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May 12, 2009

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The Enterprise As A Start-Up

This is a post about the new Star Trek movie that contains no spoilers.


Here’s my rule about movie and television spoilers. If you’re giving information that’s already given in a preview, then you’re spoiling nothing that hasn’t been spoiled already. Likewise, if you’re giving information that can be reasonably inferred, no spoiling has occurred.

If you’re not willing to entertain either of these possibilities, if you scrupulously avoid movie trailers or cast lists, and you still haven’t seen this movie, then not only are you a weirdo, you also stopped reading this post long ago.

So, you will be shocked, shocked to learn that at one point in the new Star Trek movie, just as you’ve seen in the trailer, James T. Kirk sits in the captain’s chair, and that by the end of the movie, most of the characters that we associate with the Enterprise’s crew are working together on the Enterprise.

Okay? Good.

So here’s Henry Jenkins’s thoughtful post, “Five Ways to Start a Conversation About the New Star Trek Film,” which DOES contain more detailed spoilers. My excerpt, however, does not:

In the past, we were allowed to admire Kirk for being the youngest Star Fleet captain in Federation history because there was some belief that he had managed to actually earn that rank… It’s hard to imagine any military system on our planet which would promote someone to a command rank in the way depicted in the film. In doing so, it detracts from Kirk’s accomplishments rather than making him seem more heroic. This is further compromised by the fact that we are also promoting all of his friends and letting them go around the universe on a ship together.

We could have imagined a series of several films which showed Kirk and his classmates moving up through the ranks, much as the story might be told by Patrick O’Brien or in the Hornblower series. We could see him learn through mentors, we could seem the partnerships form over time, we could watch the characters grow into themselves, make rookie mistakes, learn how to do the things we see in the older series, and so forth. In comics, we’d call this a Year One story and it’s well trod space in the superhero genre at this point.

But there’s an impatience here to give these characters everything we want for them without delays, without having to work for it. It’s this sense of entitlement which makes this new Kirk as obnoxious as the William Shatner version. What it does do, however, is create a much flatter model for the command of the ship. If there is no age and experience difference between the various crew members, if Kirk is captain because Spock had a really bad day, then the characters are much closer to being equals than on the old version of the series.

This may be closer to our contemporary understanding of how good organizations work — let’s think of it as the Enterprise as a start-up company where a bunch of old college buddies decide they can pool their skills and work together to achieve their mutual dreams. This is not the model of how command worked in other Star Trek series, of course, and it certainly isn’t the way military organizations work, but it is very much what I see as some of my students graduate and start to figure out their point of entry into the creative industries.

The Enterprise as a start-up! It reminds me of that story about the guys who started Silicon Valley’s Fairchild Semiconductor.

Let me add that I think Jenkins is wrong about the way promotion is presented in the film — Star Fleet actually appears to be remarkably meritocratic, much more deferential to performance and aptitude tests than years served. Captain Pike tells Kirk that he could command his own starship (the second highest rank) in four years after leaving the academy. Chekhov is a starship navigator (and not, like Kirk or Uhura, a cadet) at only seventeen years old; Spock is a commander and academy instructor without there being a sense of a considerable age/experience gap between he and Kirk or Uhura. (He’s introduced as “one of our most distinguished graduates,” like he’s a really good TA.)

But it’s not academia; it’s the NBA. You give these kids the ball.

The important point is that within this highly meritocratic structure, the crew members of the Enterprise are PARTICULARLY and precociously talented. Kirk is the fastest to rise to captain where fast rises are not uncommon. As I said to my friends after seeing the movie, it gets bonus points for emphasizing just how SMART these people are; Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekhov (among others) are explicitly presented as geniuses.

Okay, now I’ve probably actually included spoilers in this thing. So. What. Go see the movie already. Then read the rest of Jenkins’s post. You’ll enjoy them both.

(H/t: the awesome Amanda Phillips.)

Posted May 12, 2009 at 12:10 | Comments (6) | Permasnark
File under: Learnin', Movies


In traditional ST history, I believe Kirk went back to the Academy and TA'd for a while before getting on the Enterprise as well.

Looks like the Academy likes keeping talented Grads around, no matter what the timeline.

Hey Ensign, you haven't quite finished your four years at Annapolis...but here, take command of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, experience not required...

Meritocracy, my a$$.

Posted by: realist on May 14, 2009 at 04:38 PM

I guess I have two points to add:

1) It *is* obvious that Star Fleet isn't a slow-promoting bureaucratic structure like our military. It has very strict rules about the chain of command, but very loose rules about who and how people get promoted. For one thing, a ship's captain appears to have total discretion over who serves on his/her ship and how they do so. In fact, if officers don't carry the superior weight of experience, that's all the MORE reason to have explicit rules about following orders.

I don't think this is inconsistent with what we saw in the series and movies. Kirk says at several times that flying around through space is "a young man's game." Think about Captain Decker in STI: he's a baby! He seems to have received the commission -- instead of say, everybody on the Enterprise -- solely at Kirk's recommendation. And Decker takes Kirk's assertion of both his rank and experience as a BS excuse to get his hands on the ship again. Sure, Sulu took a while to become captain of his own starship, but he was awfully busy with springing McCoy, travelling back in time, etc. Nobody really wants to leave the Enterprise. Sulu left when he was ready.

2) If the enterprise is like a start-up, then the meritocratic measures are more like our SAT scores and less like a resumé. Whatever metrics the future earth and Star Fleet have developed, they're supremely confident in them.

So it seems that Americas brightest commentators and academicians are spending their time snarking about Kirk , Spock & crew. No wonder we blinked & let the frat boys plunder the economy! Our meritocracy seems preoccupied, perhaps a subversive plot? Was the liberal media in on it as well? Who knows. All I know is that my Kirk & Spock era flip phone is obsolete and my iPhone is just a tiny precursor to the data touch pads used by Capt. Janeway & Seven of 9. When I'm done here I'm returning to my DIY patchup tri-corder project that I'm building out of the iPhone, a 4-track app. and some Alesis stereo mics.

I agree with Tim -- just look at the VOY premier. Janeway is seen pulling her crew together, including a convict! So once you've got a ship, it's pretty much yours to do with what you please, within reason.

I don't think, "realist," that they view the Enterprise as anything akin to the USS Nimitz. I think the metaphor of the startup is very, very astute - these kids put themselves through school, and StarFleet basically grants them a loan(er) to explore the galaxy.

Remember: StarFleet is supposed to be one of the primary careers in this future, so there's a LOT of people to go around, and resources are basically unlimited with planets to mine. Not that human life is valued any less than it is now, but I think there's a much more cavalier and optimistic attitude toward the galaxy, as seen in past Trek, and in this one.

Yeah, the quote that comes back to me again and again is Kirk's quip at the beginning of Wrath of Khan: (paraphrase) "running around the galaxy is a young man's game." When Star Fleet officers get older, they typically get promoted and become diplomats, educators, strategists. There are a few older captains of starships, but besides Sulu in STVI, they're usually like Pike in the new movie or Spock in Wrath of Khan -- they're leading ships packed with cadets on teaching missions. But cadets can become regular officers given important duties at a very young age -- Chekhov is seventeen, for cryin' out loud.

This does nothing to refute the fact that (in the LOST parlance) Kirk is special, and as we're reminded again and again, he's PARTICULARLY suited to (and even trained to be) the captain of a starship. To reiterate, even in this world where fast rises are not uncommon, Kirk's ascendancy to captain is particularly fast.

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