HomeUncategorizedThe Problem of Power: Legitimate Authority and the Politics of Star Trek

The Problem of Power: Legitimate Authority and the Politics of Star Trek

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“It is no longer enough for the citizen to submit—the modern state demands accomplices.”

-Nicolás Gómez Dávila (“Don Colacho”)

When most people think of Star Trek, especially in any kind of political context, what comes to mind is its liberal, humanist vision of the future, as well its embrace of racial and cultural diversity. These qualities lead many to assume Star Trek is a cultural product belonging naturally to the left-liberal value climate that has gradually increased its cultural capital over the course of the time Star Trek has been around. It makes sense then that despite any gaps in Star Trek content production, resurgences in popularity and reboots have been frequent.

Yet it is also clear that it has long appealed to people across the political spectrum. This changed, however, when the franchise was rebooted, some years after its best era which ended in 2005 with the cancellation of Enterprise. Putting the Star Trek movies aside—which were always a different phenomenon leaning more into the action genre than the show—the new shows, starting with “Discovery”, began an era of Star Trek television with a decidedly more narrow political appeal. So much so, that in this essay what is called simply Star Trek should not be taken to refer to any of the new Trek, which is a very different phenomenon. But why is this so? How was Star Trek able to have such wide appeal for so long? What changed?

Certainly 21st century Anglo-american culture has become very divided, so appeal across this divide is no easy task. However, Star Trek did begin in an era arguably equivalent in cultural and political tension, and though its popularity has waxed and waned over the years, its audience had never— until the reboots—been confined to any side of the often polarized political scene in the U.S. One could argue that today’s political scene is polarized differently, and indeed many liberals think the political right has taken a decidedly illiberal turn with the nationalist surge in the West of the 2010’s, so it would make sense that they would no longer find the very liberal vision of Star Trek appealing. But on the contrary, the Star Trek of the 80’s and 90’s continues to have wide appeal and to find new audiences, while the new shows seem much more restricted to the progressive liberal culture that has also gone through significant changes in recent years.

So if the shows from the era of peak Star Trek have a broad appeal not confined to the period when they were made, and the new shows which more explicitly signal their partisan politics and play into the culture war, have a more narrow and most likely short-term appeal, is it possible that peak Star Trek is not as narrowly liberal as it might seem? What makes the broad and lasting appeal of Star Trek even more remarkable, is how deeply political the show has always been, so it cannot be attributed to any circumvention of political topics; it even specialized, quite frequently, in controversial political issues. How is it that this television show, often deeply diving into difficult questions and problems of social and political philosophy, has had such an appeal transcending the usual polarities?

Certainly new Trek is more shallow and less subtle with its messaging, but peak Trek accomplished and continues to achieve a politically relevant appeal that no other popular media has in the same way. What is the secret? One answer could be that despite political differences, most Americans have long embraced some kind of liberalism, and though Star Trek embraces a lot of diverse ideas, it is usually considered a kind of idealistic projection of the liberal humanist tradition, something that can appeal both to the classical and progressive liberals that have dominated American political culture through most of Star Trek’s run. True traditionalist conservatives—those most likely to balk at the Star Trek vision of the future—have been a minority, especially after their purge in the neocon takeover of conservatism that preceded Star Trek’s first revival and greatest era starting in the 80’s.

However, even many sincere Christian conservatives somehow find in Star Trek something appealing and interesting. How is this possible for a show where science and rationality are ostensibly treated as superior to superstitious religion? One could say that contemporary Christianity in the U.S. is seldom more than a cultural ornamentation thinly veiling certain factions of the more fundamental American religion of self-reliance. And of course, Star Trek is very clearly, if anything, compatible with the most generic principles at work in either side of American civil religion, especially that central tenet sometimes referred to as “the sovereignty of the individual”. Right?

Certainly Star Trek does some of its best work defending the individual against society. But does it do so as a core principle, always siding against society, against authority, against power? Does it demonize its opposition? Is it political in the narrow sense of determining beforehand the friend/enemy distinction, and dramatizing the struggle of its values over their challengers? In its heyday, Star Trek was seldom melodramatic; it was, rather, almost always at pains to explore moral and philosophical problems, and frequently guided by a respect for all values. If anything, peak Star Trek stuck to the principles, not of Enlightenment secularism and rationality, not liberalism and individualism, not logic or science, but perhaps those principles of the humanist tradition centered on man (or any sentient being) as a measure of all things.

This isn’t a narrow individualism or relativism which assumes each being is equally capable of finding the mean between extremes, or of perfectly evaluating the truth in any situation. No one is perfect of course, and Star Trek basks in the infinite and unfathomable mystery of the universe, even as it exalts its characters’ ability to unveil some of the universe’s hidden truths.

