Unless I completely misunderstood the timeline, Star Trek (2009) has the following happen to Kirk:

  • He goes to the Academy
  • At the end of the Academy, he cheats on the Kobayashi Maru test
  • He faces an inquiry over that, from Spock
  • In the middle of that, Nero attacks Vulcan, and the entire Academy is shipped off to help
  • Kirk (a cadet) is smuggled aboard the Enterprise by Bones
  • Kirk gets promoted to First Officer under Captain Spock by Captain Pike, after the Narada defeats the Enterprise above Vulcan
  • Kirk meets older Spock, who advises him to relieve the younger Spock of command due to emotional distress
  • Kirk succeeds, and being acting First Officer, becomes acting Captain of the Enterprise
  • They win
  • Immediately after, Pike relinquishes the Enterprise (according to Wiki, to be promoted to Rear Admiral), and Kirk gets promoted to be the Enterprise's Captain.

    UH WHAT? Kirk just graduated from the Academy and has a grand total of one day of experience as an Officer!

    How could he be made Captain of a flagship at that juncture, no matter how exemplary his conduct in that one day was?

  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but was that Enterprise considered to be the flag ship? As far as I remember, TOS treated the enterprise more or less as just another science ship (mostly) exploring the unknown. And 2009's enterprise was even unfinished and comissioned due to emergency reasons.
    – Mario
    Commented Jun 11, 2016 at 6:00
  • It was brand new, and I'm pretty sure it was flagship, at least in the Kelvin Timeline. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 21:22
  • Most of the Enterprises were, I think. Commented Apr 17, 2020 at 21:22

9 Answers 9


This is fully explained in the film's official novelisation and subsequent (canon) comic serial #13. Simply put, Kirk was granted the full captaincy for two main reasons:

  1. His mentor (e.g. the person who ultimately has to sign off on the decision) has just been made Fleet Admiral. It's pretty clear that Pike has always liked Kirk and considers him to be first rate captain material, just like his father. As mentioned in another answer by this point, Kirk is already a Lieutenant.

“Your inspirational valor and supreme dedication to your comrades are in keeping with the highest traditions of service and reflect utmost credit upon yourself, your crew, and the Federation. By Starfleet Order Two-eight-four fifty-five, you are hereby directed to report to commanding officer of U.S.S. Enterprise for assignment as his relief.”
Pike was the one who smiled. “I am relieved,” he responded quietly. Then he too lapsed into procedural formality as he opened the box that was resting on his lap. Inside was a medal; its composition distinctive, the words engraved on it memorable.
“And as fleet admiral, in acknowledgment of your…unique solution to the simulation, it’s my honor to award you with this commendation for original thinking.”

  1. I can't stress this enough, he just saved the whole.damn.planet from being destroyed. On his own. Against the direct orders he was given by Starfleet. Just him. No-one else.

    Frankly, given the likely direction of public opinion (e.g. "Starfleet is run by idiots, all except that Kirk fella") it's astounding they didn't give him an entire fleet of ships to play with and a special shiny hat.

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  • 1
    Agreed: It was something of a battlefield commission, which was later confirmed in light of Kirk's actions.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:52
  • 7
    I feel like saving the planet is the sort of thing that would serve you well in a job interview. Any job interview.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 18:36
  • 2
    I doubt it would serve you well if going for a job as evil overlord
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 19:09
  • 8
    @JonStory - I think you may be underestimating the stupidity of the common man. This is literally Palpatine's backstory.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 19:27
  • 2
    @JonStory Battlefield commissions are often reverted after the war is over. The US Army and Navy had plenty of career officers who received commissions during World War 1, but were reverted to their original ranks after the fighting. Kind of strange for Kirk to keep his commission when there were many more qualified officers.
    – user89104
    Commented Dec 2, 2017 at 23:39

Unfortunately, there is no way to correlate this plot contrivance to any real world logic.

  • Kirk's graduation was on hold pending the inquiry: In the real world, he would not have yet been granted a post as any sort of commissioned officer, leaving him with no legal command authority.
  • Kirk was a stowaway aboard the Enterprise: In the real world, he would have been arrested and locked up until they could turn him over to shore (read "planetary" in this case) authorities.

Assuming the nuTrek Enterprise has the same 430 crew compliment as the classic Enterprise (and it's a larger ship, so it may be higher) there are literally hundreds of people in the chain of command who come before a stowaway cadet.

