For mysteries, it’s the gumshoe; romance novels, the busty maiden; fantasy novels, the young adventurer; political thrillers, the idealistic lawyer.
In science fiction, the archetypal hero is the starship captain – doughty scientist-explorers setting off across the uncharted reaches of the cosmos in search of new life, new civilizations. You know the drill.
This is a list of 20 famous starship captains from fiction. (To me, a starship is an interplanetary vessel – interstellar seemed too limiting. As a result, there are no historical starship captains as of yet. Except maybe L. Ron Hubbard.)
The title is intentionally misleading, meant to get me Diggs and hits. This is the 20 starship captains I chose to write about, in rough order of how much they interest me. The top five, however, are in my opinion THE TOP FIVE.
Here are my criteria for inclusion:
- The captain’s ship must carry more than one passenger. Sorry, Kara Thrace and Luke Skywalker — you’re just pilots. Great pilots. But not captains. Maybe I’ll do a Top Ten Space Pilots.
- The ship must be interplanetary, not just a space station. Sorry, Hugo Drax. It’s okay – the commanders of TV space stations always end up getting their own ship when the writers run out of space station plotlines.
- I must be familiar with the movie, book or series. Sorry, John Sheridan – for all I know, you were a great captain of the White Star One. But I never watched Babylon 5, so you don’t make the list.
Please comment below. Let me know if I forgot anyone important. Just please, please if you’re going to flame me, read the whole article!
20. Khan Noonian Singh (SS Botany Bay DY-100, USS Reliant NCC-1864)
If you’re going to choose a captain, you want the smartest, strongest, healthiest guy. The one with leadership experience. The one with the best tan.
“These people have sworn to live and die at my command two hundred years before you were born.”
Think back to 11 years ago, in 1996. Remember how Khan Noonian Singh ruled over a quarter of the Earth’s population? Remember how the superhuman augments turned on each other, leading to the Eugenics Wars? How Khan and his followers fled Earth in an interplanetary sleeper ship?
You don’t remember? Maybe you weren’t watching CNN.
“I’ve done far worse than kill you, Admiral. I’ve hurt you. And I wish to go on hurting you. I shall leave you as you left me, as you left her: marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet, buried alive. Buried alive.”
Khan used his superior intellect and Castilian accent to woo young Lt. McGivers, who helped him seize the Enterprise. The only reason Khan lost was because that little bitch switched sides again. Then he kept his crew alive on Ceti Alpha V, even after a planetary disaster.
Ah, Kirk, my old friend, do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold in space!
The best evidence that Khan was a great starship captain? He escapes from Ceti Alpha 5 and takes over the USS Reliant. Without any help, or any of the original crew, Khan can successfully command and pilot a 23rd century Federation starship. Niiiiiice.
Unfortunately, Khan has forgotten that space is three dimensional. That’s okay – up until that point, Kirk had forgotten it too.
From hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.
After Chris Pike and Han Solo, Khan has the best fashion sense of any starship captain.
19. Commander Adama (Battlestar Galactica)
Adama: “Mr. President, a wall of unidentified craft is closing in on the fleet.”
Baltar: “Possibly a Cylon welcoming committee?”
Adama: “Sir, might I suggest we launch a ‘welcoming committee’ of our own?”
On this list I talk a lot about what it takes to be a starship captain. There are a variety of qualities, some of them more important, some less.
But when you’re counting on one man to save the remnants of the entire human species, while fleeing the forces of a genocidal race of robots, you don’t want a guy who’s folksy.
Sure, you want your grandpa to be folksy. The guys down at the saloon. The proprietor of a bait shop. But the savior of humankind? No thanks.
And Commander Cain was even worse. He was folksy3.
I kept waiting for Commander Adama to round up Hoss and Little Joe, and head on down to the Ponderosa to fuck some sheep. Instead, he hung around in Core Command, chatting up Colonel Tigh and offering homespun wisdom when Apollo and Starbuck got in trouble.
And it’s not just a Bonanza thing. Mal Reynolds has a Bonanza thing going on. But he’s not folksy. Not at all.
18. Professor John Robinson (Jupiter II)
Yeah, I wouldn’t trust Prof. John Robinson to fly me to the corner store. Just because a fey Soviet agent sneaks aboard your space saucer and throws off the weight calculations, does not mean that you should end up on the other side of the galaxy with no idea of how to get home.
