The Yin & Yang of Captains and First Officers

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We’ve already talked about some of the captains of Star Trek. But what about the First Officers? After all, they are not only the Captain’s right hand but of fundamental importance for the ship.

Since Gene Roddenberry had a genuine liking for “Horatio Hornblower”, I looked back into history. The first lieutenants in the British Navy had a vast range of duties. On the one hand, they were the captain’s operators, passing on his instructions to the crew.  It was their duty to inform the captain about the crew’s needs and their mood. They were confidants to the captain and had to report to him. It was their duty to see that the ship functioned smoothly – they essentially had to have a full overview of the ship. They also had to coordinate the other officers – the navigator, sail maker, and so on. In case of the captain’s death, the first lieutenant would take on his responsibilities. So the first lieutenant had to know the captain as well as the entire crew.

And yes – we find exactly this theme for first officers in Star Trek. The one thing all the Star Trek’s first officers share is being extremely loyal to their captain and their ship. Another thing all of them share, is that they are antagonistic characters in comparison with the captains.

Captain Kirk is complemented by Mr. Spock. Kirk is a womanizer with a rather hot temper at times, while Mr. Spock is the opposite. A Vulcan, who values logic far above gut reactions, Spok is cool and rational – a scientist. Mr. Spock often has problems understanding human emotions, but his observation of details makes him the perfect advisor for his Captain. Kirk and Spock are the different sides of the same coin. And of course those two are the perfect team to lead the Enterprise.

Our next team is made up of Captain Picard and his First Officer William Riker. The roles are reversed for those two. Picard is the introvert, the one with problems connecting with the emotions of his crew. The Captain is the quiet one. Riker in contrast is rather emotional. A womanizer, and sometimes a little hot-headed. He has no problems socializing with the other officers and the crew at all. And again, the weaknesses and strengths of one are complemented by the other, making them an exceptional team.

On Deep Space 9 we find Captain Benjamin Sisko and Kira Nerys. And again we find characters that are complementary. Where Sisko is calm, Nerys is hot-tempered. Actually, both are a bit more “laid back” than the captains and first officers mentioned above. Both have their strengths, both have their weak spots. Neither is “only rational” or “only emotional”. Both have the capacity to hate and explode with anger. Both can be calm and rational. On Deep Space 9 it’s more dependant on the situation than on the character. When Sisko is having a weak spot, Nerys is there to help and the other way round. Less sides of the same coin perhaps, but the two are still weighing in for each other.

In Voyager the theme shifts back to different poles again. Captain Janeway – Starfleet officer beyond reproach – and Chakotay, the rebel. Janeway being the “distant” Captain, with a few problems connecting with the Crew. Chakotay, ex-captain, is the one able to feel the crew. On the Voyager, one of Chakotay’s many duties is to gain the trust of the former rebels. Being Janeway’s right hand, allows the Maquis members to follow the Captain’s command without having to trust her – they can trust Chakotay. The Starfleet crew on the other hand, can follow the Captain’s lead even though they receive direct orders from the First Officer. Again we find an intricate balance between the captain and the first officer.

Enterprise – the prequel to the original series – goes back into the old scheme. With less races to choose from than the sequels, we again have a human Captain and a Vulcan first officer. While usually the officers have to earn the Captain’s trust, we find a different situation here. T’Pol doesn’t think Archer is fit to be Captain in the beginning. Too emotional. Too young. Too human. She generally doubts the ability of humans to lead missions in space. Archer knows this, and doesn’t really do anything to earn T’Pol’s respect. He just is himself, and during the series, T’Pol learns to respect her Captain for what he is. Until she “betrays” her home planet by becoming a member of Starfleet instead of working as an observer for the Vulcans. Of course we find the old differences here as well. Cool, rational logic in the First Officer and a man with many emotions and a good deal of gut reactions as the Captain. Mr. Spock and T’Pol even share their struggles with emotions, since both have their problems with the Vulcan logic from time to time.

The complementary characters of all Captains and First Officers allows for a lot of interplay. It allows for both the captains as well as the officers to have their problems. It adds depth to all characters. Nobody has to be perfect. For me this adds a lot of charm to all of them. I find perfection boring. It’s the weaknesses that allow for interesting developments.