There have been a great many articles, memes and debate threads in our world centered around the greatest entertainment question of our time. Namely, which Star Trek captain was better, Kirk or Picard?
Let’s go outside the warp bubble for a moment and go a little off the beaten heading, if you will. It’s time for a critical examination and comparison of Captains James T. Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, and Jonathan Archer. Yes, I include Captain Archer of Star Trek: Enterprise because not only is he deserving of consideration for best captain, he also survived the “greatness” that is Rick Berman, Brannon Braga, et al.
I shall refrain from a critical analysis of role portrayal by the actors and simply attack this as a look at the captain’s ability to lead, manage, make decisions, etc. Let’s start with the elder statesmen.
As we all know, James T. Kirk grew up in Iowa and, depending on the canon you subscribe to, he was either the son of a decorated Starfleet officer who went on to see him assume command of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701), or whose father died ramming the USS Kelvin into the ship commanded by the Romulan miner, Nero, and saved Earth from a singularity-infused death. For the purposes of this writing, we will keep it with Original Series (TOS) canon, and stick with the William Shatner version. Sorry, ladies.
Kirk ended up becoming Captain of the USS Enterprise after Christopher Pike’s appearance in the TOS Pilot “The Cage.” While TOS had a remarkably short television run versus its movie incarnations, Kirk cemented himself into Trek lore with a variety of gags, humors, and straight-up over-the-top behaviors. He was quite the ladies man, preferred to keep his phaser on “kill’ rather than “stun,” and was quick to whip out the phasers and photon torpedoes. He also had a knack for getting into seriously stupid fights with a variety of enemies, ranging from the
Romulans, to the Klingons, and later with Klingons with a misguided sense of destiny (“Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”). He also was reknowned for undermining his successors authority (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”), even if strictly by force of personality (“Star Trek: Generations”). However, Kirk makes up for this with sheer guile, bravery (though often wreckless), and an unrelenting desire to do right by his friends and those under his command.
One area many Trek fans tend to overlook is Kirk’s deep-seated insecurity with regard to his aging and mortality. Though he does not believe in the “no win scenario” and has proven a willingness, and actual ability, to cheat death, when faced with his own mortality, he has proven to be quite sensitive (“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”), even deflective of said mortality (“Star Trek: Generations”) but, in the end, faced his death on his terms, even if, in the end, he was literally trapped like a rat. At the end of the day, Kirk even displayed a quasi-Shakespearean fatalism with regards to his sense of duty (“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”). Overall, James T. Kirk’s performance as Captain of the Enterprise was not entirely horrific, but rather brave and colorful, though always approached with a strange sense of fatalistic moral relativism.
Captain Picard presented himself to Trekdom as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. He was full of contradictions: a man with a deep sense of duty, who accepted command of the newly-christened Federation flagship, (NCC-1701D), yet chafed at the notion of having to deal with children on a ship filled with families. Stoic to the last, he displayed an affinity for fine art, good food, and mature women (“Star Trek: Insurrection”). Unlike Kirk, Picard was far more a thinking-man’s captain, focusing on the analytical and diplomatic, and delegating the tactical and defensive to his command staff. True to form, his heart wasn’t entirely organic, but instead a little on the cybernetic side, thanks to a Nausican’s blade bisecting the bottom of it. This would seem near self-prophetic with the dreaded Borg chose him to be transformed into their Emissary, Locutus (“Best of Both Worlds, 1&2”).
Picard’s captaincy of the Enterprise-D had its highs and lows. Where Kirk relaxed in the company of a woman’s touch whenever possible, Picard could often be found curling up with a good book or, better still, acting out those scenes on the holodeck. A Dixon Hill fanatic, Picard’s affinity for the gumshoe actually served him when the Borg took over the Enterprise and Picard was forced to remove the holodeck safeties as a means of killing Borg drones to obtain valuable memory chip information (“Star Trek: First Contact”) Moreover, while Kirk was not exactly known for his diplomatic tact, Picard was rather adroit in dealing with both enemies such as Romulans, tenuous Klingon allies, unpredictable wildcards such as the Sheliac, and first contact situations with indecipherable language sets.
His bravery is beyond question, as he has not only cheated death, but also been killed, assimilated, maimed, and brought between continuums. It is the rare Starfleet captain who can claim to have gone toe-to-toe with an omnipotent, omniscient being and so beguiled said quasi-deity as to win, at the very least, his fondness for humanity. Picard, overall, demonstrates leadership at a high level, courage at its best, and a rather idealistic sense of morality, with just a hint of realism mixed in to keep him looking, well, human. At the very least, he proved a genuine embracing of his mortality, as well as the fact that others who are seemingly immortal can go before him in the blink of an eye. (“Star Trek: Nemesis”)
If Kirk is the man of action, and Picard is the man of thought, then Archer is the man of wonder. Bravery is a prerequisite when taking a starship (NX-01 Enterprise) into uncharted space without the backup of a multi-planetary fleet, few weapons, and little more than electroplated armor. Add to that a highly not-so-universal translator which requires a linguistic genius with a fear of bugs, tight spaces, etc. and the mission just seems all that more daunting. Jonathan Archer, son of Warp 5 Engine creator Henry Archer, is one part George Washington, one part Abraham Lincoln, and ten parts Dwight D. Eisenhower. He proved his mettle as a commanding officer shuttling a wounded Klingon scout to Q’uonos (or Kronos, depending on the version), battling shape-shifting, genetically altered beings who were evolved far beyond their time as the result of a neo-Cold War fought by factions battling over Best Practices for Time Travel (a rather silly plot device which seemed a lazy writers way out of a billion continuity questions). He also proved that having a sex-kitten Vulcan for an First Officer was the surely way to keep his eyes at, well, eye level. Then again, Archer did have a solid taste in ladies, evidenced by his romantic interests towards a fellow captain.
Where Archer shined as a commanding officer was his willing to do the dirty work. Kirk and Picard likely both took lessons from Archer’s log entries, though the events behind those entries were likely well diluted for the interest of historical interpretation. Archer’s own desire to exact revenge on the Xindi for their assault on Earth soon turned to a matter of diplomacy when he realized the species was being played for fools, though it did take some intervention from the aforementioned Temporal Cold War combatants to demonstrate this. Fortunately, Archer demonstrated an extremely healthy skepticism about this matter until confronted with indisputable evidence. Yet, it was Archer’s own subordinates and those he demonstrated the most distaste for or disagreement with who brought out his highest qualities.
Whether it was assuming the Katra of Vulcan messianic leader Surak, the desire to achieve a non-murderous solution to an Andorian blood code with Shran, or his no-holds-barred work to save the lives of Hoshi Sato and, later, Tripp Tucker, Archer is literally the most complicated Captain to ever grace the Trek stage.
FINAL ANALYSIS (yeah, right!!!!)
Kirk, Picard and Archer all bring something special to the table. Kirk’s own sense of adventure, willingness to fight, and desire to explore counterbalances Picard’s moral honor code and near-religious adherence to the Prime Directive, while Archer’s own self-guided self of purpose and principle, combined with the valuable lessons of first-time experience, outweighs the contributions of either. In the end, it comes down to a question of who was the better leader. For my money, and considering the real-world and Trek-world challenges faced, Captain Archer, though greatly undercelebrated, is my choice for the top pick. As the saying goes, the first is often the best, and Archer is, by far, the best captain Starfleet ever produced, if for no other reason than he was the first and had to literally write the book on Starfleet protocols.