It is often said that Star Trek is unique among science fiction because it presents an optimistic future where humanity’s biggest challenges have been overcome. For fans of the series, this is no secret. We have indeed embraced Star Trek’s vision of a better tomorrow, but we know that the enduring popularity of the series is about more than just a happy future. Star Trek is about our future, not one in a galaxy far, far away, but right here on Earth with our history and values.
To watch Star Trek is to wonder not only what might be possible one day, but also what we can do now to get closer to a Federation-like future. With more than 40 years of television and film carefully considered, Trek fans understand the hard work and difficult questions we must face if we are ever to make real life as prosperous as the 23rd and 24th Centuries.
One such question is that of security, particularly our comfort level with security measures that may impact our other values, such as privacy or human rights. Today, we are wrestling with this balance in America and around the world. It has been at the heart of recent debates over things like the controversial NSA Prism program, which detractors equate to limitless wire-tapping of citizens, or the release of classified military information on sites like WikiLeaks.
In the midst of these complex issues is perhaps the most visible national security case in recent memory, that of U.S. Army Soldier Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning), who, with the help of WikiLeaks, released the largest cache of classified information in U.S. history. Manning and supporters believe the breach in security was justified, having discovered a video showing the deaths of civilians in Iraq. Others strongly disagree, including the courts, which sentenced Manning last month to 35 years in prison for espionage.
No matter one’s opinion of Manning, the NSA or any such case, they shine a light on our current values around security and privacy. In the case of Manning, who saw these actions as honorable, we find ourselves torn between our modern notions of duty and loyalty and those of the thoughtful heroism we often celebrate on television, including in Star Trek. After all, it seems that the moments when our hero speaks out against a wrong make the best episodes.
In Star Trek, it is rare for such an episode to conclude with a conviction or dishonorable discharge from Starfleet. More common are endings where the captain or officer, having disobeyed orders, is cleared of wrongdoing, if not given a promotion once his motivations are revealed as just. This stands in stark contrast to the way these situations unfold in our own world and raises an interesting question:
How would things be different if Manning was a Starfleet officer?
There is no question that Captain James T. Kirk holds the record for disobeying orders. Ignoring commands from admirals and even the President of the Federation, the legendary captain was known for taking matters into his own hands when he found the policies of Starfleet and the Earth government to be shortsighted or misguided. Kirk even stole his own ship, the U.S.S. Enterprise, in an attempt to rescue Spock following their encounter with Khan at the Genesis Planet. Despite these extreme actions, Kirk fared well in the aftermath. Having saved Spock (and all of Earth in the process), Kirk returned home to find his punishment was not a discharge but a reassignment as captain of his beloved Enterprise once again.
Star Trek: First Contact
Captains and senior officers are not the only ones to act against the policies of the Federation. After discovering the Federation’s desperate plot to win the Dominion War by eliminating the Changeling race with a deadly virus, Doctor Bashir and Chief O’Brien take on Starfleet Intelligence directly. Kidnapping an agent of Section 31, Bashir and O’Brien perform an experimental procedure to extract information about the cure from Agent Sloan’s memory, spoiling Starfleet’s secret plans of genocide. You might ask how Captain Sisko reacted to the insubordinate actions of his crewmen, but you will recall that he was in on the plan the whole time. To date, none of the officers have been discharged from Starfleet or sentenced to prison.
These scenarios are of course fiction. They were written at different times in our history, and all before national security once again took center stage in American politics following the attacks of September 11, 2001. They do not show us the reality of our own, challenging times, nor do they present us with the real-life struggles faced by the men and women of our armed forces and security agencies. They remind us that we do not live in the time of Star Trek, and that the future Gene Roddenberry helped us imagine will not come so easily.
We may not live in the Star Trek universe, but there is something to considering these stories as we debate the issues of our time. In the case of national security, perhaps we can use these moments to remind ourselves of what we value most in human nature, and how the actions of our own service men and women compare to the heroics we celebrate in our heroes of fiction. In the process, we may even discover a path forward to a time when the peaceful world we hope for will not be just Star Trek fiction but our own reality.
Anthony Rotolo is a professor at Syracuse University where he teaches “Trek Class”, a college course on the history and cultural significance of Star Trek television series and films. He is also the founder and “Captain” of the “Starship NEXIS,” a lab that explores emerging and experimental technologies.