Trek Week, Part 4
Today I’ll be talking about the main characters, but before I get into depth about any of them I want to address two things.
First, it’s true that Kirk and Spock are best friends. A lot of writers seem to think that’s where it ends. They miss something crucial, and that’s McCoy — they don’t seem to know what to do with him aside from having him snark at Spock.
Here’s the thing. All three form a greater hero.
Kirk, as is probably obvious, is the main character. He’s a man of action, but he’s also clever – an Odysseus figure. Spock is symbolic of Kirk’s rational side and McCoy represents Kirk’s intuitive/emotional side, and when the two sides are arguing we, the viewer, understand the internal dilemma that Kirk is facing. Of course, Spock and McCoy are more than this when they’re well scripted, but, swear-to-God, the interplay of these two characters is the way the viewer often sees Kirk’s worries dramatized.
The second thing is that this is a military vessel. These people are professionals, and they should act and sound like it. They’re also in what is one of the best ships in the fleet – the Constitution class starships. That means the whole crew, from crewman on up, are well-trained and well disciplined. They’re respectful and intelligent and if they’re not seasoned, then they must be extremely talented in their particular field, or be possessed of great potential.
There are four main characters on the show — possibly five if you count Scotty, though you could argue he’s the most important of the secondary characters. To keep today’s post a little shorter I’m leaving a discussion about him with the secondary characters for tomorrow.
The Enterprise is a special ship. It isn’t the flag ship (that would be the starship Constitution, since the Enterprise is apparently one of 13 Constitution class starships). Sure, if we’re changing a lot of this stuff in a reboot we should be able to take or leave the whole flagship conundrum, but I think it’s ridiculous that the youngest captain to ever command a starship gets the flagship of the entire fleet. In the original series, all the other captains of Constitution class ships were considerably older (so they’d outrank Kirk by seniority) and at least two were commodores. (In naval parlance a commodore usually commands a small squadron, but we can suppose that this is a nod to these ship commanders having great experience, seniority, etc. and a further sign that only the best get to command these ships.)
But I digress. As I was starting to say, the Enterprise is an important character. All the crew love that ship, perhaps none as much so as Scotty and Kirk. If the crew gives their all and takes care of the Enterprise, she’ll come through for them. Deforest Kelley, in a brief appearance in the first Next Generation episode, is given the best line in the whole episode, referring to the Enterprise: “Treat her like a lady and she’ll always bring you home.”
The Enterprise can never, ever, be treated like just another hunk of metal or a transportation device. Not only is she the crew’s home, she’s a special ship, a lucky ship, and so long as you go the extra mile for her, she’ll come through. At the end of so many episodes, when the characters sail away from some of those bleak endings (“there but for the grace of God go I”) it often seems she’s the one island of sanity in a mad universe. When the Enterprise is in danger, the audience must care. “Not with my ship,” Kirk says time and again in the original series, usually when some madman wants to do something stupid with the vessel. And we’re right there with him. We’ve got to love the Enterprise, and so should the men and women who crew her.
As I said a few days ago, any reboot has to divest Kirk of the whole “I’m always chasing a skirt” thing and model how he’s depicted in the best episodes. First, he’s intelligent and driven, something of a loner. (Command is a lonely business.) He’s very well read, especially in history – he knows that those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. He’s an incredibly gifted starship tactician. Time and again he is extremely persuasive, a born ambassador. It’s his wits, not the phasers, that get him through.
Kirk is governed by the love for his crew and his ship. He’s the youngest captain of a Constitution class starship because he earned it. He distinguished himself throughout his career (there’s a partial reading of all of his medals and awards in the episode “Court Martial” that provides just a hint about all the astonishing things Kirk has done). Nothing is more important to Kirk than his crew and his ship, and he will even risk his career to do right by them. He does not break regulations willy-nilly – he believes in the law. But in those rare circumstances when the law interferes with doing the right thing, Kirk will do the right thing. Without hesitation. (Check out this great scene — with guest star William Windom and Leonard Nimoy — from my favorite episode, “The Doomsday Machine.”)