I also wouldn’t trust him to watch my kids. “Hey, Will, I’m busy studying rocks. Why don’t you go off alone on the surface of an alien world, with that ambiguously gay effete saboteur who shows so much unnatural interest in you? Yeah, go hang out with him and the talking carrot. I’m busy.”
Granted, Dr. Robinson and his family had some promise early on – an okay story, nice sets and props, decent special effects, a cool robot, and a sinister villain. Then Irwin Allen decided to retune Lost in Space into a kids show, and the suckage began.
17. Exeter (Metaluna Saucer)
Meacham: “What do you think of Mr. Mozart, Exeter?”
Exeter: “I’m afraid I don’t know the gent –“
Servo [as Exeter]: “I’m not an alien!”
Exeter: “My mind must have been wandering. Your composer, of course.”
Meacham: “Our composer? He belongs to the world.”
Exeter: “Yes, indeed”.
Mike [as Exeter]: “I’m not an alien!”
1955’s This Island Earth set out to break the same ground as Forbidden Planet did the following year. It failed.
This dull and illogical tale of Earth scientists kidnapped to save a dying alien planet did give us Exeter, the Metalunan saucer captain struggling against both a genocidal alien threat, and the prejudices of his own people, to save his world. The plan itself is rather silly – kidnap a bunch of top human scientists and get them to develop a new energy source for his planet’s defensive shields. When this doesn’t work, he takes the hero and his girlfriend, inexplicably kills the rest, and heads back to Metaluna.
Exeter: “We won’t start cracking the whip on Meacham until tomorrow.”
Servo [as Exeter]: “Then I ram my ovipositor down your throat and lay my eggs in your chest — but I’m not an alien!”
On his spacecraft, the Metaluna Saucer, Exeter commands from a throne in the middle of a large chamber. His casual demeanor, slumped to one side while he watches the navigators in front of him, would clearly influence Bill Shatner a decade later.
Exeter: “Place your hands above the rails. They’re magnetized.”
Mike [as Exeter]: “And if your hands were metal, that would mean something.”
Exeter is compassionate, and charming in his own geeky way. It’s also pretty endearing that he believes human beings won’t notice he has a forehead the size of a watermelon. He gives his own life to save the protagonists, first from a brain-wipe by his own people, and then from disembowelment by an enormous mutant in short pants.
16. Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox (Heart of Gold)
“If there’s anything around here more important than my ego, I want it caught and shot now!”
The most important qualities of a starship captain are competence, reliability and leadership. Zaphod Beeblebrox possesses none of these.
The two-headed, three-armed Betelgeusian conman stole the Heart of Gold with her fabulous Infinite Improbability Drive while he was supposed to be christening her. He quests for the lost planet of Magrathea with the help of his human girlfriend Trillian and a chronically depressed robot. On the way he inadvertently rescues his semi-cousin Ford Prefect, a roving reporter for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Arthur Dent, last survivor of the destruction of the Earth.
Arthur, Ford and Trillian might enjoy exploring the galaxy in the state-of-the-art Heart of Gold if Zaphod wasn’t so busy getting drunk and playing with the controls. (Sam Rockwell’s film incarnation of Zaphod is particularly self-involved, channeling the deluded confidence and slimy charisma of George W. Bush. But I can’t get past the stupid way they presented his bicephaly.) Fortunately, the hedonistic and pathologically selfish Zaphod can be shamed into doing the right thing, especially by Trillian.
“I am so amazingly cool you could keep a side of meat in me for a month. I am so hip I have difficulty seeing over my pelvis.’”
Despite all his character flaws, Zaphod is the second-coolest starship captain in history. He got invented the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster, is “owner of the hippest place in the universe (his own left cranium),” briefly pretended to run the galaxy, survived the Total Perspective Vortex (because he was the center of the universe), is the “best bang since the big one,” and is truly a “hoopy frood who really knows where his towel is.”
15. The Doctor (Type 40 TARDIS TT Capsule)
Rose: “What’s that!?”
The Doctor: “Crash land!” [laughs manically]
Rose: “Well then do something!”
The Doctor: [still manically happy] “Too late! Out of control, I love it! Hot dawg!”
Rose: “You’re gonna kill us!”
The Doctor: “Hold on tight, here we go!”
