There’s no doubting it, folks: Captains are cool. Captain is probably the coolest rank, right ahead of General. Lieutenants are OK, and Commanders are fine. Colonels seem to be mostly desk-jockeys and out of touch; Privates and Corporals are just getting started, while Admirals mostly seem to wistfully recall the days when they were Captains. Yup, Captain is where it’s at, folks.
At least, in the world of fiction, Captain is where it’s at. So here is a tribute to fictional Captains of all sorts: ten Captains from fiction that I like a lot.
But first, a couple of special mentions to two real-world Captains. I’m a huge fan of Captain Morgan, of course.
And then, of course, there’s The Captain:
OK, on to the fictional Captains, listed in no particular order:
1. Faramir, Captain of Gondor.
Ah, Faramir — a man who devoted his life to service to Gondor, only to be continually snubbed by a father who doted on his elder son to begin with, and later became a lunatic driven mad both by grief and by his unwise consultations with one of the Palantiri. Into his hands, completely unwittingly, fall two Hobbits and the Ring of Power, but proving his quality, the young Captain of Gondor releases the Hobbits on their mission — and is rewarded by his father with the impossible task of charging the now-overrun city of Osgiliath. But all ends well for Faramir in the end as he weds the beautiful Eowyn of Rohan.
2. Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce.
I wasn’t the biggest fan of M*A*S*H when I was growing up, mostly because I now know that by the time I was really aware of the show, it was past its point of highest brilliance; later on, in my late high school and college years, I would see quite a few of the earlier season episodes and realized how good the show had been at first. Not to imply that M*A*S*H was crap in its latter years; far from it, actually, but the show’s high mark was when Trapper John, Frank Burns, and Colonel Blake were still around. But anyway, Captain Pierce was the show’s anchor through every season, combining irreverent suspicion of authority with an unflagging sense of what was right.
3. Captain Honor Harrington.
Honor Harrington is the Captain of a series of space ships in David Weber’s long-running series of novels that tell her adventures. In truth, I’ve only read two of them, but I do plan to read more of them, as Honor Harrington is a fantastic character. She’s clearly meant to be an analogue of that other, more famous, nautical captain of literature, Captain Horatio Hornblower, right down to the initials. Weber’s series of books tells the tale of her adventures and her rise through the ranks of the Royal Manticoran Navy.
4. Captain Geoffrey Thorpe.
Of course, we can’t have a list of favorite Captains without including a couple of pirate captains, and Captain Thorpe is one of the best. Played by Errol Flynn in the movie The Sea Hawk — which happens to be one of my favorite films of all time — Captain Thorpe is the finest of pirates. He is gallant, daring, swashbuckling, and he commands the loyalty of everyone around him. His piracy is motivated by patriotism, as he preys upon Spanish ships and interests in the unacknowledged service of Queen Elizabeth I. Oh, and Captain Thorpe also has a way with the ladies as well.
5. Captain Jack Sparrow.
Captain Sparrow is, for my money, one of the great screen characters of the last ten years. I love him for his complexity: he’s a scheming scoundrel, but he is also gallant when the need is called for and is motivated by a strong moral code that is all his own. That, and he’s often utterly hilarious. I think that the first time we see him, in Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, is one of the best movie entrances of all time:
What I also find funny about Captain Sparrow is that he’s so insistent on being acknowledged as a Captain, and yet, in the three movies, he doesn’t really spend much time being a Captain — he’s constantly losing his ship and trying to get it back. At one point he even tries convincing Davy Jones that he’s not actually a Captain, since he lost his ship to mutiny, but Jones snaps back, “Then you were a poor Captain but a Captain nonetheless. Have you not spent these last years introducing yourself as Captain Jack Sparrow?”
Before continuing my list with the last five of my Ten Favorite Captains, there’s another category of Captain that bears a bit of discussion. There are lots of notable fictional captains who, for various reasons, weren’t very good captains, or perhaps they were good captains but in the stories in which we meet them, they are undone by circumstances beyond their control, or perhaps they’re captains in situations where their captaining skills aren’t really much tested.
I was going to mention Captain Smith of Titanic here, but then I remembered that he’s not fictional. Still, ordering his ship to full speed after learning that there are icebergs about isn’t the kind of thing that puts one into the Captain Hall of Fame. On an actual fictional tangent is Captain Harrison of the SS Poseidon, who, after telling his corporate boss that he’s an “irresponsible bastard” for ordering the ship to full speed despite bad weather, goes ahead and orders the ship to full speed despite bad weather. (His ship ends up capsized, and he ends up drowned, for his troubles.)
Star Trek fans will remember that a generally accepted bit of canon, although it didn’t appear in the films, is that Hikaru Sulu was supposed to be the first captain of the USS Excelsior, but his involvement in the Khan-Genesis incident resulted in him being bumped from that assignment and the ship given to an overbearing, arrogant, pompous ass named Captain Styles. Styles also committed the unforgivable Trek character sin of downplaying the legendary exploits of the Enterprise (“I can’t wait to start breaking some of the Enterprise‘s speed records tomorrow!”), so his comeuppance — having to sit on the bridge helplessly as his ship ground to a halt after he’d ordered warp speed — was quite welcome. Captain Sulu would later, indeed, get command of the Excelsior.
