Date Posted: 25/06/17
Originally published in June 2016 surprisingly (well surprising to me anyway) was not written by William Shatner, the man who played James T. Kirk in Star Trek The Original Series. It was instead written by David A. Goodman. Shatner has written a series of novels which take place after the events of Star Trek Generations in which Kirk is resurrected by the Borg in The Return in order to kill the Borg’s most dangerous enemy Jean-Luc Picard. The books have come to be known as the “Shatnerverse” and whilst they have their ups and downs they are not the subject of this review so I’m going to stop talking about them now.
Now I’m assuming you are already on board with who James T. Kirk is because if you aren’t then it begs the question of why you are reading an article in which I’m going to talk about his autobiography. However, just on the off chance that you are simply a die-hard fan of mine and read everything that I write (hey it could happen) allow me to give you a quick update on James T. Kirk.
James T. Kirk, one of Starfleet’s Legendary Captains (along with Jean-Luc Picard, Ben Sisko and Kathryn Janeway…you’ll notice I didn’t say Jonathan Archer because he was responsible for destroying the Star Trek franchise so is hardly a legendary captain), was born 2233 and was killed in action 2371. He was the third captain of the USS Enterprise and at the time the youngest Captain in Starfleet. The adventures he would have during his five-year mission include making first contact with numerous alien races, tangling with genetically engineered supermen, and doing everything he could for human-alien relations (by seemingly having sex with numerous alien women).
He and his crew, which included the Vulcan Spock and Leonard “Bones” McCoy (played by Leonard Nimoy and Deforest Kelley in The Original Series), also became the stuff of legend within Starfleet. The events of their five-year mission was shown episodically in Star Trek The Original Series (which I haven’t seen) however the events of the films that started with Star Trek The Motion Picture through to Star Trek VI The Undiscovered Country are something that I am familiar with. I have seen the occasional episode of The Original Series, I made a point of watching Space Seed (this was the episode that introduced Khan who would be the antagonist of Star Trek II Wrath of Khan) and Doomsday Machine which featured the Planet Killer. As a result during the book some of the events that Kirk talked about I knew related to certain episodes of the show and the films, however, because as an audience we have seen the events of The Original Series as well as the films the author, David A. Goodman, doesn’t tend to dwell too much on what we have already seen.
The book starts off by informing us that the narrative we are about to read was completed by Kirk not long before he was killed in action (that action being the events at the beginning of Star Trek Generations when Kirk is “killed” during the maiden voyage of the Enterprise-B and pulled into the Nexus).
I don’t really know how to talk about an autobiography because I have never actually reviewed one before, as far as I am aware autobiographies tend to simply tell the story of a person’s life. This book instead gives various instances and events that have happened in Kirk’s life which we may not have seen in the show or films. There is some crossover with the films and TV show, but these tend to be Kirk commenting on what has recently happened, and things that he was able to look back on with the power of retrospect.
The first third of the book happens before Kirk even makes it to the Enterprise and talks about his early life and training at Starfleet Academy. In order to become a Communications Officer in the Grand Seniority’s Advanced Reconnaissance Fleet I had to go through significant training, this isn’t the kind of job where you just wander in and they give you a ship, and from the sounds of it the requirements of Starfleet Academy are equally as tough. I have watched The Next Generation and even though there was an episode where they showed Wesley Crusher undertaking the entrance exam to the Academy, it was never really shown what a cadet had to go through the graduate. Everything Kirk describes makes sense, an officer needs to be trained in all aspects of life onboard a starship because in an emergency they may be called upon to navigate the ship, or tend to a medical emergency, do some engine maintenance and so on. Goodman really gives an insight into how tough that life is in the fictional universe of Star Trek and how many cadets don’t make it. The Star Trek universe seems to be about races living happily together but in this book we see Kirk becoming the victim of a bully just because he [Kirk] is a first year cadet and the other guy is higher up the rank than him who decides to victimise him.
This is the best part of the book for me because here Kirk is not the captain already and living in the best quarters onboard the ship. He starts his career with quarters underneath a flight of stairs in the engine room of his first assigned ship and does his duty even when it puts himself at odds with others.
