Triple Bill: Captains Courageous


In the first of an occasional theme, we look at films that, thematically, visually, organically, fit together as an ideal triple bill. A BLT sandwhich of films, if you will. I’d like to kick things off with three films that mesh together in several interesting ways, all high adventures of the best kind: Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World (M&C) ; Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Khan), and Serenity. Each anchored by their respective captains personal code of honour, and fidelity to their ships and crew.

Khan is widely regarded as the best Star Trek film of the lot. M & C has come to be regarded as an honorary Star Trek film: the idea of them sitting side by side is not so ridiculous. Khan Director Nicholas Meyer’s uncredited rewrite set a maritime, old school naval feel, unwittingly tapping into Star Trek creator Gene Rodenberry’s original outline of Kirk as “Horatio Hornblower in space”. Hornblower of course is Jack Aubrey’s Napoleonic wars literary ancestor. Although Firefly / Serenity creator Joss Whedon said the rough and ready frontier worlds of his ‘verse are the sorts of place the Enterprise would warp right past, his captain Mal Reynolds is as equally determined as Kirk and Jack Aubrey to save his ship and defend his crews right to freedom. In the face of the enemy, they all “aim to misbehave”.

Kirk is the original bad boy of Starfleet. He “altered the conditions” of the Kobayashi Maru “no win” test at the Academy to beat it, earning a commendation for original thinking. Only when he earns a pyrrhic victory over his genetic superman nemesis Khan does he admit the true cost of the loss of life. “You’ve never faced death,” his son David says. “No, not like this,” Kirk replies. “I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death, and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity.”

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon Stephen Maturin also speak plainly after their ship Surprise loses a mast in heavy seas trying to catch “the phantom”: French privateer Acheron. In the process, a man has been thrown overboard, and Jack enlists his best friend to help him cut the wreckage free to save the ship, consequently dooming the man to death. In his cabin later, Jack asks Stephen how the crew are feeling, to which he is told, “The men of course would follow Lucky Jack anywhere. But therein lies the problem – you’re not accustomed to defeat.” Spocks words to Kirk also relate to this situation, as well as his own later fate: “The needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the one.”

When Mal discovers his passenger River Tam knows the Alliance Governments dirty secret, he decides “no more runnin’.” The Alliance tried to pacify the population of planet Miranda, to such effect the population just stopped living, lay down and died. A small percentage went crazy instead, becoming the ‘verse bogeymen, “Reavers”. Mal seeks to get the signal of what happened out to the populace, via Mr Universe’s broadcast hub. Serenity bursts through the ion cloud with Hells hounds, the Reavers, on his tail, to the Alliance Operative’s dismay.

To get to Miranda in the first place, Mal is increasingly pushed into desperate measures to do the right thing, despite his public face of a war veteran  just trying to get by, and mind his own. He orders Serenity to be disguised as a Reaver ship to get through their territory. “You mean to turn our home into an abomination?” Zoe asks. “I mean to confound these bungers. Now get to work, ” Mal snaps uncharacteristically.

Put Shepherd Book front and centre, we need a hood ornament. He was our friend, we should honour him.


Jack also uses deception and weather conditions in battle. In his first engagement with Acheron, he seeks safety in a fog bank. Later, pursued for hours until nightfall, he has a decoy set loose on a new course, dousing the Surprise’s lights. He finally gets the drop on Acheron by disguising the Surprise as a whaler, drawing in the French to seize their prize. Mal also sends decoys adrift, releasing multiple nav sats, or “cry babies” to confuse the Alliance in tracking Serenity (this in a very cool nod to the Star Destroyer releasing probes in The Empire Strikes Back).

Kirk, after being caught “with my britches down” by Khan commanding the captured USS Reliant, also uses subterfuge to buy time. Knowing they are speaking on an unguarded channel between the Genesis cave and the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock exaggerate the ships estimated repair time. Once ready, they lure Reliant into the “fog” of the Mutura Nebula, where both ships will be more evenly matched, sensors disabled by interference.

Each captain also clashes with men of science on board, the yin to their yang man of action. Mal has let River and her doctor brother Simon stay onboard rather than turn them in to the Alliance, who have invested a lot in River’s psychic gifts and want her back. But when he proposes to put Rivers talents to use in a bank job, he clashes with the protective Simon. “You stuck a thorn in the Alliance’s side, now that tickles me a bit. But it also means I got to step twice as fast to avoid ’em, and that means turning down plenty of jobs, even honest ones…Don’t push me, and I won’t push you.”

When Bones comments on Kirk’s old flame Carol Marcus coming back into his life, Kirk testily snaps, “As a physician, you of all people should understand the danger of reopening old wounds.” But beneath the barbs, Kirk and Bones both know what Kirk really needs: to regain command. “Jim. I’m your doctor, and I’m your friend. Get back your command… Get it back before you really do grow old.”

Poor Stephen, who is an avid naturalist as well as ship’s doctor, is let down by “the needs of the service” taking precedence over a promised layover on the scientifically uncharted Galapagos Islands. Desperately reasoning he can track across the island, meeting the ship at the other side, he is exasperatedly shouted down by Jack: “We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!” In a wry twist, after a later enforced layover there, Stephen must put down his samples and race back to the ship when he spies the Acheron anchored in a bay.

Finally, each captain has a discussion with someone about the most important thing to them: their ship, or command. Spock has been caretaker of the Enterprise since Kirk took a desk promotion. When they learn something is awry with Carol Marcus and the Genesis project, Spock gratefully relinquishes command. “If I may be so bold,” he says, “it was a mistake for you to accept promotion. Commanding a starship is your best, first destiny.” After the crews travails, Carol asks Kirk how he feels.  Khan is defeated, the Genesis wave has created a new planet from the Nebula. Despite his loss, Kirk is back in the centre seat, in control of his destiny. “Young. I feel..young.”

“He’s not really dead, not as long as we remember him.” “Who?” “Spock Jim Spock !”

Commenting on the relative merits of their ship to the Acheron, Stephen unwisely ventures “By comparison, the Surprise is a somewhat aged man-of-war.” Cue intake of breath from the assembled officers. Jack pauses. “Would you consider me an aged man-of-war, doctor? The Surprise is not old…she has a bluff bow, lovely lines. She’s a fine seabird, weatherly (he smiles fondly, patting her damaged hull). No, she’s not old. She’s in her prime.”

“To the lesser of two weavels!”

Mal perhaps speaks most eloquently, in that cadence peculiar to Joss Whedon’s space western. He and his crew have also faced great loss, but they pull together as always, and patch the ship up – “She’s tore up plenty, but she’ll fly true,” Zoe says, but the subtext relates to her own grief. Mal then tells River as they take off “You can know all the math in the ‘verse, but take a boat in the air that you don’t love? She’ll shake you off just as sure as the turnin’ of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down…It tells you she’s hurtin’ afor she keens…it makes her a home.

(a piece of the ship falls off)

What was that?”



Originally posted 2012-03-09 14:25:12. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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