And then there’s Captain Will Decker, who was Captain of the Enterprise right up until the moment when it became necessary for the Enterprise to actually go somewhere. Once that happened, Decker was supplanted as Captain as another guy (who will be discussed later in this post) took over. Decker got a consolation prize, though, when he physically melded with an enormous machine-intelligence to become…well, I don’t know what. But it sure looked cool!
I suppose that we’ll never know how good Captain Clarence Oveur was at his job, but if he hadn’t eaten the fish for dinner, we’d never have witnessed Ted Stryker’s redemption for the death of George Zip.
Proving that apology to one’s superiors may be a good policy but it’s still not any guarantee of future success is Captain Lorth Needa. But being in the right place at the right time — i.e., the execution due to incompetence of your direct superior — sure worked out well for Captain Firmus Piett, didn’t it? It’s the age-old method of career advancement: just hang out, do your job well, don’t screw up, and sooner or later you’ll have to move up when the person ahead of you blunders badly.
6. Captain Jean DeWolff.
Jean DeWolff was a recurring supporting character in the Marvel Comics universe, mainly in the Spiderman titles. She was very tough and unrelenting, often wearing a beret on the job; she was also supportive, if not downright friendly, toward Spiderman. Unfortunately, Captain DeWolff met an untimely end in a storyline that was one of the best Spiderman tales of the 1980s, although she has apparently turned up anew in the “Ultimate” line of Marvel comics.
7. Captain Barney Miller.
Now if there’s a most-underrated classic sitcom ever, Barney Miller has to at least be in the running. That show was hilarious and full of great and memorable characters, and yet I never see it mentioned in lists of great old teevee shows. What gives!
The show was one of the great formulae for comedy: the workplace of eccentric weirdos, seen through the relatively sane eyes of a single character. In this case, our island of sanity is Captain Miller himself, who has to deal with detectives with who are all neurotic about different things and the endless stream of red tape and paperwork that get in the way of police work. I loved this show and would love to see it again.
(I love that, according to the show’s Wikipedia page, many police professionals viewed the show fondly, some to the point of addressing Hal Linden, who played Barney Miller, as “Captain”.)
8. Captain Han Solo.
Oh come on, you knew he’d be on here. Come to that, those of you still reading who have been around a while no doubt know which two captains are going to round out this list, but let’s plug on, anyway.
So. Han Solo, captain of the Millennium Falcon, the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy, which made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. He’s a captain of his own ship and he’s got the undying loyalty of his copilot, Chewbacca. His ship isn’t that big, so he makes his living not by hauling freight but by smuggling contraband. He’s in hawk to a gangster, and he doesn’t much believe in anything…yet. He’s the archtypal scoundrel with a heart of gold, the money-loving mercenary who can’t tear himself away from his new friends when they need him, even if it means ending up inside a block of carbonite. When we meet him he’s the amoral rogue, following the bag of coin, but at the end, he’s found a cause and has fought and sacrificed for it. All the while, being a pretty good Captain.
9. Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
Oh yeah, you’d better believe it. Back when I wrote about Firefly, I noted that Malcolm Reynolds — “Mal” to his friends, even though River Tam points out that “Mal” is French for “bad” — undergoes a character arc that is pretty much the reverse of Han Solo’s. (Solo is the rogue who becomes an idealist fighting for a cause; Reynolds starts off fighting for a cause but becomes a rogue when he’s defeated.) What occurred to me in writing this post is that Reynolds also somewhat parallels another of my captains above: Captain Jack Sparrow. Both men are motivated by two beliefs: their belief in freedom, and their belief that a ship — for Sparrow, the Black Pearl, and for Reynolds, the Serenity — is the key for a man to have true freedom. Both men are, also, scoundrels with hearts of gold who can be extremely dangerous when crossed. And both have their own unique ways of speaking.
He’s also fiercely loyal to those he has chosen to surround himself with. In the course of the show, he ends up with a doctor and the doc’s sister on board, both of whom are fugitives who make life more difficult for an already-shoestring operation. But in one episode, when the doctor and his sister fall into trouble, Mal Reynolds comes back for them. Later, the doctor asks him why he’s done this, since just leaving them would have made things much easier; Captain Reynolds replies, “You’re on my crew.” The doc presses the point, asking again, and Reynolds says again, “You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?”
Here’s a good Malcolm Reynolds moment:
10. Captain James Tiberius Kirk.
Yup. The best Captain ever. This is a Captain who will romance the woman, punch out the bad guy, lock phasers on target, reprogram vital tests to his advantage, destroy his own ship to take out some Klingons, steal his own ship back to go get his friend’s body, go back in time to find some whales because the Vulcan whose brain isn’t quite all there yet says he should, fight a Gorn to the death and then refuse to kill him, mouth off to a Federation envoy when he’s ordered to babysit some storage bins filled with “quadrotriticale”, talk any out-of-control robot into a logical conundrum so extreme that it burns out its own circuits, and…well, Jim Kirk does it all. That’s why he’s awesome.
And there we have it. Thanks to Captains everywhere!
(Lest there be any misunderstanding whatsoever, let me iterate that not one word of this post is to be interpreted as a statement of any kind of opinion on the real world military, and not one word of the first graf of this post, specifically my statements about ranks other than Captain, is meant to be taken seriously in any way. If I have any real-world Colonels among my readership, no, I do not really think you’re a desk jockey.)