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