Who are the best Star Trek captains? Since Star Trek first came onto screens, audiences have been treated to the adventures of countless Starfleet captains.
Despite Star Trek‘s inherently ensemble nature, the many Star Trek series and films are almost always anchored by a captain. These captains set the tone of the adventures and determine the ways in which the story of the entire crew progresses. So, while they might not always be the best Star Trek characters in any given adventure (often, it’s side characters who take the spotlight), the captain is usually the most important.
It’s not surprising, then, that debate has raged for decades on how different Star Trek captains compare to each other (Kirk vs. Picard is an eternal argument). To put an end to that conversation, we’ve complied our thoughts on all the leading captains and a few extras, too, from across the Star Trek timeline. Here’s our current ranking of the Star Trek captains, from worst to best.
16. Captain William Riker
Good old William T. Riker. What’s he doing way down here, so low? The major reason why Captain Riker isn’t one of the greats is down to the fact that he dodged the captain’s chair for such a long time. He waited too long, and by the time he took command of the USS Titan he was old news.
The evidence for this is seen in Star Trek Picard. Not only did Riker never make it to Admiral (or above even that), but he was a captain without a ship, without the reputation which you’d expect of him. It’s a shame, and is one of the major unintentional character arcs from all of Star Trek, exploring stagnation and the loss of potential.
15. Captain Jonathan Archer
Portrayed by Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula, leaping his way into another sci-fi adventure series, is Captain Archer. Enterprise suffered from Star Trek burnout, and it showed in a lot of the series’ writing. It can be hard to separate this dip in quality from Archer’s pedigree as a Starfleet captain.
Captain Archer fought against challenges and led a small, specialized crew. His job was made harder by the fact that so little was known about the rest of the galaxy, and this meant that threat could be lurking around any corner.
And yet, more than any other, Captain Archer felt like a stock captain. He could be replaced by anyone else, and not much would change. In fact, any of the captains on this list could have done his job and probably done it better. Yes, his contribution to Starfleet was vital, but it’s hard to escape the sense that Archer just isn’t all that remarkable.
14. Captain Saru
For his whole life, Saru lived under a cloud of fear and had gotten used to seeing himself as prey. As a commander, he would urge caution, alerting his captains to any possible threat of danger and always keeping an eye on the worst case scenario. That’s actually not a bad trait for a first-officer, who serve as the counter-balance to their captains.
Saru mostly shrugged off his excess-caution when he unintentionally underwent the Vahar’ai process. And, as captain, he’s proven that he’s been able to let go of his past limitations. Mostly. Saru is still prickly, and while he’s an effective captain for the most part, he’s prone to personal conflicts. The best captains need to be above that.
13. Captain Liam Shaw
Wow, Captain Liam Shaw from Picard! What’s he doing on this list among such legends? This is controversial. Let’s be real, though. The dipsh*t from Chicago may have started off as a bit of a jerk, but in the end, Shaw proved he had the bearing of a truly great Starfleet officer and captain.
While initially presented as an unlikable antagonist who was needlessly rude to Picard, Riker, and Seven of Nine, Shaw quickly proved himself just as brave as everyone on this list and grew into one of the show’s most relatable captains.
You could even say he’s the captain who best embodies Roddenberry’s hopes for humanity. Afterall, what’s a better metaphor for humanity’s optimistic future than a man who puts aside his prejudices in the name of fighting for a better tomorrow? Also, it was very cute when Shaw met Geordi and turned into a bit of a fanboy.
12. Captain Michael Burnham
The true challenges for Captain Michael Burnham came when the USS Discovery was catapulted into the distant future, where it now continues to reside as the show progresses. Overall, she has dealt with the shake-up as well as any other Star Trek captain could. She has kept her crew together, tethered to their original sense of purpose.
She has also had to fight hard to get to her station. Her past actions (mutiny and accidentally starting a galactic war) meant that she has had barriers that no other Star Trek captain on the list has faced. So, it’s a testament to her ability that she will still be the captain of the USS Discovery when the Star Trek Discovery season 5 release date arrives.
Nevertheless, her rebellious past means that Captain Burnham is unpredictable – and not always in a good way. She has stand-out qualities and abundant strengths like determination and empathy. But if you were facing imminent danger, who would you her want as your captain? For us, the others below her on the list just manage to take it.
11. Captain Seven of Nine
After being rejected from Starfleet upon Voyager’s eventual return to Earth, Seven of Nine joined the vigilante Fenris Rangers. She was eventually given a field commission, however, by Jean-Luc Picard in Picard season 2 (the less said about that whole affair the better) and approximately a year later she was officially the first-officer of Shaw’s USS Titan-A.
That’s a fairly meteoric rise, and the only real explanation has to be that Starfleet looked to her years on Voyager as a reflection of her capability. Or, perhaps Admiral Janeway stepped in. Upon Shaw’s death, Seven of Nine stepped into the captain’s chair and led the fightback against the Borg assault on Earth, proving her ability to command from the very front.
