Kirk Your Enthusiasm (12)

By: David Smay
August 14, 2012

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

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Federation exceptionalism | “The Enterprise Incident” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 3, Episode 2 | September 1968

In “The Enterprise Incident” Capt. Kirk enters screwy as Capt. Queeg, and exits smirky as Zap Brannigan. Here the narrative tries (and fails) to balance a story of interstellar espionage that veers from romantic tragedy (with alluring Romulan commander) to pointy-eared farce. Though Kirk is secretly acting on Federation orders, it’s hard not to see his usual maverick virtues as an expression of Federation (read: American) exceptionalism. He’s kind of a dick, untroubled by his actions, and blind to any moral quandaries he’s forced upon Spock.

When we first saw Kirk squaring off with the Romulans (in “Balance of Terror”) he outwitted his rival using stratagems dating back to the submarine warfare of WWII, and indeed, Kirk seemed to embody that era’s virtues: resourcefulness, cunning, coolness under pressure. But here Kirk curdles over with Federation entitlement. The Neutral Zone? Merely a guideline, easily tossed aside if there’s an opportunity to steal a cloaking device.

As the story opens, Kirk is for once not recording the captain’s log – Dr. McCoy is. That’s because Kirk’s behavior has become increasingly erratic and unhinged. He’s mad! Mad, I tell you. When the Enterprise goes lurching into the Neutral Zone the Romulans seem irritated and put-off, rather as if they’ve found Federation frat boys puking on their cosmic lawn. Kirk and Spock beam over to the Romulan ship to parlay, where Kirk goes fully barmy and Dr. McCoy is brought over to declare him unfit. Relieved from duty, incensed by these betrayals of Spock and McCoy, Kirk must be put down with the Vulcan Death-Grip.

’Tis all a ruse, however. Spock runs a Honeypot on the Romulan Commander (her lustruous chestnut mane worthy of a Mrs. Robinson in Space), while Kirk is returned to life — and surgically altered to appear Romulan. He beams back aboard the Romulan vessel and absconds with a large table lamp which we are supposed to believe is a cloaking device. While Kirk scampers about the Romulan ship with a lamp tucked under his arm, Spock and the unnamed Romulan commander engage in a spectacularly erotic game of Alien Finger Dancing (let this euphemism take root in the culture). Spock stalls his own execution long enough for Kirk to beam back to the Enterprise, where Scotty is given approximately twenty seconds to figure out and implement unknown technology from a hostile alien race. He succeeds in time for Spock to be transported back to the Enterprise with the Romulan commander clinging to him as their prisoner.

Cloaking device engaged, the Enterprise zigs and zags out of the Neutral Zone with the entire crew chortling as if they just pranked the Dean instead of violating an intergalactic treaty. Dr. McCoy orders Kirk to sickbay to have his “ears bobbed.” Spock musters his dignity in the face of another racist round of pointy-eared jokes and contemplates the emotional cost of whoring himself out for the Federation while his captain exits snickering in glee.

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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 so we warp into that most forbidding of territories for Trek watchers, Season Three. Kirk acquitted himself so honorably (or at least accounted for his flaws so honestly) in Seasons Four (The Animated Series) and Five (the movies) that we can comfortably assume some mirror-universe producer was directing the probabilities here. That, and the real-universe polarities were at work — the Enterprise cruised on post-Kennedy principle its first two runs, but when this ep aired home-planet America was two months away from sneaking Nixon over the finish line too…

  2. I kind of love the amoral dickishness of Kirk in this episode. As one of the earlier entries in this series noted, Kirk is often mischievious. He brings some chaotic good (neutral?) To The Federation’s rational Orderly Good.

    He’s actually a bit of a trickster figure here – an element of his character underscored by his disguise, the amusement it brings to his crew (check the expression on Scotty’s face) and his French Farce scampering on the Romulan ship.

    All in contrast to Spock’s emotional betrayal of the Romulan Commander – something he felt so deeply that it later motivates Spock to initiate the eventual treaty with the Romulans.

    Though this episode isn’t as well crafted as “Balance of Terror” I think it’s more important in fomenting the Star Trek cult.

