Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

Ben Denison is a Ph.D. Student at the University of Notre Dame and can be found on twitter @DenisonBe


Terok Nor aka Deep Space 9

Following a prolonged political-military conflict between two great powers, the former territory occupied by the evil empire is aided in its political development by the liberal great power who stood against the evil empire for 50 years. Political and economic aid flows from the liberal power to attempt to help develop the former occupied territory. The goal is to propel their political development forward while drawing the former occupied territory into their alliance to expand the liberal network of defense and political cooperation.

This is where we open the 1993 series Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DS9). The pilot episode shows The Federation taking control of the Terok Nor station from Cardassia following the end of the Cardassian war and the Cardassian occupation of Bejor. However, in 1993, it also describes the situation in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, with NATO and the European Union moving to aid the former Soviet satellite states. Once this connection is made, the first few seasons of DS9 can be seen in a different light as a reflection on the problems the Western world will have in bringing Eastern Europe into the fold and the seemingly simple mission become more complex as political realities become clear.

Beginning in 1993, the initial two seasons of DS9 delve deeply into the difficulties of dealing with a newly liberated territory and their people. This is fascinating turn from prior Star Trek series where the episodic nature did not allow for deep exploration of the political and military conflicts and their ramifications on the shows universe. Now, however, the writers of the show can explore political themes over multiple episodes and seasons into a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities faced in post-conflict scenarios. It is clear that the writers of the show have the previous experience of the Cold War on their minds and use the Bajorans as a useful way to explore the difficulties and struggles that East Europe will face following the end of the conflict. While the end of a conflict is a thing to celebrate, political struggle does not end there and the questions about what to do following a conflict in some ways are even more difficult to answer.

As Bajor emerges from the Cardassian occupation with a fragmented political system that is in transition, The Federation offers aid to the Bajorans in their transition, offering to provide security and assistance to allow the Bajorans to become an independent political system with a growing economic market to tap into. The wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant is stable and the economic growth potential through trade is high, once the political system is adapted to allow Bajor to benefit from the increased trade. Cardassia remains as an ever-present threat, albeit a greatly reduced threat to Bajor. However, most importantly, The Federation sees Bajor as a potential member of The Federation and extends membership to the Bajorans. However, instead of embracing it enthusiastically, some Bajorans are skeptical of The Federation offer and instead would prefer complete autonomy from any of the major powers in the quadrant.

After a 50 year occupation, Bajor does not have a political class that knows how to run independent political institutions and how to handle their new found autonomy. Thus, The Federation with their developed political institutions and economy offers to aid their development and enmesh them in The Federation as an independent planet but operating under The Federations umbrella. This is problematic for many Bajorans as they see The Federation as just a replacement for the Cardassians after they have just won their independence and sovereignty from their tutelage. For example, Major Kira, the main Bajoran on DS9, initially wishes The Federation to leave Bajor alone and allow them to build their own functioning governance structure. However, over time as she interacts with various Vedaks and the political struggle for the next Kai heats up, the it becomes clear that nationalist and anti-Federation political forces are more means to gain political power than actual beneficial policies for Bajor. Instead, the technical assistance that The Federation can provide to help Bajor integrate their economy into the larger economy of the universe and tap into the natural benefits of the wormhole, while also providing political stability is a clear political good for Bajor. In addition, the security provided by Federation presence on DS9 helps keep Cardassia at bay, even when their military class views their retreat from Bajor a strategic mistake. Thus, Bajor is deeply conflicted, benefiting from The Federation presence but also reluctant to cede so much sovereignty after fighting so hard to just win it.

Major Kira is initial quite skeptical of this 'Federation'

Major Kira is initial quite skeptical of this ‘Federation’

EU expansion into Eastern Europe largely faced similar struggles, with anti-EU parties emerging in Eastern Europe to protest EU membership on nationalist grounds. While the US and the EU provided political and economic benefits for moving towards democratic governance and a capitalist economy, EU membership with its benefits, appeared to just replace the Soviet influence of the previous 50 years with Western influence. However, the pro-EU forces eventually won out, but it took until the late 1990s to see these pro-integration forces really triumph. NATO expansion, however, was also contention but largely followed without much resistance in Eastern Europe as former Soviet satellite states feared Soviet reprisals and joined the mutual defense pact they stood against for 50 years. Just as in early seasons Cardassia is unwilling to push back against Bajor due to The Federation’s presence, NATO’s ability to deter Russia from military action against their former satellite states is important.

