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  1. Introduction: What a lousy party!
  2. “You're a womanizer, baby”
  3. “But the James Bond '60s were the most sexist time of alll!!!”
  4. Beyond the Broads: James “Totally Reckless” Kirk and the Very Exciting Prairie Lights Poetry Readings He Still Attends When He Goes Back to Riverside, Iowa to Visit His Mom
  5. The Unicorn-Dog and the WASP.: The Uneasy Place of Jewish Masculinity in Popular Memory
  6. The Reboot of the Remake of the Sequel
  7. Conclusion: Memory Sanctions
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Endnotes

1. What a lousy party! [contents]

Good parties diverge widely; all bad parties are bad in the same way. I am trapped at a dull dinner following a dull talk: part of a series of dinners and talks that grad students organise, unpaid (though at considerable expense to themselves—experience! exposure!), to provide free content for the dull grad program I will soon leave. The Thai food is good. The man sitting across from me and a little down the way, a bellicose bore of vague continental origin, is execrable. He is somehow attached to a mild woman who is actually supposed to be here: a shy, seemingly blameless new grad student who perpetually smiles apologetically on his behalf, in an attempt to excuse whatever he’s just said. One immediately understands that she spends half her life with that worry in her eyes, that Joker-set to her mouth, and that general air of begging your pardon for offences she hadn’t even had the pleasure of committing. There is always such a woman at bad parties. She has always either found herself entrapped by a clone of this man, or soon will.

We reach the point of no return when the omnijerk (really I suspect there’s just one vast eldritch horror sitting in another dimension that extrudes its thousand tentacles into our own, and that each one of This Guy is merely an insignificant manifestation of the beast: they couldn’t all be so boring in precisely the same way by chance, surely) decides to voice some Dinner Party Opinions on original-series Star Trek. God knows why. It’s not five seconds before he’s on ‘Kirk and the green women’. He’s mocking the retrosexist trope, but smiling a little weirdly while doing it. His own insufficiently private enjoyment is peeking out, like a semi-erection on his face. A sort of Mad Men effect: saying, “isn’t it awful” and going for the low-hanging critical fruit while simultaneously rolling around in that aesthetic and idea of masculinity. Camp, but no homo!

“You’re thinking of Pike,” I say. “The captain in the unaired pilot. Some of that footage got reused for a later story, which made Pike into a previous captain of the Enterprise. And it never actually happened—it was a hallucination sequence designed by aliens who didn’t know what they were doing in order to tempt Pike. He rejected it.”

Bah Hamburg makes some attempt to hedge, but when I stick to the story and won’t give him a right-anyway ribbon he gets annoyed. He goes for a predictable, mocking “gosh I see you really know a lot about this,” as if he hadn’t been the one Holding Forth a moment ago.

It would be embarrassing for anyone, I suppose, to possess specific information about a throwaway piece of cheap television. Not to talk about this subject (after all, he felt very comfortable bringing it up himself) but to know what you’re talking about: to hold to facts. One may condescend to be amused by such things in an ironic way, and to declaim authoritatively on them, but not to actually pay attention to them. I ought to have agreed, and let him be right. There is an argument to be made that that’s just how conversations go. (How often, though, is such harmony established by the concessions of women, and should conversations held on those terms “go” at all?)

The thing is, he isn’t right. I do care about the subject, actually, and the strain in his girlfriend’s expression (coupled with the complete lack of tension in his own) suggests he’s been indulged thus more than is good for him, or for the rest of us.

His was a common enough error, and he can claim neither the credit nor the blame for the invention. The pop culture idea of Kirk, Captain of the Enterprise for the first Star Trek series (ST:TOS) and the original run of films, has become almost synonymous with Zapp Brannigan from Futurama. To quote Wikipedia,

[t]hough famed for his bravery and strategic genius, it soon becomes very apparent that [Brannigan] is sexist, vain, and often very cowardly and inept. […] Brannigan is also completely indifferent to military casualties. […] He is arrogant, completely incompetent, chauvinistic, and stupid.

Brannigan is supposed to be part comic exaggeration of the “real” Kirk, part reflective take-down of the source character [1] . Per wiki, in some ways the ultimate aggregator of the vox populi, “Kirk has been noted for ‘his sexual exploits with gorgeous females of every size, shape and type’ [11]; he has been called ‘promiscuous’ [66] and labeled a ‘womanizer’ [67] [68].” (Note all those still-working footnotes for fan-publications and major papers and entertainment news sites.) The article “Captain Kirk’s 8 Most Impressive Love Conquests” gives us such bon mots as these:

For three glorious seasons, Star Trek‘s Captain James T. Kirk boldly seduced and explored women no Earth-man had been with before. Well, okay, some of them were from Earth, but Starfleet’s greatest discovery was that no women anywhere in the cosmos could resist the intense gaze and oft-exposed, tanned pecs of the Enterprise’s head honcho. Who can blame them, really? Of the many, many seduction [sic] committed by James T. Kirk, here are the 8 most impressive (not most exotic, which would totally include the green Orion Slave Girl, but this doesn’t, because Kirk had no problems getting under her Orion’s belt), which deserve to be recorded in the Captain’s Log for all eternity.

The extent to which even critical people believe that Kirk proper was at least brash is evident in Strange Horizons’s own “Nimoy and Spock: Reflections and Farewells.” I cite this example not to drag anyone, but rather to point out the pervasiveness of this conception among people whose critical faculties and interest in the text I take more seriously than I do those of Thewurstboyfriend.

Serious, logical, balanced—[Spock] was the perfect counterpoint to the rash, bold Captain Kirk.

Whatever gave you the idea that Kirk was rash?

There is no other way to put this: essentially everything about Popular Consciousness Kirk is bullshit. Kirk, as received through mass culture memory and reflected in its productive imaginary (and subsequent franchise output, including the reboot movies), has little or no basis in Shatner’s performance and the television show as aired. Macho, brash Kirk is a mass hallucination.

I’m going to walk through this because it’s important for ST:TOS’s reception, but more importantly because I believe people often rewatch the text or even watch it afresh and cannot see what they are watching through the haze of bullshit that is the received idea of what they’re seeing. You “know” Star Trek before you ever see Star Trek: a ‘naive’ encounter with such a culturally cathected text is almost impossible, and even if you manage it you probably also have strong ideas about that period of history, era of SF, style of television, etc to contend with. The text is always already interpolated by forces which would derange a genuine reading, dragging such an effort into an ideological cul de sac which neither the text itself nor the viewer necessarily have any vested interest in. These forces work on the memory, extracting unpaid labour without consent. They interpose themselves between the viewer and the material, and they hardly stop at Star Trek.

I’m not talking basic Marxist conceptions of ideology here. By that I mean the contention that texts have subtextual, unquestioned allegiances to various forms of establishment power, and that by what they choose to focus on and what they choose to ignore (and what they thus render neutral and normal), texts convey propaganda for these hierarchical power structures to their audiences. I’m thinking instead of a related or subsidiary but distinct vast, collective, motivated process of misremembering, which I’m going to refer to as “Kirk Drift” in honor of this signal victim.

2. “You're a womanizer, baby [contents]

Let’s start, as people so often do, with those infamous Green Women.

Yes: one existed in ST:TOS. Sort of. It was a vision. On a planet Kirk wasn’t even on. A captain was there: it wasn’t Kirk. Captain Pike and this green, Orion woman [2] could literally never have done the deed [3].

(ADDENDUM: I should also mention here the first and only actual Orion woman we see in TOS, Marta: an inmate of an asylum who attempts to seduce a suspicious, wounded Kirk, who is himself interested in escaping dangerous captivity. She then immediately tries to murder him. Ah, l'amour.)

Over the course of three seasons and six films (though I hesitate to mention the films in the same breath as the series, because even the initial run of films represents a significant, reflexive re-working of the original material), we do meet some women Kirk has had romantic relations with. These previous relationships mostly seem of a type.

  • Ruth (“Shore Leave”) was a college girlfriend of Kirk’s while he was at Starfleet Academy. The script implies she was also in Starfleet. We see only a facsimile of her.
  • Dr. Janet Wallace (“The Deadly Years”) was a biologist, and she and Kirk broke up in favour of their respective careers.
  • Janice Lester (“Turnabout Intruder”) was a Starfleet-trained scientist. Their relationship lasted at least a year, and was strained and broken by Janice’s violent resentment of Kirk’s ability to benefit from institutional sexism (check the tapes, I’m not exaggerating, that’s what she says).
  • Areel Shaw (“Court Martial”) was a dedicated JAG attorney.
  • Carol Marcus (The Wrath of Khan), retconned into the history of Kirk’s life by the films, was a brilliant, ground-breaking scientist. In one draft of the script, this character literally was the aforementioned Janet Wallace [4]

At some point during his time at the Academy, Kirk “almost married” a blonde lab technician (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”). It seems probable that she was one of the aforementioned women (all of whom but Lester were blonde, though dye exists, and all of whom but Shaw were scientists, though majors can change—I know an attorney with a biology degree myself).

With the exception of Lester, all Kirk’s relationships that we’re aware of seem to have ended amicably. He and the women involved have often kept up communication to some extent, despite the impediments caused by interstellar travel (Wallace, Marcus). The relationships all seem to have been of some duration, and characterised by fairly serious involvement on both parts. They were distinctly emotional affairs, and no one accuses Kirk of having “womanised” during them. They all involved competent people drawn to demanding, intellectually stimulating fields—usually science—and the service of something greater than themselves—almost universally Starfleet.

Kirk’s storied history of womanising seemingly consists of his having seriously dated a fairly small number of clever women in Uni. We’re even told Kirk had to be manipulated into paying attention to matters of the heart and/or loins during that period (and that Kirk’s into “longhair stuff” like 17th-century philosophy):

MITCHELL: Well, I'm getting a chance to read some of that longhair stuff you like. Hey man, I remember you back at the academy. A stack of books with legs. The first thing I ever heard from upperclassmen was “watch out for Lieutenant Kirk. In his class, you either think or sink.”

KIRK: I wasn't that bad, was I?

MITCHELL: If I hadn't aimed that little blonde lab technician at you—

KIRK: You what? You planned that?

MITCHELL: Well, you wanted me to think, didn't you? I outlined her whole campaign for her.

KIRK: I almost married her!

MITCHELL: You better be good to me. I'm getting even better ideas here. [indicates book]

KIRK: You? Spinoza?

["Where No Man Has Gone Before"]

Obviously Kirk’s clear serial monogamy habit doesn’t preclude his indulging in wild shagfests (with a side of chauvinism—because that is what we mean when we characterise neutral promiscuity as “womanising,” is it not?). But neither does his relationship history readily suggest that Kirk’s “a womaniser.” In fact, I’d argue it would be less of a stretch to suggest that Kirk also had some boyfriends that fit this relationship description than it would be to suggest that he altered the whole well-established pattern of how he dated to moonlight as a Lothario (which, despite the fact that ST:TOS chooses to show no strongly convincing evidence of such behaviour, we should somehow believe happened? … because ??).

Perhaps that strikes you as an uncomfortable or under-substantiated jump. Real talk: the many and varied ways a heterosexist impulse separate from the show dominates its reception is frigging weird if you think about it. Popular journalism and various fanmade resources that would scoff heartily at the Kirk/Spock crowd are absolutely frothing to infer heterosexual relations and Don Juan characterisations based on evidence that is dubious at best. Sexual exploits! No woman can resist! Explored ‘em all! Jesus, smell the gagsome Flashman colonialism coming off that one. Minging.

Perhaps the most major difference between these interpretive camps is that the perpetrators of Womaniser Kirk see their (self-insertion fantasy?) activity as absolutely neutral and unembarrassing, and their interpretation as the indisputable and monolithic truth of the text, whereas slashers are made to feel their chagrin for the most hesitant claims of queer possibility (they don’t even go full Eve Sedgwick on this shit, when they obviously could). No matter how textually supported an extra-hetero interpretation is, it’s illegitimate and “crazy” (feel the gendered force of that hysteria accusation). Meanwhile, these male and female characters had eye contact so they’ve for sure fucked. I mean, he was a boy, she was a girl, could I make it aaaany more ooooobvious??

One perspective is thus rendered a claim, an argument, while the other, which makes ST:TOS into Don Giovanni and borders on a gleeful diagnosis of sex addiction, is just true. Culture conditions the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a given reading in ways that have a lot to do with the needs and prejudices of the moment, and only a limited amount to do with either the actual work done by the text or with its conditions of production. Look, for example, at the points made by “Shakespeare in the Bush,” or Nina Auerbach’s work on figurations of the vampire.

Even so, man-whore-Kirk is such a meme. Surely there must be more evidence than eye contact and serial monogamy!

As it turns out, it depends what you consider “evidence.” I draw from a chart: “Q: How many total females did Kirk have sex with?

(I suspect this document may be of Ferengi provenance: feeemalesssss!!)

Of TV show ones, 2 to 4 out of 4 confirmed ones were alien:

(Links mine, though Memory Alpha is also a fan-made interpretive document that “naturalises” its interpretive conclusions in a way I’d at times dispute with.)

Given its insistence on evaluating the actual material of the show and its efforts to distinguish between people Kirk possibly slept with and people he probably did, compared to many popular receptions this chart represents a restrained and bearish perspective. Nevertheless, I find even this comparatively decent write-up disturbing. Its hesitance to differentiate between “confirmed” and “implied” is disquieting from an analytic perspective, but what’s truly odd is how little attention it pays to consent.

In “Bread and Circuses” Kirk was a captive (and the sex is implied, not confirmed). This sex, if any, is also disconcerting and situational: I can’t easily call it a cheerful example of Kirk Getting Some. Kirk thinks he's being watched. There's the suggestion the slave girl Drusilla might be punished for not “satisfying” him (“I was concerned [you might not like the food]—I am ordered to please you.” / “By the way, one of the communicators we took from you is missing. Was it my pretty Drusilla by any chance? See if he has it. Not that I would have punished her. I would have blamed you.”), and that Kirk might have been trying to distract Drusilla to steal the communicator he needed to escape and save the ship and crew (too late: another character beat him to it).

It’s quick and deeply weird, and to be honest, this episode mostly sucks. There’s even a big after school special Christian message at the end:

UHURA: I'm afraid you have it all wrong, Mister Spock, all of you. I've been monitoring some of their old-style radio waves. The empire spokesman trying to ridicule their religion, but he couldn't. Don't you understand? It's not the sun up in the sky, it's the Son of God.

KIRK: Caesar and Christ. They had them both. And the word is spreading only now.

MCCOY: A philosophy of total love and total brotherhood.

I can’t take anything that happens in “Bread and Circuses” terribly seriously. Some “Patterns of Force” level stupid up in here.

In “Wink of an Eye” Kirk is again a captive attempting to manipulate his way out of a dire situation. In “Elaan of Troyius” I really don’t know that any sex occurred at all, and further Kirk was drugged? That is the whole plot? Of the episode? He was not only not actively pursuing a partner, he was also not in control of his faculties. Only extreme self-control and his sense of duty eventually enable Kirk to overcome biochemical influence.

In "The Paradise Syndrome" Kirk has lost all memory of who he is and has taken up a new life as a villager, marrying according to their social customs. Again, this is not Kirk consciously making a choice and “getting some play.” It’s a more coercive situation even than The Next Generation's (ST:TNG) “The Inner Light,” wherein Picard lives a whole life in a lost civilisation in a moment due to the influence of an alien artifact. At least Picard still knew who he was in that instance. [5]

A tumblr fan essay [6] puts it well:

Nearly every instance of Captain James T. Kirk seducing an alien woman was not because he’s some randy alien shagger extraordinaire, but because he needed to distract the enemy of the given episode in order to save the Enterprise. In the same way we wouldn’t say a woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon (flirting with the villains to distract them and ultimately defeat them) is just some intergalactic bed hopper, neither is Kirk.

What unnerves me is how effortlessly “Kirk and the green women” conflates “trying to get out of a situation” with “making a conquest!!” If your vision of masculinity cannot distinguish between choosing to have sex and situations of dubious consent incurred in the line of duty, it is deeply toxic. You are insisting that men are hypersexual, unemotional, and can never be taken advantage of (lest they cease to be strong, compelling men due to their ever having displayed vulnerability). You could say it’s potentially a bit dodgy that Kirk uses his sexuality in this way, but that’s the kind of “dodgy” we’re looking at, and the distinction matters. I’ve seen bloody “Catspaw” discussed as an episode where Kirk “puts the moves on a lady and gets lucky.” Here is some literal dialogue from “Catspaw”, spoken just after Kirk tries to seduce a woman to get his crew out of danger:

SYLVIA: You are using me! You hold me in your arms and there is no fire in your mind! You're trying to deceive me! It's here like words on a page! You are using me!

KIRK: And why not? You've been using me and my crew!

Kirk does have an occasional one-episode romance arc with a woman (Edith Keeler is the most notable entry in this category). There are a handful of such moments across three American-length seasons, which actually adds up to significantly less romancing than most contemporary television characters on equivalent programs are expected to get up to. J. D. from Scrubs has more flings. This list doesn’t even count the textual crushes (I hate this show; my girlfriend doesn’t). Seriously, board games I’m selling because I don’t like them enough see more play than Kirk. He’s just too into his work.

MCCOY: Spock, I've isolated the biochemical substance of the Elasian tears. It's a kind of an infection, and I think I've found an antidote.

SPOCK: You are too late, Doctor. The Captain has found his own antidote.

MCCOY: Are you out of your Vulcan mind? Do you know how long I've worked on—

SPOCK: The antidote to a woman of Elas, Doctor, is a starship. The Enterprise infected the Captain long before the Dohlman did.

KIRK: Mister Sulu, prepare to take us out of orbit.

MCCOY: Well, I doubt seriously if there's any kind of an antidote for the Enterprise.

SPOCK: In this particular instance, Doctor, I agree with you.

["Elaan of Troyius"]

I am far, far from the only person to note that the actual Kirk falls short of our hot-to-trot image of him. Here is an excellent list breaking down “womanising behaviour” by episode and deconstructing that myth: if anything, I think it’s too generous to the “skirt-chaser” perspective. Here’s a more narrative episode-by-episode discussion.

Why am I bothering to make this argument again, if Womanising Kirk has already been exposed as some nonsense? Because the facts have not yet displaced patently incorrect common knowledge, and because I think there are reasons why they haven’t. These misreadings are supported by a subterranean network of ideas about masculinity, pop culture, and the past that consistently reinforce them, hitting refresh on these dank memes. I don’t think all the connections have been made here, and all the implications unfolded.

