At the Brink

Section 31, Servitude, and Control: The Dark Side of the Federation’s Utopia

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

With the second episode of Picard airing tonight, after this column goes live, I want to take the opportunity to explore one of the main themes with which the new show seems to want to wrestle. In the world of Picard, the utopian ideal of the Federation has begun to fracture. We know this from both “Children of Mars” and “Remembrance.” From the visual cues in “Children of Mars” that suggest the beginnings of class differences to Picard’s deeply held conviction that Starfleet has lost its sense of honor in the wake of the attack by the so-called “synthetics,” the Federation in Picard feels very different from the Federation we came to know through The Next Generation. However, looking a bit deeper into the representation of the Federation, we can see the very beginnings of these fractures.

Section 31, of course, serves as the easiest example of how the vision of the Federation differs from the actual practice. In Deep Space Nine, Section 31 holds itself out as an organization that exists so that Starfleet will not have to sully itself with some of the darker things that allegedly must happen. After all, Section 31 developed a morphogenic virus specifically tailored to destroying the Changelings and infected Odo with same three years before hostilities actually broke out between the Dominion and the Federation. Section 31 developed Control, which wreaked such havoc in Discovery’s second season, and the organization also emerges as a plot driver in both Enterprise and Star Trek: Into Darkness, always serving as an antagonist to the honor of Starfleet, Ash Tyler’s belief in the organization notwithstanding. Again and again, the organization justifies its existence by pleading necessity. Section 31 does those things which the Federation cannot overtly acknowledge. The episodes in question imply heavily that Section 31 will continue, and indeed, the operatives seem to be just as dedicated to their cause as their Starfleet brethren. The continued existence of the organization after its repeated discovery heavily implies that the Federation’s utopian ideal is not enough. Simply living by the principles it espouses, is not enough to ensure the Federation’s interests are best served. Ira Steven Behr deliberately created Section 31 for precisely this reason, and I sometimes think we overlook just how radically that idea changes the concept of the Federation. Unfortunately, I would argue that Deep Space Nine fails to go far enough in exploring this idea because the episode resolutions tie up certain loose ends but leave others floundering.

Beyond Section 31, however, we see some cracks in the utopia already manifesting in The Next Generation. In “The High Ground,” Finn argues to Picard that the Federation has become involved with the planet’s civil upheaval by doing business with and supporting the majority government. He contends that kidnapping Dr. Crusher is merely a way of forcing the Federation to acknowledge that involvement, and for better or worse, he is correct. His observation that the Federation simply doesn’t want to get its hands dirty is spot on. In “Homeward,” Picard’s adherence to the Prime Directive nearly results in the destruction of an entire species, which in light of the general spirit of Starfleet, comes across as unnecessarily cruel. Even beyond these examples, the existence of the Maquis is an indictment of the Federation as utopia as are the episodes in which the Federation wishes to strip Data of person-hood for its own scientific gain.

Going back even earlier in franchise history, the TOS episode “A Private Little War” reflects a proxy war between the Federation and the Klingon empire, in which both groups provide weapons to opposing pre-industrial tribes. Certainly, neither Kirk nor McCoy want to engage in this activity, but as representatives of the Federation, they do so, resulting in what could be a never-ending escalation conflict between the Hill Tribe and their enemies. In “A Piece of the Action,” a chance loss of a work of gangster fiction creates a society based on violence and avarice. Upon discovering the issue, Kirk establishes Sigma Iotia II as a client state for the Federation, and while he believes the Federation will guide the Iotians toward a more ethical society, Spock remains skeptical. In “Patterns of Force,” Federation involvement results in near-catastrophic violence and a literal fascist regime. The episode’s message is that absolute power corrupts absolutely and plays the issue off as John Gill’s solitary decision to disobey the Prime Directive. However, Gill, so deeply inculcated in Federation ideals that he taught James Kirk, seizes on efficiency as the highest societal virtue. Therein lies a hint of some of the themes that we see in Section 31.

Lastly, Voyager brings up some fantastic and highly relevant points with respect to the Doctor’s person-hood and by extension the use of certain types of holographic entities. “Author, Author” starts off as a riff on the Doctor’s novel and a discussion of the Doctor as a sentient being, but the episode concludes with a look at a Federation mining colony in which the EMH Mark I’s are being used as slave labor. The implication in the episode’s last minutes is that the Doctor’s holonovel could encourage these holographic laborers to protest their treatment. After having extended the definition of “artist” to include the Doctor, one wonders how the Federation can justify relegating similar programs to servitude. I truly wish Voyager had been able to build on this concept, and I still hope to see the definition of “synth” in Picard to expand to include these programs.

When examined closely, the Federation is an ideal, but the reality is often quite different. I am so excited for Picard in part because I would like to see this new iteration of Star Trek grapple with the failure of the Federation to live up to its espoused ideals. A franchise installment largely concerned with the Federation’s dark side is frankly well overdue, and while I realize that there will be an entire series devoted to Section 31, Picard is best situated to contend with these failures because through Picard’s bitterness and frustration, we as the audience get a chance to see not an organization justifying its necessity or struggling to determine how best to move in the grey areas of life but rather a real indictment of the Federation’s failure. I don’t see this as a betrayal of Roddenberry’s vision because I do think we will see the overall Federation ideals cooperation, morality, collective action, and scientific endeavor represented. I just hope to see a bit of the struggle. As Picard observes in “The Drumhead,” maintaining an ideal society requires constant vigilance and effort, and I hope that going forward, we’ll see that effort manifested.

Stray Thoughts From the Couch:

  1. We’ll be back to covering Picard next week and will likely follow the pattern established for Star Trek: Discovery write-ups, in which my post goes live the week following the episode to give everyone time to watch it.
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