Kirk Your Enthusiasm (25)

By: Annalee Newitz
August 31, 2012

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

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How Spock wins | Star Trek | 2009

About halfway through the 2009 Star Trek movie, Kirk and Spock have a fight. We as the audience already know that Spock is capable of emotion — we’ve seen him making out with Uhura — but this is the first time anybody on the bridge has seen it. Kirk is an unambiguous douchebag. He lashes out with the futuristic equivalent of racist name-calling, sneering at Spock’s Vulcan habit of repressing emotion, insulting him for not feeling “the need to avenge the death of the woman who gave birth to you.” When Spock deflects this anti-Vulcan smear, Kirk continues: “You feel nothing! You never loved her!”

Apparently this is too much. In response, Spock nearly kills Kirk, punching him down onto a control panel, seizing his throat with the hand we know can deal the Vulcan death grip. The screen is flooded with light; JJ Abrams’ now-infamous lens flare effects strobe white, blinding us, turning Spock into someone we can barely see, but whose true character has emerged crisply for the first time.

Spock is only brought back from his murderous rage by the shocked voice of his father. Ashamed, Spock pulls away from Kirk, whose chest-heaving response has already made this snippet of the film a favorite among fans. On YouTube, their fight has been recut as a love scene, a sex scene, and a romantic music video.

But Spock is not in love. He is repulsed — by himself, and by Kirk. He turns to McCoy and says, “Doctor I am no longer fit for duty. I relinquish my command based on the fact that I have been emotionally compromised.” Perhaps we are supposed to believe that Kirk has won. He psyched out Spock! He’s gotten control of the ship by exposing Spock’s weakness!

I think there is an oppositional way to read this scene. In this glowing space of strangulation and “emotional compromise” we find a new interpretation of Kirk and Spock. Unlike the brave, righteous Kirks of the original television series and the movies, this new Kirk is manipulative and morally vacant. He’s a bigot — or he’s pretending to be one to get a rise out of Spock. Either way, he is no hero. And the emotion he suggests that Spock should be feeling — a lust for
revenge — is what we later discover motivates the movie’s Big Bad, the angry Romulan Nero.

When Spock at last becomes the man Kirk wants him to be, full of rage, he declares himself no longer fit for duty. Spock is the only person on the bridge who seems to realize that good leadership is about rationality, not power games and emotional outbursts. This makes him a true leader. And indeed, his story arc in this film is far richer and more heroic than Kirk’s. In this version of the Star Trek universe, Spock has eclipsed Kirk. By relinquishing his captaincy, he shows us who the captain really is.

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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. We want so much Spock we got two of him in this movie, while Kirk’s guiding older self was sent offscreen, and the one we saw was truly a man trapped in a future he never made (our present and the movie’s) — where his impulsiveness and swagger are not valued and hard to see beyond. Kirk, like, say, James Bond (though I *still* don’t go to Bond’s movies) needs to be redefined and re-explained to survive in this new moral environment, and he’s got a long odyssey to get from the essence of his bad impulses to the epitome of who he should be. Shifted more or less back where the universe wanted him at the end, we can believe he grew into his role, while for real-life 21st century viewers he must climb through the Stations of the Kirk and stop at every petulant, frat-boy, tinplated-dictator, convincing-Nazi stage we always suspected about him. We also always realized that Spock knows better, and he has our sympathy and, in this film, his own help. A closed timespace loop of considered wisdom and ethical fitness and outsider insight and just leadership. Kirk, though larger than life, was always only human, something which I was as frustrated with as anyone when I looked up to Spock (and even preferred cynical, self-sustained McCoy) while I too was growing up with TOS. Spock wins, but Kirk is the one who has to try.

  2. My impression was that they were very young, and not yet in control of all their impulses, urges – and principles, including the ones that, deployed at maturity, would *make them into who they became. Spock’s rational agency (and that of Vulcans in general) evolved, in the Star Trek universe, in part to manage huge, overwhelming emotions that threatened to swamp the ego fully (cf pon faar). Kirk’s needling here is only a matter of degree – as he gains experience, he knows (or intuits) better when to push it and when to hold back, a complex process that encompasses both rationality and compassion, as well as less tame or savory elements, but is not reducible to its component parts. Crucially here, Spock’s more objective assessment comes after he has almost gone all the way and killed Kirk. Spock is worried, and rightly so, that he can’t be trusted to rein it in when it comes to the crunch. Not that Kirk is blameless here as you point out, but at best, I’d call it a draw.

