This era, with its wars, conflicts, complexities, and staggering injustices, makes it more tempting for writers to imagine an even worse future. The universe of Star Trek, however, confronts us with an unprecedented bright and optimistic future society for humanity. Indeed, among science fiction series, Star Trek stands out because it resists this dystopian temptation, while simultaneously confronting its own self-aware naïve view. The Star Trek franchise, especially in the installments from the ’90s, both questions and defends its imagined utopia, even as the costs for this defense are disclosed and framed constantly in the course of the TV shows.
The questions “what is desirable?” and “what is utopian?” have changed since the first series was launched in 1966, and again in 1987, when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in the United States. My goal here isn’t to provide an in-depth discussion of the actual utopian character of the United Federation of Planets, Star Trek‘s secret protagonist entity embodying the human spirit in this imagined future. An accurate discussion of this character would strongly depend on the body of material, as well as the questions of which sphere of Federation society is examined, as well as what century or decade both the fictional timeline and the production period of the series occur.
A direct characterization would also be impossible; the respective TV shows are strongly embedded in the zeitgeist of the decades during which they were produced. Therefore, I’ll mainly focus on episodes from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek: Voyager. These three shows mark the end of the Star Trek timeline in the 24th century.
In all of the Star Trek series, the Federation can be read as at least “more utopian” than our overly complex 21st century Earth. It offers us a society that is, to a large degree, egalitarian, socialist, enlightened, progressive, rational, and whole. While Starfleet (the Federation’s deep space exploratory and defense service, which primarily represents the Federation) is organized into military ranks, the Federation as such offers a vision of a future that has largely overcome countless diseases, poverty, greed, vengeance, and material scarcity. For this reason, Star Trek has both inspired works of literature and been challenged in them. It’s led to coining of the term “Trekonomics” (Manu Saaida), which aims to describe economics without scarcity; it’s more directly been quoted as a modern and unstained euphemism for communism. Technology is a key element in this process of liberation; even if technology occasionally does pose a threat, it can be mastered by a morally superior humanity.
It’s the year 2367 in the Alpha quadrant of our galaxy (the Milky Way). Between the Federation and the so-called Cardassian Union (a great alien power) a demilitarized zone has been established, with ownership of colonized planets in the zone transferred between the two powers. After the Cardassians equipped their settlers with weapons, parts of the mostly human Federation colonists in 2370 pick up the fight, marking the formation of a rebel group known as the Maquis. After the Federation had previously fallen victim to conspiracy and factionalism, as well as numerous external and literally “alien” threats in the course of its existence — even experiencing McCarthyist-like witch hunts (“The Drumhead” [Star Trek: The Next Generation]) — in the Maquis, the Federation now faced one of its most complicated moral challenges. In protest of the Federation’s compromising pragmatism, the Maquis organize violent resistance against this negotiated occupation of their territory, paralleling many existing conflicts in our time. For this, the Maquis, despite hypothetically sharing the same humanist values upheld by the Federation, rely on violence.
These Maquis “traitors” of Federation values and principles primarily target Cardassians, whom they blame for the occupation. In response, the Cardassians label them “terrorists”. While the Marquis’ attacks sometimes killed Federation citizens, their often ruthless actions pointed to the moral loopholes in the Federation’s realpolitik. This is true for the forceful overruling in a negotiation to which the colonists didn’t agree, and is evident in a larger context by judging how the Federation deals with the Maquis insurgents. After all, during this time, the Federation also relied on state power and a prison system with penalty camps (“Caretaker” [Star Trek: Voyager]). As Michael Eddington (Kenneth Marshall), a Starfleet security officer secretly working for the Maquis, said to Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks):
I know you. I was like you once, but then I opened my eyes. Open your eyes, captain. Why is the Federation so obsessed with the Maquis? We’ve never harmed you. And yet we’re constantly arrested and charged with terrorism. […] Why? Because we’ve left the Federation, and that’s the one thing you can’t accept. Nobody leaves paradise. Everyone should want to be in the Federation. Hell, you even want the Cardassians to join. […] You know, in some ways you’re even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation.
You’re more insidious. You assimilate people and they don’t even know it. (“For the Cause” [4.21])
The Borg, an extremely hostile and omnipresent pseudo-species haunting the whole Milky Way, can be read as the dystopian counterpart of the Federation. Thus, Eddington’s statement puts the postmodern Federation way of consent and will for dialogue in proximity to imperialism and totalitarianism. This leaves us with the troubling dilemma: How do you challenge utopia in utopian ways when the utopia itself seems flawed?
Subsequently, the Maquis in both Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager are much more sympathetic than the irrational violent insurgents we meet in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Their arguments make sense; their critiques partly justified. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, we learn that even the wife of Captain Benjamin Sisko, protagonist and often questionable moral compass of the space station upon which the show is based, had worked for the Maquis. In regard to Eddington, Sisko at one point even concludes in a highly relativist way: “I called him a traitor once, but in a way, he was the most loyal man I ever met. He was a Maquis, right up to the bitter end” (“Blaze of Glory” [5.23]).