The Federation acts as a EU/NATO hybrid uniting formerly warring and distant planets together into one confederation with a common foreign policy. However, their offer of membership to Bajor is a reminder that there are clear costs to joining such a federation, namely a reduction sovereignty, something that is tough to give away after fighting for it for so many years. While two seasons in, it does not appear prospective Federation expansion to Bajor will make the Cardassians recoil as Russia recently has with the proposal for Ukrainian NATO/EU membership, if The Federation were to expand to include the colonies in the DMZ between Cardassia and The Federation this could happen. But these similarities ultimately show the political context that the show runners of DS9 were operating under and their view of the difficulty of transitional political structures. Looking back now, integration of Eastern Europe into Western political and military institutions appears per-ordained. However, the context in 1993 and 1994 were much more contingent, as current debates on Ukraine remind us, and makes DS9 a fascinating case in examining the politics of the post-Cold War era.



Today’s post is by guest blogger Matt Ford, who blogs at Basic Illusions and can be found on twitter.

has seen better days.

The Enterprise has seen better days.

(If you think this won’t have spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness, you’re out of your Vulcan mind.)

Roddenberry’s dream lives on.

This might come as a surprise to many; it certainly came as a surprise to me. I wrote in my first post on BlogTarkin some months ago that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its grim but brilliant take on Roddenberry’s utopia, nevertheless eroded the Federation’s moral edifice with “the slow poison of necessity.” J.J. Abrams’ first foray into the franchise in 2009, with only an oblique reference to Starfleet as a “humanitarian and peacekeeping armada,” seemingly abandoned Star Trek’s vaunted position as the moral high ground of popular science fiction.

Did Star Trek Into Darkness bring the franchise back to its roots? It depends on what those roots are. Much of Star Trek’s enduring popularity comes from the chemistry between its diverse crew. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and their shipmates met even the wildest expectations in building this camaraderie. At the same time, Star Trek has always represented a moral and social paradigm to which we could aspire. That utopian vision, however, is often presented fully-formed to the audience without any perspective on the work that went into building it. Into Darkness tackles this weakness.

There are occasional allusions to destructive conflicts and world wars. Upon pursuing a Borg invasion to late 21st century Earth in First Contact, Data is able to estimate “from the radioactive isotopes in the atmosphere” that they had arrived a decade after World War III. “Makes sense,” Riker muses. “Most of the major cities have been destroyed. Very few governments left. Six hundred million dead. No resistance.” And yet, in the ashes of the society in which you and I currently live, Zefram Cochrane builds a starship out of a nuclear missile, travels faster than the speed of light, and ushers in a new era for human civilization. In Star Trek, dystopia precedes utopia.

But this is as far as Star Trek’s depiction of the late 20th and early 21st century goes. The franchise envisions humanity without racism, poverty, disease, or war, but never showed what must be done to achieve it. This leap is like jumping from the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the birth of American hegemony after World War II without addressing the slaughter of the Civil War or the desperation of the Great Depression in between. Roddenberry showed us the far future’s promise in the 1960s but gave almost no indications about mankind’s imminent challenges.

Except for Khan.

Khan Noonien Singh, introduced in the 1967 episode “Space Seed”, is a genetically-engineered superman who conquered most of Eurasia in the 1990s before his Napoleonic exile into cryogenic sleep. More than just another villain, Khan is faster, stronger, and smarter than Kirk and his crew could ever be. The 20th century tyrant is never bested by strength or intellect alone in the Star Trek films: only Kirk’s greater familiarity with starships in Wrath of Khan and Spock’s knowledge from the future in Into Darkness allow them to gain the upper hand. Khan is, as the elder Spock gravely observes, the most dangerous foe the Enterprise ever faced.

But Khan’s significance goes deeper than just clever plot devices. Star Trek, at its most fundamental level, exalts the limitless nature of human potential; Khan subverts that ideal by combining the heights of human endurance and cunning with a brutal amorality. This ruthless “savagery,” as Khan himself describes it to Kirk, is so utterly absent from 23rd century humanity that Starfleet must resurrect it from their ancestors to use against the Klingon Empire. Most damningly, Khan isn’t a medieval European king or bygone Asian emperor who ruled at a time when such brutality was expected. He came to power in the mid-to-late 1990s. He’s one of us.

