Saturday, August 1, 2015

Why Ted Cruz is wrong about Kirk, and Trek

By now, every Star Trek fan from here to Vulcan has doubtless heard about Ted Cruz’s ill-advised attempt to recruit Star Trek fans to his faltering Presidential campaign.  When prompted by an interviewer to discuss his love of Trek and compare iterations of the franchise, Cruz opined that “Kirk is working class; Picard is an aristocrat.  Kirk is a passionate fighter for justice; Picard is a cerebral philosopher.  I think it is quite likely that Kirk is a Republican and Picard is a Democrat.”

Shatner, who seldom makes political pronouncements outside his advocacy for the environment, was swift to respond. 

All due respect to Mr. Shatner, it can be debated whether or not Trek was "political."  But Trek assuredly wasn't partisan - Trek had bigger fish to fry. 

First, the notion of applying contemporary political paradigms onto 23rd and 24th Century characters is ludicrous.  Second, to call Kirk “working class” and Picard an “aristocrat”, when they both came from farming families – and in a future when economic systems have drastically changed – is just plain silly.  It’s as if Cruz is trying to use Class Warfare as a reason to vote for him – as if the policies he espouses would ever help working people, as opposed to the 1% whose interests he really represents.

Over the past several decades, the public’s image of Captain Kirk has solidified into a phaser-toting, shoot from the hip space cowboy, even though the character seldom acted that way.   Nor was he written that way, at least in the beginning.  In the series’ second pilot, which marked Kirk’s first appearance, an old friend remembered the Captain during his time at Starfleet Academy as a “stack of books with legs” who challenged undergraduates to “think or sink.”

 Part of the reason for the retroactive re-branding of Kirk is doubtless because most people’s experiences of the Original Series have been incomplete, at best.  Not only have most casual viewers only seen a handful of episodes, the episodes as shown in syndication were increasingly truncated as time wore on.  As the FCC has allowed more commercial time over the decades, the running length of each episode was reduced from 50 minutes to as few as 40.  Ten minutes might not seem like a lot, but it represents 20% of each episode.  Paramount’s editors naturally geared their cuts toward anything that didn’t move the plot forward – which translated to subordinate plot lines, often involving secondary characters; also cut were character moments, usually involving Kirk trying to think his way through the problem of the week.

In series television, the creation and molding of characters is the result of collaboration between the writers (both staff writers, who stay with the show for a time; and guest writers, who may only write a single episode), and the actors, who get to know their characters after portraying them for a time – all with the guidance of the series’ “bible”.  What did Star Trek’s bible say about Kirk?

 “Kirk is about thirty-four, an Academy graduate, rank of Starship Captain. A shorthand sketch of him might be "A space-age Captain Horatio Hornblower", constantly on trial with himself, a strong, complex personality. 

With the Starship out of communication with Earth and Starfleet bases for long periods of time, a Starship captain has unusually broad powers over both the lives and welfare of his crew, as well as over Earth people and activities encountered during these voyages. He also has broad power as an Earth Ambassador to alien societies in his galaxy sector or on new worlds he may discover. Kirk feels these responsibilities strongly and is fully capable of letting the worry and frustration lead him into error. 

He is also capable of fatigue and inclined to push himself beyond human limits then condemn himself because he is not superhuman. The crew respects him, some almost to the point of adoration. At the same time, no senior officer aboard is fearful of using his own intelligence in questioning Kirk's orders and can themselves be strongly articulate up to the point where Kirk signifies his decision has been made. 

Important -- Although Kirk will often solicit information and estimates from Spock, never does the first officer act as Kirk's "brain". Our Captain is a veteran of hundreds of planet landings and space emergencies. He has a broad and highly mature perspective on command, fellow crewmen, and even on alien life customs, however strange or repugnant they seem when measured against Earth standards. 

Aboard ship, Captain Kirk has only a few opportunities for anything approaching friendship. One exception is Mister Spock, a strange friendship based upon logic, high mutual respect and Spock's strong Vulcan loyalty to a commander. Another is with ship's surgeon, Dr. McCoy, who has a legitimate professional need to constantly be aware of the state of the Captain's mind and emotions. But on a "shore leave", away from the confines of self-imposed discipline, Jim Kirk is likely to play pretty hard, almost compulsively so. It is not impossible he will let this drag him at one time or another into an unwise romantic liaison which he will have great difficulty disentangling. He is, in short, a strong man forced by the requirements of his ship and career into the often lonely role of command, even lonelier because Starship command is the most difficult and demanding task of his century.”

In other words, Captain Kirk was a highly complex character, with many internal contradictions – the type of person writers love to write for and actors love to portray.  Shatner once stated he found the role so challenging that the only way he felt he could portray Kirk week-after-week was to play Kirk as if he was playing an idealized version of Shatner.

Let’s take a look at how Kirk dealt with conflict and see if it matches with Cruz’ description:
In The Corbomite Maneuver, Kirk matches wits with Balok, the apparently hostile leader of the Fesarius, bluffs to prevent the Enterprise from being destroyed, comes to Balok’s aid after breaking free of the Fesarius’ tractor beam, and proposes friendly relations.  Kirk repeats the Corbomite bluff in The Deadly Years, allowing the Enterprise to escape from Romulan ships without firing a shot.

