Hi, my name is Emily. And… I prefer Captain Kirk.
It feels like sort of the thing you’re supposed to admit at an AA meeting these days, doesn’t it? In my experience, even fans who have been with Star Trek from the very beginning often wince in my direction for going Kirk-over-Picard (a technical term, exactly the same as conveying how you like your eggs). Oh, that poor misguided thing, I hear them thinking. She’s not considering this very carefully.
But I have, in point of fact, and it comes out the same every time. Good god, what’s wrong with me?
It’s not difficult for me to understand why anyone would prefer Picard. Really, saying that he’s your favorite just makes you feel good about yourself. He’s diplomatic, takes his job very seriously, wears his education on his sleeves, and doesn’t make rash decisions. Gene Roddenberry himself admitted that Picard was the result of the older, more experienced person he had become. Kirk was a reflection of his youth. Who wouldn’t prefer the more measured, sensible version of that figure? The person that grew from Kirk, and arguably past Kirk, to aspects that good old James Tiberius could never achieve?
As a small child I, too, preferred Picard. It was for the simplest of reasons: he felt safe to me. Like my dad was running the Enterprise. My dad really isn’t anything like Picard—he’s a super smart guy, but he’s not stuffy or born to a family of vintners, and he doesn’t have that fabulous accent, and he’s not inclined to listen to opera on full blast. But Jean-Luc had that ease about him. He was also staid and particular and had a streak of romance bottled up in there. People who love detective stories and archaeology often do. He was comfortable because of his competence and wealth of experience. Like plenty of dads are.
Picard became captain of the brand new Enterprise-D nearly forty years after he graduated from Starfleet Academy. He earned that ship with decades of command under his belt, and had already built a reputation by the time he hit the bridge. Picard was never going to be known only as “that amazing guy who captained the Enterprise”—he had much more going on. He indulged his archaeological interests. He had a lengthy distinguished career in Starfleet, and spent most of his command years on the bridge of the USS Stargazer. Later media suggests that he moved on to become an ambassador to Vulcan. That’s all great and healthy and deeply impressive.
Notice the words “exciting” or “epic” or “like a boss” are not currently being employed.
Picard is a thinking person’s hero, and that works for many fans because that’s how they see Star Trek—the thinking person’s science fiction. Star Trek is meant to challenge you, to engage your mind. It’s not about running and shooting space guns and shouting at weird aliens and hightailing away from explosions. It’s not for people who think all sci-fi should be like Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica or even Doctor Who. It’s for people who have hope for the future, but use a fictional version of it to examine the difficulties of the present. Who want their science fiction to tackle hard questions about politics, identity, life, and our relationships with other living beings. Picard reflects that sensibility admirably.
And yet, Star Trek is not just that. Star Trek is vivacious and funny and colorful and adventurous and, yes, occasionally sexy. Star Trek can tackle big ideas, but also choose to be jump-the-shark crazy when it’s called for. Star Trek is about possibility, no matter how far-fetched that possibility is. At least, that’s how it feels to watch Star Trek: the Original Series at a tender age. Picard doesn’t capture possibility, not really. He’s too together for that to come off.
As a child, I was also enamored of Spock. I think most kids are; he’s the perfect avatar for young geeky people, all unsure of themselves and learning how to deal with emotions and finding their place in the universe. Spock is the easiest door into the Trek experience, and all fans love him for it. He’s earned that adoration with every single eyebrow raise he has enacted over the past near-half-century.
But Kirk? He’s nothing but a cowboy, right? He is—as one Klingon memorably calls him in “The Trouble With Tribbles”—an overbearing, tin-plated dictator with delusions of godhood. Ouch.
He’s also King Arthur. Beowulf. Odysseus.
Coming at it from another angle: consider Enterprise when it was on the air. I sort of love that show for the strange, often-sloppy retcon it introduced in it’s initial years. It seemed so unlikely that Kirk could be most famous as captain of that ship when the very first Starfleet starship in space bore the same name. But Captain Archer became Admiral Archer, and he went on to do other things. More important things, you could argue. Picard came at the Enterprise captaincy from the opposite end; Starfleet surely thought he had earned it with all his years of service, handing over a ship with such a weighty history to a man who could carry the flag in good faith. But for all his accomplishments that landed him that job, even he can’t escape the awe in his voice when the Nexus throws him into Kirk’s backyard while he’s wood-chopping.
