Star Trek: Oh, Captain, My Captain

With the new Star Trek set to debut in North America this weekend, I decided to take a look at all the Trek captains… Well, the main ones, not the one-offs we’ve seen over the years. I’m not going to rank them. If you thought ranking the shows or the movies would get me a lot of static (It did), ranking the captains would likely have a horde of angry cosplay Trekkies on my front lawn with torches and pitchforks. I can’t have that. We just redid the landscaping.

In addition to the captains for each series, I’m including a couple that deserve mention, one of whom is… Well, he deserves to be on the list since his was an honorary Trek movie.

pike primeChristopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Bruce Greenwood)

Even though I’m counting William Shatner’s and Chris Pine’s Kirks separately, I’m combining the pilot Captain Pike with the one from the current movie series because we really did not get to see enough of him to form an opinion.

Hunter and Greenwood’s Pikes do mesh rather nicely. Both are rather no-nonsense captains impatient with fumbling subordinates, but at the same time, admiring to ability to “look before you leap.” It’s likely Greenwood watched the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage” (later subsumed into a two-part episode, “The Menagerie”) for queues. So what makes them so seamless?

pike tooBoth Captains Pike are the prototype for the later Captains Kirk. In “The Cage,” Pike leaves his first officer, whom we only know as Number One, on the bridge while he goes down to the surface of Talos IV to check out the wrecked SS Columbia. And of course, like Kirk after him, he bags the blonde babe as he gets into trouble. In 2009’s Star Trek, while not the lothario Kirk is, Pike goes to face down an angry Nero while leaving an insubordinate Kirk to second a bewildered Spock in command of the Enterprise.

But in both Pikes, we see the beginnings of another captain, Jean-Luc Picard. Hunter’s Pike is quick to turn off the rage once he understands his captors predicament and offer a helping hand. This is not an option for the doomed aliens, but they reward Pike after he is rendered invalid by offering him an illusory life with Vina to make his final days more comfortable. In the two new Treks, Pike is the father Jim Kirk was deprived of when the Kelvin was destroyed. It’s Pike who recognizes what Kirk is capable of, and probably no surprise that he and “Spock Prime” unwittingly conspire to put the alternate Kirk and Spock together in a way that will bend the new timeline back toward the original.

It’s too bad we never got to see what the original cast could have done with a series. I especially would have liked to see how Majel Barrett’s “Number One” dealt with serving under a captain she had feelings for. But had Jeffrey Hunter said yes to returning for the second pilot and the series, we never would have had…

kirkJames T. Kirk – Original timeline (William Shatner)

Christopher Pike might have been the template for every captain that followed him. (I see a lot of Pike in Kathryn Janeway, actually. Maybe Kate Mulgrew should have played “Christina Pike.”) Kirk, however, set the standard by how every succeeding captain would be created – both in similarities and differences.

Kirk is what every man wants to be: decisive, strong, smooth with the ladies, charismatic. But he’s also headstrong, rash, and a bit arrogant. What makes Shatner’s Kirk so compelling is that he knows this and occasionally (especially in the movies) beats himself up over it. What makes Kirk a great leader is that he relies on his inner circle to open up his blind spots. He leans heavily on the logical Spock and his grouchy moral compass, McCoy, with Scotty sometimes cutting through the bullshit to zero in on a problem and to bear the brunt of his demands. But even Sulu and Uhura, two underlings who aren’t quite as high in the Enterprise‘s pecking order, have his attention. Only someone like Uhura could snap back at Kirk in front of the crew when he gets a bit overbearing. Anyone else would likely have been reassigned to toilet cleaning duty in the enlistees’ quarters for that.

What defines Kirk, though, in both the original continuity and the new movies, is his inability to believe in the no-win scenario. He hates the concept so much that, after two attempts, he simply cheats the Academy’s Kobayashi Maru test, shrugs, and says, “Of course, I did. The test is bullshit.” In this continuity, that excuse gets him a commendation for original thinking, since that, not winning, was the actual aim of the test. (Thought I seriously doubt anyone could try that gambit again.)

spockSpock – Original timeline (Leonard Nimoy)

Sure, Spock commanded the Enterprise for only one movie, but that served an important purpose. The Enterprise is a training vessel. And after all these years seconding and second-guessing Kirk, he probably knows more about commanding a starship than Kirk does. Kirk can do it better than most people, but he can’t really teach it. Spock, a lifelong student of human nature from the outside, can.

