May 7 2009 2:18pm

Star Trek Smackdown! Who's the Best Captain?

If asked to name your favorite starship captain, most of you would probably choose someone from the realm of Star Trek—but which captain? Or if not a Trek captain, then who?

That’s the question at the heart of next week’s Star Trek Smackdown, hosted by the Paley Center in New York. A team of panelists, including yours truly, will be debating the topic of which starship captain is the best leader. Or, rather, the question is more specifically framed as: who, if anyone, was a better leader than Kirk?

In addition to the panel, the Paley Center (formerly known as the Museum of Radio & Television) is conducting an online poll to see what the masses think, so if you want to cast your vote for best starship captain, head on over to their website and let your voice be heard.

The Smackdown event itself is happening May 12 at the Paley Center in New York (6:30 - 8:00 PM). In addition to the debate, you’ll also be able to win valuable geeky prizes by answering trivia questions. Costumes are welcome. Admission is $10.

Here are the Smackdown panelists:

John Joseph Adams, editor of anthology Federations
Matt Mitovich, Senior Editor,
Bones Rodriguez, Author, Captain Kirk’s Guide to Women
Moderated by David Bushman, Curator, Television

Given his bibliography, I guess we know who Mr. Rodriguez will be advocating. Mitovich is a wild card--no idea which way he’ll swing. As for me, I’ll be championing Jean-Luc Picard.

Even aliens agree that Picard is a great leader. There’s an episode (“Allegiance,” from season 3), in which Picard is captured by a race of aliens so that they might learn the concept of leadership (which was unknown to them). They didn’t pick just any starship captain, they chose Picard to study. No one ever kidnapped Kirk to study his leadership style. (Perhaps a good thing, as he would have surely tried to sleep with their females.)

I’d be interested to hear what you all think. Who’s your favorite starship captain? Kirk? Picard? Sisko? Someone from a different franchise?

The Paley Center’s poll restricts its scope to television starship captains, but do you perhaps have a favorite from film or video games or books? (Somehow novel characters always get short shrift in these debates.)

So who’s your favorite? Sound off in the comments.

Pablo Defendini
1. pablodefendini
Captain Tightpa—err, I mean, Malcolm Reynolds put them all to shame, imho. Browncoat 4 life!
Rajan Khanna
2. rajanyk
For Trek, I think Picard as well. I think Picard is a fine captain on his own, so he would be a fine captain on any ship whereas I think Kirk's leadership was dependent on the specific crew of his Enterprise. I don't think he would have been as effective without Spock, say (though I guess he did all right in Star Trek III).

Outside of Trek, I have much love for Malcolm Reynolds, who is an entirely different kind of captain.
Dave Thompson
3. DKT
@1 pablodefndini:

Yeah, after the first paragraph I was going to go with him or Captain Solo.

In trek, I'd have to go with Picard.
Rajan Khanna
4. rajanyk
We are obviously all men of exquisite taste.
5. dezap
within the Star Trek 'verse: James T. Kirk - goes we're no man-girdle has gone since.
outside of the Star Trek 'verse: I second Malcolm Reynolds - much enjoyed, much missed.
other: the guy who was Cpt in the earliest Babylon 5 stuff, the one who'd fought in the Wars.
Doug Browne
6. dejaffa
Two scales (both scale of ship and scope of the action):

Small-scale and personal, Malcolm Reynolds, Firefly/Serenity

Large-scale and space-opera-y, Honor Harrington, of the Honorverse series.
7. tulsplat
Malcolm Reynolds, definitely!
j p
8. sps49
Picard had some awesome moments, but in general he was kinda boring.

And Kirk being the big skirt-chaser just isn't supported onscreen. It's a myth. Jim Kirk by a length!

There haven't been many starship captains on TV, though.
Jamie Grove
9. jamiegrove
It's hard to compare... Picard is Horatio Bornblower, Kirk is Jack Sparrow with more spandex and less Romulan ale.

But why not go for the best of both worlds and choose Captain Pike? He's the only one with the medal of valor named after him...

