Lots of happy returns to a hero with a lot more depth than we often attribute to him.
March 22 – and in a little over two centuries in the fictional world of Star Trek– it’s Captain Kirk’s birthday. The iconic captain of the Enterprise (which shares a birthday with actor William Shatner) is loved for many reasons – reasons that are often at odds with the idealized world of Trek. But what is Star Trek can we turn to really define James Tiberius Kirk?
To celebrate, we’ve put together the Ultimate Episode Guide to the aspects of Kirk that we and the generations of Starfleet heroes beyond him and his team admire the most. These aren’t just episodes of the original Star Trek TV series in which Kirk takes center stage; these are episodes that speak nuanced, often contradictory aspects of the character which, taken as a whole, paint the image of a hero with much more depth than we often attribute to him.
Kirk the Captain – “The Corbomite Maneuver”
It’s not just about Kirk’s ability to bypass his ship in a dangerous encounter, though this episode – one of the first shots – certainly has plenty of it. The Enterprise meets the mysterious forward “First Federation” and their seemingly sinister agent, Commander Balok, but it’s about Kirk as the commander, knowing when (and when not) to push people under him as the captain, how to engage and outwit an enemy, and how to ultimately trust the people around him.
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Kirk the Idealist – “Mirror, Mirror”
The idea that Kirk must survive a accidental lateral walking in an alternate reality where the Federation is more of a tyrannical and human supremacist empire displaying its idealism might seem strange at first. But watching him struggle to keep his best nature hidden when he is transposed into a world of occasional, horrific cruelty – the people who look like the ones he cares about most are terrible monsters – is a remarkable act of tension that shows how good a man Kirk is, and how horrible he feels to have to hide it.
Kirk the Trickster – “A Piece of the Action”
It’s a more polite way of saying that, to his delight, Kirk is a delicious bullshitter. “A Piece of the Action” gets to see the Captain at its happiest as the crew encounter what is essentially a 1920s Americana plant. But when he, Bones and Spock are captured by thugs, on the spot Kirk arrives and wins the “Fizzbin” card game to merrily assault their captors. Clever action, quick thinking, but most of all a jerk that would impress even the most insidious of hawkers.
Kirk the Smartass – “The Trouble With Tribbles”
“Problem with TribblesIs a delight for many reasons, and one of them is the full-fledged comic charm offensive that Shatner continues here. But it’s also a great episode to see Kirk bristle under Federation rule, dancing around Under Secretary Baris with wonderfully arrogant effect.
Kirk the strategist – “Balance of Terror”
We have said it before, and we will say it again: it may still be the best Star Trek episode never done. This is where Kirk’s quick and analytical mind comes into play, pushing and pushing the unseen foe the Romulans and their masked bird of prey, a truly remarkable and tense cat-and-mouse game. For the captain to wrest victory from intelligent guesses and mutual respect from his opponent is just the icing on a gloriously rich cake.
Kirk the Debater – “The Changeling”
While we’ve covered some of the more intoxicating aspects of Kirk already, one of the dumbest aspects that still is in essence is therefore: the ability to get out of a debate with a computer until said computer literally thinks of himself as a failure. He does it so many times, but maybe the biggest one comes from his verbal argument with Nomad.
Kirk the Romantic – “City on the edge of eternity”
Kirk and women go together a lot in the original Star Trek, teammates, aliens, random passers-by or whatever. As much as we should roll our eyes at his womanly ways, what ultimately speaks to Kirk the most as a romance man is his tragic relationship with Edith Keeler, reunited on the streets of New York City. 1930s through time travel shenanigans. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, her pain of leaving her to a tragic fate is the finest example of the character’s romantic side more than any of her fleeting jokes and kisses.
Kirk the Warrior – “Arena”
To mark Kirk’s birthday in the past, we watched “Arena” and its infamous snatch between Captain Gorn and Captain Starfleet and how that reflected the intricate texture of what makes Kirk the man he is, warts and everything. He’s still one of the finest examples of man in action – literally, as he battles his way with both hands in martial combat with a powerful foe, but also ethically, as he grabs hold of it. the inherent violence of humanity’s primitive self, recognizing that its civilization’s path to utopia is a constant struggle with its past.
Kirk the Bro – “Amok Time”
These episodes are all about aspects of Kirk’s interior, but you can’t really have Jim Kirk as Jim Kirk without recognizing his closest friend of all, Spock. “Amok Time” is Spock’s episode, indeed, but it’s also the ultimate reflection of how far Kirk is willing to go for his number one, as a comrade and most importantly as a friend, ready to go. almost get killed to save Spock from horny, dangerous Vulcan ritual by Pon Farr. Brothers aren’t brothers until they’ve fought each other in a battle to the fake death, really.
Kirk the Defective – “Race of Mercy”
We often think of Kirk as the kind of old school and classic TV hero, cut out of the fabric of Übermensch pulp history, who is here to save the day and look good doing it. But what made Kirk so special in Star Trek, and what would continue to define the series’ tracks as the franchise lasted, was actually his deep vulnerability. Kirk was a man who boasted of getting into a dangerous situation and thinking and talking and getting out of it, yes, but he was also a man constantly in conversation with himself ethically and morally, wondering if he was making the right choices, going with the right instinct – and vitally, embracing that he won’t always be right, as he realizes in “Errand of Mercy” when he rushes into conflict with the Klingons.
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