There are a few things I’ve come to expect from Star Trek: adventures on far-away worlds; sleek high-tech gadgets; a belief in the power of diplomacy, empathy, and teamwork over fear, hatred, and a lot of really big guns; a diverse cast of characters who are more family than mere crewmates. And the fact that for as long as I can remember, no matter how hard my tatay tried to convince me otherwise, I hated Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Original Series Kirk was an impulsive, macho, showboating playboy who, as far as I could tell, was only alive because he kept bringing poor, hapless, red-shirted crew members on every ill-advised away team to be eaten/shot/vaporized in his place, and he always had Bones and Spock to pull his ass out of the fire (which he probably started). He broke rules when it suited him, was often more concerned about adventure than responsibility, and seemed to think an overabundance of charm and bravado would be enough to get him and his crew out of any mess they found themselves in.
In short, Kirk was everything my mom tried to teach me not to be when I grew up (unlike my tatay, my mom was not a fan of Kirk either). And not disappointing my mom, living up to her expectations, was all I wanted to do as a kid. After she died, trying to live a life that would make her proud became the roadmap I followed into adulthood. It wasn’t an exact map—I could only sketch out paths based on my memories and the bits and pieces of her life I managed to learn from my family, but I could make do.
The thing about maps, though, is that you eventually reach the edge. And beyond: here there be dragons.
Except instead of finding dragons, I found the rebooted Star Trek universe, and in Star Trek: Beyond, a James T. Kirk whose brash confidence was rooted in something far more intimate and vulnerable than simple lust for manly adventures. Instead of being an example of who I did not want to become, I found an unexpected kindred spirit in this version of Kirk, both of us facing unmapped futures and wondering just what it was that we’d been chasing through the vastness of the unknown.
“One year older.”
“That’s usually how it works.”
“One year older than he got to be. He joined Starfleet because he believed in it. I joined on a dare.”
“You joined to see if you could live up to him. You spent all this time trying to be George Kirk, now you’re just wondering what it means to be Jim, why you’re out here.”
—Kirk & Bones, Star Trek: Beyond
After Star Trek: Beyond opens with Kirk’s escape from a diplomatic mission gone awry, Bones meets him alone to share a toast for Kirk’s birthday. Kirk is understandably not in a celebratory mood—after all, the day he was born was the day his father died, heroically saving Kirk, his mother, and what was left of his ship’s crew. But this year is different. This year, Kirk is a year older than his father had the chance to be. Now that he’s outlived his father’s example, he has to face up to the fact that he has no idea who he is or who he wants to be, and he’s got no one but himself to look to for those answers. And it’s scaring the shit out of him.
My mom died when I was 11 years old, a few weeks shy of her 41st birthday. In 2019, I turned 41. I was a little heavier with more white hair and more stress than the year before. I still had a loving partner. Friends. Cats. A job. Side gigs with looming deadlines. Notebooks mocking me with half-finished essays and partially sketched story ideas. Plenty of plans and intentions to keep pushing myself forward. The world was on fire but it was still spinning.
I was still alive. And it scared the shit out of me.
What do you do when you’ve spent your life following an internal map based on an idealized memory of a lost parent, only to reach the edge of that map with decades still left (you hope) and nothing but endless possibility stretching out before you? Where do you even start to redefine the borders of yourself? What do you reach for to anchor you before you leap into the unknown?
“It is not uncommon, you know, even for a captain, to want to leave. There’s no relative direction in the vastness of space, there’s only yourself, your ship, your crew…it’s easy to get lost.”
—Commodore Paris to Kirk, Star Trek: Beyond
I’ve spent a lot of time wondering what my mom’s life would have looked like after 41. It’s like looking through a Viewfinder with scratched lenses—you can see blurred outlines and vague shapes, but no matter how hard you strain your eyes, the details remain just out of reach.
There is no question, when I look at pictures of my mom as a kid, as a teen, as a woman in her 20s with her whole life ahead of her, that I am her child. You could trace the contours of our faces and—but for my slightly wider nose and her slightly higher cheeks—follow the same pathways.
I know a little about who my mom was, although a lot less than I’d like. She was the youngest of three children, the only girl, and apparently the most stubborn of the three (and having met my uncles, that’s saying something). She immigrated to Chicago when she was in her mid-20s and met my tatay, 20 years her senior, after taking piano lessons from his sister (it wasn’t until after my mom died that I learned that she had already been married once. And when my parents met, my tatay was already married and seeing at least one other woman; within a few years of that meeting, my mom became his new wife).
