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Capt Kirk, American icon?

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By Ted Anthony

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.

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.


47 Comments
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... And yet, this beacon of mankind (yet unabashedly American) in his second coming had to stand behind a row of Japanese girls holding their ticket to the Enterprise in their cutesy outfits and colorful socks; the faces of the Enterprise crew were reflecting the deep and somehow lonely confusion only space travelers know. Interesting irony right there. The past Kirk was quite international - there's Trekkies around the world to prove it. Star Trek promoted a vision of a future where your nationality, the color of your skin, your gender and your social standing did not affect your ambitions and discrimination was successfully eradicated; an utopian land of opportunity. It wasn't American in fact, because the United States of America lost its power to the benefit of the world - gone was the American fist. The US was only one country among many in earthly peace. Cool, isn't it? Kirk was an honest man in his own way and not just more equal than others. The second coming of Kirk (wow) looks fine, so far. Outstanding performance, I'd say. After reading this article, the photo of the day where the Enterprise crew was the background of a few to me unknown Japanese singers looks even sadder than before... and somehow, delightfully amusing.

I hope I won't be honored with the new alien card equipped with a microchip that reveals my life numbers (possibly including my bank account - wow) to every Japanese official. Scotty, beam me up.

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I don't care if Obama has Vulcan ears -we need as much intellect (Vulcan or otherwise) in the White House as we can get right now. William Shatner is a pure character -and that can scare some TV types. How much of Shatner is in Star Trek --->100% (probably against the producers wishes also)

William Shatner deep frying a frozen turkey - What a story and it's hard to make that sort of funny/dangerous thing up. He's really an unactor/actor and that what makes him exciting and dangerous to some. Similiar to Steve McQueen.

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And yet another world-famous Canadian.

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The student building at my university was voted the William Shatner building, after someone had proposed it during the naming process...as a joke. Probably some American.

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And yet another world-famous Canadian.

Ah, the inevitable flag waving Canuck ... remember that we have Brian Adams, Celine Dijon, among others to remind us that we too make mistakes.

Shatner, the actor was indeed born in Canada, but Kirk, the character, is all 'Merican.

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Celine Dijon,

Isn't that some sort of mustard?

Anyway, I loved the roasting Shatner got, courtesy of George Takei (as in toupee).

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Buddha-4brains - So you don't see any irony that this great American icon is portrayed ...by a foreigner?

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JeffLee, too late for that. The best thing we Canucks can do is to make it appear that he actually is American. I mean, did he at least become American?

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He’s the George Bush that George Bush pretended to be — the compassionate conservative, the `uniter not the divider

No, he was more like the George Bush who shot first and asked questions later. Kirk was always saying, 'set your phasers to kill'.

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This article only alluded to the most widely loved thing about Kirk. Dude got laid in almost every episode, to almost every kind of alien.

(You see that's why they had those underage girls standing in front of the new star trek cast, the alien sex connection.)

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Captain Kirk: William Shatner is Canadian, eh!

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He’s the George Bush that George Bush pretended to be

The comparison is ludicrous. Only shows how shallow and stupid the so-called intelligentsia have become. It was a TV show that ended decades ago. Get over yourselves, alright.

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Star Trek is a modern myth and that is why it endures. It is a story of friends with various qualities who are individually strong and yet collectively stronger. They are driven by values that reflect the better values our society aspired to. And it is set in adventures against an epic journey and in conflict with epic enemies.

It is a modern day Greek or Roman myth. It is a mythology that reflects how America wanted to be seen. And it touches people because we see in these characters the strengths we admire and the faults we endure.

I think Joseph Campbell would agree that this is another example of society creating a Mythology to reflect their own desire of how to view the world. Portrayed by characters that become loved legends like so many in so many histories and legends that came before.

Rodenberry accomplished something wonderful that endures because of its mythic quality. And will continue to endure because people want heroes who represent who we perceive or wish ourselves to be. This is human nature and history backs my argument with countless examples.

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The comparison is ludicrous. Only shows how shallow and stupid the so-called intelligentsia have become. It was a TV show that ended decades ago. Get over yourselves, alright.

If bush were half the man that Kirk was on screen, bush played his role so badly, then the USA would be far better off today. Kirk is a badly played strong character, bush was a badly played empty suit with no redeeming character at all. The only role from the original star trek that comes close to bush was Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

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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.

Yup, the infamous "Omega Glory" episode, with the Yangs (Yankees) and Coms (Chinese Communists). The episode showed once again that Federation Starship Captains are trained in the martial arts--maybe a parallel to today's Vladimir Putin. Starship captains always have to be ready to kick alien butt at a moment's notice.

