I was listening to some Weird Al recently and heard the song “White and Nerdy.” One of the lines in the song is “The only question I ever thought was hard was do I like Kirk or do I like Picard?” It got me thinking about the classic Star Trek debate. My thought is that each had their strengths and weaknesses and you can’t go wrong with either, though one may be preferable over the other based on the situation.
Here are my thoughts on each one.
Kirk’s Enterprise was a Constitution class starship on an exploratory mission. It had no civilians aboard and was often run as a military or scientific vessel. Given the nature of Kirk’s mission, it makes sense that he was more of a military commander. Kirk is decisive and more likely to try action first and diplomacy second.
Kirk is a lead from the front type of general during a time of war. He is on every away mission and he probably gets in more fights on the enterprise than every security team member combined. While he values input from his subordinates, ultimately, he makes every decision himself. Because the Federation is at war with the Klingons and the Romulans, Kirk is given a lot of leeway. He violates Federation codes of conduct, including the prime directive, on multiple occasions, but is allowed to do so because he gets results.
While Kirk’s leadership style bordered on micromanagement, he was also very personable with his crew. He spent time with them and built relationships. He was just as likely to be found playing chess with Spock, or drinking with Scotty. His charisma made him personable and he developed meaningful and long-lasting relationships with most of the senior officers, and many of the low level crewmen.
One last thing that defines Kirk as a character is that he always prioritizes his mission over his crew. Kirk gambles with his own life and the life of his crew with regularity. There’s a reason that Scotty has to remind him that he can’t break the laws of physics, or that continuing a course of action could irreparably damage the ship. Kirk’s gambles pay off, though it often costs the lives of his redshirts.
Picard’s mission was similar to Kirk’s. The Enterprise D was a Galaxy class starship and flagship of the Federation. While it was still an exploratory vessel, the flagship designation meant that it was run more as a diplomatic ship. The ship tended to stay within Federation borders, and the ship didn’t just contain Starfleet members, but their spouses and children. With that in mind, it makes sense for Picard to be a more diplomatic leader. He preferred to talk his way through difficult situations, though he was a brilliant military strategist when needed.
Unlike Kirk, Picard was a lead from the rear commander during a time of peace. He has a Klingon as a member of his crew, and has repeated dealings with the Romulans, but they’re never in an outright war. He delegated his mission responsibilities to the crew members and trusted their judgement in getting things done. He directed the missions, and was the chief ambassador in negotiations, but left the details to his subordinates.
Picard was also more reserved than Kirk, and kept his personal life to himself. He was rarely shown fraternizing with the crew, and spent most of his down time alone. The relationships he had with his crew were professional and based on respect, and even the most intimate relationships he had (like the one between him and Dr. Crusher) were more implied than explicit.
Though Picard kept an emotional distance between himself and the crew, he always prioritized the ship and its people over his mission. He was a “by the book” captain who did his best to present the Federation in the best possible light, though Picard was willing to sacrifice his own safety and goals if it meant keeping his people safe.
These are just a few things that I’ve noticed about the debate that have relevance, but don’t really matter in terms of the two characters.
- Patrick Stewart is a far better actor than William Shatner. Stewart’s acting credentials far surpass Shatner’s. Stewart may very well be the best actor to ever appear in the entire franchise.
- Kirk is defended far more fiercely than Picard. There are numerous polls, memes, blog posts, comments, etc. about this debate and the people who choose Kirk are far more passionate about their captain than those who choose Picard.
- Kirk is more of a legendary figure, or myth, even within the Star Trek universe, while Picard is a more realistic character. As such, Kirk’s impact on the franchise is far greater.
- Some people will argue that Sisko or Janeway is a superior captain to both Kirk and Picard. Those arguments may have some merit, even though I’m not considering them here. (Nobody really thinks Archer is worth consideration.)
- There are numerous lists detailing why Picard is better than Kirk (here, here, and here). There are just as many placing Kirk above Picard (here, here, and here). Keep in mind that most of them are intended to be funny.
I personally prefer Picard, but that’s likely because I grew up watching Next Generation and didn’t really watch the original Star Trek until later in life.