James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise for a long tenure of live-action, animated and film series, is often remembered for a somewhat perverted propensity towards womanising. While he remains beloved for his particular brand of cowboy diplomacy, and the thrilling adventures they would take you on, it’s something that’s always undermined him and left him stuck in the sixties with other anachronisms. Where does this perspective even come from? Is it really something that undercuts his character throughout all of his appearances? If so, how has he held onto such a wide appeal despite the undeniable sexism of his approach to women?
The truth is, and I think it’s something that most Star Trek fans are aware of, it’s not something you actually see all that much of throughout William Shatner’s portrayal. Season Three of Star Trek‘s original series is the lone exception in that canon however, and it’s probably individually responsible for the unfortunate traits we paste onto Kirk – wholly undeservedly. Without considering that one season, Kirk is actually a wildly inspirational character. Always a proponent of absolute equality, he’s a captain who respects and understands the chain of command; he’s also surprisingly academic and straight laced in his approach to morality and the running of his ship. On the whole, he genuinely does give the flawless Jean-Luc Picard a run for his money when it comes to skill and conscience.
By the time Season Three came along, I don’t know if something was in the water or they had just ran out of ideas but resting on laurels seemed to be the order of the day. Sure, Kirk had a couple of encounters in the preceding seasons. They were even fun to watch thanks to Shatner’s endearing acting and them widening a character we were already interested in. Trouble is, those moments were picked up as numbers they could paint the third season by. As such, we’re presented with an entire run of shows which almost universally feature what I deem to be a “Bird-of-the-Week”. “Bird” is a British colloquialism you can’t avoid if you grew up in The North like me, and I’ve began to take it as a term for women that’s also somewhat dismissive and disposable in its use. Females, of course, should have equal importance to their male counterparts in a show like Star Trek but, throughout this criminal season, they’re only ever used as “birds” – a temporary distraction for Kirk’s affection.
It’s so stark that, in several episodes, all the Bird-of-the-Week has to do is walk into a room. When she does, we’re instantly met with a juvenile Kirk who would gladly leave his responsibilities for a quick lay. It’s sickening to see a grand character of great weight brought down to this meaningless level, and all too often it takes the entire episode off the rails into a realm of mawkish missives and pointless flirting. It’s not even just a shame that Kirk is being treated with such one-dimensional disregard by the writers, but it’s actively disgusting when you think of its sexist implications. The role it assigns women in this glorious, “forward-thinking” Federation is an insulting one, and even manages to make the unbelievably offensive Season One outing, Mudd’s Women, politically correct in comparison. The third way that this injures the Trek that has long since redeemed itself is just how much it interrupts the science-fiction and ideas that should be the drive of the show. With writers thinking that some half-baked love story between Kirk and [INSERT BIRD HERE] is enough, what remains as a wraparound is rendered utterly dull and derivative.
Star Trek, clearly, should be Monster-of-the-Week, not Bird-of-the-Week. That way each episode can be a playground for writers to explore new and interesting concepts, rather than fobbing us off with Kirk exploring new and submissive vaginas. It’s a blueprint for television that the rest of Star Trek (with the impressive exception of Deep Space 9) mastered, so why did they let it slip so lazily for one distinct dip? In honesty, I don’t completely know. I do know, however, that the slip they allowed had a wide-reaching and profound impact on how we all remember James T. Kirk – even to the point of influencing Chris Pine’s interpretation in the recent reboot series. I don’t think it’s fair that we have to remember Kirk as playing loose and fast with women, all because a room of writers couldn’t be bothered for a year. Can we not simply ret-con and decanonize it in favour of The Animated Series that followed?
What kind of a Kirk would we be left with then? Well, as I said in the opening paragraph of this article, he’d be one much easier to look up to. Someone who thinks outside the box and is led by his heart as much as his mind, the essence of what has left him a legacy would still be very much intact. We’d have a Kirk who can handle almost any situation, and lead the flagship proudly where no-one has gone before. With a love of equality and justice, a passion for life and love, he’d be every ounce of the character we hold in high regard. He’d even still be cheeky, funny and charismatic. He just wouldn’t get a bone on every time a woman walked in the room. Isn’t that a preferable way to remember a character who has, elsewhere, been given greater affection by his creators? I suggest we forget the mistakes of Season Three as, otherwise, the Kirk vs. Picard* debate is settled before it even begins. And what would us geeks do without that fundamental disagreement?
THIS is the kind of thing we should remember Captain James T. Kirk for: