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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.

Star Trek Enterprise Season 1 Review – Mid-Season Review

One of the best ways to measure where Enterprise is at this point is by looking back at where previous Star Trek series were at this stage, just ten episodes into their first season.

star trek enterpriseTNG at this point had produced several disastrous episodes such as “The Naked Now” and “Justice” that would haunt the series in reruns. Its ninth episode, “The Battle”, featured the introduction of the new series menace, the Ferengi, that were doomed to become comic relief for a decade to come. And it ended with “Hide and Q”, one of the more mediocre Q episodes of the series. By this point many Star Trek fans had decided that the attempt to create a Star Trek series without Kirk and Spock had failed miserably and they had justification for thinking so. TNG’s pilot was ambitious but it was also deeply flawed. Many of the episodes suffered from an attempt to recapture TOS’s spirit, but instead were painfully serious blunders featuring ham handed and joyless philosophical meditations. At the same time there were hopeful signs if anyone cared to read them. Code of Honor pointed towards the strength that TNG would find in its Klingon themes. Q had already become a fixture of the series and would go on to serve as an effective foil against Captain Picard. Still no fan could have been blamed for giving up on the series at this point. Fortunately most fans chose to keep watching and TNG increased its viewership despite being in syndication, it became one of television’s dominant series.

DS9’s first ten episodes also had no shortage of embarrassing and clumsy material such as “Past Prologue”, “Babel” and “The Passenger.” Like TNG, its key strengths were also becoming visible in its reliance on characters. Odo’s isolation in “A Man Alone”, O’Brien being forced to choose between the rules and what had to be done in “Captive Pursuit”, Sisko’s relationship with his son in “Babel” and the complexity and diversity of station life itself. In both series, the strengths and weaknesses that would prove to both attract and repel viewers over their seven year runs were already on display ten episodes in.

The question is, where does Enterprise stand on this scale? For the most part Enterprise has consisted of episodes that painstakingly reexamine standard Star Trek plots under the guise of Birth of Space Exploration episodes. Enterprise has stripped away the complexity of the usual Star Trek material and instead attempted to bring them to life by examining the mechanisms of exploration and taking a look back into the past of Star Trek continuity, rather than creating more complex plots based around showing us what we haven’t seen before or the political and military intrigues of a crowded galaxy. The result, though, has often been episodes with little content based on plots that aren’t particularly original. With the exception of Suliban arc episodes such as “Cold Front”, these episodes had nothing new or original to offer us. They do not stand out in memory and make uninspiring rerun viewing at best.

When such plots are linked to character growth of the other crew members as in Fight or Flight or Fortunate Son, they can work. However, so far most of the episodes linked to Archer’s character growth and Trip’s relationship to Vulcans: Civilization, Strange New World and Andorian Incident have failed rather badly. Enterprise seems to have adopted human contact with Vulcans as a major theme, but it is a theme that has simply failed to take off and seems rather forced. Though humanity has supposedly been in contact with Vulcans for some time, Trip had a Vulcan teacher and Archer even served aboard a Vulcan ship; they are bafflingly clueless about Vulcans. Despite all this experience in “Breaking the Ice” Archer appears to be unaware that Vulcans will not engage in small talk or have lunch with him. As such it relies more on minor cultural blunders to define the relationship, which would have long been overcome by this date, rather than focusing on divisions produced by more fundamental issues and agendas. Enterprise’s view of the Vulcans is one-dimensional, as is its view of humans and the resulting collision is not particularly interesting. As such the Vulcan theme, on a par with TNG’s Ferengi menace, may need to be dramatically retooled.

A further aspect of the problem is the essential blandness of the two Enterprise characters, around whom most episodes revolve, Archer and Trip. Some Star Trek Captains may have been offensive and widely hated, but up until now they have never been bland. But that is the best way to describe Captain Archer. He lacks any of the quirks or flaws of a Kirk or a Picard or even a Sisko or Janeway. In the aftermath of such controversial characters, he is simply the result of an attempt to produce a character who is thoroughly amiable and inoffensive and whom no one could possibly hate. But that very attempt has produced an uninteresting character, a bland leading man with no distinguishing characteristics. There is essentially nothing interesting or unique about Archer. Nothing to set him apart as a memorable character like Kirk or Picard.

While some blame for this may be laid at the door of the producers, ultimately character actors like Shatner and Stewart gave their characters life, resulting in what for better or worse were unique characters imprinted on the American pop culture psyche. On the other hand, Archer is eminently forgettable. He is distinguished by nothing except his very quality of inoffensiveness. Archer has come closest to making an impression in episodes such as Fight or Flight or Cold Front, where he was forced to struggle with difficult choices that helped define his character and led away from blandness and towards defining moments that helped place his character on a moral geography. Those were good episodes, but realistically speaking most episodes will not be up to their standards and a Captain should ideally make an impression whenever his character is on screen. For better or worse, even Sisko and Janeway managed to do that. Archer feels more like a blank space titled ‘Insert Starship Captain Here.’

To some extent that charge can also be levied against the general crew makeup, which is heavily white anglo-saxon male with the minorities serving as junior officers. Traditionally, alien characters have become a series’ breakout characters. SpockData characters for instance have often taken over the series as the Doctor and Seven of Nine did on Voyager. For now, however, the producers have designated Archer and Trip for the bulk of the airtime. Hopefully this will begin to change and more interesting characters such as Doctor Phlox, T’Pol and Reed who are played by more talented actors will begin to get more airtime.

Ultimately the key difference between Enterprise ten episodes in and TNG, DS9 and Voyager ten episodes in, is that the failures of those shows often came from testing the limits. Enterprise’s failures on the other hand are produced by conservative and derivative plots and a failure to take chances. Star Trek series have tested the limits early on, defined them and used them as parameters for the rest of the series. Enterprise is doing its best to be inoffensive and giving viewers nothing to object to and nothing that might alienate them. The viewership numbers showing less of a falloff suggest that this may be working, but it has also resulted in a less interesting and less compelling show; at least thus far.

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