Star Trek is an enormous and complex cultural entity whose impact on politics, technology, and storytelling are undeniable. It’s also as flawed and problematic as any other massive media franchise. Lifelong Trekkie and Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief Dylan Roth attempts to make sense of it all for die-hards and outsiders alike in his new column: Infinite Diversity.
“You understand what the Federation is, don’t you? It’s important. It’s a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada.”
– Captain Christopher Pike, being about 70% wrong. (Star Trek )
Starfleet, the United Federation of Planets’ massive collection of ships, space stations, and outposts, is the central force throughout the Star Trek canon. Every Trek TV series is set on a Starfleet vessel, with the exception of Deep Space Nine, which technically takes place aboard a Bajoran station but actually features a larger Starfleet presence than any other live-action Trek entity. Nearly every central character is a Starfleet officer, and practically any fan of the series would give their left arm to be one, too. But despite hundreds of hours of story focused on the group and its members, there’s still a lot of debate as the the nature of Starfleet and its purpose. There’s one big question that’s argued not just among fans but among the guiding forces behind the franchise: is Starfleet a military organization? And the reason this question is so frustrating is that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.
Starfleet officers have naval ranks. They wear uniforms. They represent and are accountable to a government. They travel the galaxy in enormous, costly vessels, some of which are armed to the teeth. When you get in trouble in Starfleet, you get a court martial. When the Federation goes to war, it’s Starfleet who does the fighting. Starfleet clearly has all the trappings of a military organization, and when the Federation is threatened, Starfleet steps up to serve that role. During peacetime, however, their primary mission is that of science and diplomacy.
Some Fake History
In-universe, Starfleet’s origins go back to the mid-22nd century, decades before the formation of the Federation, and was purely an Earth venture. This Earth Starfleet, and its flagship Enterprise (as seen in the prequel series of the same name), have a mission of peaceful discovery as humanity makes its first steps into the interstellar community. They’re not looking for a fight (though they’re prepared for one, with some state-of-the-art armaments in tow), they’re mostly looking to seek out new life and new civilizations, to go boldly, etc.
But when the Earth is threatened by an alien superweapon, Enterprise‘s mission becomes a more desperate, more brutal one. Motivated by revenge for the millions killed in the first Xindi attack, Captain Jonathan Archer and the crew of Starfleet’s first Enterprise abandon all scientific or diplomatic goals in favor of a single-minded effort to defeat their enemy and keep Earth from being destroyed. The ship is refitted with newer weapons, and a detachment of marines is stationed onboard. Here, the divide between Starfleet and the military becomes very clear–Enterprise had its own Starfleet security offcers, but now the real soldiers had arrived, and they don’t get along particularly well. Over the course of their violent, miserable mission to defeat the Xindi, officers frequently lament what had become of their mission, and look forward to a day when they can return to what they were really meant to do: explore the galaxy.
It should be noted that in this time in Earth’s history, Starfleet would be the only organization equipped for an interstellar mission. Imagine if, today, Earth were threatened by a force from another body in our solar system. Only an institution like NASA would have the resources and training to operate in space, and like Starfleet their goals are scientific. Our only option would be to militarize the existing Space Administration. This is essentially the position that Starfleet is put into; there is no military entity on Earth better equipped for a space mission than Starfleet, so Starfleet has to be prepared to fight.
With the success of the Xindi mission, Starfleet proves that it is indeed suited to serve as Earth’s interstellar defense in times of crisis, and so no other defense-specific military entity is established. Starfleet’s official mission is still one of peaceful exploration, but they’re also expected to be combat-ready should Earth (or later, the Federation) be threatened. With the founding of the Federation in 2161, the space agencies of other member worlds merge together, and Starfleet becomes the primary exploration and defense service for an increasingly large portion of the Milky Way Galaxy’s Alpha Quadrant.
By the time we’re introduced to Starfleet in The Original Series, which takes place a century later, the Federation has become a large collection of worlds, and Starfleet the largest, most powerful fleet in the quadrant. While they have some enemies, like the Klingons and the Romulans, Starfleet is rarely engaged in open conflict and is free to conduct its scientific and diplomatic missions without too much interruption.
