The Main Star Trek Captains Ranked Worst To Best

The "Star Trek" universe is as vast and diverse as the galactic adventures the series has chronicled across film and television. The franchise has left an indelible mark on our humble planet since the original series first debuted in 1966. In the intervening years, a unique and talented crop of trailblazers have assumed the helms of various Federation ships, taking us on voyages to new adventures, battles, and shows of diplomacy.

What has always differentiated "Star Trek" from that other space franchise is its focus on embracing new species and cultures, fostering peace, and learning how to live collectively. Sure, phasers are cool, but weapons never steal the show like lightsabers do. Instead, "Star Trek" paints a picture of a utopian world that's starting to look pretty good to present-day viewers. Accordingly, the captains on this list represent the best of the best that "Star Trek" has to offer, and it is with a gentle pride that I will try to rank them. Each one of these leaders have taught us that space is not something to be conquered, but a realm of possibility that we should do our best to understand.

12. Carol Freeman

Launched in 2020 as part of producer Alex Kurtzman's massive deal with Paramount, "Star Trek: Lower Decks" is the ninth series in the franchise, but the first to focus on the lower-level positions on a starship. That means that we don't spend as much time with the captain as we might on a regular Star Trek series. Still, Captain Carol Freeman keeps us entertained. Voiced by Dawn Lewis, Captain Freeman commands the USS Cerritos in 2380. Her daughter, Ensign Mariner, also works aboard the ship, but the pair have decided to keep this bit of family news a secret to the rest of the crew.

The "Lower Decks" pilot introduces the initial friction between Freeman and her daughter. Freeman doesn't want Mariner on the ship, and enlists Ensign Boimler to help catch her daughter breaking any rules. This family conflict adds a layer of depth to this unique outing in the long-running franchise. How different would "The Next Generation" have been if Picard's mother also worked on board the Enterprise?

11. Gabriel Lorca

Captain Gabriel Lorca became the commander of the USS Discovery after a stint captaining the USS Buran, which was destroyed by Klingon forces. When asked to compare Captain Lorca to other captains on the final frontier at San Diego Comic-Con, actor Jason Isaacs said, "I'm not allowed to say that he's probably more f***ed up than any of them" (via TV Line). Some fans might recognize Isaacs from his role as the dastardly Death Eater Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, but his performance as Lorca is very different. Here, he plays a secretive and charismatic leader with short black hair that's very different from the long, blonde locks he sported in the wizarding world.

Loca's relationship to the so-called "Mirror Universe" adds some fun twists and turns to the story and definitely livens up this prequel series, which focuses on the Klingon War. Isaacs only appeared on "Star Trek: Discovery" during the first season, which is part of the reason why he comes in at number 11 on this list.

10. William Riker

Although he has appeared on many different Star Trek series, including "Voyager," "Enterprise," "Picard," and "Lower Decks," Riker is best remembered for his time as the USS Enterprise's first officer on "The Next Generation." During his original outing, Riker famously had to take over as captain of the Enterprise when Jean-Luc Picard was captured and assimilated by the ultimate big bad, the Borg.

Riker eventually took over a ship of his own, the USS Titan, and was most recently seen as the acting captain of the USS Zheng He on "Picard." Riker is also married to fan-favorite Deanna Troi, the half-human, half-Betazoid who served as the Enterprise's counselor.

Despite his many appearances across the franchise, Riker has never starred in his own spinoff. However, if the success of the Paramount+ series "Picard" tells us anything, it's that fans are always clamoring for more appearances from "The Next Generation" alumni. Bonus points go to actor Jonathan Frakes, who, in addition to playing Riker, also directed many episodes of various Star Trek series and went on to helm "First Contact," one of the best films featuring the cast of "The Next Generation" (he also directed its follow-up, "Star Trek: Insurrection," but that wasn't quite as successful).

9. Johnathan Archer

Is there anywhere that Scott Bakula hasn't boldly gone before? The veteran actor has starred in such hit shows as "NCIS: New Orleans," "Men of a Certain Age," and "Quantum Leap," the latter of which earned him a Golden Globe and four Emmy nominations. As such, it was no surprise when he joined the Star Trek universe, playing Captain Johnathan Archer, the Earth-born commander of the USS Enterprise NX-01.

Following the success of juggernauts like "Deep Space Nine," "Voyager," and "The Next Generation," "Enterprise" had big shoes to fill. Scott Bakula's Captain Jonathan Archer does an able job, but this prequel series set one hundred years before the original show couldn't compete with its predecessors, and was canceled after four seasons. "Bakula gives the Capt. Kirk thing his best shot, but the script is riddled with clunkers and jargon," the Washington Post observed when it reviewed the show back in 2001.

