Captain and Commander

September 3, 2012, Author: AJ Thompson

This summer, I was able to watch the original Star Trek for the first time. In doing so, I found I was making some interesting comparisons to a modern-day video-game. Of course, Star Trek has had a great influence on the sci-fi genre, so it’s not surprising I found quite a few correlations between the popular sixties TV show and the video-game Mass Effect. Besides the general similarities, however, one fascinating connection stood out, and it has everything to do with the show’s lead character Captain James T. Kirk.

I’ll admit that I didn’t warm up to Kirk very quickly. Most of that had to do with my distaste for the actor. Only a few episodes in, though, I found myself drawn to his character in the same way most of his crewmen are drawn to him.

Kirk is a charismatic and passionate person. As the commander of the Enterprise, it falls to him to protect his crew, carry out any and all missions, and ensure the success of said missions. This means Kirk does everything from engage in gunfights, practice diplomacy, handle situations with enormous consequences, and most of all, make split-second decisions that could cost people their lives.

There’s a heavy burden on Kirk’s shoulders. Yet, he keeps a strong face in front of his crew, allowing very few to see the wear and tear beneath. He’s good at what he does and he’s got boatloads of medals to prove it. Despite the myriad dangers the crew always finds themselves in, Kirk brings them through with strong leadership and most importantly, by being the inspiration many of his people need to keep going.

Which brings us to the point behind my piece: Commander Shepard is Captain Kirk.

(For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to Shepard as ‘she’ in this piece.)

Kirk is doubtlessly a talented leader. No matter what situation the Enterprise ends up in, Kirk’s leadership gets the crew through despite great risks and dangers. As the story progresses, it becomes apparent that it is Kirk’s steadfast persona, and not simply his position, which leads to their successes. In him there is a unique capability, a different way of thinking and acting which gives him an edge.

He makes choices and takes risks no one else would dare, and he thinks of things that others wouldn’t come up with. It is his experience and personality which give him his strength. In the same way, it is Shepard’s nature that shapes her into the unrivaled leader of the Normandy. She’s the only one with the talent and drive for her role.

On top of that, both leaders are willing to give their lives for any of their men, taking injury upon their own selves to protect those under their care. Their devotion to their positions and their people is unmatched, which is part of why they are so good at what they do.

Kirk’s determination, loyalty, and his amazing track record have inspired in his crew endless allegiance and confidence in his success. They follow his orders no matter how strange or reckless, because they trust him. The same can be said of Shepard; she inspires solidarity, risking her neck to reach out to others and help them with no thought of repayment. Her unparalleled leadership draws others to her and her charisma makes them stick around.

There are battles in Star Trek, but more often than not, it is Kirk’s speaking ability which is the greatest asset to the team. His silver tongue saves the ship more times than not; his ability to quickly bandy words causes machines to turn against themselves and enemy ships to cease fire. He can seduce, intimidate, or charm with magnificent success.

When all else fails, shoot to kill.

Of course, Shepard’s most important asset is her voice as well. Like Kirk, it is her ability to communicate which often saves worlds and ends conflicts, or begins them. Her voice pulls a vastly different assortment of people together to fight for one cause which they otherwise might not have cared for. Her words are what bring them in and keep them around, when nothing else could sway them. Even characters like Jack, Wrex, and Zaeed listen to Shepard, which is really saying something.

Talking doesn’t always solve every problem, however. In those cases, Kirk is quite ready to take up his phaser. In the show, he battles to protect his friends, his crew, innocent people, and most anyone he meets along the way. He is one of those who takes under his wing anyone who needs protection, and takes it to heart if he fails them. Much like Paragon Shepard, he is a champion for the weak, willing to risk his life for complete strangers who need his help.

Though the situation is very different (Shepard is primarily a soldier, whereas Kirk is not) they are both very capable. Fighting might be their last choice, but it is one they’re still willing to make if they have to.

Now, Kirk is an awesome leader and a strong-willed man, but even he couldn’t lead the Enterprise by himself. It is only with the support of a diverse team that his missions ever succeed.

What’s important about this team is how each person functions as a piece of the whole, each personality a compliment for the others. Apart, they are flawed and unbalanced; together they succeed at almost everything they attempt. It is the whole team which keeps the Enterprise in one piece.