In the show’s original run, Spock’s turns in the command chair often infuriated the crew despite the fact that, like Kirk, they would follow him to the gates of hell. They would grumble and protest that the coldly logical Vulcan just didn’t get it, but they would also assume that he seldom did anything without some compelling reason, especially since the younger Spock had an infuriating habit of not sharing everything he was thinking. The older Spock, on the other hand, knows people, knows his crewmates, knows Kirk, and most importantly, knows himself better. When Spock is again put in command of the Enterprise in Star Trek VI, logic still guides his every move, but he has learned enough tricks watching Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty, and learned to trust Uhura and Chekov’s judgment enough, that he manages to out-Kirk Kirk in the process of rescuing the Enterprise‘s true captain and taking down those who framed him.

Spock really is captain material. It just takes him into late middle age to figure out how to be himself.

picardJean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart)

One of the tricks to reinventing Star Trek is to make it different to what came before. When Gene Roddenberry resurrected the series with a new crew and ship, he had to create a captain who was as un-Kirklike as possible without disrespecting the original. So Roddenberry simply flipped the Kirk and Spock roles, making First Officer Wil Riker the cocky, charming officer to a cool, logical captain. So Roddenberry created Jean Luc Picard, a reserved, calculating man with “the soul of a poet.” Whereas Kirk is clearly an earthy Iowa farmboy prone to jumping feet first into a situation, Picard is thoughtful, level-headed, and patient. Of course, we meet Picard when he is about sixty years old (Stewart was in his forties when he took the role), so he’s had time to evolve from a Kirk-like swashbuckler to an elder statesman.

And it’s not that Picard is incapable of looking before he leaps. He’s just had about twenty years more than Kirk to add nuance to that. There are those who say that one would want Picard in command most of the time, but Kirk in an emergency. That sounds about right.

suluHikaru Sulu – Original timeline (George Takei)

Oh, my. They finally gave Sulu a ship, and a big ship they gave him, the Excelsior. We only got to see Sulu in one movie, Star Trek VI, but George Takei made the most of it. He is very much the protege of James T. Kirk: Disciplined, but more than willing to break rules when the stakes are high.

They later revisited the events of ST VI in an episode of Voyager, using the same set and cast members to depict Kirk’s last hurrah from the point-of-view of the Excelsior‘s crew. Between the two, we could see Sulu as an older, wiser officer who stood on his own. It would have been nice to see Takei in a television movie or two showcasing the character.

siskoBenjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks)

Benjamin Sisko is an angry man. His wife was killed by the Borg at Wolf 359. He is unceremoniously yanked from his quiet post close to Earth to deal with the equally angry Bajorans and the ever-scheming Cardassians. To add insult to injury, a group of aliens inside a wormhole decide that he is the Emissary of the Prophets, their linear reality mouthpiece to the Bajorans. So, in addition to being a reluctant station commander, an informal diplomat, and an unwilling religious figure, Sisko also has to be a single dad.

During the first couple of seasons of Deep Space Nine, producers worked hard to not only make Sisko not Picard, the strained themselves silly not making him Hawk, Brooks’ previous role on Spenser for Hire. Pretty stupid idea. DS9 finally found its legs when they let Brooks be himself playing Sisko (including shaving his head and speaking in lower tones) and admitting that Deep Space 9 was a dystopian version of Trek set in a rehash of World War II. Which is good. Sisko is very much a wartime captain. He’s not boldly going.  He’s boldly trying to keep civilization from collapsing. Instead of Horatio Hornblower (Kirk) or Lord Nelson (Picard), he’s more like a crankier version of Eisenhower, having to balance competing egos, agendas, and even enemies to keep the whole works from coming apart.

janewayKathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew)

The best thing to happen to Voyager was Genevieve Bujold stomping off the set of the show’s pilot. I saw a clip of her first turn as “Jean” Janeway. I know Bujold can act. I’ve seen her do it. She didn’t do it here. It took executive producer about five seconds to pick up the phone and tell Kate Mulgrew’s agent “Oops. Should have hired your client.”

Mulgrew gave Janeway (now named “Kathryn”) what every starship captain needs most: gravitas. That might have been lacking in Kirk in the 2009 movie, but that was by design. The kid hadn’t even graduated Starfleet Academy yet before taking command of the Enterprise. (“I hope you know what you’re doing, Captain.” “Yeah. Me, too.”) But Pike, Shatner’s Kirk, Picard, Sulu, and Sisko all had it.

