There are many captains in the Star Trek franchise. Lots of different people have put on that Starfleet uniform and sat in that fancy chair. They're the face of the franchise and you can tell how a show or movie will turn out by the person in command of the starship. Whether they're going to be daring, diplomatic, or dangerous. Most of the captains we've seen on screen have proved steady hands, but not every person named "Captain" really lives up to that title. Some of them downright stink at their jobs.
Yeah, not everybody can be a Jim Kirk or a Jean-Luc Picard. After all, with hundreds of starships set in over two hundred years of stories, sometimes there just needs to be a warm body in the chair. What separates the good from the bad though? If you're a Starfleet officer, what's the difference between becoming a legend or a cautionary tale? So let's do a little compare and contrast. We've scoured 50 plus years of Star Trek stories to find both the best and the worst captains in the franchise.
A caveat first. We've only chosen Captains that have had on-screen appearances either on the TV series or in the movies. No Expanded Universe captains. There will also be some spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, the most recent television series. If you want to avoid those, you've been warned. With the ground rules set; here are The 15 Best Captains In The Star Trek Franchise (And The 15 Worst).
30 Best: Rachel Garrett
The Enterprise is a legendary starship. If you're going to captain a ship with that name, you've got to show you're worthy of it. In her one appearance, Rachel Garrett did just that. As Captain of the Enterprise-C, Garrett and her ship became trapped in a temporal rift. The badly damaged ship emerged 100 years later, creating an alternate timeline. The Federation was launched into a losing war with the Klingons without the destruction of her ship. Upon learning this, Garrett went back in time to right things, even though it meant sacrificing her life. She went down with her ship, like a good captain.
29 Worst: Gabriel Lorca
It might be unfair to call Gabriel Lorca one of the worst captains in Star Trek. From what we know of the man, he seems to be have been a competent enough officer. At least spoken highly of by the people who knew him. But that's the thing.
We don't actually know much about Lorca.
He was replaced by his evil counterpart from the mirror universe before Star Trek: Discovery began. For all we know, he was a decent captain. But if you get replaced by your evil counterpart and nobody notices, it's not a great reflection on your character.
28 Best: Edward Jellico
This is going to be a controversial choice. Jellico, who took over the Enterprise-D from Picard in the two-parter "Chain of Command", is despised by the fans. But his greatest crime is that he's not Picard. Yeah, Jellico was abrasive and a bit arrogant. He wasn't as buddy-buddy with the crew as Picard was.
But he was still an effective captain.
His approach was just more disciplined and hierarchical than Picard's was. Jellico did still rescue Picard and get one over on the Cardassians after all. Was he an authoritative jerk? No doubt. But a bad captain? Not really.
27 Worst: Matt Decker
In fairness to Matt Decker, we didn't see him under the best of circumstances in his only appearance. Decker was the captain of the USS Constellation and his entire crew lost their lives in the Original Series episode "The Doomsday Machine." They were eaten by a giant alien, uh, doomsday machine. Watching the planet and his crew get consumed drove Decker mad. He was at his wit's end when Kirk and crew found him. Then Decker tried to hijack the Enterprise to destroy the doomsday machine. Yeah, that didn't end well for him. And we know technically he was a Commodore.
26 Best: Will Riker
The Bearded One himself. While Riker didn't officially become a captain until after The Next Generation series, he'd more than shown himself capable of the position. In fact, it became a running gag both on the show and among fans that Riker could have become a captain whenever he wanted, but chose to stay as First Officer on the Enterprise. It was even funnier because he kept saying he wanted to be a captain too. Riker's best moment in the captain's chair probably came in "Best of Both Worlds," when he didn't hesitate to fire on the Borgified Picard.
25 Worst: Will Decker
Like father, like son. Will Decker was supposed to take over as Captain of the Enterprise after Kirk became an admiral. He even oversaw the refit of the ship while it was in space dock. But in Decker's first appearance, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kirk used his authority to steal the captain's chair out from under him. And Decker did nothing but grumble about losing his job. He didn't even put up a fight when Spock showed up and got him demoted again. C'mon man, you're supposed to be the captain! Decker later became one with a hyper-advanced AI.
