Kirk Your Enthusiasm (22)

By: Peter Bebergal
August 28, 2012

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


Kirk’s countdown | “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 3, Episode 14 | January 1969

Arrogance comes from an over-inflated sense that one’s methods and vision are superior. Pridefulness, though, is usually found in those who feel the least empowered — and who therefore behave in extremist ways. Captain Kirk is sometimes arrogant, but don’t be fooled. Despite his extreme unwillingness to bend in the face of overwhelming odds, he’s no prideful extremist.

In “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” two black-and-white aliens from the planet Charon have brought their 50,000-year struggle to the bridge of the Enterprise. Bele, a single-minded policeman in search of “traitors,” has been hunting Lokai, a revolutionary who claims his people have been oppressed. Bele is intent on taking Lokai back to Charon for a trial; Lokai asks for political asylum. Kirk tells them they are going back to Starfleet, where Lokai will be charged with stealing a shuttlecraft, and any political grievances will have to be taken up there.

Bele represents a prideful sense of right, a monochrome belief at odds with his dual-colored body; Lokai and his ideas of freedom are a cancer that will sow chaos along what Bele sees as perfectly ordered and engineered society. Therefore, using his ability to manipulate electric fields and a telepathic will, Bele takes control of the ship and steers it towards Charon. Kirk finds himself powerless, unable to wrest control of his ship from Bele. In a move that shocks even his own crew, he calls upon the computer to initiate the ship’s self-destruct sequence.

Kirk’s willingness to destroy the Enterprise and kill the 400+ men and women aboard looks, on the surface, as though it’s born of injured pride. However, although Kirk might perhaps be accused of arrogance — for assuming that his own mission is superior to any cause over which these aliens might be fighting — he’s not prideful. Threatened by death during the self-destruct countdown, Kirk doesn’t waver, whereas Bele does. Unlike Bele, a prideful being who ultimately values power (and survival) over doing the right thing, Kirk is willing to die — so long as doing so is the only reasonable course in the face of unreasonableness. This isn’t extremism… unless Socrates’ willingness to drink the hemlock is extremism.

Spock is often described as stoical, but Kirk is the true stoic aboard the Enterprise — his will a firm anchor to the just and good.


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. Thanks for a philosophical distinction much more significant than the split down these famously imperceptive characters’ faces. This essay series has made me realize a lot about Kirk’s control, and *your* essay adds substantially to the understanding that Kirk keeps many consequences in mind and outcomes in place with his intuitive but principled style of thought and action, while even the monumentally composed and ethical Spock is standing along a single and simple dividing line (human/Vulcan, passionate/rational). You also avoided the obvious parable of this episode — “racial strife is pointless” (which even as a kid I found a bit insulting, since the balance of black and white in real 1960s and ’70s [and for that matter 2010s] life was nowhere near as even as it is for these mutually blindered characters) — for a more expansive metaphor I may not have noticed at the time: the self-destruct bluff is a model to the intruding combatants; their own course will result in self-consumption too, but by degrees that show a valuing of their own lives much less than what Kirk shows in endangering it all at once, and knowing what he’s risking.

  2. Kirk as stoic? Never quite thought of it that way! But it makes sense to me — Kirk’s ability to assimilate the output of Spock’s logical calculus, but where it might lead Spock simply to take that next logical step, Kirk had the ability to adapt his will to and then to those logical conditions and then, having made his mark, to be calm and resolute in the ensuing storm. However precise and disciplined Spock’s thinking, he lacked Kirk’s intuitive genius for command. IIRC, it was William Manchester who described this genius, in his unfinished biography of Winston Churchill, as a ‘jagged streak of lightning in the brain’. Such brilliance, without respite or filtering, would soon enough be blinding. But Kirk also had the instinct for turning insight into act.

    In a battle of wills, Bele loses, not because his will is weaker, but because it unenlightened, relative to Kirk’s.

  3. Kirk’s thought is a zen-arrow in the dark, with its most rightful target not yet known to it but pulling it in; Spock quiets the possibilities in his head by calculating the most fruitful path (in both probability and moral principle), while Kirk avoids blinding by his mental flashes by intuiting the exact moment to look away, and bring an influential act into being rather than still-birth a perfect idea. You are the bolt that’s lighting a lot of these things up for me, Esoth.

  4. Being dispassionate is an important part of classical Stoicism, and no one could accuse Kirk of dispassion; does this mean Peter is wrong to call Kirk more stoical than Spock. No, because Peter’s essay — and the resulting conversation — illuminates Stoicism’s inner contradiction.

    Take Marcus Aurelius. Despite Aurelius’s condemnation of pride and self-conceit/arrogancy in the “Meditations,” and his contrasting of those vices with such [Spockian] virtues as modesty and simplicity, a particular mode of pride is a key component of his Stoicism. Aurelius speaks frequently of [non-conceited, non-arrogant] honor — as a noun, e.g., (when speaking of his own father) “How free from all vanity he carried himself in matter of honor and dignity”; and also as a verb, e.g., “So also in thyself; honor that which is chiefest, and most powerful.” This is not dispassionate stuff. Kirk is deeply concerned with honor, both as a noun and as a verb; and though this sometimes makes him seem arrogant or self-conceited, to those who don’t know how to read him properly, he is neither. As Peter notes, if Kirk were in love with himself and his authority, he wouldn’t risk destroying himself and The Enterprise in this episode; he risks doing so because of honor.

    I think Spock is a Stoic, too. Stoicism seems strict, but there is room for variation within those strictures.

  5. Spock is full of pride, which for McCoy is synonymous with stubbornness, lack of adaptability. Kirk is the Flexible Stoic, the ideal Soldier-Statesman….

  6. Kirk’s in love with his *best* self, and that’s the one he never cheats on — swagger is his camouflage, and sexual conquest is the pastime of his shell; an unusual partition for the disciplined personality, but the threshold between him saving his skin and having it easy and all those he’s responsible for losing the freedom to keep all their years and possibilities is the line he doesn’t cross.

  7. Not to mention the, um, direct constituent relations he maintains to keep in contact with his people — contradiction is not Kirk’s problem, it’s his obligation; you can appear more than a person and be more than your mere self if you synthesize decisions and embody behaviors of The Many — which we secretly want from our leader, or somewhere secret even to ourselves know is the kind of leader who works best: not the “representative” of any individual or group, but the guiding, sustaining sum, or even multiple, of us.

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