The USS Titan-A was rechristened as the USS Enterprise-G, and Seven was made its captain in a promotion from Tuvok (and by recommendation from the late-Liam Shaw). Should we ever get Star Trek Legacy – and we’re optimistic that it’s coming sooner rather than later – we’ll get a whole show with Captain Seven of Nine in command.
Seven can be hot-headed, yes, and has to fight to stay in control. She probably needs a Deanna Troi-type figure by her side (rather than the equally hot-headed Raffi and Jack Crusher), but she’s highly intelligent, rational, capable, sensitive, and inspires loyalty from those around her. Oh, and she’s fought The Rock. In Seven of Nine we trust.
10. Captain Spock
While we all think of Spock primarily as a first officer and science officer, after the events of The Motion Picture the half-Vulcan re-joins Starfleet to be promoted to the rank of captain. When The Wrath of Khan begins, it’s Spock who’s in command of the starship, training up the newest batch of cadets.
Ranking Spock as a captain is a difficult task, though, because we almost never actually see the character in the chair. Instead, In The Wrath of Khan he almost immediately relinquishes his command to Admiral Kirk, before falling into the usual role as his closest adviser. After that, we don’t really get to see Spock in the role again (except for The Undiscovered Country).
But what we do know is this: he gives up command without ego (unlike Decker) in order to preserve the chain of command, and that says a lot. He also makes the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Khan, dying on behalf of his ship and its crew. That speaks for itself.
9. Captain Hikaru Sulu
There’s slightly more to judge Captain Hikaru Sulu on than Spock, and we get a real sense of his style from the little we see of him in The Undiscovered Country.
“Fly her apart then!” might be the defining Sulu moment, as he risks it all to come to the aid of his friends after tricking Starfleet on Kirk’s behalf. Thanks to that decision, the Khitomer Accords were signed and the assassination of the Federation President was prevented. Can you imagine Shaw, or even Picard, doing the same?
It gives an indication of how the captain of the USS Excelsior would deal with other situations too: he’s decisive and willing to gamble, like the man he served under for so long.
8. Captain Christopher Pike
Good humor, a backbone of steel, and excellent hair are the trademark features of Captain Pike. The character was reintroduced into Star Trek with Star Trek Discovery season 2 before taking command of the USS Enterprise permanently in Star Trek Strange New Worlds.
Like Sisko, Captain Pike is less concerned about the strict letter of the Starfleet law and is more about: how should we say it? Personal interpretation. This is a pro and a con, and the jury is still out on whether or not this will pay off in the long run.
The elephant in the room is that Captain Pike has really only had two full seasons to prove himself. And in that time, despite his personal turmoil about his inevitable future, the captain has a relatively comfortable position. He is well respected within Starfleet, he has an excellent, cooperative crew, and he has the best quarters of any Star Trek captain ever.
His biggest test will come in the near future when Pike has to decide whether or not to obey Starfleet orders or fight the Gorn to save his crewmates (he’s obviously going to choose the latter option, right?).
7. Captain Carol Freeman
Captain Carol Freeman is the Everyman captain. While the other series are all focused on Starfleet’s pioneers and the greatest, most glamorous ships, Star Trek: Lower Decks focuses on the little guy. The whole point of Star Trek’s best comedy series is that the USS Certios is unremarkable.
But, with the unremarkable nature comes virtue. Captain Freeman, the commander of the USS Cerritos, is the personification of grit and hard work. She has the challenge of trying to keep order over a ship that, unlike the USS Enterprise, isn’t packed full of the best and brightest that Starfleet has to offer.
So, while the USS Cerritos is just going about its day-to-day tasks, Captain Freeman is there keeping things steady. That’s a harder job than it might seem. Whether it’s dealing with the Pakleds (and being saved by the USS Titan) or being implicated in the destruction of a planet, she’s also had more than her fair share of challenges.
She might not have the most glamorous job in one of TV’s best animated series, but she commands the respect of her crew with authority and style. Don’t underestimate Captain Carol Freeman.
6. Captain Edward Jellico
Here at The Digital Fix, we’re firmly, unapologetically, in the ‘Jellico was right’ camp. This is neither the time nor place to get into the minutiae of it all, but we can agree on this: he proved there is more than one way to be in command of the Starfleet’s flagship and achieve results.
Each of his decisions can be justified, and his bold moves – removing Riker when the commander essentially refused to work with him – demonstrated his ability to grasp the magnitude of his situation.
He is not the ideal Starfleet captain in times of peace; he might be too suspicious, authoritarian, and rigid. But when war is brewing, he’s the Starfleet captain you need.
5. Captain Rachel Garrett
Rachel Garrett is genuinely one of the most important Star Trek captains in Starfleet history. Her decision to listen to the counsel of Picard and agree to send her ship back through the rift despite knowing she’d be headed for certain death is an act of complete selfless valiance. It’s an act that’s rewarded too.
The sacrifice of Garrett (though she actually dies before the Enterprise-C makes it through the rift) and of the Enterprise-C prevents the start of a new war between the Federation and the Klingon Empire: a war that leads to 40 billion deaths. Those billions of people have Garrett to thank for making the impossibly hard decision. Stoic, authoritative, and selfless, she’s an absolute hero.
4. Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Jean-Luc Picard is generally considered to be the gold standard of Starfleet captains. If there was a textbook on how to captain a Star Trek starship, and we’re sure there is in the 24th century, the model would be Captain Picard.
From the beginning of TNG all the way to the end, Captain Picard was measured, confident, and always eager to hear the opinions of others in a way that other Starfleet captains couldn’t necessarily match. He was diplomatic, pragmatic, and professional, plus he found the perfect balance between being strict and open.
His flaws were in his personal life. He was often closed off from the rest of the crew, uncomfortable around children, and he had no fondness for niceties and small talk outside of diplomacy. By the time the show had come to an end, Captain Picard had learned the value of spending time with his crew and seeing them as friends in addition to colleagues. His character grew and learned.
However, unlike Janeway, Sisko, and most others, Captain Picard’s exploits aren’t just confined to the television screen. The character has also led four Star Trek movies, with the TNG-era run of films. Since then, he has continued to expand his catalog with the Star Trek Picard sci-fi series.
Unfortunately, neither his best science fiction movies nor the Picard series met the standards set by TNG, and the character of Captain Picard has suffered as a result. Largely, this was because Jean-Luc Picard seemed like a different character. Gone is the focus on diplomacy and nuance, and it’s instead been replaced by an attitude you’d expect from a star of the best action movies.
His famous ‘Picard speeches’ have descended into cliché and lost their power. That has to be taken into account. Otherwise, if we were judging based on TNG alone, the captain would take the top spot undisputed.
3. Captain Benjamin Sisko
Deep Space Nine is now commonly regarded as the best sci-fi series in the Star Trek franchise. It’s about war, loss, and tough choices. These themes are embodied by the indomitable Captain Sisko.
When he took over command of the space station, Sisko wasn’t a captain. He was a commander and was only promoted when he assumed the captaincy of the USS Defiant. But, captain or not, from the start, Sisko had to constantly choose between the lesser of two evils, with no good solutions.
He was prepared to make tough decisions when the situation demanded it. He broke the rules, and his focus on results meant that every so often, he’d have to throw out the classic Starfleet handbook of ethics.
He was less patient than your typical Star Trek captain and still struggling with the anger and grief from the loss of his wife. So, inevitably, he was also more human. Computer, erase that entire personal log.
Like Janeway, he wasn’t commanding a glorified cruise ship such as the USS Enterprise-D. The decadence and comfort of that ship was completely absent from Deep Space Nine; a space station on the verge of collapse, with a crew who hated each other and who were unwilling to be governed by Starfleet’s whims.
Deep Space Nine was the focal point of the Dominion War. For leading the station through that and for taking hard decisions when they needed to be taken, Captain Sisko earns his silver medal.
2. Captain James T. Kirk
Shrewd, loyal, brave, sensitive, charming, and highly intelligent: the older I get, the more I love Jim Kirk. He might be my favorite Star Trek captain, even if I can’t justify calling him the best. Kirk’s task was to explore the unexplored, paving the way for the future of Starfleet.
His greatest adventures were in his exploits during of the TOS-era movies (the best movies in Star Trek history, by far). There, Kirk truly proved himself as one of the greatest Star Trek captains (though he was actually an admiral in the first four), dealing with almost insurmountable threats. He got through these with craftiness, which is the word which I’d use to sum him up if forced to choose only one.
Like all the other captains above him, Kirk was also flawed. However, those flaws (for example, his reputation as a cavalier cowboy and a womanizer) are often overstated. In fact, he had a lot more warmth and charisma than Captain Picard and proved that he was also able to follow Starfleet’s regulations just as diligently… unless he was busy saving Spock.
1. Captain Kathryn Janeway
While Voyager isn’t the most beloved Star Trek series, it provided the perfect forum to forge the greatest Star Trek captain of our time: Captain Kathryn Janeway. The captain had to contend with huge pressure constantly, a result of a fractious crew who were ready to revolt at any given moment. She was never given the luxury of options and was never afraid to get her hands dirty.
Unlike Captain Picard, she was also approachable and warm while remaining authoritative. There were many moments where she arguably made the wrong calls (a moment of silence for Tuvix, please), but that only served to emphasize that she was fallible and human. And, after all, the pressure placed on her was enormous.
Captain Kathryn Janway had the hardest job of any Starfleet captain. She handled it with confidence, authority, and level-headedness. It’s just a shame that Admiral Janeway never got her time to shine in Star Trek Picard season 3.
If you got to the end, congratulations! You now know our comprehensive thoughts on the best Star Trek captains. For more on Star Trek, find out what we know about the Star Trek Strange New Worlds season 3 release date and the Star Trek Legacy release date. Or, read our interview with Anson Mount and Rebecca Romijn before catching up with our Star Trek Strange New Worlds season 2 review.
You can also see our recommendation on how to watch the Star Trek movies in order, and our breakdown of the Star Trek The Next Generation cast, before seeing which Star Trek captain we think would survive a zombie apocalypse, and learning the one question Stephen Hawking asked William Shatner.