Kirk Your Enthusiasm (6)

By: Zack Handlen
August 6, 2012

Sixth in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.

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Kirk’s eulogy for Spock | Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan | June 1982

The thing about getting older is, if you live long enough, eventually everyone you love will die. Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan is about a number of things, but mostly it’s about getting old, and losing, and death, seen through the eyes of one James T. Kirk. These are heavy themes, and Kirk goes through a lot in the movie, running into old enemies, taking charge of the Enterprise again, and losing his closest friend. Forget, for a second, that the Star Trek franchise undid Spock’s sacrifice in its next film; forget that Spock ended up outliving every other major character from the original series. In context, the Vulcan’s death is devastating, and how Kirk responds to that devastation is one of his defining moments.

The funeral comes after the climax of the film, a battle in the Mutara Nebula in which Khan is finally defeated, destroying himself and his ship in one last attempt at revenge. Khan was homicidal, cunning, and insane; Kirk is the same man he’s always been, able to think around corners, cheat if he has to, and do whatever it takes to come out the other side. That’s why he’s a hero. But while he’s been running around saving the day, he’s also had to struggle against his own mortality, needing glasses to read, suffering from depression, and meeting the adult son he never knew he had. Kirk’s always been able to make decisions in the heat of battle, but to know there’s a conflict coming that he can’t win has to be hard. And then he has to face that conflict, standing on the other side of the glass as Spock rots before his eyes. He does the only thing he can do: stare helplessly and wait for the end.

It isn’t until the eulogy that we get a sense of how Kirk will move on. He’s reserved through the short speech, betraying little emotion; given the man’s usual generosity of expression, that stillness speaks volumes. It’s a gesture of respect. Spock’s stoicism was his chief point of pride, and it’s only fitting that his mourners should demonstrate the same restraint. But there’s also an emotion too strong to be casually expressed. You hear it when Kirk’s voice breaks, just for a moment. That break is more powerful than keening. Then there’s his conclusion: “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most human.” The remark at first appears insensitive: Spock spent his life trying to live up to his Vulcan heritage, and to draw attention to his humanity seems to do him a disservice. But Kirk isn’t trying to diminish his friend. Spock is gone, but the ideals he stood for are worth aspiring to. He was the best humanity can hope to achieve, with patience, wisdom, and sacrifice. So Kirk takes this, and does what he does best: he finds a reason to keep living.

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2012: KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Captain Kirk scenes): Dafna Pleban: Justice or vengeance? | Mark Kingwell : Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | Nick Abadzis: “KHAAAAAN!” | Stephen Burt: “No kill I” | Greg Rowland: Kirk browbeats NOMAD | Zack Handlen: Kirk’s eulogy for Spock| Peggy Nelson: The joke is on Kirk | Kevin Church: Kirk vs. Decker | Enrique Ramirez: Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk | Adam McGovern: Captain Camelot | Flourish Klink: Koon-ut-kal-if-fee | David Smay: Federation exceptionalism | Amanda LaPergola: Wizard fight | Steve Schneider: A million things you can’t have | Joshua Glenn: Debating in a vacuum | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons: Klingon diplomacy | Trav S.D.: “We… the PEOPLE” | Matthew Battles: Brinksmanship on the brink | Annie Nocenti: Captain Smirk | Ian W. Hill: Sisko meets Kirk | Gabby Nicasio: Noninterference policy | Peter Bebergal: Kirk’s countdown | Matt Glaser: Kirk’s ghost | Joe Alterio: Watching Kirk vs. Gorn | Annalee Newitz: How Spock wins

ALSO ON HILOBROW Peggy Nelson on William Shatner as HiLo Hero | Greg Rowland on Leonard Nimoy as HiLo Hero | Peggy Nelson on William Shatner in Incubus | Matthew Battles on enlarging the Trek fanfic canon | Radium Age Supermen | Radium Age Robots | Radium Age Apocalypses | Radium Age Telepaths | Radium Age Eco-Catastrophes | Radium Age Cover Art (1) | SF’s Best Year Ever: 1912

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2014: KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (typefaces): Matthew Battles on ALDINE ITALIC | Adam McGovern on DATA 70 | Sherri Wasserman on TORONTO SUBWAY | Sarah Werner on JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | Douglas Wolk on TODD KLONE | Mark Kingwell on GILL SANS | Joe Alterio on AKZIDENZ-GROTESK | Suzanne Fischer on CALIFORNIA BRAILLE | Gary Panter on SHE’S NOT THERE | Deb Chachra on FAUX DEVANAGARI | Peggy Nelson on FUTURA | Tom Nealon on JENSON’S ROMAN | Rob Walker on SAVANNAH SIGN | Tony Leone on TRADE GOTHIC BOLD CONDENSED NO. 20 | Chika Azuma on KUMON WORKSHEET | Chris Spurgeon on ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | Amanda French on DIPLOMA REGULAR | Steve Price on SCREAM QUEEN | Alissa Walker on CHICAGO | Helene Silverman on CHINESE SHIPPING BOX | Tim Spencer on SHATTER | Jessamyn West on COMIC SANS | Whitney Trettien on WILKINS’S REAL CHARACTER | Cintra Wilson on HERMÈS vs. HOTDOG | Jacob Covey on GOTHAM.