But heroes it does have. In fact, more than anything else, and more than almost any other popular media product, Star Trek intelligently models leadership at the same time that it scrutinizes the question of what makes authority legitimate. Its most well-balanced captain, Jean-Luc Picard models great leadership and judgment not through a mere rational expertise, but through his exercise of broad cultural and experiential learning, and a philosophical temperament that motivates him to think through the unique dimensions of each particular problem arising in his life and his responsibility over so many lives.

The actor playing Picard, Sir Patrick Stewart, has said that he likes acting in television, because, unlike on a stage, television allows a close focus on a character’s act of thinking. And indeed in “The Next Generation” we see time and time again, Captain Picard thinking through a problem and discussing it with his crew. He always listens to his crew, but when it comes down to it, StarFleet is a hierarchical military organization. Though it is one oriented towards deep philosophical principles, with a sincerity and purity that seems quite lofty from the point of view of our present world and its ideologies thinly masking brute power politics.

We do see some corruption in StarFleet here and there, but in “The Next Generation”, it is never anything Picard cannot handle in an episode or two. In the show “Deep Space Nine”, however, we get to explore some of the hypocrisies and vulnerabilities of this potential future paradise of our imagination. While Earth has indeed achieved a post-capitalist mode of abundance and economic equality, we see in “Deep Space Nine”, that under threat, the hierarchical StarFleet can occupy Earth without much of a balance of power from the civilian government of the Federation.

For better or worse, StarFleet gives quite the wide berth to its captains despite them being ostensibly under the command of the admirals, and the admirals presumably under the command of the civilian government. The captains, however, seem to have quite the confidence of their superiors to decide most matters of the galaxy on their own, and even when they defy orders, there seems to be little consequence if their defiance turns out well. This shows such a confidence not in “the individual” narrowly conceived, but a confidence in the superiority of the contextual judgment, especially the judgment of StarFleet’s elite captains, over any set of generic rules, or orders from the admiral’s or civilian government’s desk.

But what happens when the captain has to rely completely on their judgment not only without the material support of the federation, but so far away from them that the situations their principles were designed to meet seem to not easily apply? What happens if that captain is not as well balanced as Picard and has a crew not wholly accustomed to following the strict hierarchy of StarFleet? This seems to be the premise of “Voyager”, the first Star Trek show starring a woman captain, and one caught in the difficult position of being responsible for getting her crew home safe from the other side of the galaxy. While it is true that Captain Janeway is not the best captain, her flaws are not a flaw in the show, but are part of a theme that makes the show very interesting, and perhaps more deeply political than the more explicitly political “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.

“Deep Space Nine” dives brilliantly into the challenges of being a diplomatic and military middleman, caught between societies with radically different beliefs and levels of power. In “Deep Space Nine”, Captain Sisko must face the Dominion, an empire ruled by order-obsessed shape-shifters that engineer their soldiers and bureaucrats to worship them as Gods. They give Sisko a dark reflection of his own role not only as a StarFleet Captain maintaining political order in a contentious region of space, but also as a religious leader, a role thrust upon him by the traumatized people under his guard, and which he initially finds uncomfortable.

Sisko’s journey is a paternalistic tale of a father learning to accept his responsibility and guide his literal son and metaphorical children through the stark realities of violence and war, always careful not to stunt their growth to maturity through a heavy imposition of his values, or an insensitivity to the unique nature of those under his guidance. With Voyager we get the other side; we get a tale about a woman thrust into a position where she feels she must become the mother of a group of people lost in the wilderness, clinging to each other for survival.

Whereas Picard could weigh the proper measure of involvement with his crew and the various peoples of lesser power they encounter as to not create a dependency, especially as they were seldom any one place for long; and Sisko is mostly confined to one region of space, helping his adolescent child become his own man and the Bajoran people become a strong independent people; Janeway is stuck in a kind of tribal situation where her crew and her must traverse a wild anarchic region of space, and thus are inescapably dependent on each other with no end in sight.

Whereas Picard makes a crucial decision to forgo an action that could have potentially saved countless worlds, just to keep to his principles, and Sisko makes the opposite decision in a similar situation, Janeway’s biggest challenges are more intimate. She definitely struggles with how to protect her people without sacrificing her principles for mere survival, but her most interesting challenges come in her treatment of her crew, whose dependence on her makes her exercise of power and authority more problematic than it would in strictly professional situations.

For when those under your charge cannot defy you or leave your authoritarian family without risking abandonment in the wilderness, you are not just a boss or even a paternal leader of semi-dependent underlings, but a mother of wholly dependent orphans. Though it is not just the task of a mother she has, but the task of a single mother separated from the organization that defined her values, values not necessarily up to the task of leading a community that may be stuck in a sterile spaceship for a whole lifetime disconnected from their home cultures. Additionally, she cannot avoid involvement with other species too much because the Voyager crew needs relations with them for supplies and security in a chaotic region of space. Janeway and crew do not have the luxury of maintaining the kind of ethical neutrality and independence that solves many of the moral problems in the Star Trek universe.

