just-how-heroic-is-star-treks-i-dont-like-to-lose-james-t-kirk
A Young William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk

Just How Heroic Is Star Trek’s “I Don’t Like to Lose” 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).

Kirk: The Composite Hero

The most ordinary person, in the right circumstances, can act (or can be forced to act) heroically.

What marks Ness, Friday, Kimble and Kirk out from other contemporary popular “heroes” of the time, in particular the phalanx of superheroes who dominated the pages of Marvel and DC comics, is their ordinariness: they remain “special”, “charismatic” yet grounded in their humanity, illustrating the contradictory nature of heroism indicated by Blau et al.. They are “heroic” human characters with which viewers could identify. Furthermore, Kirk is a spaceman and in the context of the mid ‘60s, with the escalating of the space race, a new type of aspirational but identifiable “human” hero was emerging: The Astronaut. In fact, the Space Race offers a narrative context and catalyst for a number of Star Trek episodes: the 20th episode of the Season 1, “Tomorrow is Yesterday” (to which we will return presently) and in the first film in the franchise Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), in which the being, “Vger”, turns out to be the fictional space probe Voyager 6 (two years before the film’s release, NASA had inaugurated the Voyager programme, launching the probes Voyager 1 and 2), which in the millennia since its launch has developed sentience and is returning to Earth to meet “The Creator”. In his online essay “Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement of the 1960s“, J. William Snyder, Jr. indicates that “David Gerrold, a writer for the series, says in his book that ‘[t]he stories are about twentieth century man’s attitudes in a future universe. The stories are about us.’”

While Ness and Friday’s ideal heroic personas were rooted in the past and Kimble was a troubled embodiment of the present, Kirk’s “heroic” person anticipated a utopian future (although the idea of Utopia is something that Star Trek is also sceptical of) and embodied the optimism of the ‘60s before the fall out of the counter-culture at the end of the decade.

Kirk is also a romantic hero in a number of senses, frequently falling in love, or becoming embroiled in affairs of the heart: a romantic, dashing and chivalrous male lead of the sort typified by classical Hollywood. However, in the Season 2 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” (we will come again later to the importance of classicism in Star Trek), breaking new televisual ground, Kirk is chosen (by the alien Platonians) to be the sexual partner of his female communications officer, Uhura, eliciting the first inter-racial kiss on American television. Here Kirk’s character is located within the framework of the counter-cultural zeitgeist of liberalism, free love and civil rights which typified the mid to late ‘60s (although, crucially here the element of choice is removed!)

“Edith Keeler Must Die!”

In 2006, Phillip Zimbardo (in the wake of his Stanford Prison Experiment) and Zeno Franco coined the term the ‘Banality of heroism’ (adopting and redrawing Hannah Arendt’s own discussion of “the Banality of evil”): “Circumstances can force almost anyone to be a bystander to evil, but they can also bring out our own inner hero.”

The most ordinary person, in the right circumstances, can act (or can be forced to act) heroically. In the penultimate episode of Season 1 of Star Trek’s original series, “City on the Edge of Forever”, Dr McCoy travels back in time to Earth and changes history. Kirk and Spock follow him back through time, via an alien portal to New York during the ‘30s during the depression, in order to correct the timeline. Once there, Kirk swaps his Gold jersey for the attire of the economically dispossessed working class. Within the hierarchy and structure of the USS Enterprise, the Gold Jersey is reserved for those in position of power. Navigator, weapons operator and of course captain; it signifies command, power, leadership, and the gold plated “special” individual.

We can refer here to what Franco, Blau and Zimbardo suggest in their definition of the hero and the way they link the term “command” to heroism: how is Kirk’s “command” shown? Kirk is positioned centrally throughout the series: in his position on the transporter, framed frequently between Spock and McCoy, and most evidently in his central seat of power on the panopticon of The Bridge (as previously discussed).

In the climax of the episode, Kirk is forced to make an ethical decision; a difficult choice in a “no win scenario”: In order to preserve the future and prevent the Nazi’s winning the Second World War he must make the choice to allow Edith Keeler (Joan Collins), the woman he has fallen in love with, to die under the wheels of a car. In making this decision Kirk is presented to us, not as the “special” individual but as an “ordinary” person (here historically situated within the context of an economic depression and the “heroic” suffering of the working classes) forced into making a difficult and ultimately heroic if tragic choice. Furthermore, we might argue also that “City on the Edge of Forever” locates itself, culturally and textually, via its mise-en-scène, within the framework of the post-war Hollywood cinema of the ‘50s. Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954), for example, similarly offers up a working class character (here played by Marlon Brando), forced into a difficult but ultimately “heroic” choice (here, however, the term “heroic” is certainly problematized by Kazan’s and the film’s own pro-McCarthy leanings).

