Monday, November 11, 2013

#630. Seven benefits of an aging Kirk

This is an interesting time for Star Trek fans.  We're back to a point where we're only getting one out of the two screen versions of the franchise that we've been able to enjoy in the past.  Star Trek began, of course, as a TV experience, then came back in the movies, where it existed exclusively in that form for almost a decade, and then we had a period where it was both (and a lot of both!) for a considerable stretch.  Based on the reception of Star Trek Into Darkness, it's clear fans still remember that last movies-only era very well, as their devotion to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains unabated.  The funny thing is, those movies are among the most unlikely film phenomena ever.  I mean, there's the Cocoon films and the Grumpy Old Men films (and the other Matthau/Lemmon projects that ensued), but it's still incredibly rare for movies to spotlight a cast of aging actors, let alone a whole series of them.  Usually it's always young.  I mean, the new Star Trek films feature those same characters, back when they were far younger (even younger than at the start of the original series!).  Imagine, though, if they'd featured the older Kirk?  Would that be so bad?  Here's some things fans got a a result of that peculiar era:

  • Character growth.  One of the hallmarks of the original Star Trek series was that it was basically episodic, as were most TV shows of that time, meaning there wasn't a lot of impact from story to story, nothing that was really carried on or progressed.  That was far from the case in the movies.  Kirk was immediately seen as a melancholy man reluctant to move on with his career in The Motion Picture, a theme that persisted in Wrath of Khan.  For a man previously identified by his passions, for being the very picture of youthful enthusiasm and gung-ho attitude, this was quite a progression.
  • Everyone ages around him.  Career-wise it was probably ridiculous that he kept the whole familiar crew around him.  Sure, the gang was systematically reassembled around Kirk in Motion Picture (notably McCoy and Spock, along with a telling remark from Scotty, always the Fourth Man of this merry band), but as they grew older these guys really should have gotten new assignments, promotions, all that.  Chekov got that in Wrath of Khan.  Sulu was famously supposed to get the same thing in that movie, only to be delayed that privilege until The Undiscovered Country four entries later.  Uhura?  No idea.  I guess she didn't have much ambition.  But they were still getting older, and McCoy only became, to my mind, a better character because of it, more assured of his easy, comic cynicism.  What's not to love about that?  Without McCoy there to help commemorate it, the aging Kirk would have lost a good deal of his impact.
  • Spock.  Spock benefited the most from this.  The more things stayed the same the more he changed, the more he grew, even more than McCoy, into the best version of himself.  Everyone already loved Spock.  I'm not talking about the death-and-return arc.  That only served to acknowledge how important he was to the whole thing, even if Kirk was the face of Star Trek.  I'm talking how he grew into his role as the Yoda of Star Trek, the wise sage, not merely the Vulcan of cold logic and one-liners during spirited exchanges with McCoy, but the Spock who was capable of breathing on his own, who wasn't defined equally by his friendship with Kirk.  In fact, his arc of returning from the dead helped make that possible, served to illustrate how Kirk and Spock truly complemented each other.  And yet it's in Undiscovered Country where the character reaches his apex, especially in contrast to Kirk.  Here they view an opportunity for peace with the Klingons quite differently.  It's the heart of the conflict that JJ Abrams would later explore in his own films.  So that's the origin of that.
  • A new generation grows around him.  We meet Kirk's son in the movies.  Who would've ever imagined the thought in the series?  But it was easy natural by the time it happened.  And a competent new Vulcan in Saavik.  Even Decker.  Of course, none of them survives quite the way Kirk and his crew did, and would continue to do.  David doesn't come back from the dead, Spock does.  We leave Saavik behind.  And Decker doesn't even survive his first appearance, much less his ill-fated lover Ilia.  And yet as Kirk ages we see the seeds of what he planted.  It just happens that he continues to be larger than life.
  • Christopher Plummer!  This may be a most curious argument, but I suspect Plummer's appearance in Undiscovered Country helped remind movie fans that he existed.  After a sensational splash in his younger years in The Sound of Music, Plummer faded into the background.  It didn't happen immediately, but after Undiscovered Country the aging Plummer became a staple in the movies.  Had there been no aging Kirk there would have been no compelling need for an equally aging Klingon adversary.  And Plummer's Chang deserves a place in the annals of great Star Trek villains, precisely for Plummer's distinguished performance.  And we've gotten many more since then, and I for one am very pleased about that.
  • Kirk's true significance.  The aging Kirk put his whole career in context.  By the time of Undiscovered Country, after he'd succeeded in keeping himself active as a starship captain rather than admiral or something else, we saw how the rest of Starfleet compensated around him.  Yes, I've discussed how his force of will still held back subsequent generations, but the rank and file eventually started catching up with him, and I think that's how Spock finally reached the point he did.  Kirk never did accept the responsibility of driving policy.  He preferred to remain active as the guy figuring things out rather than the one shaping the course going ahead.  That meant that all the experience he had with the Klingons amounted to others deciding what to do with them, and he was forced to accede to their ideas, or rather Spock's.  And what this means is that while Kirk always seemed the superstar, maybe he wasn't as much as one for Starfleet as he liked to believe.  He saved the galaxy many times over, but this would never have been possible without those around him providing support.  The films, especially Undiscovered Country, make that clear.  It's the sobering thought he may have had early on, why he backed away from further responsibility.  This is not to diminish the man's career, but rather to suggest that even as a form of greatness Kirk had to accept that the comparative mundane world around him still existed, and was the better for it.
  • Picard!  The aging Kirk made it possible to imagine other aging captains.  Several generations later, the latest captain of the Enterprise is a man already decades into his career, head (not quite) full of grew hair, and confident that he's fully capable of getting the job done.  And that's exactly what Jean-Luc Picard does!  And, arguably, he did the job better.



Nice post.
I like Kirk having grown up watching him as the captain, but I love Picard.
It might have somthing to do with his acting, or all the internet Memes!

Pat Dilloway said...

The problem with any series revolving around a military-type organization is that you really shouldn't keep the same cast forever. Though it probably wasn't as ridiculous as "Scrubs" where they come into the hospital as interns and like 8 years later are all still in the same hospital. That would never happen in real life!

Maurice Mitchell said...

If someone had said Nimoy would still be playing Spock as an old man they would have laughed their head off. But, it actually makes him cooler. Great points Tony.

Tony Laplume said...

David, memes tend to make everything better, but in this case, Picard does most of the legwork himself, and not just because Patrick Stewart likes to dance!

Pat, not to mention the Korean War going on for a decade in M*A*S*H.

Maurice, Nimoy used to want very badly to distance himself from the role. Thank Surak he came to peace with Spock!

Pat Dilloway said...

Well MASH did have quite a bit of turnover throughout its run.

Spacerguy said...

Its awesome seeing how relationships continue to grow and evolve in Star Treks classic movies.

The Armchair Squid said...

I never thought of the aging Kirk leading to Picard but that makes sense. Good point, Tony.

Tony Laplume said...

Spacerguy, awesome indeed!

Squid, it blows the mind, but there it is!

And just in case you people thought I was overlooking it because people don't generally like it, I could've written plenty about how The Final Frontier did plenty with this as well even though in a lot of ways it's the one movie where these rules don't necessarily apply. Except in Spock's case. Because Spock is awesome.

Tony Laplume said...

Pat, but Hawkeye was there the whole time. And Klinger!


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