In the final installment of the 24th-century timeline, Star Trek: Voyager, an attempt is made to reassure the integrity of Federation values; remarkably, by integrating Maquis tactics and flexibility. The Starfleet vessel Voyager and a Maquis ship are catapulted to the other end of the Milky Way by an alien entity. In the process, the Maquis ship is destroyed and must join forces with Voyager in order to reach Earth. Particularly in Star Trek: Voyager’s first season, the Maquis crew members gradually learn to act in ways more in line with Federation values, while the Federation crew members, especially the rigid and stern Vulcan Tuvok (Tim Russ), adopt a new flexibility from the Maquis (“Learning Curve” [1.16]).
Both crews eventually merge, with the Marquis crew members required to adopt Starfleet protocols. At the same time, Voyager’s captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) upholds the moral standards of the Federation in a much more distinct way that Benjamin Sisko did. This combination leads to a newly defined “we”, enhanced and shaped in front of a literally alien and often hostile Delta Quadrant of the Milky Way. Voyager thus becomes an improved microcosm of the Federation itself.
In the face of a more homegrown domestic threat, such as the Maquis, extreme means seem justified. This also holds true for external threats, especially when represented by Captain Sisko on the space station Deep Space Nine. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Federation draws on questionable methods and, again, shows realpolitik tendencies in the face of another more distant alien threat: the “Dominion” empire. Sisko admits:
So… I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all… I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would.
Garak was right about one thing, a guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it. Because I can live with it. I can live with it… Computer, erase that entire personal log.” (“In the Pale Moonlight” [6.19])
All these dilemmas are dramatically exaggerated in the Federation’s secret black-ops division Section 31, which operates outside of all protocol and supervision. Section 31 casts a dark shadow over the Federation, with its penchants for assassinations and other immoral acts (“Inquisition”, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). When Section 31 tries to recruit the young and highly talented Chief Medical Officer Julian Bashir (Alex Siddig), he upholds Federation values by embracing morality, responding: “No, I’m sorry. But the ends don’t always justify the means” (“Inquisition”). The sheer existence of and the knowledge that maybe the whole Federation works not despite the “flaws” in their values, but because of them, forces us to deal with the second crucial question: How and at what cost do we defend utopia when it’s challenged?
It would be highly cynical to consider the world in which we’re now living as “utopian” in any way. Yet, societies that uphold certain values — no matter how twisted and hypocritical they might appear under scrutiny — are facing domestic and external threats. These two categories are often intertwined and, of course, even more often constructed and imagined in specific ways to define the societies that ought to be protected from them. In this context, the Star Trek franchise raises questions of crucial philosophical and political importance, particularly regarding when and where it’s considered acceptable to defend a collective identity with morally questionable force and deceit, no matter how inclusive or idealistic the entity actually is. When and for what reasons does dissent with this entity turn into violent resistance, and how much are pragmatism and compromise a betrayal of utopia?
As much as terrorism was a threat throughout previous decades, the 21st century faces unprecedented moral dilemmas in the face of a likewise unprecedented global and difficult-to-counter forms of terrorism. In Star Trek‘s 24th century, the issue remains the same. Section 31 (much like intelligence agencies today) still does work that is incompatible with Federation values. Like Constable Odo (Rene Auberjonois), the non-Federation member chief of security on Deep Space Nine in 2375, describes it as follows: “Interesting, isn’t it? The Federation claims to abhor Section 31’s tactics, but when they need the dirty work done, they look the other way. It’s a tidy little arrangement, wouldn’t you say?”
Star Trek as a larger franchise doesn’t definitively answer any of these questions, yet it approaches them with more optimism than dystopian science fiction universes generally allow. Just as Star Trek, in general, offers an optimistic outlook towards humanity’s future — at least some of us will be around after the “purifying” World War III, hopefully with improved moral compasses — Star Trek, in its dramaturgical lines, also points in a brighter direction. Episodes have happy endings, in which the issues brought up seem solved because they’ve been addressed.
At the same time, both the series and the individual scenarios contained therein offer different answers to those challenges. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Maquis activism is labeled as a form of terrorism. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, shades of gray start to dilute those clear lines between good and evil. With the evil “Dominion” empire and the fact that the Cardassians eventually became its allies, sympathetic views for the Maquis dissidents become more acceptable, thanks to a clearer common enemy.
While in the ’60s, the atmosphere of the Cold War still cast a shadow over Star Trek: The Original Series (which I did not take into consideration for my argument here), Star Trek: The Next Generation, which debuted in the late ’80s, marks the preliminary normative victory of “Western” civilization. It’s Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that throws us into the postmodern complexities of the Balkan wars, as well as the ideas of Samuel P. Huntington, resembling a multi-polar world with spiritual and post-colonial conflicts, guilt, and revenge. It’s only Star Trek: Voyager that seems to reconcile us with the idea of an improved Federation: the Starship Voyager posing as a lone Federation microcosm surviving in a completely alien and new environment.
I would like to sincerely thank Frank Wüchner for suggestions, comments, and nights and nights of nerd talk.