This week, I’m going to do something a bit different with the weekly column because we’re still in the break period between the end of Prodigy and the premiere of Picard’s third and final season. I want to use this space to touch on a question that seems to be percolating through the zeitgeist of a lot of modern, post-Berman Trek, which is what happens when the ideal doesn’t quite turn out to be all it’s cracked up to be. Roddenberry envisioned the Federation as a functioning utopia, in which humanity and other member species had eradicated poverty, war, hunger, disease, and any other ill you could possibly imagine, allowing them a certain moral freedom to explore the final frontier. While TOS and TNG tacitly acknowledge that the Federation vision is as flawed as the writers and producers that give it life, they and nineties Trek tend to give the Federation a pass. Deep Space Nine stands out as a franchise installment for being willing to explore a little deeper into an ostensible dark side to the Federation, which is why we now have Section 31, but even with the shenanigans involving that body, there’s still a fundamental assumption that the Federation is mostly good.
Modern Trek seems to be questioning whether that’s really the case. We’re seeing attempts to poke at some of the Federation’s canonical biases on a level we haven’t really seen before. In Strange New Worlds the question of what will happen to Una Chin-Riley is apparently going to be a major plot point for season two, and lest we forget, Una has been taken into custody for lying about her origins. She lied, of course, because she’s an Ilyrian and has therefore undergone genetic manipulation to make her more than she might otherwise have been. In Prodigy, we get the major reveal that Dal is an Augment, a being assembled from the DNA of multiple Federation member species, and until Janeway shames Starfleet into taking him, his future was in no way certain. Even in Picard’s first season, we see a Federation that has completely outlawed the development of artificial intelligence and the resulting cascade failure of the Federation to live up to its own principles with respect to the Romulans and the fringe worlds. The Fenris Rangers literally step into the vacuum left by a Starfleet that should have been there. In Discovery, we get a Federation that has been decimated by the Burn, leaving the Emerald Chain to step in and take advantage of the chaos.
Each of these biases, be it against androids, augments, or strangers, has its roots in fear and an overreaction to that fear. Earth outlaws genetic manipulation due to the trauma of the Eugenics Wars, and when the Federation forms, the Terrans insist on codifying that fear into Federation law. Hundreds of fictitious years later, the Federation again overcorrects and outlaws the development of artificial life because androids perpetrated a terrorist attack that wiped out Mars. In a far-flung future, the terror left in the wake of the simultaneous destruction of all ships powered by dilithium shattered the Federation, leading even the founding member worlds to isolate themselves and regard outsiders with paranoia and suspicion.
If Starfleet, and by extension the Federation, exist to “boldly go where no one has gone before,” then the real antithesis of everything the Federation stands for is fear. It’s no wonder, therefore, that the events causing the greatest damage to the Federation way of life stem from events that create this kind of all-encompassing fear, and the narrative solution each of these series finds is for the characters to work through that fear. Discovery explores themes of connection and communication the same way Prodigy does, effectively demonstrating that when we reach out to a stranger in good faith, we’ve got just as much of a chance of making a friend as we do an enemy. In Picard, the eponymous character gets the opportunity to atone for mistakes in his past by encouraging cooperation and communication (with the help of a Starfleet armada). We haven’t seen how things will unfold in Strange New Worlds, but I suspect it’ll be something of a variation on this theme.
However, the first step that must be taken for any progress to occur is to recognize the fear for what it is and to see just how deeply it runs. I don’t think we can ignore the similarities between the Federation’s metaphorical struggle and current social and political struggles because what Trek is doing is exploring how to move forward when your society has been rocked and fragmented by fear. Do you burn it all to the ground and start over? Do you try to adapt the existing framework? What is the best course of action? I think Prodigy offers the simplest solution here: you do better.
I’m going to be interested to see how Picard tackles this issue, especially as it comes on the heels of Prodigy’s extraordinarily strong freshman season. More importantly, however, we know that this next season may be looking backward to TNG in a tangible way, so I wonder whether Picard is going to pick up on this particular theme. I think that would be an area ripe for some really interesting exploration, and I hope that the Picard series picks up this particular torch and runs with it. I guess we’ll have to wait and see in February.