The Fifty-One Year Itch
Admiral James T. Kirk is the ultimate space cowboy. The only thing missing from his grizzled-but-handsome look is some spurs…and we're pretty sure the only reason the Stark Trek masterminds didn't include those is because they'd be a touch dangerous to have while aboard a tin can hurdling through deepest space.
As captain of the Enterprise on its famous five-year mission, John Wayne—er—Kirk shot from the hip, said what he meant, and managed to brass his way into saving the galaxy every week with nothing more than a hunch and yard of guts. (He also liked having sex. Lots and lots of sex.)
But if Star Trek II had left his character as simply a sci-fi rodeo clown, it might have been a pretty boring movie.
Luckily, the natural course of time gave the movie a chance to do something entirely new with him. William Shatner was getting on in years, after all—he was fifty-one when the film opened—and having someone that age playing a hard-living space stud just stretches credibility. (If you need an example, look at Roger Moore during his last couple of outings as James Bond.)
So the powers-that-be behind Star Trek II decided that, rather than trying to pretend that their leading man wasn't well into middle age, they would make his character middle-aged.
And, since Porsche dealerships are few and far between in space, his mid-life crisis had to be a lot more dynamic.
Hanging up the Spurs Makes Him Sad
When we meet him in Star Trek II, Kirk's been promoted to Admiral (yay) but is parked behind a desk and afraid that his best days are behind him (boo). His concerns about growing old are present from the beginning, though he leaves it to his friends to voice them:
McCOY: Damn it, Jim, what the hell's the matter with you? Other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?
But there's more than just a midlife crisis going on here. Kirk's "party like it's 2299" lifestyle comes with some serious consequences—consequences he's been able to outrun before now, but which now seem to be coming back at him from all directions.
For starters, there's the fact that he parked Khan on a wasteland planet and never even bothered to file a report. We can empathize—Khan was sort of trying to kill him at the time. But Kirk's maverick interstellar policing gives Khan some grievances that he's set on airing in a properly gruesome fashion once he catches up with his nemesis.
We can't help but think that things might have gone differently if Kirk had bothered hauling Khan to the space-age version of Pelican Bay.
"Wait, What Son?"
More important, there's the loss of his family, which he's blithely ignored until now. He and Carol Marcus had a son, David, who seems like a pretty cool kid, all things considered.
And Kirk missed out on rearing his bouncing baby boy because he was off having sex with space babes on distant asteroids. He missed the whole thing. Now he has to come back and look that loss in the eye:
KIRK: There's a man out there I haven't seen in fifteen years who's trying to kill me. You show me a son and he'd be happy to help him. My son… my life that could have been… and wasn't. And what am I feeling? Old. Worn out.
That's got to sting.
But the biggest thing he's forced to confront is loss of a more permanent kind. As he himself says, he's never had to confront death in any real way, even though he's been happy to deal it out to any space scum he meets, and people in his own crew have died under his command (mostly guys in red shirts whose first names he never got around to learning).
As he says:
KIRK: I haven't faced death. I've cheated death. I've tricked my way out of death... and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.
All of that puts Kirk is a very reflective mood, learning lessons he thought he'd successfully skipped out on and not exactly happy with the process.
But in so doing, he does what all great heroes do: he grows and changes. He learns from his mistakes, and he gains wisdom as a result. It's a classic case of teaching an old dog new tricks, and proof that, when you're on the Hero's Journey, there's no such thing as too old to change.