The character of James T. Kirk in Star Trek serves as a cautionary tale for not progressing through the phases of life. He’s a dashing hero, spending his life running around the galaxy saving the day. But what happens when that guy turns 50, right? That guy makes sense at 29. But when he's 50, he's alone.
This idea is first explored in the opening of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The familiar crew is on the bridge of the Enterprise. There is a new Captain, a Vulcan named Saavik, and they receive a distress call to rescue the Kobayashi Maru from the Klingon Neutral Zone.
Now the Captain is faced with a choice. Does she go into the neutral zone and violate treaty with the Klingons, or do let the Kobayashi Maru die? After deciding treaties are for nerds, she orders the Enterprise into the neutral zone. It goes horribly wrong. The Klingons attack the Enterprise, and as explosions destroyed the bridge of the Enterprise, Captain Saavik is left by herself, declaring all hands abandoned ship. Then, through the smoke and the sirens, the voice of Admiral James T. Kirk commands, “Alright, open ‘em up!”
Trainee Lieutenant Saavik turns to the Admiral and asks, “What would you suggest?”
He responds with, “Prayer Mister Saavik. The Klingons don't take prisoners.”
As the training set is cleaned up, Bones turns to Admiral James T. Kirk, now in charge of the Academy and suggests, “Admiral, wouldn't it be easier to put an experienced crew on the bridge of the Enterprise?”
Kirk turns to bones and says with resignation, “Gallivanting around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.”
This shows that Jim Kirk is trying to fit his square peg and the roundness of holes. He's trying to make himself into something he isn't something that part of him knows he should be. Because Jim Kirk is a military man, and the military is nothing but conformity. Conformity allows you to move hundreds of thousands of people, pieces and parts in one direction.
That's what Jim Kirk has done. He conformed and was promoted. But he’s miserable, because his heart never moved passed his 20’s. The reason his life is so hollow, the reason being an Admiral does not speak to him, does not fulfill him the way that being a Starship captain did is because the aspects of life as you age that make it fulfilling are building a family, settling down and creating a support network of people who rely on you and vice versa. Jim Kirk doesn't really develop any of that. Of course, he’s got his old fleet buddies from the Enterprise. But he doesn't have a family, at least not one that'll talk to him, not one that even really wants him around.
Kirk has a son, named David Marcus. Carol Marcus never told him that Jim Kirk was his father, but the funny thing is those three crazy kids have been working up something called the Genesis project. A device is deployed, and it vaporizes everything on the planet to make room for something new.
The Genesis device moves the plot of the movie, because across the galaxy, the USS Reliant is looking for an uninhabited planet to test the Genisis Device on. First Officer Pavel Chekov and Captain Terrell beam down to a dusty desert planet named Ceti Alpha 6 to see if it’s suitable, and they find a beep.
They hope it may just be an article of pre animate manner. Instead, they find a crashed spaceship. Inside that spaceship, a man not seen for 15 years walks up. The warlord Khan from Earth says to the Captain Terrell, “I don't know you.” Then, he looks at Pavel Chekov and says, “But you? I never forget a face.”
Across the galaxy, Jim Kirk receives a broken message from Carol Marcus, asking, “Why are you taking Genesis away from us?” He knows how dangerous the Genesis project is. Starfleet Command sends the Enterprise out, being the only ship in the quadrant. Kirk asks Spock, “How are these trainees? How do they handle under pressure?”
Spock says, “Like all things, each according to their own abilities.” This makes me wonder if Spock is just coasting on the tail end of a twenty-year career, because he should know specifically how this training class is doing, who is having a rough time and who isn’t, and Spock sounds like he doesn’t know much.
Because unlike Kirk, Spock isn’t nostalgic for the good old days. He turns over the keys to the Enterprise, and Kirk succumbs to the voice in the back of his head to become the greatest success he's ever known, Captain of the Enterprise.
While enroute to Space Station Regula One, they run into the USS Reliant which has been taken over by Khan and his superhuman followers, who proceed to beat the crap out of them. Khan then calls Kirk on facetime, just to let him know who killed him.
This shows the pattern of people who have a long-standing relationship with Jim Kirk. They either don't want to talk to him, or they want to kill him. Because Jim Kirk dumped Khan on Ceti Alpha 5 fifteen years before, and never bothered to check up on his progress. Jim Kirk knocked up Carol Marcus and knew not to count on him to check in on her.
After checking Space Station Regula One for survivors, there's this brilliant exchange between Kirk and Spock, where Kirk call Spock on the radio for a status update. Spock tells him, “If we went by the book, hours would seem like days...main power will take two days for repair. Warp engines will take five days.” In the context of the movie, this is a brilliant move by two senior experienced officers. They know Khan is listening somewhere inside the area of operations, and the warp engines will be repaired in under five hours, main power in two. Narratively speaking, this also gives the plot a reason to slow down and breathe for a second, because the movie has shifted into a family melodrama where Kirk meets his son, David Marcus. Hours, seeming like days, shifts the expectations of the audience in such a way that when the plot slows down to breathe, it doesn't seem out of place.
In the conflict of the movie, David Marcus is presented as the consequences of not owning up to your responsibilities. It's a critique on the unstable life of James Kirk, who is not the sort of guy to stay in one place and build something. He's a military man who’s hyper successful in that one specific area. Kirk runs the training Academy at Starfleet Command, but he's alone. Society has rewarded him for his intense military acumen, his gift of turning death into a fighting chance for life, but that's it. Nobody wants to be with a guy who's not going to stick around, and James Kirk not the guy to stick around.
At the end of The Wrath of Khan, David Marcus learns who his father is. He's inspired by it, and says, “I'm proud to be your son.” The missing piece of his life, the father he never knew, turned out to be the dashing hero of the galaxy. But David doesn’t know how many dead bodies in red shirts had to be sacrificed to achieve all those victories. How Carol Marcus kept him away for a reason, because David would soon join them.