Kirk & crew toast the peace with Balok

In Arena, non-corporeal entities place Kirk and the lizard-like captain of the Gorn ship into hand-to-hand combat to the death with each other.  When Kirk emerges with the upper-hand, he refuses to kill the Gorn captain – and Kirk appears to have a revulsion to the death penalty throughout the series.

Kirk spares the Gorn captain

In The Return of the Archons, Kirk and the landing party discover the humanoids inhabiting Beta III are being governed by a repressive, computerized God.  Kirk matches wits with the computer, causing it to destroy itself and allowing the inhabitants to live according to their own consciences - the first of several instances where Kirk kills “God.”  He uses a similar strategy in The Apple.  (Kirk’s own feelings about God and religion are largely unexplored, beyond commenting to Spock and McCoy that the best place to find God is in one’s own heart.)

In The Devil in the Dark (reportedly Shatner’s favorite episode), Kirk prevents vengeful miners on Janus VI from killing the Horta, who had killed several miners after miners had destroyed her eggs.  Communicating with the creature via Spock’s telepathy, he negotiates a peaceful settlement.  (Some could also interpret the episode as having a “pro-life” message, but Kirk is never trying to impose his will on the mother Horta.)

In Metamorphosis, McCoy reminds Kirk he’s not just a starship captain, but a trained diplomat – leading Kirk to peacefully persuade the non-corporeal life form inhabiting the planetoid to come to the aid of a critically ill Federation commissioner.

In A Private Little War – the original series’ most obvious Vietnam allegory – Kirk agrees to arm a friendly faction on the planet Neural only so far as the Klingon’s have armed the other side, and declines to use the Enterprise’s weapons to rout the other side, in the hopes that a “balance of power” will lead to a negotiated peace.  This is somewhat analogous to America’s strategy in Vietnam before Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in 1964.

Kirk & McCoy contemplate "the 20th Century brush wars on the Asian continent"

In The Omega Glory, Kirk preaches that the inherent rights of sentient creatures must apply to all the people of Omega IV, not just the Yangs – a repudiation of the type of policy that would lead to the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay in the wake of 9/11.

Kirk lectures Cloud William on the meaning of Freedom

In By Any Other Name, Kirk extends the hand of friendship to Rojan, the leader of hostile Kelvans from the Andromeda galaxy, even after Rojan killed a member of Kirk’s crew. 

Kirk persuades Rojan that peaceful coexistence is possible

In Day of the Dove, Kirk struggles to make peace with Klingons who’ve been beamed aboard his ship by an alien entity (somewhat symbolic of the military-industrial complex) that draws power from hostile emotions.  During the course of the episode, it’s implied that both Klingons and Federation members have been fed misinformation about each other – in an apparent attempt to stoke tensions.

Kirk and Kang - cooperating for peace

In The Motion Picture, Kirk is able to use his wits to persuade V’ger that humans created Voyager 6; that the Earth shouldn’t be destroyed, and that V’ger needed to evolve - all without firing a shot.

"V'ger, WE are the Creator."

In The Voyage Home, Kirk and crew literally “save the whales” by time travelling to 1980s San Francisco to bring two humpback whales to the 23rd Century to respond to a destructive space probe – and repopulate the species.

Scotty, Gillian Taylor, and Kirk celebrate saving the whales

The list goes on and on.  There were, of course, moments when Kirk used weapons – or a well-placed punch – to make his point.  But these were nearly always the last resort – just as with Picard in The Next Generation.    

It’s interesting to me that both Kirk and Picard underwent a transformation from thoughtful leaders in their respective series to more action-oriented heroes as the films progressed.  This was not always to the benefit of character continuity.  Kirk, who had previously found ways to collaborate with Klingons even though he disliked them, displayed the rankest prejudice in The Undiscovered Country – somewhat understandable since a Klingon had murdered Kirk’s son David Marcus in The Search for Spock.  Shatner was disturbed enough by writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s “Let them die” line that he persuaded Meyer to allow him a “retraction” gesture as if to say “I didn’t really mean that.”  The gesture was filmed but cut from the movie, a directorial decision which has reportedly angered the actor ever since.

The deleted "retraction" gesture

When it comes to the Next Generation, Picard wasn’t always as cerebral as Cruz opined.  Next Generation fans who weren’t swept up in the action in First Contact were stunned to see Picard in “Captain Ahab” mode while seeking revenge against the Borg, machine gunning assimilated crewmembers and exploding in a rage late into the film.  Like Kirk, Picard was a man of conscience who refused to blindly follow orders.  Just as Kirk violated Starfleet orders in stealing the Enterprise to retrieve Spock’s body in The Search for Spock, Picard violated the orders of Admiral Daugherty in preventing the Sona from despoiling the Baku homeworld in Insurrection - which also carried some powerful analogies to the United States' treatment of Native Americans. 

There are certain historical figures in the Republican Party Kirk might have looked on with admiration, and in The SavageCurtain Kirk is charmed by an ersatz Abraham Lincoln – much to the embarrassment of his senior officers. 
Kirk introduces Lt. Uhura to Abraham Lincoln
But he would have also admired John Kennedy – whose delicate handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was emulated by Kirk in several of the scenarios above.  The idea that Kirk would have favored the kind of pre-emptive war against Iraq that Cruz and his compatriots supported is anathema not only to Kirk’s character, but to the ethos of Star Trek in general.

*With the exception of Shatner's Twitter comment, all screencaps are courtesy of Trekcore.

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