Spoiler Alert: this isn’t the article I set out to write. I meant to speculate about what we could expect from Star Trek IV, the next film in the Abrams series that’ll feature Chris Hemsworth reprising his role as George Kirk via a time travel storyline that’ll reunite father with son. That idea got derailed as soon as I started looking into Kirk Senior’s backstory only to find out that he, along with Jim’s mother Winona, didn’t have any.
Their first canonical appearance is in the 2009 reboot and their apocryphal iterations vary wildly – to put things in perspective, we know more about Jack Crusher than we do about George Kirk (and we’ve seen more of Crusher as well). So, I started contemplating a piece about the surprising gift of a blank slate in the background of one of pop culture’s most enduring characters, but I found myself derailed again – this time because I discovered I was way more interested in a movie about Winona Kirk than her husband.
Before I go any further, it bears mentioning that I fully understand there are very good reasons for choosing to focus on Kirk’s father rather than his mother, not the least of which being said father would be played by Thor. And a story about a child getting to meet a parent they never knew will always be a tantalizing premise rife with narrative possibility. But on the flip side, in the Kelvin Universe, Kirk was raised by his mother, which makes Winona the one largely responsible for the character that’s at the center of this franchise. And contemplating the lack of attention Kirk’s mother has gotten and will probably continue to receive canonically, I noticed a similar pattern of favoring father-son relationships that are consistent throughout a lot of Star Trek.
While The Original Series largely stayed away from any familial backstory with its principal characters (with the notable exception of Spock’s parents in “Journey to Babel” and Kirk’s brother in “Operation Annihilate”), the later series delved more deeply into the extended families of their crews. When they did so, explorations of father-son dynamics vastly overshadow any investigations of maternal influence. The Next Generation gives an episode to Kyle and Will Riker, several to Data and Dr. Soong, and an entire storyline to Worf and Mogh (albeit through the latter’s legacy). Picard’s frustration with his more traditional father is illuminated by his contentious relationship with his brother Robert in “Family,” and we eventually get to see Worf try his own hand at fatherhood with the arrival of Alexander.
There are maternal relationships that exist, of course – we obviously can’t ignore that a series regular, Dr. Crusher is a mother to another series regular. But it’s just as hard to ignore the fact that Wesley’s primary relationship isn’t with her, but with Picard, the man who fills the gap left by Jack’s death.
Things aren’t that different on Deep Space Nine, either. Maternal relationships take a back seat to the Sisko men, Worf and Alexander 2.0, Garak and Enabran Tain, Dukat and Ziyal, Rom and Nog and even Odo and his adopted father of sorts, Mora Pol. Voyager’s the series that balances things out the most countering Chakotay and Paris’ problematic relationships with their fathers with Janeway acting as a maternal figure in general to the entire crew and specifically to Seven of Nine. Discovery’s also achieved more of a balance in this area by exploring Burnham’s relationship with both Georgiou and Amanda in addition to her relationship with Sarek. But the vast disparity in attention paid to paternal influence rather than maternal influence remains.
It’s worth pointing out that this isn’t something that has ever bothered me – it’s not that focusing on fathers and sons has ever weakened Star Trek. Quite the opposite in fact. Spock’s relationship with Sarek remains one of the richest storylines in the franchise. The episodes surrounding Worf’s discommendation are brilliant in the way they force Worf to choose between the honor that defines him and the legacy of the father who represents that honor. And as someone who’s lost a parent, I loved seeing three generations of Sisko men put their family back together in the wake of Jennifer’s death.
I also don’t think the prevalence of these relationships is a result of writer’s rooms who actually thought fathers were more influential than mothers. It likely has far more to do with the fact that that male-dominated writer’s rooms are more likely to produce male-dominated material. The exception that proves that rule is the fact that the sole maternal relationship on The Original Series was between Spock and Amanda and it was created by Dorothy Fontana who wrote “Journey to Babel.”
I just can’t help but be curious about the woman who raised James Kirk, and I wonder why no one else is. Is it that patriarchal society has highlighted the importance of father-son relationships so much so that we take it for granted that Kirk’s father, even in his absence, is worthy of more attention than his arguably more influential mother? Or is it that humans are always more preoccupied with what we’re missing than with what’s in front of us? I sit somewhere in the middle — my father’s absence was a very formative part of my childhood, and I’ll always harbor an insatiable curiosity for what an adult relationship with him would look like. On the flip side, the story of my mother and I trying to find our way in the wake of his death is just as compelling.
Like I said before, I don’t even think a George Kirk movie is a bad idea. I can pretty much guarantee you I’ll see it with bells on and defend it as much as I defend Nemesis because I love this thing we call Trek so much it is virtually impossible for me not to enjoy it once it’s in front of me.
But I do think it bears pointing out that as frontiers go, paternity is one that Star Trek’s very thoroughly explored, and I can’t help but feel strolling down this very well-worn path was a missed opportunity to forge a new one.
Images: Paramount Pictures, NBC