Starfleet Is A Military Organization And 'Star Trek' Writers Go Wrong By Forgetting It
It shows in their shows
Like the reader, I have opinions. Some are controversial. My most controversial opinion — the one that has come closest to getting me murdered — was to label Starfleet as a “military organization.”
Uniforms, ranks, orders, weapons: I cited these obvious elements, once, at a party, only to have them waved away.
Worse, when the room gave me an opportunity to expiate my sin against Saint Roddenberry, I chose to double down instead, avowing that the Star Trek universe is a militarized totalitarian dystopia.
Mockery. Threats. Someone proposed a hanging.
I poured myself more wine, since if I was to die, I could at least be drunk.
“Starfleet is a peacekeeping organization,” I heard someone say at the back.
“Quite,” I replied, adding a bit of power to my voice just to make sure everyone was able to follow the conversation. “United Nations peacekeeping forces are notoriously ineffective at preventing war crimes because they are too busy buying sex from local women, just like Will Riker. Good point.”
Snorts, sneers, and guffaws. A political slogan. From somewhere to my left side, a soft voice chided me about the Prime Directive.
“The Starfleet rule against contacting alien civilizations that have not discovered warp drive yet,” I confirmed, to their agreement. “What an interesting rule:
As a practical matter, the ability to go at warp speed is also the ability to destroy a planet and every living thing on it. In fact, you only need impulse power to commit genocide in the future. A mass as small as the NASA space shuttle, moving at about one-third the speed of light, would end humanity if it impacted this planet right now. Extinction by sheer kinetic force. Warp drive just gets you to the target zone in a timely fashion.”
The purpose of the Prime Directive, you see, is not to prevent anyone from developing warp drive, but to show up in dramatic fashion, with phasers and a copy of the galactic homeowner’s association rulebook, the moment they do, so the noobs know their limits.
Shared self-interest rules this relationship before it even begins. Why else are so many developing societies under secretive Starfleet observation in so many scripts, over the decades? Because those worlds are always getting closer to the point of danger. Starfleet has to be ready.
Star Trek fans might rail against the surveillance state, but they seem at ease with pervasive monitoring on a galactic scale. Any captain can find out where anyone is at any time just by asking the ship. Information dominance defines this fantasy future because Gene Roddenberry had a soldier’s instinct for accountability.
But Starfleet ships are not primarily weapons, a person on my right countered. I was surrounded, like Captain Picard caught in a Romulan trap.
“And Starfleet still wins battles,” I replied. Plot armor doesn’t explain every victory, for some have been hard-won. The fact that Romulans and Klingons and Cardassians build dedicated warships matters little once the photon torpedoes begin to fly.
Starfleet ship designs merely reflect a preference for softer forms of conquest. All those science decks conquer alien biology, so that humans never share the fate of the Martians in the H.G. Wells classic War of the Worlds. Xenomorphic microorganisms cannot stop us because we are smart enough to invent tricorders before we invade new planets to live on. Yay, humans! (Thanks for the boost, Vulcans, sorry your planet got retconned out.)
No wonder everyone on earth can have everything they want in the future — the economic growth potential is unlimited. All those resources and real estate for the taking.
“Wait, are you accusing Starfleet of colonialism?” Someone asked in their grievance voice.
“Yes. Because of all the colonies,” I replied.
Pandemonium. Pressurizing. Postmodern posturing. Virtues were broadcast. “Starfleet only settles colonies wherever no one else lives,” I was told, harshly now.
Indeed, Starfleet sees no moral problem in bulldozing any alien ecology to make way for humans so long as no “sentient life” is already present. What counts as sentient life, though? And how many episodes agonize over this very question?
Colonization is centrally planned, just like everything else in Starfleet. Only one installment of the franchise, the fifth feature film, has ever dared to show us what Starfleet bureaucracy looks like when it fails, so of course it is the movie that fans hate most.
In hindsight, though, that script seems objectively superior to the entire Star Trek: Discovery show run.
My suggestion that parts of the Starfleet Federation might not be the post-capitalist utopia of their dreams caused the entire room to suck in a breath and explode in recriminations.
In the future, nobody needs money. Nobody suffers hunger or want. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need, they told me. A future as perfect as Bernie Sanders.