Part of the televisual pleasure of the Kirk persona is this sense of the ordinary and it’s interesting to note that William Shatner’s performance style and delivery of dialogue: the speech punctuated with dramatic pauses, the melodramatic gestures and acting (often criticised as over acting) is also (or has become) part of the iconography of the character. It marks the character out, signifying both his status as an ordinary human through the amplification, caricaturing and exaggeration of natural human (Kirk is a humanist as well as human) response (“KHAAANNNNNN!!!”) as well as differentiating him and marking him out from his fellow, contemporary television heroes, signifying him as extraordinary (Shatner’s exaggerated performance style is a marked contrast to the withdrawn and haunted performance given by David Janssen in The Fugitive).

A Test of Heroism: The “No Win Situation” and Just How Heroic Is Kirk?

Tests of “heroism” occur throughout Star Trek’s original series in a number of different ways. As a text, Star Trek, is very aware of the problematic nature of heroism and the struggle to pin down what it means. Furthermore, we may also argue that by continually testing and interrogating this concept within the framework of a number of historical and cultural and contemporary traditions of heroism, the show demonstrates a meta-textual awareness of the problematic and contradictory nature of this term (as indicated by Blau et al.): the show, in many ways, is about deconstructing what is, and what it is to be, heroic.

An example of this metatextual approach may be noted in the episode, “Tomorrow Is Yesterday”. The Enterprise travels back in time to the late ‘60s, locating the crew in the decade of the shows broadcast and the era of the Space Race (which narratively frames the episode). On their arrival, confusion reigns on the bridge where they pick up local radio broadcast from Cape Kennedy stating that three astronauts are about to make a historic attempt at the first “Moon shot”. Kirk exclaims “The first manned moon shot? That was in the late 1960s.” To which Spock responds: “Apparently Captain, so are we…”

Among others, Star Trek draws on the various traditions of the classical hero, the (Aristotelian) tragic hero (more pertinent to an analysis of Spock), and the romantic naval hero. With regard to the latter Chris Gregory reminds us:

Pride in ‘military bearing’ seems to be thoroughly built into the original series and many opportunities are taken to liken the Enterprise to a naval vessel. Roddenberry, who had a strong military background himself as a wartime pilot for the USAF and had also been a policeman, partially modelled Kirk on sea captain Horatio Hornblower from C.S Foresters adventure stories (’Star Trek’: Parallel Narratives, Gregory, 2000: 162).

Furthermore, Gregory also reminds us that,

The Federation’s apparent willingness to make treaties with ‘fascistic’ regimes also suggests certain conservatism in foreign policy matters. In many ways the Federation’s positioning of foreign policy reflects that of John F Kennedy (another role model for Kirk), who instituted many liberal domestic reforms whilst simultaneously pursuing a foreign policy that was essentially conservative and often inflammatory – dramatically confronting Khrushchev in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and supporting intervention in Cuba and Vietnam (’Star Trek’: Parallel Narratives, Gregory, 2000: 162).

There are numerous examples of such military (and political) stand-offs throughout both the series and the films. Earlier, this essay referenced the “The Corbomite Maneuvre” episode, but we can also recognise such a parallel in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), the plot of which revolves around (now Admiral) Kirk’s arch nemesis Khan’s hijacking of “The Genesis Device”: a missile whose purpose is to create life on dead planets and which Khan, in his revenge on Kirk, intends to use as a devastating weapon. In the initial confrontation with the USS Reliant (the Federation vessel hijacked by Khan), Kirk again demonstrates his talent for the bluff by tricking Khan and buying enough time to remotely lower his opponent’s shields.

Another significant reading of the drawing of Kirk’s heroic persona is via his own military status as Captain. Earlier in this essay we noted his centralised position of power on the panopticon of the bridge. Kirk is also a captain of free “Enterprise”, of US economic interests and global economic power (again see how Kirk, as captain, sits centrally among representatives of other nations). In Star Trek’s original inception, the role of the Enterprise was to safeguard and defend trade routes, commerce and colonial interests. As Ina Rae Hark indicates:

The opening narration may define as the prime mission of the ship ‘to explore strange new worlds, to seek and new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before’; a discarded earlier version is more accurate (if less evocative: “Assigned a 5 year patrol of the galaxy, the giant starship visits Earth’s colonies, regulates commerce and explores strange new worlds and new civilisations” (Star Trek, Hark, 2008: 10).

The re-scripting of this opening narration therefore deliberately heightens and emphasises the more heroic and romantic aspects of the Enterprise’s mission under Kirk, drawing more heavily on the American pioneering, frontier mythos embedded so deeply within US culture. Wagner and Lundeen describe Kirk as:

Star Trek‘s answer to the classic Western hero: the self-reliant individualist, the noble misfit at the edge of civilization but with wilderness in his blood, between wild and tame, upholding orderly society but never quite containable by it. Even his friendship with Spock can be seen as having its precedents in the literature and legend of the American frontier.

