Last night brought the shocking news that Captain James T. Kirk would be returning to Star Trek, his young self being portrayed by Vampire Diaries’ Paul Wesley in the second season of Strange New Worlds. Unless some typically Trek-y timey-wimey shenanigans are on the cards, the odds are this is a young Kirk in a time before he captained the Enterprise. But what do we know about Kirk’s early Starfleet career?
The answer is surprisingly little, at least on-screen. Kirk’s rise in the ranks was frankly meteoric, given what little we know: Jim entered Starfleet Academy in 2252, and was commanding the Federation’s flagship on its iconic five-year mission by 2265. Five of those 13 years were spent in the Academy’s command training program, balancing studies and practical education with a role as a Starfleet midshipman, serving as an officer cadet and participating in missions—including a diplomatic mission to the planet Axanar, which earned him the Palm Leaf of Axanar Peace Mission. Kirk, of course, also managed to not get kicked out of the Academy entirely, but instead get commended, for hacking the infamously unbeatable Kobayashi Maru practical test, becoming the first Academy student to ever topple the no-win scenario.
If we knew little about Kirk’s time at Starfleet Academy, we know even less about his early career. In Star Trek season one episode “Court Martial” we learn that one of Kirk’s earliest commissions was aboard the USS Republic as an ensign, where he served alongside one of his instructors at the Academy, Lieutenant Benjamin Finney. Finney and Kirk were close friends following their time at the Academy, but their relationship soured aboard the Republic when an error Finney made nearly destroyed the ship—and Kirk logged his role in the mistake, leading to Finney being reprimanded by Starfleet and left unconsidered for promotion.
Which is unlike Kirk, who was very much fast-tracked through the ranks. By the mid-2250s, Kirk was already a lieutenant, and returned to the Academy to teach. In 2255, as detailed in the second season episode “Obsession,” Kirk’s first deep space assignment was aboard the USS Farragut, where Lieutenant Kirk was assigned as a member of the phaser gun crew. Just two years into the assignment, however, disaster struck the Farragut: on the planet Tycho IV, the ship encountered a non-corporeal entity known as the Dikironium cloud creature, which attacked the ship and killed two hundred members of its crew, including the Farragut’s captain, Garrovick.
Kirk, one of the few survivors, was traumatized by the event, believing his delay in following orders to fire upon the cloud creature (which had debilitated him to the point of losing conciousness) directly led to the disaster. But not only was Kirk cleared of wrongdoing by the Farragut’s surviving executive officer, his heroism in the line of duty saw him rapidly propel through the ranks in the wake of the Farragut’s tour.
That rapid ascension meant that in 2265, when Kirk was just 32, he became the new Captain of the USS Enterprise, replacing Christopher Pike, who had served aboard the vessel since 2250—before Kirk had even joined Starfleet Academy. While we don’t know the exact details of how or why Pike left the Enterprise, “The Menagerie,” the famous season one Star Trek episode that uses footage from the series’ original scrapped pilot, “The Cage,” tells us that Kirk and Pike had only met once before the events of that episode, when Pike had been promoted to Fleet Captain—which might be the point at which his service aboard the Enterprise came to an end.
We do know that from there on where Kirk and Pike’s careers would lead them—Kirk on his iconic tour of duty to boldly go where no man had gone before, Pike’s to tragedy, when an accident during an inspection aboard a training vessel saw him exposed to lethal levels of radiation, disfiguring him and leaving him on mobile life support. What else we might learn about Kirk’s early years will likely come to pass in Strange New Worlds.
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