Since Star Trek first came onto screens in 1966, audiences have been treated to the adventures of countless Star Trek captains. From The Original Series to Strange New Worlds, there have been 11 full series, typically following the lives of the crew of a particular Starfleet starship as it goes about its daily business.
Despite this ensemble nature, each series of Star Trek is usually anchored by a main captain. These captains often set the tone of the whole series and will determine the ways in which the story of the entire crew progresses. So, while they might not always be the main character in an episode, more often than not, the captain in any of these series is the most important.
It’s not surprising, then, that debate has raged for decades on how different Star Trek captains compare to each other. In an attempt to settle things once and for all, we’ve decided to throw our hat into the ring. For the sake of brevity (and, let’s be honest, sanity) we’re going to stick to the main captains from each Star Trek series, discounting the others who we come across along the way like Captain Jellico or Lorca. So, settle into the captain’s chair and get ready to go to warp because this could get bumpy.
Captain Kathryn Janeway
Voyager wasn’t always the best sci-fi drama series (though it was undoubtedly peppered with great moments). It didn’t utilise its premise as much as it could have done, and with a few major exceptions, it quickly became the standard Star Trek show, with space exploration and alien meet-and-greets taking front and centre.
Nevertheless, it was 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, ready to revolt at any given moment. She was never given the luxury of options, and 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 emphasise that she too 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. An alliance with the Borg? Picard could never.
Captain Benjamin Sisko
Deep Space Nine is now commonly regarded as the best Star Trek series of all. The sci-fi series is 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 take the 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.
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.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Jean-Luc Picard is generally considered to be the gold-standard of Starfleet captains. If there was a text-book on how to captain a 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, strictly professional, and 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 its 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 adventure movies, with the TNG-era run of films. Since then, he has continued to expand his catalogue with the Star Trek Picard sci-fi series.
Unfortunately, neither the science fiction movies nor the 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 has seemed like a different character. Gone is the focus on diplomacy and nuance, and it’s instead been replaced by an action movie-star first attitude. 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.
Captain James T. Kirk
James T. Kirk was the pioneer. His task was to explore the unexplored, paving the way for the future of Starfleet, as well as the future of the entire Star Trek franchise. For that reason alone, he has to be in the top half of this list.
His greatest adventures were in his exploits during the TOS-era space thriller movies. There, Kirk truly proved himself as one of the greatest Star Trek captains, dealing with almost insurmountable threats. But, the threats he typically faced in his day job were nothing out of the ordinary for Star Trek captains. He dealt with them admirably, but in much the same way that any Star Trek captain should.
Like all the other captains above him, Kirk was also flawed. However, those flaws (for example, his reputation as a cavalier cowboy and a womaniser) 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.
Nevertheless, we can’t help but feel like any of the other captains above him, in his position would have taken on his role just as well.
Captain Carol Freeman
Captain Carol Freeman is the everyman captain. While the other series are all focussed on Starfleet’s pioneers and the greatest, most glamorous ships, Star Trek: Lower Decks focuses on the little guy. The whole point of the 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 which, 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. And, whether it’s dealing with the Pakleds, 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 the animated series, but she commands the respect of her crew with authority and style. Don’t underestimate Captain Carol Freeman.
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 is the captain of the USS Discovery when Star Trek Discovery season 5 begins.
Nevertheless, her rebellious past means that Captain Burnham is unpredictable – and not always in a good way. She has her stand out qualities, and abundant strengths like determination and empathy. But if you were facing imminent danger, who would you want as your captain? For us, the others above her in the list just manage to take it.
Captain Christopher Pike
Good humour, 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.
In the debut season of Strange New Worlds, Captain Pike’s skills and talents as a captain were on display for all to see. He exhibited his diplomacy, his courage, and his moral strength. 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 one season 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, co-operative crew, and he has the best quarters of any Star Trek captain ever. He hasn’t truly been tested yet, in the way that other captains have.
That may well change with time. In fact, we’re sure it will with Strange New Worlds season 2. But, it still means that sadly, Captain Pike is stuck just above the bottom of the pile. For now.
Captain Jonathan Archer
Portrayed by Quantum Leap’s Scott Bakula, leaping his way into another sci-fi adventure TV 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, specialised 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 Captain Archer is just not that memorable. For a Star Trek captain, that’s pretty much inexcusable. Sorry, Scott Bakula.
If you got to the end, congratulations. That was undoubtedly a lot of sci-fi for one sitting, so why not swap genres and check out our guide to the best fantasy series of all time? Or, for the other side of the galaxy, why not take a look at our list of the best Star Wars characters.