Twenty-third in a series of posts, each one analyzing a single Captain Kirk scene from the Star Trek canon.
Kirk’s ghost | “The Tholian Web” | Star Trek: The Original Series | Season 3, Episode 9 | November 1968
Around twelve minutes into “The Tholian Web,” there is a moment of introspection and quiet helplessness that grips James T. Kirk. The camera slowly pans and zooms out as he stands almost motionless on the bridge of a spectral ship he was meant to rescue, several bodies tangled up with one another on the deck around him. His glittered spacesuit evokes memories of textbook circulatory system diagrams. He is alone.
Framed by a wider shot now, Kirk shifts a furrowed gaze to look at nothing in particular — a deceased crewmember at his feet, something off-camera to the left. The ship around him is fading away, but he says nothing into his communicator as the Enterprise crew struggles vainly to beam him back to safety. The soundtrack during these moments goes perfectly and purposefully silent, and we are silent ourselves for a moment, barely breathing, left to draw our own bleak conclusions as the captain dissolves into some new infinity.
The Enterprise crew falls victim to a gathering madness, and at random they attack each other with psychotic rage. Kirk’s ghost appears thrice, visibly attempting to speak but making no sound on this plane of reality, drawing religious reactions from his crew but ultimately written off as febrile hallucinations caused by some unseen contagion. It is a weakness in the fabric of space, reports a glum Dr. McCoy. Our minds are being torn apart by the weakness that surrounds us.
Perhaps this is the state of things as we know it: a collective faith in ourselves cast aside by a space made of weak stuff, a universe bereft of real leadership.
But I think we know better, here in Star Trek’s distant past. Our universe never had a Kirk (he hasn’t been born yet), and as we watch the dissolution of order and logic onboard the now Kirk-less Enterprise we are reminded of just how powerful the absence of the man is; even Spock seems a bit worried. A leader in his mold is hard to come by, but the harsh reality is that a universe with nary a Kirk is in serious trouble.
It is a hopeless thing to stare at the ghosts of great men, as we so often do, and expect them to lead. Perhaps it is better to admit that it is not the fault of the space surrounding us, but our own weakness that drives us mad.
POSTS IN THIS SERIES: Justice or vengeance? by DAFNA PLEBAN | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss by MARK KINGWELL | “KHAAAAAN!” by NICK ABADZIS | “No kill I” by STEPHEN BURT | Kirk browbeats NOMAD by GREG ROWLAND | Kirk’s eulogy for Spock by ZACK HANDLEN | The joke is on Kirk by PEGGY NELSON | Kirk vs. Decker by KEVIN CHURCH | Good Kirk vs. Evil Kirk by ENRIQUE RAMIREZ | Captain Camelot by ADAM MCGOVERN | Koon-ut-kal-if-fee by FLOURISH KLINK | Federation exceptionalism by DAVID SMAY | Wizard fight by AMANDA LAPERGOLA | A million things you can’t have by STEVE SCHNEIDER | Debating in a vacuum by JOSHUA GLENN | Klingon diplomacy by KELLY JEAN FITZSIMMONS | “We… the PEOPLE” by TRAV S.D. | Brinksmanship on the brink by MATTHEW BATTLES | Captain Smirk by ANNIE NOCENTI | Sisko meets Kirk by IAN W. HILL | Noninterference policy by GABBY NICASIO | Kirk’s countdown by PETER BEBERGAL | Kirk’s ghost by MATT GLASER | Watching Kirk vs. Gorn by JOE ALTERIO | How Spock wins by ANNALEE NEWITZ
SCIENCE FICTION 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 | Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, serialized | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail, serialized | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, serialized | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, serialized | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized | 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 | Radium Age Science Fiction Poetry | Enter Highbrowism | Bathybius! Primordial ooze in Radium Age sf | War and Peace Games (H.G. Wells’s training manuals for supermen) | J.D. Beresford | Algernon Blackwood | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Karel Čapek | Buster Crabbe | August Derleth | Arthur Conan Doyle | Charlotte Perkins Gilman | Cicely Hamilton | Hermann Hesse | William Hope Hodgson | Aldous Huxley | Inez Haynes Irwin | Alfred Jarry | Jack Kirby (Radium Age sf’s influence on) | Murray Leinster | Gustave Le Rouge | Gaston Leroux | David Lindsay | Jack London | H.P. Lovecraft | A. Merritt | Maureen O’Sullivan | Sax Rohmer | Paul Scheerbart | Upton Sinclair | Clark Ashton Smith | E.E. “Doc” Smith | Olaf Stapledon | John Taine | H.G. Wells | Jack Williamson | Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz | S. Fowler Wright | Philip Gordon Wylie | Yevgeny Zamyatin | AND LOTS MORE
CHECK OUT HILOBOOKS: In 2012-13, HiLobrow is serializing ten overlooked works of science fiction from the genre’s (1904-33) Radium Age; and HiLoBooks is publishing them in paperback! Here are the first six titles: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (in May, Introduction by Matthew Battles; PURCHASE NOW), Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail and “As Easy as A.B.C.” (in June, Introduction by Matthew De Abaitua and Afterword by Bruce Sterling; PURCHASE NOW), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt (in August, Introduction by Joshua Glenn and Afterword by Gordon Dahlquist; PURCHASE NOW), H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook (in October, Introduction by James Parker; PURCHASE NOW), Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (in November, Introduction by Tom Hodgkinson; PURCHASE NOW), and William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land (in April 2013, Afterword by Erik Davis; PURCHASE NOW).