Recently I published a post concerning Starfleet from Star Trek, specifically addressing the whitewash that Starfleet often gets as a naive, underwhelming navy in a science fiction multiverse of hard-hitting superpowers. In short, I concluded that Starfleet deserves better than it gets, between a culture of valor, a refusal to ever refuse a genuine peace, and a complete lack of the naivete often associated with it. But Starfleet can teach us another lesson beyond the knights of science fiction navies. Starfleet, in that same culture of valor, teaches us how to be a culture of good. I challenge to you this: Starfleet is not good because of the Federation, but rather that the Federation is good because of Starfleet.
A quick recap. Starfleet as a defense force is at the frontlines of Federation policy, never backing down from the good fight, but always willing to offer the hand of peace to anyone willing to take it. Starfleet as a military sacrificed the USS Enterprise–C to defend a Klingon colony from an unprovoked Romulan attack, two empires both at the time enemies of the Federation. The Enterprise engaged without hesitation, and was lost with all hands, but not before securing the colony from further attack and earning the lasting gratitude of the Klingon Empire. That is a culture of valor and self-sacrifice, rare enough in science-fiction, and a culture which pervades generations and universes of Starfleet captains and crews. But there is a deeper strength to Starfleet than just valor in battle.
Starfleet is a dual-role agency, as I explained before. It is simultaneously responsible for the defense of the Federation, its worlds, interests, and citizens, and for the exploration of the galaxy and the continuing advance of Federation science and technology. It is the latter part of the mission we will now focus our attention on.
Starfleet is often described by its members as a non-military, peaceful organization. Captain Pike calls it, “[A] peacekeeping and humanitarian armada.” Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, every generation of Starfleet captain considers exploration to be the primary mission of Starfleet. In Star Trek Into Darkness, Montgomery Scott comments, “I thought we were explorers.” And all of this exists side by side with one of the most powerful, effective military forces in its own universe (and as I debated above, the most effective of perhaps the entire science-fiction multiverse.) Why is that? Why do all these prominent members downplay such a critical part of Starfleet’s mission in the name of the other half? Because they’re right, it is the more important part.
Now, that last statement was not intended to belittle Starfleet’s impressive military achievements. As a fighting force it is among the greatest. But to understand the dynamic of Starfleet and the Federation, you must remember the other part of Starfleet’s mission, the Enterprise‘s mission: To Explore Strange New Worlds, To Seek Out New Lifeforms and New Civilizations; To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before. But what does that mean?
Starfleet pushes frontiers. Among the other organizations folded in when Starfleet was founded was the United Earth Space Probe Agency. This was the agency that commissioned the first Enterprise of Starfleet, NX-01. Enterprise NX-01 was built with one purpose, to push the boundaries of Earth’s reach, and to discover anything and everything it could about the massive new galaxy Earth found itself thrust into. Starfleet also took up that mantle. Ships spread out across the far-flung stars, to discover and to explore. Starfleet existed to push boundaries in the name of the Federation, in the name of her science and her knowledge.
Now we arrive to the heart of the matter. To explore is a fundamentally positive action. The greatest human emotion is fear, and the greatest fear mankind knows is the fear of the unknown. The act of exploration is the ultimate act of bravery, of courage, and of positive thinking. It is the fundamental challenge to the fear of the unknown. Not only is the explorer brave enough to push aside the curtain, not only is he courageous enough to confront whatever he may find, but he also is convinced whatever happens, he will be the better off for it. And he’s right.
When our ancestors first left the caves, left the safety of the treetops back in our native lands of Africa, they chose to push boundaries. Humanity has always been defined by pushing boundaries. The greatest names, the names that ring through history are the explorers, those that dared to take the leap of exploration. Christopher Columbus, Leif Erickson, Neil Armstrong, Ferdinand Magellan, Marco Polo, Lewis and Clark. Each of these men dared to explore, to challenge, to presume that there was something out there worth finding. And they were right.