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If bush were half the man that Kirk was on screen, bush played his role so badly, then the USA would be far better off today.

Old Cap'n Kirk really stirs patriotic feelings among some of his compatriots.

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Yeah, Kirk is out to make the galaxy safe for free "Enterprise" so that it can expands the "Federation"'s economic interests. Though supposedly an exploration vessel, the ship is armed to the hilt with enough firepower to level a planet, so like Teddy Roosevelt, Kirk speaks softly but carries a big stick. Like Bush, he is ready to fire all phaser banks at a moment's notice, and is frequently at odds with Spock (the more rational Colin Powell?), who often criticizes the "low regard Earth men have for life."

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William Shatner canadian is that not semantics he is North American.

anyway he always new how to start "diplomatic" negotiations with the alien ladies ;)

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Everybody knows that Bill Shatner is Canadian. The article is about the character of Captain James T. Kirk, who is as American as Rigelian apple pie. By the way, Jimmy "Scotty" Doohan, God rest his soul, was also Canadian. The 23rd century will be run by Canucks it seems.

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Christ... even an Obama reference in an article about James T. Kirk. This is getting just a bit stupid now...

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Great article! Loved reading this!

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You know, I'm a Star Trek fan, but even I'm getting tired of seeing it everywhere.

Christ... even an Obama reference in an article about James T. Kirk. This is getting just a bit stupid now...

That's because it's now PI to NOT include him in an article -.-

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Celine Dijon

Poupon, Celine, Poupon.

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"Pundits have even compared Barack Obama to Spock"

Spock is half human. Obama is half black. That's where the similarity ends.

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You might compare Cap'n. Kirk to GWB, but Kirk had morals and he applied them to everybody, not just his so-called friends.

Also, Kirk was very much after alien skirt. I doubt anybody is giving GWB the time of day any more.

As far as Canadians go, the Belgians have the EU, eh?

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"Kirk was very much after alien skirt"

Heck, it's more like the alien ( and human ) skirts were after him!

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Noripin clearly isn't a Trekkie or he'd know the Enterprise is modestly armed for a ship of its size and can hardly do planetwide damage with its conventional weapons. The ships the Enterprise manages to best are either lower class or defeated through some plot trick, same with all the planetwide catastrophes. A single Romulan ship of the line can easily take out an Enterprise or two. That's more significant when the Enterprise is the flagship for the Federation. It's actually an essential part of the Star Trek plot, where you have to outsmart bigger opponents.

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Norpin clearly is a Trekker (Trekkie is considered too cute), as it is clearly stated by the Procounsel Claudius in the episode "Bread and Circuses": "But on the other hand, why even bother to send your men down? From what I understand, your vessel could lay waste to the entire surface of the world. Oh, but there's that Prime Directive in the way again. Can't interfere."

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Even a 1940s bomber could bomb ancient Rome. Claudius is also supposing, and obviously hasn't seen other episodes where the Enterprise is easily held off by planets. I wouldn't call him an expert!

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Capt Kirk, American icon?

No I do not think that the Capt is an American icon, I think that he is a world icon. Capt Kirk was da man, come on, he always got the chick (60's term) even if she was green! He always won the fight and his hair never got messed up. He always had a fool proof plan to win the day and he was cool even when he was in trouble. Hell he fought a large lizard (Gorn) on a planet and won! Tell me if Jack Bauer can do any of that!

Capt Kirk, da man!

BTW Capt Kirk is the man, but Star Trek is it. Ask anyone on earth that has a TV if they know of Star Trek and 60% will say yes.

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Read the article out of curiosity because we are getting so much hype with yet another Star trek film about to be released. What total drivel! This is the rubbish a 14 year old would write to try & justify watching such a silly film/programme. Yes, it was big in the UK, but not because of any of the rubbish written about it here, but because it was funny & the walls moved, giant stones were so obviously made of polystyrene & the ham actors took themselves & their comic plots so very seriously. University students used to get really, really stoned (man) so that they could fall about laughing at it. Obviously the deeper meaning behind it all didn’t manage to cross the Atlantic. As for Shatner being Canadian? Wow! Isn’t that something that Canada would want kept quiet?

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Bdiego, sorry to disagree with you but Claudius is informed by a Federation dude, Captain R. M. Merik (a.k.a. Merikus), so his source is quite reliable. "Laying waste to the entire surface of the world" means that the Enterprise has the ability to do it (which was my original point), regardless of the capability of the planet to defend itself. On this planet, ancient Rome is the entire planet, not just Italy and Europe.

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Why am I not surprised to see grafton diss Star Trek, which is loved by millions all over the world?

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Sarge at 03:41 PM JST - 20th May “Why am I not surprised to see grafton diss Star Trek, which is loved by millions all over the world?”