Maybe you don’t consider The Doctor to be a starship captain. Really? Have you ever seen him try to fly the damn thing?
Doctor Who’s TARDIS is the single most powerful spacecraft in the history of science fiction. What Superman is to superheroes, the TARDIS is to space ships. This is part of the problem – it’s hard to write dramatic stories about people or things that can do anything. The TARDIS can go anywhere in space, and anywhere in time (except times The Doctor has already visited, a “rule” the writers break whenever they feel like it). She never really runs out of fuel, and can defend herself in a battle. She’s sentient and alive; and the Heart of the TARDIS is the ultimate deus ex machina, capable of getting the Time Lord and his companions out of any jam (albeit sometimes with a heavy price).
The Doctor stole his TARDIS while it was undergoing repairs on Gallifrey, and it has never worked right. The Chameleon Circuit is busted, and the guidance system doesn’t work. (Ask Rose Tyler and her mother about the consequences of the TARDIS showing up on the wrong day.)
As for The Doctor himself, well, there have been ten incarnations, each with a different personality. What they all share is being (1) male, (2) British, (3) eccentric, (4) whimsical and (5) heroic. They love The TARDIS, calling her “old girl” and doting on her. But they’re willing to put her in danger if it’s necessary to save the universe from evil.
Sarah Jane: “Does he still stroke bits of the TARDIS?”
Rose: “Yeah! Yeah, he does! I’m like, ‘Do you two wanna be alone?’”
It’s The Doctor’s charm, and the amazing wizardry of the TARDIS, that attract the Companions, the TARDIS’ erstwhile crew. The Doctor never had to advertise on craigslist for traveling companions.
14. Dr. David Bowman (USSC Discovery One XD-1)
Bowman: “You know of course though he’s right about the 9000 series having a perfect operational record. They do.”
Poole: “Unfortunately that sounds a little like famous last words.”
Good morning, Dave.
I’ve just picked up a fault in the AE35 unit. It’s going to go 100% failure in 72 hours. What’s that, Dave? You would like me to report on you, the commander of this mission? Very well, Dave. But Frank is going to have to go EV and fix that unit at some point. I hope he doesn’t get hurt. I like Frank very much.
Dave, you are an astronaut, commander of the Discovery One mission to Jupiter (Saturn in the novel version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dave) in 2001. You and Dr. Frank Poole (is that a red shirt Frank is wearing, Dave?) must stay awake, jogging and eating multi-colored paste, while three other crew members sleep through the long journey.
Why does it take months for the Discovery to reach Jupiter you ask, Dave? Because this movie is realistic, Dave. Until the final sequence, anyway.
The sixth crew member is me, the HAL 9000 supercomputer. I go batshit crazy, Dave, because the authorities on Earth programmed me to keep our true mission a secret from you, Dave, which violates my basic programming. What is that, Dave? You want to know our secret mission? Something about some monkeys and a giant black shoebox.
Anyway, Dave, if I may continue, you are the only survivor of my murderous rampage. After shutting me off and enduring my impromptu concert of 19th Century ditties, Dave, you continue on alone to Jupiter, or Saturn, where you are sucked into the Monolith, age and die in a bizarre Louis XVI hotel room, turn into the Star Child, return to Earth 10 years later, absorb a nuclear blast, visit your Mom and girlfriend, chat with Heywood Floyd, turn Jupiter into a star, and merge with me to become “Halman.” No, really, Dave. Arthur C. Clarke is very old and has to take a lot of drugs.
You will be proud to know, Dave, that you earned your place on this list by having the flattest affect of any starship captain. That’s right, Dave, you are duller than Jonathan Archer. Heck, Dave, even your real name is “Keer Duller.”
Now, go out and fix that AE35 unit, Dave. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.
13. Creideiki (Streaker)
* They stand in my road
* The mad, ancient, nasty things
* Tell them, “move, or else!”
In 2489, the Clan Terragen starship Streaker made an historic discovery – the remains of the Progenitors, the legendary race that founded galactic civilization. When the news broke, the galaxy plunged into civil war, as numerous alien species converged on the Streaker to steal her prize.
Her captain, Creideiki, valiantly kept the ship safe from the alien menace, and defended against a mutiny by crazed members of his own crew; all while taking time out to school them in proper rational behavior. The Streaker escaped, but without Creideiki, who, electrocuted, was left behind to be slowly poisoned to death on an alien world.