24 Best: George Kirk
His son Jim might get all the attention, but George Kirk was no slouch as a captain either. As first officer of the USS Kelvin, he assumed command after the ship's first captain was destroyed by time-traveling Romulans. His first priority was getting the ship's entire crew out of danger.
Including his wife and newborn son.
George Kirk did so, setting an example for his soon to be famous son, and then made an attack run on the enemy vessel. His action disabled the Romulan ship and saved 800 lives. Not bad for only being captain for 12 minutes.
23 Worst: Mirror Lorca
The Mirror Universe is a terrible place full of terrible people. It's where Evil Bearded Spock is from. The Mirror Universe counterpart of Gabriel Lorca was no different. He was greedy, ambitious, and unafraid to shed blood to get what he wanted. So why's he on this list?
Because he tried to hide in the regular universe.
Yeah, after a failed coup against his Emperor, Mirror Lorca fled there and replaced his counterpart. He then escalated a terrible war with the Klingons to build himself a way back home and complete his coup. Worse, no one realized he was evil at first.
22 Best: Christopher Pike
Pike has always held a special place in the Star Trek lore. As the captain of the original Enterprise before Jim Kirk, he's seen as a kind of Kirk before Kirk. It's why Pike was cast as Kirk's mentor in the 2009 Star Trek movie. As the ship's captain in the Star Trek pilot, it's arguable that we wouldn't have the franchise without him. Pike was also Spock's first captain, engendering such loyalty that Spock was willing to break Federation law to help him in the classic episode "The Cage." The first captain has to be among the best.
21 Worst: Saru
Star Trek: Discovery has not had a good track record with captains. The first was eaten by Klingons, the second turned out to be villainous, and the third is a gigantic coward. No really, Saru is from an alien species that has evolved to detect and avoid hostility. He only became captain of the Discovery after they found out Lorca was evil. Saru is kind of captain in name only though, as most of his command saw him under the thumb of Starfleet Command. He did start showing some backbone as the series finished its first season. Saru is new to the chair, so maybe he'll improve with time.
20 Best: Robert April
Star Trek is always going to be linked to the starship Enterprise, so it makes sense that the dude who built it would be important. That man was Robert April, who also served as her first captain. Yep, before even Kirk or Pike. Not much is known about April's time as captain, but he was one of Starlet's most decorated officers. He even kept the knack after being promoted. In the Animated Series episode "The Counter-Clock Incident" now Commodore April took command of the Enterprise when everyone on board started aging backward and captained the ship out of danger.
19 Worst: Richard Robau
Diplomacy is the Federation's chief strategy for dealing with threats. That works well for the most part, but there are times you've got to go for the phasers. Captain Robau apparently didn't get that memo. Robau was the captain of the USS Kelvin in the 2009 Trek movie. His ship encountered the time-traveling Romulans who demanded he come over to their much-more heavily armed ship after they attacked the Kelvin. And Robau went, without backup and only a minimum of protest. Granted he didn't have a choice but he could have put up some fight. No wonder he ended up stabbed.
18 Best: Hikaru Sulu
Mr. Sulu seemed the least likely of the Original Series characters to become a captain, but darn if he hasn't proven a good one. He certainly got plenty of experience. Somebody had to be in charge while Kirk, Spock, and McCoy were off galavanting. With that in mind, it's not surprising he became captain of the Excelsior and finally stepped out of Kirk's shadow. Sulu even would up rescuing his former captain and helped prevent the outbreak of war in Star Trek 6. Plus, he drinks tea on the bridge. That's just classy. No wonder fans want a Captain Sulu show.
17 Worst: Tim Watters
Okay, technically Watters wasn't a captain. He was a Starlet cadet who made himself a captain after his commanding officer was killed. This all happened in the Deep Space Nine episode "Valiant." Watters and his fellow cadets were training on the USS Valiant when the Jem'Hadar attacked the ship and their teachers lost their lives. The cadets decided to take over the ship and strike back against their enemy. They were way in over their heads, especially Watters. The ship and crew were all destroyed by Jem'Hadar. Mostly because Watters was more a kid playing captain than an actual captain.
