Kirk Your Enthusiasm (17)

By: Trav S.D.
August 21, 2012

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

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“We… the PEOPLE” | “The Omega Glory” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 2, Episode 23 | March 1968

“The Omega Glory” episode climaxes with a quintessential Kirk moment. Caught in the middle of a battle between two primitive tribes — the Kohms and the Yangs — Kirk, Spock, and McCoy deduce that the planet Omega IV is a parallel version of Earth, the Asiatic Kohms are the descendants of Communists, and the Nordic Yangs the descendants of Americans (Yankees). This deduction is proved right when their Yang captors produce an ancient American flag and recite a garbled version of the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Recognizing that the flag and the “holy words” kept in a locked box — and on behalf of which the Yangs are fighting and dying — have lost all meaning, Kirk proceeds to excavate that meaning. “We… the PEOPLE,” he begins. I’m assuming you know the rest.

Kirk’s delivery of the speech is much mocked as evidence of William Shatner’s “bad” acting. But far from being an example of incompetence, it is the epitome of Shatner’s very rightness — both as an actor in general, and as the lead actor on this particular television series.

Star Trek is not The Waltons, however much the succeeding five Star Trek series tried to steer in that direction. As originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry, the show was a space opera modeled on the Horatio Hornblower series of seafaring adventure novels. It is a stone’s throw from the Flash Gordon serials. Such a milieu merits an acting style as big as its set pieces; if you don’t act big, you are going to be upstaged by the white gorilla with the rhinoceros horn. This is the stuff of melodrama and there’s no indignity in that. Our ancestors thrived on melodrama and its stylized acting conventions. Though it may have gone out of fashion, melodrama is a style — an artistic choice, and therefore neither a priori “bad” or ineffective. If you’re playing James T. Kirk, melodrama is a job requirement.

For several years at the beginning of his career, Shatner was the fair-haired boy of theatrical director Tyrone Guthrie at the Stratford (Shakespeare) Festival of Canada. He was the understudy of Christopher Plummer in a Stratford production of Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”), subsequently played Henry in another production, and he went to Broadway in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. So he knew how to make a speech land, to invest it with music, and to make an audience listen. His task in “The Omega Glory” was not only to make the Yangs hear the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution for the first time, but to make us hear it as though for the first time. At the height of the Cold War, the words signified an alternative to a life behind barbed wire; they needed to be delivered with force and weight. So Shatner invested the speech with a little of the old St. Crispin’s.

Alas, by the 1970s — when people started making fun of Shatner — most Americans had never seen a play in a theater. Though he was the right man for the job, it was his misfortune to excel at an art form that had died.

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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. Henry V in space! Yet another reason to love him. : ) But as TOS broadcast waves soar on toward the Delta Quadrant, and beyond, perhaps it is an art form whose time (or space) may yet come again…

  2. Ya know he’s got something serious to say ‘cuz this time Kirk’s in a shirt and the *rest* of the guys are half-naked. Or maybe that’s how he has to picture them to read the Preamble in public. But this is brilliant, the mission to re-sell us our own mislaid values, put on the shoulders of our savior from the stars. (Great case made for Shatner’s need to make sure they hear it in the cheap seats and the back constellations too — I feel a chord strike with my losing crusade to frame my household’s other beloved [but by others much-despised) belter, Babs Streisand, as a Yiddish Vaudeville star…)

  3. My opponents won’t listen to *any* reason I have. Or to tones like buttah, or long notes held like the banner of the Republic (I’m trying to keep in mind what thread we’re in). Where are the words so plain and firm as to command their assent? (Score, I did it again…)

  4. How much do I LOVE this? Thanks to Trav for putting our feelings of Kirk/Shat affection in a historical context we always hoped existed but weren’t quite sure of. “Alas, by the 1970s — when people started making fun of Shatner — most Americans had never seen a play in a theater.” Amen! Much the same way that TV comedy started to stink on ice when it began to be written and performed by people who hadn’t been forced to hone their act four times a day in front of paying humans.

  5. It’s funny it was the whole story of Shatner going on for Christopher Plummer in Henry V, which he told as part of Shatner’s World on Broadway, that made me think of Star Trek VI – but this really illuminates how the Kirk/Shat affection (as Steve puts it) is partially rooted in his theatrical talent to perfectly land an interstellar St. Crispin’s Day speech. Wonderful piece!

