Kirk Your Enthusiasm (10)

By: Adam McGovern
August 10, 2012

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


Captain Camelot | “Return to Tomorrow” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 2, Episode 20 | 1968

There were two things close to a religious figure in my mid-to-post-1960s, lapsed-Catholic & secular-Jewish household: John F. Kennedy and William Shatner. Shatner got his celestial-wiseman status from his role as Captain Kirk; and Kirk got his philosopher-prince status from JFK.

It can’t be a coincidence that, soon after America lost its King Arthur, a hero in the heavens with almost his same initials was crossing the galaxy and brokering American-style gunboat peace to other planets. And then there was Kirk’s poetic musings; his open, secure acknowledgement of his fallibility; his skirt-chasing bonhomie — and even his windswept haircut.

Kennedy helped integrate America after widening the White House doors for Irish Catholics; Kirk, a Canadian Jew in real life playing an Anglo-Saxon paragon on television, brought a multicultural crew onto primetime (with at least one member, Nichelle Nichols, urged to stay on the show by Martin Luther King). Maybe the only way to bring this equality about in 1966-69 was in fantasy, in some far future, and on some other planet. Kirk took us through the stars toward which Kennedy first pushed us.

Kennedy was a martyr, and Kirk our once-and-future-king figure. Rakishly witty, ready to stare down despots, putting his comrades’ safety ahead of his own and governing (sometimes) by his crew’s informed consent. These were the qualities we projected onto JFK and JTK, from press conferences to banter with Spock, from P.T. 109 to Klingon torture. And from the president’s deliberative style to the cases Kirk would make for his space-federation’s daring ventures.

In the “Return to Tomorrow” episode of the original series, Kirk gets several Enterprise officers into a conference room to give an impromptu kitchen-table speech about how risk is the essence and purpose of their voyage. This is delivered after several superior alien intelligences are found in glass globes on a devastated planet, asking to inhabit some crewmembers’ brains while the advanced beings — survivors of a once great, too arrogant hi-tech society — build android-body vessels for themselves.

Kirk argues for the moral lessons and scientific leaps this arrangement offers, and the human frontiers it can help the Enterprise cross. For all his posturing at many points in the series, this speech was the essence of an exhortation left echoing in the wake of Kennedy’s absence: To leave behind the worlds we know and become not lost but better.


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. “To leave behind the worlds we know and become not lost but better.” Yes, the credo of midcentury muscular liberalism — we have become terribly cynical, for better or worse, since then, eh? Great item, Adam!

  2. Today the anointed good dare nothing and lose it all, Josh, and the self-appointed bad gamble everything with dangerous disregard or unawareness of the historical stakes. Surely some revelation is at hand. Or at least J. J. Abrams’ sequel, please?

  3. Pundit’s blog, supplemental: It just occurred to me what a conceptual crossroads TOS came at — WWII-vet Roddenberry was in a once-a-century (if not more) position to believe in a benign military, and force-to-end-force. Hence the progression beyond war (or at least subordination of it as an instrument) in Trek, while a non-army brat like Lucas produced a “Star” saga that literally swapped “Wars” into the title. And which felt to me, even at its debut, claustrophobically trigger-positive and pre-Reaganite…the decay you mention, Josh, as a long antimatter trail…

  4. P.S. Rewatching this clip, I couldn’t help but notice something else — the contemplative pauses, the sibilant trailoffs? I think another president — and known Trek fan — may have reversed the art-imitates-politics process I was seeing here. Though as art would have it, this later commander-in-chief reverses the JFK arc too by being a myth first and a president second…

  5. Great post, Adam! The Camelot-overlay, and the lost-Camelot-overlay, seems all the more poignant when I recall my early TOS experience: watching re-runs after school on a grainy black-and-white TV with the vertical hold constantly glitching the broadcasts. “Channel 56!” The message transmitted by our mediated Captain was: we once *were here; not, we will be…

  6. Wonderful, wonderful! I love the intimate sentiment of your personal experience alongside this larger-than-life time. Especially the imagery of the “windswept haircut”

  7. Once again, Adam, you remind me that one of the hallmarks of creative intelligence is putting two seemingly disparate things together in a surprising but not unexpected way…. great post!