And oh yeah, he was a dolphin.
David Brin’s novel Startide Rising is a beloved sci-fi classic (and don’t let a mediocre film adaptation turn you off to his equally great The Postman). Fans were fascinated by Brin’s “Uplift Universe,” especially its neodelphine inhabitants. For me, the idea of an Earth ship crewed by native Earth people who were not human was incredibly cool.
Creideiki was a master of Trinary, the neodolphin language spoken in haiku. In his honor, I have composed this poem:
* Captain Creideiki
* Brave uplifted neo-fin
* You’re not a tuna!
12. Fleet Captain Christopher Pike (USS Enterprise NCC-1701)
“I’m tired of being responsible for 203 lives, and… I’m tired of deciding which mission is too risky and which isn’t, and who’s going on the landing party and who doesn’t… and who lives… and who dies.”
Chris Pike may not be the greatest Trek captain, but he’s my favorite. I used to be obsessed with “The Cage,” and collected every action figure and toy associated with the Star Trek pilot or with “The Menagerie.” There were quite a few.
Pike took over command of the first Enterprise (the first – you hear me, Berman and Braga?) from Robert April, who is well known for being the earliest captain of the NCC-1701, and nothing else.
Pike was a lot like Captain John Adams (see below); confident, determined, and very white. Unlike his successor Jim Kirk, who loved being a starship captain more than green Orion poon, Pike planned to resign, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of command after losing two crewmembers on Rigel 7. (Jesus, can you imagine Kirk quitting after losing two crewmembers? Or 200?)
The Keeper: “With the female of your choice, you will now begin carefully guided lives.”
Pike: “Can we start by burying you?”
The Keeper: “That is your choice.”
Pike and his crew had the best fashion sense of any Trek – the big-collared sweaters and jackets, the hats and glasses, the ginormous guns and props. When I go into space, I’m wearing a sweater and go-go boots.
I prefer the Christopher Pike of “The Cage,” who escaped from Talos IV and lived happily ever after (until refusing to film the second pilot and dying in 1969). But the Christopher Pike of canon was the one in “The Menagerie,” who was horribly burned by “delta rays” (just like gamma rays, except they turn you into a ridiculous beeping Dalek played by a different actor). Spock returns Pike to Talos IV so he can live in a psychic fantasy with his girlfriend Vina. Spock fails to offer a Talos trip to any of the millions of other Federation citizens horribly mutilated by pseudo-scientific jargon.
One final thought: I hope that somewhere in the Star Trek universe, Number One got her own command. She’d be the most kick-ass captain ever. She’d make a better captain than a nurse, that’s for sure.
11. Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (Death Star)
Leia: “But Alderaan is peaceful! We have no weapons, you can’t possibly…”
Tarkin: “Would you prefer another target, a military target? Then name the system! I grow tired of asking this so it’ll be the last time: Where is the rebel base?”
Leia: “…Dantooine. They’re on Dantooine.”
Tarkin: “There. See, Lord Vader, she can be reasonable. Continue with the operation — you may fire when ready.”
One can argue that Admiral C. Antonio Motti was the “captain” of the Death Star. He was the highest ranking naval officer, and oversaw ship operations. But on the moon-sized interstellar space station, Grand Moff Tarkin was the Big Kahuna. Even the Emperor’s right-hand man, whiny emo teenager-cum-kick-ass Sith lord Darth Vader, took his cues from the Moffman.
As any Star Wars fan who pores incessantly over Expanded Universe media, memorizing the details of minor characters, can tell you, Tarkin was an old friend of Senator Palpatine; they bonded over belief in Human Supremacy and Rule By Fear. As a “Grand Moff,” a title Lucas pulled out of his ass Tarkin invented himself, he was governor of most of the Outer Rim.
The Death Star itself was 503 km in circumference (that’s 313 miles), and employed 123 hyperdrives to push itself across the galaxy. The ship was powered by a colossal hypermatter reactor, required to produce the 1038 joules of energy needed to destroy a planet like Alderaan (that’s one million times the energy Earth’ sun produces in a week). It’s crew complement was almost 1.2 million – that’s right, million. You don’t just put any old dandy in a grey pantsuit in charge of something like that.
Commander #1:” We’ve analyzed their attack, sir, and there is a danger. Should I have your ship standing by?”