Kirk would never have had a chance to "prove" anything or "justify" Pike's initial decision to put him in the chain of command at all. He should have spent the entire film in the brig. Once the movie was over, he should be in prison, not in command of a starship.

  • 7
    Added a bit more, but the point was that you can't justify it with any real-world logic. nuKirk should be a civilian criminal, not a Starfleet officer.
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 14:08
  • 14
    Re swearing in or not. Not being sworn in would mean he remains a midshipman (this is what naval officer candidates are called, they are between enlisted and commissioned), he has not been a civilian since the day he entered the academy, and is not a civilian again until he is discharged.
    – Escoce
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 15:18
  • 5
    I've reluctantly downvoted. This seems more like your own opinion about what should happen rather than an objective look at what did happen and why.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 17:04
  • 14
    At least in the US, Army/Nave/Air Force academy students are active military. So, no, Kirk was not a 'civilian' at any time after starting at the Star Fleet academy. Another historic data point - George A. Custer was awaiting punishment at West Point when the Civil War broke out. All of that was swept away by events, with him exiting the Civil War as a famous figure and brevet General (reverting to Colonel at the end of the war). Given the events in the film, promotion to Captain seems entirely possible.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 20:31
  • 6
    This answer is corrrect. Literally any other speaking-role character in the movie was more qualified to command Enterprise than Kirk was. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 2:58

There isn't a good answer. It makes no sense. It is completely absurd. Yes, he saved the Federation. But so what? You give him a medal for that. You build him a statue. You name a bridge after him. You don't make him captain of the Enterprise!

The Enterprise is NOT a warship. That is not its primary mission. The captain of the Enterprise has to be more diplomat than warrior, and Kirk 2009 is completely unsuited for that role. Plus, there are only a few thousand other people, far more qualified for the job, and who have spent years rising up through the ranks, who are going to be really pissed off that they were passed over for the job in favor of a cadet.

Audie Murphy was the most decorated American combat soldier of World War II. After winning the Medal of Honor, they didn't make him a General and give him his own army. He got promoted from Sergeant to Lieutenant! You can be a fine warrior with great instincts, but that doesn't mean you are good at anything else!

Kirk should have been rewarded with his own ship, but he gets a small "starter" ship where he can learn what it takes to be a captain and how to command men. (Hint: it takes more than unwavering testicular fortitude in the face of doom!) Because of his heroics, he is fast tracked. He gets progressively bigger ships over the next few years, and he also leaves the fleet a few times to serve in diplomatic positions on Earth and other planets. Finally, the day comes when he gets a starship, and everyone agrees he is the best man for the job.

That's a believable outcome. In the subsequent movie, Kirk is still screwing up big time, violating the prime directive, etc., which confirms that he has absolutely no business being captain of anything. At least that had a believable outcome, when he got demoted to first officer.

  • They gave him a medal as well.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 17:34
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    Audie Murphy didn't save America single-handed.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 17:34
  • 6
    @Richard Neither did Kirk. Kirk had a crew supporting him. For the record, Audie Murphy actually did his heroics single-handed.
    – Mohair
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 17:52
  • @Mohair there is vast difference between saving a federation/world/country, of course with the help of others and killing a few (tens or hundred) enemy soldiers in minor non-decisive patrols, alone or not. I had never heard of this Murphy until reading this. Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 9:45
  • Sgt to Lt is a pretty big jump since Sgt is an enlisted rank. Kirk was presumably either commissioned or about to be commissioned when he got promoted. But Ensign -> Captain is probably still too much at once.
    – Kevin
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 4:59

Because Starfleet made a mistake.

Kirk's actions against Nero show courage and enterprise and all that good stuff, which goes a long way towards saying he could be a good Captain, in the future, once he's accrued lots of shipboard experience. But not yet.

Indeed, the very beginning of the next film shows that it was a terrible decision with huge repercussions, and his position as starship captain was stripped from him because of it.

  • 7
    Of course, he got it back within 20 minutes of film time.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 1:58
  • 10
    @Ellesedil: Those idiots never learn ^_^ Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 7:45
  • 1
    This is opinion, not canon: besides which it doesn't answer the question... it was proven to be a bad decision, sure, but this answer doesn't justify why the original decision was made in the first place.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 16:51
  • 1
    @JonStory: There isn't a canon answer. That's the point. That's also presumably why this question was posted! All we can do is fill in the gaps and apply reason to the problem. Commented Dec 9, 2015 at 22:50
  • This seems to be a statement of your beliefs about Kirk.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 18:27

The answer is he saved the federation. It's really as simple as that. He shows ingenuity and can think outside the box. A starship captain needs to know how to follow orders yes, but just as importantly needs to know how to assess the situation and adjust on the spot. This has historically in all canons been why Kirk is considered one of the greatest star fleet captains ever.