I’m also trying to illustrate how different interpretations are held to very different standards of proof. Constructing an elaborate chauvinist narrative is normal and invisible as work, while other interpretive perspectives must, under ridicule, press against this “received truth.” Again and again we see female-dominated media fandoms’ interpretations dismissed as emotional and ideologically motivated. But what is all this vast effort to butch up Kirk but clear evidence of at least equally goal and emotion-driven work on the part of male-dominated sectors of fandom and popular reception? The amount of labour you have to put in to get from “Catspaw” to ‘Kirk scored!’, and from Kirk the character to Kirk the womaniser is considerable. What drives this casual or fannishly dedicated unseeing but male emotional need [7] to attack vulnerability, to uplift and venerate dominating strength, and to project their desires onto texts and from there, life? Male emotion is here, as in most spheres, parsed as neutral, rational, and just: “obvious.” Its emotional content ceases to visibly exist, because male desires are so naturalised as to seem the state of the world.

The heterosexism goggles, which derange content via chauvinist interpretive paradigms, become not just inaccurate but horrifying when we look at episodes like “The Gamesters of Triskelion.” How would you read the scene in “Gamesters” where Kirk, terrified (with some reason) Uhura will be sexually assaulted and that he’ll be able to do nothing to help her, seduces his own captor in an effort to protect Uhura and get his people out of this situation if Kirk were a woman? What about the surveillance, fear of death and fear of getting an enslaved person punished due to his non-compliance in “Bread and Circuses”? Why are we cheerleading a vision of masculinity that cannot even acknowledge vulnerability and trauma in these cases, when if this were a woman we’d see these situations as coercive and violating?

In “The Conscience of the King”, we learn that Kirk is a survivor of a colony-world genocide that occurred during his childhood. As an adult, Kirk attempts to determine whether an old man, now an actor, is actually Kodos, the mass murderer who perpetrated this genocide. “Conscience” is a complex, shifting episode made in the wake of the arrest of aged Nazis in South America by Mossad agents (again, it’s subtextually important to this episode that Kirk is played by a Jewish actor). Kirk uses the actor’s daughter, pulling her closer to him in the hopes of getting the information he needs, weighing his desire for revenge against the responsibilities of his position and the imperatives of mercy. In turn the young actress Lenore, obsessed with her father, uses Kirk to get close to and try to kill remaining survivors, Kirk included. She aims to eliminate any witnesses who might place her father at the scene of the crime.

At the end of the episode, McCoy suggests a romantic reading of the situation: “You really cared for her, didn't you?” Kirk smiles ruefully.

Direction, acting, and writing all contribute to the polyvocality of the televised text, which may represent many competing dramatic imperatives and have many valid interpretations. That said, McCoy’s imputations seem to me patently ridiculous here, and this comment in keeping with other times McCoy has misread situations. The context in which Kirk “cares for” Lenore is as a reflection of himself. She’s lost to a destructive vengeance that also tempted him in another (more just) form, mired in the events of her personal past and their shared trauma. They are both survivors, and yet they are also the tyrant’s most afflicted victims. They live on with the pain, conflict and self-recrimination. Lenore has tried too hard to sublimate these emotions, and the impossible burden of doing so has broken her. She didn’t witness the genocide, but in some ways she’s inherited complicity and guilt. She and Kirk are both struggling to put the past to bed and to respond to it.

Lenore, like her poetic namesake, is essentially dead. She has been since long before Kirk met her. There is nothing to love in her because she is only (through choices her father made after the massacre, and possibly by his design) a living monument to her father’s mistakes, consumed by madness and using people to fulfil a monomaniacal quest. Kirk isn’t real to her: her vision of the world cannot possibly admit his humanity, or that of her father’s other victims and would-be victims. Kirk perhaps at times fears this is true of him as well: that his self-abnegating, self-destructive desire to devote his life to service is born of the antithesis of her motives, and that he too survives as Kodos’s monument.

So, did Kirk “care for” Lenore, as McCoy suggested? He brutally exploited her weaknesses and used her (an appealing, charming older man pulling information out of a somewhat isolated, unstable young woman with profound daddy issues), even as she attempted to use and destroy him. She’s now being “cared for” in a mental institution she’ll never be released from. Sometimes the tale-end sting of acts of injustice is that their aftermath involves their victims in complicity with evil, any which way they turn. Abigail Nussbaum has written about the trap genre fiction sets for survivors here, for the impure and unhealed who have any reason to be angry. In his attempt to put things right, avenge the dead, and protect himself and his subordinate and fellow-survivor Lt. Riley, Kirk has destroyed both an old man and Lenore’s fragile sanity and precarious life. He knows this. He’s never been comfortable with either the ethical implications of what he’s doing here, or with those of inaction. McCoy’s attempt to offer understanding and consolation must rub salt in the wound his keener self knowledge has cut in him. The would-be flattering explanation puts pressure on Kirk’s actual ugly, complicated, ambivalent feelings and actions.

This is a pretty up-front, surface-level reading of the text that has the generosity to allow an obvious fucking Holocaust metaphor to not be about dicking—that doesn’t do the equivalent of assuming the Nazi officer/Jewish servant girl “love story” in Schindler’s List is authentically romantic and should be celebrated as such. Yet popular reception consistently makes McCoy’s mistake, collapsing plots and emotional drives down into a pablum. But that’s okay and normal because it’s straight pablum. Do you see the incredible violence this way of thinking about sexuality does to relationships, and to stories that include them? The sheer stupidity of it?

This conception of sexuality does incredible violence to heterosexual romance, compressing its rich and varied possibilities and significations down to “the many, many seduction [sic] committed by James T. Kirk.” “Why has Alfred ceased to sing / Why has Christina ceased to respond”? “Shall we lay the blame on the war?” Heterosexuality has been through the fucking ringer in cultural productions in the last decades due to backlashes against feminism and queer visibility that have transformed portrayals and interpretations alike into dumbshows—crude pantomimes, as before the play. These frantic defenses have done more to render the proposition of men and women loving one another a piece of one-note unsustainable ridiculousness than women’s lib and LGBTQ rights ever could.

3. “But the James Bond ‘60s were the most sexist time of alll!!” [contents]

It’s not just Kirk that’s better about women in his personal relationships than we give him credit for. He’s better about women as a person, as a professional than we give him credit for. The whole show is. Take the startling, before-its-time condemnation of Nice Guy bullshit in “Charlie X”:

CHARLIE: What if you care for someone? What do you do?

KIRK: You go slow. You be gentle. I mean, it's not a one-way street. You know, “how you feel” and that's all. It's how the girl feels, too. Don't press, Charlie. If the girl feels anything for you at all, you'll know it. Do you understand?

CHARLIE: You don't think Janice … You … She could love me!

KIRK: She's not the girl, Charlie. The years are wrong, for one thing, and there are other things.

CHARLIE: She can.

KIRK: No, Charlie.

CHARLIE: She is.


CHARLIE: But if I did what you said! If I was gentle!

KIRK: Charlie, there are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can't have. It's no fun facing that, but that's the way things are.

CHARLIE: Then what am I going to do?

KIRK: Hang on tight and survive. Everybody does.

CHARLIE: You don't.

KIRK: Everybody, Charlie. Me, too.

Abigail Nussbaum recently remarked on Twitter that she “saw a tumblr post yesterday about how Luke Skywalker defies so many toxic masculinity tropes common to male heroes.” She “[w]anted to reply saying ‘yes, that's because he was written in the 70s, when most of that was pretty unexceptional.’”

Masculinity is not a fixed construction: it evolves over time. When we view Kirk as Zapp Brannigan, actually we’re retconning a more current understanding of the male action hero and superimposing it over an era where it doesn’t have all that much business being.

Again, I refer you to this tumblr essay [8]:

The womanizing myth of James T. Kirk is circulated primarily because we as a media consuming society love to look back on the older versions of Star Trek and suggest that the characters had all of the values and beliefs of the time period in which the show was produced. So, we think back on 1966 (the first year the original series aired) and we think suave womanizers, casual workplace sexism, disappointingly vacant rights for women and minorities, and we choose brief scenes and images from the original series that will affirm our limited perception. (Despite the fact that 1966 is the year the National Organization for Women was founded and the US Supreme court solidifies Miranda rights into national legal code. Martin Luther King Jr. stages civil rights marches, and Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and Russia engage in numerous peace negotiations following years of war and unrest.)

The unfaltering truth of the matter is that Kirk gets dumped by beautiful, intelligent, independent women that he cared for on an emotional level more than he gets laid by random hot alien babes. And this is the TV show that we created in the 60’s, a futuristic fiction trying to uphold utopian ideals—while today we’re producing shows like Mad Men, an anachronistic retelling of the past with enduring focus on alpha male stereotypes featuring an alcoholic chainsmoking corporate asshole with a history of infidelity and emotional abuse.

But if you have an extreme desire to have sexual relations with someone blue from an exotic planet, go watch James Cameron’s Avatar.

And here, in another tumblr essay [9]:

There are very clear and striking differences between Kirk and Riker’s characters, and the fact that gatekeeping white male assholes try to make Kirk out to be everything Riker really is (as a way to justify their own blatant misogyny) is nothing short of absolutely disgusting and everything that Star Trek is against.

My learned colleague does not go far enough. Play it again, Sam.

I’m not saying there wasn’t anything dubious about gender relations in the 1960s in America. I am saying that we have, in some ways, become more wedded to forms of masculinity in entertainment that are violent, in opposition to cooperation and professionalism, and sexist. This is in part a way of enforcing a masculinity currently perceived as imperiled due to unstable and disempowering relations of capital, and as a backlash against the increasing visibility of women and queer people (and people of colour, especially black people: this is not a “colourless” masculinity, though a good deal of its toxicity also adheres in different forms to men of colour).

And as I said in my review of Steven Universe:

There was something like a systemic advent of The Not Gays in media circa, oh, let's semi-arbitrarily say 1985, when the possibility of actual gays became Too Real and things like male friendship had to be radically disavowed on screen. […] This does violence not just to the texts in question and the possibility of queer readings […] but also to male subjectivity: no one is allowed to have an actual complicated feeling or a friend, male or female, under the reign of the Not Gays. Rarely has so much been signed away for such a sad, retrograde, feeble point.

My point here is not to argue for perfection. I certainly do not claim that Kirk and ST:TOS were flawless harbingers of third wave intersectional thinking, always and forever on point, amen (though I will stand by an argument that they do a lot of good work I’d like to see more of today, both in their context and considered in comparison to contemporary texts). There is no way for anything to be always ahead of the currents of radical thought, nor is perfection even necessarily a state of affairs to be yearned for. Social justice is in some senses a technology that must be discursively developed before it can be accessed. It is also not manifest in some immaculate person or product without sin, or in some final position where we get everything right and it stays that way, forever: it is always an evolving understanding. It is of necessity polyvocal and complicated, personal and political.

Yet there is a colossal insipidity in both patronising “this art product was good for its time” arguments and in Columbus-discovering sexism (or other forms of injustice) in the cultural materials of the past (gosh, what a find). Both can be somewhat valid positions to take, but they are often the lazy products of a false consciousness of our own differently-coded era as universally better, and of history as neatly and linearly progressive. Think not of “the arc of history,” that long single line that, god willing, bends towards justice. The position of a thing like “gender relations in 2017” is nothing like so easily determined: it is comprised of a thousand strings, some of them inching forward, some of them being looped and snarled and even pulled back, and some of them being twisted in unforeseen directions. Only in centuries will we be able to make out, or perhaps to tell ourselves that we see, that “arc.”

So domestic washing machines in the home eased the massive labour of laundry for women. This meant machines moved into the home, unseating the once common middle-class Western practice of sending out laundry. Many housewives actually ended up doing more laundry-centred work due to the washing machine, and laundresses lost their jobs. Since the 60s there’ve been great advances in workplace equality: now middle class women are largely in work, and also undertake a “second shift” of substantial domestic duties. Such progress. Much liberation. Wow.

It’s always thus: we did away with rookeries in London and established council housing. We then sold off the council housing and brought back rookeries. And each individual thing is small potatoes, except it isn’t, because everything’s small potatoes. We have not cleanly “bettered” the position of women since the 60s in entertainment any more than we have absolutely done so via the introduction of domestic laundry machines. I’m not denying advances born of the hard work of the women’s movement, simply stating that “everything is getting inexorably better!” is in some ways the modern equivalent of “don’t mind being a peasant under feudalism or rebel against the lord of the manner, because heaven will sort it out in the end.”

“Pop culture’s progressed so much since ST:TOS!” Well, let’s hear it for the Rainbow Tour, because yes!! and no, and yes, and no, and … yes? There were not more women on the bridge in Voyager than there were in TOS or TNG (we can argue about Kel/Seven and B'Elanna, but then we can argue about Rand, Chappel, and Number One). Besides, pure actorly representation, the number of marginalised bodies on screen, is not actually as important as what people are doing in stories in which they appear and who is able to create these stories in the first place. ST:TOS had significant female writers and producers, whereas J. J. Abrams is now handed every nerd property in the world despite showing little special fitness for the task (unless Joss Whedon is free). The problem is hardly confined to Star Trek. Since 2008 only two women have written (single) episodes of Doctor Who, and their inclusion occurred after significant criticism. The directing numbers aren’t that much better. This is actually a huge drop-off from the number of marginalised creators involved in making classic Who.

I don’t think Star Trek should be held above criticism: that would be neither healthy nor helpful. But then this chagrined, repetitive “well it’s sexist but” is not healthy or helpful either. Yes, Star Trek is sexist. We all live within a matrix of interests governed by a sexist, racist imperial mechanism of capital. To be sure, there is no ethical production under capitalism and no expression of gender under kyriarchy is pure and uninfluenced by patriarchy. Given this reality, in what ways is ST:TOS sexist? How do we understand its sexism differently than that of our own moment? How does its sexism illuminate that of current productions? What is better now, and what is worse? For it is certainly not all better now, either in the sense of being entirely mended or even of being somewhat improved in every capacity.

How does a remark that ST:TOS was sexist because, for example, miniskirts were on screen add to this conversation? In such comments miniskirts are but rarely contextualised as a decidedly gendered but omnipresent component of the quotidian wardrobe of the decade. Miniskirts show up in ST:TOS largely because they were everywhere in the 60s. The rhetoric of the day understood them as as a daring “choice feminism” statement, and one assumes that in ST:TOS they signaled ambivalently in that contemporary capacity rather than exclusively serving as “eye-candy.” That element is of course present in reception, but perhaps moreso now than at the time.

Given how thoroughly most of the aforementioned remarks on ST:TOS elide such context, how do stale observations about the miniskirts help me or anyone embark on feminist critique, or any other part of the great, shared work of the world? Oh it was easy, was it? The mini-skirts were low-hanging fruit. Girl-power, or something. Well fuck your “easy.” The wrong, careless call-out does not generally add to the sum of aggregate rightness in the world just because it’s well-intentioned and fuzzily left-identified. It largely just wastes time and muddies the water.

4. Beyond the Broads: James “Totally Reckless” Kirk and the Very Exciting Prairie Lights Poetry Readings He Still Attends When He Goes Back to Riverside, Iowa to Visit His Mom [contents]

As a result of this toxic-masculinity-driven revisionism, popular reception is as wrong about Kirk’s general character as it is about his supposed hypersexuality. As Stefan Rabitsch has extensively documented in his essay “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower,” which deals with both production documents and readings of the text [10], Kirk, like Picard, is based extensively on C. S. Forester’s British Age of Sail naval officer protagonist.

The resemblance is not situational or superficial, but foundational and carried through the series. Kirk, who is like Hornblower an educated, intelligent man capable of great sympathy, also shares Hornblower’s self-discipline, his commitment to his ship, his self-containment and his analytical decision-making process. This is interesting because nobody would call Hornblower a ladykiller [11], though actually he does have a few romantic liaisons (and memorably brings Bush a pineapple) [12]. Nobody would call Hornblower rash. He is thoughtful, awkward, competent, etc. This is the man Kirk is based on. Ha-h'm.

As with Blakes 7 (in many ways a critical British answer to ST:TOS that phrases its response in the grammar of the original in order to better speak back to it—but mostly to sell itself, let’s be real), the “right-hand man” has in some ways stolen the protagonist’s thunder. The narrative structure of protagonism enables both Spock and Kerr Avon to do this, but it also doesn't hurt that both characters explicitly tell us they're clever, with a special number. Spock has an A7 computer classification; Avon is the number two man with computers anywhere in the galaxy (says Vila). The existence of Spock, with his easily classifiable intelligence and over-egged rationality, blinds people to Kirk’s persistent, demonstrated, textually-flagged extreme professionalism and competence:

PORTMASTER STONE: Now, look, Jim. Not one man in a million could do what you and I have done: command a starship. A hundred decisions a day, hundreds of lives staked on you making every one of them right.

[“Court Martial”]

Stone is not simply discussing nerve (though Kirk has, via training and self-control, developed an extraordinary capacity for operating under pressure). He’s referring also to the vast array of knowledge at Kirk’s fingertips, to his ability to evaluate specialist counsel and make good decisions quickly in a crisis, and to his dedication to and concern for his ship and its people. Kirk is the only one, even over Spock, capable of resisting the influence of a deranging virus in order to protect the ship in “The Naked Time.”

Rash? Kirk is obsessively protective, hesitant to destroy the Enterprise and its crew even when it would be safer for the galaxy for him to do so (“By Any Other Name”). This is in fact about the only time he’s “rash”. He makes an objectively bad decision in order to protect the ship. It’s not a lapse he often repeats, and he almost didn’t allow sentiment to cloud his judgment on this occasion either.

It works out in the end due to Kirk’s cunning, not Spock’s genius. As clever as Spock is, he’s not the superior multi-tasking problem solver. That’s the whole point of Kirk, and Spock respects him and his work. In “The Ultimate Computer,” when technological innovation threatens to replace living captains (Kirk included), Spock is immensely supportive of Kirk. He highlights Kirk’s leadership, suggesting that he, Spock-the-computer-expert, trusts Kirk’s personal judgment more than that of even the most advanced machines:

KIRK: Machine over man, Spock? It was impressive. It might even be practical.

SPOCK: Practical, Captain? Perhaps. But not desirable. Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them. Captain, the starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him.

