After a 12-year television drought, “Star Trek” fans welcome a new series, “Discovery,” which premieres on CBS Sunday night. So as a new crew goes boldly, we examine the canon to rank “Star Trek’s” best captains.
The franchise launched with the original series, “Star Trek” (1966-1969), with the iconic Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) at the helm after the series pilot. That was followed by: an animated version of the original (1973-1974); “The Next Generation” (1987-1994); “Deep Space 9” (1993-1999); “Voyager” (1995-2001); and a prequel, “Enterprise” (2001-2005). The franchise has spawned 13 movies — including the three most recent, which reboot the story.
Surveying them all, we rank not on talent of actors or quality of shows, but rather on their fitness as captains. They are judged here on the greatness of their achievements, the impact of their mistakes, the resources they had and the obstacles they faced — the commander in full.
7. Jonathan Archer, “Enterprise”: A century before James T. Kirk, Archer faced a task that had no playbook: commanding the first deep-space Federation vessel. He stopped an alien superweapon meant to destroy Earth. But heroics aside, Archer wilted from command presence on the Enterprise, spending more time sulking and grousing than leading and inspiring. Archer’s folksy Southern chief engineer with the “Right Stuff” swagger would have made a superior captain. His best character trait? Bringing his beagle on board.
6. Christopher Pike, “Star Trek” (original series): Pike is the Enterprise captain in the series pilot and shows up in the reboot films as Star Fleet brass. In the pilot, Pike was captured by aliens who imprisoned species to study them, using their big brains to manipulate the reality of their prisoners. Pike withstood mental torture, intuited he was experiencing an illusion and turned the tables on his captors. Jeffrey Hunter, who played Pike, refused to commit to the TV series. William Shatner was then cast as the Enterprise captain, and the rest is Trek history.
5. James T. Kirk, “Star Trek” (original series film reboot): All of the good traits of the original Kirk — an intense loyalty to crew and warp-speed decision-making — are balanced against a juvenile disregard for the Prime Directive, which forbids interference in alien civilizations. He turned an entire developing species into spaceship-worshiping cultists by raising the USS Enterprise out of the ocean right in front of them. The small sample size (only three movies) harms this Kirk’s ranking; we need to see how he handles a Gorn.
4. Jean-Luc Picard, “The Next Generation”: Surprised to see him this low? Picard is intelligent, courageous and commanding, but has a fatal flaw: an arrogant belief in human ability. Consider: In his third encounter with “Q,” an apparently omnipotent and clearly unpredictable being, Picard, who is not omnipotent, makes the catastrophic misjudgment of insulting him, telling Q humans don’t need his help. Q petulantly slings the Enterprise across the galaxy and into first contact with a species they could not handle — the Borg, an advanced, pitiless drone collective that would become the Federation’s greatest enemy. Make it d’oh!
3. Kathryn Janeway, “Voyager”: Janeway, Star Trek’s only major female captain, was forced into an impossible situation: An alien transported her ship and crew 75 years away from Earth while they were chasing an anti-Federation rebel group. Then she had to integrate the two crews … and then persuade them not to mutiny and toss her out of an airlock when she destroyed their shortcut home. (Those high-minded Star Fleet values …) On the long voyage back to Earth, Janeway had to scavenge her way across the quadrant for resources to literally keep the ship’s lights on and battle hostile aliens at every turn. She also had to overcome the most laconic bridge crew in Federation history.
2. Benjamin Sisko, “Deep Space Nine”: Unlike Star Fleet captains who went to space in Federation ships with crews duty-bound to follow orders, Sisko took command of a booby-trapped alien space station with an alien first officer who hated him. There was also a range of alien civilians with their own agendas, from a grifting Ferengi bartender to a scheming Cardassian tailor, all of whom made running the station tougher than herding targs. Bonus: The local religion thought Sisko was a holy man, so there was that diplomatic land mine to deal with, and he was a widower raising a son. Sisko’s integrity and ingenuity turned the haters into loyalists and welded his crew to him. Sisko was the Eisenhower of captains — the Federation’s greatest massed-forces military commander — and led the battles that protected the quadrant from alien takeover.
1. James T. Kirk, “Star Trek”: The predictable but correct choice. Kirk commanded with brains, heart and brio. He is the Federation’s greatest one-on-one tactical commander in battle and could even destroy malevolent talking computers by arguing them into logical suicide-spirals. He began his career battling Klingons and lost his son to Klingons, yet ended up sealing the Federation peace with the Klingons. He had two substantial flaws: He treated the Prime Directive like dental floss and looked at many alien species as child-races in need of education, enlightenment or a good spanking. But his sometimes-cavalier attitude never imperiled the entire Federation like some captains (cough cough — Picard — cough cough). Also, Kirk was smart enough to lean on the Federation’s finest first officer. With Spock, the superego to Kirk’s id, they were a nearly flawless pair.
Bonus: The greatest alien captain: Unnamed Romulan commander in the original series episode, “Balance of Terror,” who wages a white-knuckles cat-and-mouse game with Kirk worthy of any great submarine film duel. The noble and morally tortured Romulan captain was played by the late Mark Lenard, who went on to play Spock’s father in later Treks, which is cool, because Vulcans and Romulans are cousins.