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In Star Trek - The Motion Picture, it is established that Kirk is a rear admiral, but he is addressed as captain on the Enterprise. Was this done because the heads of all vessels are traditionally addressed as captain?

3 Answers 3

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At the start of the movie, Kirk's rank insignia is a gold leaf, showing he's an Admiral. When the Enterprise is underway, he's in a new uniform with the three strips on the sleeve cuff, a solid strip on the top and botton, with the middle strip interrupted. This is the Starfleet insignia for the rank of Captain.

At that point former Captain Decker has two solid stripes on his uniform, showing the rank of Commander. This is emphasized when Lt. Ilia first sees him and is puzzled and asks, "Commander Decker?"

So Kirk is a Captain by rank, as well as by title as the captain of the vessel.

It may or may not be worth noting that earlier, Decker has two stripes on his more formal uniform (I don't know if that was a dress uniform or not). It's also possible the shoulder insignia might differ from the sleeve insignia.

In the book, written by Gene Roddenberry, there's also a few lines that weren't in the movie in the scene in Engineering where Kirk tells Decker he's relieved of command. Kirk says:

You'll stay aboard as executive officer . . . a temporary grade reduction to commander.

This verifies that, for whatever reason, Decker could not remain in the rank of captain, which would make sense if Kirk's rank was reduced to Captain as well for the mission.

(Remember, the script for this came from the two hour pilot for Star Trek: Phase II and the original intent was to justify reuniting the old crew members and start a 2nd five year mission, where Kirk would be the captain and Decker would be the X.O. Even with a transfer to film, the idea of setting up another five year mission was still seeping through the final production of the movie.

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    and yes, he was temporarily demoted to captain (for the duration of the mission), I think because admirals aren't allowed to personally hold command of starships in the Starfleet hierarchy as portrayed in the early parts of the movie (but it's been quite a while since I last watched it).
    – jwenting
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 6:46
  • Yeah, well, I was hoping it'd be quite a while before I watched it again, but I did go through a number of scenes to check for the above. (Hey - at least it wasn't ST:TFF!) I can't remember if the rule about Admirals on ships held later in the movies or later shows.
    – Tango
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 6:52
  • @TangoOversway well in the TNG episode All Good Things Admiral Riker had the Enterprise as his personal ship; I don't know if Star Fleet would have keep a permanent Captain on board her at all times just to maintain the heirarchy or not.
    – Xantec
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 13:09
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    @Xantex In navies now (and historically) - Admirals will have their flag on the ship, but they are concerned with control of their fleet/squadron while the ship is under the direct command of a Captain
    – HorusKol
    Commented Dec 1, 2011 at 22:43
  • @HorusKol - Well, yes and no. "Commodores" ("1-star admirals") were expected to captain their own vessel and also direct whatever other ships were under their command, which generally stayed close by. However, in the American Navy, the title of Commodore was never popular nor very long-lived; Commodores were promoted temporarily from Captain to command more than one ship. Officially, Captains were promoted directly to 2-star Rear Admiral until the creation of the O-7 "Rear Admiral (Lower Half)", which was originally "commodore admiral" similar to the ground forces rank of Brigadier (General).
    – KeithS
    Commented Dec 21, 2011 at 23:35
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In ST:The Motion Picture, Kirk's sleeve insignia was a broad stripe with a narrow stripe over it. That denotes a rear admiral in the US Navy. In the TV series, commodores wore the broad stripe on their sleeves and were flag officers.

He was temporarily reduced to captain in the movie and restored to flag rank afterward. He was permanently demoted to captain at the end of ST: The Voyage Home. Decker was reduced to commander and became the executive officer of the Enterprise.

In The Doomsday Machine, the commanding officer of the USS Constellation was Commodore Matt Decker which was unusual in that a flag officer was captain of a starship.

Until 1862, the US Navy had no flag ranks except for the honorary rank of commodore. Then Congress established the ranks of commodore and flag officer which was replaced by rear admiral. The rank of commodore was used from 1862 to 1899 when it was abolished. By the way, Dewey held the rank of commodore at the Battle of Manila Bay.

The rank of commodore was reestablished during World War ll as a temporary wartime rank in 1943. It was again reestablished in 1981 and was replaced by rear admiral (lower half) in 1985.

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Kirk was promoted to admiral immediately after the five year mission (TOS). TMP occurred roughly 2.5 years after the five year mission. Kirk negotiated "temporary" command of the Enterprise for the V'ger mission, but everyone knew - including Decker - that there was nothing temporary about it. Sulu made a comment about Kirk finding a way to get the Enterprise back, and McCoy gave Kirk a lecture in Kirk's quarters about it. It was only at that moment did Kirk realize he had no intention of giving up the Enterprise. His obsession clouded any self-reflection.

It is heavily implied that Kirk stays onboard as captain. Decker is gone and the ship needs a captain. Spock is staying. McCoy isn't screaming for a shuttle back to Earth before they warp out. There is no mention of Kirk going back to his desk.

I would argue that it takes a large stretch of imagination, or lack thereof, to think that Kirk just heads back to his admiral's desk after the shakedown cruise. The entire theme of TMP is about finding your place in the universe. V'ger merges with "the creator" and learns about mortality and feeling. Spock embraces his emotions and humananity, releases his need for pure logic, and stays aboard the Enterprise. Kirk is back where he belongs in the captain's chair. It would be silly and would make absolutely no sense in the context of the film if Kirk just goes back to desk duty.

Not only that, but the movie basically spells it out at the end of the movie that the crew are back together for more adventures. There's even a caption saying "The Human Adventure is Just Beginning...". So, what? The adventures continue with Kirk going back behind a desk? No. That would be absurd.

So no, Kirk does not go back to being an admiral immediately after TMP. It's largely accepted that Kirk does at least one more five year mission before accepting promotion again preceding the events of TWOK. Most, if not all, non-canon entries (novels, comics, etc...) put two and two together and assume Kirk does at least one more tour as captain of the Enterprise.

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    Hi, welcome to SF&F. You say "Kirk negotiated 'temporary' command of the Enterprise" but don't explicitly answer the question if he took a real demotion from admiral, or retained that rank and was addressed as "Captain" since the commander of a starship is always the captain.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 2 at 14:50

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