Allow me to prove the positive of exploration with a simple example/thought experiment.When a man (or woman, I’m being gender neutral here) explores, and encounters a negative, he learns from the encounter. To recycle an overused adage, that which does not kill you makes you stronger, and the explorer is better prepared to face his next encounter with the new. He has learned how to surmount that problem. If they encounter something positive, the positive thing makes them stronger, they learn from the encounter, and they are better prepared for the next one. Seems rather simple, and that really is it. Further, when we push frontiers, we bring humanity together. Twelve men left their footsteps on the Moon. The entirety of humanity, through their brave actions, and the immeasurable efforts of the programs that got them there, was taken to the Moon with them. We have all learned from that journey. We are all the stronger for it.
Now let us return to Starfleet. Starfleet exists to explore. Men like Montgomery Scott, Christopher Pike, James Kirk, Kathryn Janeway all went to the stars via Starfleet to explore. They pushed frontiers, challenged the unknown, and brought their strength back to us. Starfleet was made great by the works of its best and brightest, and its best and brightest were its explorers. Starfleet, via the talent it attracted, created a culture of exploration, of pushing boundaries, of the positive thinking that kept the ships of Starfleet pushing the envelope, of pushing through the next great boundary, and making the Federation stronger for it. In short, Starfleet was positive. Starfleet wasn’t reactive, Starfleet wasn’t negative. Starfleet was a constant active, positive force for change in the galaxy. Starfleet knew its mission, to preserve, protect and advance the Federation, and it did it in a spectacular way, by creating a culture founded on positivity, on always being better, thinking outside the box, of always solving problems. Starfleet didn’t go to space for itself. Starfleet went to space for the Federation.
Do you know what happens when you let a culture like that Starfleet built out of the box? I do. It’s the same culture built by the Boy Scouts. It’s the same culture that infected the world in the time immediately after Apollo 8 and Apollo 11. You end up with a world that stops caring about itself and starts to care about the world. I could list off example after example, Clean Air Act, Doctors Without Borders, the list goes on and on. But I won’t. I will show you what happens when you let that culture continue to grow and to thrive. You end up with the Federation. You end up with the culture of Star Trek.
In the 1960’s the original Star Trek TV series aired. That a black person was a significant role on the bridge of a starship, a significant role on screen in the series, was an incredible leap forward. That Lieutenant Uhura was not only black but a woman was outright flabbergasting in many circles. Gene Roddenberry in one smooth casting decision had created one critical thing. He created the culture of Starfleet. Kirk didn’t care that Uhura was female. He didn’t care that Uhura was black. She was a confident, capable, respected and trusted member of his bridge crew, and as far as Kirk was concerned that was that. That’s how Starfleet operated. Spock was an alien, a rather human-appearing one but an alien nonetheless. Across the show’s three seasons, the crew of that Enterprise encountered aliens upon aliens, of all genders. And Starfleet culture kicked in. No one gave a good Goddamn who they were dealing with or what they were. They cared about doing the right thing, getting the job done, and getting as many people home safe and sound.
That culture permeated every series of Star Trek. Why is that you ask? Perhaps because that’s what Starfleet is. And one could consider that Starfleet acted this way, raised as it was by the Federation. And one could consider that a valid view. But one would be missing a critical point, Starfleet was the public face of the Federation. In many parts of the galaxy, Starfleet was the Federation. And Starfleet took the best and the brightest to put out there, to not only represent the Federation on those frontiers, but to push those boundaries and to do good wherever they went. And you can’t build a culture like that without it seeping into everything you do.
Starfleet’s culture as a positive force found its way into Starfleet decision making. It is why Starfleet never turned away a hand of peace and it is why Starfleet always made a point to offer its own hand in peace. But it did more than that. Starfleet’s culture left its captains with a unique mindset, get as many people home safe and as well off as possible. It is the culture of caring about everybody that you can care about, and doing everything not only reasonable but possible. For example Captain Janeway, when trapped in an area of dead space with USS Voyager, made a conscious effort to save as many other prisoners and their ships as possible, despite the danger that exposed Voyager to. And that same force found its way into Federation politics. In Star Trek VI, the majority of the Federation government is amenable to aid for the Klingon Empire in the name of the millions of innocent civilians they might save, and not for cynical political gains. The honest concern of the Federation is the wellbeing of Klingon civilians, the same Empire they had been at odds with for several decades running. In short, the Federation thought like Starfleet. And the Federation thought like Starfleet because the Starfleet culture, the culture of doing good, of positivity and improving the lot of those around you, found its way into the Federation mindset.
