Star Trek: Discovery’s Christopher Pike: An Old-Fashioned Hero for Our Cynical Times
**Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers for Season Two of Star Trek: Discovery.**
“What are the three most salient facts about Captain Pike?” asks Spock (Ethan Peck), in the Star Trek: Short Treks episode, “Q&A.” Rebecca Romijn’s Number One considers his words, then replies: “One, his capacity for hearing out another point of view is exceeded only by his willingness to change his own once he’s heard you out. Two, even though he is the most heavily decorated fighting captain in Starfleet, he views resorting to force as an admission of failure. And three, he is utterly unsentimental. Except when it comes to horses.”
There is hardly a more apt description of Christopher Pike, the original captain of the famed starship Enterprise, played first by Jeffrey Hunter in an unaired 1965 pilot (“The Cage”), and now by Anson Mount in the forthcoming series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. Mount’s portrayal first won over audiences and critics alike in the second season of Star Trek: Discovery (2017), which reimagined Pike as a grounded and unflappable leader, a singular and remarkably old-fashioned hero for our cynical and suspicious times.
Discovery is both a sequel to the unaired 1965 pilot and a prequel to the original 1966 Star Trek. In “The Cage,” Pike is introduced as the burnt-out captain of the Enterprise. That story depicts his encounter with a beautiful woman named Vina and a strange race of reality-warping aliens called Talosians. The next time we see Captain Pike, portrayed by Sean Kenney in “The Menagerie,” a two-part episode of the original series, he is badly disfigured, and wheelchair bound. Discovery presents to us the Pike in-between, after his encounter with Vina, but before the accident that leaves him scarred and disabled.
Pike understands that there is no cheating his destiny, only the choice of how one walks toward it.From the moment Pike beamed onto screen in Discovery, I was suspicious of him. I kept waiting for him to compromise or to be revealed as an unwitting pawn in a much larger game. Perhaps this is what our modern culture has conditioned into me: an inherent skepticism toward any white male character who exhibits even a passing regard for values traditionally associated with masculinity. Yet I was pleasantly surprised when the season ended and Pike emerged not simply a heroic man, but also a good man. We learn that his short time with Vina (herself a badly disfigured soul) marked him profoundly, as he still thinks about her. But he’s a few years older now, and he’s got his mojo back; his edges have been sanded and the burnout replaced with an easy-goingness that endears him to those under his command. Pike has learned not to live in the past, but now looks to the future with a kind of world-weary and unironic optimism.
That optimism, however, should not be mistaken for emotionally-imbalanced sentimentality, or even for the cavalier and “toxic” attitude we are often told traditional masculine values breed in those who hold them. As Number One says to Spock, Pike is “utterly unsentimental.” He understands that the galaxy can be a dangerous, unforgiving place, referring to his crewmembers as his “family.” He recognizes that power easily corrupts, so he tempers his damn-the-torpedoes attitude with the input of those under his command, eagerly taking suggestions from others before handing down orders and embodying one who is “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). He understands that humanity is flawed, but does not give in to despair. He does not condescend, and there is not a trace of sexism in him; he shows nothing but gratitude to the three women who rescue him early in the season and continues to treat the women aboard the Enterprise with respect and appreciation. Pike understands that these values, while traditionally masculine, are actually universal virtues, just as Christ’s model isn’t just a model for Christian men, but a model for all Christians, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28).
While these qualities certainly make him immediately likable, even admirable, they alone do not make him good. As the season progressed, I kept expecting him to falter. Here was this very old-fashioned, swashbuckling hero of old; I thought there was simply no way the writers of this show would allow him to make it to season’s end without stumbling. Late in the season, his personal crisis finally comes. In pursuit of an all-important “time crystal,” Pike comes face-to-face with fate itself. As his fingers gloss the crystal’s surface, he experiences a terrible vision of his future. He sees the accident that will leave him disfigured, and ultimately encounters that future version of himself, a sight so horrible that he is quite literally knocked off his feet.
Living in a culture obsessed with the anti-hero and watching this scene unfold, I held my breath. Pike was a character who I had genuinely come to like. I fully expected him to give up his pursuit of the crystal, dooming countless lives by finally turning inward and selfish, all in an attempt to escape the dark fate waiting for him should he take the crystal. I had seen too many modern “heroes” fail this particular test to think it would end any other way. Imagine my surprise when Pike closes his eyes and intones to himself: “You’re a Starfleet captain. You believe in service, sacrifice, compassion. And love.” Then, he rises and declares, “I’m not going to abandon the things that make me who I am because of a future that contains an ending that I hadn’t foreseen for myself.” Reaching out, he takes the crystal—and seals his fate.
In a world of Sopranos, Lannisters, Walter Whites, and countless other tragic heroes, Pike’s unswerving commitment to goodness and willing sacrifice isn’t just refreshing, it’s downright inspirational. If our heroes are meant to be those whom we admire, or those to whom we aspire, then Pike fits the bill better than many of the caped crusaders currently dominating the zeitgeist. He has no superpowers to tip the scales in his favor. He is most certainly not Captain Kirk, whose solution to the “no-win scenario” was to cheat. Pike understands that there is no cheating his destiny, only the choice of how one walks toward it.
Before the second season of Discovery, Pike’s story was tragic, beginning with him as a guilt-ridden captain on the verge of quitting and ending with him a devastated shell of a man. But Discovery recontextualizes those events and turns his story into one of bravery and redemption tempered with tragic elements. He recovers from his initial burnout and chooses to persevere despite the knowledge of the dark destiny awaiting him. He continues to rise and rise again. He maintains his convictions without falling victim to sentimentality. Pike is the traditional masculine hero done right.
The episode in which Pike makes his fateful choice is tellingly titled “Through the Valley of Shadows,” lifted from the well-known line of Psalm 23. Someone at CBS knew what they were doing when putting together this hour of television. Pike’s moment at the crystal parallels in no uncertain terms Christ’s agony in Gethsemane. Both men are faced with the knowledge of an inescapable and hungering darkness. Their choices in this moment seal their respective fates. And just as Christ submits to death itself, Pike submits to a grim future. How interesting that the parallels between Pike and Christ do not end here—Jeffrey Hunter, the first actor to play Pike back in 1965, actually portrayed Christ in the 1961 Biblical epic, King of Kings.
In a culture where even Gillette ads call for a re-evaluation of traditional “masculine” values, Captain Christopher Pike stands as a testament to the best aspects of those old-fashioned ideals of bravery, courage, sacrifice, and love. Here is an honorable man willing to die for his convictions, to maintain his integrity no matter the personal cost. In 2020, we are all in desperate need of role models like Pike, whose daring and virtue ultimately point us to the most daring and virtuous man of all.
I eagerly look forward to following his further adventures when Strange New Worlds premieres. In the words of Captain Pike: “Hit it!”
Well-reasoned and thorough. I appreciated the read. You echo many of my own thoughts about Pike.
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