  3. True Peggy, I think Spock is more the power behind the throne, and his highest wisdom is in staying behind — the Merlin to Kirk’s impetuous but potentially inspired Arthur.

  4. On the other hand, in doing whatever it takes to preserve the ship and its crew, Kirk just might be embodying the ethos that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few (the latter needs including his own image and self-respect). It would be interesting to find out what the older Spock would think of Kirk’s tactic were he to be informed of it; my guess is that he’d pronounce it both logical and fascinating.

  5. Well of course I reject this premise, this conclusion, but this struggle (Spock or Kirk?) is as old as TOS, and has always also been waged in parallel, in varying degrees of shooting intensity throughout all these years, behind the scenes, between Nimoy and Shatner.

    If this, in 2009, is the “first time” Spock has been so easily manipulated (at least in JJ Abrams’ altered chronology), it “had been” a minor, recurring theme — Spock forced to act out against his will to remain logical– throughout TOS.

    But douchebag? I think not. Brash and un-self-mastered, to be sure, but was Kirk not tasked by the evolved Spock Prime himself, to set young Spock off in this way? If Kirk needed to be a douchebag to do it, that is a sacrifice he chose, more easily then than it would be later, when they had come to know and respect each other. But Kirk suffered this willing debasement of himself, to serve the greater good — he must be that douchebag to preserve the greater Spock Prime.

    If you think about the ways in which Abrams’ Kirk and Spock are embryonic forms of their “latter” (TOS) selves, Kirk, though lacking Spock’s easy dramatic hook of his logic-bound alienness, is the more fully realized character (reconcilable within all of Star Trek’s iterations). He is, at this juncture, still the corn-fed rebel against conformity and defier of expectations, without having yet earned those rights, or in possession of the wisdom to see how his angular relationship to orthodoxy and accepted code, might provide some unique insight.

    And what, or more accurately, who, is the bridge from young Kirk to the ultimate Kirk? Spock, of course, but not his contemporary young Spock, but the older, evolved Spock Prime, a being of such gravitas that his disorienting fealty to such a scattered self as the young Kirk, must be the bonding agent in Kirk’s acceptance and embrace of the fate which Captain Pike had foreseen for him, but had been unable to inspire into being. And what was the reason that Spock Prime set this in motion, other than to sustain himself as he had become? Because all of his acquired wisdom and his experience tells him that his highest calling, his fulfillment, is to serve with and under Kirk, who is and has always been, his friend. Does it need pointing out that, prior to the douchebag’s slapping cold water in young Spock’s face, that Spock’s rationality did not alert him to the dangers of warping directly to Vulcan in response to the distress call, which would have led to the destruction of the ship? It is the impulsive half-formed Kirk, having divined the threat, who barged and bluffed his way onto the bridge to warn his superiors. It’s a testament to Abrams’ artful handling of the material that he doesn’t then slow things down to make a big deal of Kirk’s having saved the Enterprise (and the lives of its crew) despite his status as a virtual stow-away who had been on the verge of being drummed out of the Academy for cheating. In this sense, young Kirk had already answered Pike’s challenge that he live up to his late father’s legacy. Whereas it took George Kirk a full 12 minutes as Captain before he could save the lives of his crew, young James t. Kirk does so (and without losing the ship) before he is even considered for the Captaincy. The moment draws the depths from the man, even if it takes him and everyone else awhile or a few reels longer to realize it. If Spock wins, it is because he recognizes and embraces his proper station in life, as subordinate and supporter and friend to Kirk.

    Abrams’ decision to push the Uhura-Spock relationship is perhaps his biggest gamble, as it does not neatly fit with TOS, or arguably, even with the character otherwise portrayed as young Spock. Was it Spock’s rationality, that allowed him to so casually override Uhura’s assignment to a different ship, so that she would be with him on the Enterprise? That is not something it’s possible to imagine the Spock of TOS doing. But the Uhura-Spock storyline is nonetheless irresistible and fraught with possibility. It does beg the question, what happened to Nurse Chapel and where, in this series, was “Plato’s Stepchildren”?

  6. I agree with Esoth, young-Spock’s exit could just as much be a feint to allow and prompt young-Kirk to enlarge into the moment as Kirk’s provocation is a feint to get young-Spock out of the way. And I agree with Steve, Spock is a right-angle straight line looking for a tangent, and that divergence, in all continuums and evermore, is Jim.