Into Darkness may have lacked grand soliloquies on philosophy or visions of gleaming utopia, but it did counterpoise Kirk and the Enterprise against contemporary societal issues. Since the last Star Trek film alone we’ve seen a Starfleet more militarized after its failure to defend Vulcan, whose upper echelons are even willing to use untraceable missiles to kill fugitives. Our heroes ultimately reject targeted killings, threat inflation, societal militarization, and the worldview that Khan and the Starfleet admiral who awakened him represent. Crucially, Kirk’s final position is influenced by Spock’s cool logic and McCoy’s folksy wisdom but not framed by either. Instead the Starfleet captain from Iowa relies upon a much simpler argument: that’s not who we are.

Americans, especially millennials, can understand this. The destruction of Vulcan in the first film changed Kirk and Spock’s timeline; 9/11 changed ours. How many young Americans learned Arabic and Pashto or studied counterterrorism and international relations because nineteen men flew three planes into a building and one into the ground, killing thousands? The September 11th attacks prefaced a decade marked by the proliferation of Islamic terrorism, long and painful wars in the Middle East, a toxic and divisive political climate in the United States, weakened protections for civil liberties, and vast expansions of government power. Is that who we are now? Is that who we want to be from now on?

Granted, Into Darkness doesn’t provide flawless comparisons. Whereas Starfleet doesn’t bother telling the Klingons they’re going to kill a fugitive on their homeworld with advanced missiles, for example, the U.S. government’s targeted killing program almost certainly operates drones in Pakistan and Yemen with those governments’ secret permission. And as Kirk and the audience also later discover, a Starfleet admiral orchestrated the entire terrorism campaign to provoke a war with the Klingons. The parallels with contemporary American society aren’t perfect, but the trajectory is unmistakable.

To what extent must we reshape our society to confront threats, real or imagined?” As far as Star Trek’s questions go, it’s not as dramatic as “Should we use a morphogenic virus against the Founders?” or as philosophical as “Are androids entitled to the equal protection of the laws?” But it is more pertinent. Kirk gives us his answer in the film’s closing monologue, a eulogy for those who died in Khan’s final devastating attack.

There will always be those who mean to do us harm. To stop them, we risk awakening the same evil within ourselves. Our first instinct is to seek revenge when those we love are taken from us. But that’s not who we are. When Christopher Pike first gave me his ship, he had me recite the Captain’s Oath. [“Space, the final frontier…”] Words I didn’t appreciate at the time. But now I see them as a call for us to remember who we once were and who we must be again.

Will Barack Obama, a Trekkie, heed this call? The president signaled a willingness to change course in his State of the Union address earlier this year. On Thursday, he’ll give a speech at the National Defense University on the drone program, Guantanamo Bay, and counterterrorism where he might outline those shifts. Already Obama has overseen significant broader shifts in American foreign policy by emphasizing multilateralism and a widely-touted “Asia pivot,” with varying degrees of success. But Obama, unlike Kirk, has so far failed to recast the current conflict in his own terms or to bring it to a close.

Thus the psychological burdens remain. George W. Bush framed the struggle against al-Qaeda as a “war on terror” and the imagery remains fixed in the American collective consciousness. But this level of indefinite conflict is mostly unfamiliar to the American historical experience. Britain recognized independence after Yorktown, Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Berlin fell to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union fell in Berlin. Without a capital to seize or an army to defeat, bin Laden’s death might be the closest American society can come to closure. That’s why, instead of the macabre triumphalism that some commentators described with revulsion, the street celebrations and public jubilation following bin Laden’s death should be seen as a societal catharsis too long denied. When Obama announced the raid in Abbottabad, another dark chapter in American history seemed ready to close. It hasn’t yet, of course, but the onus is now on us. When it comes to ending the war on terror, the first step is choosing to take one.

Perhaps there’s still room for Star Trek to set the example for us after all. Kirk tells us to remember not only who we once were, but that we must be them again. The film ends with the characters embarking upon the five-year mission of exploration that made them legends in another timeline. Balance is restored and history is (mostly) returned to its rightful trajectory.

The Enterprise is leading us not into darkness, but out of it.


The crew of the USS Enterprise ponders an ethical dilemma in the latest film, “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.

Reeling from a series of deadly terrorist attacks, the Federation dispatches the Enterprise on a vengeance mission.  The target?  A terrorist hideout deep within sovereign Klingon territory.

Armed with dozens of long-range torpedoes, the Enterprise silently parks just inside the neutral zone, as the crew debates their options.  Is it ethical to kill from such a range?  Is it human?

In the end, Kirk shelves the long-range strike idea in favor of a night raid on the Klingon homeworld.

Of course, his reasoning has nothing to do with violating the sovereignty of a major power.  Instead, Kirk yields to the Prime Directive of sci-fi combat, which states that space combat can only take place when ships are a.) within visual range, b.) on the same two-dimensional plane, and c.) aforementioned ships must fire broadsides at one another.