If Kirk takes a “leap of faith” in situations, it’s because the other choice is to sit still and die. In fact you could argue that it’s Spock who sometimes behaves irrationally in TOS, prioritising Kirk over the safety of the Enterprise in "The Tholian Web," questing endlessly to find him in “The Paradise Syndrome,” and making a desperate last-ditch effort to signal the Enterprise with limited resources (rather than preserving these in order to marginally extend the lives of everyone on board a failing shuttle craft) in “The Galileo Seven” (an episode I hate so much we’d need another damn essay).

Kirk’s decisions are often made under pressure, but they are also almost universally sound. Kirk is absolutely not a “maverick.” As a member of Starfleet he obeys orders he thinks are deeply unreasonable and personally repellant, as in “The Galileo Seven.” He kicks back only within the structure of Starfleet’s normal push-and-pull regarding the implementation of orders. People who accuse Kirk of being unusually loose with the prime directive forget that the narrative suggests that the Federation is still working out a common-law understanding of a concept that will solidify and become more important by the era of TNG. That’s the Watsonian explanation. The pleasingly co-creative Doylist one is that the production’s series bible was still working its way into being, and that the memory of “the prime directive” would enter the popular consciousness via TOS and feed back into a firm, fixed concept in TNG.

While I could give you endless examples of Kirk’s restraint, his comments in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”, when a god-like entity charms one of Kirk’s female junior officers and threatens to keep the crew as captive worshipers, rather epitomize the sheer distance between the reality of Kirk and the idea of the danger-loving space sexist:

KIRK: Lieutenant, all our lives, here and on the ship, depend on you.

PALAMAS: No, not on me.

KIRK: On you, Lieutenant! Reject him and we have a chance to save ourselves. Accept him, and you condemn all of us to slavery, nothing less than slavery. We might never get help this far out. Or perhaps the thought of spending an eternity bending knee and tending sheep appeals to you?

PALAMAS: Oh, but you don't understand. He's kind, and he wants the best for us. And he's so lonely. What you ask would break his heart. How can I?

KIRK: Give me your hand. Your hand. Now feel that. Human flesh against human flesh. We're the same. We share the same history, the same heritage, the same lives. We're tied together beyond any untying. Man or woman, it makes no difference. We're human. We couldn't escape from each other even if we wanted to. That's how you do it, Lieutenant. By remembering who and what you are. A bit of flesh and blood afloat in a universe without end. The only thing that's truly yours is the rest of humanity. That's where our duty lies. Do you understand me?

PALMAS: Yes. Yes, I understand. He's calling me.

KIRK: Lieutenant, you have your orders and your duty.

PALAMAS: Yes, sir. My orders and my duty.

Kirk doesn’t have much patience for neglecting responsibility in favour of romance, either in himself or others.

Face it: Kirk is a big nerd who punches people sometimes, but also memorises poetry and has nice chats with Spock’s mom and loves the ship intensely. He’s less tasked with enacting toxic masculinity in all its forms than many a contemporary male lead. He’s a great protagonist: simply enjoyable to watch, effective and interesting in his setting, and more complex and lovely than he’s given credit for. Kirk’s as good a character as Spock: that’s how their dynamic and show work. I would swap any one of thirty contemporary white-dude-show-leads for Kirk in a damn heartbeat.

5. The Unicorn-Dog and the WASP: The Uneasy Place of Jewish Masculinity in Popular Memory [contents]

According to the visual conventions of television, James T. Kirk looks like an All-American hero [13]. As a consequence, more people remember Nimoy was a second-generation, Yiddish-speaking immigrant than remember Shatner was raised in a very similar (if Canadian) environment. Thus re-writing Kirk as the Zapp Brannigan popular idea of Kirk doesn’t just do harm to the character and introduce a new “Kirk” defined by chauvinistic violence: there’s also an element of goy-washing. Shatner’s Jewish body is over-written by this Lord Flashheart Wagnerian colossus. The voice actor Billy West’s other character Dr Zoidberg may be Jewish-coded, but Brannigan certainly isn’t: that’s left to Zoidberg, and to Kif Kroker, Brannigan’s Spock figure. Kif’s voice is inspired by that of Jewish comedian Jon Lovitz, but it almost doesn’t need to be: you get all those Ashkenazic associations out of nerdy, alien-Othered, decent but nebbish Kif already.

Futurama is fine-ish for its genre, and it isn’t quite responsible for the message it spreads. It's the translations of popular memory, which can be potent and insidious, at work. The program just picked up on and recapitulated what everyone else was thinking. It’s the translations of popular memory, which can be potent and insidious, at work. It’s not so much these parodic characters (Brannigan and Kif, and Zoidberg) that accomplish the assignment of destructive heroic masculinity to someone coded goy, and of intelligent sniveling weakness (well-intentioned or no) to someone coded Jewish.

Do you see what popular culture has to think about Jews and masculinity for Nimoy’s Jewishness to make it through in this altered form? Do you see why Shatner’s is invisible and obliterated in this way [14]? With violent anti-semitism once more on the rise in America and Europe, I’m not particularly inclined to see such figurations as neutral, free of context and of consequence. My patience for things that are “just jokes” is now reserved for shit that’s, I don’t know, funny.

6. The Reboot of the Remake of the Sequel [contents]

In “The problem with false feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold)” Dani Colman wrote extensively about bad call-outs: botched repairs of the wrong problems. She argues, fairly convincingly, that Disney’s Frozen is not actually more feminist than other Disney films. What it is more feminist than is the pop culture idea of the Disney film. Disney therefore collects accolades for progressiveness for doing almost nothing different or better than it had done, and the bar isn’t raised accordingly. Static complacency reigns, and is praised as active work for good.

In some senses, it’s the idea of a thing rather than the thing itself that matters. The animated series, the initial motion pictures, TNG (and its films) and subsequent series, and now the new reboots have all reworked ST:TOS. To varying extents what they’ve been reworking is not the text, but the reception thereof. Even the animated series has a lot of fan-service call-backs: Mudd and tribbles and Spock’s sad childhood on Vulcan. The original run of Star Trek films’ most dramatic moments (Kirk screaming at the death of his friend, Kirk disobeying orders to save him, etc.), which only have meaning because they’re great upheavals in Kirk’s life, have since come to define that character. (This mechanism is also at work on other characters in Star Trek films and reboots.) Misreading Kirk as generally brash makes these departures from his normal behaviour less important, and thus bleeds the drama clean out of Kirk’s reactions in, for example, The Wrath of Khan. Because Kirk was insubordinate at one of the most extreme points in his life and/or under the narrative constraints of the films (which are entirely different from those of TOS), he’s become a character who is read as insubordinate. When Hornblower gets upset over Bush’s death and fucks off to France for a bit, this does not erase his entire personality and life history. Why the hell has “Kirk mad with grief, pushed past his limits” erased the very idea of his limits? A character arc is neither terribly complicated nor a rare component of narrative. Why we refuse to play along with the device in this instance befuddles me.

Picard is yet another transplantation of Hornblower into space: it’s more pointed this time, so you can’t possibly miss it (like you apparently did the first time). Playground/messageboard “Kirk or Picard?” debates attempt to establish a dichotomy here where there is none: these men are not actually terribly different. They’re distinct characters, but their approaches and personalities are fairly similar. The key divergence, perhaps, is that Kirk, like Hornblower, is a Slytherin for Good, while Picard is probably a Ravenclaw. I know, I know, Trump and Brexit have killed the Hogwarts metaphor forever, but that’s an easy way of drawing the distinction. That and perhaps the fact that Kirk, fuelled by the sick tunes of Alexander Courage, is a bit more ready to rumble.

Riker, meanwhile, invokes the old “womaniser Kirk” chestnut. He’s even initially styled a little like Kirk. He calms down substantially after he grows a beard and stops looking like Kirk. This change presumably marks the point at which the production team realised they didn’t need a “Kirk as people have come to expect him to be” figure to hold audiences’ interest and the show together (after all, they didn’t the first time …).

The 2009-present Reboot Star Trek films, however, are remarkably interested in remaking not Star Trek but the idea of Star Trek. All reboots do this [15], but this is an egregious example of the tendency. Red Letter Media, often so boringly sexist and everything-ist [16], were dead on with their review of (what their Plinkett character calls) “Star Trek the Star Trek.”

As I’ve suggested, to an extent this has always been true of Star Trek films. The TOS films were made significantly after the show finished airing, and represent a distillation of pop cultural opinion on the original series. They “reset” Spock’s half-human angst, while the TNG films reset Picard’s Borg trauma, regressing both men’s character arcs on these points. They do so not just to create drama, but also to give the audience access to a “quintessential” idea of the characters that they recognise, even (especially) if they hadn’t been paying much attention before.

Bullshit easter eggs aside [17], the new Star Trek films are not for people who like Star Trek. They are spectacularly bad at delivering the essence of Star Trek: that universe, those characters. They are aimed at people who recognise the line “beam me up, Scotty” and sweet Fanny Adams else. Even the TOS films cater to people’s sense of recognition, and making them “feel like fans” without much of the playbour of having to become familiar with the canon. These pre-packaged elements also give casual viewers the satisfying sense of a bona-fide Star Trek Experience: if McCoy hasn’t told you he’s a doctor, Jim, not a wand'ring minstrel, have you truly seen a Star Trek film at all? Time and distance from the source material have only exacerbated these effects.

You see the reception idea of TOS everywhere in those first six films, but what the new films do with masculinity deserves special mention for being really, exceptionally pathetic.

The 2009 film literalises the green women myth because of course it does [18]. And of course Kirk is panting after everything that moves but nothing gayyyyy (historically, the idea that someone living a few centuries from now under a different material/cultural regime will have a sexuality that conforms comfortably to a recognizable modern standard is fucking laughable, but). In this regard the 2009 film did a tight but successful limbo ‘neath the low, low bar of my expectations.

HOWEVER: in the stupidly-named Star Trek Into Darkness we learned that Kirk (Kirk!), TOS’s god-king of professionalism, who canonically abhors the idea of:

  1. hookups that interfere with duty;
  2. sexualised mistreatment of female officers under his command; and
  3. anything harming his crew generally

apparently sexually harassed nurse Christine Chapel clean off the ship.

CAROL MARCUS: You're much cleverer than your reputation suggests, Captain Kirk.

KIRK: I have a reputation?

CAROL MARCUS: Yes, you do. I'm a friend of Christine Chapel's.

KIRK: Christine, yes. How is she?

CAROL MARCUS: She transferred to the outer frontier to be a nurse. She's much happier now.

KIRK: That's good.

CAROL MARCUS: You have no idea who I'm talking about, do you?

Possibly Chapel wasn’t under Kirk’s command at the time and in this universe. (Though McCoy speaks to her on-board in the 2009 film, so signs point to yes.) I hope not. But even if she wasn’t, it’s still awful. Rather than breaking up fairly decently in Kirk tradition, Nu!Kirk apparently made such an ass of himself that Christine Chapel took a seemingly bad career decision [19] and moved to the (canonically more dangerous [20]) Outer Frontier to get the hell away from him. “She’s much happier now,” i.e. he made her miserable. He’s got no idea what happened to her; he doesn’t even remember her name. That is the grossest shite, and if she was even remotely directly subordinate to him when this pubescent junior-high bullshit went down his ass should be fired. Into the sun.

This is the quintessence of the process of character assassination we’ve been tracking, and the fact that it’s dropped casually and lazily, as a throwaway gag, only underscores the totality of this project to unmake the text. This isn’t even an argument Nu!Trek is making, it’s just background dialogue while Marcus is spilling exposition and Kirk is checking out her tits (and to his fucking credit Chris Pine’s delivery manages to soften what is clearly a “hurr hurr boobies” moment in the script: from TOS’s sweet, silly little Shakespeare-quoting tick to this). Somewhere a woman is happier, now, far away from the grotesque woman-consuming zombie we’ve made out of our hero James T. Kirk. This is a joke. Ha.

On Twitter, Abigail Nussbaum additionally drew attention to the Doylist side of the problem, namely “the whole Chris Pratt [who plays Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy] phenomenon, where becoming a major star [for men right now] means transitioning from sweetheart roles to asshole roles.”

The stories we tell are afflicted with a desire to overwrite a less chauvinist past, associating dickishness with importance and modernity like this is 90s comics: from the disenchantment of the world to the grimdarkening of it. The meta-level industrial discourse around these stories, for example the ‘narrative’ of a male star’s career, reinforces these drives. Depictions of on-screen masculinity contaminate off-screen masculinity, in Hollywood and beyond.

7. Conclusion: Memory Sanctions [contents]

In his memoir Moab is my Washpot, Stephen Fry has a few words for us on the amusements of common people:

I remember an episode of Star Trek that ends with Jim turning to McCoy and saying, “Out there, Bones, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in the galaxy.” I fully expected the nauseous obviousness of “I love you.” But Kirk turned to the screen, gazed at the stars and whispered:

“Please, help me.”

Strange, the potency of cheap television. (p. 387)

Stranger still, surely, that this never happened. It’s a conflation of a slightly structurally similar exchange between Kirk and McCoy and of a line from Harlan Ellison’s famous episode “City on the Edge of Forever.” In “City,” Edith, the commanding and idealistic social worker Kirk is falling in love with while trapped back in time, attempts to figure out Kirk’s mysterious backstory.

EDITH: And you don't want to talk about it? Why? Did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something? Whatever it is, let me help.

KIRK: Let me help. A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He'll recommend those three words even over I love you.

The difference between “please, help me” and “let me help” is fairly dramatic. In Fry’s mismemory, Kirk seems almost to ghoulishly relish this cry for salvation, this opportunity to exercise his own benevolent power over someone in peril. In the actual quote, Kirk cites a novel we’ve not yet read, and the phrase itself is not a ventriloquised cry of need but a personal offer to serve.

That “let” always strikes me. “Please allow me to do this for you: grant me permission, allow me to see your vulnerability and to aid you.” It’s an acknowledgement of the agency and dignity of the person who might need assistance, a plea for closeness and disclosure. The assistance becomes mutually elevating: the largess of allowing, the privilege of assisting. Not the dreaded declaration of love, but a demonstration of it: a love that has the potential to be more wide-reaching and yet more intricately fine than the collapsed mess of compulsory hyper-heterosexuality.

These “three words” do very different things, and create very different Kirks. For all Fry’s horror of those cheap and trite words that never arrive, not even in his false memory, it’s a cheap and trite “City on the Edge of Forever” his mismemory creates, impoverishing Kirk’s dialogue and giving this quiet, personal exchange between Kirk and a woman he feels for to a male friend (a more acceptable vehicle for such confessions, if Kirk is a “womaniser”). No wonder Fry’s brain tidied his memory up, automatically re-writing the scene, pro bono, for popular consciousness Kirk, who could not have had such a conversation. The Kirk who exists in such memories as Fry’s cannot possibly have a moment like this with a serious love interest like Edith. Popular Consciousness Kirk imposes his heroic aid rather than offering support [21].

Besides, it’s not just Fry. If he’s patient zero, then his influence is wide-reaching indeed. A Dreamwidth post by Belmanoir tracks the fascinating collective mismemory, the mass hallucination of this dialogue exchange that never was. Look at all these people, publishing in reputable venues that ought to have bloody fact-checked, who “remember” a scene of Star Trek that never happened! I bet the bulk of them absolutely believe it, too, and think this bit of nonexistent television was important to them in exactly the ways they describe.

While we were going over this piece, my editor flagged up the paragraphs on “The Conscience of the King,” saying essentially that Kirk’s having survived a genocide didn’t fit with his idea of Kirk at all. Would I edit the section to clarify whether this happened in a dream sequence/delusion, a la “The Inner Light”? But the events of “Conscience” are not arguable: they are not my theory, and they are not even potentially “unreal” for the characters. Perhaps I was a bit unclear, but I think it’s important and startling to consider that exchange in the context of this argument—indeed, of it happening even in the space of the argument that popular memory deranges our readings and overrides information.

Why can’t we see what’s in front of us? Why can’t we read? Why do we remember green women, molested, when there weren’t any, and the wrong “three little words”? Why has Kirk Drift occurred, affecting this character and this text? I contend this is not just random mismemory, but a sort of motivated, non-accidental, culture-wide process of forgetting. It’s the result of a kyriarchal tendency in reception and in memory that affects not only the reboots, but even our ability to see what happens in a text. Even when it’s right before our eyes, we can’t see Star Trek for our idea of it.

I’ve seen Kirk’s actual lack of womanising discussed before, and a few previous pieces (among them my own [22] and Rabitsch's [23]) have sought to correct reception histories that obscure the relationship between Hornblower and Kirk. But I wanted to write this piece because I’d never seen anyone try to synthesise these phenomena and talk about them in connection with one another: to look at how and why these things happened. Because it’s no small thing: you have to unsee so much, to undo and unmake so much to get to the popular reception of Star Trek. It’s a vast deal of work. These receptive drives extract and appropriate labour from you without your consent and against your interest.

This may seem like a phatic Frankfurt school mash-up of Freudian ideas about motivated forgetting and Marxist notions of ideology, yet the implications of this intersection are somewhat complex, and merit exploration. I’m suggesting this receptive drag is always between you and the text, always interpolating, perhaps working especially hard, as though it had a will to do it, when there is a fissure it has to cover up: that is to say, when there is a text that offers any real moment or window of alternative possibility.

All texts run the danger, even if they’ve worked hard to be progressive, or if they yield easily to positive interpretations, of being “rewritten” in the world and even in our minds. In relation to her own work, novelist Dr. Nnedi Okorafor says that “what I really want to discuss is the whitewashing battle in many readers' minds. The one that turns characters white upon reading them so the reader is more comfortable.” Her work, like all work that comes from a place of or offers any potential for alterity, is at risk of being “colonised” by conservative narrative reclamations operating via the mechanism of mismemory. It is not enough for a text to be progressive; its memory must also be defended against this decay.

This talk of parasitism may sound either hard Leninist or fundamentalist Christian (the devil’s a-workin’ inside you!). I would take your point if you said so, or if you were turned off by the rhetorical move of ascribing agency to effects. (I don’t actually understand these processes as self-willed, merely as precipitates of situations that themselves cause consequences. Consider their agency shorthand for the workings of capital, which is itself shorthand for the interlaced functions of kyriarchy.) But an opposition between

  1. hardline, Calvinist-deterministic conceptions of ideological influence, and
  2. a stubborn belief that such influences don’t exist at all, and that we’re all making absolutely free choices Because America or whatever

is a real relic of a post-war anti-communist climate of Western thought, as well as being difficult to productively work with. The West’s suspicion of structural underpinnings bolsters the status quo in favour of dominating hegemonies, preventing such hegemonies and their products from ever being questioned or deconstructed systemically. Such an approach limits artistic and political resistance to surface-level, tokenistic show. It’s “lean in” as fuck.

