Creating something that stands the test of time is no easy feat, let alone creating something that can stay relevant and maintain a firm, devoted fanbase that spans decades and cultures. In fifty years, Star Trek has produced 546 hours of entertainment through five TV series and thirteen movies. It has told hundreds of stories with thousands of original characters. Admittedly, not all those characters were classic— some seemed to exist just because we can’t have nice things— but Star Trek is a journey, and sometimes it’s not about the destination; it's about who you traveled with.
Listing and ranking a small fraction of characters out of thousands isn’t the easiest feat either. The goal was to mix personal taste with importance to the franchise (notice how many Enterprise characters made the list!). Each one represents a different facet of the protean Star Trek universe and reflect the brilliant potential of great writers working with great actors.
Here are The 20 Best Characters In Star Trek.
Chief Miles O’Brien is a unique character in Star Trek. He’s a regular joe in a universe of androids, aliens, and time travel. Colm Meaney’s performance made O’Brien accessible, and the stories surrounding the character made him an audience surrogate whenever he was on the screen. His average guy persona allowed the writers to organically explore very contemporary human topics that would have felt forced on almost any other character. His prejudice against Cardassians, his war trauma, and his attempts to keep his family happy while doing a difficult thankless job make O’Brien not exactly the most unique of characters, but definitely one of the most easily relatable to the viewer. Episodes like “Hard Time,” “Tribunal,” “The Wounded,” and “Time’s Orphan” embody O'Brien's story. They are very human stories that just so happen to have a sci-fi backdrop, and highlight the struggles of a real person in a fictional universe.
One of the stranger alien gimmicks in Star Trek is the symbiont. Passed down through generations, Trills who have one carry on the memories of those who carried it previously. Though Jadzia herself was only in her twenties when joined with the symbiont, she’s technically older, recalling all the lives the symbiont was a part of as well as her own. Dax’s character is like anyone in her twenties— both wise and capricious— but she often had to manage between the parts of her that were Jadzia and the parts of her that were one of the prior hosts. Her story is about identity and trying to live up to expectations of her symbiont family.
Despite the heavy character arc, Dax was often the voice of reason and a source of snark— playing both youthful and flinty was a strange balance that Terry Farrell worked perfectly. Despite the unfortunate ending her character received (giving rise to Ezri Dax, a Neelix-level irritant), Jadzia Dax is on this list because she could shift into any role in the series—love interest, action hero, capable commander, mentor or mentee— and have it make sense.
So many of the franchise’s catchphrases were started by Star Trek's first (and best) engineer. Scotty was routinely a lynch-pin in getting the ship out of trouble, while also ratcheting up the tension with his dramatic yelling about "giving it all she’s got" and how the ship "cannot hold." But it always did. (Except for when Kirk blew it up in Search for Spock, but you really can’t blame Scotty for that one).
Montgomery Scott’s common sense made him a standout in the series. His combination of Scottish folksiness, provincial charm, and humor made him an important ingredient to The Original Series’ success.
Scotty’s miracle worker reputation isn’t only due to his brilliance, but also to the fact he padded his repair time by a factor of four. Combine that with Scotty’s badass sabotage of the Excelsior and the time he helped save the ship by out-drinking an alien intruder then repairing the ship while drunk, you’ll find that Scotty is the best choice to run a large anti-matter propulsion system in space.
Having a shifty main character in a Star Trek show was a surprise. Gene Roddenberry’s utopian view of humanity and the Federation made it so that its characters often couldn’t exist in a moral gray zone. In response, the Deep Space Nine writers created Quark, an alien bartender unaffiliated with the Federation. Along with Odo, the two commented on the human condition, calling out hypocrisies and providing a different point of view. While Quark may have been a decent guy deep down, he had no problem getting into shady deals and illegal activities (from skimming tips to selling illegal weapons). From the pilot, he was both controversial and beloved by fans.
Armin Shimerman, who played Quark and wrote stories starring the character in Pocket Books’ expanded universe series, was at the DS9 retrospective panel at the 50th Anniversary convention in New York and reflected on Quark’s outsider qualities: “When I’m in America, I’m asked if the Ferengi represent Jews; in London, I’m asked if they represent the Irish; in Australia, I’m asked if they represent the Chinese. The Ferengi represent the outcast—the people who live among us that we don’t fully understand.”
