Kirk Your Enthusiasm (8)

By: Kevin Church
August 8, 2012

Eighth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.


Kirk vs. Decker | Star Trek: The Motion Picture | December 1979

The first time we see a familiar face in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it’s Admiral Kirk, stepping off an air-tram into Starfleet Headquarters. He is tense and unhappy; in the two years since the Enterprise returned home, he’s become the thing he hated most while in command and out there: a bureaucrat. His brief conversation with his old command’s new (Vulcan, because of course) science officer, Sonak, includes one of my favorite lines in the entire Trek canon. “I’m on my way to a meeting with Admiral Nogura which will not last more than three minutes. Report to me on the Enterprise in one hour.”

An alien vessel surrounded by a cloud of destructive energy is moving through space towards Earth. Although there are (presumably) plenty of Starfleet ships that do remarkable things, it’s only James T. Kirk who can be relied upon to lead a crew to do things that are impossible. After all, he spent five years staring down Greek gods, scuffling with Klingons, and even managed to steal the coveted Romulan cloaking device — what’s a giant cloud that shoots balls of lightning to him? It’s probably harder for him to get a Space McDonald’s to serve breakfast after 11AM than to take down a godlike energy force that devastates everything in its path.

Of course, there is the matter of Will Decker — who was recommended for the Enterprise captaincy by Kirk himself — to deal with. Decker gets a fair amount of slagging from Trek fandom, but he’s shown to be competent and a natural leader. The first time we see him in the film, he’s helping out in engineering, something Kirk never would do unless there was an attractive new magnetic bottle technician. In the movie’s screenplay, it’s stated that Kirk sizes up the situation compassionately before being plain-spoken with Decker. On-screen, however, it’s almost comedic how eager Kirk is to shut down Decker’s hopes and dreams.

KIRK: I’m taking over the center seat, Will.

DECKER: You’re what…?

KIRK: I’m replacing you as Captain of the Enterprise. You’ll stay on as Executive Officer… a temporary grade reduction to Commander.

DECKER: You personally are assuming command?

KIRK: Yeah.

That little “Yeah” sums up Kirk’s position in the matter perfectly. Getting command of the Enterprise may have taken Will Decker an entire career and a lot of ass-kissing, but for Kirk, it was three minutes on a Thursday morning. And now that he’s established who’s who and what’s what, he needs to get back to the business of universe-saving.

This isn’t the end of it, of course. Decker wants to know why, exactly, he thinks he can do this sort of thing and there’s a conversation that establishes what we already know, but the real crux is when Kirk apologizes for the takeover. Decker snaps back “No, Admiral. I don’t think you’re sorry. Not one damn bit.” Of course he’s not. James T. Kirk is supposed to be the captain of the Enterprise. That’s just how it is.


2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912


2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.

2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

What do you think?

  1. Kirk was always very hands-on with the Enterprise – he knew how to man every single bridge station, and was definitely competent and comfortable with at least some physical repair work (witness The Doomsday Machine…which, incidentally, involved Decker Sr.) I always had the impression that he preferred not to interfere much in the engineering section because Scotty was just as possessive as he was of the ship, and for that very reason he knew he could trust him with her.

    So yeah, I think Kirk’s a lot more conversant with engineering than ‘attractive new magnetic bottle technicians’.

  2. There might be a structural imperative wave keeping Kirk in the narrative and at the franchise’s steering wheel…though he was fruitfully refracted into Chris Pine for the 2009 reloop and Patrick Stewart took the con definitively for his generation and even mine. I seem to remember that Roddenberry’s unproduced ideas for a reunion in the mid-1970s included Spock sinecured back at the Vulcan Science Academy, Bones turned veterinarian ‘cuz “they were the only patients with any sense he’d ever treated,” and Scotty becoming “an alcoholic”; I can’t seem to recall where Kirk was in this scheme, which may well mean that the universe only wants me to remember him in charge and he found some trick to keep bending his way back…

  3. That *is just how it is! Kirk reminds me in many ways of Ernest Shackleton; “lost at sea,” unless he’s back on his ship, having adventures and running the show. Kirk (unlike Spock) wasn’t happy on the happy planet. Kirk wasn’t happy being kicked upstairs to Admiral. Kirk wasn’t even happy in the Nexus, which was by definition the answer to everyone’s dreams. Kirk was only happy back in [his] captain’s chair.