We must think with the particular in order to access the structural. Kirk Drift doesn’t just affect Kirk. His fate and that of ST:TOS is also that of other franchises, other reboots. It is not just given texts that must be defended against Kirk Drift, though in my opinion Star Trek deserves defense. To go back to other potent cheap serial fiction, let me quickly point out that we remember Dickens as a novelist, but not as a lifelong radical who fronted a journalists’ strike at 20, made his name initially as a parliamentary reporter as much as anything, ran a major women’s shelter for years, directed a vast array of others’ charitable projects, visited every new form of prison to open in his country and wherever he traveled to as part of his effort to stay an informed advocate for carceral justice, edited liberal periodicals for decades and promoted many female authors therein. Etc., etc.

There is a massive project, in all the nation-building, heritage-canonising costume drama adaptations, which tend to minimise class in their every visual and story-telling choice, to erase “Dickens as activist.” The one (one!) Dickens biopic (Dickens of London) attempts to render his activism entirely personal—muted, projected self-interest (when it really, really wasn’t)—and thus acceptable to the audience. If you’re familiar with his biography and/or certain areas of English Victorian history, you’ll know what a massive project this is: we are building an oubliette as deep as the Mariana Trench. This is psychic work on par with Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to levitate the Pentagon with the power of his fucking mind.

We remember Helen Keller overcame disability, but not that she overcame it to be a socialist activist and founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). We remember Norman Rockwell as an illustrator of Americana, but not as a firm liberal integrationist. No one needs to command that every image of the Pharaoh Hatchepsut be erased from history: we do it ourselves, gratis. Kirk Drift is strongly at work in our popular histories as well as our texts. We are always being robbed of our radical inheritance: of black stories, of queer stories, of rupture.

I can think of some instances where texts have benefited from such vast, after-the-fact memory revisions. Robinson Crusoe is a dull, badly-written, racist pile of shit (and it’s “the first novel” like I’m Romy and it’s my high school reunion and I invented the post-it note), but the Robinsonade genre and Victorian pantomime Robinson Crusoes do have something to offer [24]. Popular consciousness’s reworking of texts is not necessarily negative, and it might be elitist of me to suggest that interpretation of the true gospel of texts is better left to some form of experts. I do think, however, that we ought to be aware of the deforming processes of popular memory, and that this reception arc has a reactionary tendency that can at times wield startling force.

Four years ago, after I first told Niall Harrison about the baby-idea of this article, I saw a relevant article I’ve been haunted by ever since. It detailed how an American National Security Agency (NSA) director modeled his headquarters, his “Information Dominance Center” (which …), after a very familiar place:

It had been designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the bridge of the starship Enterprise from Star Trek, complete with chrome panels, computer stations, a huge TV monitor on the forward wall, and doors that made a 'whoosh' sound when they slid open and closed. Lawmakers and other important officials took turns sitting in a leather 'captain's chair' in the center of the room and watched as Alexander, a lover of science-fiction movies, showed off his data tools on the big screen.

'Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard,' says a retired officer in charge of VIP visits.

The photos make me a little sick. Looking at them feels like identifying the body of a loved one after it’s been mutilated.

To quote the article:

Other photographs of Gen. Alexander's personal Star Trek Captain fantasy come-to-life (courtesy of public funds) are [here] [link dead]. Any casual review of human history proves how deeply irrational it is to believe that powerful factions can be trusted to exercise vast surveillance power with little accountability or transparency. But the more they proudly flaunt their warped imperial hubris, the more irrational it becomes.

How badly did you have to miss the fucking point of Star Trek to think the imperial surveillance state synonymous with the programme’s ethos? [25] “Everybody wanted to sit in the chair at least once to pretend he was Jean-Luc Picard.” No. No, excuse you. Picard would never. I wish I could give these men a Clockwork Orange aversion to the show, because no one has ever understood its best aspirations or deserved them less than this merry troupe of drone-strike endorsing assclowns. Get Picard’s name right out of your trash mouth.

The “Zapp Brannigan says Trump quotes” meme is not in and of itself anything like so directly, screamingly incorrect. It is, however, exemplary of the drift to toxic masculinity that made these ridiculous figures possible. If Brannigan is a parody of heroism, he must necessarily also represent an actual idea of it, and what art reflects it also helps create. The fail condition of subversion/parody is reification [26]. We have laughed Zapp Brannigan right into the White House. It has gotten people killed. It will get yet more people killed. The only question now is how many, and what, if anything, we can do to stop it.

There is an argument to be made here about whether Star Trek deserves space in popular memory: whether it “ought” to be attended to, or whether my insistence on giving it detailed attention is just a manifestation of my personal preference for a collection of stories with, even I must admit, some undeniable American-imperial undertones. Where do I come off asking everyone to remember this flawed artifact right?

In In Praise of Forgetting, David Rieff contends that

collective remembrances are self-serving, often fraudulent and frequently dangerous. […] Rieff recoils at the conceit that memorialization is a moral and political duty, as well as a personal one in “our therapeutic age.” To the contrary, he says, remembering is ultimately futile, since all societies will—like the mortal individuals who make them up—eventually crumble to dust. To those who hope that remembering the Holocaust might help avert future genocides, he retorts that this is “magical thinking,” pointing to subsequent extermination campaigns in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Rwanda.

This is a somewhat compelling argument. Besides, some collapsing is a necessary part of learning and retention. We cannot all engage with the nuances of everything.

Ultimately, however, I do not think this argument answers the needs of people living in mass culture. As the aforementioned review of Rieff’s work points out,

in a book packed with pugnacious argument, he only implicitly offers rules for when to remember and when to forget. It’s a delicate matter asking victimized peoples to turn their backs on their grievances; Japanese rightists only further offend Koreans by proclaiming that they need to get over their wartime suffering.

If history is written by the winners, then people with power will always be the ones who control what is remembered, and marginal people’s truths and histories will be what is occluded. It is thus now. We cannot live without memory (and to do so would be to live without meaning). Given this, it becomes a question of what survives. If we do not strive for a strong and diverse collective memory, the collective memory that inexorably remains will be that of kyriarchy. Memory and accuracy also enable us to track and to contest changing definitions of masculinity. “Nostalgia can serve as a vital tool in the emotional reconstitution and preservation of suppressed histories, rather than sentimentally privileging the past at the expense of present concerns and limiting a culture's progressive potential” [27].

Besides, if Star Trek is going to be part of the conversation whether or not the Left wants to claim it (and look at how SFnal texts are being deployed in the discourse for conversation surrounding the Reprise of Fascism—look at how authoritarian forces are deploying the grammar of Star Trek, and at Nu!Trek’s imperial subtexts), then our memory of the text should not actively derange said text to suit political projects we do not necessarily consent to participate in. For these projects live in us and through us, like parasites that make us their unwitting and unwilling hosts. Like dybbuks that possess and consume us, taking our thoughts, our very eyes, and making them their own.

Thus it becomes a matter of reclaiming texts via attentive reading. In the post-truth world, attention is a skill. Reading is a skill. We must vigilantly listen to the hum of the currents of power running through texts and their interpretations, to actions and their spin. We must insist upon reality in order to meaningfully and morally do the work of relativistic interpretation: there are four lights, for fuck’s sake. We do have to have stories, and so we need to be able to see them. It’s important both to add marginal voices to canons and conversations and to protect the marginal elements already there from conservative erosion, for the sake of accuracy, artistic quality, and politics. We need to have access to their resources and to be able to use our own, not to host within ourselves an enemy that occludes all we see, that drains the progressive potential of everything we have access to. What good things we have done ought to be preserved. There are histories of resistance, large and small, that we ought not to lose; that we cannot afford to lose.

It is a difficult process. I have spent four years turning this concept over in my mind, not yet ready to write this essay. I do not feel I have escaped these effects due to cultivating an awareness of them. Even now I feel I have not described this appropriately, and have not given myself or you what you need to do this work. The language is wrong, and inelegant, and the thinking imperfect. But perhaps it will never be perfect, or perhaps it needs other thoughts on it, other hands. Popular reception has its strengths, in comment and in building and in contradictory complication.

All I can suggest is that when it comes to texts we believe we know well, know too easily, that we question and re-start. Bring the SFnal work of cognitive estrangement to the level of reception, rather than insisting the text do all the work (and being inattentive to the work it does). Assume you don’t know, and always watch for this trick of reception, for the automatic, received interpretation. Is it accurate? What is it propping up? Beware the tendency of memory to fill in the blanks with answers you don’t believe in: to decay in specific ways, along tired lines. Watch for the picture to warp. Suddenly you’re watching the seduction of a green lady, who is miserably saying “please, help me,” and you mistake what you are seeing for power, or worse, for love.

Acknowledgements [contents]

Aishwarya Subramanian helped me think through the argument about non-engagement as a post-knowledge position. Maureen Kincaid Speller fact-checked me on the cultural positioning of the mini-skirt. I did a lot of brainstorming with Robin Harding, and Molly Katz looked at sections. My partner Katy Armstrong re-watched with me, put up with a lot of kvetching and edited the first draft. Niall Harrison edited the resultant product, and waited like Penelope for this four-years-wandering train of thought to come home.

Endnotes [contents]

  1. Wikipedia again: “The character is based on the Star Trek captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner. The show's executive producer David X. Cohen has described Brannigan as 'half Captain Kirk, half actual William Shatner.'” [return]
  2. Whose actress had a very interesting career, by the by. [return]
  3. In the rewritten pilot-cum-two-episode-story, the actual severely disabled human woman the aliens were projecting this Orion image onto and a now-paraplegic Pike choose to live together in the altered reality of the alien projections. This enables them both to survive and to exercise increased agency, enjoying a better quality of life. You could thus say that in a way Pike was “with” this woman, though when they do choose to be together they present as more mobile versions of themselves. Thus Pike is never with a “green woman.” Obviously this episode also cries out for a multi-faceted disability-studies reading. [return]
  4. Memory Alpha admits they want to cite this better. [return]
  5. A lot of people justifiably dislike “The Paradise Syndrome,” but I don't know that we could have had the far more popular “The Inner Light” without it. Sometimes it can be a bit misleading to think of given stories in isolation. [return]
  6. Essay at: (accessed March 2017). [return]
  7. This would originate outside men, in larger social processes, and take varied forms within them, but then so do most if not all such drives. [return]
  8. Essay at: (accessed March 2017). return]
  9. Essay at: (accessed March 2017). [return]
  10. Rabitsch, Stefan. “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower”, Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3 (2016), 439–72 ISSN 1754-3770 (print) 1754-3789 (online). Liverpool University Press doi:10.3828/sfftv.2016.9.14 [return]
  11. I’m sure there are some leering sexist Age of Fail fans who would, somewhere, but praise Jesus I’ve yet to meet them. [return]
  12. Go away Hornblower/Kennedy Cumpeteers, you’re not book canon. Bush-Barbara or gtfo. [return]
  13. Here’s an article on this visual coding process: Irwin Hirsch and Cara Hirsch, “Seinfeld’s Humor Noir: A Look at Our Dark Side,” Journal of Popular Film and Television 28.3 (Fall 2000): 116. Good work’s been done here in terms of Buffy, as well. [return]
  14. For further discussion, see my chapter “From ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to ‘Live Long and Prosper’: Engaging with Post-War American Jewish Identity via Star Trek: The Original Series” in the upcoming Springer volume Set Phasers to Teach. [return]
  15. My aforementioned Steven Universe piece suggests that reboots tend to a kind of homogeneity as well, collapsing their source-texts into a modern action film template that has only a limited relationship to the source material. [return]
  16. Seriously, they’re smarter and funnier than this. They can do better. They sometimes still do! Ironically, though, in their lazy racism (et al.) they are performing the very white fanboy catering mediocrity they slate in re: bad Star Trek films. Have fun becoming what you hate while retaining a dim and torturing awareness of what you let happen to you, I guess. That doesn’t sound like hell. Or anything. [return]
  17. I want to throttle whoever’s dumbass idea it was to gamify continuity, trading the sense of a stable world necessary for the development of emotional and thematic through-lines for a facile “spot the reference” game intended to glut media consumers with smug, masturbatory self-satisfaction because they can recognise tribbles or whatever. [return]
  18. I get that the altered timeline has produced a different Kirk. What I’m interested in is the ways he’s different and what projects these changes serve. [return]
  19. Canon (even nu!canon) leads us to believe that serving on a starship like Enterprise (even before it’s officially a flagship) is no small coup. How much work did it take Chapel to get here? How much did she give up in pursuing a different path? [return]
  20. Take a moment to remember Kirk’s brother and sister-in-law Aurelan’s sad, awful deaths. Judging by the events of Star Trek: Beyond, Nu!Trek’s universe seems about as bad in this regard. [return]
  21. Incidentally, of course “cheap television” is potent. That’s its business. Harlan Ellison knows his business: competent scripted television was not invented sometime after 2000, no matter what the thinkpiece industrial complex might imply. Besides, Dickens and Shakespeare were popular trash. In fact almost everything I really care about was at least initially considered that. Sometimes official validation has come to it and sometimes it hasn’t. The point is that it is just as likely that cheap television will be with us and venerated in a hundred years, divorced from its contexts and elevated as art, as it is that we’ll still collectively remember who David Foster Wallace is. This is one of the reasons this argument as to what Star Trek does and how we see it matters, I think. [return]
  22. Horáková‏, Erin. &lquo;Britpicking as Cultural Policing in Fanfiction.” In Play, Performance and Identity: How Institutions Structure Ludic Spaces, ed. Matt Omasta and Drew Chappell, 128-41. New York: Routledge, 2015. [return]
  23. Rabitsch, Stefan. “‘And yet, everything we do is usually based on the English’: sailing the mare incognitum of Star Trek’s transatlantic double consciousness with Horatio Hornblower”, Science Fiction Film and Television 9.3 (2016), 439–72 ISSN 1754-3770 (print) 1754-3789 (online). Liverpool University Press doi:10.3828/sfftv.2016.9.14. [return]
  24. Briefly imagine Aishwarya Subramanian saying something clever here about how even these comparatively benign and certainly more interesting adventure fictions relied on and promoted dubious colonial narratives. [return]
  25. You’re gonna think you’re deep with an “actually the Federation is bad/paternalistic and inflected by American imperialism” hot-take here, and that’s fine and has some validity, but DS9 did it better, and you know that’s not the point I’m making. Sorry, that sounds dismissive—my point is more that you don’t “break” a text by discovering imperial content, any more than you do by discovering sexist content, because every text written under capitalism to some extent exists within that field of signification. While you can do a valid analysis and dismissal of the whole project of Star Trek on these grounds, I personally find it more useful and accurate to look at Star Trek as in some measure a resistance to hegemonic forces that is also written under them. We can unpick the paternalistic superstructure while allowing ourselves access to and serious thought about the charm of Star Trek. In fact I don’t think we can optimally critically assess that superstructure or the programme without inhabiting the show’s affect, its promise, and its artistic successes. I feel the best and truest criticism opens itself to the text, enabling multi-faceted conclusions, meeting its seductions and persuasions, understanding it or subverting it from a place of knowledge. This only works if the text is giving you enough to engage in such a reading: you can’t get blood from a stone, or enjoyment from The Fountainhead.

    Engagement is itself a matter of trust: I respect the harm-mitigating politics of no-platforming and non-engagement, which accomplish different goals on a quite distinct front. There’s a false equivalence in comparing politicised withdrawal with bad criticism. The whole point of harm-mitigating non-engagement is that people choosing to withdraw have already done the (extensive, arduous) work of engaging with these ideas, finding them lacking and dismissing them. It’s not this given text and utterance, it’s their place in larger structures of publication and speech. What right-wing activists call “debate” or the “introduction of different ideas” is an excuse to recapitulate content that has already been completely worked-over and deconstructed, that sits within larger patterns of speech and production and acquires significant altered signification from this positioning, and that does not address itself to the intellect (as its advocates would pretend) but rather to an audience’s insecurities and prejudices. We have all been exposed to such thought. To live now is to be inundated with the messages of capital, and with the entwined messages of fascism, in many forms. It is inescapable: it is what consumes moments of radical possibility in texts, that which will suffer no good thing to live. [return]

  26. Kip Manley elucidates the whole chain of argument leading to this formulation here. [return]
  27. Glazer, Peter. Radical Nostalgia: Spanish Civil War Commemoration in America. University of Rochester Press, 2005. [return]

Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
93 comments on “Freshly Remember'd: Kirk Drift”

Ms. Horakova: thank you, thank you, thank you. You wrote the article I have been needing to read.

I've been looking forward to this essay, Erin, and it has not disappointed. Brava!

I liked the observation that Kirk (and Picard) are modeled on Hornblower, which I had never thought of but which is so obvious once you point it out. The sheer amount of work that goes into being a starship captain, the number of details you have to pay attention to, the myriad things and people you have to care about, is so present in TNG (my memories of TOS are hazier, and I can see that it's time to correct that), but also rarely commented-upon. Star Trek was always aware of the gap between "captain" and "hero". The captain might also, on occasion, be a hero (as Hornblower often was), but he was a captain first.

This, even more than the sexism and jokey sexual harassment, was what made me despair of the Abrams films. The sense that not only was Kirk bad at all the things he needed to be good at in order to be a good captain, but that they actively bored him. Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk airily complaining about the tedium of being a captain, and this is something we're meant to see as a major emotional (mid-life?) crisis, not the whiny blatherings of a man-child who wanted the prestige of the job, but had no desire to actually do it. In a way, Abrams's Star Trek reflects the Kirk/Spock dynamic that you reject in your description of TOS: his Spock is the details guy, the guy who can actually keep the ship running. But in the NuTrek convention, that's the boring make-work, while the actual work of captaining involves blowing shit up.

You can call this an outcome of Kirk Drift, but as you say, it also has a great deal to do with how flattened and degraded our idea of what a pop culture (male) hero looks like. Being good at things, working at them, caring enough about them to learn how to do them well, just in general caring about details and minutiae and people - these are all considered, not just uncool, but unheroic. Heroism is expressed by not giving a shit, upending everything, and then standing back to receive your rewards (which inevitably include The Girl). And yeah, it's not unconnected that this image has emerged at a time when the importance of work and expertise in government are being derided, when we keep being told that government and the people working for it are unnecessary, wasteful, or even harmful, and of course, when the most powerful man in the world is an incurious, intellectually-hobbled toddler. Trump is what Abrams's Kirk looks like in real life, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for Hollywood to realize that.

