Star Trek is fundamentally a story about the military. Every incarnation follows the enlisted men and women of Starfleet as they explore or monitor the farthest reaches of the galaxy, and Starfleet constitutes the military of humanity in space. It uses military ranks and organisation, is authorized to use lethal force at its own discretion and in times of danger is the first line of defense against invasion. It is, in every respect, a navy.
But the strange thing is that Star Trek denies this at every turn. In the Next Generation episode “Peak Performance,” Captain Picard said that “Starfleet is not a military organization. Our purpose is exploration.” Captain Pike in the 2009 movie told Kirk “It’s a peacekeeping and humanitarian armada”, and Scotty in Star Trek Beyond insisted “We’re not a military agency.” In The Star Trek Book, it is even claimed the Federation has no standing army, but that Starfleet substitutes in times of need, such as the Dominion War.
Gene Roddenberry, in The Original Series bible, specified Starfleet as an “a scientific research and diplomatic body,” and the Starfleet technical manual describes its other duties as “the maintenance of interplanetary peace and security.” What is notable here is that all these functions are presumed to be outside the domain of a military. Captain Pike’s definition is reminiscent of that of UN peacekeeping troops, whose own website describes them as consisting mostly of soldiers (90,000 soldiers vs 28,000 police and civilians). The word armada itself means a fleet of warships. The United States military currently has one of the most well funded research and development departments in the world, and military officers have acted as diplomats throughout history.
What’s most revealing though, is that Star Trek’s definition of a military seems to solely describe an aggressive armed force. This is an extremely limited definition, which would eliminate several real-life armed forces like the Japanese Self-Defense Force, and which is a definition created specifically to justify the show’s worldview.
Two of Star Trek’s main inspirations were Horatio Hornblower and Wagon Train, both cited in Roddenberry’s original pitch. Both are emblematic of their fundamentally conservative genres. Horatio Hornblower is an example of British naval fiction, a genre nostalgic for the Imperial era and the power and military glory of the British Empire. Wagon Train is a traditional Western, which grew out of romanticizing the colonization of the West. The ideologies and worldviews of these would seem contradictory to those of Star Trek, whose mission statement has always been of anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism.
The narratives of genres like these were based on the idea of the world as a last, unexplored wilderness full of strange new lands and people to discover. But once colonial explorers had successfully mapped this land this no longer held its appeal. These genres then evolved into that of Lost World fiction, replacing Africa and Peru with Skull Island and the Centre of the Earth, but the overall idea remained the same.
They would shift again with the rise of satellites. Once the world had been seen from above we struggled to suspend our disbelief even for lost worlds anymore, and the focus shifted to space; the final, as yet unexplored frontier. Star Trek is descended from Hornblower just as Interstellar is from Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and The Martian from Robinson Crusoe.
Star Trek is this historical narrative filtered through the political worldview of its time. The show debuted in 1966, the height of anti-colonialism among the political left. The Vietnam War was in full swing, protesters were chanting “baby killers!” at returning soldiers, and the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon were inspiring revolutions in countries like Algeria. As a result, Star Trek’s romanticism of the Age of Exploration is mixed with a heavy dose of white guilt and non-interventionism.
The latter is best reflected in the “Prime Directive,” a Starfleet principle that states that they are not allowed to interfere with the development of alien civilizations, particularly those who have not yet developed spaceflight. This can be taken to ridiculous extremes. In the TNG episode “Homeward,” it stated that Starfleet has allowed 60 species to go extinct, as this is seen as preferable to interference by an outside civilization.
Roddenberry was nostalgic for tales of daring, noble sea captains sailing to far-off lands, but didn’t realize the aspects he recognized as morally wrong are inextricable from them. His worldview, very much of its time, would not allow him to present an idealized depiction of the military as a solely peacekeeping force, or any positive depiction at all. All he could do was try to scrub the idea of the military entirely from his stories, but did not know how besides removing its surface trappings.
George Orwell said that “the socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.” Roddenberry just repainted his tin soldiers. They act in every fashion like a military, yet the show insists that they are anything but. It assumes that by omitting saluting and the ceremonial display of weapons it has removed the concept of militarism entirely, not realizing social structures run deeper than their symbols.
This can all be seen more clearly by looking at Star Trek’s successors. Mass Effect is a great example. That series is what happens when Star Trek drops its pacifist and anti-militarist affectations and fully embraces militarism. Its idealistic depiction of a proudly liberal and multicultural space-faring future for humanity, and to some extent its tone, are quite similar, but the story is about the military forces of the galaxy having to learn to look past their differences and come together to defeat an alien threat.
In this way Mass Effect can be seen as a reflection of the difference between Star Trek’s time and today. The popular anti-military sentiment of the 1960’s has very much waned, and the first Mass Effect was released the year Call of Duty 4 began the military shooter boom that dominated the video game landscape in the late 2000’s.
The show’s ignorance of its premise’s implications is also seen in its attitude towards communism. The Federation is, without doubt, a communist society. Money has been abolished, along with class and racial distinctions, and while we never get a detailed picture of society outside of Starfleet vessels and installations it seems to run on the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”. But I don’t think at any point has the show ever admitted or confronted this. No characters ever mention the word, nor has anyone really explored the implications of an equal, post-scarcity society. All we get are assertions that The Federation is a perfect utopia in which all humanity’s problems have been solved.
Obviously this is due to the time Star Trek was created in as much as its creators. Putting an overtly communist show on American television a decade after McCarthyism would have been career suicide. But the show’s refusal to examine this aspect of itself since speaks to the huge blind spot at its center. Amusingly, the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha says, “communism was a political and economic ideal and philosophy that was embraced by several earth nations in the 20th and 21st centuries,” and almost nothing else.
Star Trek is a show that wants to eat its cake and have it. It wants to be both an update of heroic tales of the British Royal Navy and a progressive, idealistic vision of a utopian liberal society, and it has never tried to reconcile this. I don’t think it ever could. The show is probably about as far as you can take this kind of narrative in the direction of pacifism and non-interventionism, but it seems this can only be done at the cost of the show’s self-awareness. Star Trek can only remain Star Trek if it denies its own nature.