Nyota Uhura is a great example of a character that grew over time. Originally little more than a background character, Uhura’s popularity in the black community, along with Nichelle Nichols’ talent, allowed for more of an expansed role. Uhura grew from a simple communications officer to a multi-lingual expert who could handle herself on away missions. The historical significance of a black woman working alongside white men as an equal on TV in the 1960s cannot be overstated.
As Star Trek began to change, so did the character. After its cancellation, a cartoon series was greenlit, which saw Uhura take command when Kirk and Spock were off the bridge, and the rebooted JJ Abrams films saw her role expanded substantially. Uhura replaces Dr. McCoy as one of the three main characters alongside Kirk and Spock, with a sizeable role in Star Trek Beyond. She was particularly heroic in leading a group of Enterprise survivors and standing up to the main villain, Krall.
Due to Gene Roddenberry’s decree that the main characters not have conflict with each other, The Next Generation would sometimes feel antiseptic. Ro Laren’s introduction was a relief. She had a dark past like Tasha Yar, but was still dealing with the reverberations; she was brash and abrasive, and had difficulty getting along with the bridge crew. From her cutthroat decisions in “Disaster” to the introspective funeral scene in “The Next Phase” or the character-revealing “Conundrum”, where we see what she’s like when stripped of the memories of the Bajoran Occupation, Ro seem poised to become a late-stage new character, minus the "Cousin Oliver" effect.
The fact that Ro never quite assimilated into the group, instead choosing to join the Maquis, solidifies her as her own character, outside of the TNG norm, and achieves a three-dimensionality not usually seen in Star Trek guest stars. Where there was a built-in layer of Redemption Story to Ro’s arc, the fact that it subverted expectations makes the arc more exciting and the Star Trek universe more complex.
Speaking of morally gray guest stars, here’s a former spy and assassin turned exiled drug-addicted tailor. Throughout his run on DS9, Elim Garak seemed to exist only to transgress against the nature of Star Trek. A character whose primary trait was that he enjoyed lying and preferred double-talk, it’s hard to pin down what we actually know about Garak, let alone name a redeeming quality of his. Ironically, it's those traits that made him the beloved character he is. Despite his deception and attempt at genocide, he remains compelling. Beyond the mystery and the airs he puts on, Garak is another outsider. He’s been rejected by his own people and forced to remain a distant observer. He’s rudderless and without direction, and we can all identify with that.
The DS9 novel A Stitch in Time, written by Garak-portrayer Andrew Robinson, charts Garak’s life from youth to post-Dominion War, laying bear so many truths about Garak and his past, but still managing to leave us with many questions. It’s mandatory reading for all Garak fans.
Star Trek enjoys breaking barriers. The Original Series casted a black woman in a position of power, it created a Russian character at the height of the Cold War, and it claimed to have TV’s first interracial kiss (it wasn’t, but there hadn’t been that many previously). So, placing a Klingon, Worf, on the bridge of the Enterprise on TNG further solidified the idea that as time goes on, peace will have a chance-- our enemies become our friends.
Worf had to walk the line between two cultures, neither of which entirely understood him (nowhere is this more apparent than in episodes like “Sins of the Father,” “Redemption II,” and “Rules of Engagement”). Worf’s dual nature created many opportunities for conflict, and gave the viewer particularly those from diverse backgrounds— a point of familiarity. To see Worf change over the course of TNG and DS9 makes him one of the most developed characters in the lore.
Martok is a Klingon’s Klingon; the drinking, the violence, the forehead ridges. He is the type of guy many viewers (and Ben Sisko) wouldn’t mind hanging out with. At the same time, he isn’t like the typical Klingon, blathering on about honor and battle. Instead, Martok is battle-worn, flinty, and grateful to be alive.
He makes this list because he embraces the Klingon traits already so established in the series, but refuses to be defined by them. Rather, Martok is the embodiment of the Klingon ideal taken to its zenith. Martok is scarred and he is damaged, but he keeps going. That’s one of the many reasons why he disliked Kor so much; he saw his own future in him-- either endless battle as a warrior or the long monotony of leadership. In the end, Martok chooses the latter, having seen enough war and thus knowing where it inevitably will end up.
In Star Trek, most aliens represent a facet of humanity. The Vulcans aren’t necessarily part of that dynamic. Logical but sometimes apparently joyless, they at once seem to represent the best and worst of human emotion all at once. The species is practically canonized within the lore, and it’s sometimes good to see a crack in an otherwise perfect sheet of glass.