Gareth Wilson

Say what you will about The West Wing, but I did appreciate that Jed Bartlet had no knowledge of, or interest in agriculture, but still went to bed with a book on agriculture anyway. Because it was an important part of the US economy, and therefore part of his job to understand.



So it’s fairly easy for us to say that Nu!Trek renders labour invisible—it’s tedious, it’s for sissies, it’s not THE WORK of heroicism/wild genius, being the Decider—but I wonder if even the catastrophe!models of voyager and to an extent? DS9? pushed us towards heroic, anti-labour visions of these roles? I’d REALLY have to rematch DS9 and Voyager, as it’s been years and I’m not sure. It’s interesting in a way that the Rise of the Badass Woman includes a Uhura whose competence is more earned, who works: labour is feminising? How many ‘badass women’ rolling their eyes at but still supporting the fuckbaby men who still manage to be heroic geniuses are also tasked with doing all the establishing labour of their plots/needing to gain skill to exercise it?

In a way, Abrams's Star Trek reflects the Kirk/Spock dynamic that you reject in your description of TOS: his Spock is the details guy, the guy who can actually keep the ship running. yeah, and that seems if anything like another case of reading reception into the text.

a man-child who wanted the prestige of the job, but had no desire to actually do it. what’s weird and interesting is how initially Kirk has 0 interest in the gig—it ties into something (I think you? and) Aisha and I have been talking about re: Young Victoria and shit about Filthy Filthy Planning and the way a character with ambitions or politics is likely to be evil/our protagonists float around in a state of ludicrous naiveté, they’re the Chosen One but they never sought this!!

Yeah: JJ’s Kirk, despite Pine’s charm and efforts, is something of a techbro Disruptor. Which, ew.

@GARETH WILSON I do have a soft spot for West Wing tho...

Andrew Kozma

This is amazing. The kind of criticism I love, closely examined, richly researched, embedded in history. Thank you.


I searched for green skinned Marta, came up empty.


"All texts run the danger, even if they’ve worked hard to be progressive, or if they yield easily to positive interpretations, of being “rewritten” in the world and even in our minds. In relation to her own work, novelist Dr. Nnedi Okorafor says that “what I really want to discuss is the whitewashing battle in many readers' minds. The one that turns characters white upon reading them so the reader is more comfortable.” Her work, like all work that comes from a place of or offers any potential for alterity, is at risk of being “colonised” by conservative narrative reclamations operating via the mechanism of mismemory. It is not enough for a text to be progressive; its memory must also be defended against this decay.
This talk of parasitism may sound either hard Leninist or fundamentalist Christian (the devil’s a-workin’ inside you!)."

It's funny that you say this, because as I was reading it, it occurred to me that things like Leninism or fundamentalism are exactly what you're describing in the first paragraph quoted above. Over and over and over in politics or religion, you'll see the phenomenon of a foundational text - the Bible, the American Constitution, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations," anything by Karl Marx - treated as a sacred and infallible text by "followers" who, in fact, don't know much about it; who project their own prejudices and preconceptions onto it; and who then get angry with any and all "heretics" who don't share those projections, regardless of what the text says. The mentality that makes people decide that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about punishing people for homosexuality and not for lacking hospitality even though that's at least as reasonable a plain text reading, and who then accuse you of revisionism and political correctness if you bring up the latter interpretation... is the same one that makes people flip out at the filmmakers for "making" Rue black, or that reboots Kirk as a Zapp Brannigan figure.

I suppose there's a reading of DS9 in which the shift from standalone, station- and wormhole-based stories to the Dominion War storyline could be read as abandoning the value of labor in favor of shootouts and explosions (especially when you consider the growing influence of Ron Moore, whose distinctive take on the show's military aspects clashes quite strongly with Roddenberry's officer-and-gentleman ethos). But I think that's probably simplifying things a bit. Unlike Kirk, Picard, and to a lesser extent Janeway and Archer, Sisko is not a Hornblower figure, the master of his own tiny world who only connects with the universe outside of it at irregular intervals. He's a colonial officer, stationed at a frontier outpost that his masters back home want him to win over. The colonizing power in this case is, of course, the benevolent Federation, but the dynamic is still the same: Sisko has to balance the competing interests of various local powers, to make friends and allies, and to insinuate himself into the power structure of the region in a way that will make removing him, and the Federation, too costly to consider.

To put it another way, there's plenty of work in DS9, but it's the work of politics and diplomacy, and I think that persists even into the Dominion War seasons. Sisko thus ends up being a very different kind of character from Kirk and Picard (just as DS9 is a very different kind of show from all the other Star Treks).

Voyager... do you know, I actually had very concrete plans to write a Voyager essay series along the lines of the ones about DS9 and TNG? I had watched the show, accumulated pages upon pages of notes, and even had a tentative list of essay topics. And then I just didn't do it, and what stopped me wasn't so much the depressing prospect of spending thousands of words just to say "you know what, Voyager really is just as bad everyone says", as it was the fact that this stupid show is so damnably inconsistent, that anything I might have reasonably said about it could very easily be contradicted by the next episode.

All of which is to say that, yeah, there are hints of the Hornblower type in Janeway and the role Voyager gives her - as there would almost have to be, since she's isolated from support and oversight in a way that no previous Star Trek captain was, and which clearly echoes the age of sail - and episodes in which you can clearly see her embracing that role. And there are just as many episodes in which the show dives headlong into the heroic mentality that is taken to its irrational extreme in NuTrek, and these two kinds of episode alternate with each with no apparent rhyme or reason. Voyager has as faint as grasp on the kind of officer it wants Janeway to be as it does on every other aspect of her personality, and indeed the show in general.

(Aisha may have made this point as well, but I definitely commented to you about the way that characters who plan and act, rather than reacting, are often cast in villainous roles, while heroism is associated with being thrust into the role. NuKirk is, of course, a prime example of this, since he's literally chased around and begged to become a Starfleet officer.)


@Ralph Yeah, I possibly should have mentioned Marta (! But again, it's a situation of coercion where no actual romance occurs.

@Abigail Yeah, sometimes people tell my gf she simply MUST see Voyager, badass Janeway, etc, and mostly what I think is--I remember this series being markedly less good and also erratic and Janeway being insufficiently established as a person/moral PoV?


I can't argue with your overall conclusions; everything you say agrees what I remember of the originals (which I haven't seen in a long time if at all -- I was disconnected during the 3rd season). However, the image of Kirk as a horndog goes back further than I read you suggesting; David Gerrold's devastating summary of a typical 3rd-season episode (in _The World of Star Trek_ (1973)) includes (from memory so quote may not be 100% precise) "Meanwhile, it's been 15 minutes since Kirk's last piece of ass and he's getting twitchy. McCoy can't do anything for him either." Was Gerrold hyperbolizing, or did the image creep start when TOS was still on the air? I would hope the former given that your link shows a far higher fraction of scripts written by women in the 3rd season than before.

This is a good article and I definitely follow it on how pop culture osmosis has strained Kirk of both his responsible identity and Jewish identity. However, I do fault this essay on citing the article "The Problem With False Feminism". That essay misses the point a lot in its criticisms of Frozen, such as mistaking feminist praise of Elsa to be as a "strong female character" (read: role model) when the praise was actually for writing a female character strongly (read: complex and flawed). Lindsay Ellis made a worthwhile rebuttal of it here:

There's a legitimate point to be made about how Disney often pitches some properties as progressive that really aren't (the Beauty and the Beast remake comes to mind, which Ellis also breaks up here: ), but that article isn't the best example of that argument. It's like writing an essay about racist undertones in Disney stories but focusing too long on Toy Story rather than the hyenas of The Lion King or the Huns of Mulan.

This is brilliant. Thoughtfully written, full of keenly observed insights, and a source of links to *other* pieces full of insights as well. One of the best commentaries on Star Trek I've read in years. Thank you!

It has bothered me for some time that the public perception of James T. Kirk is more caricature than characterization, an injustice to the character and the show. It's been the case for years, only made worse by its cartoonish big-budget realization in Abrams' reboot films. All too often it's accompanied by an ill-conceived impression of TOS overall as campy, or simplistic, or tacky, or (most bafflingly) reactionary. Kirk, and the show, were far better than the palimpsest that remains of them in the popular imagination, and deserve to be appreciated and understood on their own terms — as this piece does with scintillating intelligence. The TOS novels still being published (well, some of them) often present Kirk as he was and should be, but they cater to a small and self-selecting audience.

Perhaps it helps that I *did* originally have what you posit (quite fairly) as almost impossible, a "naive" encounter with the show — I discovered it via syndicated reruns at age seven, with literally no preconceived notions about Star Trek, nor about "that period of history, era of SF, [or] style of television." I fell in love with it for what it was — an imagined future presented in idealistic, optimistic, progressive terms, embodied by characters who did their best to live up to those values.

(In passing, I must also admit with some embarrassment that I literally *never* thought of "The Conscience of the King" as a Holocaust metaphor. I only ever saw the Shakespearean elements of that episode. Amazing what one can overlook!...)


@Chip, see I'd say '73 is enough distance for back-reading, but also you do see the reception-twist from the instant something's aired. I remember the BBC's radio guide summaries of the first few B7 eps read something like LOVE TROUBLE FOR JENNA AS A NEW GIRL COMES ON BOARD!!, which is the dumbest way of talking about Cally's introduction /possible/, especially in light of the show's intentions never to really do much with the 'Betty and Veronica' drive the guide wanted to read in. Co-mingled processes of subterraneanly-purposive misreading?

@TUCKERSCREATOR I find it a little hard to be sympathetic to Lindsay Ellis' point when she begins by being annoyed the first essay was so long. Obviously (pets scroll bar) I am not very interested in arguments that non-fiction on the internet should be short *because*. And whatever happened to 'don't like don't read', re: the tl;dr school?

That said, Ellis' following analysis... I'd agree and disagree with both of them there? I'd really have to re-watch and ENGAGE with the film and contextualising canon, and I'm not a Disney expert/it's not a major area of interest for me.

What I think Coleman does usefully is what you say, illustrating that 'Disney often pitches some properties as progressive that really aren't' and gesturing towards some trends. That's then useful in terms of this essay in sketching differences between the Popular Idea of Disney and the nuances of the canon (with obvious parallels to the situation of Star Trek). Ellis wants to fight Coleman over the details, while Coleman wants to fight emergent social media consensus over the Idea of Disney (which Ellis either disingenuously pretends doesn't exist or is genuinely unaware of, because as she says she's not IN THE RING in this way that often). They seem to be sliding past one another a bit? I'll accept a contention that 'that article isn't the best example of that argument', but I'm not aware of a better one, really, that does the work Coleman wants to do? Nussbaum didn't LOVE Frozen (I liked it better than she or Coleman), but the grounds of her argument were textual, not about DisneyMyth. This also has the necessary name-recognition: people are more likely to have read it, and thus start assembling their own concept of Myth of Thing vs Thing on multiple axes.

@CHRIS MILLER What really struck me when I was writing about TOS and Jewishness, which I'd not noticed before, is the /proximity/ of those Mossad captures to this script! It really does feel responsive to ethical concerns around that.

Brian Cooper

Thank you for this article. I've been a fan of TOS since I was old enough to watch it (I'm a few years younger than the series itself) and reading your words made me realize that I have allowed myself to fall into the Kirk Drift as well. Thank you for reminding me of Star Trek's true character.

"Given this reality, in what ways is ST:TOS sexist? How do we understand its sexism differently than that of our own moment? How does its sexism illuminate that of current productions? What is better now, and what is worse? For it is certainly not all better now, either in the sense of being entirely mended or even of being somewhat improved in every capacity."

This passage really resounded with me. I'm a fan of classic adventure novelists like Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle etc: given they were all writing at the turn of the 20th Century, they were writing their stories with vastly different sexual, gender, and racial politics to the turn of the 21st Century. Regrettably, they commonly reflect those times in their writings. And yet, there are some remarkable exceptions to that rule, to the point where you could almost call them post-modern deconstructions of the very work they exemplify (Howard's Dark Agnes is an amazing feminist rebuttal to 1930s ideas of female protagonists, for example). It's important to acknowledge the works for what they are, but rather than declare them tainted and unclean forever, it is more valuable to contextualise them and see what we can learn for the present and future.

This "Kirk drift" applies all across the spectrum when it comes to iconic characters. Quick: what comes to mind when you think Conan the Barbarian? A stupid, barely intelligible, anti-intellectual, sexist, intolerent brute. Yet in the original stories, he is smart, has a decent - sometimes even florid - grasp of language, actively seeks out books & philosophers to broaden his knowledge, comes from a much more egalitarian culture, is capable of great gentility, and introduced progressive (compared to classic feudalism, of course) social policies & religious freedoms as king. Yet because of the books by other authors and the pop-cultural osmosis of the 1982 film (which, shadow of the original stories it may be, is still more thoughtful than many give it credit for), people think of Conan as the ultimate alpha male stereotype. And like Kirk, I wonder how and why this happens...

Also, I feel I have to comment on your reading of Fry's quote in "Moab is my Washpot":

"The difference between “please, help me” and “let me help” is fairly dramatic. In Fry’s mismemory, Kirk seems almost to ghoulishly relish this cry for salvation, this opportunity to exercise his own benevolent power over someone in peril."

Having read "Moab is my Washpot" a while ago, I thought this didn't sound quite right:

"I was still stuck at home, knowing that by the end of August, my eighteenth birthday, I would be without A levels, without friends, without purpose, without anything but the prospect of a winding down into permanent failure and losts opportunity. I had started, in King's Lynn, occasionally visiting the public lavatories, cottages as they are known in the gay world, and I saw a future for myself, at best, as an assistant librarian in a moudly town somewhere, occasionally getting a blow job in a public bog. Arrestedd once or twice every four or five years and ending up with my head in an oven. Not so uncommon a fate in those days, or today. Life, that can shower you with so much splenddour, is unremittingly cruel to those who have given up. Thank the gods there is such a thing as redemption, the redemption that comes in the form of other people the moment you are prepared to believe they exist.
I remember an episode of Star Trek that ends with Jim turning to McCoy and saying, “Out there, Bones, someone is saying the three most beautiful words in the galaxy.” I fully expected the nauseous obviousness of “I love you.” But Kirk turned to the screen, gazed at the stars and whispered:
“Please, help me.”
Strange, the potency of cheap television.
I had no concept of such a thing as seeking help..."

The way I read it, Fry isn't using the misremembered quote to criticise Trek at all, but illustrating an idea far more akin to what the episode was about - only with the focus shifted. Whereas "let me help" focuses on the helper, "please, help me" focuses on the person seeking help, as part of the same conversation - of someone finding the courage to ask for help, and for those who can help to have the patience & care to listen.

Thus, "please, help me" can be an affirming, positive phrase, in that it shows someone making the great leap to trust, hope, and reach out to their fellow human being, as they dare to dream someone will grasp their outstretched hand.


@ALHARRON yeah, I do think it's fair to say that the way Fry's using the quote is really sympathetic, and coming from a place of personal need not intended as criticism! I do still think, though, that the way it sits in his memory is conditioned by the Kirk he thinks is possible, and that the way it slides into other people's memories as 'a thing they personally remember' is astounding. When Hugh Laurie says this elsewhere, I think, well, he got it off Stephen, but when those other articles do it I think--all of you believes this because this is, for some reason, an easy thing to believe. You remember this rather than the actual show, which you probably *did* see. /Why/ is that?

Great essay - I will watch for Kirk Drift in future!

I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this essay. My wife and I have recently been revisiting the original series and observing much the same thing: "He knows his Milton! (Space Seed) He was a hard teacher at Starfleet Academy! Why does everyone think him a reckless prick who is only interested in bedding green women?"

But while the new movies (which, technically, are "prequels," even if they do occur in an alternate timeline) egregiously commit to this version of Kirk, they also egregiously violate any sense of military protocol (and Starfleet is the military branch of the Federation). After all, in the first one, Kirk goes from a cadet who has been drummed out of the academy for cheating to a captain. It's absurdity in the highest. What the original series established was that Kirk had a long experience in a variety of stations, serving on other ships and even teaching at the academy--commanding the Enterprise was the culmination of all of that, not just something he lucked into. He was actually experienced, and this experience showed.

By contrast, the Star Trek reboot was basically Space Camp (anyone remember that 1986 movie?). Like the kids in Space Camp, Kirk was sent into space unprepared and unqualified but survived somehow--because it doesn't take actual skill to do all this stuff, just luck, right?

And that there dynamic is just as poisonous as the bullshit Kirk of popular memory. Because we want to pretend that actual skill and experience mean nothing. Every REAL man has it within him to succeed without recourse to even the standard training montage. That's why we elected a white supremacist mango to the highest office in the land, because who needs genuine political experience when being LOUD and BOLD surely qualify one for leadership, right? The Kirk of popular memory is Donald Trump.


Thank you for this. I've written a few articles on the subject myself, so I obviously agree -- the popular impression of Kirk as a reckless, authority-hating womanizer has little or nothing to do with how he was actually portrayed. As such, I've always wondered where that notion comes from.

This also explains why I loathe the Abrams-Trek movies. These movies may feature characters named Kirk and Spock and Uhura, and a ship named 'Enterprise', but they are NOT 'Star Trek' in any meaningful sense. The movies have none of 'Star Trek''s morality or optimism -- and they're apparently written by people who have never actually *seen* ST:TOS. Or if they have, they've somehow managed to completely misunderstand it. The characters in the Abrams-Trek movies aren't Kirk, Spock, et alia -- they're poorly-done parodies of the characters, at best.


Excellent essay! but I totally missed your point #5. I watched ST:TOS in its original form and ad nauseum in syndication, and I never saw anyone in a religious light. I saw a half-human Science Officer.



See I assumed it was a law school type situation (or something like the midshipmen's training you see in Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, the first book of that series), where Kirk was another student/cadet, but set a high bar for others to compete with? I think your explanation makes as much or more sense, though.

Mm, I've thought a lot that the nu!Trek movies' treatment of violence is very much predicated on no one producing it having been involved in way, when so MUCH of the on and off-screen staff of the original were? The program takes combat more seriously, and is reluctant to engage in EPIC-scale glamourised violence, where for the new films conflict is perpetual and always-distant, impersonal and unreal: the drone-strike-somewhere-else generation.