If we're going to go outside the world of Trek, let's go way out. I'm putting bets on Robert Ulrich as Captain Jason in Ice Pirates. Classy flick.
10. Kirbyk
I'm somewhat partial to Sisko. Picard could learn a thing or three about how to handle Q from him! Kirk is a hero, Picard is a diplomat, but Sisko is a real leader, the kind of man of strength and integrity that folks love to follow. There's a humility about him that I love, and he really rises to the occasion when put into the real hard times of war. Underappreciated to be sure!
Richard Fife
11. R.Fife
Mmm, for as much as I love Mal, I don't really consider him a "starship" captain, as The Serenity is a rather small ship. I will give him kudos for having larger scale military leadership in his past (and the defense of the whorehouse), but, well, aside from the whorehouse, there wasn't much large-scale stuff in Firefly/Serenity.

I'd say for a "Starship" captain, I prefered Picard. He was a little more level headed than Kirk. After all, you don't have "Picard Out" as turn of phrase, yet I "Kirk Out" on a daily basis. Picard was far more diplomatic, and was not easily framed by Klingons for the assassination of their ambassador. Right?
12. martyred_cars
I know it's not the cool thing to say, but I have a soft spot for Janeway.

That's as far as Trek is concerned. If the field is wide open, I go with the popular Malcolm Reynolds option.
Kurt Lorey
13. Shimrod
@5 dezap

You mean Jeffrey Sinclair from B5.

My vote would be for Picard. His series lasted the longest, too. Tea, Earl Grey, hot.
James Goetsch
14. Jedikalos
I have to go with Janeway, given her situation in the Delta Quadrant, etc. The situation she faced was truly challenging. Just think of that episode where she took on the timeship: the year from hell, which ended with her on the battered bridge riding the starship in on top of the bastards . . . Janeway forever.
JS Bangs
15. jaspax
I have to go with Picard for the best Trek captain, but Sisko as the best overall leader. The problem is that Sisko is not a starship captain by any stretch of the imagination for most of the series, even if his official rank was Captain. And Sisko really is a fantastic leader, and the most consistently admirable of all of the Trek leaders.

Outside of Trek, Captain Adama is the clear choice, with Mal Reynolds as the runner-up.
James Goetsch
16. Jedikalos
Gotta love Mal as the leader of a small band of mercenaries, but Starship Captain? We need to define our terms here.
James Goetsch
17. Jedikalos
And outside of Trek I would have picked Adama, but it turns out in that universe everyone is a meat puppet for god :)
Mari Ness
18. MariCats
Malcolm Reynolds.

I want to say Han Solo, but let's face it - his ship's light speed doesn't even function on a regular basis.
Rajan Khanna
19. rajanyk
I think Mal counts. He has a crew on his ship, he makes decisions for that crew. They follow orders (mostly). And it is a starship. It might not hold in the Star Trek sense, but we're talking outside of Trek.
20. PRT
I gotta go with Honor Harrington or Mal Reynolds, for opposite ends of the spectrum (darn you dejaffa for taking my answer!). Honor kicks a lot of ass, both in person and on her numerous ships. I always wanted to be her when I grew up...
Paul Howard
21. DrakBibliophile
Honor would 'kick ass' against any of them either hand-to-hand or from the bridge of her ship. Of course, she may not qualify as 'best star ship Captain' as she's now an Admiral in two fleets.
Luke M
22. lmelior
FYI, you can read the first couple Honorverse books at the Baen Free Library, the first one being On Basilisk Station. Haven't had the pleasure yet, but now I've got it bookmarked.

For me, if we're counting Admirals then I'll throw Grand Admiral Thrawn's name into the mix, since he was at one time captain of a Victory-class Star Destroyer. I mean, he deduced species' psychological weaknesses by studying their art (though then-Captain Pellaeon thought that was just a cover). He wasn't unbeatable, but he pretty much never made any tactical mistakes.
Pablo Defendini
23. pablodefendini
@ 17. Jedikalos

Holy crap. How could I have forgotten the Old Man?!?!?!

Maybe it has to do with the fact that I've been trying to erase that last episode of BSG from my head.

