Recently What Culture posted an article that declared Captain James T. Kirk the best Star Trek captain. Kirk, the author argued, possessed important values and personality traits like smarts, loyalty, quick thinking, and a willingness to ignore regulations. No doubt Kirk exhibited all of these and probably more. However, I would argue that all Starfleet captains demonstrate these same traits and that Starfleet training, experience, and command breeds these qualities in all its captains. Many Trekkies could quickly cite examples where Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer likewise revealed loyalty, smarts, etc. The comparison of Star Trek captains has been a favorite past time on fan websites, discussion forums, and probably bars at Trek conventions.
Determining which captain is best, if really possible, must take into consideration more than certain values or actions. Often favorite captains are based more on the each viewer’s own outlook or preference rather than some kind of objective analysis (not really sure Trekkies can truly be objective when it comes to the captains, myself included). I would argue that we instead need to consider other factors so that we are comparing apples to apples. Simply put we should ponder the opportunities and advantages each captain possessed as well as the particular challenges they faced. What follows is an examination of the five captains based on these suggestions. No doubt there are others than I fail to include and I encourage readers to add others.
Captain James T. Kirk
For Trek fans Kirk has a special place because he was the first captain we watched. Yet, I want to ignore that and focus on his experiences in the mid-23rd century. First, Kirk had a very capable crew that made his command easier. Spock, his Vulcan science officer, could not only provide rational analysis in the most chaotic situations, but also had the ability to put down bad guys with his neck pinch or read someone’s thoughts with a mind meld. Moreover, nobody could squeeze more out of an engine than Kirk’s chief engineer Scotty. It didn’t hurt having a helmsman who could wield a sword like a ninja. Kirk also benefitted from his ability to use his powerful sexuality to tame female opponents or even his own crew without fear of sexual harassment suits or honor duels.
Kirk’s primary challenge was that he had to encounter strange new worlds and species of which Starfleet had little knowledge, thus forced to use his instincts in response to these unknown threats. Kirk also faced a cold war with the Klingons that hampered his ability to fully succeed with his masculine foreign policy. Romulans likewise remained at a distance closeted in their secret part of the galaxy. Instead, Kirk had to confront giant rock life forms called the Horta or ravenous, furry animals called Tribbles. Despite the impressive weaponry on the Starship Enterprise NCC-1701, Kirk and his crew still had to deal with push button workspaces and a finicky computer.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Picard likewise benefitted from a helpful crew. He had his own half-Betazoid counselor Troi who could help him read the emotions and true motives of his opponents. His android Data could process information faster than any computer Kirk had at his disposal and could be sent into dangerous situations that might kill humans. Rather than some non-descript Red Shirt security officer Kirk could call on, Picard had a Klingon warrior who relished combat. Finally, Picard had first officer Commander Will Riker who led the dangerous away missions leaving Picard in the safe haven of his bridge. In addition, in Picard’s 24th century Federation space had largely been mapped out and he spent more time discovery interesting species than fighting wars. Finally, Picard’s Enterprise no longer depended on those sticky push buttons and had holodecks where he and the crew could relax and release stress in a variety of simulated environments.
Despite these numerous advantages, Picard had some daunting challenges that tested his mettle. In a post-cold war environment with powerful enemies, Picard had to rely on diplomacy and negotiation rather than the cowboy imperialism of Kirk’s century. Picard had to admit he might be wrong where Kirk was always right! Picard could not battle with Klingons but had to help settle their internal political squabbles. Significantly, he had to deal with one of the greatest threats to the Federation, the Borg, who wanted nothing but to assimilate others, as well as the Q who was as much a pest as a threat. Finally, Picard had to do all of this while dealing with children running around his ship. Anyone who has children understands this challenge.
Captain Benjamin Sisko
As the commander of Deep Space Nine, Sisko had fewer advantages or opportunities than most captains. As far as his crew, he did have a Changeling who could turn himself into a rat and spy on enemies or melt into a liquid and enter any room. His doctor was a genetically-engineered human with exceptional intelligence and eye-hand coordination. Major Kira, his Bajoran liaison, was feisty and was more than willing to kick ass if needed. Sisko’s space station did have its own powerful weaponry that helped him when attacked and a cool promenade where he could shop and get a real alcoholic drink. Later he did get his own state-of-the-art ship, the Defiant, with its own cloaking device. As the Emissary, Sisko did have a connection to the Bajoran Prophets and the respect of much of the Bajoran population. Finally, he did have a cool shaved head, a goatee, and a 1960s-era Vegas lounge singer in the holosuites.