16 Best: Philippa Georgiou
As Captain of the USS Shenzhou, Georgiou was the closest we got to a classic Star Trek captain on Discovery. She offered sage advice to her crew, favored diplomacy over violence, and kept a level head in a crisis.
Too bad that crisis didn't favor those things.
It was a good thing that Georgiou could kick butt if she needed to. Not only did she shake off a Vulcan Nerve Pinch, the only person in the franchise to do so, she was also ready to go one-on-one with a Klingon warrior. A shame she wouldn't walk away from that fight.
15 Worst: Styles
A captain needs more than a fancy starship to be a good captain. Styles from Star Trek 3 learned that the hard way. The Federation made him captain of the new Excelsior-class ship in that film, and Styles took this as an opportunity to look down on the older model Enterprise in front of Kirk and crew. Well, they weren't going to stand for that. When Kirk and crew hijacked their old ship to rescue Spock, Starfleet ordered Styles and the Excelsior to catch them. Too bad Scotty had sabotaged the newer ship. Even Styles' swagger stick couldn't hide that embarrassment.
14 Best: Spock
Most people forget Spock was a captain, but go back and check Wrath of Khan. He took over as Captain of the Enterprise after Kirk got promoted. Of course, the Enterprise was long in the tooth by then. It was mostly used as a training vessel for Starfleet cadets, but in a way that fits Spock's character.
If anyone is going to be a teacher and mentor, it's him.
Even after his death and resurrection, Spock kept his rank as Captain. He didn't go back to command though. He stayed where he felt was best, at Kirk's side as first officer.
13 Worst: Rudolph Ransom
Starfleet captains are supposed to uphold the values of the Federation, even under the most dire circumstances. Rudolph Ransom, from the Voyager episode "Equinox," failed to meet that standard. Ransom was the captain of the Equinox, a Federation ship pulled into the far-off Delta Quadrant much like the titular Voyager. Unlike Voyager's crew though, Ransom didn't hold to Federation ideals on his journey home. His crew ended using alien lifeforms as a fuel source to increase their speed and they even tried to hijack Voyager. In the end, Ransom realized how far they'd fallen and went down with his ship.
12 Best: Reboot Kirk
Yes, they are different enough to count as two separate characters. Where we meet the original Kirk well into his career as a Captain, we were introduced to Chris Pine's Kirk from the 2009 reboot movie at the start of his. He's cockier and a bit too impressed by himself, but he's still got a good heart underneath it.
He's just a different flavor of Kirk.
This Kirk is always there for his crew, whether it means sacrificing his own life or crashing his ship with him still inside it so they can escape. The reboot Kirk is rougher, but he never gives up.
11 Worst: J.T. Esteban
Captain Esteban was almost more of a nanny than he was a Captain. His ship, the Grissom, was guarding the newly formed Genesis Planet in Star Trek 3. This was an amazing scientific discovery, but Esteban wouldn't let anyone get near it without permission from Starfleet.
He was too cautious and beholden to regulations.
That ended up backfiring on him when Klingons showed up to claim the Genesis Planet. He and his ship were destroyed. Granted, it was a science vessel not a warship, but was this the best guy Starfleet could find for the job?
10 Best: Jonathan Archer
Look, Star Trek: Enterprise is not a great TV show. Of all the main series captains, Archer is probably the one people like least. But let's give the man the credit he's due. He was the first person, in canon, to captain a ship called Enterprise.
It was Earth's first ship with warp speed too.
Archer made first contact with the Klingons and numerous alien races. He was instrumental in defending Earth from the Xindi. He also brought his dog with him into space. How can you not like a guy who brings his dog into space with him?
9 Worst: Mirror Archer
The Mirror Universe makes crappy captains. Turns out promotion based on assassination does not help the best rise to the top. The Mirror version of Jonathan Archer is no exception to this. As much as people don't like regular Archer, his evil counterpart is worse. This Archer was a man consumed by ambition but held back by self-doubt. His need for grandiose power grew worse when he seized a ship from the regular universe's future. Learning what a great man his regular counterpart was drove him mad. Ultimately this Archer ended up like all Mirror Universe captains. Assassinated.
