Take a step back, James T. Kirk. Move aside, Jean-Luc Picard. There’s a new captain atop the “Star Trek” leaderboard.
The best captain in “Trek” history is a new iteration of the first captain in “Trek” history — Christopher Pike, who’s in temporary command of the U.S.S. Discovery during Season 2 of “Star Trek: Discovery.”
(The Season 2 finale of “Discovery” streams Thursday on CBS All Access.)
That’s not a slam on Kirk, Picard, Benjamin Sisko, Kathryn Janeway or Jonathan Archer. But, as portrayed by Anson Mount, Captain Pike is practically perfect in every way.
He’s smart. He’s capable. He’s loyal. He has a sense of humor. He’s a great leader who quickly wins the loyalty of his crew. He listens to his subordinates and takes their advice. He’s brave. He’s not afraid to buck authority when necessary, but he doesn’t make a habit of it.
Pike is a stabilizing influence for a crew that struggled through the first season while led by [SPOILER ALERT if you didn’t watch Season 1] the alternate-universe doppelganger of Captain Gabriel Lorca (Jason Isaacs).
Executive producer Alex Kurtzman pointed to the Season 2 premiere when members of the Discovery bridge crew introduced themselves to Pike “and some of them have very complicated names, and then Pike spits them back out verbatim. And it tells us that this is a captain who’s really paying attention and is nothing like Lorca. And is actually interested in each person individually.”
Two episodes into Season 2, Isaacs tweeted, “Even I prefer Pike.”
Mount is the third actor to play Christopher Pike. Jeffrey Hunter originated the role; he starred in the original 1964 pilot, “The Cage,” which NBC rejected. (It was later incorporated into The Original Series episode “The Menagerie.”) And Bruce Greenwood played Pike in the alternate-timeline movies “Star Trek” (2009) and “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013).
(Sean Kenney didn’t really get to act in “The Menagerie,” as he played the heavily scarred, immobile, non-verbal version of Pike after he was horribly injured by radiation while saving a group of cadets.)
It’s surprising that, on “Discovery,” Mount as Pike has overshadowed the third incarnation of Spock. That’s not a knock on Ethan Peck, who’s following in the footsteps of Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, but Pike has been instrumental in turning a good “Star Trek” series into a great “Star Trek” series. In its second season, it’s gripping sci-fi drama — and, with a budget reportedly in excess of $8 million per episode, it’s gorgeous to look at.
“I think Ethan had a tougher job than I did, because there’s so little of Pike that’s been established,” Mount said. “I really got to go in and play around in a big, empty second act of that character’s timeline.”
“Discovery” takes place about three years after the events in “The Cage” and about a decade before The Original Series begins. Pike took over the Discovery while his heavily damaged Enterprise was being repaired, leading his new crew on a series of adventures involving the “Red Angel” from the future and an artificial intelligence that threatens to end all sentient life in the galaxy.
For Mount, it’s a role he’s been dreaming of since he was a kid — “a matter of joy.”
“I grew up with Kirk as my captain,” Mount said. “I’d playact. My make-believe character was Captain Kirk.”
(Although Kirk is not his favorite character, which “would probably be Data,” he said.)
Here’s a ranking of Starfleet captains from best to worst. (And the list includes only the seven who have been regularly featured in TV series and in movies — not the dozens who have made guest appearances.)
1. Christopher Pike (“Discovery,” 2018) • He’s No. 1 for all the reasons listed above. Personally, I’d love to see a series with Captain Pike and the crew of the Enterprise, circa 2258. (No, it’s not a spoiler that Pike won’t be back on Season 3 of “Discovery.” He’s got his own ship to command.)
2. Jean-Luc Picard (“The Next Generation,” 1987-1994; movies, 1994-2002) • Picard (Patrick Stewart) was supremely competent and capable, and his behavior was always above reproach. An inspiration to his crew, he never let his ego get in the way of his duty and, more often than not, found a way to solve conflicts without battle. Except with the Borg, who did assimilate him for a while.
3A. James T. Kirk (“Star Trek: The Original Series,” 1966-1969; movies, 1979-1994) • Kirk (William Shatner) is the iconic “Trek” captain — an explorer/warrior who beat insurmountable odds and saved the Federation over and over again while delivering dramatic, inspiring speeches. He was, perhaps, a bit too arrogant. (Or maybe that was just the actor who played him.)
3B. James T. Kirk (“Star Trek” movies, 2009-16) • This younger version of Kirk (Chris Pine) was everything we loved about the original, only more daring, more physical and more bold. Unfortunately, we only got to see him three times. (And we may not see him again.)
4. Kathryn Janeway (“Star Trek: Voyager,” 1995-2001) • Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) got kind of a bad rap when “Voyager” was on the air. (Surprise! There’s sexism in science fiction.) But she commanded a crew that combined Starfleet personnel and Maquis rebels; defeated the Borg; and got her crew home from the other side of the galaxy.
5. Benjamin Sisko (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” 1993-1999) • Sisko (Avery Brooks), a commander when the show began, was promoted to captain at the end of Season 3. And he had to balance his duties to Starfleet with his religious role as the Emissary to the Prophets for the planet Bajor. The character warmed up over the years, and he did play a major role in the Federation’s victory in the Dominion War.
6. Jonathan Archer (“Star Trek: Enterprise,” 2001-05) • Archer really did boldly go where no one had gone before — his NX-01 Enterprise was a prototype and his pre-Federation, Earth crew were neophytes. A little laid-back at times, he was handicapped by a show that didn’t figure out what it should be until its fourth and final season.
7. Gabriel Lorca (“Star Trek: Discovery,” 2017-18) • Well, he was a fake and a villain from an alternate universe. Which easily puts him in last place on this list.