The father’s role of helping his children into independence (Sisko), or the bachelor captain’s heroic protection of the sovereignty of all (Picard), is a picnic compared to the mother’s journey of caring for beings completely dependent on her. If Janeway often fails to appreciate the delicacy of this task and lapses here and there into an authoritarian, perhaps it is understandable. What is clear is that this theme is very relevant to our times when politics is rapidly shifting into the mothering-state mode of interminable dependency on the mother-ship of technology, and on survival-mode value-hierarchies.

Given the importance of these issues, perhaps we should not be too soft on Janeway. The writers of the show seem to want us to empathize with her and like her for the most part, but they also seem to want us to question some of her decisions, and not assume her troubles are altogether beyond her mitigation. For instance, she often seems determined to keep her masculine co-commander in a subordinate position, even when his advice and higher sense of spiritual value would balance her sometimes obsessive drive to maintain the survival not only of her people themselves, (which she often puts in unnecessary jeopardy out of arrogance), but of the illusion that they are still a StarFleet crew and she is completely in control.

Control is indeed a recurring theme in the show. Unlike Picard who maintains order through wisdom and respect, Janeway, along with her emotionally repressed Vulcan chief of security Tuvak, struggles to maintain order through strict adherence to the rules as she interprets them. Time and time again in the show, the chaos of the situation they are in and the emotions this generates motivate decisions that use rules, whether logical or managerial, to justify behavior that would have appalled Picard.

Of course, Picard, did not have this kind of challenge, it is true. He begins his journey as an emotionally detached leader, made uncomfortable by children, and capable in his circumstances commanding a large and formal ship of exploration, of mostly avoiding the kind of paternal arrangement that power often necessitates. Control, at first, for him is maintained by the finely balanced organization of their ship and the StarFleet bureaucracy, and their place within the somewhat known and stratified balance of power in this part of the galaxy. But he quickly is challenged and tested by many difficult problems, and learns to become a friend and parental figure to many, and a warm, loving family member, after his finely-cultivated sense of sovereignty is stripped away from him by the Borg.

Not only is Janeway bereft of the stable order of the known galaxy, which could support and balance her judgment and authority, she is nowhere near the well-rounded renaissance “man” of cultural authority that Picard is. Consequently, her authority often devolves into an arbitrary willfulness that smacks of authoritarianism. But Actress Kate Mulgrew does a pretty good job making her character sympathetic. We see she is doing the best she can; even her questionable decisions still seem like understandable responses to the pressures of someone with her limits being responsible for so many lives.

Nonetheless, her character has been criticized for her authoritarian behavior. That the Star Trek writers would choose a woman to portray this problematic descent into authoritarianism makes some question the politics of the show. Voyager’s crew, on the surface, seems hand-picked by multiculturalists, even if the native-man conforms too closely to stereotypes. But beneath the surface it does seem that while a woman may be in charge, she is merely a symbol of the bureaucratic authority of StarFleet, and gives no real power to her ethnic underlings.

Indeed this might seem like a commentary on the tokenism of political multiculturalism. But is this intentional? Is portraying multiculturalism this way simply part of a right-wing critique of left-wing politics, since a progressive would not have portrayed the signature Star Trek multicultural idealism in such a way? Whatever the conscious intentions of writers on this point, given the larger themes of the show, these details paint a deeply symbolic commentary on legitimate critiques not of multiculturalism in all its forms, but power’s use of diversity and manufactured consensus to homogenize the distribution of power, shoring up its position against rival powers by creating faithful servants and greater dependence among the masses. That these lines of critique are instinctively dismissed as reactionary attacks on racial justice itself, points to a problematic lacuna in mutual understanding across contemporary political discourse.

Star Trek is able to make points that transcend the usual factional disputes because it can, if one is open to the philosophical dimension of the shows, transport thought into an appreciation of universal problems that go beyond the knee-jerk reactions that might normally be invoked if not for the subtlety of the writing and the imaginative potential of science fiction as a medium. “Voyager” is not making a clear argument against multiculturalism, obviously. Nor is it arguing against women being in charge. But there might be room for the interpretation that it is exploring the problems that ensue when cultural diversity replaces the wisdom of culture, or when the superior authority of that wisdom and the individuals who can embody it, is replaced by the authority of people claiming to speak for the greater multitude.

While it would be absurd to say that Star Trek ever argues that women or minorities should not be given power, “Voyager” might be at times suggesting that fetishizing any generic representation of individuals in the constitution of power is dangerous. This indeed might be an argument for the dangers of democracy, which should not be a surprising turn for Star Trek, which has always been a show about loyalty to higher principles and heroic people.

