'Star Trek': Kirk vs. Picard: Who is the ultimate captain?

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard....

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard. (Courtesy)

Jim Slotek and Steve Tilley, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:21 AM ET

Jim says... Kirk’s enthusiasm made space look cool

As a space-obsessed kid in the ’60s, I followed every second of the Apollo program. But astronauts weren’t the most excitable folks.

You’re the first person to land on the moon and you still speak in clipped sentences. I know, that was their training, but it sounded as if the most exciting experience imaginable was just another day at the office. (Now we know that Armstrong and Aldrin where white-knuckling it, landing on fumes over the Sea of Tranquility – more’s the reason they should’ve been screaming and high-fiving like moonshiners who’ve eluded the cops).

Star Trek, which I watched faithfully from age eight in its original incarnation, communicated the thrill that had been largely airbrushed out of the real space race.

And the excitable, adrenaline-charged Captain Kirk – as exuberantly portrayed by the scenery-devouring William Shatner – was a surrogate for anybody whose own historic words on stepping onto the lunar surface would be, “Holy crap! I’m on the moon!”

James Tiberius Kirk was thrilled to be commanding the Enterprise, seeking out strange, new worlds. More than once, in the course of three seasons, he ended up teary-eyed about his ship. He loved the alien women (really loved them). He loved antagonizing Klingons. He loved lecturing alien cultures about what they were doing wrong (invariably after talking the supercomputer that was keeping them comfortable into killing itself).

He loved presiding over Spock and McCoy’s bickering. I think he secretly enjoyed giving Scotty an anxiety attack by ordering more power even when the chief engineer would claim the engines “dinna have it!”

Space was exciting, and no one communicated that better than Capt. Kirk.

Flash ahead 17 years, and my job took me to the Paramount set of the as-yet-unaired Star Trek: The Next Generation. Jonathan Frakes and Brent Spiner were hilarious guides. Michael Dorn made jokes about Klingons eating live chickens. I got to sit in the captain’s chair and play with the transporter controls.

Only Patrick Stewart didn’t seem like he was having a good time. (He would do a complete reversal over the years, happily embracing his role as geek icon).

And that was reflected on Star Trek: The Next Generation when it aired in 1987. Capt. Picard seemed in a permanent bad mood (if you downed a shot for each time he yelled, “Shut up, Wesley!” you’d be under the table).

The stiffness of that initial season gradually eased up, but the stick up Capt. Picard’s butt took a long time for the writers to surgically remove. Eventually, he would be allowed to smile, usually patronizingly. Still, a slow burn seemed to be his default mode. He was a natural, sober-sided target for the omnipotent prankster Q.

In a way, though, he was of a piece with a Federation that had largely moved beyond wonder and into dullness of familiarity. Until the Borg was added as an ultimate threat, the fate of the Federation was rarely in doubt on The Next Generation. Facilitating negotiations between squabbling planets, antics on the Holodeck and existential questions about whether a hologram or an android could be sentient – The Next Generation was about ideas.

And Picard was nothing if not an ideas man, a maker of executive decisions in a thoroughly mapped-out Alpha Quadrant. Damn, even the Klingons were allies on that show.

By contrast, the original Star Trek was usually about a first-time contact with something dangerous, with an impulsive, larger-than-life emissary leading the charge and scoping the females.

It was, indeed, an exciting time to be in space.

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Steve says... Picard gave us a thinking man’s leader

Swagger. Confidence. A way with the ladies. The conviction to sacrifice almost anything – including his beloved starship – to win the day.

I understand the appeal of Capt. James T. Kirk. He’s the bad boy that women are drawn to. But Picard? He’s the man they want to marry. The man they build a life with, eventually forgetting the ill-advised dalliances of their youth. And I’m OK with that.

Capt. Jean-Luc Picard – logical, intelligent, deeply moral – might not be the guy you’d want to hang out with for a night of drinking. And a middle-aged, balding, Shakespeare-loving captain with an English accent was a tough sell when Star Trek: The Next Generation went into production, with creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry resisting the idea until the 11th hour.

But Picard could be the guy you’d meet at a party and end up having a mind-blowing conversation with, even if he wasn’t encouraging you to go talk to the green-skinned hottie in the corner. The guy you’d still be sharing stories with, instead of telling stories about.

Each was a man of his time. Kirk was exploring strange new worlds on the final frontier. By the time Picard straightened his tunic and sat in the captain’s chair, it was a century later. Starfleet had changed. The galaxy had changed. A Neanderthal like Kirk might never have been given command of a starship. But Picard? He was the captain the 24th century needed.

As for Kirk’s much-vaunted success with the ladies, both human and otherwise, I asked my Patrick Stewart-obsessed female friend what makes Picard so appealing. “Picard is a gentleman,” she said, followed by the statement that Jean-Luc has a bigger, shall we say, photon torpedo than Kirk. While I have no idea how or where she came by that information, I am prepared to take it as gospel.

I also asked none other than Capt. Kirk himself – Canadian national treasure William Shatner – what he might be able to say in Picard’s favour, during a recent chat in advance of both captains appearing at Fan Expo Canada in Toronto. I explained the nature of this feature, telling him I had drawn the Picard side of the debate. “I feel so badly for you,” Shatner responded.

Fine, but is there anything he could say in defence of Picard?

“He was a very nice, thoughtful individual,” said Shatner. I replied that that sounded like a backhanded compliment. “Well, I don't know why you would think that!” Shatner said, wholly unconvincingly.

I get it, Picard wasn’t the charismatic action hero that Kirk was. But he had his share of derring-do, made plenty of difficult decisions (including also sacrificing his ship) and he ultimately resisted the freakin’ Borg, the Star Trek universe’s most powerful villains. Had Kirk been assimilated, the Borg would’ve consumed every inhabited galaxy under Kirk’s hot-headed guidance.

Picard was, as Shatner points out, thoughtful. The original Star Trek series is an artifact of its era, but like any good sci-fi, it reflected the issues of time, dressing them up in alien makeup to make them more palatable. Star Trek: The Next Generation continued that legacy, but gave us a thinking man’s captain to go along with the issues it probed.

Long live Kirk, the man who will always be associated with Star Trek, the USS Enterprise and five year missions. But if you’re asking me to cast a vote in favour of Picard as the Federation’s best captain, I say, ‘Make it so.’

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