This rule, of course, holds true despite all the advances in beyond-visual-range technology pioneered in the 21st Century.  Sci-fi script writers have long realized that long-range missile combat lacks suspense.  A shootout on the Klingon homeworld is no less ethical than a long-range missile strike…but it’s a lot more exciting.

And, perhaps that’s why there’s such hysteria about “drone ethics“.  Drones are yet another step removed from the battlefield.  Indeed, drones alter the notion of what it is to be a warrior:  their pilots return to their homes at the end of a combat mission  A recent proposal to offer valorous awards to drone operators was met with universal snark and mockery.  In fact, many manned aviators even argue that drone operators aren’t really pilots.

In short, we expect our warriors to be more like Captain Kirk–even though Captain Kirk’s reckless disregard for regulations would hardly make him a good captain.  Given the cinematic Kirk’s penchant for insubordination and sexual harassment, we would have expected him to be drummed out of Starfleet years ago.

Well, either that or perhaps promoted to Chief of Starfleet’s Sexual Harassment Prevention Task Force.

BlogTarkin’s first foray into Star Trek comes from guest blogger Matt Ford, who blogs at Basic Illusions and can be found on twitter.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can barely be called Star Trek. Instead of a gleaming spaceship racing across the stars, we have a decrepit space station orbiting a backwater wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. Instead of a playboy captain who seduces a different green woman each week, Deep Space Nine is led by a haunted widower raising his son alone. Gone are the strident soliloquies on justice and humanity’s noble future. Starfleet officers now wage wars, orchestrate assassinations, and condone genocide. Gene Roddenberry’s utopia is in shambles.

Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine

Maybe Roddenberry expected too much from us; he was nothing if not optimistic. Amidst intense social and cultural turmoil, a widening war overseas, and the ever-looming specter of nuclear annihilation, Roddenberry envisioned humanity at its intellectual, technological, and moral pinnacle in his television series Star Trek. Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), embodies Star Trek’s moral authority and evolved perspective. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives,” he blithely tells a 21st-century human in one of the films, “We seek to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” To this end, The Next Generation is rife with episodes featuring recreation on the holodeck, mishaps during shore leave, and otherwise-playful adventures among the stars.

Such interludes are few and far between on Deep Space Nine. The Dominion, a totalitarian empire from the Gamma Quadrant led by a species of immortal liquid shapeshifters known as the Founders, invades the Alpha Quadrant. With the ability to clone legions of Jem’Hadar soldiers and construct starships at an unparalleled rate, the Dominion brings the Federation to the brink of defeat within a year. One of the Dominion viceroys, a Vorta named Weyoun, draws up plans the conquest of Earth and the brutal subjugation of humanity – a necessary measure, he notes, because of the species’ resistance to authority.

Against this unprecedented threat, Captain Benjamin Sisko, the show’s main character and moral compass, gives no speeches on human nature. He doesn’t lecture the Founders on the virtues of inalienable rights or the inevitability of liberal democracy. To bring the Romulan Star Empire – one of the Alpha Quadrant’s three great powers, along with the Federation and the Klingons – into the war, Sisko participates in a successful plot to assassinate a Romulan senator and blame his death on Dominion operatives. Sisko is no Picard – he fights back, by any means necessary.

This concept is not foreign to Americans at war. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus across the Union and incarcerated thousands of rebel sympathizers. Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned 150,000 Japanese-Americans without cause. Harry Truman dropped the only two nuclear bombs against civilian populations in the history of warfare. George W. Bush conducted mass warrantless wiretaps of Americans and housed hundreds of foreign detainees without charges at Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama is currently conducting a highly-classified drone warfare program in multiple countries. And those are just the presidents. “The ends justify the means” is far from a trite cliché – it is a long-standing American wartime doctrine.

Even Bush and Truman would blanch at the Federation’s most egregious violations of its espoused principles. A few months before open hostilities with the Dominion, a rogue conspiracy within the Federation known as Section 31 secretly uses Odo, an exiled Founder allied with Starfleet, as a carrier for a “morphogenic virus.” Odo transmits this virus to the rest of his species, which lies dormant for years until manifesting itself as a debilitating, incurable illness that forces the Founders into solid form and eventually kills them. Section 31’s goal, according to its agent Luther Sloan, is to eliminate the Founders and then defeat the Dominion forces in the ensuing chaos. When the crew of Deep Space Nine find the cure (a feat apparently beyond the vast scientific resources at the Dominion’s disposal, according to Weyoun), the Federation Council – analogous to the United States Congress and the United Nations General Assembly – orders Starfleet not to divulge the cure to the Founders, recognizing the effect it would have on the war effort.

