I confess I am a Star Trek fan, though I admit to preferring Jean Luc Picard over James T. Kirk — subtle intelligence over hyper-masculine bravado, thoughtful articulation over shirt-ripping drag outs (though Picard could throw a punch if needed) — so I was pleasantly surprised by the subtle intelligence I found in Kirk’s clunkily-titled biography The Autobiography of James T. Kirk: The Story of Star Fleet’s Greatest Captain. (Would Kirk actually refer to himself as Star Fleet’s greatest?)
We all know, of course, the book wasn’t written by James T. Kirk (or even an aging Bill Shatner) but by David A. Goodman, Kirk’s “editor” who, fortunately for us, doesn’t have to look 80 years into the future for the subtlety and intelligence of the Earl Grey-sipping captain of the Enterprise D. He can simply draw on those useful aspects of the Star Trek universe to give Kirk’s biography a better-rounded story.
Unfortunately, Goodman also draws on the blandness of Captain Jonathan Archer as well as the subtlety of Picard. In the immortal words of George Takei: “Way to kill the franchise, Bakula.” Still, there’s enough intelligence, wit, and even some macho shirt-ripping to more than make up for Archer. Even the crew of Deep Space Nine gets a nod or two. Raktajino, anyone?
By page 11, canonical Trek lovers will be relieved to learn that the J.J.-verse does not exist in this version of events. The “author” assures wary readers of his upbringing:
I was born on March 22, 2233, to a complete family: I grew up with two parents, an older brother, and a grandmother. It was my own slice of heaven.
Thank god for small favors. Speaking of whom, the “god” at the center of the universe as depicted in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier was all just a fictitious retelling of Kirk and company’s travels through the eyes of some creative storytellers from a noted parallel planet. (Remember Hodgkin’s Law of Parallel Planet Development? The author does.) Fans know the only good part of that film was Uhura’s fan dance. so it’s comforting to pretend it never existed. It’s a bit weird having the characters watch themselves in a film — my suspension of disbelief was stretched thin, though not as thin as it was when the author suggested that Kirk has a “type”. Petite and blonde? Ridiculous.
For those keeping up with the minutia of Kirk’s life, he was from Riverside, Iowa, and Sam was his older brother. These details, like many of the book’s “facts” will be familiar to readers. They won’t encounter many surprises or be treated to plot twists; what they will get, though, is a series of “oh, that’s why Kirk did that” and “okay, that’s how Kirk knew that” moments. Such a-ha reveals include items like the origin of Kirk’s knowledge of the ingredients in gunpowder, familiarity with the characters from the old west (especially the featured players at the OK Corral), his skill as a poker player, and his penchant for rock climbing. Much of Kirk’s young life was shaped by wanting to be like Sam.
Kirk was destined for greatness, of course. He becomes a hero at the tender age of 11 when he rescues a Tellarite ambassador from a ship that crashed near his home. It wasn’t until he was 17 though, that he decided to join Star Fleet. But I digress. Right now, we need to talk about poor Tom Leighton.
Oh yes, my friends, Tom Leighton: that unfortunate boyhood chum of Kirk’s we remember from the classic episode “The Conscience of the King”. Tom Leighton’s tragic life becomes even more tragic as we learn the details of his parents’ deaths and his own disfigurement. While the storyline of Kirk and Leighton’s boyhood friendship might not have drawn upon the most popular episode, it does provide a good deal of interesting and untouched backstory, not to mention that it takes up a good chunk of the text.
Readers looking for more popular episodes will get their wish as well. “Mirror, Mirror”, “Amok Time”, and of course perennial fan favorite “City on the Edge of Forever” get their turn in the spotlight, the last of which acting as a framing device for the book itself, as Kirk’s inner thoughts reveal to us that Edith Keeler was the one true love of Kirk’s life, even as we read all about his decades long turmoil over ex Carol Marcus and son David. Edith and Carol aren’t even his type.
In fact, the book spends a good chunk of its narrative on the episode “City on the Edge of Forever”, but never answers my question: How does Kirk get a photo booth picture of Edith Keeler through the Guardian of Forever portal so it could be included in his autobiography? Seriously, there are no pockets in those Star Fleet uniforms. Oh, and the timeline was restored so technically, none of that even happened, right? I don’t understand how Kirk held onto the tattered black and white photo.
I think my favorite in-joke in the book is one of the most subtle of them all: When Kirk first arrives with the Leightons on Tarsus IV after having left Earth for the first time as a teenager, he notes that the Class-M planet “wasn’t foreign at all. It could easily have been mistaken for Southern California.” If you don’t get winking humor of this joke, you haven’t watched enough classic Star Trek. If you want in on it, Google Vasquez Rocks.
Readers will repeatedly find themselves thinking “that name sounds familiar” at the introduction of a minor character only to have it followed up a few pages later with the exclamation “Oh, that fill-in-the-blank name.” Notable examples include Ben Finney, Commander Decker, and Ron Tracy. They all get backstories. Enjoy.
There are the more familiar and predictable stories of people and situations from Kirk’s youth, including his time at Star Fleet Academy, from his “first” love, Ruth (she never gets a last name), to run-ins with his bully, Cadet Sean Finnegan. Kirk also spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the unhappy (and rather lackluster) marriage between his parents. This feature of the biography is actually the weakest. The parental relationship isn’t traumatic enough to be interesting nor explored fully enough to make readers care.
