Since 1966 Star Trek has been inviting people to imagine a better world. Though Gene Roddenberry largely invented the narrative that his better world was under assault from producers, most people still remember Kirk and Uhura’s kiss as the first interracial kiss on television. The show imagines a world in which exploration, discovery, and intergalactic camaraderie are the defining characteristics of humanity.
The entire franchise takes place in the 23rd and 24th century with a post-scarcity coalition of planets called the United Federation of Planets or simply the Federation. The show centers on the activities of its primary exploration organization called Starfleet. There have been seven spin-off series since The Original Series: The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, and just this year Picard.
After creator Gene Roddenberry died while The Next Generation was still on the air, several people took the helm and continued his legacy. This gave rise to a much more gritty and morally sophisticated Deep Space Nine. It was the first in the franchise to feature a Black captain. It continued the trend of pushing for more representation, including a same-gender kiss, and a sort-of-but-not-really trans character. It was arguably the best series in the franchise, receiving numerous awards.
Deep Space Nine was most notable for tackling social problems that existed throughout history, not just in the real-world present, but also in the centuries that led up to the founding of the Federation. Unfortunately, the imagining of what bad things happen in the near future mapped quite neatly onto what has actually transpired in the last five years. It also introduced Section 31, a CIA-like intelligence organization that conducted numerous extralegal missions to ensure that the utopian paradise of the Federation remained that way. The implication was that paradise came at the cost of some truly awful things that ran contrary to Federation ideals.
But there was one major thing that in all its iterations Star Trek never truly called into question. The most important thing in Starfleet, general order number one, is called, “The Prime Directive” which dictates that Starfleet will not interfere in the natural evolution of a species or culture. The franchise makes great use of this rule to drive stories about situations in which it might seem like a good idea to break that rule, but ultimately the better way of non-intervention wins out.
What goes largely ignored within the narrative is that the Federation is in fact a colonial empire. Within the Federation, people are free to explore whatever makes them happy and they’re encouraged to become the best self they can be, but outside of the Federation there are entire worlds decimated by disease, hunger, war, and every terrible thing that plagues 21st century earth. In order to join the Federation a world must have a united world government that was chosen by and is representative of all its people.
Starving under a fascist regime? No Federation membership for those poor folks.
Moreover, Starfleet actively seeks out and recruits worlds, especially worlds that have resources and technologies that would be valuable to the Federation. It is precisely because of the Prime Directive that Star Trek makes a pretense of not being a colonial power, but rather than avoiding colonialism it simply reimagines colonialism to be something that benefits the colonized. Deep Space Nine almost nailed down this gaping flaw in the Federation’s ideology by showing the complex politics of a world called Bajor that sought membership. It came closer by narratively casting the Bajoran rebellion against the Cardassian occupation of Bajor as a justified fight for freedom. In the end, it turned Captain Benjamin Sisko into Bajoran Jesus and lost that particular thread of metanarrative critique.
From Britain to the United States, there have always been descendants of the colonizers who argue that colonialism benefited the colonized. And that’s a problem because Star Trek has tackled the issue of colonialism in its more obvious forms such as the film Star Trek: Insurrection which dealt with colonization and forced relocations, but it never managed to take that criticism and reflect it back on itself. Any time it looks like the Federation might be engaging in colonialism, there are plot-contrived reasons why it was isolated: a rogue Starfleet admiral, alien body snatchers, or accidental colonialism.
2020 kicked off with the premiere of Star Trek: Picard. As if to portend how awful a year 2020 was going to be, Picard doubled down on its willful ignorance of the Federation’s colonialism, but good actually-problem. The pilot, a two-parter, introduces the audience to a retired Admiral Jean-Luc Picard overseeing his family vineyard. It turns out that Picard retired from Starfleet in protest after the Federation refused to help their long-time enemies, the Romulans, evacuate their homeworld before the Romulan sun exploded. When asked why he left Starfleet, Picard angrily says, “Because it wasn’t Starfleet!”
Picard’s words ring hollow. His indignation that the Federation would leave its enemies to be obliterated by a supernova is exactly what the Prime Directive insists must happen. The Romulans didn’t want to be a part of the Federation and therefore the extinction of an entire people is an acceptable loss. And instead of introspection, the plot of season one places responsibility for Starfleet’s inaction on a Romulan separatist group that infiltrated key areas of the Federation.
I’d like to believe Star Trek can do better and tell a meaningful story in the process, but after 774 episodes, 35 seasons, and 13 films; I am not holding out hope.