3. James T. Kirk – William Shatner/Paul Wesley
On paper Kirk is the most faithful character in this list. Paul Wesley’s Kirk is a brash and daring young executive officer, on the fast track to becoming Starfleet’s youngest Captain, and he’s got that old Kirk charm. But when we first met Paul Wesley’s Kirk at the end of season one, it felt like a let down, the first major misstep in an otherwise staggeringly perfect show. Paul Wesley just didn’t feel like Kirk.
With 20/20 hindsight it’s easy to see why. After NBC didn’t go for The Cage, with its sullen, emotionally complex captain, the Star Trek production must’ve wanted to take a safer route and place a generic all-American hero in the Captain’s seat. William Shatner, with his clean-cut good looks and rogueish smile, may have looked the part, but he was anything but generic. He took his many eccentricities and made them Kirk’s canonical character traits. Captain Kirk is William Shatner, and Shatner is Kirk. It’s ironic that the character written to be somewhat generic is the one who could only be played by one actor.
For this reason, it was a bold choice to put Kirk in Strange New Worlds. The gamble would not have paid off if they hadn’t committed to it. If that season one appearance had been the last we saw of Kirk, we’d be remembering a weird interlude where they gave us a fake Kirk. But having seen more of Wesley’s Kirk, we’re getting used to Wesley, not as a fake Kirk, but as a different interpretation of him.
After all, no actor should have a monopoly on a character; fictional characters are bigger than the mortals who play them. With Kirk being so inseparable from Shatner, any actor cast as Kirk would be jarring at first and have a hard time convincing us, but Wesley is revealing himself to be a really good choice and a fun charismatic Kirk.
This bold choice may have not paid off right away, but bold choices are what we love about Strange New Worlds.