Captain Kirk, We Hardly Knew Ye : Entertainment with a moral core attracts us because we have so few undebunked heroes.

<i> James P. Pinkerton is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. </i>

Capt. James T. Kirk dies in “Star Trek: Generations.” That revelation shouldn’t spoil the movie for anyone. Trekkers already know and have mourned appropriately. But let the word go forth to the rest of America that a great allegory of the Cold War has come to an end.

The original TV show was always a parable of the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union. Kirk’s narrated prologue, including the most famous split infinitive in TV history (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”) echoed John Kennedy’s soaring bear-any-burden rhetoric. “Star Trek’s” vision was idealistic, not warmongering; Kennedy’s New Frontier foreign policy sought self-determination for peoples of the developing world. But the Klingons were an Evil Empire all right, worse than Khrushchev’s. After watching them destroy entire planets and all their life forms, every red- and green-blooded member of the Federation resolved to roll back Klingonism.

“Star Trek” premiered in 1966, just three years after J.F.K.’s assassination. William Shatner, playing a leader with the initials J.T.K., was a Kennedy-esque quester, a fearless he-man with a wandering eye. His smooch with Lt. Uhura was not only in keeping with his testosteronal character, but was also an advance for tolerance--network TV’s first interracial kiss.


The new movie’s message is true to the spirit of the original show. Kirk has a chance to stay in “the Nexus,” an ion-bathed “place of happiness” where all dreams are fulfilled. But they are only dreams. So Kirk leaves Nirvana to right one more wrong--and thus comes to his final rendezvous with destiny. Is the Nexus a metaphor for the U.S.S.R., that phony “workers’ paradise,” or does it symbolize the fatal delusions of crack cocaine? Perhaps Nexus is merely a stand-in for the plump, purposeless existence that Kennedy commanded young Americans to forsake so they could join the Peace Corps--or the Special Forces.

Kirk dies a hero. His last words ask not what others can do for him, but what he can do for others: “Did we do it? Did we make a difference?” Our popular culture produces a dearth of undebunked heroes. So when we find entertainment with a moral core, such as “Star Trek,” we gravitate toward its sustaining warmth.

Perhaps it’s best that Kirk goes to cine-Valhalla in “Generations.” Shatner was born in 1931, just 14 years after Kennedy. He’s stiff and puffy now, no longer the bonny prince of rerun memory. The torch has been passed to a new generation. In the words of Kirk’s successor, Capt. Picard, “time is a companion that goes with us, giving us memories to cherish, but never comes again.”

It has always been this way. The poet Homer intended his epic verse for popular consumption, to be repeated around campfires for the recreation of the old and the instruction of the young. Time has painted a coat of forbidding bookishness on Homer’s tales that blurs his direct link to the mass amusements of today. So is “Star Trek” the “Odyssey” for the New Age? We’ll know whether the voyages of the starship Enterprise meet the Homeric test of time in about 3,000 years.

Civilization makes an eternal compact among the living, the dead and the yet to be born. The best of conservatism is about keeping track of and treasuring the permanent things. Sometimes collective recollection involves controversy, as with the design of the Vietnam veterans’ wall a decade ago or the flap over the B-29 “Enola Gay” at the Smithsonian Institution today. But we all have a duty to carry our share of this monumental weight. Fortunately, as with any sinew, our moral muscle gets stronger as we exercise it.

Memories of heroes are the stars in the darkness by which we navigate our journey through life. One such light, the anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, came and went Nov. 22 without much notice. But as J.F.K. aides Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers wrote in their tribute, “Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye,” “the memories will always keep coming back.”


Some day, when the Cold War is remembered as a victorious struggle fought on windy plains across the planet, Kennedy, his foibles long forgotten, will endure as one of the greats. Not like the wily Odysseus perhaps or the mighty Ajax, but rather as the doomed, flawed warrior Achilles. Even so, when we look up into the night, we will see him in the heavens.