by Jesse Merkel
Anyone who knows Star Trek knows that its protagonist organization, the United Federation of Planets, is a near-utopian paradise. People work to better themselves and the rest of their Federation citizens collectively. It is as close to paradise as one can get.
However, what happens when that is threatened? What happens when good people, who strongly believe in upholding their principles, are pushed to the edge? Do they give up rather than violate them? Do they find a logical and peaceful way to help themselves and their comrades, or do they give in and do something rash in an attempt to stop the “bad guys?”
In the 22nd, 23rd and 24th centuries, the Starfleet captain is the epitome of all that is right and good. Still, they’re human. Let’s look at each of these captains, shall we?
Captain James T. Kirk (Prime Universe)
While this Jim Kirk has been accused of violating the chain of command “whenever it suited him,” the fact of the matter is that he was often incredibly principled and followed both the Prime Directive and his orders. He may have made it known when he did not agree with them, but he still did his duty.
The two times he really bucked the chain of command both had to do with his best friend, Mr. Spock. During the original series episode Amok Time, Captain Kirk violated his orders so that he could bring Commander Spock home to Vulcan before he died from the Pon Farr. The only reason that Kirk didn’t receive a court martial was because the highly influential T’au ended up bailing him out.
In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Kirk didn’t just disobey several orders. He not only lied to and disobeyed orders from his superiors, but he stole the U.S.S. Enterprise right out of space dock. To make matters worse, those under his command assisted him in the assault of other Starfleet officers, breaking Dr. McCoy out of jail, and sabotaging the U.S.S. Excelsior. In the end, Admiral Kirk ended up being charged with nine violations of Starfleet regulations.
Some of you might be thinking, “What about Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country?” Remember that it was actually Captain Spock who disobeyed the order to return to base. Kirk was captured by the Klingons, along with Dr. McCoy.
In summation, Captain/Admiral Kirk was known to break rules, but only when he needed to act to save the lives of his dearest friends.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard
Diehard Trekkies have regularly held up Captain Picard as the most principled and honorable captain in Starfleet. How could this man who can quote passages of the Federation Charter from memory ever possibly succumb to the temptation or pressure to break the rules?
Most would point to the time he picked a fight with three Nausicans, which resulted in the piercing of his heart after being impaled through the back. But while a lesser man would have gone off the deep end from such an injury, the incident only made Picard more responsible and ethical.
Cue the Borg.
The most lethal enemy the Federation ever faced took away Picard’s humanity, and almost his soul. While he was lost and heartbroken for a while, he did not go off the deep end. That took a second invasion.
In Star Trek: First Contact, Captain Picard orders the Enterprise-E to follow the Borg into the past. As the situation becomes increasingly dire, Picard goes further towards the edge. He kills three of his crewmembers that were assimilated. He insults Mr. Worf, a long-trusted colleague, and smashes up his ready room in a fit of rage.
Despite all of that, Captain Picard eventually comes to his senses, apologizes to Worf, and saves the day. All in all, there is nothing too radical about this character. Like Captain Kirk, he would go to the limits when faced with defending the common good, such as in Star Trek: Insurrection. However, he never crossed the line.
Captain Benjamin Sisko
Strap in, boys and girls.
How Kirk got the rule-breaking reputation over Sisko, I’ll never know. This guy, while an honorable and trustworthy Starfleet officer, has one hell of a temper. Let’s go through the list, shall we?
Dramatis Personae – While the entire crew is affected by a telepathic infection, Sisko loses his temper with a Bajoran whom he believes is trying to kill him with a lethal injection. The beating he gives the young officer is short, but epic.
The Die is Cast – Sisko defies orders from a ranking admiral, taking the Defiant into the Gamma Quadarant to rescue Garak and Odo.
For the Uniform – While trying to bring in traitor Michael Eddington, Sisko orders his crew to poison the atmosphere of an entire planet that is inhabited by thousands of Maquis refugees. Did I mention it’s done without permission from Starfleet?
In the Pale Moonlight – Faced with mounting losses, Sisko takes it upon himself to draw the Romulans into the war. He lies, cheats and breaks a dozen regulations to make it happen. He recruits Garak to forge a data rod containing a holographic image of Dominion leaders planning an invasion of Romulan territories, becomes an accessory to the assassination of a Romulan senator, and pummels Garak into submission.
This episode, largely delivered in a brilliant narrative by Captain Sisko while sitting in his quarters dictating his personal log, is generally considered to be one of the best episodes of Star Trek ever. In 1999, In the Pale Moonlight was listed by TV Guide as one of the top dramatic television episodes of the entire season.