But yes, Admiral Adama beats them all, hands down. Except in the 'tightpants' dept.
Dayle McClintock
24. trinityvixen
@23. pablodefendini

Just because they never put tight pants on EJO does not mean he would not have rocked them. I'd have paid to see it, too. Then again, it is a truth generally acknowledged that I'm totally in love with Daddy Adama. I'd vote for him as best star ship captain. He basically kept the human race alive against otherwise insurmountable odds. And the end of the show never happened.
Jason Henninger
25. jasonhenninger
Trying to picture Tightpants Adama and I'm not sure I should. Still, he's a great leader when he's not crying and vomiting on himself.

For Trek, I prefer Picard, but then, I hardly know Sisko or Janeway or what's-his-Bakula.

Hey, speaking of tight pants in space, what about John Crichton? Does he count as a captain?
Church Tucker
26. Church
Kirk FTW!

And a flying double-kick to anyone who claims otherwise!
27. mmoore
Sisko - he balanced job and family best. He had a complete life, unlike Kirk or Picard (and I definitely like Picard).
28. Iain Coleman
I vote for Roj Blake.

All these Star Trek commanders have it easy. Their crews are disciplined, dedicated military personnel, trained to respect authority and obey orders. Blake had to drag a bunch of hardened, selfish criminals on a suicidally idealistic campaign against a totalitarian interstellar empire, purely by force of personality.

Even when he's clearly bonkers, he can still twist his crew around his little finger with his incredible talent for manipulating people. Even Avon, who can see what Blake is up to, can't help but go along with it. Blake may be ruthless, he may be obsessed, he may be quite mad, but he could still get you to charge a machine-gun nest single-handed and have you believing it was all your own idea.

As Avon himself said, "They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood".
Rob Hilton
29. Blue_Mage
Do Miles Vorkosigan and Elli Quinn get any love? Or even Aral and Cordelia? They were both ship captains.
30. CalaLily *is blinded by mental picture of Tightpants Adama*

I LOVED Picard. C'mon, I was, what, 7, when I first watched Star Trek? Picard was mah main man. I didn't even know Kirk existed until after my mom dusted off one of the old Star Trek movies. Uhm...the one with the whale, I think. *mostly clueless* And I was more into Spock than Kirk.

But, I really gotta give my vote to Mal. A true blue space cowboy, ya'll.
Theresa DeLucci
31. theresa_delucci
In the Trek-verse, clearly it's Picard. But off the Enterprise?

I still have a bad aftertaste from the BSG finale, but Adama was a great captain the first three seasons. However, before there was Firefly, there was the other Southern hot guy in tight leather pants: John Crichton! Farscape for life. (Blah, blah D'Argo was voted captain at one point, but we all know who was really running the show.)
Dayle McClintock
32. trinityvixen
@25, 30: My apologies for the bad mental images!

@25, 31: How could I forget Crichton! He's not really the captain, though, is he? Chiana has a whole line about "Is he the captain? Because if he's not the captain, why does he get to stop the ship? What if I wanted to stop the ship?"

Then again, if anyone is the captain on Moya, it would sort of be Pilot. Ish. And I do love me some Pilot (In a totally different way than I love Adama! Yeeesh.)
C.D. Thomas
33. cdthomas
I stand for Admiral Janeway, thankyouverymuch.

Picard got exposed, then captured by the Borg, was rescued, but in the meantime destroyed the Fleet at Wolf 359. Nice leadership skills, there.

Sisko was a great leader, but he was also the kwitsatz haderach, so he was cheating.

Archer? I blame Starfleet temporal control for making him a constipated wuss.

But Janeway? She tamed 7 of 9, managed those pesky Kazons and Hirogen and Ocampa, limped her way home, then got so pissed at the losses V'ger endured that she went back in time to smash the Borg highways and stomp their Queen flat.

I think that deserves some kind of acknowledgement, don't you?
C.D. Thomas
34. cdthomas
As for Kirk? Well, with history being rewritten as we speak, who knows if he won't be the youngest captain to serve time at Tantalus medical colony for breaking the rules just one time too many....

It's an alternate universe. Anything can happen.
35. John Faughnan
Who would you want as YOUR captain?

Kirk would get me killed instantly.

Give me Picard any time.
Rae Lori
36. SciFiRae
Now you all got me curious to see how Cap'n Mal would handle a starship if he had the chance. ;-)

Best Captain in Trek. Mmmm, I've always loved ole James Tiberius but then Sisko came along. They were tied at first, but Kirk wins by a hair (no pun intended!). He'll get the job done one way or another and make it an awesome ride at the same time.

