The Death and Life of Star Trek’s Utopian Fantasy

There’s a reason why Star Trek fans love to play dress-up, and it’s not just because we’re a bunch of nerds. Much of the appeal of Star Trek comes from the fantasy of Starfleet, the service of brave explorers around which most of the franchise’s 778 episodes and films are centered. Starfleet is a romantic notion, an institution where all kinds of people join together to do weird science, meet far-off cultures, and carry around cool ray guns specifically designed not to kill people. But over the years, Star Trek’s depiction of Starfleet has grown gradually more complicated, eroding the idealistic vision of Starfleet but asking valuable questions about whether or not it can ever truly become reality. Through a series of creative and cultural shifts, Star Trek has changed from a series about benign authority to one about stalwart heroes protecting an institution from moral decay.

We’ve Been Asked to Stop Calling Them “The Space Cowboys”

The original Star Trek series that began in 1966 introduced audiences to the United Federation of Planets and its Starfleet, but tended to keep the details about both of those entities deliberately vague. After all, the show had been pitched not as a political or military drama, but as a Western, “The Wagon Train to the Stars.” Creator Gene Roddenberry’s intent was for Captain James T. Kirk and the Enterprise to function mostly autonomously in order to put the burden and drama of decision-making on Kirk himself rather than allowing him to pass the buck up to headquarters. Kirk is granted the narrative authority of a Wild West Sheriff or Marshal, unilaterally resolving conflicts as a living extension of the will and values of a fairly abstract Starfleet.

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In The Original Series, Starfleet’s integrity as an institution is rarely questioned by the Enterprise crew nor by the humans they encounter in their voyages. For the show’s narrative purposes, Kirk and Starfleet are one and the same, and Kirk framed as an honorable, responsible person who respects the autonomy of others (even though he occasionally lies, takes wild risks, or totally uproots a society). Even the assortment of highly-evolved superbeings that crop up now and then to test humanity tend to judge the crew as “pretty good, with a lot of potential.” It’s only citizens of rival societies, such as the Romulan or Klingon Empires, who think ill of Starfleet, and this seems to be the result of culture clash or deliberate anti-Federation propaganda.

Institutions are made up of people, and the people of the Roddenberry Star Trek future are written to be, put simply, better than we are, free of the flaws that make so many of our own institutions evil or unreliable. Starfleet is meant to represent exploration without colonialism, defense without imperialism, and commerce without greed, a fairly radical vision for late 1960s American television. And on the rare occasion that a member of Starfleet betrays those values, such as when Captain Ronald Tracey takes sides in one world’s war in the hopes of exploiting it for his own gain in “The Omega Glory,” these are presented as monstrous, once-in-a-generation aberrations.

Semper Fidelis (or so they tell us)

Gene Roddenberry preferred not to present Starfleet as a military organization, and only employed Naval terminology on Star Trek “to help encourage believability and identification by the audience.” But Nicholas Meyer, director and uncredited writer of the final script to 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, saw things differently. Meyer was the first creator to fundamentally reshape Star Trek, or as he puts it, “pour [his own] vintage into the bottle.” Meyer saw Star Trek as a stern naval drama, resulting in The Wrath of Khan’s colder, more martial Starfleet, an entity that even provokes suspicion and even loathing from the civilian scientists they encounter in the film.

The Wrath of Khan may make Starfleet into a stiffer institution, but our beloved main characters retain much of their joviality and spirit of adventure. During The Original Series, a viewer could infer that the USS Enterprise is an example of a typical Federation starship, and that there are dozens of other ships and crews with the same sense of delight and camaraderie as Kirk, Spock, and the gang. But the Star Trek films of the 1980s imply that the Enterprise crew is something special, almost bigger than Starfleet itself. The relationship between our heroes and their fleet here isn’t far off from the one between Bill Murray and the US Army in Ivan Reitman’s 1981 comedy Stripes — it’s not an indictment of the institution, exactly, but it is clear that our lead characters are too fun and roguish for it. James T. Kirk can break every rule in the book, but they’re always going to forgive him, because c’mon, it’s James T. Kirk!

