Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #2, and this week’s questions is…
Who is the best Star Trek captain?
I originally interpreted Rod’s question as meaning, “Which Star Trek Captain was best at being a Captain in the Star Trek universe?” but it turns out that he is happy for me to answer the question any way that I want: favorite Captain, most skilled Captain, Captain who I’d like to serve with, etc.
This is a tough one partly because I do like them all, and because I’m more immediately familiar with the exploits of some more than others (having not watched most of Voyager or Deep Space Nine for quite some time), so it’s hard for me to really remember.
Now for clarity’s sake, I’m only dealing with the primary Captain characters on the official Star Trek television. So, no Rachel Garrett, no Christopher Pike, no Hikaru Sulu, no Philippa Georgiou. Just Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer. Oh, and Lorca from Discovery. And no Chris Pine version of Kirk either.
But even with only six candidates, I find it tricky because different ones “win” depending on how I interpret the question.
So let’s have a quick look at the candidates and how they do in the different criteria:
Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs, Star Trek: Discovery)
The most recent addition to the list, Captain Gabriel Lorca of the USS Discovery is the one Captain here who most definitely isn’t my favorite anything. First, he’s been around for such a brief time (the show just premiered at the beginning of this current TV season), and second he seems manipulative, overly single-minded, potentially deceitful, and altogether a bit shady. And as he’s actually not the main character of a show that’s got a bit of an “anyone can die” vibe, he earns the distinction of Star Trek Captain who I’m worried might sacrifice me in order to advance the war effort, but that’s about it.
Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula, Star Trek: Enterprise)
If Star Trek was a real thing, Jonathan Archer would definitely by the Star Trek Captain who is most historically important, as it’s largely by his efforts and exploits that the whole Federation is founded. As man, Archer started off a bit sullen, and frequently uninspired as to how to deal with everything his ship was discovering–but to be fair, the guy was essentially inventing in-universe what a Starship Captain is. His great strength was his determination that humanity would muddle through all its challenges and prove their worth. As a Captain, he seemed to know how to gather people who of high ingenuity–chief engineer Charles Tucker and tactical officer Malcolm Reed (whose actually frequently didn’t get along with the Captain, but was still seen as a valuable officer) were often inventing the technology that fans were accustomed to in other Star Trek series.
Archer was ultimately an interesting character to watch because we actually saw him overcoming his personal prejudices and develop into the diplomat who was ultimately able to bring the various alien races of the 22nd century to the same table to talk about furthering their common interests.
Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager)
Kathryn Janeway obviously has lots of qualities that make her a good commander–she’s clear thinking, decisive, intelligent, brave and determined. She was in an extremely difficult situation–her ship lost on the other side of the galaxy and her crew decimated, forced to work together with political rebels, an ex-con, and a few friendly aliens to keep her ship together and to make the journey home. Pretty much all Starfleet lead characters are idealists to some degree or another, but for Janeway this was one of her defining traits, as she was the Star Trek captain most fiercely loyal to the principles of the Federation. Sometimes this was to the detriment of the people under her command, which is why she probably bothers me the most of all other characters on this list whose. She had a tough job, pulling her disparate crew together (although, actually, this was rarely actually shown on the series; for the most part everyone got along really well), but overall she never came across as particularly connected to the actual people she worked with, and felt justified putting them at risk (indeed, this point was kind of brought out in the series’ finale episode).
The exception to this is Seven of Nine, who she seemed to treat almost as a daughter, but I’d say this is another example of her devotion to Federation ideals: if Seven of Nine could be rehabilitated from her capture by the Borg, it ultimately validated the Federation’s approach of life.
No wonder, I think, that it was Janeway and not Picard who ended up in the Admiralty.
Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)
Sisko is unique on this list as he’s actually not the Captain of a starship, at least not primarily (yes, he did have command of the Defiant whenever he was on board, but that wasn’t his main job). Rather, he led a Starbase, first as a Commander, not gaining the promotion until the end Deep Space Nine’s third season. Sisko was a man scarred by tragedy–with the death of his wife at the hands of the Borg–who by personality was a mix of stoic calm and blistering rage. His time on the frontiers of the Federation gave him a perspective quite different from other officers, realizing that people on earth were often sheltered and thus didn’t fully understand the complexities that existing in galactic politics. More than once, he pushed the limits of Starfleet morality by taking extreme actions to give the Federation a fighting chance for survival.
Sisko had the toughest job of everyone on this list, as his command stood at the volatile crossroads of the Federation, the Cardassian Union, and the Dominion, three major bodies whose actions impacted the destiny of the entire galaxy. Sisko had the job of navigating a fragile peace, standing in the face of war, and interfacing with alien deities that lived within local wormhole. Adding to his troubles were threats from the Klingons, intrigue from the Romulans, schemes of the Ferengi, and the fact that the local planet near his station viewed him as a messianic figure.