    In a way, that first Trek film was an corporate take on fan fiction: an opportunity not as much to extend an increasingly profitable franchise (although it was that), as a chance to spend time with old friends in new stories.

  4. Yes — great call, Peggy, it’s fanfic. For better or worse.

    PS: My brother the tall ship sailor says that it’s common knowledge that ships and sailors alike rot on dry land. Better to stay at sea, forever.

  5. Not sure The Motion Picture should be ennobled by comparison to fanfic; I liked everything in the ’70s “New Voyages” paperbacks better than what Paramount came up with for their big-screen try — but I’d agree that that first flick sparked the true spirit of fanfic by making the faithful rise up en masse and vote for the way they knew it could be done better — which, from Wrath of Khan onward, more or less, it was…

  6. I was thinking about Shackleton also, both in the sense of his foundering in dry-dock and in his need to be engaged in a desperate rescue situation.

    I think Stephen Collins had almost as thankless a task as Decker, in trying to fill the Captain’s chair, so he was drawn up to be supplanted and bland, begrudging, competence is about as well as he could do under the circumstance.

    Roddenberry was hardly unique in recasting his space ship and crew along nautical lines (notwithstanding the “Wagon Train” quote attributed to him). In some ways, however, the Enterprise crew, while on the bridge, operated more like a bomber pilot crew during WW II than a Napoleonic era ship’s crew. Certainly Kirk demonstrated the cool efficiency under fire, and the component functions of the Enterprise crew had something of that practiced air. But one of the future-retro charms of TOS was the underplayed naval theme, which worked less well, IMHO, when it was exaggerated during the Picard command. But in his far-reaching command over his ship and the way he loomed like a benevolent demi-god over the lives of her crew, Kirk, in my memory of him, puts me in mind of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubry. A bomber crew develops esteem, affection and strength from a good captain pilot, but the Captain of a large sailing vessel is the omnipresent, omnipotent head of a tight community.

    One of the pleasures of TOS was the way it conflated the camaraderie of people serving in combat, with the genuine affection and comfort of mutual friendships formed over years of living and serving together, another way in which the naval model fits better than one drawn from aviation history. No one in prior history logged as many hours and days on an airplane than did common, close-knit sailors living together, encapsulated and contained on board a ship, where there is us and the rest of the world/universe. There is a scene in “Apollo 13” when Lovell speaks of what a good ship those men had. I wonder if it is accurate? If not, it worked dramatically.

    Spock’s particular, though often subordinate, science mission also fits better within the naval tradition, as does the general imperative to seek out and explore. It’s interesting to recall that at the time TOS aired, NASA was in its Mercury/early Apollo phase, and for that generation of astronauts, it was still military aviation flying first, and all of this exploring and science stuff as an add-on (and for good reasons at the time). The roles of scientist/explorer for the early astronauts were sometimes awkward fits. To the extent they can be considered still actually active after Apollo 11, reality would follow fiction in the way the later astronauts embraced those roles, and the way NASA chose its crews.

  7. Walter Koenig, in his deliciously paranoid film diary (Chekhov’s Enterprise) wondered whether Collins was being groomed to replace an ageing Captain.

    Of course Walter gets rather anxious, his new role as Security Chief has a woeful imperative, and, as he explains at great length, he thinks that his prematurely grey and abundant body hair might also be cause to send him into oblivion. It’s a good book..

  8. But Kirk is an equivocal swan beneath the alpha positivist interior….his legs are going spindly, twisting round and forming odd plastic shapes. His dedication inevitably becomes a neurotic fixation, and that’s what makes your legs perform like Daffy Duck’s. Trust me.

  9. Infinite inadvertent ballet positions in infinite combinations, Greg. Go not gently into that black hole, Walter — go with a high-pitched scream.

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