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The Militarization of the Federation

In the original series, Star Fleet is more or less the space navy of the Federation. We follow the adventures of the Enterprise, which is on a voyage of exploration (perhaps inspired by voyages like those of Captain Cook, though these days that might be more controversial) and we don't see much else of the Federation.

However, we do see enough to be conscious of the civilian side. Federation civilian officials turn up from time to time, and they sometimes have authority over Starfleet. In "The Trouble With Tribbles" (TOS) the Enterprise is called to a space station by a priority-one call. Kirk expects to find a Klingon attack, and when he doesn't find one he demands answers. The head of the space station, who incidentally has the title "Manager", not Commander, says that the order came from Nilz Baris, the Federation Undersecretary in Charge of Agricultural Affairs in the region. This, Spock points out, gives him the authority, even if Kirk doesn't like what he is doing. In "A Taste of Armageddon" (TOS) Ambassador Fox has power to give orders to Kirk, though this seems to be just for that mission. It is true that they are annoying people who make foolish decisions, but then so are most of the Admirals and so on that Star Trek captains have to deal with. Scotty expresses annoyance with diplomats, but he would, wouldn't he.

It was said that whereas other countries had an army, in Prussia the army had a country. By the time of TNG, Starfleet shows curious signs of moving in that direction. Starfleet is no longer just a space navy or exploratory organization, but seems to be the Federation's primary organ. When Bajor decides to join the Federation, a Starfleet admiral is sent to preside over the admission ceremony on Deep Space Nine. An admiral? In view of Bajor's importance one might have expected the Federation President, but if he's too busy isn't there a Clerk of the Federation Council, or a Federation Undersecretary in Charge of Admission? The premier academic body the Daystrom Institute is part of Starfleet, and a professor from it who comes to the Enterprise is a Starfleet officer in uniform ("The Measure of a Man" TNG). When Captain Picard realizes that Professor Rasmussen, the time-traveller who claims to be a historian from the future ("A Matter of Time" TNG), is actually an impostor from the past, and Rasmussen is stranded in the 24th century, he tells him that "historians at Starfleet" will be interested to meet him. Historians at Starfleet? Why in Starfleet? (However it's true that in "All Good Things" (TNG) we see a future in which Data has become a professor at the University of Cambridge, which still seems to be separate from Starfleet.)

Nog, the young Ferengi, wants to join Starfleet ("Heart of Stone", DS9). He explains to Sisko that he doesn't want to be like his father Rom, who despite being a mechanical genius is no businessman, and hence a failure in Ferengi society. Nog wants to do something worthwhile, something that he can achieve despite not having the lobes for business. Hence, Starfleet. Fair enough, but surely there are other worthwhile things you can do with your talents in the Federation? Nog doesn't raise any particular reasons for Starfleet as such, such as an interest in exploration. Admittedly, Starfleet is what Nog has seen of the Federation, so this is understandable, but Sisko doesn't ask either. Why not be a civilian engineer, or something, in the Federation?

In fairness, DS9 shows much more of life outside Starfleet than TNG, and even has a character (Jake) who chooses a civilian life. However, the space station is a frontier location and a lot of what happens is clearly not typical of the Federation (notably, a partially money economy).

Star Trek TNG was supposed to have a Starfleet that would be less military in nature—there were even families on board—but in fact it showed a greater emphasis on rank, and more reference to the formulae of the real-life American armed forces, than TOS. Characters started talking about pride in "the uniform", and this became even more noticeable in DS9. Starfleet is apparently very difficult to get into, at least at the officer level. They show a tendency to look down on civilians. In TOS the characters were highly professional but you didn't get the same sense of an elitist attitude. It's also worth noting that, as we saw during the Trump administration, the real-lfe American armed forces have a very professional attitude of keeping strictly out of politics. They take an oath to the Constitution, and don't blur the line in the way Starfleet sometimes does. From TNG on, the characters spend time lecturing each other about proper military relationships,[1] whereas in TOS they just got on with it.

The greater attention to command structures and so on was partly due to the fact that whereas in TOS stories were very largely about Kirk et al. doing things on planets, TNG had many stories about, or involving, the crew's own interactions on the Enterprise (see page on Star Trek's conventions). However, this need not have led straight to simply imitating the modern military. In TOS, the crew are in a military organization, but that's the background—it's what takes them to the situations where they do things. Occasionally, as "Balance of Terror", the story is about military activities. But the stories are hardly ever about being in the military. TOS was almost always outward-looking.

Starfleet's militarism is especially a problem in DS9, when some Starfleet leaders actually attempt a coup. They make use of an elite group of cadets, "Red Squad", who are highly privileged and encouraged to think of themselves as special and better. This makes them easy pickings for the coup leaders. But Starfleet doesn't seem to learn the obvious lesson. Instead we later see them, still around, still privileged, in "Valiant", where their arrogance gets them all killed. That episode is critical of Red Squad arrogance, but there is no recognition that the problem is actually systemic.

In "Peak Performance" (TNG), incidentally a very good episode, Picard is unhappy about having to carry out a military exercise, and tells the strategic expert that Starfleet is not a military organization—its main purpose is exploration. However, once they are underway they all participate with gusto, and Data is able to analyse a whole lot of data from Riker's career (Riker is commanding the other side in the exercise).

The status of science seems to take a bit of a dent, too. In TOS, Spock is Science Officer. It's rather striking that even in the Mirror Universe, Spock refers to his "scientific duties" and Marlena the captain's woman works in the "chem lab".[2] But in TNG, scientists, though important to the mission, don't seem to figure as very active characters so much. In "Tapestry" (TNG) Picard finds himself in an alternative reality where he is a Lieutenant in Astrophysics. This doesn't satisfy him and he tells Riker that he wants to "move beyond Astrophysics to Engineering or Security" and perhaps thus to Command. Riker is very dubious. This indicates where science stands in the hierarchy, at least as Picard sees it.

The status given to Security is interesting. In the original series the Security men are seldom seen as characters. The chief of Security is apparently an Ensign ("Obsession" TOS). In "Turnabout Intruder" (TOS), the last episode of TOS, Kirk changes bodies with an envious woman, who ends up by ordering the execution of senior officers for mutiny. Chekhov and Sulu are outraged, and realize this cannot be the real Kirk, but it appears that Security is continuing to back the fake captain despite his illegal orders. (Don't worry, Kirk regains control.) In another episode, at one point McCoy refers disrespectfully to an unwelcome Security man (in his presence) as a "muscle man" ("The Alternative Factor" TOS).

But in TNG, Security is a high-status section, whose head is a prominent character.

This is speculation, but it's worth noting that at the time of TOS a large proportion of the people involved with Star Trek had served in the Second World War, and in that period military police tended to be unpopular with ordinary soldiers.

[1] In "Gambit", Part 2 (TNG) there is a case where it is dramatically justifiable since Data and Worf are in an unfamiliar working relationship due to the absence of both Picard and Riker. [Return]

[2] It's true that the sort of science being done on an Imperial starship is probably a bit different in its objectives, but even so. [Return]

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