“Most legends have their basis in fact.”
It’s a throwaway line from the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “And the Children shall Lead”, but it sums up the impact of once of science fiction’s most well known and loved characters: Captain James T. Kirk.
Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway and Jonathan Archer all have their fans, but without Kirk, they wouldn’t have a yardstick with which to measure their success. Each lead in the Star Trek universe since Kirk first ordered the Enterprise out of spacedock has been compared with him. Some not as charismatic (Sisko), others not as bold (Archer and Janeway), or not as quick with their fists (Picard). Kirk had something for everyone. He was the roguish charmer that women loved, as well the tough leader making difficult decisions look easy, that appealed to the male viewers. Younger viewers saw an action man unafraid to look danger square in the eye and stare it down.
But a huge part of the credit for that goes both to Gene Roddenberry for creating the character in the first place, but also to William Shatner for making Kirk such an engaging persona. If not for him, then Kirk would not have been imbued with the sense of gravitas and charisma that followed him from the moment he appeared on screen in 1966, to his last mission in 1994.
Yet Kirk wasn’t the first man in the chair on the Enterprise’s bridge. As sort-of-replicated in the 2009 reboot movie, Christopher Pike is his predecessor in the Captain’s role. Played by Jeffrey Hunter, he commanded the ship on its first mission in 1966 when Star Trek’s pilot episode, “The Cage” aired. Another captain, Robert April, preceded him, but wasn’t seen on screen. After the pilot was rejected, Hunter chose not to return (despite Gene Roddenberry insisting he had chosen not to rehire him), leaving the show’s creators without a captain for the ship, and NBC’s new science fiction show without a lead. Step forward Shatner.
During the three seasons, Shatner took on the role with gusto. Lampooned now for his delivery, Shatner actually lent more authority to the role than many other characters on screen at the time. He was a leader of both men and women, unafraid of what the great unknown would throw at him on a weekly basis. He gave Kirk a rugged charm, equally at home romancing one of the many women from far flung worlds he ran into, or dropping a rock on an errant Gorn’s head.
Arguably one of Shatner’s greatest performances – and ergo one of Kirk’s greatest stories, is in the iconic “City on the Edge of Forever”, starring a young Joan Collins. The senior crew of the Enterprise pursue a delirious Doctor McCoy back through time, attempting to repair the damage he’s done to the timeline. In doing so, Kirk falls in love with Collins’ character, Edith Keeler, a mission worker in 1930’s New York. McCoy saves Keeler from he intended death, altering the timeline, and Kirk must watch her die, knowing that he must restore things to how they were.
But If Shatner had reached the heights as Kirk, he was soon to learn the lows. When Star Trek was cancelled, and the run of The Animated Series concluded (for which Shatner provided Kirk’s voice), work for him dried up. He told The Mail Online in 2008:
“I assumed the day we finished shooting Star Trek was the end of my association with Captain Kirk.
“During the three years I’d worked on the show, Gloria, who was an actress, and I had separated.
“The fact that each week new and beautiful women showed up on the Star Trek set didn’t help.
“My second wife Marcy was also an actress. That marriage lasted 17 years, but the reality of some marriages is that a husband and a wife can grow apart.
“I now had three children and an ex-wife to support and I was just about broke. I even lived out of a pick-up truck for a while.
“I needed to earn money, fast …”
Kirk though, wasn’t finished, and despite him being a near deity to Star Trek fandom, it wasn’t until he made the leap to the big screen that he would become a household name. It says a lot that people can recount the names of the Enterprise’s crew, but rarely remember the adventures they went on. The first movie is largely glossed over, in favour of picking up with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where Kirk hits his stride.
Up against a foe who hates Kirk with a vengeance, who is willing to murder endlessly anyone in his way to exact his retribution, Shatner shows all the facets of Kirks’ character. Khan Noonien Singh, the antagonist, is a genetically engineered superior being, consumed with raw hate for Kirk, at one point stranding him on an asteroid miles underground, and when that doesn’t work, being drawn into a prolonged battle with him at the bridges of their respective ships.
In this movie, we find out Kirk has a son, and one who he cares deeply for, and regrets leaving his mother Dr. Carol Marcus. Here, kirk understands that his life has moved on from simply exploring, cavalier-like, every corner of the universe, being a blunt instrument and lothario. The realisation that he has a legacy, and that he has a family, jars him into a sense of even further responsibility. His battle with Khan in the end, is a mirror image of his opponent. Khan is motivated by pure rage, and the need to eliminate his rival to sate his own passionate hatred. Kirk fights to protect others, realising the larger threat comes from what Khan may do if Kirk does not stand in his way.
But perhaps the most significant part of the movie comes at the end. In a film that examines mortality and death, as well as friendships, the death of Kirk’s longtime friend and colleague, Commander Spock, brings tear both to his eyes and that of the audience. Shatner’s acting is often criticised, but the truth is here he accurately conveys what the viewer feels: They don’t want to see Spock go – and can’t quite believe what’s happening. Shatner’s performance puts that across well, and you see the emptiness and sadness from watching his friend die – even if it’s for a noble cause.
Shatner would continue to present Kirk as a man driven by the love for his friends, and also his family. As such, when that was threatened, he could delve into his repertoire and bring back the older, more impetuous captain – the one who paid attention more to his heart than his head. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, sees Kirk disobey orders to try and resurrect his friend, but in doing so, loses his son David.