Sarek is Spock’s father, and throughout TOS, its spinoff films and into TNG, their relationship has been complex, if frayed, and featured long periods of estrangement. The importance of this relationship—and its human element was always clear.
Sarek was uncomfortable with Spock’s decision to join Starfleet and didn’t quite know how to handle Spock’s emotions, considering he was half-human. In return, Spock saw Sarek as remote, more interested in work. However, they would come to the other’s aid without a thought, and their difficulty communicating with each other rings universal. That they could only ever finally understand each other through a mind meld after Sarek was dead is a down note to leave this on, but a sadly realistic one as well.
Spock sought to understand his humanity. Data desires to become human. Seven of Nine wanted no part in any of it. Seven represents one of the few risks taken in the largely complacent Voyager, and it was a risk that paid off. Assimilated as a child, Seven had no real memories before becoming Borg and no sense of individuality before Janeway yanked her from the Collective. In instances where she wanted to return to the Collective (thankfully that card wasn’t played very often), it gives off the terrifying impression of watching a brainwashed victim return to their cult. With Seven, it wasn’t so much question of when she would accept humanity and individuality, as it was if and why.
Seven’s growth into individuality and humanity was incremental. Seven develops from a child-like straight-forwardness and abrasiveness slowly; she’s essentially learning all this for the first time. The fear she feels is constant because everything is new to her.
Roddenberry’s pitch was that Star Trek would be “a wagon train to the stars.” Few characters embody this concept better than Doctor Leonard McCoy. From the throwback nickname "Bones" to his surly disposition and functional alcoholism, Dr. McCoy is a true frontier doctor (not a "insert job here"!) and one of the series' best examples of the space-is-the-wild-west trope.
While Spock was created to comment on the human condition, Original Series' Dr. McCoy served as the common-sense man; the wry observer, the Greek chorus, and a source of dry humor. As a doctor, he treated everyone without prejudice, but was as likely to prescribe goofballs (it was the '60s) as he would an open-handed slap (again, it was the '60s). Had there been more episodes focusing on his character or had he won more of his debates with Spock, Dr. McCoy would probably rank a bit higher on this list.
Skrain Dukat is one of Star Trek’s best villains, and inarguably the most richly developed. He was a man of many contradictions. Dukat was a mass murderer, he treated the Bajorans well; he was a family man, he had children out of wedlock. He was loyal to his people; he sold them to the Dominion. For every good side of Dukat we found, another shadow turned up. There were stretches where we rooted for him only to feel guilty as another terrible thing he did came to light. That there was enough room for both the charmer and the megalomaniac—with both parts feeling natural and organic—is a credit to both the writers and actor Marc Alaimo.
Had Dukat died in “Waltz” and not been forced into the tedious Pah-wraith subplot in season 7, turning him into a moustache-twirling mono-dimensional villain, he would have charted higher, and would’ve been the highest-ranking villain on this list.
Where Spock was wary of his human side, Data embraced the humanity he never had. Data had a child-like view of the world— he was a little too trusting and socially illiterate— that was heartbreaking to watch when that trust was misplaced. Regardless, Data wanted to continue to grow, and sought out emotions even after being given the taste of some of the darker ones. The fact that he was willing to accept the better and worse parts of emotion puts the mirror on us; on our own dualities and responsibilities. With emotion being inborn, we hardly think of from where they stem, how intertwined they all are, and how colorless life can be without them.
Watching Data grow as a character was like watching a child reach adolescence, and if you were lucky enough to have discovered The Next Generation at the right time, you grew up alongside him. For Data, every day had the potential for discovery, and as long as emotions remained an opaque concept something understood piece by piece— he was still prone to a sense of wonder that we all grew out of.
Khan has made—if you count Into Darkness—only three appearances in the Trek film and television lore. Ask even non-fans and they’ll know at least the basics about who Khan from Star Trek is.
Part of the reason for Khan’s popularity is—whether fans want to admit it or not—that he is technically somewhat justified. His reasons for hating and blaming Kirk are surprisingly solid and well-considered. Imagine being exiled and having to fend for yourself when a cataclysm kills the people you loved and protected—including your wife. All those years with nothing to read but Paradise Lost and Moby Dick. So, you make it out finally, only to learn that the man you hated is even more beloved and respected than before. Remember how galled Khan was repeatedly whispering “Admiral Kirk” when he heard of his enemy’s promotion.