  3. You have found a faultline that runs through the entire Trek canon, and may well have significantly first surfaced in this ostensibly frivolous ep, David — healthy human nature vs. the Federation’s best-of-all-worlds. I always felt the first two or three seasons of TNG were Trek as Roddenberry really meant to do it, and I reveled in the logical conclusions of the franchise’s social logic — diplomacy-over-all; robots’ rights; away-team members being prosecuted under local laws for stepping on a flower; and of course no meat-eating — while most fans howled over the suffocating politeness of their erstwhile action-heroes. This to me felt like the true, uncomfortable future (“If there is to be a brave new world, our generation is going to have the hardest time living in it,” Gorkon warned) — or at least the heights of dweeb-punk contrarianism (like Morrissey more-or-less concurrently realizing that the last way to piss anyone off [and indeed everyone] was to say you had no sex at all). But Kirk’s side won, and you’re right, “Enterprise Incident” may have been one of his earliest gamechanging plays.

  4. Shoulda typed “the logical conclusions of the franchise’s social calculus” — using “logic” twice in a sentence is a play maybe not even a Vulcan could love.

  5. Speaking of Vulcan Love, as much as “Amok Time” launched Slash As We Know It, this episode established Spock as a romantic figure and spawned a thousand fanfics.

    DC Fontana’s script also toys with the duality (Bearded Spock, Evil Kirk) so frequently explored in the Trek ‘verse. Kirk’s well-earned reputation as a rogue figure is knowingly exploited by The Federation itself when they engineer the plan.

    Kirk going insane is more credible because he’s so frequently going off book during his many adventures.

  6. Another great post in this irresistible Kirk series! And the dead-solid perfect screen capture for it! One of the enduring pleasures of following the actor who was Kirk’s career is trying to delineate exactly how completely he is in on the joke. It’s something he more and more played with as time went on. But he was clearly having too much fun for this to matter, and I could never be cynical for long where Kirk is concerned. What would be the point?

    As much as TOS is Roddenbury’s baby, there is no question that the crew kidnapped it and made it their own. I was a fan of the show — I’m not someone steeped in the behind-the-scenes lore of it, but whether it was casting luck or genius, those crew relationships are an indelible part of it’s success. Speaking of a World Gone Wrong (Spock-goatee’d universe), its shocking how the mind rebells when watching the pilot episode, at least the unreconstituted “Cage” parts, with the wrong captain, the wrong uniforms, the wrong coloring, the wrong lighting, the wrong Spock, the wrong. . . . attitude! It reminded me of nothing so much as the sometimes ponderous TNG which I came to begrudgingly admire over time, and then to appreciate, but never connect with in the way I had with TOS. Its on account of my being the prior generation, I suppose.

    And I always forgave McCoy and all their “racist” taunts against Spock, even when rendered in beat-cop sensibility. If you’re going to dream up a major character with that shallow bowl haircut, the angled eyebrows and pointy ears, you’re not supposed to mention it?

  7. Good point David, I guess Kirk was the ideal of not-inflexible authority that a counterculture could get behind, even if the breakout character among freaks (and the one actually shown jamming with space-hippies) was the rigid Spock (his demeanor the realest reason for all the taunts, Esoth, you’re right too). Good point also, Esoth, about “The Cage” — it’s good to remember that, aesthetically speaking, TOS was in fact the second series, but it was still the primary one, as was accentuated by “The Menagerie”‘s own implication that the Enterprise we know best was the one that was meant to be.

  8. It’s true that a superpower playing a transposed game of “Capture the Flag” feels a lot different than the winning antics of an underdog. Still, Kirk is hard to resist here — given the official stamp on his unofficial tendencies, he revels in his undercover role, and is a charming as tricksters everywhere need to be… from time to time.

    I await the hipster ears-and-eyebrows augmentations in what is our surely not-too-distant future.

  9. Heh. Spock was never more Kif-like (with his exhausted, exasperated defeated sigh) than in this episode.

    The Unexamined Country of Star Trek is straight, white male, Earthling privilege.

    I do hope the future is more polymorphously perverse.

  10. It’s a future we’ve lived to see (or watch) — TNG’s first ep had an android lecture McCoy on how noble a race the Vulcans were, before going to bed with Yar a few weeks later, a season before a middle-aged TOS mainstay, Diana Muldaur, got to share, um, poetry with a Klingon Enterprise officer, followed by black and woman leaders of the next two series — Scott Bakula (and his ratings) almost represented not a return of the repressed white ruler but a relegation of him to the future’s unreclaimable past…

  11. Cloaking device engaged, the Enterprise zigs and zags out of the Neutral Zone with the entire crew chortling as if they just pranked the Dean instead of violating an intergalactic treaty. Dr. McCoy orders Kirk to sickbay to have his “ears bobbed.” Spock musters his dignity in the face of another racist round of pointy-eared jokes and contemplates the emotional cost of whoring himself out for the Federation while his captain exits snickering in glee.

    *snort* I’ve often wondered just how many times Spock re-evaluated his decision to join StarFleet…

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