Star Trek Begins: The Rise of James T. Kirk

Me-TV Blogathon

This post is part of Me-TV’s Summer of Classic TV Blogathon, hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Go to http://classic-tv-blog-assoc.blogspot.com to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go to http://metvnetwork.com to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.


William Shatner is Captain James Kirk in STAR TREK: WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE

William Shatner is Captain James Kirk in STAR TREK: WHERE NO MAN HAS GONE BEFORE (1965)

Star Trek began as a failed TV pilot episode in 1964. In “The Cage,” Jeffrey Hunter stars as Captain Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy appears in a supporting role as science officer Spock. NBC rejected the Star Trek pilot for being “too cerebral.”

In 1965, creator Gene Roddenberry returned with a second pilot for his proposed Star Trek series. “Where No Man Has Gone Before” features more action, though it retains the satanic-looking Spock character against NBC’s wishes. Starring William Shatner as Captain James Kirk and Nimoy in an expanded role as Spock, the second pilot sold Star Trek.

The series proper hit the airwaves in September 1966. In almost every case, episodes were self-contained and could essentially be viewed in any order. In fact, episodes often aired out of sequence during their original broadcasts due to varying times to complete post-production on each installment. In syndication, episodes also aired in various haphazard orders, which continues to this day. Even Star Trek DVD and Blu-ray season sets present episodes in the random sequence of original broadcast.

No matter the order viewed, however, Star Trek joins Captain James T. Kirk when his historic five-year mission of exploration aboard the USS Enterprise is already in progress. While Kirk may not have had a true origin episode, pieces of several episodes filled in parts of his backstory over the course of the series. This post will examine three of those episodes that revealed key elements of Kirk’s past.

Where No Man Has Gone Before

(Episode 2, September 22, 1966)

After the Enterprise journeys through an energy barrier at the edge of the galaxy, helmsman Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) exhibits godlike abilities and soon becomes a threat to the crew.

“Where No Man Has Gone Before” establishes that Kirk has been friends with Mitchell for 15 years, dating back to Mitchell enlisting at Starfleet Academy. Mitchell’s history with Kirk provides the following background in the episode:

  • Kirk was an instructor at the Academy and held the rank of lieutenant when Mitchell enlisted.
  • Cadet Mitchell considered Lieutenant Kirk “a stack of books with legs.”
  • An upperclassman told Mitchell, “Watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.”
  • To distract Kirk while he was taking his class, Mitchell secretly aimed a “little blonde lab technician” at him, and Kirk nearly married her.
  • Kirk asked for Mitchell aboard his first command.
  • Mitchell nearly died after taking a poison dart meant for Kirk on planet Dimorus.

Based solely on this episode, Mitchell seems like an odd choice of friend for Kirk. Even before the supernatural abilities are thrust upon him, Mitchell comes off as a jerk. He seems condescending towards Spock and definitely towards Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (Sally Kellerman). It is hard to imagine Kirk going to Mitchell for advice as he so often will with Dr. McCoy (who is not assigned to the Enterprise at the time of this voyage) and Spock.

Whatever the nature of their friendship, Kirk obviously feels a personal obligation to Mitchell. However, he also takes it as a personal responsibility to stop him once he realizes things are out of hand. “It’s my fault Mitchell got as far as he did,” he says before leaving to hunt down his friend, phaser rifle in hand. At one point, when he momentarily has an advantage, Kirk pauses before delivering a potentially fatal blow. “Gary, forgive me,” he says.

Court Martial

(Episode 15, February 2, 1967)

To save the Enterprise, Kirk makes a command decision that kills his former friend, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Finney (Richard Webb). When computer records show that Kirk acted in haste, Starfleet accuses him of incompetence. He must go on trial to defend his command and his career.

William Shatner is Captain James T. Kirk and Percy Rodriguez is Commodore Stone in STAR TREK: COURT MARTIAL

William Shatner is Captain James T. Kirk and Percy Rodriguez is Commodore Stone in STAR TREK: COURT MARTIAL (1967)

“Court Martial” reveals more of Kirk’s time at Starfleet Academy and his early days of service:

  • While Kirk was a cadet at Starfleet Academy, Finney was an instructor there.
  • They quickly became close enough friends that Finney named his daughter, Jamie (Alice Rawlings), after Kirk.
  • Some time later, both men were assigned to the USS Republic.
  • While serving on the Republic, Ensign Kirk relieved Lieutenant Finney on watch and found that he had left a circuit open that could have destroyed the ship.
  • Kirk logged the incident, and Finney received a reprimand.
  • After this, Finney blamed Kirk for slowing the momentum of his career.