8. Saru

We don't usually associate fear with being a good captain, but Saru proves us wrong. Played by the talented Doug Jones, Saru is one of the only non-human captains on our list, even if his reign wasn't long. Before his stint as captain, Saru served as a science officer and lieutenant commander, first on the USS Shenzhou and then on the USS Discovery. He is a Kelpien, which is a prey species that lives in a constant state of fear. He is also adept at sensing threats, particularly impending death, which is a pretty important skill to have when you're leading a ship.

Saru was promoted to first officer by Captain Lorca, but it was during a particularly harrowing debacle in the Mirror Universe that Saru had to step up as acting captain. For his contributions to the war against the Klingons, Saru was awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor, making him the first Kelpien to receive that award. His brave mission on Qo'nos, which brought about the end of the war, showcased this Kelpien's bravery. His ascendancy was one of the first times that Star Trek gave a non-human the captain's chair (fan-favorite Klingon Worf never made it higher than lieutenant commander), which is why Saru beats out some other captains on this list.

7. Benjamin Sisko

The '90s were a great time to be a Star Trek fan. Between "The Next Generation," "Deep Space Nine," and "Voyager," fans had a Star Trek series to watch for nearly 14 consecutive years. As played by Avery Brooks, Captain Benjamin Sisko was an important trailblazer in the Trek world, too, as it was the first time in series history that a Black actor played the lead.

Prior to his role commanding Deep Space Nine, Sisko had a varied and successful Starfleet career. One of his first assignments was aboard the USS Livingston. A few years later, he was promoted to first officer of the USS Okinawa.

The series was unique in that it was the first Star Trek production to debut after Gene Roddenberry's death, and Captain Sisko is one of the great leaders of the Star Trek universe. Some fans speculate that Brooks has largely retired from acting — his last major role was in 2001 — but this optimist is hopeful for a day when Captain Sisko returns in a new Star Trek series. Would it be so wrong to get all these captains to join forces to help take down the Borg? I would love to see that!

6. Christopher Pike

Christopher Pike is no stranger to the Star Trek universe. He first appeared in the rejected pilot for the original series. In fact, if that pilot had been picked up, the world might never have gotten to fall in love with Captain Kirk. Since then, Pike has been reimagined a few different times, including in recent film adaptations. He had a role on "Star Trek: Discovery" that was so well-received that, in 2022, he received a spinoff of his own, "Strange New Worlds." Jeffrey Hunter, Sean Kenney, and Anson Mount are among the actors who have played this character, who is the super-meta embodiment of alternative timelines.

In Polygon's review of "Strange New Worlds," it called the series " a deliberately old-school Star Trek show, returning the franchise to its roots as an episodic series that takes on a 'problem of the week' and then boldly goes on to the next one." The popularity of Pike, and Mount's interpretation in particular, allows Trek fans to indulge in nostalgia and simplicity, as the show focuses on the same basic tenets of great storytelling that made "Star Trek" so popular in the first place.

While some might dwell on what could have been if we'd lived in a pop culture world dominated by Pike instead of Kirk, his resurgence confirms our fascination with the strong, silent type and our desire to go boldly into space with Captain Pike.

5. Michael Burnham

Born in 2226 to human parents, Michael Burnham was raised by the Vulcan ambassador Sarek and his human wife. They instilled in her a thirst to be a powerful Vulcan, which is part of what inspired to join Starfleet.

Burnham is a unique entry on this list because of her criminal background. After a debacle onboard the USS Shenzhou during which she incapacitated her captain, Philippa Georgiou, Burnham was charged with mutiny, subjected to a court martial, and sentenced to life in prison. Not exactly the ideal start to a hero's journey, but after Captain Lorca invites her aboard the USS Discovery to assist in the Klingon War, her destiny irrevocably changes.

As Burnham, actress Sonequa Martin-Green makes history as the first Black woman to lead a Star Trek series; what makes her rise to the top so exciting is that she doesn't become captain until season 3. Referring to the reactions of Star Trek fans, Martin-Green had this to say to the Associated Press: "The response that I've gotten has been overwhelmingly, overwhelmingly uplifting. There were bits here and there that I was not surprised by. But the stories that I have heard, the heart-to-heart exchanges that I've had with people already, it's mind blowing." Burnham is a Starfleet captain we won't forget for centuries to come.