  7. P.S. Esoth, “Plato’s” was the one that got away, with a contributor who would’ve picked it but whom I couldn’t coax with my shortfall of Kirk-like chess skill…maybe HiLo can do a bonus-round like the Kirbyashi Maru extra I first got into this site on, and you can write that ep up yourself…not to put any of the actual decision-makers on the spot, since seizing command is clearly not my specialty…

  8. Re Annalee’s “douchebag” comment — she is, of course, referring to how Kirk was acting in that scene, and he was definitely acting like a douchebag. She doesn’t argue that he really is one.

  9. “Because all of his acquired wisdom and his experience tells him that his highest calling, his fulfillment, is to serve with and under Kirk, who is and has always been, his friend”; “If Spock wins, it is because he recognizes and embraces his proper station in life, as subordinate and supporter and friend to Kirk.” —

    Exactly. When I saw the film again recently, I realized that the most poignant line in the Kirk/Spock Prime meeting sequence isn’t the familiar quote about their eternal friendship; it’s Spock Prime’s line upon learning that this Kirk has somehow not risen to his familiar station: “You are not the captain?” At first hear, he seems to merely be surprised that he’s encountering a visitor from another timeline — yet that can’t be the case, since Spock has been exposed to such scenarios many times that we know of, and his eminently logical mind would therefore be attuned to the possibility almost constantly. So maybe he’s just speaking as an objective admirer of Kirk, commenting on how odd it would be for Jim to not be in command? Partially, but that’s only half of Spock. Most significantly, he’s thinking of HIMSELF, his human half registering disappointment and disassociation at the thought of a Jim Kirk being anything other than his friend and superior — his mentor, in some very important sense. It is thus established that his relationship with Kirk as friend and commander is the single most important one of Spock’s long life; Kirk is, to use the parlance of LOST, Spock’s constant.

  10. Carbon Based Unit Designate ‘Annalee’ .

    Annaleesys Complete.

    Irregular Thought-Patterns. Disrupting Core Programming.

    Theodical Disjunctive….Iconoclastic Dispersion Field…

    Tantalus! Tantalus! Vaal Does Not Permit! We Reach!

    System Overload…..

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  12. Thank-you all.

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    Goodnight Captain.

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  14. Kirk’s treatment of Spock in this scene is a cruel-to-be-kind thing. He’s like the old lady who hits the monk with a frying pan in one of those zen parables. Spock isn’t living up to his own potential, he’s too hung up, so Kirk has to enlighten him using shock tactics. Maybe.

  15. The transfer of command from Spock to Kirk was ‘reprised’ in “Wrath of Khan”, where the kicked-upstairs-to-Admiral-Kirk accepts Spock’s gracious offer that he assume the Captain’ Chair. Spock, by then, is more fully Vulcan than Abrams’ hot-blooded young Spock, as he hands off control of the Enterprise without ego and also acknowledges that the Captain’s Chair is where Kirk belongs, so much so that it had been a mistake for him to ascend to the Admiralty. But in terms of Spock, his willing subservience to Kirk, his foregoing of a command rightfully his own, reflects his choice and the tensions he faced when he elected to join the Federation in the first place, instead of pursuing his destiny on Vulcan along more traditional lines. In another instance of nice and deep backstory, where Spock’s decision to join the Federation was once scorned on Vulcan, his long service with Kirk is eventually respected and honored and he becomes a revered figure on his home world.

  16. Josh has it. Kirk uses this technique to de-spore a love-happy Spock in This Side of Paradise….although the algorithms are different it shows that occasional forays into Tactical Anti–Vulcanian Racism is an unsavoury, but unavoidable, gambit to be performed when lives are at risk.

  17. Steve, you’ve made me ponder that Kirk is Spock’s “human father” — the one (unlike Sarek) who’s capable of being pleased, and the model of informed impulse to which Spock turns, just like his human real-mother Amanda is the one whom he eventually comes to realize it’s best to heed on matters of the kindness and consideration that after all underlie the Vulcan edict of harmlessness. And Esoth, that creed is indeed best served, in Spock’s case, by joining the Federation — submerging his ego to both the human value-system and Kirk’s emotional method, thereby being in a position to help many worlds and timelines, and thus foregoing his culture’s intuition to obey his own, ultimately wise, heart.

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