“On earth, sure,” I said. Out there in the galaxy, though, people still use real money all the time. Things have value. Motives are venal. Gold-pressed latinum is a universal currency. Marx is forgotten; no one ever discusses the dictatorship of the proletariat under the dictatorship of Starfleet.
“And what makes that relative prosperity possible here on earth, anyway?” I asked. Starfleet, of course. The galaxy’s largest security organization is too big to fail. Teeming billions on the core federation worlds depend on the exploitation of trillions elsewhere, made possible by that powerful fleet. So woke.
The metropole would collapse without Starfleet to make it possible. That is how imperialism works, after all. Why, Starfleet is rather Athenian that way. Athens became an empire by building a fleet of ships. Navalism is imperialism. Colonies are imperial projects.
Some powers in the Star Trek galaxy embrace this reality in their self-titles: the Cardassian Empire. The Romulan Empire. The Klingon Empire. This at least has the virtue of honesty. “Starfleet Federation” is a polite fiction for the earth-empire created by the marriage of earth and Vulcan.
Captain Kirk might as well serve the Democratic People’s Republic of North Earth. Replicator technology renders this invisible, but mass conservation principles ask: where does all that food and drink and plot device creation come from?
From the empire, is where.
It is coming from the empire. That’s the Arthur C. Clarke magic box principle at work: empire makes space imperialism possible, not the other way around.
Now the room was a riot. Some held a discussion of drawing and quartering the heretic. Others fainted on their couches in the salon. Imperialism? Starfleet? This was blasphemy!
From within the din, someone hissed an accusation around the word “diversity.”
“Such diversity,” I said. “Welcome to the Federation, now give us your best and brightest to be educated in the Starfleet culture and language at our central academy facilities, located conveniently on earth. Yes, very like the Romans. Or Assyrians. Or Russians. Or Americans. Diversity is a strength — as long as it is our kind of diversity, the kind that wears uniforms and takes orders. A military diversity.”
As I finished the glass of wine, my companions confiscated the bottle, for clearly I was already far too drunk and out of my mind. They made sure I went home right away before things got out of hand.
Years have passed. New manifestations of the Trek universe have belched forth from the gassy belly of the entertainment industry, all inferior to the work of Gene Roddenberry.
For unlike his pale imitators, the creator of the Star Trek universe served in a wartime military. Then he saw the War Department become the Department of Defense, heard the doublespeak of Cold War politics (“police action,” “advisers”), felt the nuclear necessity of the United Nations. As idealistic as he was, Roddenberry understood that civilization exists in a space carved out by violence. We are able to watch Star Trek on our televisions, and eat our TV dinners, because grim minds plot destruction, just in case. The fate of the galaxy depends on a Balance of Terror, to cite this author’s favorite episode title.
Latter-day inheritors of the Trek universe do not understand this one little bit. No wonder they cannot seem to write a decent script anymore. Feelings are not a form of intelligence, per Counselor Deanna Troi, but a constant subject of boring discussion that develops no character or plotline. This is a writing problem, not a production issue.
Characters do not talk or behave like they are in a military organization because on one in the writing room has the first clue about that life.
Alex Kurzman, who ran the writing room on Discovery, is not a veteran. He took a tighter grip after accusations of abuse by the prior management team, inspiring overcompensation in the preachy tone of the series. Bryan Fuller is a credible TV writer, but he is not a veteran, either. My brief search through show writing credits found no military veterans. I have yet to find a single one in the whole production.
In this way, Discovery represents the larger problem America faces in the present epoch. One percent of Americans do the job of protecting, or protecting the interests, of 99 percent of Americans. As the mobilization ratio of a society declines, so does its capacity for self-defense; the military mindset fades from training and doctrine. and also from public understanding.
One would imagine that the Federation universe requires only one in ten thosuand humans, or aliens, to operate a Starfleet. No wonder the academy entrance exams are simply tough. Sure, Bajoran and Ferengi kids can join if they qualify. When Starfleet sets aside those standards in the name of “representation,” however, the decline of imperial earth has begun.
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“Welcome to the Federation, now give us your best and brightest to be educated in the Starfleet culture and language at our central academy facilities, located conveniently on earth. Yes, very like the Romans. Or Assyrians. Or Russians. Or Americans. Diversity is a strength — as long as it is our kind of diversity, the kind that wears uniforms and takes orders. A military diversity.”