Monday, June 03, 2013

Why the Maturity of Captain Kirk Matters

Okay, if I wanted to get technical, the title of this essay probably should be "Why the Maturity of Captain Kirk Matters to Me," but I'll go boldly anyway and leave it for you to decide.

Yesterday I wrote a review of the new Star Trek film, Into Darkness, in which I rather stuffily explained why I disliked Chris Pine's interpretation of Captain Kirk. My specific criticism is that Pine's Kirk acted more immaturely than William Shatner's well-known and parodied interpretation. In the background of my mind, I was wondering why I took the matter so personally. As Shatner himself said on Saturday Night Live, "Get a life! It's just a TV show!" True. But Captain--and later Admiral--Kirk was a hero of mine while growing up, and I got used to Shatner as The Man. Another problem I probably had is that my first introduction to Kirk, Spock, etc., was through the movies, specifically Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I was a Star Wars fan until 1982, so I was used to that type of narrative. Anyhow, Star Trek II depicted a 49-year-old Kirk wrestling with middle age. He was an adult--and yes, a father figure.

I grew up in a single-parent household, raised by my mother. I didn't get to understand and appreciate my father until I graduated college and moved to Florida. Up until age 22 or so, the primary male figures I had in my life were in the movies or on TV: Captain Kirk, Indiana Jones, Han Solo, James Bond (the Roger Moore version), Hawkeye Pierce, and Magnum, P.I., to name a few. The rest of my heroes I absorbed through books, and they shaped my intellect, but TV and movie heroes were important for shaping minor things like how a man spoke, walked, gestured, or behaved. I spent a great deal of my early teens walking through the world furtively and hunched over. I did not walk with confidence, nor could I comfortably look another male in the eye. Hell, I couldn't even carry books correctly, up against my chest ("like a girl," as one peer put it). Note carefully how Kirk tucks the book Spock gives him under his arm, and you'll see how I eventually learned how to do something that basic.

Kirk was a grownup to me, even when I went back and watched the old TV episodes. Yes, he got into some fights and couldn't resist turning on the charm when an attractive lady was about, but he was a man in authority. He was smart. He walked with the bearing of a man in command. I learned to like Jean-Luc Picard even more because he was an introvert and shamelessly intellectual, but during my adolescence, Kirk was The Man. My inner monologues are often order-based, like a science fictional starship commander: "Get going, Leahy." "Yes, sir."

So now it's 30 years later, and Hollywood has decided to re-imagine a younger, brasher James T. Kirk as he was before he acquired his officer-and-a-gentleman polish. I can't look up to that guy. People might gripe or joke about Shatner's relentless scenery chewing or his distinctive pauses, but he had embodied his character unmistakably and with a solid set of his own heroes as a background: Alexander the Great, Henry V, Horatio Hornblower, and U.S. Navy ship captains. He was striving to make Kirk the best of the best, and used those models to propel his character. As near as I can figure, Chris Pine took his inspiration from Maxim Magazine, '70s swingers, and Jason Bourne. He's all action and swagger without the nobility, gentlemanliness, or charm of the man who embodied the role for 40+ years. He is not the kind of hero I can look up to and admire.

I hope the character grows up soon. The original Kirk did.

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