She had been diagnosed with MS when I was a toddler, and by the time her compromised immune system lost to a second round of pneumonia, she had been bed-ridden for four years. She taught me how to read, play the piano, bake brownies, to know when tomatoes and strawberries were ripe enough to harvest, to fill out a check and balance her checkbook. I knew she couldn’t stand disorganized, inefficiently used spaces and that it hurt her pride to open a can of Spaghetti-os when she was increasingly too tired and in too much pain to make us a meal from scratch. She was driven, hated asking for help (and consequently taught herself a lot of skills), and had no patience for bullshit.
It’s no mystery where I got a lot of my personality traits. I do have to wonder how many of those traits are actually mine, and how many of them are traits I adopted because I wanted to be like her. How much of me comes from wanting to live a life that she never could? Who would I be if I hadn’t kept my mother foremost in my mind? Who will I be when I’m no longer looking at her for guidance?
I sympathize with Kirk when he submits his request for a promotion that will mean leaving the captain’s chair behind, resigned but making the choice he thinks his father would have made in Kirk’s place, if he’d lived. There’s a kind of predictable safety in the path you think your parent would have trod if they’d had the chance. Figuring out a direction with a compass of your own making holds its own unique terrors, and there’s no one but yourself to blame for your choices and failures.
“As for me, things have begun to feel a little episodic. The farther out we go, the more I find myself wondering what it is we’re trying to accomplish. If the universe is truly endless, then are we not striving for something forever out of reach?”
—Kirk, Captain’s Log, Star Trek: Beyond
I didn’t expect Beyond to be a rumination on the nature of independence and exploration, how easily one can lose themselves in the vastness of the unknown without a map to guide you or an anchor to remind you of who you are. For all that Star Trek posits that exploration is endlessly exciting, the truth is that sometimes facing the unknown can be a burden. Especially when you don’t have a firm grasp on what you want and what you hope to find, and you don’t know when, if ever, you’ll reach your destination.
It’s easy to fall into a pattern of striving for the next thing: graduate high school. Get a degree. Get more than one degree. Get a job. Get a promotion. Find a passion. Find a partner. Build your community. Get recognition for your work. Leave a legacy. Rinse and repeat. I keep doing these things because I think they’re what she wanted for me, for herself, for both of us. I keep striving and pushing because she’s not here to do that for me. She’s not here to do that with me. And the farther and harder I go, the more I question if this is actually what I want for myself, and if it is, why do I want this, if not for her sake?
Whose legacy am I trying to build? Hers? Or mine?
And if I stop, I have nothing to keep me from missing her. For all the possibilities open to me, there’s not a single path I can forge where I’ll find her at the end.
“We change. We have to. Or we spend the rest of our lives fighting the same battles.”
—Kirk, Star Trek: Beyond
From the very first moment we meet him in the rebooted Trek universe, Kirk is a human wrecking ball, nearly careening off a cliff along with the car he’s stolen. It’s clear he’s running away from his father’s legacy: mocking Starfleet, resentful of his father’s heroic status, getting into bar brawls for no reason, blowing shit up. Later, he shifts gears to run toward that legacy, throwing himself into Starfleet, building his own reputation as a hero, getting into intergalactic world-threatening brawls…and blowing shit up.
But he’s still running. No matter what direction he chooses, Kirk chases his father’s ghost and unfulfilled legacy into danger and darkness and the unknown, right up the edge of death.
It’s the only way he knows how to grieve.
Unlike Kirk, I didn’t run, I worked. At everything: being the Good Daughter, the Perfect Student, the Self-Sufficient Woman, the Dependable Employee, the Supportive Friend/Spouse. I didn’t rebel, I was responsible, picking up project after project, looking for holes I could fix, needs I could meet, anything to occupy the space where mounting decades of grief would rush in if I dropped out of warp speed for even a moment.
But I am not the Starship Enterprise and I can’t keep up warp speed forever. Eventually I will falter. And the thing about grief is that it always catches up with you. But what if instead, I change course to navigate a future where grief is part of the landscape that I will pass through—occasionally unpredictable and not without turbulence or pain, but still on my own terms?
In the end, Kirk turns down his promotion to remain a captain, saying “Where’s the fun in that?” It would be easy enough to write this off as Kirk being Kirk, still the playboy, still more interested in adventure than responsibility. But this is a more grounded Kirk embracing who he is, that he doesn’t have to follow the path he thinks his dad would have followed—the academy, rising up the ranks to a captain’s chair and beyond. His choice to head back into unexplored space, to remain in the captain’s chair, is now a choice he’s making as his own self—not as his father’s reflection, not out of obligation to live the life his father never got a chance to.
Kirk isn’t trying to escape his grief in the unknown.
To boldly go where I’ve not gone before, I suppose wanting to follow Kirk’s example for a change isn’t a bad place to start.
© 2020 Michi Trota