Star Trek Guide

Does Starfleet Being Picard’s Villains Betray The Star Trek Promise?

Star Trek: Picard has established a somewhat surprising roadblock for the good captain's new mission - Starfleet itself. This raises some uncomfortable questions about the current state of Star Trek, primarily whether or not it betrays Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future to have Starfleet as something approaching a villain or, at least, an antagonist. The answer to that question is not as straightforward as it may seem.

There's always been a fine line between Starfleet's mission as explorers and its function as a military unit that often gets blurred. While ostensibly the face of the idyllic Federation, Starfleet has often been embroiled in war and controversy, even back to the days of Kirk and Spock. Still, a Starfleet admiral so coldly dressing down Jean-Luc Picard feels like a turning point, and for some fans, their current modus operandi is going to feel too far afield from the organization's inherent idealism.

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But Starfleet has rarely been the squeaky clean organization it purports to be. To understand how Starfleet got to this point, it's helpful to take a look back at the organization's ups and downs over the 23rd and 24th centuries, and how it serves as something of a bellwether for the overall health of the Federation.

Starfleet's Growing Antagonism

While fans have been delighted to see Jean-Luc Picard again, they've been less thrilled to see what's become of Starfleet in the two decades since fans last saw them. After a shocking synthetic attack on Mars, Starfleet decided to pull its resources away from assembling a fleet to save the Romulans when their sun went supernova, leaving almost a billion people to die. We learn that even before the Mars attack, there were concerns within the Federation about helping the Romulans, who had been sworn enemies for centuries. For a man like Picard, that didn't matter; it was simply a matter of saving as many lives as possible. Starfleet disagreed, leading to Picard's resignation and the loss of incalculable Romulan life.

The harsh reality of that situation is jarring enough, but Admiral Clancy's tirade against Picard is perhaps the coldest, least empathetic moment we've seen out of Starfleet leadership since the days of the Federation/Klingon peace negotiations. And while the cabal of Zhat Vash that have infiltrated Starfleet are a separate matter, Starfleet's moral failings provided an opportunity for them to take hold in positions of power without those in command even noticing. With the revelation from Star Trek: Discovery's season 3 trailer that the Federation has mostly disintegrated several hundred years in the future, Starfleet has never seemed more vulnerable to foreign interference and weak willed leadership.

Starfleet Has Always Suffered From Amoral Forces

While Starfleet's antagonistic turn may seem like a shocking new twist, it's really nothing new. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, racism against the Klingons fosters a conspiracy within Starfleet Command designed to kill peace negotiations between the Federation and Klingon Empire when the latter suffers an ecological calamity. Captain Kirk, blinded by his own hatred, actually admits he'd rather let the Klingons die before coming to his senses.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is riddled with incompetent and corrupt admirals, all of whom were almost always pulled back from the brink of all-out war and destruction by Picard's quick thinking. Admiral Necheyev, in particular, was apparently designed to show up and push the Enterprise crew into morally unseemly situations. Star Trek: Insurrection sees a version of Starfleet bruised by Borg incursions and the Dominion War, and a leader in Admiral Dougherty who sanctions the relocation of a planet's population against Starfleet's code. Once again, Picard had to serve as Starfleet's conscience, essentially overriding a corrupt admiralty.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Star Trek to this day is the inclusion of Section 31, essentially Starfleet's secret police. Introduced in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Section 31 attempts to recruit Dr. Julian Bashir at the height of the Dominion War. They fail, but Bashir gains access and knowledge of the clandestine organization, including the fact that they engineered a disease to take out the Founders, the shapeshifting leaders of the Dominion. That sort of genocide is expressly against the ideals of the Federation, and very nearly cost the organization its soul.

Even in Star Trek: Discovery, Michael Burnham and friends had to walk Starfleet back from the edge of destruction when they were presented with an opportunity to destroy Q'onoS, the Klingon homeworld. It's one of several times Starfleet has surprisingly flirted with either sanctioning the outright destruction of a race in a moment of desperation or turned a blind eye to it.

Roddenberry's Future Died With Him

Virtually every instance of Starfleet's morality coming into question has something in common - they all came after the death of series creator Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was obsessive about the nature of his Star Trek Utopia, to the point that it became difficult for writers to identify any sort of conflict that he would sanction by the era of The Next Generation. However, when Roddenberry's health began to fail and the franchise was handed over to others like Rick Berman, Nicholas Meyer, and Michael Piller, Roddenberry's squeaky clean future began to accumulate blemishes. Roddenberry infamously hated Star Trek VI's Starfleet conspiracy plot so much that he tried to get the movie recut at the last minute, to no avail. Roddenberry would die just days before the film's release, a sad but fitting coda for the end of a Star Trek era.

By virtually all accounts, Roddenberry's storytelling rules had become overly restrictive in his later years, to the point where crafting compelling stories was almost impossible - hence the generally miserable quality of the first two seasons of TNG. Writers like Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr would explore the post-Roddenberry landscape in often exciting and thought-provoking ways, though occasionally fully discarding Roddenberry's Utopian vision in favor of better storytelling. This resulted in some of the best - and darkest - Star Trek stories of all time, most notably the later seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

It's not a betrayal of Star Trek's idealism to present a version of Starfleet that is less than perfect, as long as it's done with purpose and with the belief that things will get better. Star Trek: Picard, perhaps more than any Star Trek series since the original, has something to say about the world in which it's produced. We live in a world where old, bedrock institutions seem more vulnerable to corruption and malaise than ever, an aspect of our culture Picard is eager to mirror. Projecting 21st century problems onto a 24th century TV show may seem reductive, but it has its roots in the oldest Star Trek stories, which often served as morality plays.

Starfleet's corruption has previously been solved over the course of an hour, but the advent of serialized storytelling means it'll likely be awhile before this version of the organization reclaims its moral compass, and that's okay. Starfleet has always suffered from ebbs and flows of moral righteousness. Star Trek: Picard has found it at a particularly low ebb, but the promise of Star Trek is not that things will magically get better one day, but that a Utopia is hard work, and even Starfleet can occasionally take their eye off the ball. It's the ability to recognize our shortcomings and transcend them that is the promise of Star Trek, a legacy Star Trek: Picard will surely uphold.


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