Captain James Tiberius Kirk is back, baby.
In 1979, a year when disco was king and burnt orange was the color of choice for everything from leisure suits to recliners, it had been about five years since people had seen him as captain of the Enterprise on the original television series.
And though he might not be as capable of hand-to-hand combat with reptilian aliens, he can still command starships and chew scenery with the best of them.
He's also an admiral these days, which, ironically, he hates—it takes him away from the adventurous life of a Starfleet captain. This tension between Kirk's new (and boring) duties as a high-ranking officer and his free-spirited desire to explore the gallery informs his growth over the course of the film.
And don't worry: where there's a Shatner, there's a ton of very enthusiastic acting to let you know exactly what stage of character growth the dude's currently suffering through.
Getting The Band Back Together
In fact, this tension is exactly what leads Kirk to take control of the retrofitted U.S.S. Enterprise mere hours before its inaugural voyage. In Kirk's eyes, he has a valid reason for this: a giant alien cloud is heading straight towards Earth and Enterprise is the only ship close enough to stop it.
It makes sense to have a proven, experienced leader for such a crucial mission, right?
We wouldn't disagree, but Kirk is clearly just looking for an excuse to sit back down in the captain's chair. The life of an admiral probably isn't too exciting—a lot of paperwork and formal ceremonies, we'd imagine—and Kirk is meant to be out there exploring the stars.
Just look at how he breaks the news to the now-former Captain Decker:
DECKER: May I ask why?
KIRK: My experience, five years out there dealing with unknowns like this. My familiarity with the Enterprise, this crew.
DECKER: Admiral, this is an almost totally new Enterprise. You don't know her a tenth as well as I do.
KIRK: That's why you're staying aboard. I'm sorry—
DECKER: No, Admiral. I don't think you are, not one damn bit. I remember when you recommended me for this command. You told me how envious you were, and how much you hoped you'd find a way to get a starship command again. Well, it looks like you found a way.
Yikes. You could cut that tension with a phaser.
With A Little Help From His Friends
And it doesn't take long for that tension to boil over. After the Enterprise is trapped in a wormhole, Decker directly defies Kirk's order to blast an asteroid with phasers, instead launching photon torpedoes. Kirk is furious that Decker defied his authority…even after learning that using the phasers would have destroyed the entire ship.
Seeing this, good old "Bones" McCoy has a few words for his old friend. Check it:
KIRK: Make your point, Doctor.
McCOY: The point, Captain, is that it's you who's competing. You rammed getting this command down Starfleet's throat. You've used this emergency to get Enterprise back.
KIRK: And I intend to keep her. Is it that what you're saying?
McCOY: Yes. It's an obsession—an obsession that can blind you to far more immediate and critical responsibilities. Your reaction to Decker is an example.
Kirk receives some more friendly help when Spock arrives on the Enterprise. Although Spock doesn't necessarily relieve the tension between Kirk and Decker—in fact, he often disagrees with the young executive officer—he reminds Kirk of the importance of trusting his team.
He doesn't need to agree with them all of the time, but there's no need to ignore them out of some misguided sense of insecurity.
In fact, it's not inaccurate to say that Kirk as a character takes a backseat for most of the film. Sure, we watch him struggle with his need to command the Enterprise, but he walks away very much the same guy he was before.
Spock? He's totally made peace with his human side. V'Ger? Totally found its Creator. Decker and Ilia? Totally created a new race of android babes. In contrast, Kirk's character arc seems positively lightweight.
There's one big difference in Kirk by the end of the film, however: he's now firmly planted in the Enterprise's captain's chair. He might've gotten older; he might've become an admiral; he might not even be able to attract alien hotties like he once did.
Even still, there's still no one else you'd want at the helm of your ship when things start getting real.