The future that Gene Roddenberry created for Star Trek is one of ideal utopia, where humanity has learned to put away its petty differences based on race and sex and achieved a better future for itself. One in which humanity not only unites, but joins several alien races in one incredible Federation. A higher moral code guides this United Federation of Planets, exemplifying what Star Trek is really all about. Except for when it doesn’t, as we learned in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard.
The following contains minor spoilers for Picard’s first episode.
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The Federation can often neglect its own moral compass and let others suffer. In Picard they abandoned their plans to help the Romulan people in a time of great need. This is what caused Picard to resign from Starfleet, his home for decades. But this was hardly the first time in Star Trek where we see the Federation and Starfleet behave less than morally. Here are six glaring examples from the franchise’s history where the supposedly morally superior Federation was anything but.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The final chapter for the original Star Trek crew on the big screen was a prime example of how the higher ups in Starfleet can be morally compromised. That film sees the Federation’s longtime enemy the Klingons facing extinction, after one of their moons explodes. They ask for help from the Federation, and peace talks begin begin between the two longtime adversaries.
But elements within Starfleet, led by Admiral Cartwright (Brock Peters), conspire with officials within the Klingon Empire who would rather die than sue for peace. Together they assassinate the Klingon High Chancellor, and almost start a costly war. Kirk and his crew expose Cartwright as a rogue admiral. Nevertheless, one of the highest ranking members of Starfleet helped to murder the leader of a rival power in order to begin a war. That is a pretty epic misuse of power.
Star Trek: The Next Generation “Descent” (1993)
In the seminal TNG episode “The Best of Both Worlds,” the Borg collective nearly wipes out the Federation and assimilates Earth. A few years later, the Enterprise discovers a crashed Borg ship and a young Borg boy they nurse back to health and nickname Hugh. When it comes time to return him home, Picard wants to implant a virus in Hugh that would debilitate and ultimately destroy the collective.
But Picard’s own morality prevents him from doing that, realizing it would mean the death of most of that species. Not long after though, in the episode “Descent,” Fleet Admiral Nechayev (Natalia Nogulich) orders Picard to put his moral issues aside and plant the virus in the Borg if the opportunity arises, essentially causing genocide. It doesn’t happen, but the fact that the head of Starfleet is totally ok with killing an entire race is pretty hideous.
Star Trek: The Next Generation “The Pegasus” (1994)
In this seventh season TNG episode, Commander Riker’s choices from his earliest days in Starfleet come back to haunt him. And in doing so, exposes a dirty secret that the highest officials in Starfleet tried to hide for years. This episode reveal that when Riker was a young ensign, he served under a man named Captain Erik Pressman (Terry O’Quinn) on board the USS Pegasus. When Pressman’s crew mutinied against him, young Riker defended his Captain and escaped, and all survivors wore sworn by Starfleet to cover up the incident.
We found out years later Pressman’s crew turned against their Captain because he was developing a Starfleet cloaking device, in direct violation of the Federation’s treaty with the Romulans. Riker kept the secret for years, but Captain Picard exposed how Admiral Pressman and a secret branch of Starfleet Security who were breaking intergalactic law in the hopes of getting the jump on their enemies. That Starfleet would violate a deal they made in good faith shows just how shady they could be.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost” (1995)
In this Deep Space Nine two parter, a supposed terrorist attack on Earth by the shape-shifting Founders of the Dominion kills several civilians, causing a state of panic in the Federation. A power outage across the planet puts the people of the Federation into greater panic mode. Convinced that Starfleet must soon go to war, high ranking Starfleet Vice Admiral Leyton declares martial law on Earth.
But the second attack is an inside job from Layton and those loyal to him. All in an effort to create a coup so Starfleet can enact a military take over, and war on the Dominion can begin. His ruse is discovered by Captain Sisko, and the Admiral resigns in disgrace. But still, a high ranking Admiral and several loyal officers tried a military take over of the planet. This doesn’t speak well for the kind of people Starfleet puts in charge.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
This is one of the least loved Star Trek feature films, but it does prove another example of a Starfleet higher-up being profoundly immoral and working against Federation principals. Insurrection introduces us to Vice-Admiral Matthew Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe), who is working with an alien race called the Son’a in an effort to secretly relocate a low-tech alien race called the Ba’ku from their home world. Their planet exists in an area of space nick named “the Briar Patch” which contains special properties.
The Admiral works with the Son’a to extract particles from the planet’s rings, particles that would essentially render most beings immortal. But this extraction would leave the planet uninhabitable, hence the secret and forced relocation of the inhabitants, totally against Federation law. The Admiral is betrayed by the Son’a and dies by the end of the film, but it’s another example of a high ranking official willing to break core Federation values for personal gain.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine “Extreme Measures” (1999)
One of the running storylines through many seasons of Deep Space Nine was that of the secret organization called Section 31. They first emerged in the sixth season DS9 episode “Inquisition,” where one of their operative tries to recruit Dr. Julian Bashir. Section 31 is a rogue organization operating outside of Starfleet for the Federation’s own good; their name comes from Starfleet Charter: Article 14, Section 31. That article supposedly “allowed for extraordinary measures to be taken in times of extreme threat.” Section 31 would be further explored in shows like Enterprise and Discovery, as well as the film Star Trek Into Darkness.
Their worst crime during the DS9 years is when they implant a virus in the shape shifter Odo, in the hopes he would spread it to others of his kind. His people, the Founders, were in charge of the deadly Dominion that was at war with the Alpha Quadrant. But this would have resulted in a total genocide, and so Dr. Bashir found a cure. Although Section 31 isn’t technically a part of Starfleet, it is implied more than once that they are aware of its existence,and allow them to operate with impunity. So same difference, in my book. Between the Borg and the Founders, that’s twice that Starfleet has been keen towards genocide being a way to save themselves from a hostile race.
Of course, having elements within an otherwise noble institution being less than virtuous only helps make Star Trek more realistic and relatable. But it would seem that given the history of the franchise, Starfleet should be vetting who they promote to Admiral a whole lot more!
Picard airs every Thursday on CBS All Access beginning January 23, 2020.
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