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Nov. 28, 2020

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Capt. Pike of ‘Star Trek’ a welcome new icon

On TV, Captain Kirk was the original “Star Trek” leader — steadfast, eloquent, intellectually curious, generally honorable

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In the beginning, in the “Star Trek” universe, there was only Captain Kirk. At least to the general public.

When the Starship Enterprise first whooshed across American television screens on Sept. 8, 1966, William Shatner’s James T. Kirk was the smart leader sitting in the captain’s chair. He was stouthearted. Eloquent. Curious. Fair. Kennedylike, even. He was a principled explorer committed to spreading New Frontier values to the 23rd-century stars.

And yet: Kirk could also be something of an interstellar Don Draper — brooding, arrogant, a top-down manager who earned his privilege but also often presumed it. Despite being progressive for his era, he could be condescending to anyone but his top righthand men — and sometimes creepily appreciative of the women he encountered.

But Kirk had actually been preceded as captain of the Enterprise by Christopher Pike — a stoic, vague figure played by Jeffrey Hunter in a rejected 1964 “Trek” pilot who made only a fleeting appearance in the original series — mainly so the pilot footage could be recycled. The character reappeared in two recent movie reboots, portrayed ably by Bruce Greenwood, but was never a foundational fixture of “Star Trek” lore.

Until now.

“Trek” aficionados were thrilled this month to learn that Pike (now played by Anson Mount), his first officer “Number One”(Rebecca Romijn) and the still-evolving, pre-Kirk version of Spock(Ethan Peck) would be following up their seasonlong stints on “Star Trek: Discovery” with a brand-new show. Called “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” it is set in the decade before Kirk takes command.

And as played today by Mount, Captain Pike — now framed through a creative lens that has captured 55 years of captaining by Kirks, Picards, Siskos, Janeways and Archers — may be the finest, most intuitive leader that the “Star Trek” universe has ever produced.

“Pike’s lack of ego makes him a perfect model of leadership worth aspiring to,” Earl said. Jessie Earl, whose Trek-focused “Jessie Gender” YouTube videos explore social and political issues, said in an episode about Pike last year. “Pike represents what ‘Star Trek’ has always been about: showing us what we could be if we strove to actively pursue and cultivate the best parts of ourselves.”

In many ways, in fact — even more so than Chris Pine in the movie reboots — Pike functions as James T. Kirk 2.0.

Both are utterly principled and committed to their missions. But where Kirk could be arrogant, Pike is steadfast. Where Kirk was expansive and welcomed attention, Pike is wary of it — but seamlessly claims center stage when needed. Most of all, where Kirk was deeply committed to his responsibility to ship and crew — crippled by it, even — Mount’s Pike adds the view of himself as a servant-leader who derives his sense of command not only from the success of his mission but directly from the successes of his crew.

This is in line with how the captains who came after Kirk reframed the notion of command in “Star Trek.” Each contained ingredients that, in 55 years, led the character of Pike from its 1964 iteration (“I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge”) to the more enlightened current version (“Starfleet … is a promise. I give my life for you. You give your life for me. And nobody gets left behind.”).

Of the many “Star Trek” sequels and movies that have emerged over the decades, this will be the first live-action one to take place aboard the starship that started it all — Kirk’s original Enterprise.

And while television storytelling has come many light years since the original series’ era, to hear the producers and actors tell it, “Strange New Worlds’ will strive for the sensibility of the original — a spirit of exploration and optimism, and even nonserialized, single-episode arcs.

They’ll also be exploring the rich history of the original Enterprise itself, a ship so storied that a mail-in campaign by fans in the mid-1970s led NASA to rename the first space shuttle after it.

And smack in the middle, will sit Christopher Pike, charged with embodying everything in a half-century of “Trek” that made captains effective and memorable.

Kirk was a master class in leadership for the 1960s, just as Picard was a thoughtful model for the carpeted, richly paneled bridge of the late-1980s Enterprise-D. But yanking a thinly developed character from the beginning of “Star Trek” lore and offering him up as a model of leadership for the 2020s — well, that’s not an easy task. “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” expected in 2021, will be doing that every week.

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