Kirk here is at his most vulnerable, finding out his friend is alive, but losing his son to the blade of a Klingon makes Kirk even more human, as from that moment on, he becomes prejudiced against the race for being responsible. The discussions between Kirk and Spock about being human, which ran through The Original Series and the movies, often find Spock aghast at his colleague’s reasoning. Kirk though says that the mistakes and choices he makes are typical of human behaviour, and for Spock to truly understand the human condition, he must fathom what it means to be human.
With David’s death, Kirk falls prey to hate. He despises the Klingons and that emotion returns in the last of the six movies featuring the original cast. But before we get to that, the other facet of Kirk that made him so well loved, was his humour. In both Star Trek IV and V, there was more of a focus on showing the crew growing old together, and making light of the situation, particularly in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
You know the story by now, the crew need to go back in time (again), so save two humpback whales and bring them to the future to stop a probe that’s broadcasting whalesong at such a high frequency it could destroy the Earth. On paper, that sounds pretty ludicrous doesn’t it? But the cast inject it with such comedy and heart that it just works – admittedly not on such dramatic levels as the previous installments. It gives the crew a chance to interact with the 1980’s, and all the hilarity that brings, including Kirk’s exchange with a cab driver:
“Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you dumb-ass!”
“Well, a double dumb-ass on you!”
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, directed by Shatner, is a bizarre installment that has Kirk basically call God’s bluff, and come out on top. Shatner here give Kirk a sense of importance, being the only one willing to see through the facade the alien antagonist in question while pretending to be a celestial being. It’s regarded as one of the worst Star Trek films, and that’s because Kirk isn’t identifiable in this one. He takes on God and wins – far away from the fallible father or charismatic leader audiences had come to know.
Shatner has admitted that the movie failed – after initially believing it would be received positively. In the book Star Trek Memories, authored by Kris Kreski with contributions from Shatner, calling it a “failed but glorious attempt” at a thought-provoking film that did not come together. It explores big themes, but crucially made it’s characters less relatable to the audience.
That was to change with the final film of the original cast. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, evoked the fear around the Cold War that was still prevalent at the time. With the Klingon Empire on the verge of collapse, the Enterprise is called on to lead peace negotiations with the very race Kirk hold responsible for the death of his son.
Kirk begins the film holding the Klingon delegation and the people in general “animals”, and is willing to “let them (the Klingons) die”, unwilling to listen to Spock’s words of logic because of his past experiences clouding his opinion.
When the Klingons are murdered,Kirk is wrongly implicated in their death, and through the course of his imprisonment, learns the value of reconciliation and peace. The special features on the DVD release of the movie point to a scene where Spock asks Kirk if they have grown so old and inflexible they have outlived their usefulness had two meanings: it was as much Nimoy asking Shatner as it was their characters.
Three years later, Paramount Pictures had decided that the original cast had outlived their big screen time. Not that they’d outlived their usefulness, but the cast of The Next Generation were considered a more realistic long term prospect for movie success. To do that though, Captain James T. Kirk would ride again – literally – for one last time.
The aptly named Star Trek: Generations, is, to date, the last time Shatner has played Kirk. Rescuing the Enterprise at the start of the film, he’s sucked into a phenomenon called The Nexus, staying there for the next 78 years until the new captain of the ship, Jean-Luc Picard, encounters it while trying to stop a mad scientist called Soran from blowing up a star. Failing on his own, Picard enters The Nexus and recruits Kirk, who’s been living an idyllic life as The Nexus provides him with everything he ever wanted. He’s given up his Starfleet career, considering marrying the woman he loves, and spending his time horse riding in Iowa. Picard tries to convince him that he’s needed, and his bliss is secondary to the millions of lives that will be lost if he stays where he is.
When Kirk realises that his happiness isn’t real, he decides that he can’t argue with the captain of the Enterprise. His aid successfully stops Soran – but at the cost of his own life. It was a moment that Shatner obviously had his own thoughts on, as he told The Mail Online:
“As I prepared for Kirk’s final scene, I had to remind myself that this was just another performance. And I was able to do that right up until the morning of the shoot.
“Kill Kirk? What are they, out of their minds? Why did I agree to this?
“Gradually, I calmed down.
“I die saving the universe. For my final scene I had to leap from one side of a collapsed bridge to the other. The bridge collapses and Kirk falls to his death.
“My last line, was: “Oh … my… ” but I had written some other lines.
“When I leapt on to the bridge I said: “Captain on the bridge,” which was the way I had always announced my presence on the bridge of the Enterprise.
“And when the bridge collapsed on me I said: “Bridge on the captain.” Those lines were cut.
“I went home that night with a great sense of satisfaction. I didn’t feel it was the end of an era, just the end of a character.
“And then I sat down and wrote a 40-page treatment for a story in which Kirk comes back from the dead.”
With that, Kirk was gone. Yes, he was, as Shatner says there, resurrected for a series of novels and subsequent adventures, but as far as James T. Kirk goes, that was that.
The Kirk played by Chris Pine in the rebooted movies hasn’t matured in the ways Shatner’s Kirk has. He hasn’t gone through the same tests of character or learned the lessons that his counterpart did. For that reason, he’s still, at this point, the action man, the philanderer, the gung-ho hero. He’s not the father, nor the family man, nor the leader. He is, in some ways, less human, because we’ve not seen his frailties yet.
And when you consider that Shatner’s portrayal captured all of that, over the 28 years he would sit in the captain’s chair, and still, is as loved and revered now as when he first set foot on the bridge, then maybe legends being based in fact isn’t such a hard concept to grasp.