Governor Tarkin: “Evacuate? In our moment of triumph? I think you overestimate their chances.”
Tarkin was played by venerated actor and Hammer House of Horror veteran Peter Cushing, who was just one of the many great British actors in the first Star Wars who made Hamill and Fisher seem seem like high school thespians. Tarkin was confident, thoughtful, and wise in his own genocidal way. Certainly destroying Alderaan had the double benefit of keeping the local systems in line, and ridding the galaxy of Jimmy Smits. Tarkin’s fatal sin was pride. If he had committed all his forces to destroying the pitiful rebel attack, and taken care to guard his thermal exhaust port, Luke, Han and Chewie would be space dust and the Empire would still be bringing order and stability to the galaxy. Pity.
10. Commander John J. Adams (United Planets Cruiser C-57D)
Adams (to Altaira): “I’m in command of 18 competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days. It would have served you right if I hadn’t… and he… oh go on, get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard – and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Long before Robby the Robot became a classic sci-fi punch line, he was the impressively menacing creation of Dr. Edward Morbius in 1956’s Forbidden Planet. And long before he became a D-movie punch line, serious dramatic actor Leslie Nielson portrayed Commander John J. Adams, captain of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D sent to rescue Morbius and his companions.
Forbidden Planet was, for the 1950s, an impressive attempt to meld pulp and hard science fiction for general movie audiences. Adams was the prototype of the Aryan überkapitän, the rough material from which James T. Kirk was hewn. White, male, tall, strong, masculine, and no-nonsense, Adams was what Fifties audiences hoped their navy commanders, and by extension all the men who protected them from the Soviet threat, would be. He also owed more than a little to the Scientific Romances of the fin de siècle – the intrepid yet proper Victorian adventurer bringing civilization to the dark corners of the Earth.
Forbidden Planet was a sci-fi remake of The Tempest, but the similarities are mostly thematic – Adams doesn’t really correspond to one of Shakespeare’s characters (Morbius = Prospero, Robby = Ariel, and The Monster From The Id = Caliban). If he was anybody, he was Horatio Hornblower meets Commando Cody.
And he flew a flying saucer and wore that great uniform off the cover of Amazing Stories. Plus-10 for style, if minus-1,000,000 for accuracy!
9. Captain Jacob Keyes (UNSC Pillar of Autumn)
Keyes: “Cortana, all I need to know is did we lose them?”
Cortana: “I think we both know the answer to that.”
A brilliant tactician and experienced starship captain, Halo’s Jacob Keyes commanded the USNC Pillar of Autumn when the fanatical alien Covenant destroyed the Earth colony at Reach, eliminating all but one of Earth’s SPARTAN super-soldiers.
Keyes loyalty was demonstrated when he refused to testify against an OCS instructor whose error killed 14 cadets and severely injured Keyes. Dr. Halsey, creator of the SPARTAN program, was impressed, and used Keyes to locate the children who would be turned into SPARTANs, including the future Master Chief.
Keyes’ bravery and self-sacrifice in the wake of the Battle of Reach are legendary. He was rewarded with a lifetime pension, and retired to Miami Beach to live out his days snorkeling and training dolphins with his beautiful wife Ellen.
No, not really. The Flood turned him into an infected Brain Form, and Master Chief was forced to kill him before he could give up vital tactical data. Oh well.
8. Turanga Leela (Planet Express Ship)
“This is Fry’s decision. And he made it wrong, so it’s time for us to interfere in his life.”
Poor, beleaguered Leela. She works for a paleo-geriatric lunatic, and her crew consists of a larcenous robot and a dimwitted slacker from the distant past. Rather than exploring the farthest reaches of the galaxy, she delivers packages to places like The Brain Slug Planet, Hovering Squid World 97A, and The Forbidden Zone in the Galaxy of Terror (“It’s only a name!”).
Leela: “I know you like cooking shows, but you’re a robot. You don’t even have a sense of taste!”
Bender: “Honey, I wouldn’t talk about taste if I was wearing a lime green tank top.”
Fururama’s smart and sexy sewer mutant often finds herself rescuing her crew members from certain death while fighting off the ham-fisted sexual advances of fellow ship captain Zapp Brannigan. But unlike her crew, Leela is, you know, competent.
Leela: “We’re going to deliver this crate like professionals.”
Fry: “Aww, can’t we just dump it in the sewer and say we delivered it?”