  • 1
    The beginning of the second JJ Trek demonstrates to me very clearly that this Kirk has extremely poor judgement and is a wild cannon egomaniac. He's violating the Prime Directive (which TOS Kirk took very seriously), risking people's lives, and for no apparent good reason, and he doesn't seem to care. Point being, JJ-verse Kirk is just a hot shot and not a mature captain, and does not "follow orders".
    – Dronz
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 20:26

I know I'm late to the party but;

  1. There's a screenshot from the movie that shows Jim's rank as LT. You catch a glimpse of it when Chekov is beaming him and Sulu up from Vulcan.
  2. Where the movie failed, and the novels and comics filled in, was all the backstory. Jim was in the Command College, which was post-grad training and not the regular Academy.
  3. He was invited to, and completed, Advanced Tactical Training (which first appeared in TNG).
  4. He was top of his class in tactical analysis and in survival strategies.
  5. Jim also served on the Farragut (like prime Kirk) and received a commendation for his actions two years before.
  6. Pike advancing him to first officer negates Jim's suspension.
  7. At over a thousand people per ship (per the numbers from the game DAC), with seven ships destroyed over Vulcan, there was an understandable vacuum in the ranks.

In short, the movie skipped over everything that would've explained why he was promoted, beyond the whole 'he saved the world' thing.

  • 4
    You have some very interesting points here! Yet, since they're such strong claims, you're going to need some references to support them. Commented Dec 19, 2016 at 16:13

This made me curious so I searched for the youngest US Navy captain, which turned out to be Stephen Decatur, the parallels are amusing. Part of the reason he rose so fast was because his father was a famous naval officer.

Stephen Decatur began his naval career in 1797 and his first command was in 1802. Kirk joined starfleet academy in 2255 and took command in 2258 so Kirk has the jump by about two years. Also, Decatur's command was not the flagship of the fleet, although it was oddly enough also named USS Enterprise. Furthermore, Decatur didn't actually reach the rank of captain until 1804 (losing to Kirk by about 4 years).

So it would indeed seem that Kirk's rise in the new universe is quite unprecedented. Also, I don't know if anyone has mentioned this but in the old universe Kirk didn't assume command until 13 years after joining the academy so the new universe did indeed shorten things considerably. However, to be fair, Stephen Decatur didn't save an entire planet, he just performed well at his duty and had an influential father.


There is nothing that matches this to the original series. The original series mentioned that Kirk was the youngest in Starfleet to have make rank of captain. Trick is they also mention that he was 32ish at the time he got the promotion after serving on several other ships in his career. I guess when you have time distortions you can then do anything you want with the past, ugh.


This is somewhat of a trope in certain genre's, and certainly has some background in Sci-Fi as well; there is one specific "Chosen One" who can ascend quickly through the ranks where others can not.

It happens in Starship Troopers to some degree, with Johnny Rico. However, in that case it is also due to attrition; all the superior officers keep getting killed.

It happens in Ender's Game, where Ender Wiggin ends up defeating an entire civilization while other recruits have had more experience but are not given the chance.

It happens in Star Wars, as noted in RedCaio's comment under the question. It even happens in movies like Scarface, although that's far from Sci-Fi.

I don't think the movie is really trying to recreate reality, but lend to the "legend" that is Captain James T. Kirk. By showing him as someone who can essentially lead a Federation ship in only one day, you're basically saying, "This guy is well above average. He's a one-percent kind of guy".

  • Not sure that those are good examples you've given. As you mention, Rico rises due to field promotions & a high death rate. As for Ender, experience was irrelevant to the plot - the situation specifically called for a commander with a natural affinity for battle tactics & understanding the enemy - something that can't be taught.
    – Omegacron
    Commented Dec 30, 2015 at 23:02
  • Subverted in Battleship when the hero is merely promoted to lieutenant commander (and at least in the immediate term denied permission to marry the boss's daughter, replying "Dude I just, like, saved the world ..."). Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 3:25
  • Sorry, wrong site ;) Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 3:25

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