and the Bauderlarian idea of the sauntering flâneur).

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