To many, the term “utopia” may conjure images of something like the Garden of Eden, Camelot, or Shangri-La. Some definitions of utopia can mean that one is “unaware of the knowledge of good and evil.” While many may see utopian cultures as visions of perfect societies, we should consider how these cultures became unified and unadulterated.
This reflection brings us to the United Federation of Planets and what fellow Star Trek fans may see as an ultimate utopian alliance of cultures. Those in the Federation have, for the most part, moved past the need to understand the binary distinction between good and evil and towards a richer, more inclusive society.
But, in order to understand utopia, it is equally important not to lose sight of the journey these cultures took to reach this place of perfection. It is important to understand how dystopian elements, introduced by characters like Gabriel Lorca in Star Trek: Discovery, are critical to the creation of utopian societies. Neither the Federation nor any other utopian society sprang fully formed from the minds of their creators; on the contrary, utopia is born from the lessons taught by dystopian factors, learning to overcome those elements, and often through great sacrifice.
Discovery is unusually dark and gritty for a Trek series, but the darkness is necessary. It helps craft an ideal society for the future, despite a perhaps less than ideal present. Even though he’s from the Mirror Universe, Gabriel Lorca isn’t really that out of place for a man in wartime. He takes actions which are questionable and some people around him, including Admiral Cornwell, try to take him to task, claiming they are not aligned with Starfleet principles. To be fair, we don’t see a lot of the other captains during the war; we don’t honestly know what they may or may not be doing in the name of victoriously ending a devastating conflict. Who is to say what a captain, alone in space and facing an impossible, morally ambiguous choice, might decide to do?
As twisted as Mirror Lorca turned out to be, one thing I kept thinking about while watching season one of Discovery was how very cryptic the phrase “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” really is. It sounds like a grandiose, even logical ideal, but in practice it creates a host of quandaries. Who decides who the many and the few are? What their needs are? What is best for them all? In a war, saving lives and ending the fighting as peacefully as possible is the goal, but in the course of pursuing that aim, or in creating a utopia, some measures may be taken which are opposed to utopian ideals.
Take, for instance, Lorca’s exploitation of the tardigrade in “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not for the Lamb’s Cry.” This episode highlighted the uncertainty of their situation. Lorca appears distressed by the news that the mining colony on Corvan II is under attack and that no help can reach them before they are destroyed. Not only are hundreds of civilians in danger, the mining colony produces nearly half of the dilithium for Starfleet. It is a tactical and humanitarian crisis in the making. Lorca naturally uses the resources available to him — mainly, the spore drive. That the spore drive requires the tardigrade to function properly, and that operating the spore drive seems to hurt it, is irrelevant in Lorca’s view. He has the ability to save Corvan II and its colonists, so he takes advantage of that. The tardigrade is the ‘few’ — not the ‘many’ — in this equation. It is used much like other animals are in medical testing; it may be distasteful, but it is necessary. Only when the question of the creature’s sentience is factored in does it truly make a difference in the way the crew uses it, despite the reservations Burnham and others already have toward using it.
There is also the matter of Stamets and his ability to navigate the mycelial network. Once the tardigrade is no longer available to power the spore drive, Stamets takes its place. Initially, Lorca doesn’t realize this switch has occurred. Once he learns of it, though, he wastes no time in pushing the engineer to his limits. Lorca presses every advantage in testing the performance of the spore drive once it is powered by “a willing participant.” With the increased functionality of the drive now apparent, Discovery is able to make real headway in the war, something that they had not been able to achieve to Lorca’s satisfaction previously. Having a willing participant also effectively removes several moral grey areas for Lorca once Stamets chooses to take his position in the spore chamber. When Stamets balks, Lorca is ruthless in using guilt, combined with arguments about the needs of the many, to convince him to continue as the spore drive navigator.
The captain repeatedly makes demands of Stamets and the rest of his crew that show a disregard for their well-being, but it is an acceptable risk in the face of a greater existential danger to the Federation. Again, winning the war, saving civilian lives and strategic targets, and discovering the frequency of the Klingons’ cloaking device are all higher priority to Lorca than the safety of one man, or even his whole crew. The mission to get the cloaking frequency shows just how far not only Lorca, but the entire crew of Discovery will go to gain an upper hand in the war.
Though he is from the Mirror Universe, Lorca reminds viewers that Starfleet does sometimes have to make sacrifices and decisions that may take away pieces of their soul, but which contribute to a more utopian society. Many episodes throughout the franchise have discussed captains or leaders having to be willing and able to order a crew member to their death to save the ship or preserve a mission. Many of Lorca’s actions, while ruthless and even brutal at first glance, mirror and anticipate those of Kirk, Picard, or Sisko. The difference seems to be that these later captains had the actions of their predecessors like Lorca to hold up as examples of what to do and what not to. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
However, without the iniquity and moral equivocation of Gabriel Lorca to guide them, other captains may have encountered situations where their ethical high ground wasn’t so absolute, where their utopian ideals were not so well-established. Without Lorca’s actions, the Federation may have been unable to overcome certain growing pains; it may not have carried on at all. Lorca’s darkness is necessary, and without it, the Federation’s utopia could look a lot different.
Kristen McQuinn (she/her) is a single mother by choice, a medievalist by study, and die hard sci-fi fan by nature. She's published several short stories, including in the Strange New Worlds 2016 anthology, and is currently writing a nonfiction book on the wives of King John, published through Pen and Sword. Follow her on Twitter @KristenMcQuinn.
Star Trek: Discovery streams on Paramount+ in the United States, airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada, and on Netflix in 190 countries.