And I guess there's the presumption that a general-audience wide-release adventure film CAN'T feature competent people working with each other/systems because that would be boring. Really? You can't think of good, rich stories that could arise from that? What did you want about Star Trek when you chose to remake it? Even if it's just the famous, successful name--what strategies do you think it used to *become* so known and thus so appealing to you as a franchise? IDGI.


I mean, ST2009 worked for me on its *entirely* divorced from ST's mechanics terms, like a really weird Shakespeare staging might, and I've enjoyed where the fandom took it much of the time. But not only are successive movies less successful, they unfortunately reveal the underlying problems with the first in ways that retroactively break *it* more.

Matthew Nielsen

Fantastic, well thought out essay! Definitely helped refocus my own drifting a memory of Kirk, but I agree the idea of this drift and its power to shape our interpretations of past events/persons/etc. (fictional or real) is important far beyond this one case.

As you sought to explain why and how this happens, the idea from psychology of confirmation bias came to mind as a potential explanation for much of the staying power of "Kirk Drift" once it has started. Confirmation bias not only leads us to seek sources that confirm our held ideas, but also affects what we notice when information is presented to us and what we recall. If we have an initial idea of a character (Kirk) gained by osmosis from popular culture (he's a womanizer), when we are exposed to the actual text (ST:TOS) the parts we will be more likely to pick up on and later recall will be those which affirm our prior beliefs (those specific scenes of the four or so episodes where maybe something Kirk had sex). These specific instances then are readily generalized to the show as a whole. Perhaps confirmation bias can even help explain the start of Kirk Drift as external beliefs from society/culture/oneself could also influence what we notice and remember from the show (in addition to how it is interpreted, of course).

I know I'm not the first person to mention this, but I wanted to touch on the concept of "rash Kirk" vs "restrained/logical Spock."

It always seemed clear to me that the only three characters with true agency on the show were Kirk, Spock and McCoy. (Yes, there were occasional exceptions where Scotty had the main narrative, but those characters were mostly there to react to the main three).

One reason that was so was to model them as id (McCoy), ego (Kirk) and superego (Spock). In other words, Kirk is the leader not because he's passionate (though he's very much in touch with his emotions), but because he uses his rationality, logic and cunning as tools in the same way he uses his compassion, love and anger. For the most part, he's the perfect balance, capable of making decisions that fulfill his duty, but they're always tempered by his compassion.

Even Spock and McCoy aren't 100% logic or emotion. Spock's human half emerges at key moments, and McCoy showed repeatedly that he can get hold of his emotions. But only Kirk showed that he can utilize either set of tools, or a mix, when things got really hairy on the missions.


As I look at the comments about the Abrams version of Kirk, I'm reminded of John M. Ford's comment (offline) about the 1993 version of _The Three Musketeers_ that each generation gets the movie they deserve. Ford wrote two transgressive ST:TOS novels, but died almost 11 years ago, so we can only imagine what he'd have to say about the Abrams movies -- but it may be reasonable to draw a connection the fictional (Kirk) and real-life (Bush etc.) men-children blithely blowing stuff up, to loud cheering, without being responsible. Hollywood isn't totally hopeless; we have _Arrival_ (a financial as well as critical success) to contrast with Erin's comment about a presumption that competent people working together is boring. But that success was on a smaller scale; studios looking for blockbusters seem to be uninterested in the modern equivalent of _2001_

This is altogether excellent. Two points: in emphasizing the ways in which the Drift serves conservative interests I think you under-emphasize the extent to which it serves a kind of self-congratulatory stance, a kind of moral masturbation, by progressives. In fact, the Bad Boyfriend seems to clearly instantiate "self-congratulatory progressive." If that's right, and you are right that there are conservative functions being served, then the question in my mind would be, how do these two phenomena, progressive tradition erasure and contemporary progressive self-congratulation interact and mutually support each other? Without knowing what would emerge from such an inquiry, I sense it would be fruitful.

Minor, second point: one small piece of evidence for your thesis on the specific Kirk thing is the John Scalzi novel "Redshirts" which (like "Galaxy Quest") creates a barely disguised version of Star Trek which conforms to the reception-erasure. It's a brilliant novel on its own terms but it is very critical of "Kirk's" total indifference to his crew, his egoistical willingness to sacrifice them for his own greater glory. In other words, the portrait is a hallucination just like the hallucinations you describe. It's worth a glance at if you decide to return to this subject.

Tim B.

As someone who's watching TOS for the first time as an adult, thanks for the article. Personally I had a memory of a shot that zoomed in from an external shot of the Enterprise and go through the dome at the top to the bridge to Kirk sitting in the Captain's chair without any apparent edit, I've got to The Way to Eden and it hasn't appeared to surface so far, and in hindsight it would be a fairly expensive/technically difficult shot for a mid-sixties TV show to attempt unless they were going to use it multiple times.

I think the mis-remembering of Kirk begins with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, there are a lot of elements to it that attempt to create a false memory of Kirk & the show in general. The Kobayashi Maru simulation establishes Kirk as a rule breaker from the academy onward, Carol Marcus's insertion as a love interest & the use of a character that actually appeared in the Original Series serves to further muddy the water.


This is fantastic.

To zoom in past the structures and look for the methods with which this kind of thinking replicates, not the reasons why it does — it’s not just unconscious regression toward a mean and it’s rarely not deliberate. It’s something else entirely: the need for a heuristic. We have this sloppy shorthand because someone always needs shorthand. There’s so much elided in it, this isn’t just the work of dedicated fans left unmoored. Someone always needs shorthand, and not just because they’re lazy: laziness doesn’t commit you to learning something that contradicts your own eyes and ears. You don’t need to know the party line to casually enjoy part of a pop culture property, most don’t. You need to know the party line to sound correct when you’re that guy, expounding on something at parties. Knowing the party line and speaking like he believes it gives the illusion of being knowledgeable, that’s his benefit, and that’s why so many people know this non-fact. He benefits passively, without intent, and while I’d plot him closer to its aggressors than most on an axis, he’s still a civilian in the Great Meme War. Truthiness isn’t just a second-rate truth substitute, it has features the original is missing: it’s easy and quick, it’s taken as canonical in a way something merely correct is never guaranteed to be, and it has utility not just for the plotters who craft it but for anyone who puts it into use. The way we knew Kirk is Zapp Brannigan is the way Zapp Brannigan knows most things. The non-fact is a perfect tool for self-aggrandizement and a plainly poor one for any kind of real inquiry. We all have so many of these little psychic parasites, they looked like mutualists once, and there’s probably no hope to audit them. When all you have are bludgeons, and we wonder why there’s such little appetite for fine detail work?

It's been a while since I've seen any of the TOS episodes, but checking out some of the references linked to helps. I have to wonder - might the "Kirk as Womanizer" myth come from his never being rejected? Even when he's putting the moves on a woman in order to help the Enterprise or the crew, he still succeeds. Was there ever an episode where the woman said, in effect, "Don't bother, you're not my type..."? There was "Amok Time", but that was a VERY special case, and wasn't done out of any actual interest in Kirk.

This was brilliant and well worth the time to read, thank you! When I've watched TOS in recent years I've been surprised by how well rounded and thoughtful Kirk's character is. Somewhere along the way I'd swallowed the whole Kirk as womaniser myth. Thanks for confirming my sneaking suspicion that he's actually nothing of the sort!

Martin Hennessee

I despise the fact that "Kirk Drift" seems to have infected the Doctor in the new version of the show, what with all his sexy heartbreak and ethically questionable time-travelling romances. However, as far as the creators go...

I am not sure why you chose to say "Since 2008 only two women have written (single) episodes of Doctor Who, and their inclusion occurred after significant criticism." I don't think this is actually correct, and also requires that you ignore the two scripts by Helen Raynor in 2007. She wrote two more in 2009, and has two episodes of Torchwood to her credit. She was also the script-editor for the first four seasons of new Who,and we can't forget the massive influence of executive producer Julie Gardner on the series as well.

Seasons 5 - 8, under a new production regime, did regrettably lack any female scriptwriters, for which producer Steven Moffat was rightly criticized. (In the director's chair in the same period, however, we found Hettie McDonald, Catherine Morshead, Sheree Folkson and Rachel Talalay. Meanwhile Alice Troughton has the distinction of being the only person to direct episodes of Doctor Who as well as both its spin-offs, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures.)

Season 9 included single scripts by Sarah Dollard and Catherine Tregenna (who also wrote 4 episodes of Torchwood) and the current Season 10 has another episode by Dollard and one by Rona Munro, who also wrote the final episode of the original series back in 1989 (with two more episodes directed by Rachel Talalay).

So...Doctor Who needs a lot of work in this area, but it's not like women's voices are completely absent. I hope future show-runners will continue to seek them out and improve this track record!



I'd completely agree with you re: Doctor characterisation, not just re: sex but also re 'DANGER SEEKING'. New Who's involvement with a post-empire masculinity crisis merits its own whole essay.

I'm sorry if I missed out Raynor in the Moffat transition, but choosing to elide pre-Moffat work was quite deliberate, because I do think the show's involvement with diverse production staff shifted during that period, and that once Moffat was firmly at the helm, power became increasingly and problematically concentrated in few and homogenous hands. I would way Raynor and Garnder were *very* important! But then /that they weren't', and that this change did a lot.

I was attempting to speak of seasons 5-9, marking out those 2 eps, and I don't think I had access to season 10's new author-list when writing.

I would further add that while those female directors' presence is beneficial, it actually isn't *much* given the volume of episodes produced across Who and spinoffs during these years? There's another argument in contrasting that ratio with television production or BBC production more generally, but I think my overall point would be: I expect the number of female directors to be approaching 'half', by 2017, and to show a marked increase over earlier eras, and I'm not sure it's doing that for me. As much as I enjoy Survival, I am also unconvinced by a line I've seen on social media, that this single-ep writer and the young actress will strongly inform the writing of a black queer female character. The claim seems to me to display a wistful naiveté about how writing-staffs work, what actors can do, and the power dynamics involved. It's like how everyone mysteriously thought Capaldi would be able to 'reign in' script decisions. What?

I sadly think it unlikely that this trend will be more than cosmetically alleviated (to offset criticism rather than because the producers believe this will add richness and truth to their story-universe), given that certain production decisions/changes have left power in very few, and very homogenous, hands.


WoK is interesting, though, because that love interest is--a respectfully settled thing in the past that produced a son. It's not really a massive SEDUCTION arc in the present, or even when it happened? There's some tension in that she's told him she wants he and Star Fleet to have not that much to do with her, her child and her work, but the problem seems in part geographic and career-related: he's off doing his thing, she and her son are off doing theirs. There's not much opportunity for collaborative child-rearing/family-building in that.

Also, I sort of think that ST2009 makes the Maru scenario something different than WoK? In WoK, I feel Kirk's discussion of it frames it as /a solution to the test/, as does the reaction of his appraisers. It would then be not rule-breaking, but an answer to the test that questioned it's parameters, that broke it a little in trying to answer it. So while I think people began to mis-read TOS even as it was airing, as they did for, for example, B7 (I quoted really odd programme descriptions above), I think the films are both examples of this and victims of the process.

There's a lot in what you're saying, and I think it's dense but really good?

Marine Biologist Friend in Voyage Home brushes him off, and several of the alien women involved in 'seduce to survive' are actually interested in other people/aims beyond him? He's very much a side-quest for them. The episode involving the ship being taken past the Galactic Barrier by hostile forces is a good example of this.

I've been thinking a little about Wrath of Khan since reading this essay, because the Kirk from that movie has always been "my" Kirk, and I've been wondering whether he already represents a skewing of the original character (though of course some personality change would be inevitable given the difference in his age). Looking back, I think it's telling that the conflict in that movie isn't at all about Kirk's relationship with Carol or any anger she might have about how it ended. It's all about David - his resentment of his absentee father, and Kirk's wistfulness about the life he might have had with him and Carol (which will be repeated with Picard, particular in Generations).

To be honest, a lot of this comes down to 80s discomfort with non-traditional families. The idea that Carol might have chosen to have a baby on her own, and that this would represent a non-controversial choice that doesn't necessarily make Kirk a cad, is one that the film is clearly uncomfortable with. Same with the possibility - never even suggested - that Kirk could have had a relationship with David even over a long distance and without living with his mother. It's very easy for "Carol didn't want Kirk in her life because he was too in love with his work and with spacefaring" to slide into "Kirk the womanizer wasn't going to be tied down with a wife and a baby".

(And yes, totally agreed about the subtle but crucial difference between how WoK presents the Kobayashi Maru incident, and the way it's spun in NuTrek. The former is an expression of Kirk's deeply-held convictions. It reveals something about him as a captain - as well as his flaws as a man. The latter is presented like Kirk cheating at a computer game. He knows that it doesn't matter, and he doesn't care.)

Tim B.
The shot you remember is from "The Menagerie." It's when Spock first starts screening the Talos IV mission at his court martial.

I've been subliminally aware of Kirk Drift for years, but never recognized it until you pointed it out just now. Everything you say makes perfect sense to me.


Great article, very nice work.

I just had to comment, though, on the NuTrek discussion. I think you're being a bit too cynical there.

While it's obvious the filmmakers weren't approaching things completely thoughtfully (indisputably evident with the Marcus underwear scene, though respect to Abrams for later recognizing the issue and apologizing), it's clear that Kirk's immaturity is portrayed critically (especially even in the derided Into Darkness, where he is not only reprimanded multiple times but also has a humbling moment where he realizes his rash decisions could cost his entire crew their lives).

I feel like the fact that these films are in an alternate timeline has to be brought up. I assume you didn't because it's not really relevant to the fact of the kind of character they're portraying him as, but I do think it's something too important to neglect. This isn't the same Kirk as before, and it isn't supposed to be. Aspects of this Kirk's life are different and they've affected who he is as a person and as a captain. References are made in both Into Darkness and Beyond about how he wasn't ready to be a captain. Much of his characterization and the inner conflicts he faces (and the things people are critical of) in both comes from this, that he wasn't ready and prepared for the position in the same way the TOS Kirk was.

Spock is different too, but he's not Spock in our collective misunderstanding of Spock the way Kirk is - his occasional human impulses aren't forgotten in lieu of making him a robot, in fact I'd say his human half is more consistently on display than it ever was in TOS. Which is to say I don't think the NuTrek films are just trying to be our idea of "what Star Trek is," more they're just trying to be their own thing. Whereas the original series was more issue oriented with larger socially conscious conflicts, these new films are more based in personal character conflicts. Which is why, I think, that we see a much less all together Kirk.

Obviously there's nothing wrong with being critical of this approach, it is far removed from what Star Trek originally was, but I don't think it's as insidious as you're making it out to be. Which brings me back to me saying you're being a bit too cynical, not just of NuTrek but also of mainstream blockbusters. Maybe I'm giving filmmakers too much credit, but I think a lot of contemporary "asshole" action heroes have the "asshole" component for the sole purpose of criticizing that component (as NuTrek does). At least I'd like to think so.

Peter M Smith

This was such a great essay--I really relished your acuity, Erin. Thank you!

Peter M Smith

Oh, and in response to DC, I feel like we have to be critical of filmmakers celebrating know-nothing assholes as worthy leaders, since we're having so many problems with that in reality at present. (And it seems to me like the "criticism" the films make of these guys doesn't really do much to undercut the glorification.) Very short line from NuKirk to George W. Bush--"I'm the decider!"--not to mention the current president.

Of all the things that enraged me about ST2009, the reframing of the Kobayashi Maru was probably the worst. (And I walked in not even thinking that I was that invested!) It's like the whole notion that this character could do something out of principle, to make a philosophical argument, was unthinkable. Instead we get a self-satisfied man who's smug about his ignorance and gets thoroughly rewarded for it, and again, that's just way too close to home...


Wow. Just wow.

Thank you.

I rewatch a couple of dozen TOS episodes every year. Thanks to this amazing piece I'll get even more out of my next rewatch than usual.

You've also had an impact on an SF screenplay I'm writing, I'm gonna cram in even more professionalism, planning and EARNED respect than I already had. Thank you.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) your article also changed my mind on the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. I've gone from mildly optimistic (mainly due to Meyer's (TWoK) involvement) to "I probably won't watch it because they'll make it dumb".

But again, thank you.

Very enjoyable. Puts me in mind of several essays by Samuel R. Delany -- particularly "The Rhetoric of Sex, the Discourse of Desire." Delany has long been interested in how heterosexist discourse re-writes historical memory in just the way you describe here.


First, let me commend you on a wonderful essay. This captures and crystallizes many thoughts I've had on this subject in recent years. As someone who has had a long professional association with Star Trek, encompassing work on TV as well as in prose and video games, I'd like to say that I think your observations are spot-on.

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the irony that “Kirk Drift” seems to have crept into your essay. In Section 6, you wrote:

The original run of Star Trek films’ most dramatic moments (Kirk screaming at the death of his friend

This is a common misremembering of a pivotal moment in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and one that was incorrectly referenced by Star Trek Into Darkness. The moment when Kirk shouts "Khan!" was not motivated by the death of Spock; it was, in fact, a ruse by Kirk to fool Khan into thinking he had beaten Kirk by leaving him stranded inside the Regula planetoid (when in fact Kirk knew his ship would be back to beam him up in a matter of hours).

If one were to re-watch the ending of Wrath of Khan, one would find that Spock's death scene plays out rather quietly. Kirk barely raises his voice to call out Spock's name over the intercom, but then his voice breaks. The rest of their conversation plays out in whispers and sotto voce conversation.

Curiously, this dynamic is repeated in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, when Kirk is confronted by news of the murder of his son, David. He sinks back against his command chair; he can barely make himself heard as he mutters, "You've killed my son." Kirk was not one to shout at death; quite the opposite. True loss tends to crush him into silence.

All of which is part of my criticism of Star Trek Into Darkness — it tried to cash in on the pathos of moments to which it had no honest claim, and then it didn't even pay homage to the correct moments.

“Kirk Drift,” indeed. 🙂


I am elated to read work that so clearly states why ST2009 feels as it it were created in the Starship Troopers universe -- because our culture must de-skill its heroes, for easier propagandistic use. Once the US openly denied funding and support to the UN, and rogue paramilitary elements created terror in the name of opposing One World government, continuations of the franchise would have to focus on the individual in service to himself, not to a greater organization.

