An edited version of this essay appeared on HiLoBrow earlier this week. They were kind enough to let me run the full version on this site.
The first time we see a familiar face in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it’s now-Admiral James T. Kirk, stepping off an air-tram into Starfleet Headquarters. Not at all coincidentally, it’s also the first time audiences at the time had seen Earth in the context of the Trek universe. It’s immediately obvious that he is tense and unhappy. The Kirk we see in this scene is not the same man that had represented the Federation’s best and brightest in the wild west that was the galaxy of the mid-23rd century. He’s now brittle, almost openly contemptuous of his work place, and you can’t really blame him. In the two years since Enterprise returned home, he’s become the thing he hated most while in command and out there: a bureaucrat.
It’s written plainly across his face: he’s getting out of here, and soon.
His brief conversation with his old command’s new (Vulcan, because of course) science officer, Sonak, has one of my favorite lines in the entire canon of Trek. “I’m on my way to a meeting with Admiral Nogura which will not last more than three minutes. Report to me on the Enterprise in one hour.”
The new hire raises an eyebrow at this, which is understandable.
The first person to find out that Kirk’s meeting was a successful one is Scotty. If there’s one other man that understands our hero’s passion for his ship, it’s her rambunctious, garrulous chief engineer. This love for the ship (and obvious need to show where a not-insignificant part of the film’s budget went) leads to a luxurious (some would say lubricious) sequence that has become a bit of a joke in the last three decades and change, and for good reason. Yes, it is a very impressive model, and the footage they shot was so good they recycled a significant chunk of it for The Wrath of Khan.
Scotty never once questions why Kirk wants his ship back, just knows that it’s how it’s supposed to be.
It’s obvious that James T. Kirk is the one that has to be in command of the Enterprise at this venture1 . There are (presumably) plenty of Starfleet ships that go and do remarkable things, but it’s only Jim Kirk that can be relied upon to lead a crew to do things that are impossible. After all, he spent five years staring down Greek gods, scuffling with Klingons and even managed to steal the coveted Romulan cloaking device — what’s a giant cloud that shoots balls of lightning to him? Frankly, it’s probably harder for him to get a Space McDonald’s to serve breakfast after 11AM than to take down a godlike energy force that devastates everything in its path.
Of course, there is the matter of Will Decker to deal with. Decker, who was recommended for the captaincy by Kirk himself, is the son of Matt Decker2 , he of “The Doomsday Machine” and much sweating, shouting and self-sacrifice. Stephen Collins as Decker is the perfect 1979 space hero: blond-haired, blue-eyed and with a stiff upper lip, sort of what we’d expect if Joe Friday and Luke Skywalker had a baby. Naturally, Decker gets a fair amount of slagging from fandom, but as a proto-Riker, he’s shown to be competent and a natural leader . In fact, the first time we see him in the film, he’s helping out in engineering, something that I’m pretty sure Jim Kirk never would do unless there was an attractive new magnetic bottle technician.
In the screenplay, it’s stated that Kirk sizes up the situation before being plain-spoken with the other man, that he is actually considerate of another human being. On-screen, however, it’s almost comedic how eager Kirk is to shut down Decker’s hopes and dreams.
I’m taking over the center seat, Will.
I’m replacing you as Captain of the Enterprise.
You’ll stay on as Executive Officer… a temporary grade reduction to Commander.
You personally are assuming command?
That little “Yeah” sums up Kirk’s position in the matter perfectly. Getting command of the Enterprise may have taken Will Decker an entire career and a lot of ass-kissing, but for Jim Kirk, it was three minutes on a Thursday morning. And now that he’s established who’s who and what’s what, he needs to get back to the business of universe-saving.
This isn’t the end of it, of course. Decker wants to know why, exactly, he thinks he can do this sort of thing and there’s a conversation that establishes what we already know, but the real crux is when Kirk apologizes for the takeover. Decker snaps back “No, Admiral. I don’t think you’re sorry. Not one damn bit.”
He’s not. James T. Kirk is supposed to be the captain of the Enterprise. That’s just how it is. If you’re in his way, get used to seeing his ass as he passes you.
1 Outside of the fact that nobody would really want to watch a movie where the dad from Seventh Heaven runs around in space pajamas.
2This is never established in the film, only in the novelization and other related materials. The adaptation (
ghosted by Alan Dean Foster for written by Gene Roddenberry) is a bizarre read, with some details that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. One of these is the fact that the woman who melts on the transporter platform next to Sonak was Kirk’s wife, Vice Admiral Lori Ciana. That’s right: James T. Kirk watches his wife get fed into a Molecular Insinkerator™ and still manages to save the galaxy a couple days later.