It’s not about who was better or more relevant, about who discovered more comets or solved the most intergalactic feuds, or even who had an easier time making introductions to new species. Picard himself proves it, hell, so does Captain Sisko—the veritable poster guy for “not easily impressed,” yet when his crew goes back in time to fix an incident aboard Space Station K-7, Sisko just has to meet Kirk. Come on, it’s totally not messing with the uber-fragile time stream if he gets the guy to sign a form that he has to sign anyway, right?
Kirk becomes the Enterprise’s captain at the tender age of 32 years old. He is on track to enjoy a long, illustrious career rising through Starfleet, and he goes through the motions for a while, sure. He becomes an Admiral and lectures cadets, he wears the respectable mantle when it’s needed, he lets them call him out for every little hiccup that demands a senior presence. But the plot of the first four Star Trek films all revolve—to some extent—around getting Kirk back on the bridge of his ship. He steals and sneaks and blows up one version and travels through time and eventually, Starfleet’s all, “We better give it back to him before he burns something down that we can’t replace, don’t you think?” And then they give him a brand new Enterprise because despite Kirk’s insistence that a ship is a ship, he has only one love in this universe, and they weren’t about to deny him again.
Reboot continuity makes this even clearer, which may be one of the primary aspects going for Abrams’ film series. Plenty of fans were annoyed by Kirk’s stop off at the (randomly situated) Iowa shipyard to see the Enterprise being welded to life; starships are supposed to be built in space for reasons of science! But emotionally, that moment was precisely nestled in the narrative—Kirk was being called to assume his place by the only thing who could convince him, and that wasn’t Captain Pike. This new Kirk, who is brash and rude and self-deprecating, who had none of the guidance that his original counterpart received—there is nothing else that he could possibly do with his life. He just has a brand new path to proving it this time around.
Spock calls it his best destiny, and that’s what stands out from every other Trek commander on the roster—there is one thing in this whole universe that James T. Kirk was created to be. He doesn’t want the pension plan with the medals and commendations, he doesn’t need a house on the range, he’s not looking to sit on a council and delegate duties to all the young, excited men and women who are just starting out in space travel. Because it never stopped being exciting for him. It never turned into a job. And honestly, he never loses a step—it’s not like they promoted him because he couldn’t hack it in the chair anymore. He was promoted for good works by a grateful organization, regardless of where his expertise was best-suited. Nice job, Starfleet.
And what about Kirk’s reputation with no-win scenarios? He gets away with literally everything over the course of his career. Smudged the Prime Directive this time? We can let that slide. Made a decision on behalf on an entire species without their go-ahead? We’re sure you did what was necessary. You say that respectable Federation representative was being a real jerk to you? Don’t worry, his complaints will be ignored. And we’re not supposed to call any of this into question. It’s a given that Kirk is right because he just is.
Some people decide that basically makes him a jerk, and give him the instant write-off. And these days we all certainly recognize the privilege inherent at the core of the character, very much a product of its time (and a problem common to most frontier narratives). But the point of Kirk isn’t evolved, stately perfection—it’s to show us a consummately flawed human being who nevertheless always trumps the odds. That something-out-of-nothing kind of guy. The one who makes it through by having good friends, a good heart, too much charisma, and a double-helping of nerve. Captain Kirk doesn’t get special dispensation from Starfleet because they’re idiots, he gets it because somehow, he can’t lose. He’s a mixed blessing, but he’s their blessing, dammit.
And for that, he actually transcends the label of “best captain” in the Star Trek canon. Kirk is a mythological-grade hero, one of those people who makes a career out of achieving the impossible because he said so. A magician, a wunderkind, the kid who got dipped in the special immortal-making river up to his heel—it’s no wonder he’s always facing down would-be gods.
That’s just how I prefer my heroes. The ones I think of on my worst days, when the world crashes in, they’re not Picards. They’re all Kirks. Because sometimes you need to believe that your will makes things possible. That you can’t fail. Maybe that belief is giving you the courage you need to create that luck. Maybe that’s been Kirk’s secret the whole time.
Which is really just a long-winded way of saying: If you prefer Picard, I promise I won’t ever hold that against you. But you’re going to have to stop giving me the side eye when I don’t agree.
Emmet Asher-Perrin sort of views Kirk like a security blanket—she watches him whenever she is sick or feeling blue-ish. His smile might be a cure-all. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.