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Image: William Shatner
Paramount Pictures  /  Getty Images file
Whether he was in his 1960s heyday or his last 1990s turn at the part, William Shatner created a Captain Kirk that went beyond the realm of the realistic, even in sci-fi realistic terms.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/4/2009 3:25:11 PM ET 2009-05-04T19:25:11

Behold the era of the retro reboot, where nothing is sacred. There’s no beloved film or television series that can’t be polished and repackaged for a big screen do-over. There’s a new “Robocop” in the works, a fresh-faced “Karate Kid” on the way, and of course, this Friday, a reimagined version of the original “Star Trek” crew beams into theaters.

Every film franchise has its own set of fans ready to pick apart the new renditions, and none more so than the legions of Trekkies (or Trekkers, whatever) set to tear into J.J. Abrams take on “Trek.” See, there is some sacred ground for geeks. You never break the warp-10 barrier (except for that one time). You don’t violate the Prime Directive (unless you have to). And you don’t mess with Captain Kirk (ever).

“My name is James Siberius Kirk.” Those are the first words uttered in the revamped “Star Trek” trailer by a pre-teen version of the captain-to-be. Of course, fans know there’s a “T” in James T. Kirk and it stands for “Tiberius.” It’s a small mistake in the greater scheme of things, perhaps the result of a misread line or even a pronounced lisp. But you know who wouldn’t have made that mistake? William Shatner.

Sure, one might argue that even if Shatner were the lead in this “Star Trek,” he’d never have played kid-Kirk (though he’d likely parry that with enough under-eye makeup and a well-concealed girdle, he’d be perfect for the part). But it gets to the heart of the matter. There’s only one Captain Kirk.

One of a kind
Everything we know about Kirk, we learned from Shatner. The man at the helm of the U.S.S. Enterprise wasn’t just created by the late, great Gene Roddenberry. You can’t write a character like Kirk. The swagger, the staccato delivery, the ever-present smirk — those come to life in the actor. Roddenberry gave him a backstory (which Abrams seems happy to ignore), but Shatner gave the captain life.

Fans don ‘Star Trek’ gearNot everyone appreciates the Shatner style. Non-“Trek” fans often call him a bad actor. They’ve obviously never seen his perfect past performances, like the one he gave in “Judgment at Nuremberg” — the man can clearly act. What he brought to Captain Kirk were choices, not limitations.

That one-of-kind cadence? Shatner’s way might have seemed odd at the time. Plenty of critics thought so. But just try to imagine any of Kirk’s lines without the bizarre peaks and pauses (“SCOTTY … BEAM those MEN up … at ONCE.”) It’s one of Kirk’s many defining traits.

Shatner went big — theater big — in every aspect of the role. If Kirk felt down, he didn’t merely slump in the captain’s seat, he sprawled downward as if her were about to slide right out of it. A flirtatious Kirk wouldn’t smile knowingly at potential love interest. He’d stick his chest out, raise an eyebrow and strut her way. Shatner’s Kirk knew no subtlety, and it worked.

Making the unbelievable seems plausible
And let’s face it; whether he was in his 1960s heyday or his last 1990s turn at the part, Shatner created a Kirk that went beyond the realm of the realistic, even in sci-fi realistic terms. He wasn’t — isn’t — the greatest looking guy around. He wasn’t even the greatest looking guy on the set (Hey, Chekov!), but he sold it. All the women swooned for him (usually to their detriment) and somehow it just seemed right.

A less-than-buff, back-in-the-day Kirk could take down a lizard-skinned (or slightly altered-forehead) alien-of-the-week twice his size, and his wrestling skills didn’t come into question. There was nothing the man couldn’t do thanks to the ego, nay arrogance, Shatner breathed into the part.

Besides, a captain convincingly leading his crew to every lawless outpost on the final frontier needs arrogance. He needs to be over-the-top, bold and brazen. He needs Shatner.

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The men behind the man
But like it or not, there’s an imposter on the scene. His name is Chris Pine. He may not look like Kirk or sound like Kirk, but danged if he’s not wearing the uniform and trying to fill Shatner’s shoes all the same.

When William Shatner came to the part, he said he channeled Alexander the Great — a king of Macedonia, an undefeated military leader who conquered the Persian Empire. There’s that fitting arrogance again.

Chris Pine? He channeled Indiana Jones and Han Solo (no, really). Hey, they’re great, iconic Harrison Ford characters worthy of their own don’t-go-there fan bases, but they weren’t leaders of men. They weren’t Kirk-esque.

What could Pine possibly bring to the character to live up to the legend? Not to pre-pan Pine’s performance, but barring Halloween, it’s hard to imagine anyone else living up to Kirk’s uniform. If it’s not on Shatner, it’s just a costume. The suit doesn’t make the man. Fans know that. Pine knows that.

Video: ‘Star Trek’ worth the hype? “Shatner will forever be James T. Kirk,” the new stand-in recently admitted. “There's something set in stone about that. That actually takes pressure off me. I'm going my own way. My name is not William Shatner.”

Shatner is Kirk. Pine’s not Shatner. Simple syllogistic logic says Pine can’t be Kirk. There’s only one Captain Kirk.

Ree Hines is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com.

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