Space…the final frontier. Only a brave few have had the courage, the fortitude, and the SAG cards to lead a crew into the far reaches of the universe. We here at The Andrew Blog decided to salute the five finest on-screen captains to ever command a space-faring vessel. There were only two simple rules: 1. The characters had to be in charge of their ships, whether they formally held the title of captain or not. 2. Only one captain per franchise; one of the biggest problems on spaceships is overcrowding. With those grand limits in place, we present to you the five best captains that the galaxy has to offer.
5. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds
Space has been used as an analog for many things: oceans, deserts, and strange, far off lands. But in Firefly, space became the old west, and Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds was the top cowboy. What makes Mal such an interesting character is that he’s difficult to pigeonhole into any particular archetype. He’s part pragmatist, part intellectual, part scrapper. Above all else, what characterizes Mal is that he’s a man just doing his best to scrape by.
That’s part of what makes him such an interesting captain. He has no grand goal to achieve by leading the crew of the Serenity. There’s no primary aim of exploration or vital mission to find a home. Mal’s only end is to hold his motley crew together and make it one more day, maybe enjoying a little peace and quiet along the way. He balances an underlying faith in humanity, a learned distrust of political institutions, and a risk-taking attitude that gave us one of the most entertaining and complex protagonists to ever break out of orbit.
4. Turanga Leela
Part of what earned Leela a spot on this list is the fact that she has three big impediments to the successful completion of any mission: Fry, Bender, and a complete lack of depth perception. Add in the fact that nearly every new mission that Professor Farnsworth comes up with is deadlier than the last, and Leela has quite a few hurdles in her way. Despite all that, she’s survived stings from killer space bees, thwompings from burly Amazonians, imprisonment, enslavement, and the most deadly torture of all – a night with Zapp Brannigan.
What’s more, she’s done it all with style, spunk, and determination. Leela is often the only thing keeping the rag-tag group of Planet Express employees from falling apart at the seams. Notwithstanding Futurama’s outlandish core, Leela has shown a great deal of character depth. Her reunion with her parents, her ever-present activism, and her perpetually budding relationship with Fry have given the show more mileage than that of your average rough-and-tumble head of a ship. Put it all together, and you have the makings of a first-rate character and a first-rate captain.
3. Han Solo
He’s a loveable rogue; he’s a scruffy nerf herder; he shot first, and he knows. As captain of the legendary Millennium Falcon, Han Solo is the coolest man in space. Sure, he went from being a reluctant ferryman, to the unlikely hero, to a military leader, to a damsel in distress, to a….friend of the Ewoks. But through it all, he brought fancy flying, quick shooting, and a bevy of sarcastic quips.
What makes Han such a great captain? Maybe it’s that more than anyone else in Star Wars, he seems to be enjoying this adventure. Even when the lasers are flying or his ship is dodging through an asteroid field, Han just offers a smart remark and rolls with the punches. Or maybe it’s that very first turn he takes in A New Hope. Initially, Han only helps Luke and company for the promised financial reward. He starts out as a smuggler-for-hire who couldn’t care less about The Empire or the Rebel Alliance as long as they don’t get in his way. In the end, even after he receives his money, Han puts his life on the line for his friends, and finds a loyalty even he didn’t seem to know he had. It’s hard not to root for a flawed character who comes through in the end, and it makes Han Solo the best captain to ever sail the stars a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
2. William “Husker” Adama
William Adama was not always right. He did not always strike the right balance between a military and civilian leadership. He did not always prevent personal relationships from clouding his judgement. He did not always find himself immune from weaker moments and regrets. But he never shied away from a tough decision. He never took the easy way out. He never gave up on his crew or the people he swore to protect, even in the toughest of times and the most hopeless of situations. He was a soldier, a leader, and a man.
That may be the greatest achievement of Edward James Olmos in his portrayal of the protagonist in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. He played a captain who always carried the dignity of his uniform, but also showed his humanity in the face of his herculean task. He was reasoned and practical, but also open-minded and caring. He loved his ship; he loved his crew, and he fulfilled his duty to both, as a leader, a father, an admiral, and a friend. Adama certainly made mistakes during his command, but that’s part of what made him great. He owned them, learned from them, used them to teach his crew and help those close to him. It can be easy to lose the realism in the world of science fiction, but Adama always felt real, and it’s why he’s the greatest captain to ever guide humanity home.
1. Jean Luc Picard
Jean Luc Picard is everything that a captain should be. He’s a strategist, a diplomat, an explorer, and a man of action. He knew exactly when to use the olive branch of diplomacy and when to simply power up the phaser bank. He knew when to solicit the advice of his senior officers and when to take charge and give orders. He knew when to proceed with caution and carefully consider the situation and when to forge ahead and take a few risks. In the final analysis, Picard fought, negotiated, explored, taught, and above all else led his way to the top of this list.
There are two things that particularly distinguish Captain Picard. First and foremost, his capacity for lateral thinking. Adversaries and interlopers constantly threw him into uncharted and unknown problems and situations. Whether it was Q, the Romulans, or the ever-popular malfunctioning holodeck, Picard showed an innate ability to think outside of the box and reach the right solution. Second, Patrick Stewart imbued the character with an unrelenting gravity in all his words and actions. Each captain in the annals of Star Trek put his own spin on the captain’s chair, but it was Stewart with his classical training who shined in episodes like “Family” and “Chain of Command” and elevated the role into something more. The viewers felt the weight, the significance, and the emotion in each moment Captain Picard was on screen. It’s what makes Jean Luc Picard the best individual to ever boldly go where no one has gone before, and the greatest captain in outer space.