Kirk also has his “Forrest Gump” moments; he’s amazingly involved in every important moment in future history, such as when he witnesses the deaths of five academy cadets who attempted to perform the Kolvoord Starburst piloting maneuver. (Shut up, Wesley. This doesn’t concern you.)
Readers will be treated to a host of references from the entire franchise, from Kirk’s cheating on the Kobashai Maru test, to the destruction of Praxis (hello, Captain Sulu… oh, is that Janice Rand? Glad to see she got over that whole “attempted rape” thing), to Khan Noonien Singh (Montalbán, not Cumberbatch, of course). Even Colonel Worf gets a passing nod — Qapla. I do wonder though: Did we really need to be reminded of the Xindi Incident?
The “author” does seem to enjoy poking conservative fans. This is sometimes a quick jab, such as the brief mention of Ben Finney’s daughter, Jamie, having a wife, or a reference to a Constitution-class starship named Obama. At other times, Kirk’s inner dialogue feels like a conscious effort to distance the character from his mid-’60s communist-hating, white Christian origins.
Jamie Finney and Captain Kirk
Not that I’m complaining. Kirk is more three-dimensional in his autobiography than he ever was on the small screen. The author even goes so far as to suggest some of Kirk’s romantic conquests were tactical rather than romantic. Referencing Governor Kodos-turned-thespian-Anton Karidian, Kirk confesses: “I tried to seduce his 19-year-old daughter, Lenore.” He says this act turned him “evil” in order to seek revenge on Kodos for what happened to the Leightons.
The book attempts to explain inconsistencies that exist outside of the fictional universe. For example, why are (by the fifth feature film) senior officers Uhura, Scotty, and friends still serving in their original positions? The author’s (ahem, editor’s) answer is both plausible and makes Kirk sound like a total a-hole. In fact, much of the book gives a plausible voice to Kirk; it really does feel like him talking.
The author captures the voices of other characters well, especially the grizzled humor and cynicism of McCoy, who appears more often than even Spock. There’s also a notable effort to account for the inconsistencies of the early episodes of the series, like ship’s surgeon, Dr. That’s Not McCoy, and Lieutenant Sulu-in-a-blue-uniform.
Some things don’t need explaining. Editor’s notes appear throughout in the form of footnotes, and the occasional [REDACTED] passage, which usually serves to fill in a blank that the canon left empty, such as the planetary location of the Guardian of Forever or certain details of the Romulan-Federation war. Even readers with a passing familiarity with Star Trek (should there be any such readers, which seems unlikely) will know what the Prime Directive is, at least well enough to understand the passages where it’s referenced. Footnotes for that are unneeded. Most readers do not require a pronunciation guide for Klingonese.
Many chapters foreshadow conflict that’s already been resolved. This, combined with a series of “Avengers assemble!” moments, when we’re exposed to the (often anticlimactic) first meetings between Kirk at the gang, make the text familiar and nostalgic. Scotty, McCoy, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, and even Mr. Chekov, get their curtain calls. We even find out how McCoy got the nickname “Bones”. Hint: it’s not that interesting. Is that Gary Mitchell making a joke about absolute power corrupting absolutely? How clever.
We later get the inside skinny on Mitchell’s death at Kirk’s hands, though Sally Kellerman, I mean Dr. Elizabeth Dehner’s role in that incident is conspicuously absent. The book is a veritable who’s who — a menagerie, if you will — of famous characters from the show and the films:
the Klingon Captain Koloth, the crazed monkey-thing Mugato, a threatening Gorn (are those the Vasqeuz Rocks again?), the blue whales George and Gracie, even T’Pau of Vulcan makes an appearance; she tells Kirk he’s gotten fat. Hah hah: Shat is fat.
At times, the book feels like a series of unfished short stories set in the Star Trek universe. At other times, it feels like a series of episode plot summaries, jumping from one episode to the next, providing some context, some dialogue, some name dropping, but not really telling the reader anything new. That said, it’s not unpleasant — Trekkies will probably enjoy the reruns. In fact, much of the text is Kirk’s expressions of regret over various command decisions (usually selfishly motivated) from the show and the features, and his wish that “things could have been different”.
In many ways, the Kirk we meet in this biography is the Kirk that Picard encounters in Generations—distracted and sentimental—rather than the younger man on a five year mission to explore the galaxy. The alternate title for the book could have been “Kirk Regrets Stuff”.
To be clear, I really enjoyed this book. If I’m cynical it’s only because I care. If I criticize, it’s only because I am invested. If you are a Star Trek fan, you will enjoy this book. In fact, the bigger a fan you are, the more you will appreciate it.
The book ends with an afterword by Spock, who assures us that Kirk is still out there somewhere; his Spidey sense — I mean, his Vulcan mind melding — has him convinced Kirk isn’t dead. Well, not yet, anyway. Picard will need to find him in the Nexus first. Fortunately for classic fans, the end of the story leaves Kirk in that utopia, riding horses, cooking eggs for Antonia, petting Butler. Yes, Butler, the Great Dane. In paradise, even the dog gets a backstory.