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The moment when Picard became more important than Kirk in Star Trek history

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Jan 7, 2020, 12:29 PM EST (Updated)

Who is the most popular Star Trek captain of all time? This age-old — and extremely fraught — Trekkie debate has arguably been settled. The impending release of Star Trek: Picard seems to prove that, overwhelmingly, fans love Captain Jean-Luc Picard more than any other Trek captain ever. Yes, hardcore Trekkies will tell you they celebrate all captains equally (even Scott Bakula), but the zeitgeist seems to tell a different story.

We love Picard a lot, and surely, we love him more than Captain James T. Kirk. This wasn't always the case, but we've been living in a Picard-first world for a long time now. Here's when it happened.

In 1994, Captain Kirk famously gave Captain Picard a speech about making sure his successor understood the importance of remaining a starship captain for as long as possible because, according to Kirk, if you're sitting in a big chair, making it so, you can still "make a difference." This scene happens in Star Trek Generations, a 1994 movie that is either the first feature film with the TNG cast or the final movie to connect to the Original Series era, depending on how you look at it.

It's the moment to which this headline refers, but it was also largely a formality. By 1994, the debate between Picard and Kirk was pretty much over. Picard had already won it.

This is hard for some people to believe, but in the early '90s, characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation were much more popular than any Marvel superhero or Star Wars alien. If you looked at this from the perspective of action figures for sale at Target, and who was constantly on the cover of TV Guide, TNG was the coolest and most popular nerd thing around, which is why it makes sense that in 1992, a TV Guide reader's poll voted Patrick Stewart "The Sexiest Man on TV."

In 1993, a similar TV Guide reader's poll crowned Stewart with the most '90s compliment ever: "Most Bodacious Man on TV."

Back in 2017, in a tongue-in-cheek Twitter exchange, Stewart reminded everyone of this fact by tweeting out one of his many TV Guide covers, which features him wearing a leather vest that we really hope he'll bring back for Star Trek: Picard. And though Stewart was kind of kidding around here, the reality is if you were paying attention to pop science fiction in the '90s, Captain Kirk was not your Captain. It was Picard all the way.

Gentle reader, I remember this really well. And that's because I was in 6th grade when "All Good Things...," the series finale of The Next Generation was on the air. I even reviewed this momentous occasion in my diary in 1993. And, prior to that, I was 100 percent a 4th-grader wearing a Starfleet TNG jumpsuit to a Star Trek convention in Phoenix, Arizona in 1992. This is the year Patrick Stewart was on the cover of TV Guide in the leather vest, and yes, dear reader, my mom was with me at this Star Trek convention, and yes, like everyone else, she was in love with Captain Picard.

Now, at this exact convention, I have a strong memory of a kid standing up and asking Patrick Stewart if Picard would marry his mother. This kid was not me. I want to make that clear. But it could have been. I understand that people who fell in love with Star Trek in the '70s (hi, Michael Chabon!) will tell you that some of this same adoration existed for the original crew, and I'd agree with them. But, if you want to talk about who everyone loved from the original series, it wasn't Captain Kirk. Everyone loved Spock. For The Next Generation era, Picard somehow had the swaggering captain thing going for him, but, because he was a little bit stoic and detached, he also had the Spock thing going for him, too. He was the best of both worlds (those worlds being Earth and Vulcan).

So, the reason why Picard became more popular than Kirk in the '90s is because Picard — as expertly played by Stewart — had the cool-as-a-cucumber Spock-ish persona mashed up with a dash of Kirk's bravado, minus the chauvinism. Back in the day, pro-Kirk people liked to say Picard wasn't brave or he didn't kick enough ass. But, the truth is, Picard kicks ass in TNG all the time. He just doesn't throw as many punches as Kirk, and that's mostly because he doesn't need to. He's just that good.

Credit: CBS

Ever since the '90s, we've been living with the status quo of Picard being the people's captain. Yes, in 2009, when the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot happened, it felt like we were going to revert to a world in which Kirk (played by Chris Pine) was the most popular Star Trek captain. But it didn't last. For all their virtues, the reboot films haven't connected with the fandom the same way the various TV series have. And the proof is that after Star Trek: Discovery rebooted another classic captain, Christopher Pike, the next logical move was to bring back the Trek captain everyone really wanted to see.

The reason why Jean-Luc Picard is back is partially because Patrick Stewart wanted to play him, and because the writers and creators of contemporary Star Trek are very savvy. But the reason why we're all so pumped for Picard is because, really, he never stopped being our Captain. In the '90s, Patrick Stewart proved that a male space hero didn't need to be sexist or overtly violent to be awesome. And, for that reason alone, Picard remains sexy, relevant, and more popular than ever. It's not confusing that he's making it so again. It's just strange that it took this long.

Star Trek: Picard hits CBS All Access on January 23.

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