These kinds of arguments are not easy for modern liberals to swallow, for they imagine this kind of talk as decidedly against freedom, emerging from racist, xenophobic, uneducated bigots that worship power and authority. Yet critiques of democracy go back to the core of the Western tradition, and even the most radically right-wing critics of modern democracy do so for the most part not on the grounds of whatever ethnocentric beliefs they may or may not have, but over legitimate fears about the arbitrary authority of power unrestrained from any principles beyond the easily manipulated abstractions of liberal individualism, democratic majority, or bureaucratic expert consensus.

These fears are understandable, even within a liberal framework. For what is being suggested is not that authority is good and democracy bad, as critics of liberalism are so melodramatically framed by the dominant ideology. But rather that authority is inevitable, especially in large societies, so it is better put in the hands of individuals most embodying the traditions and principles of the culture, not the ones claiming to represent the general will detached from higher cultural or spiritual principles. For the general will is easily manipulated and reduced to the lowest common denominator of the survival, not of the culture and its values, but of its power structure and the power of people that thrive within it, no matter what their principles.

Power, of course, can manipulate any value or ideology, so this is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other. But perhaps, questioning the appearance of democracy, diversity, or horizontal power structure as an obvious good is something to consider, as it has been in political theory across the political spectrum, but mostly from radical philosophers on the left and right not as mesmerized by liberal platitudes.

But to see such themes emerging in popular culture is something important to examine. However intentionally, Voyager is exploring a difficult area of political thought, where simple childish arguments about individualism vs. collectivism have no place. One particular episode, however, bears closer discussion. In the episode titled “Tuvix”, Janeway’s decision to force the title character to give up his life to bring back two lost crewman, is a particularly heart wrenching and deeply symbolic example of the show exploring the dangers of “matriarchal” authority.

Using the word matriarchy here might be controversial and misleading because it has little to do with women being in charge. One could say however, that when power goes wrong it can go wrong in different ways, and that these ways can take different forms that reflect traditional parental roles. Just as there are good and bad mothers and fathers, there are more ideal and more dangerous expressions of any generic type of government.

Rather than speaking of collectivism and individualism—which makes no real sense for thinking about society—or even the traditional division of types of government into Monarchy, Aristocracy, and Democracy, we can instead say that all government has authoritative power that is more or less distributed across and internalized within different systems and relations. It should be easy to imagine why modern techno-democracies can distribute power more effectively, allowing it to penetrate into facets of life undreamed of by traditional governments. And it isn’t difficult to imagine why a more distributed, more thoroughly networked power structure might include more women, since by nature it is inclusive, and by nature it replaces the mother, not with a larger communal family, but a network of dependent relations. Everyone becomes an equal subject of a monolithic machine.

Liberal theory tends to bias us towards thinking that decentralized and distributed power is an unequivocal good. Certainly centralized power, most everyone can agree, can go very wrong. But how wrong depends on the extent of power’s hold on people. Distributed power does not necessarily mean the nodes of the network can create new kinds of networks or affect the network with any values external to it. Like a family controlled by a smothering mother, its children obey, not out of fear of father’s wrath, but of losing mother’s love and the nourishment of the family. They have no power to create a family of their own, and they might never achieve true independence, so internalized is the mother’s control over their very desires.

Thankfully there really is no such thing as absolute power. Power is by nature distributed and relational. The monarch depends on the cooperation of nobility. He can however, increase his power through seeming to decentralize his authority by creating clients among the previously less powerful, eroding all intermediary powers and cultural institutions that constrain him, thus making everyone subjects and accomplices within the distributed power of a singular authority. All power is a network, and when that network achieves a more ubiquitous distribution, power can become even more unchallenged because it is distributed and cemented into the very relations that define every point in the system.

People cannot challenge such an authority in any traditional way because there is no intermediaries, no rival values, and no options but to work within the system. Such a system is difficult even to resist in the mind because it becomes the general will, playing on the instincts we all have to be a good social person. Even individualism is framed within the system as a right defined on its terms. The bad father can be rebelled against, but the bad mother accommodates all except true individuation. True individuation is not individualism, for it is not just a node free to play on the flat plane of the network established by the uniform logic of power, but a power to disconnect, to not act, to think and form connections outside the material relations of the dominant network, and to introduce new patterns into it that expose the power relations hiding behind the facade of inclusivity.

Any disinterest in or challenge to the flattened value sphere of this relativistic uniformity, is easily framed as lazy, selfish, or antisocial. Our infantilizing materialism can tolerate anyone being anything they want, as long as they don’t challenge the cycle of material dependency by introducing non-material preferences. Unlike the bad father that distorts his children’s growth into independence through making the child into something they are not, forcing them into the mold of society’s generic values, the bad mother keeps the child a child, dependent on a social relations that have no need for them to be anything but a dependent consumer and reproducer of those relations. The bad mother even benefits from the most eccentrically styled nodes of the networks, for they keep things entertaining and extend the material relations into new value spheres.

