This Star Trek: Lower Decks article contains spoilers for Season 2, Episode 5, “An Embarrassment of Dooplers.”
The first year of Kirk’s five-year-mission on the Enterprise is mostly missing. Although several non-canon sources have taken a stab at the moment when Kirk first took command from Pike—notably the 1986 Vonda N. McIntyre novel Enterprise: The First Adventure and the 1985 DC Comics story “The First Mission”—the actual non-book Trek canon has almost nothing. Basically, our knowledge of how the year 2265 shook out for Kirk and Spock is very limited.
However, a sweet little Easter egg in Star Trek: Lower Decks just provided a fairly big clue as to Kirk’s status in Starfleet in the early 2260s. And, if we read between the lines, it seems very likely that, at first, James T. Kirk was a very unpopular starship captain. Here’s what a small Easter egg in Lower Decks tells us about Kirk’s early days as captain, and might give us a sense of that missing year of Star Trek: The Original Series...
In “Embarrassment of Dooplers,” Boimler and Mariner are obsessed with getting into a fancy Starfleet cocktail party. After a variety of misadventures, not only do they not get into the party, but end up drinking at a different dive bar on the same space station. However, that particular bar is filled with all sorts of nostalgic knicknacks from the past, including an etching on the bar from Kirk and Spock. The bartender tells Mariner and Boimler that “the blond one” did more drinking, and we’re led to believe this was in the 2260s.
So, at what point in Kirk’s five-year-mission would Starfleet have not let him and Spock into a fancy and prestigious party? When in their careers would Kirk and Spock have tried to gate-crash a fancy party, only to get turned away at the door? There’s not a direct answer, but the best theory I can muster is that Kirk and Spock hit up this bar sometime in 2265, perhaps right after the events of the TOS episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
First of all, Lower Decks is obsessed with Gary Mitchell and the events of “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Not only was Gary Mitchell mentioned and explained in the recent Lower Decks Season 2 opener “Strange Energies,” but Mariner also name-checked Gary Mitchell in the first Lower Decks episode ever, “Second Contact.” So there’s that.
Second, if Lower Decks is positing that at some point Kirk and Spock were regarded in a similar way that Captain Freeman and the Cerritos crew are viewed by Starfleet top brass, we have to start looking for moments when their collective reputation might not have been so hot. Obviously, after the conclusion of Kirk’s five-year-mission (2265-2270) the crew become “living legends,” as Captain Harriman says in Generations. But what about before then? Spock was fairly well respected in Starfleet when he served with Captain Pike, right? Well, as we learned in Discovery Season 2, Spock was briefly disgraced in 2257, and by 2258, basically kept a bunch of secrets for Starfleet and Section 31. So, it’s totally conceivable that by 2265, Spock is respected within Starfleet, but perhaps not popular.
The question then is, if Kirk and Spock were denied entry to a snobby Starfleet party, what was the reputation of the Enterprise in 2265? It’s a fairly big assumption that Kirk and Spock carved their names into this bar in 2265, but if we think about any other point in the timeline of the Enterprise it feels unlikely Kirk and Spock would be excluded from a party like this. By 2266, Kirk and the Spock had already tangoed with the Romulans in “Balance of Terror,” and made peace with the “First Federation” in “The Corbomite Maneuver.” And after that, Kirk’s exploits get even more heroic. (“The Doomsday Machine,” and “Errand of Mercy” come to mind.) The point is, it’s really hard to believe that Starfleet wouldn’t let Kirk and Spock into a fancy party after 2266. This is why 2265 feels like the only time they could have ended up at this bar.
So, what has just happened to Kirk and Spock in 2265? Well, for one thing, they’re actually starting to become friends for the first time. If Kirk and Spock were in this bar after the events of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” that means Kirk has just murdered his best friend, and is dealing with what that feels like. In the final scenes of “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Spock admits to Kirk that he “felt” for Mitchell in the end. And Kirk says, “there may be hope for you after all, Mr. Spock.” In every way, that moment is the moment (in Prime canon) of the beginning of Kirk and Spock growing closer as buddies. As far as what we’ve seen in The Original Series, Kirk and Spock play chess together in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” then roughly a year passes, and you’ve got the rest of TOS.
At the start of his career as captain, it’s very possible that James T. Kirk wasn’t popular with Starfleet at all, and the mission on the edge of the galaxy was regarded as a huge embarrassment for Starfleet. When the Enterprise heads back into Federation space after “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” you can totally imagine a situation where Kirk wants to go to a fancy party and get some cocktails. And, if he and his First Officer were denied entry to that party, it makes a lot of sense they would end-up in a dive bar next door.
Star Trek: Lower Decks airs new episodes on Thursdays on Paramount+.