No doubt one of the least respected captains, Sisko may have faced the greatest challenges. First, for several years he wasn’t even a captain but a commander. More importantly, he had to command a decrepit Cardassian space station in the far reaches of Federation space, which attracted the most unsavory traders, thugs, and criminals from all kinds of species. There he had to maintain peace and constantly deal with the Cardassian Gul Dukat whose sole aim was to rid the station of the Federation and regain the former glory of Cardassia, including control of Bajor. If that was not enough DS9 was located at the entrance of a wormhole where at a moment’s notice a threatening species from the Gamma Quadrant could show up on Sisko’s front porch. Unlike Kirk who fought a cold war, Sisko fought the nasty, devastating Dominion War, which forced him to defy Federation values and deceive the Romulans in a plot to lure them into the war on the side of the Federation. While balancing all these threats he still had to raise his son by himself and deal with those damn Prophets who forced their way into his mind whenever they felt like it.
Captain Kathryn Janeway
Like Sisko, Janeway had fewer advantages than most of the other captains. She did have an admirable crew led by a holographic doctor and a Vulcan security officer. Neelix, a Talaxian helped guide her through the unknown Delta Quadrant and provided meals as the ship’s chef. After a couple of years she added a very attractive and useful former Borg, Seven of Nine, whose science skills and knowledge of the Delta Quadrant made the trip easier. Though smaller than the Enterprise, Janeway’s Intrepid-class ship was the most advanced vessel in Starfleet with its bio-neural circuitry and Emergency Medical Holographic program. Finally, the great distance from Federation space meant that she could escape all the bureaucratic oversight of Starfleet.
While Deep Space Nine was located at the far reaches of Federation space, Janeway was thrown some 70,000 light years from her homeland with initially no way to contact Starfleet. Not only did this mean that the Voyager crew could not depend on help from Starfleet command or its allies, the 70-year trip back to the Alpha Quadrant meant that some of them would not make it home alive. Janeway also had to struggle to maintain Federation values in a hostile, unknown part of space, as well as find a way to keep her homesick crew together during this long journey. Moreover, while Kirk and Picard benefitted from a loyal crew, Janeway was forced to integrate Maquis rebels who opposed the Federation into her Starfleet crew. Finally, Janeway had to undertake this journey in the home quadrant of the Borg Collective.
Captain Jonathan Archer
As United Earth’s first deep space explorer, Captain Archer had the advantage of being able to shape the future of all captains that followed him. He had few rules to hamper his journey and got to experience first the wonders of the galaxy. Archer’s chief engineer Trip was one of the first experts on warp drive and his Denobulan physician, Dr. Phlox, knew how to use bugs and animals to heal his patients. Like Kirk and Janeway, Archer had his own Vulcan bridge officer, T’Pol, who helped guide him in his initial journey. T’Pol also helped him navigate relations with the somewhat overbearing Vulcan High Command. When Enterprise ventured to Xindi space, Archer was aided by his own special forces unit, the MACO troops. Furthermore, Archer had the undying support of his pet beagle, Porthos. Finally, as the first captain he had the great opportunity to shape the founding of the United Federation of Planets and become a historical figure.
While being first might have some advantages, it also brought with it many challenges. As the first deep space captain, Archer was like Janeway in some ways in that he was exploring mostly uncharted space, though the Vulcans were always nearby to provide some guidance. His ship might have been state of the art for the mid-22nd century, Enterprise NX-01 could only achieve Warp 5 and had no shields to protect the ship, though it could polarize the hull plating. Its phase cannons and spatial torpedoes fell well short of later phasers and photon torpedoes. Two years into his first mission, Archer had to take on the Xindi who threatened earth with a weapon of mass destruction. Rather than just defend Earth, Archer took the war to the Xindi homeland, the Delphic Expanse, which was full of spatial anomalies making navigation difficult. Moreover, Archer became entangled in a temporal cold war with beings from a thousand years into the future. Finally, Archer even had to act as a temporary depository for the katra of the great Vulcan leader Surak.
As we can see evaluating Star Trek captains is more difficult than it would seem. Each had certain advantages and opportunities as well as particular challenges they had to overcome. Who is the greatest? That is for each individual to decide. For me, it’s Sisko!