And I seriously doubt any of those men would envy Janeway’s job. She is 90 years from home. Half her crew is composed of renegades she was sent to arrest. She’s menaced on all sides by space-faring tribes at war with each other, the Borg, and even another Starfleet vessel that met the same fate not long before Voyager ended up on that side of the galaxy.

Janeway maintains a Kirk-like presence on the bridge, perfectly willing to make the snap decision in a crisis. It helps that her first officer (and originally, the leader of the fugitives she went after) is an otherwise exemplary military officer more concerned with the good of the crew than his own agenda. But Janeway also shows the cracks. Kirk, Picard, et. al. could always duck into a shore leave bar, Ten Forward, or Quark’s to forget about the burden of command. Janeway’s got nowhere to go but the holodeck.

As I said before, she has the most in common with Christopher Pike, only we got seven seasons of Janeway, not to mention a cameo in Nemesis, a bright spot in an otherwise horrible film.

peter-quincy-taggartPeter Quincy Taggart (Jason Nesmith as played by Tim Allen)

OK, Galaxy Quest is not Star Trek. And yet it is, a sort of playful This Is Spinal Tap for the scifi set.

Tim Allen’s portrayal of washed-up actor Jason Nesmith does poke gentle fun at Shatner (who good naturedly gives back as good as he got.) But I’m pretty sure both Shatner and Allen could point to a hundred other actors they’ve known who ended up like Nesmith without alien intervention or a transformation to a more comedic persona to save their careers.

But Galaxy Quest respects the very franchise it parodies. And watching the cast fall into their old roles while trying to “do it for real” hints that this might have been a really good entry into the Star Trek franchise. Plus how can you go wrong with Ripley from Alien as a hot, busty blonde who is nonetheless smarter than her captain?

I suspect Taggart in a series would be every bit as cocky and over-the-top as Kirk. It’s too bad we’ll never get to see it. Could be fun.

archerJonathan Archer (Scott Bakula)

Jonathan Archer is the most like us. Maybe that’s because he’s the first captain who lives in a world that looks so much like ours. The Klingon at the beginning of the pilot even crashes on a farm that’s clearly in California’s Imperial Valley (doubling for Oklahoma). This is the beginning of Star Trek, and Archer has to not only set an example for future Starfleet captains, he has to make up the rules as he goes along. It doesn’t help that the rather self-important Vulcans have put one of their own on his bridge to keep an eye on these primitive humans. (Earth people can be such children.)

Whereas the other captains have larger-than-life personas, largely out of necessity, Archer is an everyman. He’s amazed to be going out into space and doing it at a blazing speed of Warp 4. And he does this with a ship that has balky technology, has to endure condescension from Vulcans, and deal with the paranoia of the Andorians. Kirk, Picard, Sisko, and Janeway all have a century or two of history where Earth is the dominant world in the Federation. Archer has grown up in a world that can barely spell “aliens,” let alone deal with  them. His default position is to offer the hand of friendship. After all, it’s a cold, dark universe out there. You need all the friends you can get.

Kirk tooJames T. Kirk – Altered timeline (Chris Pine)

This Kirk is a completely different Kirk from the original. After all, Shatner’s Kirk got to know his father, who lived to see him take command of the Enterprise. This Kirk was denied that only sixty seconds into the start of his life. And boy, is he pissed off about that. He grows up a rebellious, hell-raising youth, “the only genius-level offender in the Midwest.” Hey, it’s good to have goals. But Christopher Pike sees a lot of the late George Kirk in him. “Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s. And yours. I dare you to do better.”

Well, let’s see. A life of bar brawls in some backwater Iowa town? Or maybe doing something with your life. It takes Kirk only a few hours to make up his mind. Only he needs a little tempering. “Four years? I’ll do it in three.” Maybe so, but that bravado nearly gets him court-martialed, does get him kicked off the Enterprise, and damn near gets him killed. He’s not the Kirk we used to know, and maybe he never will be. But he knows what he’s supposed to become, even if he has to get his ass kicked a few times on the way there. At least this Kirk can roll with the punches, and like the original Kirk, loathes the concept of a no-win scenario. Spoilers and clips from Star Trek Into Darkness suggest he’s almost there.

All photos from Paramount, except for Tim Allen as Peter Quincy Taggert (Source: Dreamworks)


One thought on “Star Trek: Oh, Captain, My Captain

  1. Fun trip down memory lane. The more I read about the characters of the world of Star Trek, the more I am impressed with JJ Abrahams and his re-creation. I think he did a great job of changing the characters situation and history, but keeping their personality.

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