It’s too easy to be the cowboy.
In comparing Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard, it comes down to cowboy vs. diplomat. Unfortunately, all it takes to be the cowboy in most stories is a quicker trigger finger than the enemy and a libido the size of Texas.
Kirk was cool. Kirk was necessary. Kirk was Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s rough draft – and rough he was. To satisfy viewers who had never seen a beast like Star Trek before, and to keep in good standing with a studio that wouldn’t even let him have the female first officer he’d originally planned for, Roddenberry made a lot of compromises. Thus, Kirk was a cowboy in an era accustomed to watching cowboys.
If one examines the two captains, however, it becomes apparent that Kirk’s finest moments – when he would outsmart his enemies rather than outmuscle them – were merely the seeds of the sort of character Roddenberry desperately wanted to plant, seeds that bloomed into Picard.
The bald man’s methods may seem boring to the typical action-lover – he does quite a lot more talking than fighting – but that’s what makes him a better captain.
A captain who routinely breaks the rules with wild abandon is far more likely to get his crew and the people he seeks to help in trouble – not only from the enemy, but from their own side as well. This is why Picard is the better leader: he keeps everyone out of trouble by finding the loopholes in the letter of the law.
Picard is a strategist. Instead of viewing challenges as a boxing match, he views them as puzzles; mysteries to be solved. Time and time again, he has found ways to turn legal and political roadblocks into the very tools of his victory – much to the dismay of whatever opponent was using those rules to flout him.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of “badass,” however. When diplomacy fails, Picard’s not afraid of a fight. Aside from the usual space battles, he’s held his own in hand-to-hand combat against Klingons and even survived a stab to the heart during a bar fight with three Nausicaans (über-strong, tough-as-nails pirates and mercenaries of the Star Trek universe) when he was young.
But Picard can’t afford to be a carefree maverick like Kirk. He lives in more complex times, with more complex problems. The galaxy is no longer the Wild West; the villains are sneakier, the politics are dirtier, and the schemes have more drastic effects. Transplant Kirk onto the bridge of Picard’s Enterprise, and even he would quickly realize just how obsolete he is in comparison to his successor.
Kirk overcame his share of obstacles during his tour of duty; it’s true. But in the end, they’re nothing compared to those braved by Picard, whose brilliant mind, commanding presence and pure strength of will led to greater achievements in more complicated times.
This article first appeared in Volume 40, Issue 23 of The Clackamas Print as half of a Kirk vs. Picard splash page debate.