I did like Star trek, when I was at university…….

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grafton - So, you liked Star Trek at university... so what happened after that? You lost your optimism or your belief that man will overcome his violent tendancies and learn to live in peace?

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I still believe Obama is at least part Vulcan. If he only received the Vulcan intellect and ears that's really no so bad. Obviously he is not age-ing like a Vulcan since being President and Vulcans generally don't smoke either (smoking may have an effect on Vulcan age-ing?)

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Scotty (James Doohan) was also Canadian, both he and Shatner are from Vancouver, it's interesting that they aren't 'Canadian icons'.

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Sarge at 09:53 PM JST - 20th May

“You lost your optimism or your belief that man will overcome his violent tendencies and learn to live in peace?”

Well I was at university during the Vietnam war so I can’t say I ever had a chance to develop any belief in mans better nature & so had nothing to lose.

As for Star trek, now come on be honest, Kirk was the funniest man on TV at that time, no way could you think in terms of mythical hero & Captain James T Kirk at the same time without falling about laughing. He was great!

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grafton - "Kirk was the funniest man on TV at that time"

No, he wasn't the funniest man on TV at that time, he was the bold, dashing starship captain who took risks because he didn't like to lose and refused to accept that there was no alternative to defeat.

However, Shatner did become the funniest man on TV when he sang Rocket Man! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! ( you can see it on YouTube of course )

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Sarge at 09:19 AM JST - 21st May “he was the bold, dashing starship captain”

I hate to break this to you, since we are both now grown ups, but there are still no such things as “star ships” & how can a man with a baby beer belly be called dashing? “Bold” can also be seen as being a bit thick. Captain James T Kirk was so funny & I love him for that. But turning him into a mythical hero? That is even funnier.

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grafton - "there are still no such things as "star ships"

Well, heck, it's still only the 21st century!

I'm sorry that you've never developed a belief in man's better nature. But that admission explains many of your posts.

Let me know what you think of Shatner's rendition of Rocket Man, ha ha ha!

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Grafton, are you saying that, because there are no such things as "starships", it is impossible for an actor to play the part of a starship captain? EPIC FAIL! Also, the "baby beer belly" didn't appear until the movies started.

The character of James T. Kirk meets the definition of "mythical hero" for a couple of reasons... First, he's not real (hence the "mythical" part) and second, he would go above what was expected to overcome adversity and further the cause of the UFP even if it meant putting his life in jeopardy (hence the "hero" part).

SHATNER, of all people, "Got it". You never saw quotes from him bemoaning the fact that he didn't get an Emmy nomination for Star Trek. He realized the campiness of the show and when parodies of his performance appeared, he embraced them. I remember seeing him on "Saturday Night Live" back around when the first ST movie came out. The sketch was that he was the keynote speaker (as himself) at a Trekkie convention. The SNL cast is dressed as Trekkies and are bombarding him with questions when he stops them and says, "Look at you! What's the matter with you?! It was a TV show! Get a life!"

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Star Trek was a creation of Gene Roddenberry; he was a visionist and tried to express his visions on a budget-driven TV show in the late 1960's. I know - I watched them first run.

That's how I will always see Star Trek - as a man's vision of a future. And yes, no one can see the future. But some of the visions he saw are reality today. Female leaders, cell phones, portable mass storage devices, and now, the President of the United States is half-black. There was one episode where a planet's humanity killed themselves off for discrimination - their skin was half-black, half-white. The distinction was one group's face was white on the left, on the other group, white on the right.

I thank Gene Roddenberry for giving us Star Trek.

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Ah, yes, the iconic Frank Gorshin (Batman's Riddler) episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield", a clever commentary on the insanity of race hatred. Sure, Obama's the President, but the message is as relevant today as it was in 1968, unfortunately. The last lines were memorable:

SULU: But their planet's dead. Does it matter now which one's right? SPOCK: Not to Lokai and Bele. All that matters to them is their hate. UHURA: Do you suppose that's all they ever had, sir? KIRK: No, but that's all they have left.

Warping out music and ends credits...

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Fadamor at 02:50 AM JST - 22nd May

I know it is not a nice thing to do, throwing a persons quote back at them, but really you answer your own question.

"Look at you! What's the matter with you?! It was a TV show! Get a life!"

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"Ah, yes, the iconic Frank Gorshin ( Batman's Riddler ) episode, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield"

Sicilian, where you at?

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"No, he was more like the George Bush who shot first and asked questions later. Kirk was always saying, 'set your phasers to kill'."

Was he indeed? I don't remember that! Well, I was so much more focused on Spock, so, nevermind...

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