Star Trek, Kirk/Spock, and the Status Quo
There’s a tendency in fandom — and I’m by no means calling it a bad tendency — to idolize the way a show “should” be. A certain arrangement of characters feels like the right way for them to be related, and that makes sense because the characters were designed that way. This was maybe more prevalent in shows of a certain era when the style was more episodic, less miniseries-like, but it’s certainly still present — Supernatural is the first example that comes to mind. For now though we’ll stick with Star Trek.
The clearest examples of what I mean are in The Next Generation, where it’s a little awkward (in a charming way) because TNG landed right in the middle of the transition from standalone episode shows to the current miniseries-inspired style. So many episodes present a challenge to the status quo when an officer is offered a promotion but return us to it at the end — usually with a handwaved explanation like “Ah, why would I want a command position anyway, that’s a lot of stress,” which clearly means (both within and without the confines of the episode) that they just didn’t want to change, that something felt right about the milieu as it is. Riker was offered three or four separate captaincies, particularly in “The Icarus Factor” and “The Best of Both Worlds,” but turns them down, and is unable to explain why except that those ships aren’t the Enterprise.
In the original series, the circumstances and setting allow the milieu to attain almost mythical proportions. The show is more stylized, there’s no realism there to insist that people’s careers will grow and change, and the status quo is never challenged in the same way as in TNG. Instead it’s challenged more obliquely by violence or injustice (as in “Court Martial”), and the characters are always back to normal by the time the next episode starts. Fanworks and tie-in works go absolutely nuts with this — for TOS and just in general — about the way things should be. It should always be Kirk and Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise. Place a young Kirk in a situation where he has to work with a Vulcan, and you can bet he’ll mention that “something feels right” about it. (This happens often enough to be a trope, but one example is the first Trek graphic novel, Debt of Honor.) Even the new Trek movies, especially the third one, do it. Kirk and Spock are both thinking about leaving the ship, but in the end they decide to stay because it feels right.
We know that the reason characters do this is because they can’t leave the confines of the show without some external reason, but the characters will never understand that because they’re characters. They just know that something keeps them on the Enterprise, in the relationships established by the show. Enter the 1985 licensed novel Killing Time by Della van Hise. This book is rightly famous in certain circles of Trekdom, because Pocket Books recalled it after 250,000 copies to make changes that were supposed to have been made before publication… Specifically changes to make it less openly a Kirk/Spock fanfic. Van Hise was already known as a K/S author, and the edited version is still incredibly shippy.
The book is actually really interesting in itself, though. Rightness is built into the plot, into the very molecules of this universe. It’s hard to sum up fairly, but the basic idea is that Romulans go back in time and change the course of history to eliminate the Federation, but it doesn’t go quite the way they planned. Not only is the Federation replaced by a Vulcan-led alliance (which rightly terrifies the Romulans), the universe remembers the way it was and should be. People remember the way they ought to be, subconsciously and in dreams, and are going very quickly mad because their minds can’t reconcile their new identities with the old.
While there are several diversions into Romulan intrigue, the centerpiece of the book is Kirk and Spock’s relationship. In the new universe, Spock captains the Enterprise (now called the ShiKahr), and Kirk is a reluctant ensign drafted as an alternative to prison. I know, it’s fanficcy, but it provides an opportunity to do some creative worldbuilding about how the Vulcans and humans relate in this world. It’s also romantic in both senses of the word. The book is about their romance, it’s super obvious even in the edited version, but it’s also Romantic in the poetic sense, exalting nature and natural impulses above intellect. This is right, they are right, as a unit. It almost doesn’t matter if you ship it or not, although this is indeed the most overtly shippy licensed work I’ve ever seen. It’s about how they belong together; the universe itself insists on it. I can recommend the book (CN: dubcon twice) for shippers, but also for Romulan/Vulcan worldbuilding and a full-fledged in-universe examination of the whole status quo phenomenon we’ve been discussing.
Lest you think it’s just shippers being shippy though, don’t forget that the show is built like that. See: all the movies, where the crew somehow always shows up to recreate the iconic bridge. It wouldn’t be right without them. Spock’s absence in particular, as in the beginning of The Motion Picture, is fundamentally off, particularly to Kirk. Kirk is consistently shunted into the role of ship captain, bouncing up and down to admiral but always coming back. He’s the focal point, and usually the character with a narrative arc, whose internal thoughts we see the most, and in the movies they’re all about who he is and who he should be as he ages. It’s a powerful story about aging across the movies, and other things besides, but it’s also a metatextual trauma. The most pointed quotes are from The Wrath of Khan, the best of the movies:
Spock: If I may be so bold, it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny; anything else is a waste of material.
Kirk: I would not presume to debate you.
Spock: That is wise. Were I to invoke logic, however, logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.
Kirk: Or the one.
Spock: You are my superior officer. You are also my friend. I have been and always shall be yours.
This exchange echoes of course in the movie’s tragic ending, when Spock sacrifices himself to save the ship. Again, we could say so many things about this because it’s a great movie, but for our purposes Spock’s first line has been forgotten in the impact of the other two. Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. That’s connected to both of the other quotes though: Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, but also for Kirk’s sake, his continuation, the needs of the one. And Kirk cannot live with that, the fans could not live with that, there cannot be another movie without both Kirk and Spock, so we had to have two more movies in service of bringing him back.
Of course, as shippers already know, the saddest part is that Spock does live on after Kirk’s death in Generations, knowing that Kirk was who he was and retiring would never be part of that, even if he wanted it to be. So that you can all be as sad as I am, I’ll leave you with a quote from an unfilmed Star Trek (2009) scene, in which we would’ve heard the message from Kirk that Spock carried the rest of his life:
You once said being a starship captain was my first, best destiny… if that’s true, then yours is to be by my side. If there’s any true logic to the universe… we’ll end up on that bridge again someday. Admit it, Spock. For people like us, the journey itself… is home.