Sisko was a rule breaker and a hothead. He was also arguably the most “human” of all the captains. From his dark past and rocky beginning as commander of Deep Space Nine to the bittersweet victory at the end of the Dominion War, Sisko’s flaws made him a captain that everyone could relate to.
Captain Kathryn Janeway
For having to deal with near-complete isolation from the rest of the Federation for almost a decade, Captain Janeway keeps her cool. There is one point, however, where she comes close to stepping over the line.
During the first episode, Captain Janeway ordered the destruction of the Caretaker’s array. Whether morally right or wrong, it was a clear violation of the Prime Directive. From that point forward, the newly-minted captain held strong on the Prime Directive for a while, but as the seasons ticked by, Captain Janeway’s views on the Prime Directive become more ‘relaxed.’
Being completely cut off from the rest of the Federation, Janeway had to make some exceptions when it came to the rules. Of course, there were a few times that the stress did get the better of her.
During the U.S.S. Voyager’s encounter with the U.S.S. Equinox, she strands one of the Equinox crewmembers in a cargo bay, threatening to expose him to a deadly inter-dimensional life form. Sick of the Equinox crew being one step ahead of her, she refuses to release the officer, forcing Chakotay to save him.
While Picard was assimilated and Sisko was on the front lines, Janeway was completely on her own. During this journey from idealist to realist, Janeway used her judgment to protect her crew and see to it that they got home.
Captain Jonathan Archer
One would expect the first Starfleet captain to be reckless, careless and amoral, but like the aforementioned Captain Janeway, Captain Jonathan Archer rarely lost it, although he did frequently yell at various Vulcans. One of my favorite Captain Archer moments takes place a few minutes into the pilot episode, where he tells T’Pol that he is resisting the urge to “knock her on her ass.”
One of the beauties of Enterprise was that the audience got to see the crew establishing the rules. While there was no Prime Directive to steer them, Archer did come close to playing god in the first season.
In the episode Dear Doctor, Archer and crew come into contact with a race known as the Valakians. This race, which lives side-by-side with a less genetically evolved race, is suffering from a genetic plague. After the Valakians ask for assistance, Archer asks Dr. Phlox to help. While Phlox does find a cure, he convinces Archer to not to interfere with the natural evolution of a planet.
The fact that Archer very nearly ordered the destiny-altered cure to be administered shows just how green Starfleet was. It may not have been an example of the captain losing his temper, but it was certainly questionable in terms of ethics.
During the third season of Enterprise, Captain Archer tortures an Ossarian prisoner named Orgoth. While he was under extreme stress due to being isolated in the Delphic Expanse during his search for the Xindi, Archer is the sole Starfleet captain on the list to actually torture someone.
Like other famed pioneers, Archer did not get everything right. He made mistakes and made wrong calls. Still, without his moral convictions winning the day most of the time, none of the other captains would have ever had the chance to accomplish the things that they did.
Captain James T. Kirk (Abramsverse)
Okay, let’s all admit something off the bat. This is the Kirk that deserves the reckless and insubordinate reputation. This Jim Kirk is one that had a criminal record instead of his father, and was forced to grow up much faster than his Prime Universe counterpart.
Cockier, more reckless and more disobedient, this Kirk violated the rules of academic suspension, violated orders, violated the Prime Directive and almost got everyone under his command killed. While dealing with the loss of Admiral Pike, he lost his temper at Scotty, forcing the engineer to resign. He repeatedly bludgeoned Khan (although you’d never notice it).
Still, fans were happy to see Kirk make the right choices. While he did violate the Prime Directive, he saved the life of his friend. He could have killed Khan and started a war, but he made the morally right (and arguably harder) choice.
While his actions are the result of a less experienced and more rash individual, he still breams with the same moral center of his Prime Universe counterpart. He is still James T. Kirk, the one and only.
At one end of the spectrum, you have Captains Kirk and Picard. They may take matters into their own hands, but neither of them ever actually crosses the line.
Captains Janeway and Archer, after dealing with the effects of isolation and severe losses, come dangerously close to killing people that they have taken prisoner. At the end of the day, however, they still make the right choice.
Captain Sisko, on the other hand, simply walked up to line, took a casual look around, stepped over it and asked, “I didn’t see a line, did you?” Benjamin Sisko was often hailed as the most ‘human’ of all the characters. He was fallible. He could make serious mistakes, and he often paid for it. Facing the seemingly unbeatable Dominion on one side and a sabotaging Section 31 on the other, he often had to make the toughest of choices to hold everything together. He may not have been particularly proud of himself on occasion, but he did hold things together.
At the end of the day, each of these characters has all of the courage, intelligence and moral strength of a hero. How one handles privilege and adversity speaks volumes about themselves, and I’m happy to say that as a diehard Trekker, I’ve never been disappointed with any of these Starfleet captains.