Unlike all the other characters we’re talking about here, Sisko was a committed family man–raising his son as a single dad for most of the series’ run, and eventually getting married again. Ultimately, a lot of his story–which is the strongest arc that any of the Captain’s have had–was about him coming to terms with the past and accepting the different aspects of his identity, as well as his future. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s probably why I found him to basically be my favorite Star Trek Captain character, at least by a narrow margin.
Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart, Star Trek: The Next Generation
In many ways, Picard is the obvious choice for the question of best Star Trek Captain. He’s an intelligent, capable commander who has a more assured understanding of his authority than pretty much any other character in the whole franchise. Picard alone on this list is someone that we’re seeing with decades of command experience behind him, which definitely gives him a bit of an advantage in the whole “Best Captain” contest. He is at ease in the center chair of a starship bridge and he inspires excellence and respect from amongst his crew. He knows how to gather advice and input from his staff, but he knows how to make a decision based on his convictions and stick to it. He was used too many times by the writers, sadly, to express a strange sort of devotion to the Prime Directive which I didn’t like. But that aside he easily wins the award for Star Trek Captain whose command I’d most like to be under, or possibly, the best at his job.
Some of this impression, though, surely stems from the fact that the show put him on a ship that was so much larger than we’d seen before, and felt more like the population of a small town than just a crew. Picard’s Enterprise felt like a safe place to be, even if that feeling was a misnomer (how many times did that ship get blown up?)
Picard is played by Patrick Stewart, who is by a long-shot the most celebrated actor amongst all the series regulars. And those regards are well-earned…there are a number of episodes where Stewart gives performances that are frankly brilliant: Family, Chain of Command, Sarek, and The Inner Light to mention a few. The only thing is, in those episodes, we get a great picture of Jean-Luc Picard the man, but not necessarily of Jean-Luc Picard the Captain. Indeed, Picard was settled in his position, and so assured, that his role as Captain was almost the least interesting thing about him, which is possibly why I found Sisko’s story ultimately more interesting.
James T. Kirk (William Shatner, Star Trek)
While Jonathan Archer invented the Starship Captain in the continuity of the Star Trek universe, William Shatner and James Kirk did it in real life. Kirk was brave and impulsive, but not rash. He was intelligent and resourceful and quick to put himself in danger first. Kirk carried the well-being of his crew on his heart in a way that no other Captain afterwards did, practically agonizing over every loss. This is consistent with the fact that though he would die for the Federation, his greatest loyalty was really to his friends. This was also a weakness of course, as this independent streak led him to conflict with senior Starfleet and Federation officials more than was necessary. But still, his relationships with his close friends felt more real than pretty much anything we saw afterwards in Star Trek (though maybe Archer and Trip in Enterprise got close).
For Kirk, being Captain of his ship was more part of his core identity than any of the Captains who came after. In The Naked Time, an emotionally broken (thanks to a space-born sickness) Kirk admits that his ship is like a lover he cannot leave, even though it has such high demands on him. The need for Kirk to Captain his ship is so essential to the character that it is a big focus of the first four Trek movies. And I don’t think it’s too much to argue that it is Kirk’s passionate exhortation to Picard in Generations that results in the later Captain never leaving his command position (as far as we see in the movies, anyway).
As Captain, Kirk relied wisely on the advice of his closest companions and inspired a deep personal loyalty from those people. As my friend Rod pointed out to me, he also inspired people to great courage and willingness to take risks. Because Kirk was pretty much the only Captain on this list to not be on an ensemble-show (some blame Shatner himself for this), we’ve seen more of him in the thick of the action than we have anyone else, both on the ship (eg. Balance of Terror, The Corbomite Maneuver) and off (Errand of Mercy, City on the Edge of Forever). This all gives us a picture of a commanding officer who leads by example, and on the basis of principles and a heroic determination to do the right thing.
And all of that earns him the right to be labelled the best Star Trek Captain (in a sort of amalgamated sense of those words), which is something I didn’t know I felt until it came time to type those words.
Incidentally, as a bonus, I was going to talk about the all-time worst Star Trek Captain for a moment, and mention John Gill from the original series episode, Patterns of Force. He’s the guy who tried to re-create the culture of Nazi Germany minus its evils a planet in need of structure, which shockingly led wrong and led to all sorts of ethnic cleansing. But he turns out to be a history professor and cultural observer, not a Captain.
Be with us next week when our exploration of all things geeky brings us to a question that is about both Rod’s favorite comic book (the X-Men) and mine (the Legion of Superheroes).