Likewise in the “Tuvix” episode of “Voyager”, Janeway loves her generic cast of obedient subjects, and cannot tolerate losing two of her most eccentrically dependent subjects in an accident, even if she gets a more capable and confident officer in their place. She does not need to force her will to kill Tuvix on her crew, but merely acts on—and as an expression of—their emotions, which are attached to their lost friends. Even we the audience give her a pass because we don’t know this new character and he is made to look rather strange. Like many of her problematic decisions, this one still seems to come from a desire to rationalize her emotionally preferred outcome, but as usual it coincides with a desire to save and protect her people, so we don’t necessarily blame her; this decision just happens to require the sacrifice of someone she and the crew felt less emotion for. But when you take a step back, this decision and the heartless reaction of the crew is chilling.

If you assume the writers were trying to make Janeway a captain every bit as capable as her male counterparts, this decision will epitomize her difference from Picard, who made some of his best speeches defending the individual exactly against this kind of tyranny-of-the-majority-style thinking. But it seems obvious that the writers had a more or less conscious thematic in mind with Janeway and Voyager, and it was present right from the start.

The series starts with a powerful being bringing Voyager across the galaxy to try and find a replacement for himself as “caretaker” of a race of beings he has kept in permanent childhood, living no more than 9 years or so. Janeway has a chance to bring her people home but decides not to because it would open up this child-race to the dangers of a nearby predatory race. The child race turns out to be very powerful beings themselves which were being kept unaware of this fact by their maternal “caretaker”.

The amorphous caretaker is referred to as a “he”, but he acts as a problematic mother to the child race by providing them with nourishment and safe seclusion, but little practical guidance. In addition, the writers, by putting Voyager close to the part of the galaxy where the queen-led, hive-minded Borg were already established to be dominant, must have had this theme of maternal power and its dangers in mind when structuring the show (however conscious this mind was).

The Borg Queen becomes a major antagonist to Janeway, but also for a time, her ally. In many Voyager episodes we see some of the parallels between the Borg with its Queen, and Voyager with Queen Janeway, deciding life and death for the good of the crew. But again, this is not to say that she forces her will on the crew as a patriarchal authority would. Though she often ignores the very sound advice of her first officer, she mostly leads, not by example in paternalistic style, but like the Borg Queen, by creating a family-like collective where the dependence of the crew on each other and her makes any true resistance impossible. She does try to stick to higher StarFleet principles, beyond tribal survival collectivism, and seems to value the individual most of the time, but their lonely situation seems to call for some compromises. How much compromise seems to be a constant source of uncertainty for her.

Her decision in the Tuvix episode to end the life of an individual to benefit the collective echoes an old theme in Star Trek, that of weighing what seems to be the moral decision of the moment against the long-term consequences. One might even argue it is the central theme, echoed most generally by their prime directive not to intervene or impose their will on isolated cultures, since that might cripple their growth and individuation; though the details of this directive are famously vague and open to interpretation by the various captains. Part of the appeal of Star Trek is precisely its willingness to open up this question of the proper use of power, a question explored in many different situations and problematics.

Star Trek seems to have long recognized that there is no clear rule for the proper use of power, since non-intervention may protect power from some of its abuses, but not all of them. And in an interconnected galaxy, the line between non-intervention and irresponsibility can be difficult to discern. When involvement becomes justified, necessary, or unavoidable, how should one proceed? These are the difficult questions.

Political philosophy has long recognized the similarities between parenting and governance, and these resonances are even more obvious when advanced cultures interact with less advanced or powerful ones. While the trend in contemporary mass-democratic societies has been to call for an erosion of all centralized political authority and power in theory; as discussed previously, in practice, this attempt to empower the masses has not led simply to a decentralized or eroded power structure, but actually to an even more ubiquitous structure of power that grows with each attempt at revolution. Under the cover of “the will of the people” or “the greater good” grows the extent and consolidation of so many wills to power.

In its heyday, Star Trek seems to have always appreciated the importance of responsible leadership and proper use of power, over naive conceptions of anarchic freedom from power. Freedom and self-rule are important principles that Star Trek celebrates, of course, but they have long recognized the inevitability of power differences, and have often explored the difficulties of escaping power’s reach even for the pioneers the crews meet in the vast reaches of space. Star Trek also has had far more interest in exploring the skillful use of technical, personal, and political power to help people be true in their growth and education, not only to themselves, their culture, and its traditions, but their evolution free from the imposition of any standardized notion of what that freedom and self-determination should look like.