This background mixes well with the character history already presented in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The rise and fall of Kirk’s friendship with Finney took place before Gary Mitchell enlisted. In some ways, Kirk’s friendship with Mitchell would become a mirror image of his earlier friendship with Finney. Like Finney, Kirk would later become an instructor at the Academy, at which point Cadet Mitchell befriended him.

“Court Martial” also establishes that Kirk had a romantic relationship with Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall) over four years ago. She is now a Lieutenant working as an attorney in the Judge Advocate General’s office. Though having an ex-girlfriend as one’s prosecutor might sound like the setup for a punchline, the two apparently parted company on good terms. Despite the circumstances, they never show any ill will towards one other.

Finally, the episode documents the remarkable service record of James T. Kirk.

As of “Court Martial,” his commendations are:

  • Palm Leaf of Axanar Peace Mission
  • Grankite Order of Tactics, Class of Excellence
  • Preantares Ribbon of Commendation, Classes First and Second

Though the full list is apparently even longer, his awards of valor include:

  • Medal of Honor
  • Silver Palm with Cluster
  • Starfleet Citation for Conspicuous Gallantry
  • Karagite Order of Heroism

The episode plays as a mystery, along with an underlying man vs. machine conflict. Despite Kirk’s impeccable record, nearly everyone is ready to convict him based on the computer evidence. Only his crew attempt to rise to his defense. “It is impossible for Captain Kirk to act out of panic or malice. It is not his nature,” states Spock during the trial.

For his part, Kirk notes that “Nothing is more important than my ship,” a sentiment he echoes time and again throughout Star Trek.

Obsession

(Episode 47, December 15, 1967)

When the Enterprise encounters a gas-like cloud similar to a malevolent one from Kirk’s past, the Captain seemingly becomes obsessed with finding it.

William Shatner is Captain James T. Kirk in STAR TREK: OBSESSION

William Shatner is Captain James T. Kirk in STAR TREK: OBSESSION (1967)

“Obsession” fills in more of Kirk’s past, picking up after he was no longer an instructor and had fully completed Starfleet Academy:

  • Kirk’s first deep space assignment after the Academy was as a lieutenant aboard the USS Farragut, under the command of Captain Garrovick.
  • Captain Garrovick was very important to Kirk, who described Garrovick as, “One of the finest men I ever knew.”
  • Eleven years ago, a gas-like cloud attacked the Farragut at planet Tycho IV.
  • Kirk was at the phaser station during the attack, but hesitated for a split second before firing.
  • By draining red blood cells, the cloud killed over 200 members of the Farragut crew, including Captain Garrovick.
  • Kirk was one of the survivors, but blamed himself for the deaths of his shipmates.
  • The Farragut‘s first officer, however, disagreed with Kirk and noted the following in his log, “Lieutenant Kirk is a fine young officer who performed with uncommon bravery.”

The parallel between Kirk’s early career and that of Benjamin Finney from “Court Martial” continues and ends here. While Finney allowed his mistake to define him and used it as an excuse for not moving faster through the ranks, Kirk used his apparent mistake as motivation for never becoming complacent in his performance or that of his crew. While he expects much of those under his command, he places the greatest demands on himself. Kirk’s route results in a superior commanding officer, while Finney’s path results in a broken, bitter man.

Though the cloud the Enterprise encounters is on a completely different planet, Kirk becomes convinced not only that it is the same type of entity, but that it is in fact the exact same cloud that attacked the Farragut. As McCoy and Spock begin to doubt the claims, even Kirk starts privately to question himself. In a log entry, he states:

“Have I the right to jeopardize my crew, my ship, for a feeling I can’t even put into words? No man achieves starfleet command without relying on intuition, but have I made a rational decision? Am I letting the horrors of the past distort my judgement of the present?”

Kirk pits intuition against logic again and again in “Obsession,” and he chooses intuition every time.

* * *

Other episodes with key bits of Kirk’s backstory include “The Conscience of the King,” “Shore Leave,” and “A Private Little War.”

After 79 episodes and 3 seasons of low to mediocre ratings, NBC cancelled Star Trek in 1969. When reruns of the series hit syndication shortly thereafter, and the ratings system was overhauled, the now-cancelled Star Trek became a surprise hit. Since that time, Star Trek has proven to be one of the most successful failures of all time.

