Celebrate Captain’s Week from June 13 through the 17 with us on StarTrek.com, where we highlight the leadership and the courage that sets each captain apart!
Early in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Benjamin Sisko encounters a hidden staircase in the Bajoran monastery, under the façade of a reflecting pool. His reaction is subtle; he is amused.
He reacts the way we would, if we woke up as the star of a Star Trek show.
Starfleet captains are a notoriously heroic bunch, who seldom appreciate how fantastical their jobs are. Captain Janeway, famously, once said “weird is part of the job.” They are larger-than-life characters — jaded by the incredible, probably as a coping mechanism to stay sane while they give Abraham Lincoln a tour of the ship.
Sisko is no exception (he ascended to literal godhood, after all); a key part of his character is a healthy sense of detachment (smart, when one is ascending to literal godhood). He is Star Trek’s most relatable captain. Unlike his peers across the franchise, who live and breathe Starfleet, he is more like a TV dad who treats his job like a job and prioritizes his family.
Consider the following:
1. Sisko’s career was not his raison d’etre.
In the pilot episode, “Emissary,” Sisko considered resigning from Starfleet simply because he thought Deep Space Nine was a crummy assignment. He was certainly capable of strong arming Promenade businesses and sniffing around the Denorios belt, but to him, it was just a job. To paraphrase Kai Opaka, he did not want to be there. And for him, that was enough to consider dusting off his resumé.
Contrast his attitude with the likes of Kirk, Picard, and Burnham, who all risked their Starfleet careers only in moments of profound, galaxy-shaking moral ambiguity.
Even after Sisko warmed to Deep Space Nine, it was not necessarily that he liked the assignment (if anything, he defied his orders by pushing Bajor away from Federation membership). He liked the place, and he liked the people. He bought land on Bajor to build a house, and to plan for his retirement.
By the series finale, Sisko’s destiny was not to die in the line of duty or to become a silver-haired admiral. In fact, his destiny had nothing to do with his career at all.
2. Sisko could not simply warp away from his problems.
Captain Kirk, infamously, had the luxury of warping away at the end of every episode. Heck, the man forgot about Khan, to great box office success. (How could you forget a historical figure who nearly murdered you? Pretty easily, when you were also nearly murdered by the Greek god Apollo, Wyatt Earp, Alexander the Great, Kahless the Unforgettable, your worst enemy from college, your best friend from college, a planet of Nazis, and more…)
Sisko, however, could not run from his problems. He lived and worked on Deep Space Nine. Where could he go? Every morning, he had to face the possibility that Kai Winn might pop in for a visit, that Quark was hatching a scheme, or that the station was falling apart again despite O’Brien’s best efforts. Dukat was always lurking, and what did Dukat want? Sisko’s job. And he got it! He literally moved into Sisko’s office.
Speaking of which…
3. Sisko was a pro at lateral career moves.
A starship commander tends to lose their command in one of two ways:
- They are promoted to a cushy desk job.
- The ship goes down in flames.
(Kirk, ever the showman, managed to pull off both.)
This is great entertainment, but not usually how you or I change jobs.
Sisko was the rare lead character who made lateral career moves, without literally destroying his workplace. As a captain during the Dominion War, he went from station commander of Deep Space Nine, to full-time commander of the U.S.S. Defiant, to adjutant to Admiral Ross at Starbase 375, and finally back to station commander of Deep Space Nine.
(Sure, he sabotaged the station before ceding it to the Dominion, but he left behind his baseball. Put differently, he actually packed up his office. The closest we ever got to seeing another lead character pack their office was in Star Trek Generations, when Captain Picard salvaged his photo album from his spectacularly demolished ready room.)
4. Sisko actually knew his enemies.
A Starfleet captain must contend with petulant gods, mad scientists, the half-Romulan offspring of alternate-reality crewmembers, and every so often, a ball of light that feeds off the crew’s anger. These are larger-than-life villains for our larger-than-life heroes. They are floating heads on the ship’s viewscreen. When they encounter the captain in person, the dialogue is tense and the phasers may not be set to stun.
Sisko had meetings in his office with the likes of Dukat, Kai Winn, and Michael Eddington. They made small-talk. They knew about each other’s kids. Sure, the stakes tended to be higher (you or I have never had to throw someone into a chasm of fire), but just like you or I, Sisko actually knew the people he did not like.