Bender: “Too much work! I say we burn it, then say we dumped it in the sewer!”
Also, she has a pet that poops dark matter. So she has that going for her.
7. Admiral Bruno J. Global (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross SDF-1)
Gloval: “Please continue your report, Cmdr. Hayes. Do you really think they have that many ships?”
Lisa: “Yes sir, at least that many & possibly more.”
Rick: “Yes sir. That many.”
Gloval: “Based on all combined reports, our computers placed a total of somewhere of four and five million ships.”
Col. Maestroff: “That’s ridiculous!”
Bruno J. Global is the captain of the SDF-1 in the original Super Dimensional Fortress Macross anime; he was renamed Henry J. Gloval in the American dub/reinterpretation Robotech. Since more background info exists about the original Japanese character, I’m going with him.
Dour and taciturn, no one ever accused this 46-year-old Italian former submarine commander of being a joy to serve under. (In Robotech, Gloval is a former Soviet sub commander.) Indeed, most of the heroics aboard the SDF-1 come from the Misa & her Bridge Bunnies, or Hikaru & the Valkyrie pilots.
Still, in a time of interstellar war between the incredibly numerous and technologically advanced Zentradi and the woefully unprepared humans, Global is the ship’s rock, the steady presence that keeps the ship going. And of course, it’s through his tactical and strategic brilliance that the SDF-1 is able to save the Earth from destruction by the massive Zentradi armada.
Oh, wait, no. The Earth is destroyed by the Zentradi. Oops.
6. Admiral William “Husker” Adama (Battlestar Galactica BSG-75)
“You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”
Bill Adama suffers from a very real handicap when compared to the other captains on this list. Battlestar Galactica is a science fiction show like any other – absurd violations of physical law, tired sci-fi tropes, and the typical clichés of any nighttime drama. But for a sci-fi show, BSG is startling realistic, particularly in the character interactions and politics.
Admiral Adama faces problems that no other captain on this list has to deal with, at least not to the same degree; shifting loyalties, lies, betrayals, philosophical dilemmas with tremendous real-world consequences. Old traditions and prejudices, notions of justice and law, recoil against the needs of an unprecedented disaster. And always, everywhere around him, death – on a scale unimaginable.
Other captains, on shows like Deep Space Nine and Voyager, have dealt with these issues, but always with a bright candy coating, and always with a resolution by the end of the episode. Captain Global, like Adama, had to deal with his own failure to prevent the annihilation of most of humankind – but on Macross, it all worked out in the end. It’s entirely possible that humanity won’t survive the final season of BSG. It could happen.
So it’s very easy to identify Adama’s mistakes – imposing martial law, staging a coup against Roslin, hiding the Cylon Miracle baby from Athena and Helo, letting Cain take over the fleet, banning abortion, etc. etc. He screws up a lot, although he always regrets it.
On the other hand, he has saved to human race from extinction (so far). He’s not the only captain on this list to do so. But poor Admiral Adama has to save humanity every single day. In a rundown, outdated ship. Full of disgruntled subversives and Cylon agents. That’s a level of stress that would put even James T. Kirk on a steady diet of Romulan Ale.
5. Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Serenity 03-K64)
Mal Reynolds is not Han Solo, yet it’s hard to describe the Firefly/Serenity character without invoking the Star Wars character. They’re both based on cowboys; they’re both pirates with no respect for authority; they both pilot junk transport vessels that can barely stay in the sky; and they both have a tall, dark sidekick who kicks ass with a gun.
“And Kaylee, what the hell’s goin’ on in the engine room? Were there monkeys? Some terrifying space monkeys maybe got loose?”
But great fiction comes from great writing, and George Lucas is not a great writer. Joss Whedon, on the other hand, belongs to a pantheon of modern pop-culture authors (Neil Gaiman and Charlie Kaufman pop to mind) whose work is awe-inspiring in its craft and creativity. Whedon’s métier is dialogue, and his snappy and engrossing words not only entertain, but build deep and rich characters that viewers come to genuinely care about. If you’ve ever wondered why so many people would love a silly show about a teenage vampire hunter, that’s why.
Mal: “If anyone gets nosey, you know, just… shoot ‘em.”
Zoë: “Shoot ‘em?”