Who would I want for MY Captain? Yeah, I may have a heart attack with Kirk at the chair! So I'd probably go with Sisko. Good leader, diplomatic and that voice coupled with the look can intimidate any oncoming threats!
Nicholas Alcock
37. NullNix
John: yes, definitely, not Kirk: I'd die at once because my favourite shirt colour is red. I'd have to go for Picard/Sisko for similar reasons to those already stated (Picard for best captain, Sisko for best leader).
38. BigBoy57
I'll agree with edthomas - Katherine Janeway knocks them all dead - and those eyes!

Go Katie!
39. jomiller
In the Star Trek universe, Picard is the shoe in for sure but what about Riker (think Genesis finale).

Also for the universe as a whole, I am going to go with Bill Adama (yes he was an admiral too, but he captained the Galactica). Any captain that can put him self in the ring with his subordinates (and son) and let people work out their aggression on him (literally) is obviously in tune with the frustrations the ship is facing.
David Lev
41. davidlev
John Sheridan from Babylon 5. The man's a cross between Jesus and George Washington, and manages to step into Sinclair's relatively big shoes and exceeds them. Plus, he doesn't crack under torture, is a good diplomat (he basically creates the Interstellar Alliance through sheer force of will), and has fantastic underlings. I mean, the man ends up essentially ruling the known universe. all the while being principled, intelligent, and caring.

As for Star Trek, got to go with Sisko, for similar reasons to why I went with Sheridan. He seems the most multidimensional to me
42. John Barchie
Kirk for sure. I'd even be a part of his crew, although being the only red shirt on an away team would give me pause....

Miles and Harrington for literature captains, clearly they are the apex while the others are just great. However they tend to do it on their own, whereas Starfleet Captains tend to use true leadership skills and build effective teams.

Effective teams are certainly one critical way to evaluate Starship captains, which means Mal is in the running.

But when all is said and done. Kirk is the gold standard.
43. Julius(JUICY)
1. CAPTAIN JAMES T KIRK is the best captain and will sacrifice himself a dozen times over for the crew. Only Jesus does it better! Kirk would have killed himself rather than be taken hostage by the BORG and/or have had sex with the BORG queen until she either quit the BORG or committed suicide . He regularly informed the crew on his intentions as captain. No secrets. Why wouldn't you follow Kirk? If you wanted to come home alive to give your support to Kirk and NEVER PUT ON A RED SHIRT!
2. CAPTAIN BENJAMIN SISKO also would sacrifice himself for his crew even if it meant never seeing his son again. Sisko had a lot on his shoulders raising a son on his own. Sisko was right to want to kill Commander Picard for the death of his wife, his ship and 40 ships and their crews at WOLF 359! Little did he know that Picard would also responsible for the death of Captain Kirk, the destruction of Enterprise C, D, and E, and giving phase cloaking technology to the Romulans even as Sisko was violating that same Treaty of Algeron.
3. COMMANDER ARCHER another example of a great officer who would sacrifice himself for his crew and to save earth.
All of the above are SAINTS!
Honorable mention for great captains and commanders. CAPTAIN SPOCK, Colonel Kira Nerys, Commander Chakotay, Commander Tuvok.
4. Commander Picard BETRAYED the Federation (TWICE OR MORE). Picard killed the best Star Fleet Captain ever! Picard didn't get many members of his crew killed but he got lots of other Star Fleet crews killed. Capt Picard is great as long as you are on his ship and a part of his crew.
5. Commander Janeway had a bigger complex than the Q. She never informed her crew about her many opportunities to get them back to the Alpha Quadrant. She didn't care about no one except the senior officers who were regularly using their holodeck credits for sleeping with the enlisted crew (Delaney sisters). If you want to be stuck for 75 years with a captain who tells you nothing than you chose Janeway.
44. Nora vanWyk
Captain James Kirk by 100 trillion miles!!!!! He would always go to save his crew members knowing that he would be put on trial and lose everything for that. I would feel save with him. He outsmarted every one every time. As a bonus that smile and glint in his eyes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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