It is obvious when you start becoming an invested in a story and the characters because there is an event Kirk describes when his best and closest friend, Ben, who is working on the same ship as him, ducks out of duty early to send a subspace message to his son. Kirk notices a fault with something Ben had done whilst he’d been on shift, he has the chance of fixing it and not saying anything but Kirk is worried about it happening again if he covers it up, so he fixes the error and logs it in the ship’s record. The next day his friend drags him out of his bunk shouting at him for making him look bad, and not covering for him when he should have. The captain asks Kirk why he did what he did, and Kirk tells him that he was simply concerned if he covered it up (which he could have easily done) it might put the ship in danger if Ben made the same error again. As a result Ben badmouths Kirk to everyone on the ship and spends the rest of his life harbouring a deep seated hatred of his former friend going so far as to attempt to frame him for murder when they end up serving together again years later.
From the third way point onwards Kirk is on the Enterprise but a lot of the stuff that happened in the episodes is only glimpsed or Kirk considers the aftermath of events that have transpired. He romanticises the idea of releasing Khan instead of doing the right thing and sending him and his followers to a prison faculty for the rest of his life. He talks about the sorrow of losing Gary Mitchell, a friend he’d had since the Academy, who was taken over by an entity that left Kirk with no choice but to kill him.
He talks openly about his own arrogance, and how he started to become convinced of his own legend. After he is relieved of command of the Enterprise and promoted to the Admiralty (because that is what he believes is what he wants) he realises that he wants to get back onboard the Enterprise. He takes command from Decker (this charts the events at the beginning of The Motion Picture) after hinting at potentially blackmailing an Admiral that promoted him, as a result he is viewed as being a troublemaker. He burns his bridges to get what he wants. It is a frank admission that he is willing to do whatever he has to in order to get back command of his ship, of course he is looking at everything with the power of hindsight.
Key events that I knew about (like his son, David Marcus, being killed at the hands of the Klingons in Star Trek III The Search for Spock) are given a bit more time to really fester. We get to see how he is dealing with the loss of the son he barely knew. In the films we didn’t get to see much of Kirk really dealing with the loss of his child, and in the book he tells us of what transpired when he told Carol Marcus that her only child was dead. She blames Kirk for what happened, and Kirk is forced to admit that she is right, he let Khan go, he was the one Khan wanted, and that chain of events lead to David’s death on the Genesis Planet. After telling her that he will be there for her he simply writes that after that he never saw Carol Marcus again.
The autobiography is both insightful into the (fictional) life of Kirk and written by someone who is seemingly looking at his life and has started to realise that he has given everything to Starfleet. He has forgone love, and a family, in favour of sitting in the “big chair” and commanding a starship. The Enterprise was the love of his life but ultimately she is not his ship, she belongs to Starfleet and when the time comes the ship is decommissioned. After being made an admiral he does everything he can to get back command of a ship, and for a time his life becomes about the spiral. He captains a ship, gets promotion which takes him away from command, does everything he can to get his ship back, resumes command, then he is promoted (or given a desk job where he can’t cause trouble), fights to get his ship back…and so it goes on…
The book this one reminded me of the most was Boy by Roald Dahl which was written in a similar style to this. It wasn’t a series of events, “this happened, then this happened, then this…” and so on. It started with Dahl writing that he was simply going to tell us, the reader, about things that had happened in his life which meant something. Those events might be something small (a couple of them were only a paragraph or two long) or they might be something bigger, but what they have in common is they all mattered to him in some way and helped to define who he is. This book is the same. It jumps sometimes years between events and we get the thoughts of Kirk as he looks back on what he did with the eyes of a man coming up to his sixtieth birthday rather than a young arrogant man who still believes his own propaganda.
Considering I have read numerous Star Trek books over the years and they are generally really good or really bad, this one falls into the good category. I think it would have carried more weight if I had watched The Original Series but the style of writing in this book is not the same cheesy 60s style that the show was filmed in so I think it would be hard for me to gel the thoughts of Kirk with the crappy music, bad computer effects and hammy acting. I am giving The Autobiography of James T. Kirk a Thumbs Up, it is a decent book that would probably be better if you’d seen the series but considering I haven’t and I’m still recommending it then that has to say something.
8/10 – I enjoyed this book and considering it is one of only three autobiography-type books that I have read and one of only two that I liked that says something about its ability to not only draw the reader in but also make them question the activities and motivations of fictional characters