Ship Crews Forged on the Fly
Stability in the chain of command set Federation starship crews apart from the occupational uncertainty felt by Klingon captains and Romulan praetors. Starfleet's legendary spit and polish resonated down from presidents to ensigns, but even well-oiled machines malfunction. Throughout Star Trek history, the organizational status quo received a chaotic jolt on multiple occasions, usually as a result of dire incidents or the unique challenges of covert operations. Let's take a look at some of the more interesting crew shake-ups that spawned from such circumstances.
Fraught with adventure and danger, unexpected disasters stand as space exploration's most-common foe. Following the U.S.S. Enterprise’s demise in Star Trek Beyond, isolated Federation survivors endured perils on the planet's surface. Without the cohesion of command, each group worked individually to seek solutions to their predicament. The factions didn’t begin to coalesce into a single unit until Simon Pegg's Montgomery Scott met Sofia Boutella's Jaylah and learned of the existence of the U.S.S. Franklin. The senior officers gradually gathered aboard the vessel and launched a mission to save their remaining shipmates. While Chris Pine's Captain Kirk led the way during the Franklin's return to space and defense of Starbase Yorktown, he surely never considered that his homecoming from Altamid would be in a different vessel.
On a similar note, the loss of the Prime Universe's U.S.S. Enterprise in a battle against the Klingons in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock necessitated the capture of the very Bird-of-Prey whose disruptors scorched the hull of the Federation starship. When an unknown probe threatened Earth's future in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Kirk and company utilized the same Klingon vessel for their ad hoc mission to retrieve humpback whales from humanity's past. Even the tried and true Starfleet bridge crew experienced issues adapting to the new ship, such as Scotty's vital project to replace the standard-issue Klingon food packs.
Another emergency involving Qo'noS developed in late 2367, as the Klingon Civil War raged across the empire in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes "Redemption" and "Redemption II." Forced to press undermanned vessels into service, the Federation pulled key officers from active ships to staff vacant senior positions. The U.S.S. Enterprise-D contributed a great deal to this effort, as Data commanded the Nebula-class U.S.S. Sutherland, while Riker and La Forge took stations aboard the Ambassador-class U.S.S. Excalibur. Tensions boiled between Data and first officer Lieutenant Commander Christopher Hobson, but Data ultimately proved more than capable of captaining the vessel as he exposed the Romulan Empire's support of the Duras family in the war.
La Forge experienced his own leadership trial in "Relics," when the Enterprise-D found Scotty trapped in the transporter's pattern buffer aboard the Sydney-class U.S.S. Jenolan. As La Forge and Scott worked aboard the Jenolan, the Enterprise became trapped inside the massive Dyson sphere that originally scuttled the smaller ship. Scotty ceded the responsibility of the rescue to La Forge, and together this cross-generation crew of two implemented a plan that allowed them to activate the Dyson sphere's gargantuan hatch doors and free Captain Picard and company from the interior.
The lengthiest Starfleet emergency of all began in the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Caretaker" and continued until the U.S.S. Voyager emerged near Earth seven years later in "Endgame." After being thrown into the Delta Quadrant and separated from any sort of government hierarchy, Captain Janeway's unconventional crew manifest began to come together immediately. The trip resulted in numerous senior officers’ deaths. Janeway also faced the daunting duty of integrating Chakotay's Maquis fighters into her own roster. First officer and chief engineer were filled by Chakotay and B'Elanna Torres, while disgraced Starfleet officer Tom Paris took the helm. Voyager's medical staff consisted of its Emergency Medical Hologram and Ocampan nurse-in-training Kes. Of course, who could forget about the vital roles of chef and chief morale officer held by Neelix? Ultimately, this mismatch of individuals became perhaps the most familial unit in Starfleet history.
Covert operations also provided a myriad of circumstances where traditional hierarchies experienced disarray. When Captain Kirk decided to capture John Harrison in Star Trek Into Darkness, he and Spock led a small team to Qo'noS aboard a K'normian trading ship. As such, John Cho's Sulu assumed command of the Enterprise during a crucial moment. While junior officers regularly sit in the big chair when the captain is away, Sulu's orders required him to confront Harrison (a.k.a. Khan Noonien Singh) over the comm as the Enterprise sat disabled in Klingon space. Sulu handled the task with confidence, proving that his leadership skills resonated as much in the Kelvin Timeline as it did for his Prime counterpart.
During the Dominion War, a joint Federation-Cardassian strike team infiltrated arepair facility in the Kelvas system to pilfer a Jem'Hadar fighter equipped with a Breen energy dampening weapon. Tumultuous times for the Federation Alliance and the Cardassian rebels meant that former Bajoran terrorist Kira Nerys worked in concert with several prominent Cardassians during the ordeal. While the mission succeeded, Damar killed his close friend Rusot when the latter attempted to murder Kira and expressed a desire to revive the old Cardassian Empire. Needless to say, such an incident bore more in common with a Klingon hierarchy than one involving Starfleet.
The U.S.S. Discovery crew during the Klingon War presented itself as a unique case even among the aforementioned abnormal situations. The vessel's purpose as a test-bed for spore drive technology developed in response to the fleet's need for a weapon to help win the war. Saru and Detmer only received their Discovery assignments after the U.S.S. Shenzhou’s destruction. Jason Isaacs’ Captain Lorca assumed the center chair after losing his previous in combat. Of course, he turned out to be Lorca's Mirror Universe counterpart, a deceitful scalawag manipulating events in order to return home. Further complicating matters, tactical officer Ash Tyler served as an undercover Klingon spy, albeit unaware of his true purpose aboard the Discovery. As such, the command crew materialized from a mix of wartime necessity, covert operations, and Mirror Lorca and Tyler/Voq’s personal pursuits.
By its definition, an unconventional group of senior officers is something rare and unique. However, such circumstances tend to be short-term situations resulting from tragedies or mission-specific requirements. Voyager and Discovery proved to be "outliers among the outliers," as their individual issues each lasted for extended periods of time. Interestingly, the trials endured by those two starships helped solidify crewmember bonds... with the notable exception of Mirror Lorca.
Jay Stobie is a science fiction writer who admits he has a perfectly normal obsession with Star Trek. He has also contributed to Star Trek Magazine and can be found on Twitter at @CaptStobie.