In the end, it isn’t even Kirk who beat Khan. Rather, Khan did it to himself. Even Joachim pleaded repeatedly that Khan had already proven his superiority by surviving and escaping, but that wasn’t enough. In a film steeped so heavily in literature and religious themes, it was Khan’s original sin that always defeated him: pride.
If there was somebody who knew how to suffer better than Chief O’Brien it would be Kira Nerys. She is harsh and pitiless, but with a depth of emotion that she had to shun during a lifetime of violence from the Cardassian Occupation.
She committed acts of terror, she killed people she deemed collaborators, and she showed absolutely no remorse for what she did. That’s not to say she’s a sociopath or anything like it. She dislikes violence, and she doesn’t necessarily always like the person she is—likely because she remembers the person she wanted to become before she was a soldier. Many of Kira’s episodes are the most emotionally draining in the franchise because they strike at her core: “The Darkness and the Light” deals with the fallout of what she’s done over the years; “Ties of Blood and Water” has her lose her surrogate father; and “Duet” deals with her own racism against Cardassians and has her come to terms with that hate when confronted by one’s innocence.
Kira is the child soldier who grows up and must deal with a changing world and her own changing sensibilities, as well as the trauma she’s absorbed and inflicted.
Whereas Kirk and Picard would have a mission a week, always moving on to the next, Deep Space Nine's Ben Sisko was the man who dealt with the consequences of his decisions. Over the course of seven seasons we saw how his actions affected him and those around him.
Sisko was a captain, a father, a husband, an emissary; all roles that require someone to be there for the long haul. One of the most complicated characters in the franchise, he was also allowed to be flawed. Sisko had a temper, and he wanted to control everything. Most of all, he was placed in the most difficult moral and ethical dilemmas: he had to start a war early to keep it from happening later, when it would be hopeless. In “In the Pale Moonlight”—Star Trek’s finest episode—he compromises himself to get the Romulans involved in the war under false pretenses. He sacrificed their lives so billions of others can live.
Of all the characters in Trek, no one has had to make the sacrifices he has.
For the next generation of fans, this was the man to look up to. The Shakespeare-quoting, noir-loving captain of the Enterprise. Under Michael Piller’s showrunning, Picard went from child-hating curmudgeon to warm father figure; a diplomat with class and kindness—though he wasn’t a pushover either. The fact that he was an older character helped sell his wise and calm nature. When he would settle in for one of his speeches, it never came off condescending (post-season 2); it was earnest and heady with experiences of similar or worse situations remembered and survived.
It also didn’t hurt seeing the sheer badassery of Picard getting stabbed through the heart and laughing at the blade sticking out of his chest before falling over.
For many growing up in an unstable household, it was Picard we looked to as a father figure; someone to teach us lessons and how to be a better person. Endlessly curious and always able to outthink the enemy, Picard is Star Trek’s elder statesman.
James Tiberius Kirk is, in any timeline, a hero. He always found the time to explore a strange new world, have sex with its most attractive denizens, and save the ship while making it look easy.
Kirk is the only character who better embodies "the wagon train to the stars" concept better than McCoy. A cowboy diplomat, Kirk understood that while Federation rules were important, it wasn’t the Federation out there all alone, but standing shoulder to shoulder with Kirk and his Steve McQueen-coolness made you know he was always going to make it out of whatever problem he and the crew found themselves in.
There was never going to be anyone else in this position. When you look at modern sci-fi, you can see the mitochondrial connections of many aliens to Spock: the alien with the strange point of view, odd disposition, seemingly dispassionate logic. The fact is lost on many that Vulcans are highly emotional-- they just hide it better than most. Spock had an incredibly subtle sense of humor and in those rare instances when he smiled or showed an obvious emotion, the moment felt earned and increased the importance of what was going on around him.
His devotion to logic and alien opinions made you question your own stance on things; where he might have been relegated to passive observer—a way for the writers to show how clever they could be in their out-of-the-box thinking—Spock was clearly his own character with complicated loyalties and beliefs. Ironically, without Spock, TOS and Star Trek itself would be devoid of its heart.
There will never be another Spock. There were never be another Leonard Nimoy.
Who is your favorite Star Trek character? Let us know in the comments!