The great captains do, however, have a deep appreciation for cultural standards which help them guide others with a kind of faith and respect for the value inherent not only in all traditions, but in the conditions we find each person or society in, and are keenly aware of the dangers inherent in even the best intentions to help someone. Care and guidance are applied with great sensitivity to the dangers of dependency and the pitfalls of power, no matter what the intentions. Star Trek has always been about ideas and principles as open-ended problems, as well as the use of reason by well trained leaders to explore the problems and questions inherent in social existence to find the best path, not to apply formulaic logical rules subservient to generic abstractions like “democracy” that have no ground in deeper philosophical considerations or sensitivity to conditions and context.

Spock’s famous line, epitomizing the cold logic of Vulcan tribalism—masked as a culture of higher reason—that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one, was famously challenged by his friends in their sacrifice for him, not by negating its value, but by an inversion that reveals a different truth. When Kirk tells him that the individual, the “one”, is more important than the group, he is just poking fun at the logical rules of Vulcanism, while really just saying that friends look out for each other and risk, and in some cases, even sacrifice their lives for each other. The context is that he has to explain friendship to Spock to help him remember his soul:

It is interesting that Janeway, like Kirk, has a Vulcan as her closest advisor. “Voyager” explores not only how emotionally repressed Vulcans are, but how much their logic merely masks a violently emotional nature. It was a good choice for her to make the spiritually inclined Chakotay her first officer, but she does not seem to have anything but a patronizing respect for his wisdom.

Yet, in the “Tuvix” episode, he, like the rest of the crew, is disturbingly quiet when they drag away their new friend to be put to death, perhaps being too true to the limits of his tribal wisdom when it is exactly the tribal logic that is at question in this episode. Tuvix is the combination of the very logical Vulcan Tuvak with the very emotional Neelix, and the writers go out of their way to show that this was an improvement. Tuvix has the benefit of these rather unbalanced characters being well combined in himself, thanks to an accident involving symbiotic enzymes. This was a genius move by the writers because it subverts any greater good arguments having to do with survival. Tuvix does the jobs of both men better than they did, so his being put to death can only be a greater good if you think improving group morale justifies murder.

But it is hard to hate the characters for it. “Voyager” excels at exploring not necessarily more flawed characters than the other shows, but characters whose flaws are only naturally going to be more noticeable in the more difficult circumstances dominating this show. Picard’s crew had in him a great well-rounded leader in an environment where his principles worked well, where the support of allies was seldom very far away. Voyager is all alone, forced to make a working team from former enemies, and with a female captain that feels guilty for stranding them all far from home.

She has an interest in culture and history but they play out more in her holodeck fantasies than they are a source of cultural wisdom. Despite her command position, she is very much still the science officer, often resorting to solutions involving shows of technical force over appreciation of moral problems. She does seem to be doing the best she can to be a great captain, but she doesn’t have the tools. Her combination of emotion and logic betrays the utilitarian bias of a mind struggling with scientistic literalism. She often seems to get dragged into moral complexity against her will, when she would rather, say, just dismiss her AI doctor, or holographic lover as mere programs to be reprogrammed to her needs, when they are clearly self-aware. We do see her struggle with these issues, but she has neither the cultured refinement of Picard or the creative will of Kirk.

The voyager crew does not have the stable environment and balanced characters of Picard’s harmonious order. Every character has their flaws, but Picard’s crew was in a situation where they could overcome them and grow. The most troubled neurotic character of that series, the nerdy engineer Lt. Barclay, is, despite his problems, accepted and helped by Picard and crew. Picard insists that they do so. Without them after the show’s conclusion, however, he falls back into old habits and becomes a “virtual” part of the Voyager crew with whom he feels much affinity. They really are more of a gang of lost souls, following a mother figure that does her best to keep them safe, yet through her fear and guilt and the logic she uses to justify her willful attitude, she often puts them all at greater risk.

Janeway has more in common with Kirk, who also had a Vulcan advisor trying to bridge two worlds, and who struggled to integrate disparate faculties and underlings, unlike the more refined and harmonious crew of Picard’s Enterprise. Kirk seemed to combine the emotion of Dr. McCoy and the logic of Spock, which were often in contradiction, often by finding a third way, by imagining and willing the crew out of the limited options defined by logic or emotion. Tuvix also seems to find a kind of harmony of faculties and imaginative capacity that the overly emotional Neelix and the overly logical Tuvak were not capable of. The strange thing however is that the crew almost seems to resent this. His balance and comfort with himself seems out of place among this band of outcasts and orphans.

Janeway, unlike Kirk and Tuvix does not have true confidence. She has bravado, yes, and she does combine emotion and logic but consistently in a way that betrays that it is her emotions that lead her, which then use logic to justify whatever she wants to do. If “will” is the third element bridging logic and emotion, we can see that it can be done in different ways. Janeway shows what happens when the most basic instincts of nature, like that of a mother protecting her children, can use logic in the service of that most basic survival instinct.

