The Federation was always a dream. Admiral Ramirez said so. Right back to the time I first started watching Star Trek, I found in it a great sense of hope. Gene Roddenberry, for what faults he may have had, had a very simple, fairly beautiful idea for his ‘Wagon Train to the Stars‘: his crew and their ship, the USS Enterprise, would be the agents of a utopian future civilisation, where humanity had overcome its primitive flaws, solved the problems of disease, poverty, capitalism and war, and finally ventured into space in peaceful exploration.
Star Trek made a point, throughout The Original Series and the early seasons of The Next Generation, of emphasising the values of the United Federation of Planets, or UFP. Equity, respect, freedom, responsibility… The Federation was moral. It was classless, non-racist, environmentally conscious, technologically responsible. It did not promote or attempt to suppress religion. Art and creativity were valued as much as science and medicine. People were valued and the diversity of humani… er… sapientity? …truly respected for the strength and adaptability it brings. The UFP was, in every respect, a beacon of what a civilisation could become – and, of course, it was completely, unrealistically idealistic. It was, quite literally, a dream: something that in real life I would never imagine might ever actually be achieved; but it was something to aim for; something one could keep in mind like American Christians do with Jesus: “What Would Jesus Do?”, they allegedly ask themselves before deciding how to approach a decision. I always felt I could ask, “What would they do in the Federation?”
(This isn’t because I don’t have gods of my own. It’s just that… well, have you met the Roman gods?)
I’ve written before about the fact that I believe wisdom is where you find it – and I’ve always felt there’s a lot of it in Star Trek. I mean there’s some absolute abject bollocks in there, too, mind, let’s not forget; and an awful lot of stuff that’s either made up on the fly by apparently drunk people, or at least written hastily to fill in insignificant plot holes that only angry fans on Reddit ever cared about. But I was always confident about the portrayal of the UFP: no matter what challenges the crew and their friends might face, their values and principles would see them right. And if that isn’t entirely compatible with the real world, it at least fed the dream – the idea that, one day, this might, possibly, be the direction we might go.
That we might, in short, be okay.
When Gene Roddenberry stepped away from the production of The Next Generation, and as control passed to others, the Federation began to tarnish. Several mid-series stories in TNG portrayed conflict between the Enterprise-D crew and high-ranking elements in either Starfleet Command or the Federation itself. An alien conspiracy taking over Starfleet’s toppest brass (a storyline that finished, if I recall correctly, with Picard and Riker exploding an Admiral’s head). An effort by some other higher-ups to seize Commander Data, the ship’s unique android crewmember, and dismantle him for science, and an inquest called to rule on whether or not Data should be considered a ‘person’, with the rights that demanded. (He was.)
There was ‘The Drumhead’, a story in which a retired admiral returns to conduct an investigation into a possible Romulan conspiracy aboard the Enterprise-D. She’s eventually found to have become obsessed with rooting out heresy, to the point that she’s abandoned the Federation’s values of justice and ethics entirely.
And then there was Section 31.
A secretive department of Starfleet, answerable to no-one but itself, appearing on no books and in no records, Section 31 was introduced in spinoff series Deep Space Nine. Section 31 was a powerful, covert force that engaged in those activities necessary to a state, but which the Federation could not admit to openly. Section 31 carried out espionage, sabotage, assassination – and they did it all on their own judgement, without any oversight from either Starfleet Command or elected representatives in the Federation Council.
Although Section 31 made for some good stories, this sat badly with me. This wasn’t my Federation.
And then in the movies: in Star Trek: Insurrection, the UFP’s high-ups want to forcibly remove a society living on a planet that’s bathed in a special kind of rejuvenating radiation from a nearby ring system. The people living in this radiation field are constantly made young, healed of diseases and injuries, and the Federation craves this resource. Surely, it reasons, this healing spring should be made available to everyone. And when reason doesn’t persuade the residents to move to make room, the Federation – or an element of it – engages in a secret alliance with an alien race to remove the people by deception. And then, finally, the conduct of the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine, which stripped away the last glimmer of shiny morality from the Federation and left it no different from the Romulans on one side, the Klingons on the other, and the Cardassians lurking around somewhere nearby.
None of this ever made Star Trek bad. Plenty of things did: the dialogue, sometimes; the design of aliens; the implausible storylines; the heavy dependence on technobabble and the time-travel reset button in Star Trek: Voyager… There were lots of things that made me cringe.
“So you’re all astronauts, on some kind of star trek?”– Zefram Cochrane (James Cromwell), inventor of the warp drive, utters the most unforgivably atrocious line in the entire ‘Star Trek‘ franchise, and possibly in moviemaking as a whole. ‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)
But the Federation going bad – or at least amoral – didn’t make me want to stop watching. It just made me a bit sad. It felt like a dream had faded away. The admittedly implausible idea that, one day, we might get past these problems that have hung like millstones round our necks for countless millennia. One day, we might just make it after all. And if I just stuck to the values the Federation stood for, as fictitious and TV-show as it may have been, I might manage to be a more reliably decent, moral person. Maybe not a nice person; maybe not likeable – but at least moral.
Obviously I can still stick to those values. I am capable of deciding my own morality, of course. But I suppose this is why people follow gods, leaders, celebrities and other role models: it helps to be able to look to someone or something else and say, “I want to be that”. To feel as though you belong to a thing, or are linked to a person, even if the thing is not real, or the person is a fictitious character or some distant public figure.
To imagine humanity one day unifying, overcoming its petty hatreds and greed, resolving the insecurity and fear that drive capitalism, putting aside violence and working together to make things better – even if it was going to happen long after I’d gone… This was a great dream to me. I don’t know why I’ve suddenly become so conscious of this. Maybe the real world going the way it has been recently has just highlighted that earlier, gradual let-down as the Federation steadily gave up its dream and became just a reflection of the real-life, modern world, but with spaceships.
“There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.”– Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris); ‘Gladiator’ (2000)