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Captain Kirk vs. Captain Picard: Who is the greatest 'Star Trek' captain of them all?

Face Off Kirk Jean Luc

(NBC/Photofest)

In a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman offers a unified theory of pop culture, which (this being a Quentin Tarantino movie) doubles as a unified theory of humanity. “When it comes to important subjects,” she explains, “There’s only two ways a person can answer. For example, there’s two kinds of people in this world: Beatles people and Elvis people. Now Beatles people can like Elvis. And Elvis people can like the Beatles. But nobody likes them both equally. Somewhere, you have to make a choice. And that choice tells me who you are.”

The world of pop culture is filled with such face-offs: Batman and Superman. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. British Office and American Office. Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Coke and Pepsi. The essence of a great pop-culture duel is that there isn’t really a correct choice… but everyone has their own correct choice. (For the record: Superman, Empire, British, Faulkner, and Dr. Pepper FTW.)

With that in mind, your opinionated friends and ornery neighbors here at PopWatch HQ are kicking off a new series of posts dedicated to bridging the Great Divides in the entertainment world. First up: We’re debating the great galactic generation gap between Captain James T. Kirk (brash, romantic, Shatner-ian) and Captain Jean-Luc Picard (thoughtful, even-handed, Shakespearean). (UPDATE: Don’t despair, Deep Space Nine fans: Christian Blauvelt has drafted a third-party manifesto for Captain Benjamin Sisko.) Check back here on Thursday at noon EST for a sure-to-be-spirited debate about the relative merits of the great American ’80s action-movie muscle gods: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Joseph Brannigan Lynch (Picard supporter): Here’s an opening thought: Kirk is the person you wish you were bold enough to be, but Picard is the person you should strive to be. He’s exactly the kind of person you would trust with hundreds of lives.

Darren Franich (Kirk supporter): Well, if we were debating who should be president of a university, or who should be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, then I would agree with you. Picard is an excellent manager. But if we’re talking about which character we find more flat-out compelling, I’ll go with Kirk every time. Gene Roddenberry’s elevator pitch for Star Trek described the show as a western – Wagon Train to the Stars – and when you watch Kirk in the original series now, you realize that he is a classic frontier archetype that’s been essentially lost to contemporary American culture: the Brash Humanist.

JBL: But I find the idea of Picard more compelling. He is intensely interested in adding to the sum of human knowledge. Kirk is all about the adventure of space travel. For him, it’s a personal test: Kirk vs. The Universe. Whereas Picard is really in it because of curiosity. He loves learning and sharing knowledge. He’s a very uncommon hero.

DF: I think that’s a perfect contrast, especially since Picard took over the Enterprise almost a century after Kirk’s era. You could argue that Kirk was the trailblazer who found the new worlds, and then Picard was the civilized man who had to struggle with attempting to govern those new worlds. If Star Trek were The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Kirk would be John Wayne and Picard would be Jimmy Stewart.

JBL: Except Picard can fend for himself.

DF: People tend to describe Picard as a more three-dimensional character than Kirk. This is partially because Picard is not constantly chasing intergalactic tail, and partially because Patrick Stewart is just a better actor. But to me, Picard is a far more idealized character. He’s a perfect Socratic philosopher-king: Essentially sexless, without much of a family (until he suddenly has a dead family in Generations.) Picard just seems like a scientific-utopian vision of manhood. It’s almost hard to see how being in the Borg changes him.

Now, if Kirk were taken over by the Borg – that would be crazy. Because Kirk is all about base emotions: Fighting, loving, conquering. He’s a wild man trying to tame himself in Starfleet clothes. The central joy of Kirk is watching the tension boil over until he finally loses it: “Khhaaaaaannnn!”

JBL: First of all, Picard does have a family, who first appear in an episode appropriately titled “Family.” Now, I understand the complaint of Picard not showing enough emotion and being idealized. But I appreciate that persona in the context of Star Trek. Remember, Wagon Train to the Stars was really just a sales pitch, not an accurate description of the Trek universe. The franchise is really a ’60s dreamer’s vision of the future, and to that end, I think Picard makes more sense as a hero. If you’re going to imagine a future without wars, disease, money, bed bugs, hang nails, etc, then your captain should also reflect that. He only uses violence defensively. He’s not trying to change others to fit into his perception of reality.

Basically, the Starfleet captain should be a philosopher-king who takes himself out of the equation, making judgments and decisions only when necessary – only when the perfect functioning of the ship is impaired. But that does make him sound inhuman. One thing Kirk has over Picard is the Grecian ideal of friendship with Spock. Picard is a loner – by necessity, I would say.

DF: Well, Kirk does have friends, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a surprisingly lonely dude. Remember, he’s already planned his own death: “I’ve always known I’ll die alone.” Now, that line comes from the worst Star Trek movie – directed, coincidentally, by the man who was Kirk – but that only heightens its tragic implications. Because Kirk is a tragic figure. He loses his son to the Klingons. He drives away all his girlfriends. His only friends are his subordinates. Let’s face it, he’s kind of a glorious a–h—.