Nicholas Meyer returned to direct and co-write Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, at the time the darkest depiction of Starfleet yet. Released in 1991 and inspired by the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Undiscovered Country begins with the Klingon Empire suffering a Chernobyl-scale industrial disaster, potentially bringing an end to their decades-long cold war with the Federation. This shocks several members of Meyer’s more militarized Starfleet to the bone — less afraid of perpetual war than of irrelevance in a time of peace, a cabal of Starfleet officers conspires with like-minded Klingons to assassinate both their heads of state and sabotage the detente. Here, Starfleet demonstrates the cult-like self-importance of a modern military body, unable to envision that a better future does not include them. The peace is only saved when James T. Kirk overcomes his own fear and bigotry and accepts that, for either civilization to survive, he must let younger, more flexible leaders chart that future.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Rise of the Badmiral

When Star Trek returned to television in the form of Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987, Gene Roddenberry was once again holding the reins and hoped to restore a sense of optimism about the future of humanity and their ability to responsibly wield power. In Captain Jean-Luc Picard, The Next Generation has a lead character who embodies integrity and strongly associates that integrity with the body that he represents. Picard famously exclaims that “the first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth, or historical truth, or personal truth!” And since Starfleet is a fictional organization, this statement of values can’t be brutally undermined with a cursory google search (i.e. [your town here] Police Department). If Picard is our primary lens into Starfleet, and he’s honorable, then Starfleet is honorable.

However, it didn’t take long for the show’s writers to realize the dramatic potential in testing Picard’s integrity against that of his Starfleet superiors. As the series wears on, more and more opportunities arise for Picard to hold the moral high ground over Starfleet’s admiralty, and as Gene Roddenberry’s influence over the show declined with his failing health, he could no longer enforce the idea that Starfleet should be above this kind of behavior. The result is a Starfleet brass that becomes increasingly antagonistic over the course of TNG’s seven seasons and four films, trading arms for hostages, repeatedly trampling over the rights of the android Lt. Commander Data, leading McCarthyesque witch hunts aboard the Enterprise, framing refugees for acts of terrorism, conducting illegal weapons tests, attempting to forcibly evict civilian populations from their planets (twice) and explicitly ordering Picard to commit genocide.

Of course, these Admirals are rarely equipped to withstand the force of a rousing speech about honor and principle from Captain Picard. But in their zeal to stand up Jean-Luc Picard as the galaxy’s most righteous man, the team behind Star Trek: The Next Generation unwittingly created the impression that Starfleet Command is littered with inept, amoral jackasses.

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The Observer Effect

The next two Star Trek spin-offs, Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and Voyager (1995-2001), each interrogate the value of Starfleet as an institution and the fortitude of its principles, but do so in completely opposite ways. Deep Space Nine is set primarily aboard a backwater space station that gradually becomes Starfleet’s most important port, a center of slow-burning political intrigue and interstellar war. Voyager follows a Starfleet crew that is lost in a far-off corner of the galaxy, forced to struggle their way home on a journey that may well take them decades. Both series ask the question: “Can Starfleet’s established values survive great hardship?” Voyager’s answer is, “Unequivocally Yes.” Deep Space Nine’s answer is “It’s Complicated.”

When the USS Voyager gets stranded in the Delta Quadrant, Captain Kathryn Janeway becomes the highest-ranking Starfleet officer in 75,000 light years, completely out of touch with any peers or superiors. But to Janeway, the fact that she is accountable only to herself makes it even more important that she stay true to her sacred Starfleet principles, even when they’re inconvenient. Starfleet is far away and can’t let her (or the audience) down, she can only let herself down for not living up to the idealized version of Starfleet that she holds in her heart.

So, when Janeway is presented opportunities to shorten Voyager’s trip home that would require that she violate her Starfleet oath, such as exploiting an unwilling culture or corrupting the timeline, Janeway never wavers. (Oh, except in the final episode, in which an Admiral Janeway from the future exploits an unwilling culture and corrupts the timeline to get Voyager home a few decades early, but as we’ve established, once you’re an Admiral the rules no longer apply to you.)

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Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, is deeply mired in Starfleet and Federation politics, and the real Starfleet isn’t living up to the one in Captain Janeway’s memory. Here, Captain Benjamin Sisko is confronted with two daunting challenges. The first is the Dominion, an enemy with the means to conquer the Federation with ease and no interest in peaceful coexistence. The other is a more serialized format that means Sisko’s mistakes can’t be shrugged off at the end of 45 minutes. While Voyager is in ship shape at the start of nearly every episode regardless of what happened last week, the stakes on Deep Space Nine ratchet higher and higher as the situation between the Federation and the Dominion escalates, and the viewer can judge the long-term consequences of Sisko’s choices.

Even before all-out war breaks out between the Federation and the Dominion, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is willing to dedicate a lot of screentime to complicating Star Trek’s sense of morality. Sisko is forced to hunt down a friend to defend a treaty that he thinks is horseshit. DS9’s first officer has killed a lot of people and is comfortable using the word “terrorist” to describe her last job. But once the Dominion War boils over and Starfleet’s noble explorers are forced to play soldier week after week, Deep Space Nine makes it clear that however honorable your code or your cause, there is no way to win a war without doing horrible things because war itself is a horrible thing. The fantasy of that Starfleet uniform cannot protect you from that.

