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Star Trek 50: The Autobiography of James T Kirk, ed. David A. Goodman

Star Trek 50: The Autobiography of James T Kirk, ed. David A. Goodman

The Autobiography of James T Kirk is published by Titan Books

“We lived on a farm near Riverside, Iowa, on a piece of property that had about 200 hectares of crops. We grew soybeans and corn, had chicken for eggs and cattle for milk and cheese. As far back as I can remember we were up at 4am every day …”

Such was the childhood of Starfleet’s greatest Captain, James Tiberius Kirk.

Aged 43, having lived a thousand lives on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, Kirk decides to retire to these rural roots. Affronted by his friend McCoy’s disdain for such a mid-life crisis, he reminds Bones of this farming upbringing.

“You grew up in outer space,” replies Bones. “I was there.”

This brilliant book, an imagined autobiography, is the story of James T. Kirk’s great growing up and growing old in the galaxy. From his raw cadet days, to his final hurrah, sort of, as featured in the movie Star Trek VI: Undiscovered Country, Kirk tells us the story of his life.

It’s ingeniously and succinctly done – warts and all, a Kirk autobiography would run to a Sarpeidon library. From the Captain’s chair we get the Jim Kirk take on events we know from the series and films, as well as others realised brand new. Kirk’s bravery and loyalty are present, but also his stubbornness, his anachronistic Mad Men of the future worldly ways, and his drive to succeed whatever the cost.

He regrets many things – lost friends and explorers, his failures as a father, his burden of pride – but he revels in the magic and excitement of space exploration. Looking back, he understands the cycles of his life: when one period of voyage was over, the shore leave, then the yearning to go spacefaring again. Even as we leave him, a man of incredible achievements, he is justly proud of his adventures, but not a little haunted.

I love this book, no other way to put it. Pushing at an open door of course; William Shatner’s Jim Kirk is as real to me as many real people – more so in fact. When I was a kid, he was my favourite by a long way. While the early sections on Kirk’s youth are very enjoyable, the book really goes into warp speed once events start to touch on films and episodes you particularly like and remember. Obviously if you know the Canon inside out, this will be a doubly interesting process, but if you’re just a basic fan like this reviewer, it works just as well. It’s just a great story, well told, well imagined.

As we end, it is 2093 and USS Enterprise B is about to leave the dock. Our man is about to take his seat, a distinguished guest in full media spotlight as a new crew take command. Of course, disaster awaits, and Kirk saves the day – at great cost. Typically – onboard ostensibly as aged celebrity voyager of yesteryear – Kirk finds himself having to wrestle control of the chaos. Somehow these events and their follow-up, the story of the film Star Trek Generations, never seemed the most fitting last show for James T. Kirk. I think this book brings him back a bit from that forlorn cairn on Veridian III for a proper send off.

Of course, to break the spell, it’s not a real autobiography. Of course not – how foolish (ahem) to have been sucked in. ‘Editor’ David A Goodman has done a wonderful job – capturing particularly the tone of William Shatner, his brusqueness at times, that galaxian ego, the gambler. And also that deeper current, the reasons for Kirk’s endurance as a character, indeed the achievement of Shatner’s portrayal – his heart and humanity, his fundamental goodness, his incredibly endearing motivations in the face of danger and destruction. The Original Series Star Trek characters, like Holmes and Watson, say, just have this enchanted depth. They are the vanguard of a fifty year old cultural phenomenon that shows no sign of slowing, and Kirk is their leader – only the very best fictional creations live in this air.

The minute this book begins – brilliantly with a Foreword from Bones (“First let me just say, I’m a doctor, not a writer”) – there’s a soundtrack and a fanfare starting in your head. It’s a book for those of us who hear those first notes of the theme from the Original Series and get goosebumps, for those of us who get sad at the end of Star Trek VI, for those of us who have always dreamed of Starfleet.

This is no ordinary book. This is the autobiography of the Captain of the Enterprise – damn it, Jim!

Author Interview

David A. Goodman has spent the last 26 years writing for television. His credits include The Golden Girls, Star Trek: Enterprise, Futurama (where he Wrote the Nebula Award-nominated Star Trek homage “Where No Fan Has Gone Before”), and Family Guy where he was head writer for six years. He is the author of Star Trek Federation: The First 150 Years. Thanks to the great folk at Titan Books, we got the chance to ask him a few questions.

