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Five Moral Dillemas in Star Trek

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Five Moral Dilemmas in Star Trek Examined

Moral dilemmas have been one of the fundamental cores of Star Trek. Rather than a mere space adventure series, Star Trek from its inception had been concerned with questions of morality, debates over right and wrong, the philosophical issues of power and technological near omnipotence and the choices that we make.

Each Star Trek television series has had episodes that examined a moral question and here we take a look at five of them, one for each of the five Star Trek series.

A Private Little War (Star Trek: The Original Series)

A Private Little War has often been described as Star Trek’s own Vietnam War analogy. A Private Little War was broadcast around the time of the Tet Offensive, a turning point in the Vietnam War when support had begun to drain away and the public perception of it had taken a decided turn for the worse. Indeed the episode even indirectly references Vietnam.

The screenplay for A Private Little War had been written by Gene Roddenberry himself and Gene Coon, the man who besides Gene Roddenberry had done the most to make Star Trek what it was. The result was an episode that posed the impossible dilemma and the same one that the United States was facing in its worldwide struggle with the Soviet Union. With the Klingons arming one native faction on the planet Neural, Captain Kirk returns to a world he had once explored and fondly remembered to face a troubling choice, between arming the pacifist villagers who are his friends or witnessing their destruction and the rise of Klingon influence on a valuable planet.

In other words in combating evil, how much evil can you yourself do? The question would haunt the United States for much of the second half of the 20th century and well into today’s era. It continues to raise trouble questions about military tactics and proxy war. In A Private Little War, Gene Roddenberry, who had served in the Air Force, and Gene L. Coon, a former United States Marine, represented the uneasy answer of two military veterans to the question. Some have treated and even condemned A Private Little War for an endorsement of the Vietnam War but A Private Little War was no open endorsement of war, instead it was a troubled recognition that sometimes there are no easy answers.

A Private Little War is no gung ho patriotic enterprise, it does not glorify or celebrate Kirk’s actions, like Kirk himself, it treats it as a bad answer which for lack of a better answer, is the one that we are left with. Sometimes violence is called for, sometimes the Prime Directive must be broken and sometimes the ends make the means necessary. It is not an ideal answer but it is the one that commonly runs through Star Trek whose crews are dedicated to peace and yet carry phasers, who practice war yet work for a better future.

Suddenly Human (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Suddenly Human, in contrast to many of Star Trek’s more ambitious and star spanning moral issues about the dangers of power and the morality of intervention, raised a question about intervention on a much smaller scale, at the level of the family.

Suddenly Human featured the discovery of a human boy, Jeremiah Rossa, on board a Talarian ship. The Talarians had once fought a war with the United Federation of Planets and had booby trapped their ships. In the process they had attacked human colonies and killed Jeremiah’s parents. Jeremiah himself had been taken and adopted by the Talarian Captain Endar to be his own son. While before the episode had aired there had been rumors that it would deal with child abuse, a hot topic then at the time the episode aired driven by tabloid journalism and media sensationalism, in actuality it addressed questions of culture and rights. Whose rights were to prevail and whose wishes?

That of Captain Endar whose culture gave him the right to take the children of his enemies and raise them for his own. That of Jeremiah’s grandmother, a Starfleet Admiral. That of Jeremiah’s parents, murdered by Captain Endar, who surely would have wanted their child to be raised by family. That of Jeremiah himself who has been raised as Talarian and as a human child in an alien environment overcompensated to fit in and who clings to his Talarian upbringing even while a human part of him is slowly coming awake. After Jeremiah Rossa stabs Captain Picard, Picard makes the decision to send him back to the Talarians.

Captain Picard throughout the series always displayed his discomfort with children and while he made the attempt to engage Jeremiah who was drawn to him as the Captain, a substitute father figure for his Talarian father, Captain Endar, he never became comfortable with Jeremiah. The entire familial issue was not one that Picard was ever comfortable addressing and with Jeremiah’s desperate and violent outburst, he took the opportunity to rid himself of the problem.

On the one hand Suddenly Human endorsed Star Trek The Next Generation’s ‘culture centered morality’, in which human values had to defer to alien values, which were considered equally legitimate due to cultural relativism. On the other hand like A Private Little War, Captain Picard recognized that he was making an unsatisfactory decision, a bad choice which was all he had for lack of a better choice. The situation could never be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction and so in the spirit of the Prime Directive (even though it did not apply here), he restored the status quo instead.

In The Pale Moonlight (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)

War arguably raises the most moral dilemmas and Deep Space Nine’s Dominion War raised many moral issues. In The Pale Moonlight featured the direct and open sort of war which required similar moral compromises to that of A Private Little War. Rather than the open war of starships and phasers, In The Pale Moonlight featured a dirtier war of shadows and deceit fought by moonlight in which Sisko recruits Garak to help him bring the Romulan Empire into the war and the moral price he has to pay for allowing Garak to do it the old fashioned Obsidian Order sort of way.

Sisko has never been a commander too obsessed with morality as For The Uniform amply demonstrated, yet even he had moral lines that he felt uncomfortable crossing and In the Pale Moonlight, he is forced to deal with treachery and assassination being carried out in his own name. Yet in the end Garak appears correct, to survive the Federation needs the Romulan Empire in the war and the Dominion no doubt did have an attack plan aimed at the Romulans. Garak made the hard choices that Sisko would not make. They are not choices Gene Roddenberry would have approved of but as a former military man he might have understood.

Tuvix (Star Trek Voyager)

Tuvix was one of the most troubling Star Trek episodes ever featuring a transporter accident that blended Tuvok and Neelix into a single entity, Tuvix, a man with both their qualities and yet his own personality and mind. The resulting creation is an individual and a loyal crew member eagerly serving as a friend and fellow officer until a way is discovered to reverse the transformation and restore Tuvok and Neelix by destroying Tuvix.

Tuvix protests his own destruction and yet finds no allies among a stepford Voyager crew but the Doctor who refuses to carry out an act that will murder a sentient and intelligent creature. So it is Janeway herself who pulls the metaphorical switch, murdering Tuvix to restore Tuvok and Neelix.

The troubling issues of Tuvix and Janeway’s role in the murder of a defenseless person raised questions within fandom for some time after. Tuvix had been a unique creation with his own personality. He had come about through no fault of his own and had not set out to destroy Tuvok or Neelix. His murder might be comparable to keeping Tuvok and Neelix alive by killing a third party and harvesting their organs. Yet ironically when Neelix’s own organs were harvested, Janeway let it go. That kind of confused morality was an unfortunate hallmark of Star Trek Voyager as well as Captain Janeway’s continued inability to distinguish between crew and family.

Damage (Star Trek Enterprise)

In a season featuring the deaths of hundreds of millions on earth and the annihilation of humanity, Damage was still arguably the season’s darkest episode as Captain Archer on board a battered Enterprise has to make a terrible decision, to turn pirate and raid and strand the crew of another ship in order to be able to make a rendezvous with Xindi allies who might be able to stop the destruction of Earth.

It is a dark hour, all the more so because like Captain Kirk in A Private Little War and Captain Sisko in In The Pale Moonlight and unlike Captain Janeway in Tuvix or Captain Picard in Suddenly Human, Captain Archer is well aware of what he is doing and the moral toll of his actions. Yet what is at stake is so crucial and so great that he simply has no choice.

And that lack of choice is the darkest end to the moral dilemmas of Star Trek. For dilemmas in which choices are easy are also easily resolvable. The most difficult are those where there is no true right answer.

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