The Federation Council’s strategic thinking is cold but perfectly reasonable. The Founders’ shapeshifting abilities are ideal for intelligence work and covert action. Moreover, they demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for using them by manipulating the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Cardassian Union into war prior to their invasion. Once the disease’s deleterious physical effects manifested themselves, the entire Dominion intelligence network would be exposed and, in a single blow, eliminated. Who could pass up such an opportunity in wartime?

The Dominion itself exists as protection for the Founders against what they call the “solids” – humanoid races incapable of shapeshifting. Their subjects are genetically engineered to regard the Founders as gods. They fulfill the same role in Dominion government as a monarch or a constitution – the absolute source of all law. Without them, there is no Dominion. It would be as if a rogue element of the KGB engineered a virus that killed only every CIA operative behind the Iron Curtain, and their CIA handlers, and all the analysts, officers, and bureaucrats in Langley, as well as the House of Representatives, the Senate, all nine justices of the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States – and no one else. Even the phrase “surgical strike” seems too blunt for such a targeted maneuver.

Killing spies is practically customary in a war – most European nations that abolished the death penalty in the latter half of the 20th century included exemptions for wartime espionage – but military strikes against national leaders are virtually unheard of.1 Using biological weapons for such a purpose is unrealistic, and conducting a full-scale genocide to accomplish it is unthinkable. Yet in our supposedly morally-superior future, such actions are not only undertaken by private individuals, but implicitly sanctioned by the government of the Federation itself.

But are we viewing genocide through an anachronistic lens? Perhaps. Genocides in the modern world, or any other age in human history for that matter, are not undertaken for strategic or tactical purposes; genocide has never served a military purpose. It is also predicated on the inclusions of non-combatants, which no Founder can truly be considered. One of the distinguishing features between the Holocaust undertaken by Adolf Hitler and the mass killings of Mao, Stalin,2 and other 20th-century totalitarians is the desire to extinguish. As Nancy Gibbs noted in her profile of Hitler in TIME’s millennium issue on the most important figures of the 20th century,

If all Hitler had done was kill people in vast numbers more efficiently than anyone else ever did, the debate over his lasting importance might end there. But Hitler’s impact went beyond his willingness to kill without mercy. He did something civilization had not seen before. Genghis Khan operated in the context of the nomadic steppe, where pillaging villages was the norm. Hitler came out of the most civilized society on Earth, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He set out to kill people not for what they did but for who they were.Even Mao and Stalin were killing their ‘class enemies.’ Hitler killed a million Jewish babies just for existing.

This emotional, visceral aspect distinguishes the morphogenic virus from the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and other genocides. If we abide by the clinical definition from the Genocide Convention, the virus undoubtedly qualifies. Yet if we assess the mens rea of the Federation, we find it insufficient to justify subsequent prosecution. Moreover, the virus exists in a paradigm in which “defensive genocide” is not contemplated. Such a concept is fundamentally abhorrent in the real world, but perfectly viable in Deep Space Nine. On two separate occasions during the war, the Dominion leadership commits or attempts to commit genocide: once, when they attempt to trigger a supernova in the Bajoran system that would destroy Deep Space Nine and the entire Bajoran species, and again when the Dominion forces massacre the Cardassian population on Cardassia Prime shortly before the war’s end. If the choice is between the wholesale slaughter of Federation citizens – a likely prospect given the Dominion’s track record – and wiping out the Founders with biological warfare, can the Federation’s decision truly be condemned? If we establish the common law principle that killing a person is justified in self-defense, can we extend that to the annihilation of a mortal enemy in the fog of war? These are weighty questions.

What is clear, however, is that by even asking the question, we’ve deviated greatly from the elevated utopia envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. The American playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that, “An era can be said to have ended when its basic illusions are exhausted.” By the end of the Dominion War, the Federation, once a beacon of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in our dreary contemporary age, has been brought low by the slow poison of necessity.


1Although Israel routinely targets militant leaders in the Palestinian territories and the United States has used decapitation strikes against al-Qaeda leadership figures, virtually no examples exist in the modern era of wartime assassinations of enemy heads of state or heads of government. Even military operations targeting specific commanders on the battlefield are rare: in the 20th century, only Operation Anthropoid (the British intelligence assassination of Reinhard Heydrich) and the U.S. Navy’s downing of Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane over the Pacific spring to mind.

2The Holodomor notwithstanding.