There's a moment in one particularly silly episode of the original "Star Trek" that is, despite its camp, quite stirring. Captain James T Kirk, on a distant planet that somehow developed into a twisted parallel America, rises to recite the preamble of the U.S. Constitution in a way that only William Shatner could.
It is pure schmaltz, patriotic manipulation puffed up by the swelling chords of "The Star-Spangled Banner." But it cuts straight to the heart of Captain Kirk, one of popular fiction's most enduring characters of the past half-century.
You can put him in a multicultural setting, dispatch him to the farthest reaches of the galaxy, entangle him with aliens and have him deliver speeches about the virtues of a United Federation of Planets. But there's no getting around it: Jim Kirk is unabashedly, enthusiastically American. "I'm from Iowa," he once said. "I only work in outer space."
Since his birth 43 years ago on mid-1960s network TV, the commander of the USS Enterprise has been a distillation of American ideals — one who finds himself suddenly reinvigorated for the 21st century now that the Kirk torch has been passed to a new generation.
"We stand at the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril," John F Kennedy said in 1960. "Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus."
That stalwart but softer version of Manifest Destiny — a sense that American exceptionalism could be exported to the stars, despite the Cold War — was, in effect, the manifesto that created Captain Kirk and the "Star Trek" universe around him.
Kirk was supposed to be the leader of what "Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry dubbed a "Wagon Train to the Stars" — a convoy of travelers who bond while facing threats and exploring uncharted terrain. But from that framework, one of the most enduring characters of modern American fiction emerged.
Much is made of the duality of Mr Spock, Kirk's half-Vulcan, half-human first officer who struggles to figure out where he fits in. Pundits have even compared Barack Obama to Spock, saying the combination of coolheadedness and humanity fits the times.
Kirk, though, embodies a different, distinctly American duality: the tension between exuberance and impetuousness on one hand and seriousness and intellect on the other. All at once, Kirk manages to be both Democrat and Republican, hawk and dove, humble and arrogant, futurist and traditionalist — and, in the most American duality of all, childlike and completely adult.
He's JFK — a deep thinker and voracious seeker of knowledge who disdains intellectualism when it is untethered from common sense. He's Andrew Jackson — populist and anti-elitist, as at home in jeans and an untucked shirt as he is in his full dress uniform. He's Vince Lombardi, rejecting the no-win scenario and pushing on to victory.
He's Humphrey Bogart, the darkly driven loner intimate with fisticuffs. He's Edison, always thinking outside the box. He's Elvis — robust wooer of women, intergalactic California blondes in particular. And, as we learn in an episode that re-enacts the shootout at the O.K. Corral, he's Gary Cooper — not only a gangster of love but a space cowboy descended from frontiersmen.
"He's the George Bush that George Bush pretended to be — the compassionate conservative, the `uniter not the divider,'" says Richard Slotkin, author of "Gunfighter Nation" and a historian of the frontier.
"His style of action is George Bush's style of action — `I go with my gut and I have an indomitable will to win,'" Slotkin says. "It's essentially a right-wing style, but it's controlled in Kirk's case" — by an ingrained sense of progressivism, among other traits.
But while Shatner's Kirk was a reflection of mid-20th-century America as defined by Kennedy — eyes optimistically toward the future but girded for any fast-approaching upheaval — Chris Pine's take on the character is just as distinctly a product of the 21st century.
The Kirk of J.J. Abrams' retooled "Trek" was raised by a widowed mother and questionable stepfather after losing his father in battle. Pine's Kirk is Shatner's on Red Bull and vodka — rebellious and sarcastic, vaguely felonious, tragically hip, soaked in irony and maybe a bit ADD. He leaps, then — maybe — looks.
And yet the new Kirk, however brat-packy, remains the vessel of American exceptionalism — the regular kid from the Midwest who manages to be, in the eyes of his mentor, Capt Christopher Pike, "meant for something better, something special."
The Kirk character is "the embodiment of the everyday guy becoming a hero," says James Cawley, who plays the captain in an elaborate fan-made production that picks up where 1960s "Trek" left off. "He's definitely a leader, someone we look up to, but if you could get inside his head, he wouldn't see himself that way."
With a few key exceptions (Atticus Finch, Vito Corleone, some comic-book superheroes), Americans have spent much of the past 50 years bringing our fictional protagonists down to eye level. Where once we had Captain Ahab and Paul Bunyan and John Henry, now we have Rabbit Angstrom and Jack Bauer and Tony Soprano, characters consumed by their faults or quirks or doubts.
That makes for great tragedy and great realism but, perhaps, not great myth. And "Star Trek," as a history of the future we desire, is unrepentantly mythic.
Through the "Star Trek" movies of the 1980s, the sense of nostalgia that had settled over the nation found its expression in Captain Kirk. He was looking back more, examining regrets, wondering about roads not taken. The Rabbit-style introspection fit him well, but somehow it reflected a gradual abandonment of the New Frontier's optimistic tomorrow.
That's why Kirk 2.0, rebooted to the beginning of his interstellar career, feels so fresh, so necessary for the times.
The world is more confusing, more ambiguous than ever. Change is everywhere. The contours of American life keep getting blurrier. "The new frontier," British Prime Minister Gordon Brown told Congress in March, "is that there is no frontier."
A scary prospect for Frontier Nation. But if you accept that the Kirk character embodies American ideals projected into the future, here's a guy who — after 9/11, after waterboarding, after Katrina and economic meltdown — restores the balance of American duality.
Strong but caring. Deeply American but casually multicultural. Understanding of history but with eyes squarely focused on the things to come. And possessed with a just-do-it sense that while safety is important, risk, as Shatner's Kirk once said, is our business. America, after all, needs leaping and looking both.
Captain Kirk has endured for a reason: He shows us what we want to be. And whatever the answer, having a slice of American popular culture that is unashamed to help us figure it out is a refreshing thing indeed. A generation after the Enterprise first flew, we have met the future once again, and once again it looks like James T Kirk.
"Star Trek" opens in Japan on May 29.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Ted Anthony covers American culture for The Associated Press.© Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.