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Posts Tagged ‘The Autobiography of James T Kirk’

People used to talk about the idea that there were ‘Batman decades’ and ‘Superman decades’, the suggestion being that when everything was going well, people felt guilty and thus became more interested in a darker hero – and when the economy was in trouble and folk felt in need of saving, they focused on a lighter-hued character. Or possibly it’s just a coincidence that Superman was riding high in the 50s and 70s and Batman was much more prominent in the 60s and 80s.

Anyway, it occurs to me that in a similar way, Star Wars and Star Trek have never quite been at the peak of their prominence and success at the same time. And perhaps that’s not surprising, as there’s always been a little frisson between these two, a little bit of not-really-friendly rivalry, and at the moment there’s not much doubt as to which is in the ascendancy. Star Trek may have inspired Star Wars (at least, if you believe Gary Kurtz), but it’s Star Wars that dominates the pop-culture landscape. Star Trek may have inspired a language, but – if you believe the UK census – Star Wars has created its own religion.

Nevertheless, I think you dismiss Trek at your peril, for all that it is currently the sleeping colossus of the SF genre. I know I may be letting my antipathy towards the Abrams-fronted movies colour my judgement (I know, a pattern develops), but given the total ubiquity of Trek twenty years ago – at one point the BBC were showing different versions of it four nights a week – its fall from prominence is little short of startling.

Well, it’s Trek‘s 50th anniversary this year (I have a piece in a celebratory book coming out, apparently), and there will be a new TV show of some description next year, so maybe the fightback is underway. Doing its bit to keep the flame alive is David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of James T Kirk, a book I suppose I would have to describe as cute rather than anything else.

autokirk

The conceit of the book is pretty much what you’d expect: that, between the conclusion of Star Trek VI and the events of Generations, Captain Kirk sat down and wrote his life story, with the assistance of Goodman, who supposedly helped him with the editing. You probably know already whether this book is going to be for you or not, and if your natural inclination is to run a mile then I am not going to try to dissuade you.

But if you find yourself undecided – well, what can I say? As you might expect, Captain Kirk’s prose style is direct and not especially sophisticated, and he sets about his story in a similar no-frills style. As I have suggested, this book is probably going to get most of its sales from people who are already pretty well-versed in Trek, and so the book finds itself in an odd position – it has to stick pretty closely to the ‘established’ events of Kirk’s life, as depicted in the TV show and movies, but if it’s just going to rehash that back story, why bother at all?

Well, there are a few elements to the story with which I was not previously familiar, such as Kirk’s role in saving the Tellarite ambassador from a shuttle crash as a boy and the fact his first command was named the Hotspur – and indeed both of these revelations seem to be original to this book. But beyond this, I have to admit to being highly impressed with the sheer diligence with which Goodman has gone through the original series and sifted out every clue as to Kirk’s early history. Most of these come from the earlier, Kirk-centric episodes, and Goodman deftly slots the puzzle pieces together in a very logical and satisfying manner – the one time I thought he’d departed from the ‘established fact’ of the TV series, a quick check of the DVD proved it was my own assumptions and memories which were in error, rather than his writing.

There is inevitably a bit of a shift in style once Kirk reaches the centre seat of the Enterprise – the previous, reasonably fluid style becomes rather more choppy, as we are treated to selected highlights of scenes from key episodes. Many of them get overlooked completely, including some of the most famous ones (apparently those tribbles didn’t make much of an impression on Captain Kirk). Once the original series is out of the way, the style shifts again, and so it continues as the book negotiates its way between the on-screen events of the movies and Goodman’s attempts at filling in the gaps.

Consistency of a sort, along with some sort of emotional subtext,┬ácomes from Goodman’s suggestion that Kirk is ultimately a lonely man, unable to put any relationship ahead of his career, at times almost consumed with guilt over the failure of his relationships with his son and the boy’s mother. If that sounds just a bit heavy and melodramatic – this is Captain Kirk we’re talking about, after all – it’s not as if Goodman doesn’t let his tongue wander into his cheek sometimes.

There are a few very wry deadpan comments sprinkled through the book – ‘the Romulan commander could have been Spock’s father’, Kirk informs us, the gag of course being that the same actor played both characters – and Goodman isn’t afraid to do some fanboy editorialising here and there. The plot of The Enterprise Incident is, according to Kirk himself, ‘ridiculous’, and none of the other third season episodes even warrants a mention, not even the one where an amnesiac Kirk gets married. There’s no suggestion that the events of the animated series ever took place, which I would imagine might upset some people.

Most startling of all is the ‘revelation’ that Star Trek V never took place. Kirk explains that the film is actually a piece of Star Trek fan fiction made by a half-human illegitimate son of Kirk named Eugenio (= Gene, as in Roddenberry). It’s a startlingly bold and bizarre retcon, and one wonders just how on board with it Paramount are. Then again, do they really care about the original chronology any more? If nothing else, it would be interesting to know what William Shatner makes of having his directorial magnum opus written out of history – it would be a shame if this put the mockers on his doing the audiobook version of this (come on, it’s such an obviously brilliant idea…).

This is a fun read, though obviously fairly lightweight – one of the dictums of good fiction is that you should only show your audience the interesting stuff that happens to your characters, which means that most of the new linking material from Kirk’s life presented here is actually a little bit dull, and Goodman doesn’t bother going into real detail about the more exciting events we’ve already seen on screen. Does the book make Captain Kirk come to life as a believeable, three-dimensional human being? I’m not sure it does, but then I’m not sure we want him to. He’s such a brilliant creation, and an iconic fictional character, but a lot of that comes from Shatner’s performance rather than any particular subtlety in the writing. If you really want to learn what makes Kirk so special, go and watch the first two seasons of the TV show and Star Trek II; this book will be waiting for you when you’ve finished. It’s best treated as a tribute to the makers of the series, particularly William Shatner, than anything of real substance in its own right.

 

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