Star Trek also relies heavily on classical imagery, traditions and narrative tropes in order to conduct its interrogation of heroism. On numerous occasions Kirk’s heroic mettle is tested in Gladiatorial combat. In Episode 18 of Season 1, “Arena”, the Enterprise’s battle with an opposing alien ship causes them both to enter an unknown sector of space guarded by a more advanced alien race (The Metrons) who demand that both Captains, Kirk and the savage reptilian Gorn, engage in trial by combat: a fight to the death (using only the raw materials they find around them for weapons); the victor and their ship being allowed to go free. Ultimately, Kirk shows the Gorn mercy and refuses to kill him, demonstrating the heroic quality of mercy. One of The Metrons tell him:

By sparing your helpless enemy who surely would have destroyed you, you demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy, something we hardly expected. We feel there may be hope for your kind…

In considering the influence of mythical classicism on Star Trek comparisons may be drawn between Kirk and heroes like Odysseus or Jason whose heroism is often tested by the Gods. In Season 2’s “Who Mourns for Adonais?” for instance, the Enterprise is held captive by the giant green space hand of an alien who claims to be the God, Apollo and throughout Star Trek, Alien entities often masquerade as classical (or biblical) Gods who attempt to manoeuvre and control the actions of mortals.

Kirk: The Military Hero

Dualism is another narrative device Star Trek uses to “test” Kirk’s heroic persona comparing him diametrically with his opponents — he and the Gorn are conflicted sides of the same persona: both Starship captains whose “heroism” and “heroic” character are determined differently (according to each’s race). Kirk’s humanity, is contrasted by The Gorn’s savagery.

We see here indications that it is his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined is vital to his strength.

In Episode 5 of Season 1, “The Enemy Within”, Kirk is involved in a transporter accident which doubles his body and splits his persona in two, resulting in two Kirk’s: one Jekyll and one Hyde. As Hark indicates:

One avatar retains the captain’s moral sense and his rationality, yet he is weak and indecisive. The other is little more than a ‘thoughtless brutal animal, driven by lust and crippled by fear, yet within him resides all that makes Kirk the superior commander he is. “And what is it that makes one man an exceptional leader?” Spock observes. “We see here indications that it is his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined is vital to his strength.” (Star Trek, Hark, 2008: 41)

This brings us on to our final key question: just how heroic is Kirk exactly? To answer this question, we must make the leap from the original series to the film franchise (and by extension, JJ Abrams recent “reboots”) and note how the Kirk character itself is fleshed out. We can note that on several occasions Kirk acts in a decidedly unheroic fashion: in “Arena” he disregards Spock’s warning that they do not know the reasons for the attack by The Gorn ship and impetuously and aggressively chases it into Metron space. In Star Trek: The Motion Picture he pulls rank and experience on Decker, the new, young commanding officer of the Enterprise (responsible for its refit) and unceremoniously usurps command himself.

Kirk: The Flawed Hero

The “heroism” of the character established in the original series is to an extent challenged within the film franchise, which emerged ten years after the cancellation of the series. We might note as well that in the intervening years, the Space Race had come and gone and the political, ideological and cultural optimism of the ‘60s, embodied in the heroic figure of John F. Kennedy had been replaced by the discontent of the ‘70s: the corruption of authority and leadership (two of the most Kirkian heroic values) embodied by Nixon and Watergate; Vietnam; the fall out of the counter-culture; and the 1973 oil crisis. This was an era in which the stabilising heroic values and leadership demonstrated by Kirk were both absent (along with Kirk himself) and badly needed.

What’s more, Captain Kirk’s pre-eminence as a science fiction TV hero was ten years in the past. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a film to which Star Trek: The Motion Picture owes both a narrative and aesthetic debt) had redefined the parameters and space of science fiction cinema. By 1979, Kirk had also been joined in space by a host of newer cultural science fiction heroes: George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) had provided another cultural landmark with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo providing new space heroes for a younger generation. Even James Bond had made his way into space in Moonraker (1979). Star Trek’s big screen return saw a crew who had aged considerably in the intervening years and the theme of aging, displacement and mortality becomes a narrative thread linking the films together (“Damn it Jim! Other people have birthdays; why do we have to treat yours like a funeral?”).