Perhaps the highest, most unique expression of this culture is the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive states that the Federation or its agents, i.e. Starfleet, may not interfere in the natural progression of a civilization they encounter. In practice this means, for pre-warp-travel, Starfleet may not interfere in any way in the progression of their civilization. Why is this important?
There is no similar comparison, there is no similar ideology or organization anywhere else I am aware of in all of science fiction. There is no other force as dedicated to the wellbeing of every lifeform, entity, and civilization that crosses its path. Starfleet is not only devoted to their wellbeing but to their ultimate freedom, the freedom to do anything, even to fail. In allowing every civilization to develop on its own, without aid or assistance, Starfleet does an important thing. Starfleet gives those beings, that species, the freedom to be themselves. Without that freedom, the freedom to develop in their own right, is anything after that truly that of the innermost nature of that species? Starfleet’s answer is no, and they are unique in that respect. Starfleet is unique enough to allow others to fail, for their own good.
Remember a note I made in my previous post. Starfleet was partially formed out of the devastation of the Eugenics Wars and the Third World War. Had, for instance, the Vulcans intervened, had they prevented that war, humanity might not have ever come together and renounced tyranny and wars of aggression forever. Starfleet and the Federation would not exist as they do. The Third World War was a terrible failure, but mistakes teach us more than success ever can, and Starfleet has the moral courage to allow people to make those mistakes, so long as it does not endanger the Federation itself.
There is no other force in science fiction that matches this dedication. The Jedi Knights of Star Wars stand for freedom, but they also chose the Galactic Republic and the clone army in their waning days. Both the later Imperial Navy and the New Republic Navy are both caught up in the affairs of statecraft, ensuring stable governments and defeating their enemies to consider such high-minded principles, especially with the autocratic nature of the former. In Doctor Who, the Doctor is unafraid to meddle in the affairs of Earth, often to protect it from forces beyond their control, but just as often in other affairs to satisfy his own morality. The autocratic, xenophobic forces of the Imperium of Man, from Warhammer 40,000, don’t even bother stopping to introduce themselves before annihilating alien species occupying habitable planets. The Council of Mass Effect has no equivalent force to Starfleet, relying on its Spectre agents to keep the peace, and individuals and individual star nations to explore and uplift as they see fit.
Starfleet is unique, shaped as each of its contemporaries were by the requirements and realities of its universe. But Starfleet and the Federation did something different. They chose their ideals and chose to stand by them no matter what the universe threw at them. It would have been easy for Starfleet to betray the Klingons at Khitomer, a small rogue element nearly got away with it anyway. It would have been easy for the Enterprise-C to leave the Klingons hanging in the wind. It would have been easy for the Federation to abandon the Bajorans to the Dominion, or the Romulans to the destruction of their homeworld. Instead, Starfleet chose to stand and chose to fight for its principles, the principles of knowledge, self-determination and self-defense. It chose to stand for the good of everyone and the Federation stood with it. Starfleet chose to honor the Federation and the principles it was founded with, and in return the Federation honored Starfleet by following in its footsteps. That is the nature of the positive force of Starfleet. That is the nature of a force not interested in itself, but interested in everyone.
Starfleet has no contemporaries, within science fiction or without. Perhaps there is no Federation for Starfleet to be a part of, but perhaps that is because there is no Starfleet to protect it. Perhaps neither exist because we, like so many other possible universes, have yet to realize the true power of a purely positive force, a force interested in everyone. That’s what Starfleet is, not starships or captains and crews. Starfleet is a force for change, a force for unity and a force for good. And perhaps once we find that, we can find our Federation utopia we all seem to be searching for as well. Isn’t there some line about a horse and a cart?
As always feel free to comment or contact me at your own leisure. – GP