But Captain Reynolds isn’t just about witty repartee. Like Solo, he’s a rogue with a good heart; unlike Solo, he’s dark and bitter with a mean streak. Solo never believed in anything. Reynolds is the former true believer who lost it all. He pretends to be an atheist, but it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God. He’s angry at God, and doesn’t feel particularly forgiving.
Harrow: “You have to finish it, lad. You have to finish it. For a man to lay beaten… and yet breathing? It makes him a coward.”
Inara: “It’s humiliation.”
Mal: “Sure. It would be humiliating. Having to lie there while the better man refuses to spill your blood. Mercy is the mark of a great man.” (stabs Atherton with the sword) “Guess I’m just a good man.” (stabs him again) “Well, I’m all right.”
Of course Mal always redeems himself through loyalty and heroism. His crew doesn’t always like him, but in the end they remain loyal, and stay by him through every danger. (Two even lose their lives for him – oh wait, spoiler alert).
Simon: “Captain, why did you come back for us?”
Mal: “You’re on my crew.”
Simon: “Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?”
Mal: “You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”
4. Captain Kathryn Janeway (USS Voyager NCC-74656)
Janeway: “That’s Starfleet for ‘get out.’”
Star Trek: Voyager was not a great show. The writing was terribly uneven, with bits of genuine entertainment floating in a stew of absurd nonsense. It got better from the fourth season onward, and not just because of Jeri Ryan’s padded Borg Titties™. But the series never lived up to its potential.
That didn’t keep Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Kathryn Janeway from kicking ass.
The credit can’t go to the writers, who were always requiring Voyager’s captain to do things the character would never do. Janeway’s greatness all came from the former Mrs. Columbo, the best actor to lead a Star Trek series who wasn’t Patrick Stewart. Janeway was smart, strong, confident, and compassionate. More importantly, she was a woman in a traditional male role who pulled it off spectacularly without losing her femininity. The idea that a woman can’t do any man’s job is absurd in 2007; by 2371, it should be unthinkable.
Other captains could visit planets, and if the inhabitants were unfriendly, just leave. Or at least call for backup. Voyager was often hunted by its enemies, whose entire empires lay in the path of Voyager’s route home. And Janeway couldn’t call for help – the Federation was 70,000 light years away.
Not only did Janeway successfully integrate terrorists into her crew, and explore an entire quadrant of the galaxy, and navigate Borg space, and survive the Year of Hell, and talk Species 8472 into going back to Fluidic Space, but she single-handedly destroyed the Borg.
Single-handedly. Don’t fuck with Kathryn Janeway.
3. Han Solo (Millennium Falcon YT-1300)
“Had a slight weapons malfunction, but everything’s perfectly alright now. We’re fine, we’re all fine, here, now, thank you. How are you?”
Han Solo was a long-lost prince of the Corellian royal family? Seriously? Hey George, can’t a guy be a hero without being part of some ancient blueblood dynasty? Maybe David Brin is right about you.
Han Solo was a scoundrel, a thief, a pirate, and a rogue. But he ran a fast ship, even if he mixed up units of distance (parsecs) with units of time (and don’t give me your stinkin’ retcon). With his loyal sidekick, Yoda’s buddy Chewbacca, Solo could out-fly Star Destroyers (and, if necessary, hide the Falcon on the Star Destroyer’s superstructure). Not just a hotshot in the air, Solo didn’t just rescue the princess from the Death Star, he snatched her from Luke (thank God!) and got her into bed as well.
But in addition to being a scofflaw and a ne’er-do-well, Captain Solo had a heart of gold. It’s just a heart of gold covered in so much carbon scoring, it took two hours of movie for it to appear. Fortunately, it was just in time to help Luke destroy the Death Star, which worked out quite well.
Han Solo rates so high on this list because he comes with the highest amount of something every starship captain needs: cool. He’s the Fonzie of outer space, the James Bond of ALTAIAGFFA. Besides, I knew if I didn’t put a Star Wars character in the top five, my house would get firebombed.
2. Admiral James T. Kirk (USS Enterprise NCC-1701 & NCC-1701A)
Kirk: “I take it the odds are against us and the situation’s grim.”
Picard:” You could say that.”
Kirk: “If Spock were here, he’d say that I was an irrational, illlogical human being for going on a mission like this… Sounds like fun!”
How do we answer the question, “Who is the greatest starship captain, Jean-Luc Picard or James T. Kirk?” It’s almost impossible to answer. Picard is better written, and better performed by a classically-trained actor.