  6. Hear, hear! It’s about time someone stood up for Shatner’s acting! He shoulders so much of the “blame” for TOS’s sometimes quirky, cheesy, charm, that it’s possible to forget just how good a sport he was (even if he occasionally was less than so) and just how often he was asked to say and do things that to a lesser ego would be embarrassing. Most of the cast of TOS had their turn in the actor’s agony booth, but none endured it with more relish than the man who played Kirk! I had been exposed many times to the entirety of TOS before I ever saw “Judgment at Nuremberg”, so it is all but impossible for me to ascertain the level of Shatner’s acting in that film. You do get the sense of his nerve in occupying the screen with Spencer Tracy and not shrinking.

    The Kohms may have been yellow-red, but I always thought of the Battle of Stalingrad in Captain Tracey’s chilling off-screen recitation of the fighting between the Khoms and the Yangs. In all the years since, as often as I’ve seen CGI’ed battles in mind-numbing explicit detail, it seldom had the impact of those spoken words to a young viewer. This episode in another where Roddenberry inverted expectations by making the savages light-skinned, at least for a time until the final reveal. I was young when I first saw watched it, and I can tell you that, having already been school-indoctrinated with the daily Pledge of Allegiance without exposition or comment for years, it made my hair stand on edge to see it make its surprising appearance on Omega IV. It was mind-blowing to a 9 or 10 year old and it actually gave me a sense of how out of the ordinary the oft-repeated but seldom considered concepts were. So no, I was not then and am not now troubled by the frequent happy occurrence of convenient Class M planets, or the strange persistence of 20th Century Earth-like cultures or socities, springing up throughout the cosmos without apparent regard to distance or duration.

    At the time Roddenberry was writing and producing this episode, he would have been, of course, familiar with Pierre Boulle’s “Planet of the Apes” and most likely Rod Serling’s film-adaption (I think the movie came out just before this episode first aired). If Serling and Franklin Shaffner had the more spectacular and iconic ending, Roddenberry also had his neat twist, and in the Yangs’ reduction of fundamental principles of freedom to incantations and superstition and their corresponding wretched state (before Kirk rallies them) he had imagined a clever reminder that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

  7. Leave it to Trav to excavate what a trooper Shatner started out as. A starship trooper. (Phaser me now!) I had known nothing of The Shat sharing a Shakespearean provenance with the towering Plummer; must’ve added a special dimension of rivalry and camaraderie to them staring each other down the banquet table as memorialized in Kelly Jean’s piece, and, to my satisfaction, forever removes the setup from the unkind rumors that thespian Patrick Stewart kept cracking up over Shatner’s death scene in multiple takes for Star Trek: Generations. But maybe the tricky Kirk would rather have us believe such rot — from Khan to Chang, Melville to the Bard, opponents have always missed Kirk’s measure by bringing literary quotes to a photon-torpedo fight…

  8. Another thought here: One of the reasons we fanboys and -girls might be so averse to melodrama, overacting or whatever we want to call it is that we’re looking for a way to defend fantasy and science fiction against folks who simply refuse to find the genre believable. The result is that we kid ourselves that it’s possible — or even appropriate — to “sell” faster-than-light travel and alternate universes via performances that equate verisimilitude with somnolence. The irony is that, if we were to survey a representative sampling of the sort of domestic dramas set among the contemporary upper middle class that typically fetch Oscars, we would find a feast of scenery-chewing capable of making Shatner look like Buster Keaton. Is there really that much daylight between “Khaaaan” and “Stellaaaaa”?

  9. You’ve hit the nail on the head, that Shatner’s acting style came from a different place than that of most TV actors of the time. (Back then, IIRC, it was still considered slumming for a stage actor to do something as lowbrow as *gasp* television.) One wonders what his career trajectory would have been if he hadn’t taken the Jim Kirk gig.

    Ditto Leonard Nimoy and Spock, of course – Nimoy was a well-respected stage actor, including one in which he played a Nazi (sort of).

  10. Intriguing gloss on the theme, Steve (and maybe when Shatner claimed that he’d have to direct one Trek film for every one Nimoy got assigned, he was just invoking the Interstellar Napoleonic Code :-)) — the all-knowing D. C. Fontana tried to give everyone their cake in the TNG episode where, right before the commercial break, Worf screams at the camera upon the death of a Klingon comrade, and afterward, when that has sunk in with both audience and cast, Picard says to someone “Is there a need for all that shouting?” and it’s explained to him that that’s how a Klingon warrior serves notice to the afterlife that one of his company is on the way — Fontana knew how weird this stuff sounds to the outsider, and offered some context while not, heavens forbid, stopping the weirdness.

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