The Debate Backstage
This is the status quo seen in TOS, and the original intent of the Star Trek franchise. Creator Gene Roddenberry never intended for Starfleet to be an all-out military organization, imagining it to be a successor to NASA or the Coast Guard rather than the Navy or Air Force. Nicholas Meyer, co-writer and director of the more militaristic Trek films The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, saw that as ridiculous posturing, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, even in the peaceful Original Series, the USS Enterprise carried enough ordinance to devastate entire continents, and the only thing more terrifying than that kind of armament in the hands of the military is that kind of armament in the hands of someone besides the military. Indeed, the Enterprise is dispatched on multiple occasions in TOS to conduct missions of defense and even espionage. It’s much easier to imagine that Starfleet functions as a military organization, even if it’s not primarily a military organization.
Then Star Trek was revived as a film series, Paramount Pictures soon kicked Gene Roddenberry upstairs (he became an “Executive Consultant” with very little influence) and put producer Harve Bennett in his place, who in turn hired Nicholas Meyer to direct what would become Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. This was the real beginning of the tug-of-war between the pacifist and militaristic extremes of Starfleet. Beginning in Khan, Starfleet was depicted as a space Navy, more rigidly structured and disciplined. Watching the TOS-era films alone without having seen the series, viewers would never doubt that Starfleet was primarily a military organization, even during peacetime. Even in the two films directed by pacifist Leonard Nimoy, who mandated in The Voyage Home that there be no deliberate violence, Starfleet remained stern and intimidating. (Nimoy solved this values dissonance by separating the Enterprise crew from Starfleet altogether, making Starfleet itself an obstacle in their mission of peace and friendship.)
During the time he was denied creative control over the films starring the original crew, Gene Roddenberry was able to develop a new television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, on which he’d be able to again present his own vision of the future. Set about seventy years after The Original Series, Roddenberry’s new future pulled even harder against the militarization of Starfleet. The new Enterprise had families and civilians living on board, and was more like a traveling city in space than a battleship. In one episode, Captain Picard expressly states that Starfleet “is not a military organization,” the most explicit statement to that effect in the entire canon. Again, the Enterprise carried a large payload of unfathomably destructive weapons, but they used them very rarely, particularly in the early seasons during which Roddenberry had the most control.
Intentionally or not, the opposing philosophies in control of Star Trek rarely directly contradicted each other in regards to Starfleet’s mission; the degree to which Starfleet is militarized is usually determined by context. In Enterprise, Starfleet has a mandate of peace until circumstances dictate otherwise. In the peaceful The Original Series, the Federation isn’t involved in any large-scale conflicts, just a low-bubbling cold war with the Klingons and Romulans. In the classic film series, that cold war has bubbled up, and Starfleet is now more structured and more heavily armed. By the time of The Next Generation, the Federation has made peace with the Klingons and the Romulans are in seclusion, and no other galactic power has emerged to challenge them, allowing Starfleet to let their guard down and focus on science and peaceful expansion. This contrast was illustrated beautifully in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG S3E15), which was set in an alternate timeline in which Starfleet and the Klingons were still at war and life aboard the Enterprise is very different, perhaps more like the environment of the film series.
It was only after illness prevented Roddenberry from actively participating in the production of The Next Generation that the next radical change in context occurred, returning Starfleet to a heightened state of militarism from which it would never fully return.
Starfleet Gets its Ass Kicked
In “The Best of Both Worlds,” the two-parter that closed out Season Three and opened Season Four of The Next Generation, The Borg, a cyborg collective from the other side of the galaxy, send a single ship on a course toward Earth and effortlessly destroy a blockade of thirty-nine Starfleet ships before finally being defeated by the Enterprise at the last possible moment. For the first time in its history, the Federation is caught with its pants down, proven totally unprepared to defend itself against a real threat. This is the big wake-up call.
