As we wait for the return of Star Trek: Discovery and Sonequa Martin-Green as Captain Micheal Burnham, the first African American woman cast to play the lead captain for a Star Trek series, we’d like to take a stroll down memory lane and talk about the first female lead role, Captain Kathryn Janeway, portrayed by Kate Mulgrew.
Playing the role of a captain in Star Trek: Voyager, which ran from 1995 to 2001, Mulgrew broke significant ground with her portrayal of Kathryn Janeway. Both she and her character became a substantial part of Star Trek for decades to come, with many praising Kate Janeway as perhaps the best Starfleet officer ever. A bold claim, if we’re being honest, but it’s not without merit. While other captains and their libido have their own claims to fame, Janeway was every bit the explorer Kirk was, the diplomat Picard was, and a war-time tactician Sisko was.
So, we’d like you to join us as we go through seven reasons Captain Janeway has always been a cut above the rest.
The main premise of Star Trek: Voyager is that the starship and its crew are stranded 70,000 light years away from Earth, somewhere in the Delta Quadrant, making her the only captain in the show who doesn’t have the massive support and supply network that the Federation has to offer. In fact, as the sole person representing the whole Federation in the whole Quadrant, Janeway had to play both the soldier and the diplomat.
But she’s not just steadfast as a leader; she’s also physically tough, as seen from the “Macrocosm” episode — admittedly an episode with continuity issues — where she took a phaser rifle and fought off giant microbes infesting Voyager.
She smart in many ways, actually. Janeway was a science officer before taking command of Voyager, which provided her with a unique perspective when facing the unknown. This deep-rooted understanding of scientific principles enabled her to navigate various challenges, including spatiotemporal anomalies, alien biology, and quantum mechanics, with unparalleled ingenuity. But most importantly, she learned to recognize the smarts in others and even went on to promote the volatile Maquis warrior B’Elanna Torres to chief engineer ranks.
Though she maintained the Prime Directive, as well as many other Starfleet guidelines, throughout the series — thus making the decision to strand Voyager in the Delta Quadrant — some rules just had to be broken in order to get stuff done. One such example is “fraternizing” with the Maquis, a paramilitary group that opposed the United Federation of Planets and Cardassian Union’s new treaty.
Furthermore, she also managed to forge an alliance with the murderous Borg, which is one of her most controversial decisions ever, to fight and defeat Species 8472 — an alien lifeform the Borg weren’t able to assimilate, as Species 8472 proved to pose highly developed biology, intellect, and organic technology. By forging an alliance with the Borg, Kathryn Janeway not only defeated Species 8472 but also ensured safe passage through Borg space.
She’s a Master of Ethical Decision-Making
In many ways, Janeway’s decision to strand Voyager in the Delta Quadrant demonstrated a profound commitment to the Prime Directive and Starfleet guidelines. By destroying the Caretaker’s array through which the ship could’ve gotten home, she put herself and her ship at risk to save a group of oppressed aliens, despite knowing that her actions would condemn her crew to a 75-year journey home.
Of course, this decision left her racked with guilt, which is why she later broke a few rules when deemed absolutely necessary. But even in situations like the aforementioned alliance with the Borg, her moral compass never failed her — or the fans of Star Trek: Voyager.
Her legendary resilience is frankly fueled by caffeine. The tongue-in-cheek reference to Janeway’s caffeine addiction is more than just humor; it symbolizes her unwavering energy and determination. Janeway’s demand for caffeine begins in Season 1 and only grows with time. Like a caffeinated Sherlock Holmes, Janeway’s “coffee, black” drove her to find solutions to the most perplexing problems.
There are two sides to that coin, however, as her performance suffers when she’s deprived of her caffeine. It can even affect her command decision-making, as she took Voyager off-course because “there’s coffee in that nebula.”
She Values Diversity
Janeway’s style of command was always inclusive, and she valued input from all crew members, regardless of their rank or background. This democratic, all-inclusive approach was perhaps the most evident in her “employment” of B’Elanna, her trust, and reliance on Seven of Nine — who was a former Borg drone — and the Doctor, who was a holographic entity within the ship. This led to a crew that, by the series’ end, became greater than the sum of its parts.
She’s an Explorer
Though she condemned Voyager to a 75-year-long journey back home through her actions and dedicated herself to getting her crew back home, Janeway never actually shied from exploring parts of the Delta Quadrant. She’s responsible for charting unknown regions, encountering new species, and expanding the Federation’s knowledge of the universe. Her spirit of discovery — probably also fueled by massive amounts of caffeine — is a testament to Starfleet’s mission to “seek out new life and new civilizations.”
The challenges Kathryn Janeway faced and the triumphs she achieved during her tenure at the helm of Voyager were only possible thanks to the qualities we described above. Though these qualities are associated with most Starfleet captains, Janeway took them a step further, which places her on a pedestal alongside the revered captains of Starfleet’s past. It’s high time Janeway received the recognition she deserves, for she truly is a captain who is a cut above the rest.