Space is an unforgiving medium. Out there, in the tractless depths, the slightest mistake can be fatal for everybody. And that goes a hundredfold for mistakes by commanding officers. A single mistake can mean the death of hundreds, if not millions, of people. And there are plenty of commanders and captains who've failed, dramatically, when they tried to sit in the Big Chair.
Here are 10 of the most tragically incompetent space captains in science fiction.
I've got a soft spot in my heart for Commander Salamar. Maybe it's the way he sputters when the Doctor tells him, "Salamar, you're wrong again," when he makes the 1000th stupid decision in a row. In any case, Salamar is completely out of his depth throughout the story, even by the standards of authority figures in 1970s Doctor Who stories. He's a young hot-head who got promoted too fast, and feels insecure about the fact that his second in command is more experienced and less of a lunkhead than he is — so he reacts by making dumb, kneejerk decisions, sending his people to certain death against the anti-matter creature and later on trying to use a superweapon against it, which winds up only making it bigger. He's the rare person who never starts listening to the Doctor, ever.
In the first season of Farscape, Crais makes tons of questionable decisions, seeking to avenge his brother's death — notably chasing Moya all over space and ignoring orders. To quote from one forum post at Speculative Friction, "can we imagine a U.S. Aircraft carrier or Battleship commander witnessing his brother's death, then ordering his ship to race off across the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, in pursuit of revenge against the killer? Of course not. It is stupid." Adds Madeline Ashby, "His pursuit of his brother's killer ends in both career and personal suicide."
True, Captain E.O. is saddled with the worst crew in space — especially Hooter — but he doesn't really do much to improve the situation. As Captain E.O. says, in pretty much his first line of dialogue, "The Command considers us a bunch of losers. But we're going to do it right this time, because we're the best. If we don't, we'll be drummed out of the Corps." And that's E.O.'s first mistake — his crew are not the best. They are not even in the middle of the bottom twentieth percentile. They prove this, shortly afterwards, by crashing on a planet while Captain E.O. tries vainly to keep it together. And later, his diplomatic mission to teach dance moves to Anjelica Huston goes completely tits up, partly due to his crew's lack of discipline and partly due to Captain E.O.'s own fecklessness. It's only when he reveals the hitherto unseen power of turning evil minions into his own backup dancers that he pulls this fiasco out of the fire.
He was sent on a mission to survey the Minbari forces but not to engage them. But when he saw a Minbari ship approaching with its gunports open, he lost his shit and decided to launch an all-out attack. The resulting devastation caused the Earth-Minbari war, leading to countless casualties. He's sort of synonymous with lethal levels of stupid.
Does Vader have to force-choke a bitch? Yes. Yes, he does. The catalogue of Ozzel and Needa's mistakes in Empire Strikes Back is fairly legendary — among other things, the Imperial Fleet drops out of hyperspace too close to Hoth, alerting the Rebels to the Imperial attack too soon and losing the element of surprise. Later, Needa lets Han Solo lead him a merry chase, and falls prey to a slew of old smuggler's tricks, most of which rely on Needa to miss the obvious.
His name basically says it all. He's a feckless young guy who doesn't really have any particular ambitions, military or otherwise. He joins the United Planets Space Force because he thinks it'll provide a cushy existence, maybe with a nice desk job somewhere. But then when war breaks out and he accidentally helps to save some hostages, he gets given the command of his own ship, the Soyokaze. But he's not interested in keeping order or discipline on his own ship — much like Captain E.O. — and he basically just survives due to pure dumb luck.
Poor Garner — he's basically an engineer who gets promoted beyond his level of ability, and winds up commanding a battlestar. When he takes over the Pegasus, he goes the opposite way from Tylor and E.O.: he tries to impose too much discipline, keeping an ultra-tight grip and terrorizing his subordinates, especially Starbuck. But his real incompetence comes when he disobeys orders and sends the Pegasus on a scouting mission instead of just sending some raptors — and when the Pegasus comes under fire, he deserts the CIC to try and fix the FTL drive himself. A runner up, though, is Lee Adama, whose angsting causes him to dither too long, so that when the Pegasus finally arrives to rescue the Galactica, it's practically too late. Unlike Barry Garner, Lee Adama actually does succeed in destroying the Pegasus.
Matt Decker nearly manages to wipe out two starship crews. First he beams his own crew down to a planet — which turns out to be in the path of the planet-destroying weapon. Oops. Then, with his own ship a shattered wreck, he comes aboard the Enterprise and tries to take command of it, so he can lead the Enterprise crew to their own deaths in the maw of the planet-crusher. True, Decker has the right idea about how to kill that thing in the end, but he wouldn't have gotten it to work. He would have just sacrificed the Enterprise for no reason, if Kirk hadn't intervened. Trek is also full of other incompetent captains, notably Captain Varley of the Yamato, who goes into the Neutral Zone and gets his ship infected with a computer virus, Captain Ransom of the Equinox, who thinks torturing aliens is a spiffy idea, and the time-traveling Captain Braxton. And too many others to name.
True, Dallas is saddled with an android who wants to bring a Xenomorph specimen back for Weyland-Yutani to study and profit from. But his own decisions make things way, way worse — when Ripley keeps pointing out that they are violating quarantine procedures by bringing the facehuggered Kane aboard, Dallas ignores her. Later, he also dismisses the eminently sensible advice to put Kane into cold storage. And his ideas for dealing with the Xenomorph once it's fully grown and on the rampage are also not the best. At every turn, Dallas is totally turning an already bad situation into an epic screw-up. By contrast, Prometheus gives us almost the opposite scenario: the captain is reasonably intelligent and competent. It's just the entire rest of the crew that's fatally idiotic.
And finally, there's the guy who embodies courage, fearless leadership and wise command decisions. Zapp Brannigan basically belongs to the "cannon fodder" school of tactics — his approach to any situation is just to throw expendable people at it until the bodies pile up so high the enemy gets confused. He's been known to try and clog the enemy's death cannons with the wreckage of his own ships. He's sort of a parody of Captain Kirk, among other swaggering "ladies man" captains — but he's actually more like the various stupid captains whose messes Kirk had to clean up.
Thanks to Madeline Ashby, Benjamin Louis Wilson, Angela Cooper, Dr. Dave Goldberg, Christina DiEdoardo, Vivid Scribe, John R. Fultz, Joe Kinkopf, Adam Whitehead, Shaun Andrews, Joris Meijer, Ken Applebaum, Gregory Taylor, Helene Wecker, Rus McLaughlin, Tom O'Daighre, Brian Ted Jones, Andrew Liptak, David D. Levine, Matthew Simpson, Chris Holly, Chris Farnell, John Scalzi, Ferrett Steinmetz, Ian 'Cat' Vincent, Damien Walter, Karan, E.C. Myers, Rowan Kaiser, The Divine Miss M., Charles Lee, Alan Danzis, Jaqui Dey, Simone, Richard, Jordan Hoffman, Alexis Brown, Anthony Ha, Matt Adams, Jeremiah Tolbert and everybody else who suggested stuff!