The crack in the wall, for me, came with DS9's Section 31 -- once it was created in canon, their culture became our culture, reined in by willful ignorance, capable of deniable cruelties.

TOS was different. And you just proved that I wasn't wrong, to think so, when I first encountered it.

What happens, once we lose the skill to imagine better civilizations, on a mass-media scale?

Your article and insight are a great contribution, which jogged my personal mis-memory on multiple levels as well as reminding me of all the reasons we need more like DC Fontana at the top levels of our world-building teams in genre entertainment in this generation. I'm sharing this widely among my circles of geekdom & entertainment industry.
Thank you for thinking it, articulating it, and writing it.

Interesting that you mention the Starship Troopers universe. Say what you will about Heinlein's novel promoting a fascist and militarist view of society, one thing it did do was celebrate the skill and professionalism of its characters. The movie (I've only ever seen the first one, and am only vaguely aware that there ever were others) completely undermined that, with the same sort of unmerited Instant Promotion that Trek 2009 had. While the movie was explicitly NOT trying to be a faithful adaption of the novel, one of my main impressions of it was that the main character of the novel would have been horrified by the attention and promotions that the main character of the movie received.

Matthew Kressel

Fantastic article. Thank you for putting to words what I've been feeling for a long time. Everyone needs to read this.

Reading this made me want to go back to school.

It took me a while to acclimate to the flow of your prose, and I wish I'd had a different reader so I'd have read the footnotes as if they were parentheses. (It's like reading DFW in an actual printed book: so much easier to stay afloat).

I'm an old Gen-X scifi (patently not sf) lover who grew up watching TOS after school on one of the 4 channels we had to choose with actual manual interface to the TV, and I admit I haven't gone back and examined the work with any kind of criticism. Now I will. Thank you for that.

I'd really like to put in context the arguments you make about Kirk's masculinity (and treatment of race, gender, determinism in general) with the historical context of the TV show when it was aired originally and again when it became a staple of afternoon rerun devotion. I just don't know enough about how much risk TOS took, nor the extent to which the message of the series had an effect on or was reflected by the social norms of the 60s through the 80s.

So, yeah, why not do that part next!

Oh man, this is so freaking good. I have been making this argument about Kirk for a long time, and I am so glad to see it so well presented.
And then how you take that and extrapolate out to the larger issue.. Fantastic.

For years, I swore I was gonna write this. Now I don't have to. What you wrote was about a thousand times better than what I'd have written anyway. Great article!

Shayne Weyker

The essay offers the explanation that Kirk's repeated seduction of women within episodes was a means to an end in the show and can always be can be explained as serving the best interests of his ship/crew/justice in every case. But the TOS show setting these seduced women up in the plots over and over to be the male lead character's objects of manipulation and to celebrate this as a tool for the hero's success in the plot does seem like it puts a stamp of approval on that manipulation and the weakness of the women Kirk goes after. And that's worth making fun of and criticizing. Even though that's not the same thing and a far more complex thing than saying Kirk tries to seduce every woman he meets during episodes and he thinks all women desire him. I think the author cherry picks her cases a bit when she uses the "Cat's Paw" and "Conscience of the King" to focus on as those women characters can resist some or are working their own hidden agenda at the same time. A lot of the other times Kirk seduces women into love him and doing stuff for him the women are far more minor and objectified characters.

Also I think there may have been another green dancing woman in either the episode with jack the ripper or the delegation of diplomats on board the ship. The author might want to check that.

Finally I think the author has to back up that claim that Kirk was cautious with his ship. Kirk was fond of bluffs and emotionally antagonizing the opponent (the opposite of Picard) to get them to make a mistake rather than playing the odds and going based on the facts. And the bit with him personally flying the shuttle into the mouth of the "The Doomsday Machine" is an example of excess personal risk taking I think. His death in a crisis would risk the ship and crew.

Shayne Weyker

Also I don't think one can separate the reappearance of Kirk's old lovers in the plots from the women he seduces for reasons. The regular relationships may not have been manipulative but In both cases the women all serve to confirm Kirk's ability to get women to love him and, if I recall correctly, some kept some of that love for him long after the pair broke up. If Brannigan thinks all the universe's women love him, as far was we can tell from TOS, a lot of the the women in that universe really do love Kirk, or would if he pursued them.

Thank you for your brilliant essay. About a year ago I wrote an essay entitled 'The Future of Star Trek' following the announcement of the new Discovery series (TREKMOVIE.COM and on Reddit), in which I defended the ideals set forth in the original series, and charted my reading of their degradation through later ST series up to and including the rebooted films. This essay had tangential connections to my Fantasy Reddit essays on heroism and the rise of 'Grimdark.' The former was a response to my anguish over what my beloved franchise had become, while the latter was triggered by frustrations within the genre I happen to be published in. I greatly appreciate your connection between the evolution of popular definitions of heroism with the devolution of Kirk's complexity as a character, as to me the two seem intimately connected, and are inherent components to our present ethosphere.

Creatively, alas, my satirical fictional out-takes on the subject (Willful Child and its sequel, The Wrath of Betty) slammed head-first into knee-jerk misreadings (head meet knee, ow) and the subtext of my critique (and dismissal of Kirk The Sexist) got lost beneath the overt send-up of all things Star Trek. I'll see if I can do better with the third and final outing (The Search for Spark), but it's probably a lost cause. No matter. My point is this (as a writer): I didn't watch much Futurama but I can sympathize with its writers -- these are difficult times for satirists. One ends up pushing further and harder in an effort to get a rise out of ... anybody. And when it does happen, it's often the wrong rise. But even in satire, readers take only what they want to take from a work. Some stuff they get, other stuff they miss. And sometimes, it's so spot-on that readers recoil in fury (no-one likes getting called out).

What I've seen of Futurama was vicious (and viciously funny). And if Zack Brannigan was satirizing a modern (and inaccurate) meme of James T. Kirk, then is it really Kirk who's being satirized, or the meme? Sometimes, satirists are too clever for their own good.

Robert B. Marks

There's a lot of things in this essay that are quite good, but also a few things that are quite flawed. Specifically:

1. The author really doesn't seem to understand the concept of parody. The idea that Zapp Brannigan is supposed to be in any way a faithful representation or reflection of Captain Kirk is just wrong. And, to quote the same Wikipedia article the author uses on Brannigan's character: "the initial premise for the character was 'What if the real William Shatner was the captain of the Enterprise instead of Kirk?'" So, Brannigan is a character who acts like Captain Kirk but with none of the underlying competence, drive, or expertise, all played up to 11 - and it's probably more a parody of Shatner than the character he portrayed.

2. I rewatched the original series when the remastered version aired on NBC, and one of the things that came to mind was that Kirk really is something of a jerk sometimes. But there are episodes where he's not just a jerk, but an insubordinate jerk. In The Trouble with Tribbles, Kirk's disrespectful conduct would have gotten any real officer relieved of command. Yes, he's a competent officer and there is no doubt that he is in his element in command of a starship, but he does have a brash streak.

3. As a Russian Jew, this really does trouble me: what is described in The Conscience of the King is NOT genocide. It is a massacre, yes, and most certainly a war crime. But there is no particular ethnic group targeted. It's not ethnic cleansing, or the deliberate annihilation of a people or race. "Genocide" is an extremely loaded word, an act born of intense racism and hatred, and it is not a term to be used lightly.

Otherwise, it's a good article, although somewhat long. For the most part, I enjoyed it, and it was thought-provoking.

"Hornblower in space" was Roddenberry's original elevator
pitch for Star Trek, but the central feature of Hornblower's
character was too difficult to do on television (at least not
with Shatner's acting ability): Hornblower is perpetually
dissatisfied with himself; there's a complete disconnect
between his self-image and the way the world sees him. With
Kirk, this degenerated into some troubled musing in the
Captain's log and shooting worried looks at the camera right
before break.

Anyway, I'd suggest looking around for other versions of
"drift": they're pretty common. Reputations diverge from
reality, the Nth sequel is a caricature of the original,
fans of a popular song don't seem to have heard it's lyrics
("Born in the USA" is a good example), and so on.

Joseph, I agree. Other versions of drift do seem common. The first one that comes to mind is Outlander. I have many friends who love the series, and after several recommendations to read the book, I gave it a shot. Now, it's not truly in the SFnal category (aside from conveniently placed time travel), but there's a drift that astounds me. In Chapter 23 of the first novel, the hero rapes the heroine, TWICE. Whenever this comes up in conversation, my friends all forget this detail and remember it as romantic while I'm here looking at them like WTF?!? Seriously?!? What in the actual fuck?!?

It's pretty clear if you read the chapter, but for some reason, people misremember the events and fill it in with something more comfortable. I suppose this is sort of the opposite end of the Drift spectrum --
where instead of inflicting violence on a healthy masculine characterization, like with the Kirk Drift, people soften a character to lessen the violent nature of what was presented. Mind-boggling.

To Erin, thank you for the wonderful essay. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and am rewatching ST:TOS now.


@JOSEPH BRENNER With respect, has that not always been the central problem of screen adaptations of texts that heavily emphasise internal monologue, or indeed the particular qualities of their prose? The Hornblower film was plagued by this issue (to the extent that it seemed to give up entirely), as indeed was the serial. Coming up through 'Midshipman', the televised serial had some 'carry over' implied trauma-interiority (though the televised Midshipman elides the depths of Horatio's depression), but of course the books weren't written in that order, so the chronologically-later books don't themselves necessarily evoke that ret-conned reality. Also, Hornblower looks very different from Bush's POV than in his own.

I mean for similar reasons we don't have, and perhaps there can't be, a really good Great Expectations, David Copperfield or Remembrance of Things Past (or, re: medium, good Pratchett adaptations). It'd take some generic doing, some formal experimentation, to access these texts' novelistic qualities. Though I do think actually that TOS *tries* to give you this Hornblowerish interiority heavily at some points, say with the 'no beach to walk on' monologue. Whether it's entirely successful is perhaps somewhat beside the point: how successful was filmed Hornblower at doing Hornblower? *And* the later Hornblower serial had access to more 'novelistic' televisual narrative strategies than TOS, things that had yet to be developed or weren't logistically possible than TOS aired (as well as a lot more money to play with, which does make a difference at the level of storytelling: certain expensive/difficult telling camera shots do wonders, etc).

However I do think Stefan's work makes clear that the connection between these texts is deeper than 'elevator pitch' at both production and finished-product levels. I'm very persuaded by his quite substantiated argument.



1. I would suggest that parody has ramifications, and can sometimes overwhelm the source-text. Also, the ideological content of parody is not random or without consequences.

2. I wouldn't necessarily deny elements and moments of brashness. That is not the argument I set out to make. Overall, however, I submit that there is a difference between a Kirk who has moments of brashness and the current pop cultural idea of Kirk.

3. As Also an Ashkenazi Jew, I find this particular nitpick unsubstantiated. Spock states in the episode that the massacre of 50% of the population was carried out in accordance with the perpetrator's 'own theories of eugenics'. ( This suggests events that would meet even the strictest definitions of the term genocide, nu? Especially in light of the Eugenics Wars mentioned in "Space Seed", the story's clear post-Shoah parallels and the post-War production context. Frankly I think you'd be really stretching to claim this was not a genocide event.

This was a somewhat long comment; for the most part, I didn't enjoy it.



Yeah, I know the sentence you mean, and I think actually I had two examples there, the shouting and the tearing up, and deleted the first, the shouting, because it /was/ a ruse. Then (I think?) the sentences smushed together and over successive edits I didn't catch it. x_x Stare at something too long and it's all mush. And tangled up in one's brain/overlaid is the Into Darkness re-staging, which of course has no real claim to that, as you suggest! (That's exactly how I feel, re: the appropriated/not-quite-working pathos.) Something to fix for the print version.



As Jareth said to Sarah, I wonder what your basis for comparison is? The episodic structure of the series also necessitates a lot of Events, more than would happen irl. The traditional wisdom goes that no one wants to see CS Forester's long passages of sailing dramatised. Compared to a contemporary or more modern show, as I tried to imply with the Scrubs comment, I don't think TOS necessarily has more romantic plotlines. Is Kirk pop culturally considered more of a 'horn-dog' than Frasier? Yes. Who undergoes more romantic plotlines? I haven't done a count but I'm willing to bet it's Frasier, even if we curtail our analysis to the first three series. Yet how are these texts and characters perceived and remembered?

You could say one is a mundane text and thus lends itself to more dating, but it's not Realism, and the show also has a host of other potential plots to employ. Choices have been made here. Other characters within TOS have several romantic plotlines as well (and they're not the protagonist, so it'd stand to reason if they have less). Again: how are they perceived and remembered?

Also, I don't think TOS isn't sexist, as I said. What you're suggesting is a more complex narrative analysis of why several plotlines (19, by this count enable Kirk-kissing. That's fair, but it's quite different from 'the many seduction' line. I think we have to deconstruct The Many Seduction to see and analyse real issues.

"as far was we can tell from TOS, a lot of the the women in that universe really do love Kirk, or would if he pursued them"

Can we? < I think this person's breakdown of the aforementioned video clarifies many of the instances. This brings us to 8 'Kirk attempts seduction as a tactic' cases. As I said above, several of the women involved in 'seduce to survive' are actually interested in other people/aims beyond Kirk? It's not About Him.

The author isn't interested in making a longer argument about risk-taking at present. The author would again point to the incident-heavy nature of serialised drama, the structural demands of corrective polemic, and the relative, relational nature of her own argument: not no risks, but far, far fewer than the pop culture idea of Kirk might lead one to believe. The commenter is welcome to investigate this at length. The author would be interested in such an analysis.



Thanks for your comments!

"And when it does happen, it's often the wrong rise. But even in satire, readers take only what they want to take from a work. Some stuff they get, other stuff they miss. And sometimes, it's so spot-on that readers recoil in fury (no-one likes getting called out)."

That's a really neat summation of it, yeah. I think part of my dislike of Futurama comes from how over-hyped it was when it was airing? (At least in my circles.) Perhaps I should get over this, but the humour never particularly worked for me? There would be good lines but overall I thought it had a kind of grating sitcomy quality. I mean some modes will never work for some people. And I do think Brannigan is like--a crystallisation of what people already thought, in a way? I wonder what work exactly that character did to create this feeling rather than offer up a solid image that corresponded to and could become an avatar for how people felt. It'd be interesting to really dig into the history of commentary/fannish discourse, but it's probably a project for someone more detail-oriented/archival in their instincts than I am.

Shayne Weyker

I think you could add to the kiss scenes the several scenes throughout the series with women crew members where they seem to express love or desire for Kirk through body language and verbal cues. I'm thinking mainly of Nurse Chapel here but there may be others. That ups the evidence for the claim most women in TOS desire Kirk.


Chapel has a thing for Spock though? And her ex-fiancé. Idk if she ever showed flickers of interest in Kirk but her main romantic interest in the show is for sure Spock, per Amok Time.

Yes, exactly: I've never seen a filmed version of Hornblower I thought was worthy of the name. (Try watching the 1951 version some time... my theory is all the good actors were communists.)

In general, interior mental states aren't easy to capture on film-- not with out the voice over technique, and that's generally regarded with contempt.

But this all makes me wonder why you regard the Star Trek captains as such close analogs of Hornblower ("Picard is yet another transplantation of Hornblower into space: it’s more pointed this time"). Star Trek is a clear descendant of naval fiction, but the Hornblower stories are only one example, however prominent [1], and yes, like I was saying clearly they *tried* to Hornblower with Kirk, they just didn't get very far, and I have the impression they dropped it after awhile.

I haven't read much of the Stefan Rabitsch, the bit that's available online doesn't look that great to me:

His abstract makes it sound like he hasn't heard the pitch "Hornblower in Space", but the excerpt at the second link makes it clear he has. So he wants to argue it's more nautical than western? That's fine, but seems a little obvious (for all I know this is a point that "largely escaped scholarly attention", but if so that's a good reason to ignore the scholars in this field).

[1] Consider:

Dawn Runner-Carey: You're Outlander example is an interesting one... I was just thinking about an example that goes the other way: fans of the Korean series "She's Beautiful" want to believe that the male main character was the product of a rape, but I can't find anything like that in the story. Apparently his mother was too promiscuous for their tastes, so they've sanitized her biography with an imagined rape.


Shane Weyker: "And the bit with him personally flying the shuttle into the mouth of the "The Doomsday Machine" is an example of excess personal risk taking I think. His death in a crisis would risk the ship and crew."

Um, no. It was Commodore Decker of the Constellation who flew the shuttle craft into the maw of the machine. The slight damage that did to the machine suggested using the Constellation to destroy the machine; they set up a timer to destroy the Constellation, all of the party except Kirk beamed back, and Kirk had planned to beam back once he started the timer, but the transporter system on the Enterprise was malfunctioning due to damage from the earlier attack on the machine, which they were able to repair in time to get him back. And with that misunderstanding of yours we see yet another example of Kirk Drift!


Shane Weyker: "Also I think there may have been another green dancing woman in either the episode with jack the ripper or the delegation of diplomats on board the ship."

Kara in "The Wolf in the Fold" did not have green skin. (And I might add that that's an episode whose view of relations between the sexes is, oh, pretty dated.) There might have been a green-skinned character in "Journey to Babel," considering they also had characters with blue, gold, purple, and pink (and I don't mean Caucasian but pastel-beach-towel pink) skin, not to mention pig faces on board. I don't remember any dancing in it, but it's been a while since I've seen it.

"The regular relationships may not have been manipulative but In both cases the women all serve to confirm Kirk's ability to get women to love him and, if I recall correctly, some kept some of that love for him long after the pair broke up."

Or you could describe them as retaining affection for each other even after they've separated. Since I've done the same with all but one former girlfriend, I consider that perfectly healthy and admirable myself.

"I think you could add to the kiss scenes the several scenes throughout the series with women crew members where they seem to express love or desire for Kirk through body language and verbal cues. I'm thinking mainly of Nurse Chapel here but there may be others."

I think you're thinking of Yeoman Rand. Nurse Chapel had a flame for Spock.

Jana Jansen

Thank you for this article! What you describe here has bothered me for a long time. And "Kirk Drift" is a cool term.

Some additional thoughts:

The "Kirk as womanizer" myth is old. I first encountered it in Kathleen Sky's 1978 novel "Vulcan!". There's a scene where Kirk tries to flirt with the female guest character, and she reacts by asking him if he wants to add her to his collection, pointing to his legendary reputation with women. When I read this at the age of twelve, I was flabbergasted. What on Earth gave the author that idea? Certainly not the show I had watched!