4. Dal R'El

When Paramount wanted to create an expanded universe of Star Trek series, it put its trust in veteran writer and producer Alex Kurtzman to make these dreams a reality. His $160 million deal has resulted in five new shows for the streaming platform.  "I do believe that the line between movies and television is gone now, and that to me is a tremendous opportunity," Kurtzman told the New York Times.

One of those shows, "Star Trek: Prodigy," is an outlier in the Trek world, as it is a series aimed specifically at younger audiences. Its featured captain, Dal R'El, is voiced by Brett Gray, and worked as an indentured prisoner in the Tars Lemora Mining Labor Camp before assuming the captain's seat in the USS Protostar.

Dal R'El captures the experience of many young viewers when they watch a Star Trek series for the first time. Often, these kids are outcasts who are learning how to make their uniqueness work for them. More than the others who came before him, this spunky captain represents all the weirdness us Trekkies sometimes feel, and we live vicariously through his experiences, letting us see what it would be like to be a young and scrappy captain in space. It's a perspective that we've never seen before in the franchise, which is part of what makes Dal so magical, and the reason why he ranks higher here than some other fan favorites.

We're excited to see what Dal R'El gets up to next, but in the meantime, the standout episodes "Time Amok" and "A Moral Star" should tide you over and give you a good sense of what he's all about.

3. James T. Kirk

You can't have Star Trek without Captain James T. Kirk, which makes it kind of scary that we almost did. If NBC had picked up the original pilot back in 1965, we never would have gotten to know him. Luckily, this franchise has had so many spinoffs, reboots, and new perspectives that there's something for everyone, and I'm happy to live in a world with Kirk as our OG Captain.

Kirk's mustard yellow space suit made him an icon, and he's been a pop culture staple since he first captained the Enterprise back in 2266 — or 1966, depending on your perspective. In addition to his time on "The Original Series," Kirk made appearances in a string of feature films, including the juggernauts "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn" and "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," before passing the torch to Jean-Luc Picard in "Star Trek: Generations." He later returned in J.J. Abrams' rebooted film series, where he was played by Chris Pine, and on "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," where he's portrayed by Paul Wesley.

The actor who first played Kirk, William Shatner, recently went to space in real life. The 90-year-old actor flew to the edge of Earth's atmosphere in one of Jeff Bezos's ships. "That was unlike anything they described," said Shatner in an interview with the Associated Press. Kirk walked so that every other captain could fly.

2. Jean-Luc Picard

There is perhaps no living actor who conveys peace and hope better than Patrick Stewart. The veteran English actor has played Captain Jean-Luc Picard since the late '80s, when he starred in the ultra-popular "Star Trek: The Next Generation." He has since reprised his role as Picard in four films and a continuation series on Paramount+, which is aptly titled "Picard."

No moment in television was scarier than the two-part "The Next Generation" episode "The Best of Both Worlds," in which the Borg capture and assimilate Picard. While many of the episodes of "The Next Generation" are standalone outings, season 4 devoted ample time to exploring Picard's PTSD as he re-acclimatizes to human life. It is a serious and realistic portrayal of trauma, and only further solidifies Picard's leadership abilities; he handles all of life's challenges with a grace and calm that we can only envy and hope to emulate.

"I felt that after 176 hours of television, which is what 'The Next Generation' was, and four feature films, that I had nothing more say," said Stewart in an interview with Rolling Stone before he was approached to star in "Picard." "Picard" is an exciting breath of fresh air for nostalgia lovers, reuniting Stewart with Trek favorites Q, played by character actor John de Lancie, and "Voyager" crew member Seven of Nine, played by Jeri Ryan. Time and time again, Jean-Luc Picard reminds us that resistance is not futile, and that we must keep fighting together.

1. Kathryn Janeway

Before she was doing time on "Orange Is the New Black," Kate Mulgrew was making history in space as the series' first headlining female captain on "Star Trek: Voyager." "Voyager" came at a unique time for Star Trek fans. Airing one year after the conclusion of "The Next Generation," it continued the familiar adventures of Starfleet while also introducing viewers to new alien species. Alongside "Deep Space Nine" lead Benjamin Sisko, Captain Kathryn Janeway added a diversity to the franchise that we still need to see more. Star Trek has the benefit of existing in the future, so it can be ahead of its time — what we needed then, and still need now, are leaders as fierce, strong, and resilient as Janeway.

"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. "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."

In the pilot episode of "Voyager," a new recruit mistakenly calls Janeway "Sir," then "Ma'am." Janeway replies, "M'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer Captain." And so, her fate as the greatest captain in the Star Trek universe was sealed. Live long and prosper, Janeway!