2013: HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (old-school hip hop tracks): Luc Sante on “Spoonin’ Rap” | Dallas Penn on “Rapper’s Delight” | Werner Von Wallenrod on “Rappin’ Blow” | DJ Frane on “The Incredible Fulk” | Paul Devlin on “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | Phil Dyess-Nugent on “That’s the Joint” | Adam McGovern on “Freedom” | David Abrams on “Rapture” | Andrew Hultkrans on “The New Rap Language” | Tim Carmody on “Jazzy Sensation (Bronx Version)” | Drew Huge on “Can I Get a Soul Clap” | Oliver Wang on “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” | Douglas Wolk on “Making Cash Money” | Adrienne Crew on “The Message” | Dart Adams on “Pak Jam” | Alex Belth on “Buffalo Gals” | Joshua Glenn on “Ya Mama” | Phil Freeman on “No Sell Out” | Nate Patrin on “Death Mix Live, Pt. 2” | Brian Berger on “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” | Cosmo Baker on “Here We Go (Live at the Funhouse)” | Colleen Werthmann on “Rockit” | Roy Christopher on “The Coldest Rap” | Dan Reines on “The Dream Team is in the House” | Franklin Bruno on The Lockers.

2011: KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (Jack Kirby panels): Douglas Rushkoff on THE ETERNALS | John Hilgart on BLACK MAGIC | Gary Panter on DEMON | Dan Nadel on OMAC | Deb Chachra on CAPTAIN AMERICA | Mark Frauenfelder on KAMANDI | Jason Grote on MACHINE MAN | Ben Greenman on SANDMAN | Annie Nocenti on THE X-MEN | Greg Rowland on THE FANTASTIC FOUR | Joshua Glenn on TALES TO ASTONISH | Lynn Peril on YOUNG LOVE | Jim Shepard on STRANGE TALES | David Smay on MISTER MIRACLE | Joe Alterio on BLACK PANTHER | Sean Howe on THOR | Mark Newgarden on JIMMY OLSEN | Dean Haspiel on DEVIL DINOSAUR | Matthew Specktor on THE AVENGERS | Terese Svoboda on TALES OF SUSPENSE | Matthew Wells on THE NEW GODS | Toni Schlesinger on REAL CLUE | Josh Kramer on THE FOREVER PEOPLE | Glen David Gold on JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY | Douglas Wolk on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY | MORE EXEGETICAL COMMENTARIES: Joshua Glenn on Kirby’s Radium Age Sci-Fi Influences | Chris Lanier on Kirby vs. Kubrick | Scott Edelman recalls when the FF walked among us | Adam McGovern is haunted by a panel from THE NEW GODS | Matt Seneca studies the sensuality of Kirby’s women | Btoom! Rob Steibel settles the Jack Kirby vs. Stan Lee question | Galactus Lives! Rob Steibel analyzes a single Kirby panel in six posts | Danny Fingeroth figgers out The Thing | Adam McGovern on four decades (so far) of Kirby’s “Fourth World” mythos | Jack Kirby: Anti-Fascist Pipe Smoker

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What do you think?

  1. And not just progress through his own life; by the end of the TNG ep “Datalore” Picard and Riker will be musing upon their android comrade Data as a model of humanity (not designed to be too like us or not enough, but better “balanced”), thus exemplifying a time where the definition is expanded and the ideal more widely inhabitable. Because Kirk’s gift is not just to seize the moment and carry on but to see through the present circumstance to what can be.

  2. Kirk seems to have internalized the phildickian distinction between the human and the inhuman — even if technically an alien or an android, any being that displays empathy is more human than so-called human beings who are not empathetic.

  3. One of the clever things they did with Spock’s character over the years was to flip your expectations of someone so logic-bound. Despite his remorseless computational drive, Spock was a great soul and surprisingly liberal spirit. But this was not simply his human heritage undermining his Vulcan heritage. Time and again Star Trek would invert these things, invert our preconceived ideas regarding the coldness of logic, and the counter-intellectual aspects of empathy and the deeper emotions. Spock often stood for the proposition that the higher, wilder human emotions, the better angels of our nature, made a kind of ultimate logic. It was a way of re-enforcing the overall positive view toward the future and technology.

  4. Good points, Esoth. And the latest neuroscience research now tells us that logic and emotion are in no way separable, right? Decision making of any kind is entirely dependent on emotion — without emotion, we wouldn’t bother making decisions.

  5. I was 15 and vividly remember crying at the Odeon Shaftesbury Avenue at STII’s first showing, surrounded by many weeping Trekkers. It was my first lesson in loss, an imaginary preparation for the inevitable yet unresolvable closures of the future.

    Sorry if this sounds silly, solemn or portentous, but I found Zack’s piece quite moving. Spock would not approve.

  6. Nothing silly or trivial to those of us who were 15 three or four years sooner and all remember where we were when Adam Warlock died. …And, like Spock, came back, but what’s “closure” anyway.

  7. A beautiful essay on a beautiful eulogy for lost friends. And the paradox of empathy embodied in restraint *is Spock’s dual heritage, in word and action.

  8. I hated that last line; given the racist abuse that Spock was frequently subjected to, it seemed as if Kirk had said that his dead mixed race friend was “the most white”.

  9. Admittedly the remark sounds a little weird out of context, but it’s appropriate if you remember that Spock’s major character development in the previous movie was reconciling himself to his human side.

    Earlier in this movie, McCoy takes exception to Spock’s seeming indifference to the potential destructive capability of the Genesis Device by calling him “green-blooded” and “inhuman”. Spock’s third-act sacrifice seems to put a dramatic end to that notion.

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