March 22nd—and in just over two centuries in the fictional world of Star Trek—is Captain Kirk’s birthday. The iconic captain of the Enterprise (who shares a birthday with his actor William Shatner) is beloved for many reasons—reasons that are often contradictory to Trek’s idealized world. But what Star Trek can we turn to in order to really define James Tiberius Kirk?
To celebrate, we cooked up the ultimate episode guide speaking to the aspects of Kirk that we and generations of Starfleet heroes beyond him and his crew admire most. They’re not just episodes of the original Star Trek television series that Kirk happens to take center stage in; they’re episodes that speak to nuanced, often conflicting aspects of the character that, when considered in the whole, paint the picture of a hero with far more depth than we often give him credit for.
This isn’t just about Kirk’s ability to get his ship around a dangerous encounter, although this episode—one of the earliest shot—definitely has a lot of that. The Enterprise encounters the mysterious advanced “First Federation” and its seemingly sinister agent, Commander Balok but it’s about Kirk as a Commander, knowing when (and when not) to push the people underneath him as Captain, how to engage and outwit a foe, and how ultimately to put faith in the people around him.
The idea of Kirk having to survive an accidental sideways step into an alt-reality where the Federation is instead a tyrannical, Human-supremacist Empire by displaying his idealism might feel odd at first. But watching him struggle to keep his better nature hidden when transposed into a world of casual, horrifying cruelty—people who look like those he cares about most are awful monsters—is a remarkable act of tension that truly speaks to just how good a man Kirk is, and how terrible he feels having to hide that.
This is a more polite way of saying that, much to his own glee, Kirk is a delightful bullshitter. “A Piece of the Action” gets to see the Captain at his most joyful as the crew encounter what is basically a plant of ‘20s Americana. But when he, Bones, and Spock are captured by thugs, on the spot Kirk comes up with, and wins, the card game of “Fizzbin” to mirthfully mug their captors. Smart action, quick thinking, but above all, a con that would impress even the most insidious huckster.
“Trouble With Tribbles” is a delight for many reasons, and one of them is the full-on comedic charm offensive Shatner goes on here. But it’s also a great episode to see Kirk bristle at the authority of the Federation, dancing around Under-Secretary Baris to wonderfully cocky effect.
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: this is perhaps still the best episode of Star Trek ever made. It is here that Kirk’s quick thinking, analytical mind comes into play, poking and prodding at the unseen enemy that is the Romulans and their cloaked Bird-of-Prey, a truly remarkable and tense game of cat-and-mouse. That the Captain snatches victory from some smart guesswork and mutual respect for his opponent is just icing on a gloriously rich cake.
While we’ve covered some of Kirk’s more heady aspects already, one sillier one that is still quintessentially him is thus: the ability to talk his way out of a debate with a computer until said computer literally thinks itself into failure. He does it so many times, but perhaps the greatest comes in his verbal tussle with Nomad.
Kirk and women go hand-in-hand an awful lot in the original Star Trek, crewmates, aliens, random passers-by, or otherwise. As much as we should roll our eyes at his womanizing ways, what ultimately speaks most to Kirk as a man of romance is his tragic relationship with Edith Keeler, brought together in the streets of ‘30s New York through time-travel shenanigans. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure, his pain at leaving her to a tragic fate is the truest example of the character’s romantic side more than any of his passing dalliances and smooches could ever be.
To mark Kirk’s birthday in the past, we’ve looked at “Arena” and its infamous scrap between the Gorn Captain and the Starfleet Captain and how it reflected the complex texture of what makes Kirk the man he is, warts and all. It’s still one of the most perfect examples of the man in action—literally, as he two-hand-slams his way through martial combat with a powerful foe, but also ethically, as he grasps with the inherent violence of humanity’s primal self, acknowledging that his civilization’s path to utopia is a constant battle with its past.
These episodes are all about aspects of Kirk’s interior, but you can’t really have Jim Kirk be Jim Kirk without acknowledging his closest friend of all, Spock. “Amok Time” is Spock’s episode, indeed, but it’s also the ultimate reflection of just how far Kirk is willing to go for his number one, as a comrade and crucially as a friend, willing to almost get himself killed to save Spock from the horny, dangerous Vulcan ritual of Pon Farr. Bros aren’t bros until they’ve fought each other in a battle to the fake-death, really.
We often think of Kirk as the kind of old-school, swashbuckling hero of classic TV, cut from the cloth of pulp-story Übermensch who are there to save the day and look good doing it. But what made Kirk so special in Star Trek, and what would continue to define the show’s leads as the franchise endured, was in fact his deep vulnerability. Kirk was a man who had the braggadocio to walk into a dangerous situation and think, talk, and punch his way out of it, yes, but vitally he was also a man constantly in conversation with himself ethically and morally, wondering if he was making the right choices, going with the right instinct—and vitally, embracing that he won’t always be right, as he realizes in “Errand of Mercy” when he hastily thrusts himself into conflict with the Klingons.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.