Another Kirk myth I've come across is that Kirk, unlike Picard, ruthlessly kills his enemies. This one really irks me, because one of the things I like about Kirk is his kindness. He solves problems by
talking. He always offers help. On two occasions, he gives out planets to defeated opponents. Even when he pursues a military solution first, he gladly changes his mind in the light of new information. In "The Devil in the Dark", the fact that the Horta doesn't attack him immediately is enough for him to give up his plan of killing it and instead suggest to "just talk it over".

I like your observation that Kirk and Picard aren't very different. It's true - there are TNG episodes, e.g.
"Darmok", where you could replace Picard with Kirk without changing a single thing. The differences I do see make Kirk even less of a stereotypical action hero: He's playful. He has this big smile. He's passionate about helping others. He questions himself, and he apologizes for mistakes.

IMO the eight "seductions as a tactic" in the linked list are too many. Kirk didn't seduce Drusilla, she
was assigned to him as a slave. When he kissed Marlena, he pretended to be his Mirror universe counterpart - that's playacting, but it isn't seduction. And he really fell in love with Rayna.

And I hope I'm not invading the author's 🙂 territory when I answer one of the other commenters:

@Shayne Weyker:

There is no green dancing woman in any of the episodes you mentioned. There is, however, another one in the animated episode "The Time Trap". She's called Devna and acts as the spokesperson of a multispecies council in some kind of "pocket dimension". She doesn't seduce anybody, and nobody seduces her.

What makes you think that "Kirk was fond of bluffs and emotionally antagonizing the opponent to get them to make a mistake"? He does use bluffs occasionally, but much more often he talks to people to win them over. And the only episode I can think of where he emotionally antagonizes an opponent is "By Any Other Name", when he provokes Rojan into attacking him to show him how human he and his people have become. Kirk then uses this insight to persuade Rojan to give up his galactic conquest plan and colonize an uninhabited planet instead. Again, a crisis solved by talking, although there's a seduction and a fistfight leading up to it.

When Kirk flies the starship (it isn't a shuttle) into the mouth of "The Doomsday Machine", he does so because somebody has to do it, and he doesn't want any of his people to take a risk he wouldn't take himself. His death wouldn't risk the ship and crew because Spock, Scotty and Sulu are all perfectly capable of taking his place in a crisis.

Most TOS women don't love Kirk, from Elizabeth Dehner in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" to Vanna and Droxine in "The Cloud Minders". Chapel definitely has a thing for Spock - she expresses her love for him in the very first episode she appears in, "The Naked Time". As for the "seduction as a tactic" cases, Andrea is really interested in Korby, Kelinda is really interested in Rojan, Sylvia is interested in sensual experiences, and Lenore Karidian wants to kill Kirk. The only one who fits the bill is Shahna.

I don't feel as though I have any terribly intelligent comment to make, but I wanted to say that this was a fascinating read. I can't remember the last time I was so impressed by a scholarly examination of pop-culture.


Well, Jana Jansen said what I wanted to say much better than I did. Ignore me and listen to her.

Jana Jansen

@Mike: You're too modest! I like your thoughts about retaining affection for former lovers. And our comments on "The Doomsday Machine" complement each other nicely.



Thanks for your comments! Good point re: the Horta (love that one). And I'm very happy for anyone to step in and debate further! You do a really compelling analysis of risk-taking behaviour or lack thereof. Absolutely agree, also, re: those female characters actual interests in your final paragraph.


I think that's a *really* fair point about previous relationships. Surely it would be a little odder if, in all the cases we knew about, there weren't such hints of lingering mutual fondness? :/


I wrote, “Kara in ‘The Wolf in the Fold’ did not have green skin. (And I might add that that's an episode whose view of relations between the sexes is, oh, pretty dated.)”

I failed to make the most important point though! Kara went off with Scotty, not Kirk. –Also, one idea that occurred to me is this: One reason for the trope of the green dancing girl might be that the very last scene in the end credits of several episodes was of one of the green dancers.

“I think you're thinking of Yeoman Rand.”

Reading the Wikipedia pace about the character, I learned that she was meant to have a thing for Kirk—they were supposed to be attracted to each other but not to act on it. She was written out, supposedly, to give Kirk a wider space to play the field, though that might just have been making do after Grace Lee Whitney was dropped from the cast, either for alcoholism or budgetary reasons. Even so, her departure didn’t turn Kirk into a skirt chaser of the modern mold despite the character’s later reputation, as this post shows. My view in a nutshell (not sure it’s worth fleshing out) is that even if he was supposed to be some sort of ladies’ man, ladies’ men in that time and place didn’t act like those of today. Standards of public behavior and of personal privacy have really changed in the last 50 years.

It’s an interesting question though where this view of Kirk as skirt chaser came from. I read a number of early Star Trek novels as a boy and remember some of them had hints along those lines. The only book from that time I remember though is Marshak & Culbreath’s Star Trek: The New Voyages, which I really liked because it had a more authentic SF feel to it than most of what I had read in the ST line. However, it also had a story where Kirk got knocked out or something in a drunken brawl on shore leave, etc., etc., which even at the time seemed like a story about someone else entirely who happened to share Kirk’s name.

This really opened and blew my mind. I look forward to re-watching TOS with an awesome new perspective.

Also, I'm sorry but my nit-picky inner Trekkie can't help but point out: The name of the character on Voyager was "Kes" and not "Kel."


50-Year Mission paints a Don Draper-type portrayal of Roddenberry himself, although the more egregious stories are from TNG. Roddenberry gave women power and opportunity that almost would not fly in sixties television but believed in women as sex objects who were trying to manipulate him.

I agree that Kirk is a hero. If Spock always defeated Kirk you would have a very different show. Instead you have balance and arguments for humanity.


About Holocaust memory in particular, remembering it as a free-floating metaphor for evil does few people any good. Remembering it as part of a people's history is very important. I was able to read recently Jabotinsky's testimony to the Peel Commission where he could not express the horror of what was happening in Europe, which could not have been any later than 1937. The idea of Zionism doesn't depend on 6 million dead, but the choices of the founding generation of Israel are conditioned by not having been able to do anything to stop it. If you are going to wrestle with Israel in 2017 you have to remember the beginning as accurately as possible.

Jess Christiansen

There's no reason to suppose Nu!Kirk sexually harassed Christine Chapel, or even dated her. In ST:ToS, Nurse Chapel was Little Miss Inappropriate Unrequited Crush, mooning around after Spock until he finally threw soup at her to make her quit it. So maybe Nu!Kirk was her crush-object, and she bored all her friends silly with obsessing and fantasizing over him, while he never even noticed her.

Jana Jansen

@Jess Christiansen:

TOS Chapel wasn't "mooning around after Spock". She only showed her love for him when she was under the influence of the Psi 2000 virus in "The Naked Time". He threw soup at her in "Amok Time" because he was in the early stages of Pon Farr and reacted aggressively to anyone who tried to help him - he also threatened McCoy to break his neck. Later he went to her and asked her to make him some more soup. And then he ditched her and went to get married. He treated her really badly in that episode, and yet she was her usual, friendly, professional self in the final scene. So I'd say your interpretation doesn't work.

I don't know if this is something that's come up in the comments -- I confess they're too numerous at this point for me to effectively parse everything at 1 a.m., but I wanted to make a couple of points about the purpose of 'remembering right' in the current cultural and sociopolitical climate.

I got into Star Trek as a 15 year old in 2009 -- nuTrek was responsible, and Kirk/Spock the major mechanism of how I mainlined the entirety of TOS and the movies, and then simply...didn't proceed onward after that, aside from First Contact. From the get-go, I was enamoured with something that I've come to understand as the soldier/thinker schema, though obviously with K/S the soldier is also a sort of philosopher-general. It appears often in the non-canonical ships I've been involved with, most obviously K/S, Alex/Darwin for the six minutes in the X-Men: First Class movie that they interacted, and Enjolras/Grantaire from Les Miserables. I tie it back to my first historical crush, even; Alexander the Great, who, also, gets misremembered, misquoted, and reduced to either a madman or the greatest general who ever lived.

I'm talking about this because this schema I've fallen into, which has existed in basically all of the fanfiction I've written to some degree or another. I know this, and I can see it in basically any story I want to transform. It comes out of recognition, and you can only recognize something if you're paying adequate attention.

(For example; I've spent a year and almost a half in deep contemplation of the Jesse Eisenberg iteration of Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman, and it took nearly that long for me to finally understand a scene that ate my viscera but eluded my conscious understanding; I was paying attention, but couldn't parse what I'd seen into conscious meaning until I reread a specific biblical passage)

Transformative fiction, in fact, I think is intrinsically tied to the current climate of cinema in particular. Big budget, high-advertising films right now are almost always reboots or adaptations of something that came before. And what is a reboot or an adaptation but IP-sanctioned, big-name fanfiction?

Pop Culture!Kirk is a fanfiction, a headcanon that thus can be countered. It's why, in my view, that 'remembering right,' and doing it loudly when it comes to reboots and adaptations as they come out, is pivotal to swinging popular consciousness in a progressive direction. It's the heart and soul of the anti-Hydra!Cap movement in the Marvel fandom, the obsessive defense many DC Extended Universe fans have created for the characterizations there (I'm not immune; again, see my parenthetical about Lex Luthor above), and the way in which, when a new adaptation or reboot of a beloved property is announced, a fair portion of people cry out for the addition of representation -- it's a backlash against that reductive misremembering of the canon, and it's people seeking to be seen.

As a filmmaker this stuff is intensely interesting to me, and while I don't agree with all of your views on the older Star Trek movies, this was a really excellent essay and I'm grateful that you wrote it.

This is an excellent essay. Thank you.

As a fan of the original Star Trek and having recently rewatched and enjoyed the whole original series, I was surprised to realize how far Kirk has drifted in our collective imaginations. He was as I had remembered, but I know he is remembered differently by many others. According to Roddenberry's book, The Making of Star Trek, Kirk was explicitly based on Hornblower with his competence and responsibility. The show was progressive for its time as Roddenberry intended. Dig up Nichelle Nichols account of how she nearly quit the show save for the intervention of a fan, Martin Luther King, and you'll get a sense of this. Science fiction is as much about the present as about the future.

This kind of drift in memory tells us a lot about our own society, its anxieties and concerns. Our current cynicism about the original Star Trek does not say good things about us. Star Trek was about ideas, a lot like the original Twilight Zone. In fact, some Star Trek episodes were Twilight Zone episodes, except with a continuing central cast. Nowadays, our entertainment avoids ideas, especially important societal ones. Actually addressing them is too likely to upset the status quo, so they are avoided.

Rewatching the series, it was interesting to see the central trio coalesce. There was the classic duo of body and soul, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with an added Everyman. Everyman as a character was common in the post-WW2 era. WW2 had been Everyman's war, and Everyman had earned a new respect. Much of this has evaporated. Now it is more every man for himself. It's hard to write an entertainment with any idealism in it without invoking some atavism. Interestingly, George Orwell said this about the 1930s with social progress deadlocked and the cynics in charge. Horrible things happened.

The original Star Trek has held up well, but the movies were, at best, decent fan service. The only good Star Trek movie was Galaxy Quest, perhaps because it dealt with delusion and cynicism but by the end came to accept the show's idealism. Renewal means something more than just another season of episodes.

Thank you for an important essay! I first saw TOS in 1969, so I didn't have to overcome decades of talk about Kirk, and I could see the actual character. I hadn't realized quite how lucky I was until I read your essay saying that newcomers can't perceive the actual Kirk for all the baggage in the way. 🙂

Kirk has flaws, but overall, he's an admirable human being, and he's mostly a rule FOLLOWER, mostly a sane, wise, and humane person. And as for the "womanizing," I dismantled this four years ago in my essay "Mistakes to Avoid When Writing TOS.

West Riding

I've been rewatching TOS for the first time as an adult and have been surprised by how much I've liked Kirk. At the age of 8 or 9 (and brought up in the North of England where public displays of affection are rare) any romantic scene was excruciatingly embarassing to watch. We'd all just groan and hide our heads in our hands until all that soppy, sloppy kissing stuff was over. The snippets of TV or film from childhood that I remember best are all ones that provoked emotion - Aunt Agatha being shaken to death by George Warleggan in the 1970s BBC Poldark, the worry of the mouse in Mary, Mungo & Midge getting lost in the big city or the embarrassment and bafflement caused by Kirk's love scenes....So maybe my emotionally skewed memories and the memories of others who watched TOS as children and didn't pick up the nuances or subtleties of plot, meant that many of us were already primed to accept the drifted version of Kirk?

Amazing, amazing, amazing. Thank you! As someone who dearly loves TOS and hates what "Star Trek" has devolved into, this article is a balm for my soul.

And it's nice to not have people staring at me funny when I saw that Jim Kirk was a huge nerd.


This was fantastic 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻, thank you.

[…] “Kirk Drift.” This entry in Erin Horáková’s Freshly Remember’d column smashed the record for most popular item of any category on our site last year. In her essay, Erin traces the change in the popular culture perception of Captain Kirk of Star Trek franchise from his first days in the original series. Do you think of Kirk as a reckless, rebellious womanizer? Think again. […]

Excellent essay!

For whatever it's worth, the Kirk-as-Womanizer trope was already in use in the 1975 Star Drek parody by Bobby Pickett and Peter Ferrara.

Lisa Padol

Still reading and enjoying. I remember being boggled by the dismissal of Dr. Elizabeth Dehner in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" by critics who seemed to believe the "frigid" crack, made not by Kirk, but by Gary Mitchell. What I remember is that Kirk appealed to her as a professional: ":You were a psychiatrist once. You know the ugly, savage things we all keep buried, that none of us dare expose. But he'll dare. Who's to stop him? He doesn't need to care. Be a psychiatrist for one minute longer. What do you see happening to him? What's your prognosis, Doctor?" I love what that shows about both of them in contrast to far too many more "modern" cases of Strong Women Characters Who Fall Apart At the First Sign of Pressure.

Jana Jansen

It's great that people are still commenting here.

@S--: I've recently come across a refutation of the myth that dates back to 1974. The fanzine T-Negative 23 contains a fan letter that says: "What is all this talk about Kirk's being a dirty old man? On "Star Trek" he seemed to be just a normal, adult male (surrounded by normal, adult females!). [...] He seemed a little old-fashioned about the love-and-marriage routine. [...] Three of the women on "Star Trek" were old girl friends of his -- all very serious ones at one time." She then goes on to disprove another letter writer's remark that "Dr. Helen Noel apparently didn't resist the good captain at Christmastime".

So the myth already existed back then, and was already being refuted. The question remains - why did it come into existence in the first place, and why is it so persistent?

@Lisa Padol: I love that scene. I've always liked Elizabeth Dehner for the cool competency she radiated. She had that in common with the Diana Muldaur characters. I also like that it was basically she who defeated Mitchell, and that Kirk, after killing him, walked over to her, almost lied down next to her, and without saying a word kept her company until she died.


Thanks so much, that’s a really useful/interesting bit of archival research!

Jana Jansen

You're welcome! I tried to send you an e-mail with some more details. Did you get it?

Yeah, sorry I haven't gotten back yet! Some killer deadlines this week. x_x Soon!

Jana Jansen

No problem, I just wanted to make sure that it didn’t get lost.

Thanks very much for this! Kirk is a misunderstood character, and for all the reasons you listed.

The Journey is still in 1963, but we are eagerly looking forward to Star Trek (in less than three years!) Maybe you'll join us for some in-context commentary. 🙂


This is a great take on Star Trek, at least from a feminist perspective. I won't pretend to have the episodic knowledge you do of TOS, as I haven't watched it nearly as much as I have TNG, but I do have some quibbles.

On Kirk as womanizer: Kirk himself was never portrayed as such, but look at other TV of the time period. When was sex EVER hinted at, let alone portrayed, in an ostensibly family-friendly TV show? And what about the rest of the cast? Spock had the one, ridiculous romantic situation in TOS that was really more about the strength of his and Kirk's friendship. McCoy got some on the holodeck planet. Scotty was framed for murdering a stripper it was implied he at least tried to sleep with (also a dumb episode). Uhura, Sulu, Checkov, Chapel--I can't remember any significant romances for them, aside from the famous Kirk-Uhura kiss (which, again, wasn't about an actual romantic relationship so much as it was about the demands of the plot). But Kirk, time and time again, was either hooking up with women for various reasons or was bringing up old relationships. Player he was not, but compared to other main characters as well as his costars and supporting cast, he was very much the promiscuous one. Also, I'd like to add that while most of his seductions were justified by the plot, the plot itself is not separate from Kirk the character. The plot serves the character, and could easily have been changed to something less ridiculous than "seduce the woman to save the ship." Much of the popular conception of Kirk comes from this idea that he's so suave and attractive that he can just seduce any woman he wants. But Shatner's acting is so hammy and campy that it becomes a joke, and character-defining one at that.

On Kirk as rash captain: I agree Kirk was not rash when it came to romantic relationships. He was always very clear that the Enterprise was his love. However, he IS very much a rash captain in other ways, whether beaming down to lead every away team on a dangerous planet (TNG deliberately changed this, with Riker even objecting the handful of times Picard decided to accompany an away team), arming a primitive civilization with guns, exiling a group of clearly resourceful and dangerous genetically engineered humans on Ceta Alpha V in lieu of other punishment, volunteering for a psychiatric experiment, tries to coerce another civilization into fighting the klingons despite being told not to again and again, interferes with another primitive civilization by killing their god, AND SO MUCH MORE. None of this is a feminist critique of Kirk (except in how toxic masculinity informs his impulses), but it does speak to colonialist, eurocentric, America-first type problems. Some of it just a poorly thought-out excuse to keep our lead on screen, but is still reckless from a character standpoint.

Anyway, overall I really enjoyed your piece. It is interesting that we view progress as a straight line, yet if we look at heroes like Kirk or Picard, they are very clearly ahead of where we are now in terms of male heroism and complexity. They aren't assholes, they make mistakes, recognize them, and try to be better. They can use violence, but tend to use it as a last resort. They're smart, cunning, and capable of great empathy. I do wonder how much this has to do with the influence of Heinlein on Gene Roddenberry and, more broadly, the sci-fi of the 60s and 70s?

[…] or own heads. All those “green memories” have got to stem from somewhere, though, and per Erin Horáková, they ain’t coming from the lady […]

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