Kirk is remarkably non-judgemental and unprejudiced — unless you’re messing with his ship or crew, or the innocent. It’s telling that come Star Trek VI, when a major plot point hinged upon Kirk hating Klingons because of his son’s murder, William Shatner fought tooth and nail for the script to be changed because that kind of prejudice was completely contrary to the captain’s character. Kirk dislikes individuals, not races or nations. Countless times throughout the series where a modern, gritty character would finish off an enemy, Kirk sets vengeance aside for the greater good. He fervently believes that people are capable of change, and that they can rise above their darker instincts. Should there be no other recourse but violence, Kirk is never gleeful. He grimly does what must be done, usually with regret and always with maturity. He is always ready to extend his hand in peace… although he is no fool, either.
Kirk takes life and death very seriously. Every life, even an enemy life, is treated as important. Except in the weakest of all episodes (and I mean the very weakest) Kirk’s sense of duty to his men is still present. Even in a stinker of an episode like “The Apple” Kirk is visibly distraught when he loses one of his red shirts. Even though Gary Mitchell tells him command and compassion is a fool’s mixture, Kirk cares.
Our updated depiction of Kirk retains his eyes for the ladies, but he doesn’t pursue them as often. As before, he never just uses them for his own pleasure – he’s an old school gentleman who sincerely enjoys their company. And he is professional with his crew and officers and never engages in a romance with them. He doesn’t pursue a new lovely face of the week.
It’s been pointed out by many that Kirk led too many of the landing parties, which is certainly true, and one way to give the other characters more screen time is to give Sulu, Uhura, Checkov, etc. the chance to command more away teams. But Kirk and Spock should not be excised from all of the landing parties. Just as Captain Cook was the de facto ambassador on missions, so should Kirk be, along with all the danger that implies (look what happened to Cook).
Kirk does have a playful side. He maintains a professional air with his crew, but he can banter, just a little, with the junior officers. With McCoy and Spock, of course, he can joke, though usually only when things are low stress, or, occasionally, to relieve tension.
Oh, and he may be the youngest captain in Star Fleet, but he’s still older, by 8 years or so, than Sulu, Uhura, etc.
What to say about Spock? The original series got him so very right, except in the very worst episodes, due in great part to Nimoy’s insistence on how the character was portrayed. Nimoy even demanded additional scenes and moments that would assist in Spock’s depiction (like the wonderful bit where Spock loses his cool in “The Naked Time” or the Vulcan neck pinch, which Nimoy suggested rather than doing as the script called for and slugging someone). Keep him as Nimoy played him. Study how Nimoy played him, and write him like that.
If handled improperly Spock can come off as a know-it-all, or condescending, or cold. He isn’t, even if even he sometimes thinks he is. It’s a very fine line to walk.
The original story editors got that whenever there’s any kind of special power – like the transporter – it had to have limitations lest it be used for every emergency. Same goes for the Vulcan mind meld. Always remember that the whole Vulcan mind meld thing is extremely private and means that Spock’s innermost thoughts are then shared with whomever he’s melding with. And no one else can do the nerve pinch.
Sometimes it seems like McCoy is reduced only to a couple of catchphrases. Sure, use those catchphrases from time to time, but remember they really didn’t come up that often in the series (sort of like the above-mentioned superpower rule). Out of 79 episodes McCoy really didn’t say “he’s dead Jim” or “I’m a doctor not a placeholder” that many times.
McCoy is gruff with a heart of gold, Kirk’s sounding board and bartender/therapist. He’s older than Kirk by 8 or 10 years. He can quickly lose his temper but just as quickly cool down, and is extremely sensitive. It should not be forgotten that he’s fearless – not reckless, but fearless. He stood up even when threatened by Khan, who ended up respecting him. He’s more willing than any other character to publically speak up and be a little insubordinate in front of the brass.
Probably the toughest thing to get right with McCoy is his relationship with Spock. Even some of the episodes handle it roughly. In “The Tholian Web” (one of the rare decent episodes from the third season) McCoy is overly sharp and sarcastic with his Vulcan friend. They have differences of opinion but are deeply respectful of each other at the same time, and come to love each other like brothers.
Right, well, I could have gone on a lot longer, but, God knows, this is probably going on too long already. Tomorrow I’ll look at the remaining characters and do a final wrap-up.