5. Sisko once punched Q in the face.
WATCH: Captain Benjamin Sisko: Mic Drop
The act shows what he truly thinks of petulant gods.
6. Outside of work, Sisko had a healthy, relatable life.
He cooked. He had a steady girlfriend. He played baseball. Contrast that with the highly dramatic and cerebral hobbies of Star Trek's other captains, Admirable, for sure, but when was the last time you free soloed El Capitan, or did archeology just for fun?
7. Sisko knew his Star Trek.
“You’re quick,” Smiley once told him. Like his TV audience, Sisko did not need hand-holding to figure out he was in the Mirror Universe. He was kidnapped by someone who looked like Chief O’Brien and taken to someplace that looked like a Federation ship. Where else would he be?
Later, after traveling back in time to the original U.S.S. Enterprise, he risked altering the timeline to meet Captain Kirk. Channeling the energy of innumerable Star Trek conventioneers over the past 60 years, he wanted to ask Kirk about fighting the Gorn, but he settled for giving his name and getting an autograph.
In his office, he also kept a pretty sweet model of a Daedalus-class starship (which he must have taken with him that time he left behind his baseball).
8. Sisko, more so than his peers, was a realist.
In “The Visitor,” one of the great hours of the Star Trek franchise, Sisko found himself popping into and out of existence, for mere minutes at a time, during the life of his son, Jake.
First, let us give props to Sisko for being relatively zen about his predicament. (Take a moment to remember Picard running around his ship in a bathrobe asking people for the stardate).
Second, let us give even more props to Sisko for appreciating that the real issue was Jake’s future. Sisko, essentially, was a ghost and haunting his son. In the minutes he had, he did not bother with technobabble solutions to save himself — he encouraged Jake to live a good life. In the end, he was content simply to watch his son, now an old man, dozing in a chair.
Starfleet captains tend to not accept that they are not always in control. Kirk cheated to beat the unbeatable Kobayashi Maru test. Janeway miraculously got her ship home… and then she traveled back in time to get the ship home faster. A key part of Burnham’s character (called out on separate occasions by Spock and the Federation president, no less) is that she cannot accept that she cannot save everyone.
Sisko was often as brash as the rest of them, but the brashness was tempered. After graduating from Starfleet Academy, his goal was to become captain by age 30 and admiral by age 40. Instead, he was a widower and a single father, assigned to a remote outpost that used to be a forced labor camp. In the episode “In the Pale Moonlight,” another of the franchise’s finest hours, his sense of realism came to the forefront. He had the grounding of someone who knew the universe could go sideways, and knew how to accept where that would lead him..
9. Sisko went on vacation, without his doctor forcing him into it.
This is what people are supposed to do. Looking at you, Captain Kirk.
10. Sisko was a family man.
In a futuristic utopia, in which humans can live well past a century, Sisko was the rare adult who was shown to have a living parent. (Having dead parents is a common trait for heroes across fiction, from Shakespeare to superheroes, and one wonders if Starfleet Academy picked up on the cue in its admissions policy.)
Even rarer, Sisko was on good terms with his dad. Contrast that with the likes of Spock, Will Riker, Tom Paris, or Michael Burnham, whose relationships with their parents were icy enough to invoke a Klingon proverb. Paris had to travel to the far side of the galaxy just to get the breathing room to make peace with his father. Burnham had to travel 900 years into the future to make peace with her biological mother. Sisko and his dad? They liked to cook together.
As a father himself, Sisko was aces. In “Emissary,” when he considered resigning from Starfleet, he noted that a run-down alien space station on the fringes of known space was not the ideal environment in which to raise a child. He helped Jake with school, treated Jake’s lack of interest in joining Starfleet as a non-issue, and was not too pleased when Jake started dating a Dabo girl from Quark’s.
If Jake ever had a problem, Sisko’s office was just a turbolift ride away.
Bless Star Trek’s other captains for being workaholics (and we thank them for their continuing service to the galaxy), but their love for their work is a conceit of Star Trek’s utopia. Sisko dealt with hostile aliens and space-time anomalies until five p.m., and then he went home to have dinner with his family.
Nitesh Srivastava (he/him) is a Chicago-based father of two, writer, and marketer. You can find him on Twitter at @niteshsrivastav