It’s interesting that in TOS, Captain Kirk describes himself as having been a super serious youth, “downright grim” in his academy days, meaning that the playful side he displays as captain of the Enterprise is something he had to grow into.
And indeed, it’s something we can see him growing into as the characterization evolves from the very early episodes through the end of the series and the movies.
Yet the pop culture remembers only the finished product, which is flanderized into Playboy Kirk, which was used as the template for Chris Pine’s wild child Kirk in the reboot.
Taking Kirk’s own account of his academy days at face value casts the infamous Kobayashi Maru incident less as a puckish prankster’s smug ploy and more the act of a desperate straight-A student who couldn’t stomach failure.
On the other hand, we have Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whom Ted Cruz recently claimed was not a “complete captain” because he supposedly “lacks passion”… Cruz was wrong about Picard just as he was wrong about Kirk, but that’s okay as these are two of the least important things he’s wrong about, and he is also talking about the sort of received pop-culture wisdom about Picard, that he’s stiff and stuffy and by-the-books.
But when we learn about Picard’s academy days and his early career, we learn that he was more like Chris Pine’s young Kirk than young Kirk was: a bar-brawler, a womanizer, and all-around hell-raiser. Where Kirk had to learn to cut loose, Picard had to learn the dignity and restraint we associate with him.
And when Q gives Picard a chance to go back and avoid the mistakes of his youth, he winds up destroying his own promising career by turning himself into a middle-of-the-road milquetoast who never takes risks and never shows initiative… he takes back the take-back, having learned that his mistakes made him who he is.
Kirk never consciously gets the same do-over, rebooted timeline notwithstanding, but when alien phlebotinum confronts him with a simulacrum of the upperclassman who made his time in the academy hell, he is content to beat the heck out of him even at the cost of being seriously injured himself.
Ted Cruz and J.J Abrams and company both make the same mistake in regards to the most famous Enterprise captains: looking at snapshots of the finished product and imagining that what they are seeing is all that there is, all there ever was, and all there could be.
Star Trek itself rejects this notion, emphatically.
How many times do skeptical superior beings decide to spare the Enterprise—either Enterprise—not because of something the humans on board do, but because of what they might grow into?
Some of Kirk’s biggest character growth came in the last movie where he was the lead protagonist. Picard’s character was still learning and growing in the final episode of TNG. “The trial never ended,” Q reminds him. It never does. The growth never stops. The lesson never ends.
To say that Picard or Kirk is “not a complete captain”, not a complete person… it misses the point that none of us are complete in a sense, in the sense that none of us are finished. We may be works of art, but we are works in progress. And if there are mistakes along the way… well, they might not all be “happy little accidents”, but they still must be incorporated into the piece.