Unintentional Lessons from TV

Put on your nerd hats, boys and girls.

Recently we discussed why a navy has to do more than just be able to fight wars – it has to be able to keep the peace, too. As an alternate means of making the point, let’s indulge in the Internet’s favorite habit of taking pop culture way too seriously and use TV shows to demonstrate the difference. Specifically, that is, Star Trek.

The Star Trek franchise is fifty years old in 2016 – meaning one of America’s favorite narratives of the future is, in fact, older than all of its current stars. I’m sure there’s a cultural statement to be made somewhere, but never mind (Ross Douthat already made it, albeit with a different series). I want to focus on two of its shows that, between them, ran from 1987 to 1999 – Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). These two shows ably demonstrate the different roles of a naval organization, in this case Starfleet, the military arm of the United Federation of Planets.

TNG has many great episodes (I remember our sixth grade teacher showing us this one in class), but thematically it is actually kind of boring. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 24th century was intensely utopian, and there is essentially no conflict among the main characters, especially in the first couple seasons. The “alien of the week” appears, causes a problem, our fearless crew learns it’s all a misunderstanding, and they go about their merry way, and we never see the alien again (and then the holodeck breaks down, just to shake things up). It’s the sort of TV where you can watch it one week, take a six-month vacation to the Gobi Desert, and then watch another episode without really having missed anything. Characters come and go (especially if they’re named Crusher), but there’s no story to keep up with.

So if there’s no story, what is the show about?

In a word, presence.

A moment of high drama, probably.

A moment of high drama, probably.

Just because the Federation is an interstellar utopia doesn’t mean there are no problems. Different worlds still have different interests, and external forces still wish to assimilate the Federation’s territory. The apparently aimless travels of the Enterprise are, in fact, designed to address these contingencies. If we take a step back into the real world, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise overlap very much with the official missions of the U.S. Navy in the 2015 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (see pg. 2), which is itself derived from the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance:

  • Defend the Homeland
  • Deter Conflict
  • Protect Maritime Commons
  • Strengthen Partnerships
  • Respond to Crises
  • Defeat Aggression
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR)

Arguably, Gene Roddenberry’s Enterprise performs all of these missions just as its real-world counterparts did. And all of these (even “Defeat Aggression” to a certain degree) can be done by a lone ship going about its business outside of a major war. Somewhere in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, each of these missions is being done right now. And Starfleet did them all at some point too:

  • Defend the Homeland (Borg invasion)
  • Deter Conflict (calming excitable Klingons)
  • Protect Maritime Interstellar Commons (in this case, ensuring safe navigation)
  • Strengthen Partnerships (with colonists, aliens, or whomever)
  • Respond to Crises (like when aliens take a dislike to human colonists)
  • Defeat Aggression (those pesky Romulans)
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) (often a side plot leading to other things)

Through these activities, no major wars occurred during TNG’s run – even the very destructive Borg invasion was a one-shot deal with no follow up (the Collective was a poor operational planner). The Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet managed to keep a lid on things by reminding member worlds that the Federation had their backs, and deterring outsiders from anything silly. This maintained the Federation as a legitimate authority for its varied members, and as a potentially prickly opponent for would-be aggressors. Thus, the chances of internal insurrection or external invasion were minimized.

But for the crew of Deep Space Nine, this fragile order breaks down. The darkest, but arguably best-told, of the Star Trek series follows the crew of a space station on the Federation frontier, overseeing a world rebuilding after a brutal occupation by a foreign power. Dramatically, DS9 is an oft-overlooked pioneer in the long-form narrative storytelling now common on television.[i] There were stand-alone episodes, more often in the first couple of years, but by the third of its seven seasons, the show settles more or less on a single storyline: the Federation’s increasingly hostile relationship with the newly-discovered Dominion. That benign six-month break for a TNG viewer will really mess with a DS9 fan.

Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

The Dominion is different from the Federation’s other neighbors (most famously, the Klingons) because Starfleet presence and peaceful precedent is not a factor for them. In the show’s pilot episode, the new space station crew discovers they are positioned near the mouth of a wormhole, a gateway to some faraway corner of the galaxy. It is through this wormhole that contact with the Dominion is made. It’s as if Europeans only discovered the Pacific by digging the Panama Canal – and they find Hirohito’s Japan waiting for them. They share no border and cannot reach each other, nor even communicate, through any other route. The Dominion and Federation have no history with one another, and thus the Federation has no opportunity to set peaceful precedents through a naval presence. And since they don’t share a border or a mutually-accessible common area, the Federation can’t even conduct shows of force to deter the Dominion, since they would have no way to be seen except by actually pushing a large fleet through the wormhole, which could itself be considered an act of war.

So presence is a bust. Power projection it is!

The middle seasons of the show are a slow burn of escalating hostilities and shifting alliances, but impending conflict is never in doubt. The final two seasons depict a sustained total war, something that is otherwise never seen onscreen in the Star Trek canon. Viewers see fleet-on-fleet engagements, infantry battles, POW camps, and a host of leadership decisions the tea-drinking Captain Picard would be appalled at. It should not be too much of a spoiler to say the Federation wins in the end, but only by taking punishing casualties, building a massive battle fleet, and managing its allies. DS9 showed that victory isn’t easy, but when an opponent can’t be deterred, it becomes the only available option.

One series made for way better TV, but as a model for international relations, I’ll take the boring one any day.

Both shows are available on Netflix.



[i] For “Babylon 5” fans: Yes, I acknowledge it existed at the same time as Deep Space Nine, and was another long-form show set on a  strategic space station. But I have never seen it, so I’m not going to write about it.




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