JBL: I don’t know if he’s all that tragic. He really only seems to have passing interest in his son and girlfriends. I think he lived his life exactly as he wanted to: On the “final frontier,” always on the edge, and with a best friend/non threatening foil at his side. I see Kirk as a very satisfied man. No regrets, that sort of thing. He gets more emotional when screaming at Khan than he does when his son gets killed! He lives for the chase. He never wanted so-called lasting happiness.

DF: Maybe. But: William Shatner had just turned 50 when Wrath of Khan came out, and from that movie onwards on Kirk’s whole character journey was focused on the ravages of time: How he missed being on the Enterprise, how he wished he’d made different decisions in his life. You got the sense that he badly wanted to keep on flying into the far reaches of space, just so he wouldn’t have to face up to the fact that he was a sad, lonely old bastard. By comparison, Patrick Stewart turned 50 midway through the run of TNG, but except for the much-despised Generations, Picard never seemed to have any regrets. In fact, when we see a future vision of him in the TNG series finale, he’s a happy old bearded dude working on a farm.

This feels like we’re just focusing on a personality clash here, though. Let’s get more specific. Joe, what would you say is the defining Picard episode?

JBL: I’d say “The Inner Light” or “Measure of a Man.” In “Measure,” we see a rare anger in Picard – really, more like righteous indignation – when Starfleet threatens to dismantle Data, he’s forced to prove that a robot has as much right to life as a human. As a trump card, he forces the Starfleet people to acknowledge they can’t prove their own consciousness.

And in “The Inner Light,” Picard relives the entire life of a dead man from an extinct civilization. He has a simple peasant life, but it’s the same Picard character. To me, the beauty of Picard is that he is a man so confident – so assured of who he is and what he loves – that he would be the same person regardless of social status. He’s motivated, but ambition-free. As long as he is stimulated, he remains thoroughly Picard. Kirk could never have lived an ordinary life like that.

DF: Actually, “The Inner Light” also provides an intriguing contrast to an episode that makes everyone’s Captain Kirk highlight reel: “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In both cases, the captains are sent back in time and experience a profound emotional journey. In both cases, they find themselves in situations that are essentially Greek tragedies, where they cannot stop the higher power of fate. There is nothing Picard can do to save the people of Kataan; there is nothing Kirk can do to save Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins!)

JBL: Well, Picard could have tried to settle Kataan.

DF: Boom! But I think the contrast is telling. The Picard story is very multi-layered and emotionally subtle – and even I have to admit that TNG featured better writing and acting than the original series. But the Kirk story has a mythic immediacy: If Edith Keeler doesn’t die, the Nazis will win World War II!!!

And the different ways that both men react is also very telling. Picard exhibits a kind of zen appreciation for/understanding of the chaos of the universe: He is sad at the end of “The Inner Light,” but he understands that supernovas will swallow planets, and species will disappear, and so goes the eternal dance of the universe, so let’s all play our Ressikan flutes, toot-toot! Whereas Kirk can’t get over the fact that he could have done something… but he didn’t, because the universe sucks. His closing line in “City on the Edge of Forever” is so incredible and so bitter: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

JBL: Yeah, Kirk is much more of a Romantic figure. It’s telling that TNG is more of an ensemble.

DF: Well, let’s explore this from another angle, then: How do you think Picard would react if – thanks to some vintage Q tomfoolery – he switched places with Kirk?

JBL: I can’t actually imagine the episodes going much differently, sad to say. At the end of the day, they both fight when necessary, they both try diplomatic strong-arming, they both speechify about the unique beauty of humanity. The Motion Picture finds Kirk acting very much like Picard. In Insurrection, Picard acts very much the Kirk. That being said, if Kirk were on the Enterprise-D, his comparative recklessness would have spelled their doom a few times. He would not have been able to deal with Q.

DF: You’re absolutely right. Kirk would have never stopped trying to somehow “defeat” Q. Picard’s genius was to accept Q wasn’t really a villain; he was more like a valued opponent in a game of existential chess. I actually think that you’re short-selling Picard, though. Like, I’m trying to imagine Picard in “Errand of Mercy,” dealing with the Klingons. He seems like he’d be an incredible wartime diplomat. He’d fit into any time period. Kirk could have only survived in a more wild era. He’s a blunt instrument, and he knows it.

JBL: This is true. In Undiscovered Country, it’s clear Kirk cannot function as a diplomat. There’s another episode that would be an interesting switch: I think had Picard been on the Enterprise #1 when they met the Romulans in “Balance of Terror,” things might have gone very differently. Instead of cat and mouse, it would have been… well, a human telling a cat to stop peeing on the carpet. He wouldn’t have met the Romulans’ posturing tit-for-tat, like Kirk.

DF: Excellent point! Actually, Joe, I think this argument is interesting, because we’re both basically taking the same stance: Captain Kirk is a man who suffers from serious emotional problems that frequently impact the outcome of his missions in morally ambiguous ways. But to me, that’s a positive thing. This is a a man whose heroism shades subtly into self-destruction. He could be the protagonist of a Michael Mann movie. Which is probably why I love him.

JBL: For me, it’s important to say I started watching Trek at age 5 and always saw Picard as a moral compass. So that’s why I love him.

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Read more:
Kirk vs. Picard, part 2: What about Captain Sisko?

Originally posted August 2 2011 — 12:00 PM EDT

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