8 Best: Kathryn Janeway
Say what you will about Captain Janeway, and her haters have said a lot, there's one thing no one can deny. She was the first female captain in the franchise and arguably still the best. When her ship Voyager was stranded 70,000 light years from Earth, she buckled down and set course for home. Even if that meant bending Federation ethics at time. Janeway was also tough as nails. She could be diplomatic and open, but it was always clear she was in charge. Many enemies, like the Borg, learned not to mess with her. Against all odds, she made it home.
7 Worst: Balthazar Edison
Balthazar Edison never wanted to be a starship captain. He was a soldier in the Earth army during the early days of the Federation. The battlefield was his home, not uncharted deep space. But the Federation didn't need soldiers and Edison resented being made a captain.
That might explain why he ended up hating the Federation.
His ship, the Franklin, fell into a wormhole and crashed on a distant planet. Edison's crew turned to ancient alien technology to survive, but it mutated their bodies. They eventually forget they were human, but still hated the Federation. Edison became Krall, the villain of Star Trek Beyond.
6 Best: Jean-Luc Picard
When it comes to Enterprise captains, Jean-Luc Picard is as iconic as his predecessor. As captain for The Next Generation series, Patrick Stewart only had to be different than William Shatner was as Kirk. But he did so much more. Picard seemed to be the platonic ideal of an authority figure.
He was wise, his words had a Shakespearean quality.
Violence was never something he sought out, but he could handle himself if it came. He was even able to argue humanity's potential to the omnipotent Q. Picard embodied the ideals of Star Trek as a whole, in a way few others have.
5 Worst: Garth of Izar
The tale of Garth of Izar would be tragic, if he weren't so goofy. Garth was a legend among Starfleet, even Kirk looked up to him. But he suffered an accident and was healed by aliens, an experience that drove him crazy. Garth was then interred at an asylum planet for the mentally ill. Because he was, you know, crazy, Garth then decided he was going to take over the galaxy with the shapeshifting powers the aliens gave him. Just go with it. He did manage to trick the Enterprise into coming to his asylum and almost took it over.
4 Best: Benjamin Sisko
Sisko is the outlier among Trek captains because he ran a space station, not a starship. He did have a ship, the Defiant, but it wasn't his main focus. Sisko was as much a warrior as he was a diplomat. As Captain of Deep Space Nine, he had to deftly juggle the needs and desires of multiple competing factions. He made it look easy too. But Sisko was also the most badass captain in the franchise so far. Not everyone has the guts to punch Q in the face for annoying him. He's also an alien messiah.
3 Worst: Ronald Tracey
Captain Tracey is maybe the worst captain for one simple reason. He broke the Federation's greatest law, the Prime Directive. That law says Starfleet doesn't interfere with primitive species. But Tracey did interfere, and it's the least of his crimes. He landed on the planet Omega IV, exposed his crew to a deadly virus, and then left them to expire in orbit. Tracey did it because he believed the virus could make people immortal. He also interfered in a war, arming one side with phasers. But Tracey's worst crime? Being in one of the worst episodes of the Original Series.
2 Best: James T. Kirk
As though anyone else was going to be in the top spot. Kirk is the best captain, hands down. He set the standard for everyone else to follow. He was daring, but not a hothead. Intelligent, but also compassionate. And he never let the rules get in the way of doing what was right. There's a reason William Shatner's performance and the character's roguish charm have become iconic.
It doesn't matter if he's fighting a giant lizard alien or dealing with a mountain of tribbles. He can handle whatever you throw at him, and that's the guy you want captaining a starship.
1 Worst: John Harriman
Pity poor Captain Harriman, he just wasn't prepared for the chair. By the time he took command of the Enterprise-B, Kirk had been captaining a ship called Enterprise for over thirty years. Those are big shoes to fill and Harriman couldn't do it. On the ship's first voyage, with Kirk aboard, they ran into trouble. Unfortunately, the Enterprise-B wasn't fully equipped yet and Harriman could only dither about what he should do. His first command, put Kirk in charge. This ultimately led to Kirk's disappearance and Harriman went down in history as "the guy who got Captain Kirk killed."