Kirk is passionate, impulsive, and quick-thinking, but the opposite side of that is that he’s easily angered and overcome by emotion. This, of course, leads us to Spock, the first of Kirk’s motley crew and his second in command. Spock is logical, even-tempered, and scientific, and has knowledge Kirk does not. His Vulcan heritage allows him unique abilities which prove very useful during missions, from being able to merge with the minds of others and share their thoughts, to his increased physical strength which allows him to take deadly blows for Kirk and survive.

A stoic alien race with the power to merge minds? Now where have I heard of that before...

At the same time, Spock’s supposed detachment from his emotions leads to problems of its own, and Kirk is always there to remind him that he’s half human and doesn’t have to always be strong. Where Spock thinks of things logically, Kirk thinks up plans Spock wouldn’t contemplate by leading through emotional response.

Another character within Kirk’s close knit team is Dr. McCoy. If Spock is the mind and Kirk the heart, McCoy is the soul. He is perhaps more easily angered even than Kirk, driven to rage when the things he believes in or the people he cares about are in danger. He doesn’t keep quiet about what he thinks, and at the same time, is ready to listen to Kirk when he needs it.

He is Kirk’s oldest friend and something of a guide for him when the Captain feels lost. McCoy is very principled and willing to risk his life for those principles. He cares deeply as well; as the ship’s CMO, it is his duty to watch out for everyone and he takes that very seriously.

McCoy and Spock are obvious foils of each other. If there is a compromise that needs to be made, these two characters will represent the two extreme options of the choice: absolute logic and absolute emotion. Kirk listens to both sides and finds a way to create a middle ground if at all possible, and no matter what he chooses, these two always follow his lead (though they don’t always do so quietly).

The other members of the crew, including Sulu and Uhura, are also integral parts of the team even if they don’t feature as often as Spock and McCoy. Each brings something unique to the party and is a piece of the puzzle that creates the whole picture. Without one, they’d all be incomplete.

In the same way, Shepard is reliant upon a small team of closely knit people who complement each other and accomplish missions by playing off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Like Spock and McCoy, these characters don’t always get along, and Shepard must keep order and play peacemaker with them the same way that Kirk does for his two closest friends.

Much like Kirk’s team, many of Shepard’s characters are foils. Miranda and Jack are quite clearly opposites: where one favors order and control, the other is chaotic and wild. Tali and Legion are also opposites given the histories of their races. In decision-making, each character offers a vastly different opinion, often contradicting each other, so that Shepard is given an assortment of viewpoints to assimilate to hers. Like Kirk, she must weigh each option and find a middle ground if possible, in order to appease everyone she can and save or take lives, depending on your playing style.

Like Kirk, Shepard can’t always bear the burden alone, and is able to turn to those closest to her for support. Most obviously in the third game, Shepard receives emotional reassurance from her love interest. Even side characters offer Shepard support when she needs it, however; everyone from Joker to Dr. Chakwas to Wrex will lend Shepard an ear.

Shepard has a team of unique and capable people who butt heads at times but who ultimately have her back and will follow her lead, as does Kirk in Star Trek. More than that, they are there for her when she isn’t at her best, and help her keep her strength up for the battles ahead.

The mission of the Enterprise is to generally explore space, but many other smaller duties come into play along the way. Kirk and the ship’s crew deal with multidimensional rifts, vanishing colonies, official ceremonies, playing diplomat, and dealing with whatever strange things they find as they explore. These situations often put the characters, especially Kirk, in the position of making hard choices, which often lead to great sacrifices of lives or knowledge and to great risk to the ship.

Shepard is also constantly in the position of making decisions which alter the course of the future for entire civilizations. It doesn’t rest easy on either of them; both Shepard and Kirk wear down under the stress, but both of them press on anyhow with the support of their friends and teammates.

When the going gets tough, Shepard gets going.

Both Star Trek and Mass Effect are stories of morality; of being faced with impossible choices and making decisions which are neither simple nor easy. The point is not that there is always a right and a wrong, but that there must always be a choice, even if it isn’t optimal or even good.

The position of leadership places upon Kirk and Shepard the responsibility of these decisions which simply must be made. It is the strength of resolve of these characters which makes them so interesting. Their struggle, and the struggle of those who work with them, gives the stories life. It is perhaps, then, not the moral choices made which makes these stories so popular. It is the hero at the center, the person so strong that they can face these choices and not falter, which captivates audiences.