When I was a kid, everyone had a favourite Star Trek character, whether it was Kirk or Spock, or Arex on the animated series on Saturday mornings. Is James T Kirk your own favourite character? Could you say a bit about why you feel he’s such a compelling character?

Kirk was my favourite character because he was a wish fulfilment; an intellectual leader who could beat anybody up. The compelling nature of the character to me is that the writers and the actor playing him weren’t afraid for him to have flaws, and those flaws give him dimension and allowed, or allows, the audience to believe he’s real. He also is that rare character who actually had a sense of humor. Now, as a comedy writer, I’m amazed at that most of all. Making characters who are funny in their own world is a truly unusual feat.

Even with a new Kirk in Chris Pine, for many, Jim Kirk will always be William Shatner. Were there interesting challenges in writing from a fictional character’s point of view, while also balancing the impact of Shatner’s portrayal, his voice and approach?

Unlike other fictional characters that people might write about, Captain Kirk is real in the sense that he doesn’t exist only in a book, I’ve seen him in real life portrayed by a human, so the interpretation of who the character was on the page was a little easier. The hard part was trying to figure out who he was on the inside, and make decisions about what the important themes were in his life based on what I’d seen, and, in making those decisions, illuminating the character but not contradicting what was known about him.

Like Conan Doyle’s world of Sherlock Holmes, Star Trek has developed a “Canon”, about which fans are variously okay, not okay or horrified with any reimagining. Can you say a bit about the unique challenges in balancing this intricate timeline when writing the autobiography? Did it involve a massive re-watch?

It was like a partially completed jigsaw puzzle, some areas filled in, some partially, some completely blank, and deciding what the overall jigsaw picture was going to be based on what was already there. And sometimes those partially completed sections would be a roadmap to the larger picture, but sometimes they weren’t, and I had to make things up to add details to already completed sections. So, as an example, we know Kirk had a son. That son would’ve been alive during Kirk’s time on the Enterprise. What does it say about him? How did it affect him during those missions we’re so familiar with? I also didn’t want to get so lost in the minutiae of Star Trek trivia and details, because someone who wasn’t as big of fan as I was wouldn’t be able to follow the story. It was definitely a great creative challenge trying to say something new about this character while fitting them in with the old and familiar. (And I never really have to engage in a massive re-watch, as I’m always re-watching it.)

With a new television series on the way, the Star Trek legacy seems set to continue for years to come. Can you say a bit about why you think it has had such a lasting impact?

It goes back to the creators, the writers, directors and actors who made that original series. They created a universe that was dynamic and interesting, but also internally consistent, so that, as a fan, you could believe in its reality. If you look at the other shows that were on television in 1966, there really isn’t anything that comes close to being as groundbreaking as Star Trek. Also, the template that Roddenberry created allowed the show to be updated twenty years later and still say something about the time it was produced, and yet also still connect to the show that came before. It’s an astounding accomplishment, and now, 50 years later, they’re going to try again and I’m thrilled.

One of the great attractions of Star Trek is the ensemble cast, the sense of being part a kind of family over the years, from the first TV incarnation to their appearances in later films, into The Next Generation, and the new movies. It’s impossible to imagine Kirk without Spock, Spock without Uhura and so on – they are just an inseperable unit. In many ways, Family Guy seems exactly the same. Do you feel that there are similar dynamics at work?

Any good television show has to rely on a family of characters, so in that way they’re similar, and the only other connection I can see is that Family Guy often tries to make a point about the times as Star Trek did. Otherwise, not nearly as many fart jokes in Star Trek. (I can only think of one, in Star Trek V).

We often ask published writers how they approach the first draft of a piece of work, how they set forth from the idea to nailing that first version. Could you say a bit about your own approach to getting that first draft of a project done?

I have a post-it above my desk that reads “Panic.” Unfortunately for me, the only way I can get a project done is if I’m panicked about a deadline. That’s when I push myself to get that first draft done, the panic helps me look past the fear that I’m writing something terrible or embarrassing. The downside of this is I often feel if I’d taken a little more time, the final draft would be better. I’ve learned, however, that everyone has a different way of doing things, and my mantra is “Trust the process.” But of course I don’t actually trust the process until after I’m finished; during the writing of anything I’m often depressed and filled with self-loathing.

Finally, do you have any plans for celebrating the big Star Trek 50 this year?

Continue re-watching, and hopefully get to write another book (Perhaps Spock? Or maybe Picard?)

Thank you!