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