Her will is still that of an instinctual mother, using technology and logic to protect her collective. At one point Voyager even meets a male science-officer captain and his ship, also stranded like they are. This kind of male version of Janeway has lost all context for his principles and is torturing and killing sentient beings, not to protect his crew as a mother might, but to get back to their part of the galaxy faster.

But as the best captains show, the higher will most worthy of leadership is not driven by emotion or that of mere logic, which can be used to justify anything, but of a “Reason” cultivated by culture. Captain Picard exemplifies this. He does not let his officers perform their duties as mere generic types to be used by the Federation machine, but pushes them all to be well-rounded characters. Data may be an emotionless android, but he knows this and is learning culture through Picard as a way of becoming more truly individuated and human. The women of Picard’s crew use their emotions to empathize and find the right path led by higher principles, not a cold logic wed to tribal survival instincts.

Were the “Voyager” writers saying women shouldn’t be in charge? Of course not. Star Trek has shown repeatedly how well they can do in command. Deanna Troi had to be willing to let go of her attachments to her friends to make the right decision when gaining her command rank as part of Picard’s very balanced crew. She ironically must show she can order someone to their death, but the reasons are the opposite from the Tuvix episode, with emotional attachment being the roadblock to saving the ship, not a reason to sacrifice someone for two people you like better, as Janeway did. Troi must order a hypothetical officer to do his job, not physically force a new life form to submit to a medical death:

So given the themes of “Voyager”, it is clear that the writers, however unconsciously, were making a point not primarily about gender, (the same people oversaw both shows), but about the challenges of power that exist even—and more surreptitiously—in communal situations, as well as suggesting there is equal potential for the mothering instinct to misguide us, just as well as the paternal instinct can. Motherhood themes come back again and again in “Voyager”, with Janeway even becoming a kind of mother figure to former Borg in the absence of their Borg queen.

In the “Tuvix” episode we get important resonances with today’s political climate and its slide towards a tyranny of political pressure using greater-good arguments to force medical procedures on people. The doctor in the episode refuses to do the procedure without the consent of Tuvix. Though his claim that it was a completely safe procedure accounting for every possible variable was comically absurd, echoing contemporary medical hubris.

The fact remains that the procedure might not have worked, and even if it did they were ending the life not of some hypothetical future or past person but of someone that wanted to live and begged them for his life. Watching the whole crew stand there in cold detachment, one cannot help but see the uncaring side of all motherly care and selfish-emotional love. Protective of the in-group, cold and primal with the outsider. Janeway justifies this by appealing to her defense of other lives, but when she tries to guilt him for being selfish for wanting to live, she reveals her logic is only a manipulation tactic, as well as revealing her intent to force Tuvix into a deadly medical experiment, whether he consents or not.

The Borg remain one of the best villains in Star Trek, if not all of popular scifi mythology, for they represent the dangers of the contemporary social machine in galactic proportions. The Borg are not just a “collective” conceived as some generic totalitarian society, to be opposed with freedom and individualism; nor are they just an example of technological dependence taken too far. Instead, they are a logical end result of a kind of social machine that pursues a diverse equality through the incorporation of differences into the same uniform and distributed network. Nor are the Borg about simple conquest. They strive for progress and perfection.

Important plot points concerning the Borg in the peak-Trek era only make sense if you realize that the Borg could have easily assimilated the Earth or even the entire galaxy if they wanted. But progress and the path towards greater perfection require innovation, something dependent collectives are not so good at producing. So they wait and test the boundaries of other systems, only assimilating them when it is strategically correct to do so in terms of their long term development. Like the way the modern State uses markets, or any intelligent power-structure uses networks and open systems, the Borg surely understand that absolute domination is unsustainable. Power needs to grow or it will die, and growth necessitates difference.

There are similar themes in the original “Matrix” movies, where humans are allowed a kind of illusory freedom to supply an energy that the machines cannot produce without them. Unlike “The Matrix” though, where the machines are ostensibly independent entities that enslaved the human race, turning them into passive sources of energy, the Borg are portrayed as in essence a symbiotic cooperation between man and machine. They don’t seem to enslave any individual or group to work hierarchically for any other. Every new diverse species and its machines are horizontally included in an ever expanding network of collectives with seemingly no central point of control.

But as the “Matrix” sequels poignantly ask, is there really a difference? What exactly is “control”? Are we free simply because we have a choice—because no one is directly forcing us to do something? Or is true control precisely when force is no longer required, when the parts function fluidly in the whole, when obedience is written into the very protocols of relation, when we become simply cogs of the machine?

This word “control” itself acquired new meaning in contemporary philosophy when the phrase “control society” was used to describe precisely how much more effective power operates within a distributed network like the internet and a society organized by it. The distributed network of our internet was, after all, invented by the military precisely because, having no command center, it was very robust to any kind of traditional attack. Though like the Borg, the internet has hierarchical elements that hide at deeper layers beneath appearances, and dictate the protocols that guide the seeming free play of a horizontal network.