  8. Wow. You managed to modernize(futurize?) the starfleet credo without splitting a single infinitive. (JJ Abrams might object to the “not lost” part, but kudos.)

  9. High praise from a writer of momentous details and snap grandeur, Peggy! And you raise a point that has been much on my mind too, as these posts build up: Even as I approach McCoy’s age in TNG’s pilot ep, my first memories of Trek also date from when it was already a memory, and I felt that just-missed effect too. I wonder if we have any writers in the whole KYE roster who saw it first-run? Maybe it was meant to be an instant memory, pure inspiration…can anyone *prove* it was really on to begin with? :-) Your post-disaster image of archaic media-tech is lovely and poignant; I remember my dad marveling at the significance and economical elegance of the Enterprise crew’s shirts being color-coded when we first caught a glimpse on a non-tiny, more-than-black-and-white TV in a Pittsburgh hotel room in 1970. And yet I never felt that late-to-the-party malaise that Jonathan Lethem and others report — I felt that, like King Arthur, this stuff was destined to come back. Lethem’s exactly my age and clearly superior to my intellect, but he was raised by hippies while I was the midlife kid of a Roddenberry-era couple — maybe having seen it go away at least once grants the blessing of knowing it at least rises off the mat a few times if you hang on long enough?

  10. Thanks KJ, those strings of time collide in interesting chords and Trek is about nothing if not meeting ourselves anew. Annie, you’re the keeper of the cognitive nitro and fling your thoughts sideways like Ninja-Kirk to see around and above so this means more than a Starfleet promotion.

  11. Adverbs are the emotional clarion that Kirk must use to color and justify mere actions, Steve — it never occurred to me that he could have *written* that credo (Trek nerds, load trivia canons if that’s been otherwise established). So real men — real *ones* — split infinitives.

  12. > I wonder if we have any writers in the whole KYE roster who saw it first-run? Maybe it was meant to be an instant memory, pure inspiration…can anyone *prove* it was really on to begin with? :-)

    That is a freaking awesome conceit for a new TV show. No matter what era — past, present, or future — the show itself is set in, the idea is that the show was *aired* at some specific point in the past, and this is a re-run. So, for example, you could do a science fiction show set in the year 2500 but you’d design it to look like the 1980s’ idea of the year 2500, and the actors you cast would be 1980s handsome, and so forth.

  13. Y’know, you’re right, Josh — I’m not sure if anyone has ever used that trope on TV, though it’s common with “readymade reprints” in comics, not least my own Dr. Id…

  14. I was a first run viewer of some of TOS, but I confess that I don’t remember how soon it was available as a rerun syndication because it was a constant for me growing up. I didn’t then make the Camelot connection, but it makes sense. The crew of the enterprise is like a pangalatic peace corps, with phasers set on stun. And the rakish, indefatigable Kirk had obvious Kennedyesque attributes, including a backstory and a distinct middle name the recitation of which carried that same tone when all three of Kennedy’s names were used. Youth and confidence, a man in that moment, anything was possible. If today, Camelot were to be invoked in a series, there would be as many shadows as sunlight. It took a lot to kill off JTK (and his commerical alter-egos as well) and I don’t know that I could have reconciled the Kirk of my imagination with someone whose fate was looming even as he reached his greatest heights.

  15. Sorry not to wade in on praise earlier Adam, a way-way piece….I have an excuse, being a proud Londoner, of basking in our own resurgent, playfully earnest, patriotic multiculturalism.

    Kirk channels JFK, and idolises Lincoln, and, I’m sure FDR and, obviously, the second-term Obama (who fixes, or will fix, world poverty and presides over a peaceful extraterrestrial contact event). Obama is Kirk and Spock. The careful calibration of these two positive aspects determines his legislators power and electability.

  16. Lincoln’s been missing; thanks for bringing up the president Kirk had the most explicitly documented admiration for, Greg — maybe our much-discussed psychic troika of Kirk-Spock-McCoy is JT’s team of rivals. I’m not sure Obama exists in Trek’s diegesis; he strikes me as more the kind of guy who would let the Senate elevate Palpatine. But bask to the breaka dawn — the Enterprise leadership that means the most to me will always have an English accent.

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