Quick, and don't think about it: Say the first line that pops into your head from Star Trek the original series (TOS).
Is it "He's dead, Jim?" (I bet it is.) Who said that? Bones.
Is it "She canna take any more Captain?" That was Scotty.
"I'm a doctor not a..." Bones again.
"Live long and prosper." Spock again.
Now name one line that Captain James T. Kirk spoke that's memorable, in a culture-embedded way. Is it "Beam me up, Scotty?" (Maybe you even thought of that first.) Funny thing is, Kirk never said that.
Instead, he said stuff like "There are a million things in this universe you can have and there are a million things you can’t have. It’s no fun facing that, but that’s the way things are."
And "Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young."
See, James Tiberius Kirk was an idol, a totem, a screen-filling shirtless maypole around which the other characters spun. But it was the other characters that made TOS what it was. It was simultaneously iconic and iconoclastic. For its time, Star Trek was groundbreaking (first interracial kiss, first Russian good guy, first friendly alien with devil ears). But nobody would ever say Kirk himself impacted our culture in a deep way. He was the Neanderthal, the White Man who was at times a thinker, but only a few millimeters beneath his civilized nature was the savage.
The most memorable line ever spoken by Captain Kirk was in fact one word: "Khaaaaaaaaaan!" (from the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). And even then, William Shatner hammed it up. We loved it when he hammed it up.
On his own, Kirk could not carry a single episode. This is why they had such marvelous guest stars. In the first two seasons, they also had some incredible writers like Harlan Ellison ("The City of the Edge of Forever"), Robert Hamner ("A Taste of Armageddon"), Robert Bloch ("Catspaw") and Frederic Brown ("Arena").
And don't even get me started on the movies. Kirk couldn't punch his way out of a transporter platform without lots of help from his crew (and cast). The most underrated (and with some good reason) Star Trek (original crew) movie was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Without Spock, Kirk became almost morose, wooden, and semi-idiotic. Thank God they brought back Spock (and Nimoy to direct) in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If Kirk ever shined on his own, it was there (but you still have to think hard to remember anything he said).
I love Star Trek, and in fact some of the best episodes of Science Fiction ever put to the big or small screen came from TOS. I had to trash James T. Kirk to make my case, however. As painful as it is for the nostalgic Baby Boomers and Gen-X'ers who see TOS through dreamy gauze on lazy after school days filled with Swanson dinners on TV trays and UHF stations like WLVI-TV channel 56 in Boston (where I watched it), in a battle of the Captains of the Enterprise, nobody beats Jean-Luc Picard. It's not even close.
Now the prosecution rests and we open the defense of Picard.
TOS and Kirk had 2 1/2 (3 if you count the first half of season 3, with such winners as "Spock's Brain," "And the Children Shall Lead," and "Day of the Dove") seasons to develop the characters, and push the limits of Science Fiction on screen. Then they had an animated series (where every other episode featured killer pterodactyls raining from the sky, and one featured a Giant Spock), some arguably good acting.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) had 7 years to gel the cast and story. But first they had to undo all the campy theatrics of TOS. They had to force fans to unlearn everything they'd known about Star Trek, so they could make a better one. This means the first season was like the first pancake: in the trash. But the rest of TNG was exquisite, and for one reason only: Captain Jean-Luc Picard carried the show.
"I am Locutus of Borg," had to be the most chilling, room-air inhaling line I'd heard in a Star Trek series until Patrick Stewart said it. And many lines and words that Picard uttered have found their way into our cultural repertoire. "Number One," "engage," "tea, Earl Gray, hot." Picard did more for the role of Captain of the Enterprise with a cup of tea than James Kirk could possibly do with a phaser and a hot alien chick.
Yes, he was cerebral and at times, brooding. Yes, the show was sometimes insufferable, and a few times nearly jumped the shark (remember the episode "Disaster" where Picard had to spend the whole time leading children through a space version of "The Poseidon Adventure?" It nearly broke me.) Yes, the existence of Q could sink into its own gravity well, an inescapable black hole for writers.
But Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga managed to write "All Good Things," wrapping up the series nicely. TOS was cancelled before it hit its stride, and TNG gracefully exited at the top of its game. Picard could carry the whole thing himself. Watch "The Inner Light" without tearing up. I admit, I cried. Kirk never made me cry. Cringe, perhaps, but not cry.
My Resurgent colleague and friend Marc Giller waxed fanciful, comparing Kirk and Picard to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. He wrote there can be only one with "the moxie to Chairman of the Board--and that's Kirk." Sorry, Marc. Swagger only goes so far, and then talent takes you the rest of the way. As Kirk is front-loaded with moxie, Picard is hauling an Enterprise-D full of talent. As Captains, and as cultural legacies, there's no contest at all.
I close my argument with one more exhibit (no, it's not that Sinatra is dead and Bennett still lives, they're both great, as are Kirk and Picard). William Shatner spent years trying to get his command back as James T. Kirk after his last movie appearance in Star Trek: Generations. He may (or may not) have been offered a cameo in J.J. Abrams shake-your-lens-flare Star Trek, but refused it because he wanted a major role or none at all. So Nimoy got the call.
After the end of TNG, and the disastrous mess of Star Trek: Nemesis, Patrick Stewart said he was done with Jean-Luc Picard, that he was hanging up his red shirt, with the famous Picard tug, forever. Except he's not. From The Hollywood Reporter:
With overwhelming joy, it’s a privilege to welcome Sir Patrick Stewart back to the Star Trek fold. For over 20 years, fans have hoped for the return of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and that day is finally here. We can’t wait to forge new ground, surprise people, and honor generations both new and old," said Kurtzman, who leads a creative team that also includes James Duff (The Closer, Major Crimes), Akiva Goldsman (Discovery), Michael Chabon (the John Carter writer who is also penning one of the recently announced Star Trek: Discovery shorts) and Kirsten Beyer (Discovery).
Even sadder. The mantle of James T. Kirk has been carted off by a Millennial named Chris Pine, who was in it for the money, not the glory. Even with blockbuster swole-in-chief Chris Hemsworth, Star Trek 4 may not make it to warp. Pine and Hemsworth (who played Kirk's dad in the original reboot) reportedly walked away from the movie.
Long-story short, the two Chris’s want the money that was promised/negotiated when Brad Grey first announced Star Trek 4 just before Star Trek Beyond was released. Paramount, under new management, wants them to take a pay cut considering Star Trek Beyond’s underperformance. First, Chris and Chris need Star Trek more than Star Trek needs them. Second, this is a fine example of why you don’t formalize a sequel before the previous movie opens.
James T. Kirk would never turn down a mission for mere money. Paramount ruined Kirk forever. Perhaps they should offer the role to Shatner, and I bet he'd take it.
But one thing is clear from all this. In the battle of Captains, only one reigns supreme. As much as I love Kirk, we all know that it's Picard.