The Borg offer such a dark reflection of the Federation in Star Trek, because they explicitly symbolize the danger this innocuous seeming network of equal powers poses to other cultures. By offering new societies a place within their partnership of worlds, those worlds risk becoming a mere node in the Federation’s web of techno-political relations. They become part of its social machine with StarFleet its military arm out to explore new worlds, perhaps, because once a culture becomes part of such a flat system with no spiritual sense of purpose beyond their scientific explorations and mutual security, culture becomes a mere relic, and spirituality a mere curiosity—so they must go out in search of new wonders, having ignored the wonders within.

Yet history has shown that war makes some kind of system of power necessary, and all cultures but one would be lost in a traditional conquest situation. Though this isn’t necessarily or completely the case, the fact remains that the Federation system, just as the idea of democracy, has its benefits, since it does offer a kind of cultural freedom and security at the same time. But for the benefits of this arrangement not to become a destructive force on the spiritual potential of culture or a person, they must have a strong sense of their culture not too invested in the rather sterile techno-culture of StarFleet. Picard exemplifies this. He embraces the utility of StarFleet’s technology but he uses it and his role as an explorer and warrior to find spiritual purpose and a creative coherence of meaning in the many cultures he meets and studies.

Sisko, who began his journey, devastated by the death of his wife, seemingly with no higher sense of meaning beyond this life, and no deep cultural interests beyond food and sports, finds that his role in StarFleet overlapped with a greater spiritual role given to him by one culture and its Gods, which he fully embraces. He becomes so faithful that he even shows, in true Biblical style, that he would allow the death of his son to fulfill a higher purpose predicted by his adopted religion.

Janeway struggles with becoming more than her career, and with not letting its power rob her of a deeper spiritual sense of purpose beyond her will to save the lives of her group. But given how much more advanced than us her techno-power is in the show, with the power to even, in some cases, reverse time and death, can we blame her? Her struggle is our struggle, as we face a technocracy that is poised to make all life and meaning outside the cybernetic biotech machine difficult, if not, in the near future, impossible. And though this danger is sometimes obvious and destructive, its real danger is not so much when it tries to destroy us or exclude us, but when it includes us and thereby renders any outside merely another node in its network.

Which is why, while the Dominion of Deep Space Nine also give the Federation a dark matriarchal reflection—since they, like the Borg, can form a collective mind that they call the “Great Link”, yet also like the Borg, are shown to be dominated by a female—they do not hold up quite as relevant a mirror to the Federation. The Dominion’s power is explicitly exclusive and centralized within their group of shape-shifters called the “Founders”. The Founders and their Great Link do hold up a kind of puritanical mirror to the Federation’s exclusivist and foundationalist dogma, which is only inclusive if you meet their standards of ethical purity and accept their foundational principles centered on excluding “less developed” species.

Similarly, the shape-shifting Dominion sees themselves and their Great Link as too noble and pure of a network to be contaminated by normal humanoids. They exist as a kind of liquid light that conquers in order to protect their purity from normal material beings, and they are only stopped by one of their own becoming “contaminated” through his “links” with humanoids, and thereby passing along this disease to the Founders. Even after the disease is cured, we are left to assume that humanoid and perhaps even Federation principles will find a permanent place within the surviving Great Link.

Sisko, by learning to be flexible with his Star Fleet values and letting the “less-evolved” superstitious values of the Bajorans “contaminate” his Federation neutrality, as well as motivating him to sacrifice some of his moral purity to save them and all solid humanoids, does what the Founders could not. For their insular network of linking, liquid beings of light, showed itself to be only flexible internally; externally they were obsessed with ruling or destroying anything “solid”.

The struggle with the Dominion does paint an interesting picture of not only how destructive, and exclusive, flowing-networked powers can be, it also shows well how important the “solid” values and faith of rooted cultures are in resisting these dangerous networked powers. The religious Bajorans have a good chance of keeping true to their spiritual distinctiveness despite becoming part of the Federation. For they are more than just one network merging into another; they have higher values that can transcend any of their associations.

But the Borg are the more important reflection of the dangers of the Federation’s, and our own society’s power through symbiotic inclusion, which does not launch a war against all “solids” in an effort to become their Gods, but rather, incorporates all beings and values into a single materialistic network. The true danger of the Borg is then really it’s materialism (a word with the same roots as mother), driven by emotional attachment to material forms and the logic that appropriates and reduces all values and reason to serve the ends of bare existence and survival. The most “insidious” expression of power comes not necessarily with a gun or any show of force, but a social machine that seduces us with security and power, but robs us of who we could be beyond its monolithic diversity:

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