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How the new ‘Star Trek’ recast Kirk

Fun DVD extra from the 2009 Star Trek reboot, exploring how J.J. Abrams’s team cast the Enterprise’s crew.

How do you recast Captain Kirk—a performance so inextricably linked to its originator, William Shatner? By 2009, Shat-as-Kirk had seeped into our cultural consciousness: the stilted, rambling delivery, the bemused smirk, the paunchy physique.

Fortunately, Abrams and Co. didn’t go down the imitation route. After four decades of Kirk parodies, asking a young actor to do his best Shatner impression wouldn’t have gone over well.

As the new Kirk, Chris Pine, explains,

I talked to J.J. [Abrams, the director] about it at the beginning of the process, and we kind of made a mutual decision that it would be a mistake to try to recreate what Mr. Shatner had done…. There are certain qualities of Kirk that you can’t ignore…, but to try to mimic Mr. Shatner would be a mistake.

Boiling Kirk down to his essential qualities could have proved dangerous, too. Make the Enterprise’s captain too cocky, and the audience might dislike him. Pine makes it work; he captures Kirk’s headstrong charm without turning us off—yet he somehow avoids merely imitating his predecessor.


But there is at least one moment in the film where Pine unapologetically channels William Shatner. In the 2009 film’s final scene, Pine’s delivery of Dr. McCoy’s nickname (“Bones!”) sounds unmistakably Shatneresque. Compare the clip above to some classic Kirk-McCoy banter from Star Trek: The Motion Picture:

It’s a fitting homage. At the end of 2009’s Star Trek, Kirk finally slides into the captain’s chair, so Pine slips into Shatner, too.

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Sell-out

If American pop culture has a High Holy Day, it must be Superbowl Sunday. Not only does the big game venerate our favorite sport’s glorious brutality, but it also showcases our highest art form: the television advertisement.

This year’s commercial cavalcade features this Kia spot:

Here, Laurence Fishburne reprises his most familiar role: Morpheus from The Matrix. The ad parodies the film’s most iconic imagery: the ‘red pill / blue pill’ choice, black-tied Agents, and Morpheus’ improbably reflective sunglasses. The ad concludes oddly; Fishburne bombastically belts out Nessun Dorma, completely subverting the original character’s too-serious aura.

Fishburne joins a long list of actors who have leveraged cult-classic roles into a cheap commercial payday. One example: William Shatner donned the Starfleet uniform to hawk DirecTV? Christopher Lloyd reprised Back to the Future‘s Doc Brown to shill for the same company. Pitching Honda SUVs in 2012, Matthew Broderick reenacted the most famous scenes from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—-only this time, Ferris was middle-aged, all alone, and kind of sad.

And “kind of sad” pretty well sums up this trend—-this undead resurrection of beloved characters. The audience chuckles, but they also notice Kirk’s peculiar paunch, Doc’s now-gaunt frame, and Ferris’ pot belly. Actors line their pockets, but they can’t feel good about cheapening their legacy or about banking on fans’ goodwill.


  1. Both Shatner and Lloyd are perennial offenders here. There was the British power company commercial that combined Star Trek, a Shatner/woman body swap, and German hip-hop group Snap. And it doesn’t take much to get Christopher Lloyd to don the Einstein wig and hop into a Delorean. Check out the shameless intro video for Microsoft’s 2007 Tech-Ed meeting.  
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Trek envy

J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot focused on the franchise’s original characters: Kirk. Spock. McCoy. Scotty.

It must feel unfair to the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After all, in terms of sheer screen time, they’ve got the original cast beat. We have many more hours of Trek with Picard at the helm than with Kirk. Yet no one’s seriously considering a TNG reboot. And even hard-core fans would squirm if Abrams tried to shoehorn Troi or Geordi into the alternative timeline established by the new movies.

That hasn’t stopped the actors from trying. Every so often, Brent Spiner or Jonathan Frakes shameless pitch themselves for the next Abrams flick. “Of course they could bring me back!” they protest, “It’s Star Trek, for God’s sake! A malfunctioning transporter! A clone experiment gone wrong! Time travel! You fans should write letters demanding my character’s return!”

This sort of self-promotion irks me, for several reasons. First, it reeks of desperation. Open groveling breaks my heart. Second, it proves how little these actors understand storytelling. Fan service does not a good plot make. Finally, such role-grubbing seems ungrateful. Where’s the respect for the fictional universe that brought them international fame and commercial success?

Then again, maybe they shouldn’t be grateful. Trek has a way of hijacking actors’ careers. Once you’re typecast as the childlike android or the chair-challenged commander, it’s tough to earn a non-Trek gig.[1] You’re doomed to attend an endless series of nerdy conventions, answering the same questions again and again. There’s only so many times you can wax eloquent about Wesley’s sweaters or Riker’s beard before you go mad.

It’s no wonder that the TNGers hunger for a more mainstream spotlight.


  1. The only notable exception is Patrick Stewart, whose British theater connections (and sheer awesomeness) kept his career from going Picard-centric.  ↩