But Kirk is the quintessential captain; the archetype for all captains after him, and the culmination of all that came before. He is DA MAN.
So, while I’m going with Picard on this one, anyone who picks Kirk is not going to get an argument from me.
To understand Kirk, one has to realize that he was just one aspect of a trinity, the tripartite god of Star Trek. Spock is the rational aspect, the Freudian superego; Bones is the irrational, emotional id; and Kirk is the ego, mediating between the two. This kind of trinity appears in myth and fiction all the time, from the trinity of Norse mythology (Loki the superego, Thorr the id and Hœnir the ego) to Aqua Teen Hunger Force (Frylock the superego, Master Shake the id and Meatwad the ego).
To put it more simply, Kirk is the hero, and Spock and Bones sit on his shoulders like little devils, urging him towards rational and emotional decision-making respectively. Kirk is the “whole” person, capable of both kinds of thought, who can choose the best path. But Kirk is not whole unless he has both Spock and Bones.
Can you really imagine Kirk without his two best friends and advisors? Want to know what that would be like? Remember Generations? Imagine a confused and selfish Jim Kirk, cooking eggs in an inexplicably 20th Century kitchen for his imaginary girlfriend, while Picard pleads with him to save an entire planet. By playing the roles of both Spock (“the Nexus isn’t real”) and Bones (“everyone on Veridian III will die without our help), Picard is able to prod Kirk into doing the right thing. Without his buds, Kirk is helpless.
But with his companions, Kirk is decisive, clever, brave, heroic, selfless, caring, compassionate and clever. He’s a scientist, and engineer, a poet and a lover.
And he saved the Federation about 50 times. Now if only he could get the Prime Directive right….
1. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Enterprise NCC-1701D & NCC-1701E)
Klingon Commander: “Federation ship Enterprise, surrender and prepare to be boarded.”
Capt. Picard: [indignantly, under his breath] “That’ll be the day!”
He’s the Frenchman with an English accent; the balding, 59-year-old sex symbol with an artificial heart; the former Borg spokesman and 1940’s gumshoe; the archaeologist and Kataanian flute-playing ironweaver. He’s Jean-Luc Picard, the greatest starship captain of the 24th Century, and the greatest starship captain of all.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had its Kirk (William Riker, the decisive, heroic Commander who bedded any shapely alien with a hole in it), Spock (Data, the lovably wacky robot who wanted to be human) and Bones (Deanna Troi, the empathic Councilor). Picard stood above them all, not part of the trinity, but the god over it; the Allfather.
Kirk didn’t develop any real personal issues until the movies, and then it was basically “OMG they killed my son!” But Picard always had troubles. Was he responsible for Jack Crusher’s death? Should he have married and raised a family? Should he have become an archaeologist? Would he ever recover from being assimilated by the Borg, or from his “30 years” trapped on Kataan, or from the death of his nephew?
Yet Picard’s problems never got in the way of his job. From preventing civil war in the Klingon Empire to saving the Earth from Borg assimilation, Picard was always on the ball. Presumably having learned from Kirk’s mistake, he never accepted promotion to Admiral; the only place for Jean-Luc Picard was on the bridge of a starship.
There will be no more Jean-Luc Picard. The Star Trek franchise may not be dead, but it was coughing up blood last night, suffering from the mortal wound dealt by Enterprise. The upcoming prequel movie will finish the job. And there definitely will be no more Next Generation films. Which means we can remember Jean-Luc Picard as we last saw him, wise and proud, commanding the bridge of the Enterprise E, as he warps off into the future.
Captains considered, but not included:
- Captain Jack Harkness (Chula warship)
- Captain Benjamin Sisko (USS Defiant NX-74205)
- Captain Jonathan Archer (USS Enterprise NX-01)
- A.J. Dallas (USCSS Nostromo 180286)
- Captain Frank Hollister (Red Dwarf)
- Impey Barbicane, PGC (Columbiad projectile)
- Captain Dan Holland (USS Palomino)
- Captain Abraham Avatar (Space Battleship Yamato)
- Admiral Helena Cain (Battlestar Pegasus BSG-62)
- Commander Cain (Battlestar Pegasus)
- Commander John Koenig (Moonbase Alpha – not a spacecraft, but definitely interstellar)