James T. Kirk Did Not Cheat On The Kobayashi Maru Test

Let's get into a good old fashioned nerd argument pitting the original STAR TREK versus the reboot!

The opening of the new Star Trek video game sees Kirk and Spock playing three-dimensional chess when they are called to the bridge. The duo leave, but then Kirk walks back into frame and rearranges the pieces on the board to give him an advantage. This is the James T. Kirk of the rebooted Star Trek - a degenerate cheater, a guy against whom playing games would be absolutely no fun at all.

The game was written in conjunction with Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the same guys who wrote the 2009 reboot. I don’t know if they wrote that exact scene, but it completely falls in line with their painfully inaccurate interpretation of James Kirk and his approach to the Kobayashi Maru test, where they had Kirk straight up cheating. Here’s the thing: Kirk didn’t cheat on the Kobayashi Maru.

The Kobayashi Maru was introduced in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s a Starfleet Academy simulator that is impossible to beat; the intended purpose of the test is to see how a potential captain deals with defeat and death. In the entire history of Starfleet only one cadet has ever actually bested the unbeatable test, and it was a young James Kirk. For much of Wrath of Khan the answer to how he did it remains a mystery, but eventually, when things seem darkest for the crew of the USS Enterprise, it’s revealed: Kirk changed the program.

It’s easy to see why someone who wasn’t familiar with James Kirk would think he cheated. Kirk has been known to bluff and bend the truth, such as when he invented the card game fizzbin to confuse gangsters in A Piece of the Action, or the time he killed a computer by lying to it in I, Mudd. And of course in Wrath of Khan he outmaneuvers his foe by broadcasting bad information and suckering Khan into getting his ship’s console hacked. Looking at these, and other slightly unorthodox, approaches to problem-solving in Kirk’s history I understand why someone might jump to the conclusion that Kirk is a cheater and a rule breaker.

But he’s not. As a Starfleet captain on a deep space exploration mission he’s often required to make hard decisions when faced with situations more nuanced than allowed for by regulations. And when his best friend died he did steal a starship and disable another ship, but that was an extreme action. That wasn’t Kirk being Kirk. That was Kirk going right to the edge.

The Kobayashi Maru? That was Kirk being Kirk, and it wasn’t cheating. It’s important to understand how Kirk approached the test - he thought it was fundamentally unfair. To Kirk the Kobayashi Maru itself was cheating. He believed the idea of an unwinnable scenario to be ludicrous; as he saw the world, any problem could be overcome eventually with smarts and hard work. The equivalent here was being given a math test with the problem “2+2=?” and being told that "4" was the wrong answer.

The test was the problem, and Kirk solved that problem. It’s never explicitly stated what Kirk changed when he hacked the program (in a Star Trek novel it’s said that Kirk reprogrammed the Klingons to have a respectful fear of “The” Captain Kirk), but the gist of what we’re to understand is that Kirk didn’t hack the Kobayashi Maru to win, but rather to make it winnable. When Saavik accuses Kirk of cheating, he replies “I changed the conditions of the test!”

That’s key. Cheating is creating an unfair advantage, which Kirk would argue was the entire basis of the test. By changing the conditions - by evening out the odds - Kirk actually made the whole thing more fair, the opposite of cheating.

Tell that to Orci and Kurtzman, who have Kirk clearly cheat in the 2009 Star Trek reboot. He sits in his captain’s chair, munching an apple like an asshole, while the enemy ships' shields suddenly drop for no reason at all. His hack was not to even the playing field but rather to give himself an unfair advantage, to have the Klingons be unable to defend themselves. The reboot Kirk has the victory simply handed to him. It’s hard not to side with Spock in this version of events.

There’s an argument to be made that the reboot Kirk dealt with the Kobayashi Maru very differently from the original timeline Kirk. If that were the case, the difference between the two Kirks would be so vast, they would be so unlike one another, that they would qualify as two completely different characters. We can bend over backwards to explain away character inconsistencies like that using nature vs nurture debates, but the truth is that it all boils down to filmmakers who have no actual understanding of the characters they’re using.

I know this is an old topic - the Star Trek reboot is four years old, for god’s sake, a lifetime in internet years - but having that cheating bit come up at the beginning of the new game irked me. It’s likely that by the end of the game Kirk will have learned a lesson about cheating or something (I’ll never know, the game is awful and I’ve quit it), but even still this is the version of James Kirk that’s being blasted out to a whole new generation of Trek fans. Instead of a principled, active leader whose hero was Abraham Lincoln and whose entire life was dedicated to service, the new Kirk is a childish, selfish adventure-junkie. Where the original Kirk made bold choices and went with his instincts in an attempt to better the universe, the reboot Kirk jumps unthinking into situations because of his emotions. Where the original Kirk changed the Kobayashi Maru in order to give himself a fighting chance, the reboot Kirk changed it to make it easy to win.

At the end of Star Trek Into Darkness the crew begins their five year mission from the TV show. I’m assuming Orci and Kurtzman will say this is their Skyfall, the movie that brings the characters to the status quo we know and love. I say the Kirk we know and love would have never acted this way in the first place.