6 'Star Trek' Captains, Ranked from Worst to Best

Star Trek Captains


The "Star Trek" captains of the USS Enterprise (and in one case, the space station Deep Space Nine) have so many different personalities to them. The ever-scrappy Capt. James T. Kirk. The Shakespeare-quoting Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. Capt. John Archer, the reluctant diplomat. And so on. How are we to take the measure of these captains to figure out who is best?

Space.com's Elizabeth Howell, who has watched all of the live-action TV series as well as the Hollywood movies, weighs in on the main captains featured in the live-action TV series and Hollywood movies. (We've ignored some of the characters who become captain temporarily, or who are only shown briefly, such as Capt. Pike.)

We're releasing this slideshow just days before "Star Trek: Discovery." In an intriguing twist on the shows' usual format, the star of "Discovery" is not actually a captain, but the first officer of the USS Shenzhou. We're looking forward to learning more about Michael Burnham (played by Sonequa Martin-Green). ['Star Trek: Discovery' Premiere Unites Starship Casts Both New and Old]

6. Capt. John Archer ("Star Trek: Enterprise," 2001-05)

Everett Collection

While Capt. Archer comes last on our list, we want to emphasize he is an extremely able captain that was a true pioneer — his ship, the Enterprise NX-01, was the first starship capable of exploring distant star systems. That made Archer host to a number of "first contact" incidents that would have challenged even the best of us. Memorably, when he encounters the Ferengi for the first time, he immediately senses their selfish nature and plays them off against each other to get his captive ship back in "Acquisition."

But Archer still struggles with the responsibilities of being a captain in general. Especially in the early seasons, he doesn't know much about diplomacy or the military; it takes repeated encounters with hostile species such as the Klingons or the Suliban to realize the value of tactics. Archer began to hit his stride in Season 3, but, unfortunately, we didn't get to see much of his evolution because the series was canceled after Season 4.

5. Capt. Benjamin Sisko ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," 1993-1999)

Everett Collection

Benjamin Sisko started his command at Deep Space Nine under very difficult circumstances. His wife was dead — it's a long story involving the evil Borg species, but he held Capt. Jean-Luc Picard responsible for it as Picard was temporarily assimilated into the Borg's collective. Sisko was on the verge of resignation. After his crew members began arriving, Sisko quickly discovered that the situation on Bajor, the nearby planet, would be incredibly difficult to resolve because so many factions were trying to gain control of the government.

As Sisko gained confidence in himself, his crew and his mission, he realized there was a unique opportunity due to a wormhole just nearby the station. Sisko quickly realized this would be a welcome opportunity for merchants to come to the station and make it a thriving community. However, Sisko had his hands full dealing with disputes between all the different species, not to mention the Bajor situation. But he prevailed, and mostly kept his temper while doing so. [The Evolution of 'Star Trek' (Infographic)]

4. Capt. James T. Kirk ("Star Trek" reboot movies, 2009-present)

Kimberley French

The rebooted Capt. Kirk (played by Chris Pine) starts as a much younger captain than the one portrayed in the TV series. This gives Pine the room to make some juvenile-yet-hilarious mistakes, such as getting in bar fights, or being angry with colleague Spock because the logical Vulcan alien — a very by-the-books sort of person — accused Kirk of cheating on a key test when he found a loophole.

Kirk's boisterous mistakes as a neophyte captain made him funny to watch on screen in the first movie ("Star Trek," 2009), but by the second movie ("Star Trek Into Darkness," 2012) his mistakes quickly caught him up to him. Among other errors, he broke the First Directive about contact with alien species early in their development, and put too much trust in the terrorist John Harrison (played by Benedict Cumberbatch).

Fortunately, Kirk matured by the time "Star Trek Beyond" (2016) was released, and he began to show the crafty gifts of his TV namesake. One of the best sequences was near the end of the film, when he rode a motorcycle around an enemy camp to confuse the aliens there and give his captured crew enough time to escape. We're looking forward to seeing how Kirk progresses in the next "Star Trek" film, which is greenlit but doesn't yet have a release date or a name.

3. Capt. Kathryn Janeway ("Star Trek: Voyager," 1995-2001)


In raw courage, Capt. Janeway may win for her ability to keep the crew focused while her ship was stranded on the far side of the Milky Way galaxy, a 75-year trip away from home. In consultation with a nearby ship, the Marquis, she made the difficult decision to merge the two crews to best preserve their chances of survival. Much later in the show, Janeway entered a controversial temporary alliance with the Borg (a notorious, assimilating alien species) to stay alive in the face of an even stronger enemy. These decisions are all the more courageous given that she was so far from Starfleet's authority at the time.

One of Janeway's trademarks was her pure cheek, especially when somebody tried to undercut her authority. "Ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer Captain," she says in the very first episode, "Caretaker." Or that time that Seven of Nine (played by Jeri Ryan) disagreed with her in "Random Thoughts." Janeway responded: "I dread the day when everyone on this ship agrees with me. I thank you for your opinion, but our mission is not going to change."

2. Capt. James T. Kirk ("Star Trek: The Original Series," 1966-1969; "Star Trek" movies, 1979-1994)


The TV version of Capt. Kirk (played by William Shatner) is almost like a modern Odysseus. He's forever wandering across the universe, getting snared by beautiful women, but somehow able to use his wiles to escape trap after trap. Shatner's performance is a joy to watch on screen, although his antics rob him of the gravitas one might think was required in military organizations such as Starfleet.

Kirk remains steadfastly optimistic and resolute about exploration, as shown by the famous speech that fans call "Risk Is Our Business" (in "Return To Tomorrow"). Kirk compares the exploits of Starfleet to the previous explorers of the Apollo program, or even the first people to take flight. He also remains friends with and listens to the advice of the core group of his crew, even when Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) continually argue with each other — which is no small feat.

Kirk also shows flashes of creative brilliance. In one episode, "A Piece of the Action," he creates confusion among the bad guys by creating card game rules out of thin air. In another episode, "The Corbomite Maneuver," Kirk tells the bad guys that they can't blow up the Enterprise because he will do a reverse-reaction of a secret, imaginary substance called "corbomite." It was just a bluff, but he stopped the Enterprise from imminent destruction.

1. Capt. Jean-Luc Picard ("Star Trek: The Next Generation," 1987-1994; "Star Trek: The Next Generation" movies, 1994-2002)

Everett Collection

There's no question that Jean-Luc Picard was in charge of the Enterprise; all it took was a withering look or one well-placed comment to remind a crew member when they stepped out of line. While Picard was very respectful of authority and Starfleet's command, he also wasn't afraid to speak up for his crew when the situation warranted it. Perhaps the best example is in "Measure of A Man," where he speaks up on behalf of Data — an android who wants to be human, and whom Picard argues is just as much of a crew member as anyone else on his ship.

Picard's performances likely would have qualified him for an Emmy if he wasn't dressed in an all-body suit as the star of a science-fiction series. Some of his most tear-jerking moments: His defiance under torture in "Chain of Command," when he yells "There are four lights!" after his captor tries to persuade him the number is wrong; his performance in "The Inner Light," where Picard grows old on a quiet rural planet and then is wrenched back to his battleship reality; and his battle cry "No!" in "Star Trek: First Contact" in 1996 (while smashing glass) just before he realizes he will need to let the Borg take over his ship.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace