On Sept. 8, 2023, Star Trek celebrated its 57th anniversary, marking the day the franchise aired its first episode on television in 1966. Since this first voyage of Captain Kirk and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise, there have been several spin-offs, over 850 televised episodes, and 13 feature films — making Star Trek one of the most enduring franchises in sci-fi history.
The best Star Trek captains have become iconic figures in the franchise, each leaving a unique and lasting impression on fans worldwide. Captain James T. Kirk, portrayed by William Shatner, stands as the charismatic and pioneering leader of the original series, known for his boldness and fearless approach to exploration. Captain Jean-Luc Picard, expertly portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart, brought a profound sense of diplomacy, intellect, and moral depth to “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” earning him a place among the most revered captains in Starfleet history.
Starting in 1966, Star Trek was already pushing innovation with ideas like hand-held communication devices and non-invasive medical scans. Today, it continues to inspire scientists and engineers. As one recent study shows, scientists are still looking to Star Trek for ideas: “On ‘Star Trek,’ the replicator recycles matter to create anything you could possibly desire out of thin air — from a delicious steak dinner to a simple glass of water. Now, scientists are turning science fiction into reality! A team in Switzerland has created a device that can harvest water from thin air.”
With such a far reach and deep resonance with fans, it is no surprise that Star Trek made the transition to the cinema. With 13 major motion pictures in the franchise, Star Trek has firmly established itself as one of the most iconic franchises in science fiction.
The far reach of the Star Trek franchise can be viewed in many forms of modern media from audio books to streaming content online. Certainly, part of the appeal of Star Trek is the diverse cast of crew members that make up the family structure of each of the Star Trek series. Despite this, it is undeniable that the captain of each ship is the narrative and often emotional core of their respective shows and films.
So, who are the best Star Trek captains in the 57+ year history of the franchise? This is a tricky question, as there are dozens of beloved captains that have been featured across 13 films and nine television shows. However, five captains are true pop culture science fiction icons that made it to the top of nearly all our source’s lists. Let us know who you think is the greatest captain in the comments below!
The List: Best Star Trek Captains, Most Beloved by Fans
1. Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation), played by Patrick Stewart
According to the experts, Captain Picard is by far the most highly regarded commanding officer in Star Trek. Ranked close to the top of nearly every list StudyFinds found, Picard is the exemplification of what an inspiring hero can be. “He (Picard) is a skilled diplomat, philosopher, and strategist who values diplomacy and the Prime Directive. His calm and composed demeanor makes him an excellent leader, and he has earned the respect and admiration of his crew,” writes The Fantasy Review.
— TrekCore.com 🖖 (@TrekCore) April 15, 2023
Picard is a diplomat first and he always tries to uphold his high moral ideals. Part of his enduring charm is due to the skilled acting of Patrick Stewart.
“He may not have had Kirk’s panache, but Picard was an altogether more intelligent leader, thanks in no small part to Stewart’s Shakespearian roots and stentorian delivery which added an air of gravitas to even the most absurd of intergalactic exploits,” according to The Guardian.
Stewart’s performance created some of Trek’s most memorable episodes. Space.com touches on this subject. “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.”
These are just a few of the most iconic moments created by Patrick Stewart’s performance in this iconic role. This character’s popularity endures with streaming series “Star Trek: Picard” as well as numerous in-character cameos on the long-running animated series “Family Guy.”
2. Benjamin Sisko (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), played by Avery Brooks
Avery Brooks’ performance of Captain Sisko is passionate, bombastic, and larger than life. “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” is very much a story of a man caught in a constant state of upheaval. The series opens with Sisko’s deep personal loss and the life he builds for his family in the aftermath of that loss. As the leader of a space station at the mouth of a galaxy-spanning worm hole, the stories of DS9 were a departure from the themes of exploration and discovery.
Instead, Sisko must navigate a war-torn setting while dealing with the revelation that the local Bajoran civilization regards him as a religious icon. When hostile aliens enter from their side of the worm hole, Sisko is forced to become a conflicted military leader. He doesn’t just rise to meet the challenge, Sisko discovers that he excels in the role of battle commander.
“Sisko always did what needed to be done, held together precarious situation after precarious situation, and took personal care of the people serving under him while he did it,” writes the Mary Sue.
Brooks’ lilting delivery of dialogue is distinctive and at times almost lyrical. The cadence of his vocal portrayal always projects Sisko’s intensity and charm. The complex and layered performance wasn’t merely that of a religious leader or a military man.
“It’s evident that Deep Space Nine had many shades of gray but Sisko was also family man at heart. His relationships with his son and his grandfather were some of the most emotionally satisfying elements in the whole franchise,” according Sideshow.
These narrative elements are only enhanced by what is arguably the strongest supporting cast of any Star Trek series. DS9 successfully manages to balance action, drama, and character-driven storytelling.
“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,” says The Digital Fix.
3. James T. Kirk (Star Trek: The Original Series), played by William Shatner
“James Kirk remains the legendary template against whom all captains must be measured,” writes We Got This.
Kirk is a character so iconic that he has been played by no fewer than six actors, so it may be surprising that Captain Kirk is ranked third on this list. To some fans this might seem like blasphemy; after all, James Tiberius Kirk is the archetype for human charisma and swagger in Star Trek. William Shatner as Kirk in the original series is an adventuring space cowboy who explores strange new worlds with his trusted friends, Spock and Dr. McCoy. Shatner’s tenure would continue as the lead in seven of the 13 feature films.
