Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Defense of Star Trek Into Darkness [PART II - Kirk]

James Tiberius Kirk.

It may be argued whether or not Captain Kirk is the best or most bad ass captain in the Star Trek franchise, but there's one thing that we can all agree on: He is by far the most well-known to Trekkies and non-Trekkies alike. Even people who have never watched an episode of Star Trek in their life know who Captain Kirk is.

So, it's no wonder that J.J. Abrams was walking on thin ice when reviving the character with a new actor. Just as the wonderful essence of Khan was created by Ricardo Montalban, everything that made up Captain Kirk came from William Shatner. He was Captain Kirk. But also like Khan (which many hardcore Trekkie's refuse to acknowledge) is that the character can in fact live independently of the original actor. In this case, reborn in the alternate universe and portrayed by Chris Pine.

For the sake of attempting to avoid confusion in this argument, I'll refer to Shatner's Kirk from The Original Series as TOS!Kirk and Pine's from the Abrams films as AU!Kirk (AU for Alternate Universe).

*****If you've never seen the movie and wish to avoid spoilers, TURN BACK NOW. I will have to touch on a lot of spoilers in this argument. *****

As mentioned in PART I of this defense, there are a couple of things people disliked in Star Trek Into Darkness regarding the character of Kirk.

  1. Kirk is much more immature, stupid, and weaker than TOS!Kirk (this also applies to Star Trek [2009])
  2. Kirk's death and the deus ex machina solution for it

AU!Kirk Versus TOS!Kirk

William Shatner (left) and Chris Pine (right)

Like I did for Khan, I want to start with the actors themselves. The person most responsible, I think, for how Kirk turned out to be the daring and bad ass captain we all know and love was the personality that William Shatner put into it. The Shat is notorious for hamming it up and seen as having an ego to choke a whale, and that inevitably translated into the character. Contrary to what some people think, Shatner had more than his share of classical training as an actor. It allowed him to deliver lines in such a characteristic way that we remember it. It made Captain Kirk impressive (and maybe a little ridiculous on occasion). This was also the 1960's, so Kirk had to be a classy, hard working, all American boy who could woo any beautiful dame he set his eyes on. He was a man's man.

This set up a very specific character for Chris Pine to portray. But rather than emulate everything that Shatner did the in role, Pine brought his own personality to it. Some people might consider that a main reason for the character being "ruined" but I think it was a smart choice. Had Pine tried to channel William Shatner in every line and mannerism, it would have turned into a parody. It would have made the character and the rest of the movie too self-conscious to ever be taken seriously. Forty years after the character was first introduced on television, there was finally a new actor to play him which needed to take into account the difference in generations. The Kirk of the 1960's and 1980's (as in the films) would probably bore today's audience to tears. We like the young, gruff rebels with impressive sex lives. Why can't Kirk be that too?

Whether he's a cultured and career-driven Starfleet officer or a bar-hopping rebel who ends up bloody on the floor, when you boil it down, he's still James T. Kirk. The main difference is one that was made very, very clear in Star Trek (2009) when Spock explained the new timeline as caused by Nero, who traveled back in time and set of a brand new chain of events for the characters. Since this universe altering catalyst occurred on the day of Kirk's birth (actually, it was exactly where he was born too), he was affected the most significantly.

The main, and perhaps only, reason that Kirk grew up into an almost unrecognizable character from the one we know and love is his father, George Kirk. TOS!Kirk was raised with a father who was also in Starfleet, and we can easily infer that it was George who got him into Starfleet at a young age, supported, disciplined, inspired, and taught Jim everything he knew in the Original Series. Subtract that variable, Jim Kirk tailspins as a child and a young man. AU!Kirk didn't have the father figure to guide him and show him how to be a responsible and good man. Both Kirk's have that spitfire attitude, but only TOS!Kirk was taught how to direct it. Enter a new fatherly figure, Captain Christopher Pike, who fills that role and sets AU!Kirk on the path to becoming what he was meant to be. (As any Trekkie knows, Pike was specifically mentioned in the episode "The Menagerie Part 1" as being about the same age as Kirk, something that couldn't have possibly been altered by Nero... But we'll ignore that can of continuity worms.)



So, AU!Kirk is much less prepared to handle extreme circumstances than TOS!Kirk. He's still learning, and much more harshly. It's no wonder, then, that he seems so incapable in Star Trek Into Darkness. The writer's, (Orci, Lindelof, and Kurtzman) are aware enough of their story to know that Kirk has been thrown into his destined role without being prepared for it. That's a core point in the plot, and I think they managed it without it becoming too contrived. Kirk's passions get the best of him and he shirks his duties to follow his own inclinations, which, as we see, doesn't always pan out so well. He uses his command to get revenge on John Harrison, which nearly kills them all. I've heard people call him a stupid captain for that, saying that TOS!Kirk would never be that immature. Of course, I think those people have forgotten the episode "Obsession" where Kirk does exactly that in a Moby Dick inspired plot of the captain seeking revenge regardless of his crew and duties. In both "Obsession" and Into Darkness, Kirk eventually comes to his senses with the help of Spock and McCoy.

Kirk's Death

This is the part of Star Trek Into Darkness that tends to make or break the movie for a lot of people. It's either "the most emotional scene in the new movies thus far" or "the last straw to a crappy movie." Even though I absolutely loved it, it is dangerously close to feeling contrived because we all know where it came from. It is the exact scene, almost in verbatim, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The only difference being that the roles of Kirk and Spock were reversed. On the surface, it might seem like lazy writing. But I was enthralled with it in the theaters, and here's why. (It's not because I'm easily swayed emotionally by movies, far from it.)

I went into the movie without knowing who the villain was. I'm a little gullible, I believed Abrams when he said it wasn't Khan. So, from the moment of the revelation on, I had more goosebumps than I did prior to that now famous line of "My name is... Khan!" By bringing such a well known character in, a new layer of icing was added to the movie-cake for me. It meant that I had an in-depth understanding of the villain now in such a way that I couldn't get from Nero in the previous film. I knew he was an antagonist to be reckoned with, so it was extremely exciting to see him team up (albeit temporarily) with Kirk. I knew that it was Khan who was responsible for Spock self-sacrificing and ultimately destroying Kirk's other, logical half. But this is a new timeline, anything could happen. So I knew what Khan was capable of without the boredom of knowing exactly what was going to happen.

The love that dare not speak its name?
This played on me in more ways than one when Kirk began to crawl into the warp core. I knew it killed Spock in The Wrath of Khan. They were giving every indication that it would kill Kirk. It made me really anxious as I wondered whether or not they would actually go there with the story. It seemed too obvious, which then had me thinking "They won't do it. Will they? No they won't. They are! No maybe not..." And so on. And, well. They did. Kirk died in front of Spock but separated by the glass.

To be fair, it did lack the emotional punch of The Wrath of Khan because Kirk and Spock didn't have the same history together. But it was emotional for different reasons. They had only just learned the power of their friendship (or romance, depending on what kind of fan you are). Kirk acted on impulse--as he is prone to doing-- to save lives the lives of the only family he has: his crew. It's a mirror to Khan's motives and actions. Where Khan would kill and destroy for his family, Kirk would sacrifice. The thing that really hit me hard in the feels, however, was when a tearful, dying Kirk said "I'm scared, Spock... How do you choose not to feel?" It's a raw moment of the bravado, fearless Captain Kirk admitting to vulnerability. Most importantly, he was admitting it to Spock. It's intimate, but tragic. (Won't lie, I did giggle a bit when Spock ended up screaming the famous line of "KHAAANNN!")

Of course, this powerful scene is a bit undermined within a few minutes of the film when a means to save Kirk is immediately found, i.e. Khan's magic blood. This is the deus ex machina that I agree kind of sucked. It came too quickly and too easily. When Spock died in The Wrath of Khan, it wasn't guaranteed that he would ever come back, even if there was the possibility of it thanks to the Genesis device. There was no time for the characters or the audience to cope with the loss of our lovable Kirk and Spock only got a few bruises in the melee with Khan to save him. It almost rendered the death pointless. Almost.

Having died and revived in so little time could have some interesting consequences on the character of Kirk (which will probably never be addressed in future films). In the 2009 film, Spock made it explicitly clear through the example of Kirk's father and the Kobayashi Maru that a captain "cannot cheat death" and Kirk follows the maxim that there is no such thing as a no-win scenario. He has officially won every situation where the odds are against him, triumphed by breaking rules, and lost nothing in self-sacrifice. This may or may not give an already egotistical character a God complex and take away any humility he might have had. This is setting him up for a great lesson in the future, or to make him an annoyingly invincible hero. (But then again, how many episodes of TOS had Kirk or some other character "die" and then come back before the episode was even finished? And at least they didn't drop a bridge on him.)

All we can do is wait and see what the third installment of Star Trek has for us.

Smolder. James T. Kirk from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).

Read Part I - Khan
Read Part III - The Story

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