Leading Trek scholar SFDebris calls this event “the 9/11 of Star Trek,” and while even he admits this sounds like a cliche, it’s stunningly accurate. So far in The Next Generation, the Enterprise had been able to reason or threaten its way out of any conflict, being the only superpower as well as the only reasonable people in the galaxy. They’ve been in trouble now and then, but until their first brief encounter with the Borg the previous season, they’d (in the words of Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins) never tasted “desperate.” Now the Federation knew fear, and they put that fear to work. While the audience doesn’t see much of the response to the Borg threat until later on in Deep Space Nine, Starfleet immediately begins designing and constructing ships whose sole purpose is defense, in the hopes that next time, they’ll be ready.
Their preparedness pays off, but not in the way that they expect. In Deep Space Nine, the Federation is threatened by another nigh-unstoppable force from another part of space, the Dominion. Full-scale war breaks out, and even now Starfleet is barely holding the line. If not for their devastating loss to the Borg years earlier, they would never have stood a chance, and when the Borg do finally return, they’re finally a match for them.
Deep Space Nine tells the story of a Starfleet on the brink, fighting a losing battle that challenges the Federation’s principles. This crew is forced to take drastic measures that the peacetime Starfleet would never consider. The Dominion threat frightens the Federation to the point that one Starfleet Admiral actually instituted martial law on Earth to the acclaim of its citizens before his manipulation of events was exposed. (In this story, Starfleet is specifically referred to as a military organization, but if the nature of Starfleet is truly to be militarized only in wartime, then this and the contradictory statement in TNG could both be correct.) Throughout the series’ later years, showrunner Ira Steven Behr and producer Ronald D. Moore put classic pacifist Trek ideals to the test.
Airing concurrently with Deep Space Nine for most of its run, Star Trek: Voyager presented an opposite take on life in Starfleet, but again one justified by context. In this series, the titular vessel is isolated in a far-off corner of the galaxy, far out of reach of the Federation. When war with the Dominion breaks out, they’re not even in communications range to hear about it. Additionally, since this crew will be stuck together for the foreseeable future, they become a tighter-knit family, and the rigid military-style rules that get in the way of interpersonal relationships are more or less done away with. Like the original Enterprise crew in Leonard Nimoy’s films, Voyager isn’t really part of Starfleet anymore, and doesn’t have to act like the military when they don’t want to.
Back to Basics
No matter how militarized Starfleet gets, it’s important to note that Star Trek never really endorses militarism, in fact, the works that feature the most bleak and violent Starfleets are typically the most critical of it. The Undiscovered Country is a story about the military’s fear of being made irrelevant by peace. Several Next Generation episodes, like “The Drumhead” or “I Borg,” condemn Starfleet’s increasing paranoia in the face of adversity. Deep Space Nine mourns the loss of lofty values to the grim realities of war. Every time Starfleet becomes more militaristic, it loses its way, and only prolonged peace can help heal its wounds.
This is the essential message of the latest installment in the franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness. Into Darkness sees one Admiral attempt to shock Starfleet into further militarism, and it’s up to Captain Kirk to thwart his plans and save Star Trek‘s soul. At the end of the film, Kirk makes an appeal to the fleet, who has gathered to memorialize a great tragedy, not to give in to fear, and to remember the true purpose of Starfleet: peaceful exploration of the galaxy. In his speech, Kirk recites the “Captain’s Oath,” an affirmation of his ideals and the ideals of Star Trek at large.
“Space. The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Logically, this could only be one variation of the oath, since not every Captain in Starfleet is undertaking the exact same mission, but the sentiment behind that mission is essential to what Starfleet and Star Trek are about. Starfleet can be militaristic, but it’s not about militarism, in the same way that Star Trek has space battles, but isn’t about space battles. They’re both about ideas, discovery, and peace, but like any good story, they’re adaptable, and when the stakes dictate, all bets are off.
Infinite Diversity will return in two weeks! Follow @DeadshirtDotNet on Twitter to keep up with what’s new here on Deadshirt, and feel free to tweet @DylanRoth with suggestions for future topics for Infinite Diversity, or just to talk about Trek. He truly never gets tired of that.