— a tribble💜💙 (@justonetribble) April 15, 2023
The crew of the original series was made up of a racially diverse cast. Shatner’s performance captured a leader that cared deeply for his crew, to the point that he would consider them to be his family. People of many races were equals, and valued members of the Enterprise crew. While this might not seem like a big deal now, in 1966, the ensemble cast was groundbreaking. This is one core aspect of Kirk that makes him resonate with so many audiences.
Space.com writes, “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.”
Captain Kirk’s enduring popularity as the iconic captain of the first Enterprise has resulted in the richly detailed story of one man’s journey through life.
“Fans see a faithful and familiar hero who’s learned from his mistakes, carries a few regrets and comes to terms with his own mortality. Kirk’s journey is easily the most complete of any Star Trek captain. It’s no wonder why he remains a favorite for fans everywhere,” notes Game Rant.
4. Kathryn Janeway (Star Trek: Voyager), played by Kate Mulgrew
Kate Mulgrew also broke down barriers as Star Trek’s first leading woman with her performance as Captain Kathryn Janeway in “Star Trek: Voyager,” a ship that is flung into the far reaches of the galaxy.
“I’ve had probably the single greatest response from my fan base than any other actress because I was the first female captain,” Mulgrew said in a joint interview with Sonequa Martin-Green for the Associated Press, according to the team at /Film. “And because I saw it directly, I was deeply and directly affected by it. And over the years it’s done nothing but evolve. Very, very few actresses have that. I’ve had it for over 25 years. It’s extraordinary to me.”
Mulgrew’s beloved captain also stars in the new animated show, “Star Trek: Prodigy.” Between the two series, Janeway’s appeal is apparent in her strong leadership and adventurous spirit. In the same way that Brooks’ Captain Sisko was willing to cross the line to defend the Federation, Captain Janeway is fiercely protective of her crew and is willing to protect them with deadly force. Moreso than the other captains on this list, Janeway was relentlessly harangued by a parade of villainous factions over the course of her seven-season series. Janeway rises to meet these new foes, all the while struggling to maintain her ideals.
Vulture writes that, “The biggest challenge faced by Janeway and the Voyager crew comes not in the form of hostile races or dwindling supplies — though those don’t help — but from the many moments that invite them to abandon their principles. In the second season’s ‘Alliances,’ Janeway seeks a way to sidestep conflict with the Kazon (sort of the Gamma Quadrant’s dollar-store version of the Klingons). She considers first an alliance with a Kazon faction, then teaming up with the Trabe, a seemingly much more civilized race. Then, despite the wishes of a faction of her officers, she ultimately rejects both choices when she learns the Kazon can’t be trusted and that the Trabe are just as bad in their own way. It might mean taking longer to get back home, or maybe never getting home at all, but she remains determined that her crew hang on to their best selves no matter what.”
Captain Janeway is also a deeply human character with passion, loyalty, and flaws. Janeway is ranked as the greatest Starfleet captain by three of 10 sources StudyFinds polled, and only narrowly missed out on ranking higher on this list.
“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 too was fallible, and human,” adds The Digital Fix.
Ultimately it is Janeway’s humanity that makes her one of Star Trek’s most memorable captains.
5. Jonathan Archer (Star Trek: Enterprise), played by Scott Bakula
There have been dozens of Star Trek captains in the many films and shows of the franchise. Rounding off this list is Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer. As the lead of the four-season series “Star Trek: Enterprise.”
“The Enterprise prequel show focuses on humanity’s early days of space exploration. As such, Archer embodies the home-style charm of those classic astronauts,” as Game Rant puts it.
Despite having fewer episodes in his series as compared to the other modern captains on this list, Captain Archer is a fan favorite that ranked well with our sources. Canonically, Archer is captain of the first ever Enterprise, before the formation of the United Federation of Planets. Archer, unlike the other captains listed, is the every-man.
— Capt. J Archer NX-01 (@CaptArcherNX01) April 16, 2023
Of Captain Archer, The Fantasy Review writes, “Captain Archer, played by Scott Bakula, is the first captain of the Enterprise and a pivotal figure in Star Trek history. He is a courageous and adventurous leader who is willing to take risks to explore the unknown. He is also a skilled diplomat who is always looking for peaceful solutions to conflicts.”
The other Captains on this list all come from a setting where interstellar travel is the norm. The United Federation of Planets along with Starfleet seek to explore new worlds and civilizations with the logistical support and structure needed for the task. They pool their resources and talents to achieve greater goals. None of these narrative elements are present in Star Trek: Enterprise. Instead, Captain Archer is a man from New York. As an American, he bridges the gap between our society today and the aspirational society of the Federation.
“Archer was dependable, reliable, and the man who could take us from A to B on the Star Trek journey. This likable ‘first captain’ never dodged action, but he’s the most diplomatic and ambassadorial of the set,” adds Space.com.
You might also be interested in:
- Best Star Trek Movies
- Best Star Trek Ships
- Best Star Trek: The Next Generation Episodes
- Best Star Wars Movies
- We Got This Covered
- The Fantasy Reviews
- The Mary Sue
- The Digital Fix
- The Guardian
- Game Rant
Note: This article was not paid for nor sponsored. StudyFinds is not connected to nor partnered with any of the brands mentioned and receives no compensation for its recommendations.