Furthermore, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we discover that Kirk was the only Starfleet Cadet to pass the “Kobayashi Maru” training simulation test, and that he did so by cheating. The test presents Cadets with a “No Win Scenario”. As Janet Stemwedel describes it:

The Kobayshi Maru test is a training simulation in which Starfleet cadets encounter a civilian ship in distress. To save the civilians, the cadet would need to enter the Neutral Zone, violating treaty; honouring the treaty means leaving the disabled freighter and its occupants in the Neutral Zone, at the mercy of the Klingons. As the simulation is set up, entering the Neutral Zone to save the civilians also results in Klingons attacking and boarding the ship which the cadet is commanding.

Kirk reprogrammed the test and instead of being penalised was commended by Starfleet for lateral thinking (a quality of leadership). When questioned about it in the film and asked why he cheated, Kirk responds “I don’t believe in the No Win Scenario” (immediately recalling “City on the Edge of Forever” and the death of Edith Keeler): a statement which is also repeated by Kirk (now played by Chris Pine) in JJ Abrams second film in the rebooted franchise, Into Darkness (2013). This is the essence of Captain Kirk’s heroic persona and also its major point of conflict. Stemwedel states:

Is the Kobayashi Maru a good test of leadership, and of the ethical decision-making that’s a part of it? And what should we make of the fact that Kirk seems to have “beat” the test by cheating?… Young James T. Kirk reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru because he didn’t grasp the point of the simulation. Kirk thought it was a test of whether in the circumstances you could succeed in saving everyone. On that basis, he thought the circumstances were unfair (since there was no way to save everyone), so he changed them… The real test of the Kobayashi Maru is not how you respond in the simulator, but how you go on from there. Do you recognize that the universe may present you with situations your knowledge and powers are inadequate to address? That logic and ethical formulae can only get you so far?

The “Kobayashi Maru” is another example of the way Star Trek tests and interrogates the concept of heroism, and more specifically challenges Kirk’s own heroic persona as to cheat demonstrates hubris and arrogance, although, are these not part of the illicit pleasure of “the hero” character?’ Certainly within the film franchise Kirk is more clearly presented as a flawed hero. In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (which saw the franchise move away from sub 2001 style of science fiction, to a more action based style reminiscent of the series, more clearly a naval drama in space), it is revealed that not only has Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru but also that at the end of the episode “Space Seed”, despite his best intentions, Kirk has failed Khan and his followers in exiling them to Ceti Alpha V (an act that leads to the death of Khan’s wife, the Enterprise’s ex-historian Marla McGivers), and when Khan reappears in the film, he and his followers resemble a Manson style cult of counter cultural drop outs.

Hero Fathers?

Moreover, we discover that Kirk has failed quite spectacularly in his father role (the ultimate hero figure): his son David Marcus (co-developer of the Genesis Project with his mother, and later killed in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) by the Klingon, Kruge) is initially unaware of their relationship and antagonistic to Kirk when he discovers who his father is.

In the JJ Abrams reboots: Star Trek (2009) and Into Darkness (2013), the self-sacrifice of his father is the catalyst for Kirk’s (Chris Pine) narrative journey in the film and his own self-doubts about living up to the father’s legacy. In fact, in the recent films Kirk suffers from the absence of two “heroic” father figures — firstly his own biological father, and secondly, his textual father. Spock (Zachary Quinto) comes face to face with his older self, played by the ageing Leonard Nimoy. However, William Shatner’s absence from the film provides Pine’s Kirk with yet another paternal void and heroic legacy to live up to as viewers and fans of the series are, of course, bound (and invited) to measure Pine’s own take on, and performance as, Kirk against that of Shatner.

Hence this is another example of the series meta-textually deconstructing the “hero” character. In the third film in the rebooted series, Justin Lin’s 2016 film Star Trek Beyond, we are given a re-staging of the sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where “Bones” and Kirk celebrate his birthday with some Romulan Ale. In Beyond, Kirk contemplates not only his age but father’s heroic legacy.

In this essay I have tried to deconstruct not just the heroic Kirk persona but also the way in which Star Trek as a cultural text approaches the concept of heroism. Why is it then that Kirk has endured as recognisable TV (and film) hero for 50 years? He embodies a set of universal and “ideal” heroic values and also a set of values which are anchored to the changing cultural climate of the mid ‘60s. Just as these “heroic” values have endured so has the character; he is a trope of stability, humanism and ideal leadership in an increasingly unstable world, and although he embodies change, his own unchangingness is reassuring.

Nevertheless, despite these heroic values, Kirk often acts unheroically, he is a flawed hero but this is the essence of his heroism: he is human. He acts hubristically and arrogantly at times but this is part of the pleasure of the screen hero. I would finally like to argue that Kirk endures as a TV hero precisely because increasingly in contemporary television there is an absence of Captain Kirk’s, and in today’s climate perhaps we need one.

Matt Melia, Ph.D., teaches film and television at Kingston University. He teaches modules on science fiction and cult film and has research interests in space and architecture in film, theatre and television.

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