Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Kirks



Star Trek has had a profound effect on my life. I grew up watching the original series in reruns and seeing the movies in theaters. As Star Trek: The Next Generation matured into a great show, so did I mature through my teenage years. The ethical debates we had in college classrooms had nothing on heated arguments I had about Captain Janeway’s decisions in Star Trek: Voyager. Even when I finally developed an interest in politics, I was more concerned about the reboot of Star Trek than I was about Obama’s attempt to reboot America.

Such is the world for people who don’t have time to follow the minute by minute machinations of Washington. It’s why politically savvy people my age spend so much time trying to impress upon conservatives just how important it is they engage in the culture. Not only does it inform our politics, it reflects what we value as a nation. In fact, the difference between the original Star Trek and the rebooted version demonstrates how drastically American culture has changed. For the sake of brevity, let’s just focus on the two versions of Captain James T. Kirk.

America of the 60s was racing to the moon. Not just on a whim, but to defeat the evil empire of the Soviet Union. To get there, America needed smart, strong, courageous people willing to risk their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. As such, “Classic” Kirk was the perfect self-actualized geek. He was well educated, physically fit, cool under pressure, good with people, and loyal to a fault.

Described as a “walking stack of books” at the academy, he would often show off his breadth of knowledge and ability to use it under stress in the show. He could quote the Constitution from memory, talk hostile artificial intelligences to death, and construct a rudimentary cannon out of a bunch of basic elements in the middle of a death match.

Classic Kirk also had a penchant for bending the rules and making out with alien babes, which reflected the building free love movement and anti-government sentiment that would mark the period. Of course the pop culture remembers that as Kirk doing whatever he wanted and boinking every woman he met, but Kirk’s romances ended prematurely because he recognized his duty was always to his ship, its crew, and their mission. So while he was willing to violate his orders to do the right thing, he was never reckless with ship or his crew’s lives, and though his need to “make a difference” kept drawing him back to the captain’s chair, he still lamented that it cost him a chance at settling down with a family.

Speaking of lamentations, America of today is headed nowhere fast, just like New Kirk is when we meet him as an adult. He’s a lecherous loser wasting the potential others see in him chasing tail and getting drunk. While his counterpart had a strong sense of duty and a thirst for adventure, New Kirk’s so jaded he has to be taunted into joining Starfleet at all.

Like the youth of today, New Kirk is frequently described as special and told he has a grand destiny, but he never seems to demonstrate excellence of any sort. Classic Kirk sheepishly admitted he “changed the conditions” of the Kobayashi Maru test, but New Kirk is absolutely insufferable as he blatantly cheats on it.

From the richest Wall Street bankers and the most prominent government officials to the lowly idiot that spills coffee on himself, escaping blame and shifting responsibility is par for the course these days, so New Kirk does too. He’s not punished for cheating. When he’s finally busted down from captain later for numerous poor choices, it’s reversed almost immediately, and his decision to heroically sacrifice himself to literally kick his ship until it works again is undone a few minutes afterwards when he’s revived by magic blood. It should be noted that last bit is a role reversal redo of a famed sequence in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and in that movie the resurrection of the dying party takes another full movie and ultimately results in the destruction of the Enterprise, the loss of Classic Kirk’s admiralty, and the death of Kirk’s son.

In an era where success is demonized as merely a product of blind luck, nepotism, or graft, New Kirk doesn’t ascend to the captain’s chair after years of distinguished service like his predecessor. He is leapfrogged from cadet to first officer because he knows Captain Pike, and then he’s promoted to captain by default after he badgers the acting captain into a mental breakdown.

So, if you really want America to return to reaching for the stars and striving for greatness, you may want to look into figuring out how to make the guy I grew up idolizing the standard for our cultural heroes again.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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