Kirk vs Picard. It’s probably one of the oldest pop-culture debates that is still going on, as well as being one of the nerdiest. Since the late 80s, when Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) hit, fans have been divided. Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, a suave and debonair diplomat, or William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, a rough-and-ready, old-school man of action — who was the best captain of the USS Enterprise?
Since then, you’ll find no shortage of fans debating one way or the other. Fans of Star Trek: The Original Series prize Kirk for his rough and tumble attitude, and the cheesy, over-the-top style of his acting that matches the show around him. On the other hand, fans of TNG prefer Picard for his sophistication, his commanding demeanor, and the classically trained actor that portrays him.
No matter which side of the fence you sit on, if you’re a Star Trek fan then the discussion has almost certainly come up at least once. To this day, there is no general consensus on exactly which version of the character worked the best. Both characters have different things that make them appealing, and it’s hard to argue objectively one way or the other.
Hard, but not impossible. That’s exactly what we're going to do right here. We’ll pit each captain of the Enterprise against each other, looking at their command style and personality to see who comes out on top.
If you want to catch up on the exploits of both captains before you make your mind up, check out our Star Trek streaming guide to see where you can watch both shows online. You can also check out our Star Trek movies in chronological order guide too.
Kirk vs Picard: Command style
When it comes to running his ship, Kirk was very much a man of two minds. He was certainly a capable tactician, with many of his exploits becoming required reading in the Starfleet Academy. He stuck to his own moral compass, even when that meant breaking important rules, or trampling over some civilizations’ cultural customs. He was also a man who was capable of extreme aggression and anger, to the detriment of his mission, if rarely to the crew or ship he commanded.
Kirk was also a man who very much relied on his close friends to balance out his personality. He was passionate, sometimes to a fault, so Spock had to bring him down to a logical level. Similarly, he was sometimes overly gung-ho, meaning McCoy (aka Bones) fulfilled the role of his conscious. The Enterprise wouldn't have functioned nearly as well if either of these two weren't there to help Jim through the tough times.
In terms of his command style, Picard was very different from Kirk. He was incredibly strict and efficient, rarely relying on his passions or emotions. He was quick to anger, but very rarely let it control his decision-making. Picard was also a trained diplomat, which did have an impact on the way he ran his ship, making him much more likely to seek a verbal solution, rather than one based on immediate action.
Having said that, it’s not like Picard was perfect. He had personal attachments with several crew members that did occasionally interfere with how he commanded his crew, in particular Beverly Crusher and her much-maligned son, Wesley. Picard’s preference for words over action has endangered the crew of the ship once or twice, though his solid decision-making often saved the day in the end.
Kirk vs Picard: Personality
Personality-wise, Kirk is usually sold to outsiders as a horny womanizer. While that image is not without merit, it’s also true that his womanizing is somewhat blown out of proportion. For the most part, his character in the original series is staunchly pro-woman, defending reproductive rights and a woman's right to say no to a potential romantic partner on numerous occasions. If you only take into account the original canon, his number of confirmed partners hit around 9 or 10. Looking back, Kirk might seem like a bit of a sleazy horndog, but at the time he was positively forward thinking as characters go.
Outside of the bedroom, Kirk is an everyman. He doesn’t see himself, or in fact his officers, as above the rest of the crew. That’s part of the reason why he’s so willing to jump right in and put himself in harm’s way. He also cares deeply for the lives of his crew, as displayed on several occasions. Not only has Kirk done his utmost to preserve the lives of others, even at the expense of his own, but he’s been shown to take an interest in the personal lives of his crew, like when he went out of his way to run an ill-fated wedding for two of his crew members.
It can't be denied that Kirk has a dark and aggressive side. However, in one particular episode he addresses this and builds close personal relationships that help him to balance out those parts of himself; Spock and McCoy aren’t just officers, and at various times you get a very clear impression that they’re some of his closest friends. Without them, he would actively be a worse captain, and he knows it. They’re not just integral to the running of his ship, but an important part of his life and effectively act as his conscious.
When it comes to personality, Picard is quite a bit different from Kirk. Both are men of principle, Picard is much more reserved and restrained than Kirk. You can see that Picard cares deeply for the lives of those under his command, but he doesn’t rely on his officers in the same way that Kirk does. Although Riker does occasionally have to push Picard towards action rather than diplomacy at times, Picard often has a more balanced approach to problems than Kirk does when he’s separated from his officers and crew.
Compared to Kirk, Picard feels a bit more detached from his crew, yet he knows how to delegate and often does. While Picard is not unwilling to put himself into a position of danger, he acts more like an officer than a soldier. That’s not to say he’s okay sending his crew to their deaths, far from it, but he does seem to understand that it’s sometimes inevitable and is prepared to bear that burden. Indeed, while Kirk very much wears his heart on his sleeve, Picard is considerably more introspective. He carries a lot of pain with him and is often seen in turmoil over his past decisions and traumas.
No matter what answer you arrive at when it comes to the Kirk vs Picard question, you’re going to upset people. The truth is that both of these captains are brilliant in their own right. If you divorce the characters from the quality of the shows, it basically comes down to how you feel a ship should be run. The reason that Picard squeaks out a victory here is mostly based on his numerous unfair advantages.
The Next Generation is set over 100 years after The Original Series. Not only has deep space exploration been going on for over a century, meaning they’re not wrestling with the unknown as often, but the Federation is no longer one step away from war with the Klingons. Kirk almost certainly had to be more action-oriented because he was often working with little to no information. As information allows for more diplomacy, that gives Picard a slight edge here.
No matter how you personally feel about the shows, the characters, or the actors, you have to agree that the series wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for both of these captains. They’ll forever be part of the legacy of Star Trek, which ensures that this debate will still be going on by the time we actually hit the year 2265.
Also, you know the best Star Trek captain is Benjamin Sisko anyway... If you want more Star Trek content, be sure to check out our Star Trek movies, ranked worst to best article to see which captain gave us the best movie in the franchise.