Does their Headquarters Have a Baskin-Robbins?

The format of Deep Space Nine allows for such grave situations to be explored in depth, but the series’ darker tone and more compromised Starfleet are also the result of a creative philosophy. DS9’s head writer Ira Steven Behr was fixated on the idea that Roddenberry’s future could not be as utopian as it seemed, that there had to be shadier forces “watching over it and doing the nasty stuff that no one wants to talk about.”

Thus was born Section 31, a secret autonomous organization that has a more machiavellian approach to defending the Federation, going so far as to engineer a plague to wipe out the Dominion’s leadership and use DS9’s own Constable Odo as its unwitting delivery system. While Section 31 is independent from Starfleet and kept secret from all but the highest-ranking flag officers, Starfleet’s brass is willing to turn a blind eye or even enable Section 31’s amoral tactics during the Dominion War. But to our lead characters on Deep Space Nine, particularly Dr. Julian Bashir, Section 31 is unambiguously villainous, an affront to everything Starfleet and the Federation stand for.

After featuring as antagonists on the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise and the film Star Trek Into Darkness, Section 31 would reappear in 2019 on the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, where they are depicted not as a rogue entity but as a counterpart to Starfleet, complete with their own starships and black Starfleet chevron badges. Discovery treats Section 31 as distasteful and untrustworthy, but more as a rival to our leads than as an enemy. Their high-ranking agent Leland tells his Starfleet counterpart Captain Pike that “We do what we do so you can do what you do”, reinforcing the point of view that Starfleet can hold moral authority only because they let someone else do their dirty work for them. While on Deep Space Nine most of Starfleet is unaware of Section 31, on Discovery their existence is more of an open secret, which makes it more difficult to absolve Starfleet of blame for their dark deeds. But, as always, our lead characters want nothing to do with them.

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The Future Starts with You

The first seasons of both of the most recent Star Trek series — Discovery and Picard — are both cautionary tales about allowing fear and desperation to drown out our better instincts, conceived in direct response to current events. Discovery’s first season, produced and released between 2016 and 2018, is about how to prevent an institution from becoming what it hates. Picard’s first season, created between 2018 and 2020, is about how you cope when your institution has already blown it.

Discovery begins when Commander Michael Burnham, believing peaceful overtures against an enemy whose culture worships combat are doomed to fail, mutinies against her beloved captain and unwittingly sparks a bloody war. When the Federation is near defeat, Starfleet Command resorts to taking a page out of the playbook of the Terran Empire, their cutthroat, xenophobic counterparts from the Mirror Universe who showrunner Aaron Hurbert and actor Jason Issacs very heavily imply is meant to evoke Trump’s America. It takes the threat of another mutiny — again led by Burnham, who’s learned her lesson — to abort their plan to annihilate the entire Klingon Homeworld. When Burnham asks her crew whether or not they will stand with her against this act of genocide, her shipmate Saru signals their agreement by saying, simply, “We are Starfleet.”

But when Star Trek: Picard opens, “We Are Starfleet” no longer means what we want it to mean. Jean-Luc Picard, ever the moral center of Star Trek, resigns his commission from Starfleet after the Federation responds to a terrorist attack by turning insular and abandoning a massive refugee relief effort. Picard centers not around a Starfleet crew, but a band of disenchanted misfits who spend the first season trying to understand how things got so bad and whether or not they can get better.

That the story should center around these issues isn’t surprising, as lead actor and series executive producer Sir Patrick Stewart is a vocal opponent of Brexit and a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, and Star Trek has a long history of using the allegory of science fiction to comment on contemporary politics. What’s changed is the creators’ willingness to so directly project criticisms of their own governments onto Starfleet itself in such a lasting way that our heroes can no longer be a party to it. Would you want to serve in a Starfleet that doesn’t have a place for Jean-Luc Picard?

The current crop of Star Trek shows promotes a message that’s not new to the saga, but has never been more central: Even if humanity somehow achieves the Roddenberrian dream of Starfleet, we will have to keep achieving it continuously. The fantasy of an incorruptible, unproblematic institution is not constructive, and may even be dangerous. The uniform cannot be the fantasy. But to be a person who stands for truth, peace, and scientific curiosity, even when doing so is difficult or treasonous, that’s a fantasy worth striving for, not just in a spaceborne future, but here on Earth, today. 

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