Bibliography

  • “Court Martial,” Star Trek, dir. Marc Daniels, perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, NBC, 1967, DVD, Paramount, 2004.
  • “Obsession,” Star Trek, dir. Ralph Senensky, perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, NBC, 1967, DVD, Paramount, 2004.
  • Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future by Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda, Pocket Books, New York, 1996.
  • The Star Trek Compendium by Allan Asherman, Pocket Books, New York, 1989.
  • The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to the Future by Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda, Pocket Books, New York, 1997.
  • “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Star Trek, dir. James Goldstone, perf. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Gary Lockwood, NBC, 1966, DVD, Paramount, 2004.

Star Trek airs Saturday nights on Me-TV and features the 2006-2008 “remastered” versions of the original episodes, including new visual effects. Check your local listings for schedule details.

Thank you to Rick over at the top-notch Classic Film and TV Cafe for organizing this blogathon and inviting me to participate.

* * *

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10 comments

  1. Mitchell

    Excellent, Troy. I really appreciate how you’ve pieced Kirk’s history together. It’s been awhile since I’ve revisited this series; makes me want to watch an episode right now!

  2. Rick

    Troy, what a clever way to create a Kirk biography–by culling through the original ST episodes to discover facts about his past! Although I’ve seen all episodes of the original series several times, it has been awhile. Therefore, it was immensely fun to read about Kirk’s decorations and his days in the Starfleet Academy. Given all the movies and subsequent series, I can’t imagine another show ever spawning such as a large, detailed fictional universe. What an excellent topic and approach for the Me-TV Blogathon.

    • Troy Yeary

      The great thing about a show like Star Trek is that there is always something new to discover on subsequent viewings. The episodes are rich with content, even if limiting to just the three original seasons and not including the wealth of material after that.

      Thanks for the nice comments, Rick, and thanks again for taking the time to organize this blogathon. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s posts.

  3. Ivan G Shreve Jr

    Great post, Troy. My dad, seeing a promo for Star Trek on Me-TV one night, came right out and asked me if I liked the series and I told him I did. I don’t claim to be a fanatic about the show but it’s always been solid entertainment in my book. (I even sprung for the DVDs!)

    • Troy Yeary

      Thanks, Ivan. Among entertainment purchases, the 2004 Star Trek complete series DVD set is a tremendous highlight, if not the highlight, for me. At the time I bought the set, the show had not aired locally for years. When it did, episodes were cut. So, the only episodes I was able to watch were the few I had bought as individual VHS or DVD releases.

      To suddenly have access to enjoy any and all episodes was overwhelming for a fan like me. Plus, except for the ones previously collected, I had never seen most of the episodes in their uncut forms. Though I later bought the Blu-ray editions as well to have the remastered content, those DVDs will always be special. Even the DVD art design is better. The Blu-rays are so bland. When it comes to the packaging and to the menu access, both sets have their annoyances, though.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  4. Jeff Flugel

    Really interesting and fun piece, Troy! I love your idea, to look at Kirk’s backstory by sifting through details given in some of the pivotal episodes. The Original Recipe STAR TREK is the only one I own on Blu-Ray or DVD (though I’m contemplating a few cherry-picked NEXT GENERATION seasons down the road). Seeing the remastered episodes was like watching the series for the first time again they look simply stunning! Kirk has always been my favorite character in the show (though I love me some Spock and Bones, too), and Shatner deserves a lot of respect for making him such an interesting, indomitable character. Great addition to the blogathon!

    • Troy Yeary

      It is amazing how smoothly William Shatner fell into the role of Kirk in the pilot episode. Right from the first scene, you’d think he’d been Kirk for years. The interaction with Leonard Nimoy was also there from the beginning. It really was a perfect combination, particularly once DeForest Kelley came along.

      Unfortunately, some people make a mockery of Shatner, but the real actor is tons better than the caricature that comedians have created over the years.

      Regarding the Blu-rays, I love the fact that they give both viewing options on the episodes – original effects or enhanced effects. Same even holds true for the audio. I think if Star Wars had taken that kind of approach, there’d be a lot less whining in that fan base.

      Thanks for commenting, Jeff.

    • Troy Yeary

      Thanks for reading, Joanna, and for taking the time to comment.

      I don’t know about you, but one note to self that I made was, “Never leave a circuit open when Ensign Kirk is next up on watch.”

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