If you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve surely considered the differences between the captains in the various series, even if you don’t have a favorite. And, while Sisko, Janeway, and even Archer have their fans, the quintessential Star Trek debate has been, since TNG premiered nearly 22 years ago, who’s the better captain: Kirk or Picard?
I wrote earlier this month about ten ways, and then ten more ways, to provoke a geek argument, and lots of people mentioned the Kirk vs. Picard conflict in the comments. The only reason I chose not to list it is that you never can tell which way any given geek is going to swing on this topic, unless they happen to be wearing a t-shirt that reveals their preference. You could say “Jim Kirk is nothing more than an arrogant, womanizing jerk,” and they might agree with you! Or you might say “Jean-Luc Picard is a Frenchman with a British accent—how ridiculous is that?!” and they might raise their fists and shout “Yeah!”
So, who’s really better? There have been countless articles and lists written on the subject, so I’m not sure how much new territory there is to cover here. What I will try to do, then, is distill the argument down to five key subject areas, then compare and contrast Kirk and Picard (I’m only considering the original, William Shatner, Kirk here, incidentally, because otherwise this gets way too complicated):
1. Leadership Style – Kirk is brash; Picard is contemplative. Kirk takes bold actions that frequently result in him getting captured; Picard takes sometimes bold, sometimes subtle actions that occasionally result in members of his command staff getting captured. Kirk listens to Spock’s advice, but nobody else’s; Picard listens to lots of people—though only occasionally his barber. While Picard could sometimes use some of Kirk’s boldness, it seems to me that his style is, if I were staffing a starship, more like what I would want than Kirk’s. Advantage: Picard.
2. Difficulty of Success – I mean this from a character point of view: Captain Kirk only had to deal with being compared with Dr. Robinson from Lost in Space and captains from old sci-fi movies; Captain Picard had to handle being compared with Kirk. On the other hand, Picard would never have existed if it hadn’t been for Kirk’s (eventual) success as a character. Advantage: Kirk.
3. Acting – William Shatner is a lot of fun as an actor, but nobody can deny he’s a ham; Patrick Stewart is an experienced Shakespearean actor who manages not to pause after every third word he utters. Yeah, I know it’s kind of obvious, but really, the only line of Picard’s that’s regularly parodied is “There are four lights!” whereas Kirk’s very style of speech is so often parodied it’s become cliché. Advantage: Picard.
4. Number of Lives Saved – I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has taken the time to calculate the rough number of lives each captain has saved, but if so I don’t know the figures they arrived at. Since they each saved whole worlds on a fairly regular basis, though, I’m going to go by the amount of time they’ve spent on screen: Kirk was in 79 TV episodes and six-plus movies; Picard was in 176 TV episodes (two of which were double-length) and four movies. Even if you count the Animated Series, Picard is way ahead here. Advantage: Picard.
5. Story Quality – This may not seem like a fair comparison, because it’s a cinch that the number of talented writers wanting to work on TNG was much higher than the number who wanted to work on TOS. But it goes to watchability, and, while there are plenty of lousy TNG episodes, none are as unwatchably bad as “The Way to Eden” or “Spock’s Brain.” And while TNG certainly had some pretty unsubtle messages in many of its episodes, none were as hit-you-over-the-head obvious as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” or “A Taste of Armageddon.” Advantage: Picard.
So, yes, I’m going to have to go with Picard. I love Captain Kirk, don’t get me wrong, and I’m sure a less interesting character would never have engendered the kind of devotion Trekkies have had for over forty years. But there’s a reason why, when TNG was being created, they wrote the character of Riker to be a lot like Kirk and made him the First Officer instead of the Captain.
Now, I’m sure you have your opinions on the subject, so please respond to the poll below, and leave a comment if you feel the need to express yourself further.
Great Geek Debates: Kirk vs. Picard[This debate originally ran in June, 2009. We can’t wait to see if attitudes have changed over time.]