Chris Pine as James T. Kirk in Star Trek 2009

Hit the Deck

Star Trek canon finally explains the reboot's most controversial twist

Just how quickly can someone become a Starfleet captain anyway?

Paramount

Cadet Kirk became Captain Kirk in basically one day. In the 2009 film Star Trek, Chris Pine’s “Kelvin Universe” version of James T. Kirk rose to the rank of captain at, like, warp 10. But, it turns out, this kind of thing can totally happen in the Prime Universe, too. Here’s how Trek canon — via Lower Decks — just unpacked and doubled-down on the idea that, yes, you can become the captain of a starship overnight. Spoilers ahead for Lower Decks Season 3, Episode 2, “The Least Dangerous Game.”

Right at the top of “The Least Dangerous Game,” Boimler (Jack Quaid) learns of something he can’t believe is true: A fellow ensign named Vendome — who Boimler describes as a “goofball” and the “guy who gets hit with a spear on away mission” — has apparently jumped the ranks to become the captain of his own ship, the USS Englewood. Ensign to captain, just like that!

Vendome, getting stabbed with a spear in Lower Decks Season 1. This makes the joke in Lower Decks Season 3...a deep cut.CBS/Paramount+

Boimler’s crack about Vendome (Sam Richardson) getting hit with a spear is legit. In the Season 1 episode, “Temporal Edict,” Vendome was, indeed, stabbed with a spear by the Gelrakians after failing to bring the correct “first contact” gift. So, from Boimler’s point of view, how anyone who seems so incompetent could suddenly become a badass is borderline incomprehensible. But, thematically, this off-screen twist is par for the course on Lower Decks. Turns out, even our lovable underdogs have undervalued other underdogs, who are now starship captains.

And yet, Boimler’s incredulity about Vendome’s “meteoric rise to captain” doesn’t just stem from Vendome’s reputation as a goofball. It’s because Vendome was an ensign only last season and has reached the rank of captain not only very quickly, but also presumably very early in his Starfleet career. Tendi explains that Vendome got a “field promotion and it stuck,” after the previous captain of the Englewood was “turned into a baby” by a temporal rift.

This little detail about a field promotion is what makes all the difference, and what connects this Lower Decks subplot to larger Trek worldbuilding. Just like Kelvin Universe Kirk was given a field promotion to “first officer” by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Vendome became acting captain simply because nobody else was around to do the job at the time. The idea that the field promotion “stuck,” simply means that Starfleet didn’t take it back later tracks, given how that’s exactly how Kirk became the Captain of the Enterprise in the Kelvin Universe.

An orbital skydive in Star Trek 2009, also referenced in Lower Decks Season 3’s second episode.CBS/Paramount

Just in case you’re not sure if Lower Decks was actually referencing the 2009 Star Trek reboot and Kirk’s meteoric rise to captain in that film, this very same episode features Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Ransom (Jerry O’Connell) performing an orbital skydive that is, visually, pretty damn close to the same skydive performed by Kirk, Sulu (John Cho), and Olson (Greg Ellis) in Star Trek 2009.

When the 2009 Star Trek reboot was released, the idea that Kirk became an instant captain did cause grumbling from some older fans. In the Prime Universe, Kirk spent several years rising through the ranks. He was an ensign and then, for a while, a lieutenant on the USS Farragut; all continuity which Strange New Worlds is honoring. Toward the end of the Strange New Worlds Season 1 finale, “A Quality of Mercy,” when Captain Pike (Anson Mount) reviews the service record of Lt. Kirk (Paul Wesley), we do see that one of Kirk’s “assignments” after the USS Republic was Starfleet Academy, and he’s “currently” a lieutenant in the year 2259, within the Prime Universe. (Star Trek 09 takes place in an alternate version of 2258.)

Discovery also floated the idea that someone can go from cadet to captain pretty quickly. In the Season 1 Disco episode “Lethe,” Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) gives Tilly (Mary Wiseman) — then a cadet — a pep talk indicating that these kinds of things do happen. Discovery again flirted with this idea in Season 3 when Saru (Doug Jones) selected Tilly as his First Officer, even though she was technically still an ensign. And — as happened with Kelvin Kirk and Vendome — this did make Tilly acting captain of Discovery in Season 3. The captainship didn’t stick for Tilly, but certainly could have if she were more like her counterpart from the Mirror Universe.

Jim Kirk’s rank, as displayed on Chekov’s transporter panel in Star Trek 2009.Paramount

But maybe Lower Decks doth protest too much? There’s a chance that the Kelvin Universe didn’t even have Kirk make as big of a leap as we thought. A close inspection of Chekov’s transporter panel (see above) in Trek 2009 reveals the name “LT, J Kirk,” which indicates Kelvin Kirk either graduated the academy with a rank of Lieutenant, or Pike’s field promotion made Kirk jump from cadet to lieutenant. However, because Uhura (Zoe Saldaña) also seemed to graduate from the academy as a full lieutenant, it seems more likely that Pike gave Kirk a field promotion to commander, which would make him the same rank as Spock at the moment he assumes command. It’s all still pretty fast but, weirdly, it would make Vendome (Prime Universe) even more outrageous than Kelvin Universe Kirk.

Last, but certainly not least, the story of Vendome in this episode of Lower Decks also aligns with someone a bit more contemporary for the crew of the USS Cerritos. The backstory of none other than Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is strikingly similar to Vendome’s. In 2333 — literally 33 years before the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation — Picard was a lieutenant commander, who suddenly assumed command of the USS Stargazer after the captain and the first officer both perished. All of this has been backed up by background plaques in Star Trek: Picard and, of course, by several episodes of TNG.

Picard (Patrick Stewart) gets stabbed. This, combined with Vendome getting stabbed, and Boimler getting stabbed is like...poetry...it..rhymes.CBS/Paramount

In this context, Boimler’s new decision to become “bold Boimler” after finding out about Vendome’s promotion isn’t necessarily making Boimler more like Kirk, but rather more like Jean-Luc Picard. In the classic TNG episode “Tapestry,” Q teases an alternate timeline in which Jean-Luc plays it safe during Starfleet Academy and never ever becomes captain as a result. Essentially, one bizzaro dead-end for Jean-Luc was to end up like a lower decker — a perpetual Boimler, but way less funny. That episode concluded with the idea that Picard had to get stabbed by an alien in order to become the person he was meant to be. Ditto for Vendome and, now, for Bold Boimler.

Now all that remains to be seen is if Paul Wesley’s Lt. Kirk in Strange New Worlds Season 2 gets hit with a giant spear.

Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 3 is streaming now on Paramount+.

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