Following the recent announcement of a Section 31 centric series following the exploits of the former Emperor Georgiou as she traverses the grey areas surrounding the otherwise optimistic Star Trek universe reports have varied on the series possible tone as well as the likely fan reactions to it.
Fan comments on the upcoming Star Trek Section 31 have ranged from excitement over having an actress the calibre of Michelle Yeoh head up the series to screams that we will be asked to root for a character who’s skill set includes genocide, cannibalism and murder. Some reports have tried to claim the series will have a lighter tone than we believe, while others have decried the need for optimism, but the truth more likely resides somewhere in the middle.
For as long as we have told stories there have been plot devices for making them more interesting, more relatable to the reader and more likely to withstand the test of time. From the underdog David battling the giant Goliath, to the fish out of water Robin Hood joining the fray in the battle against the tyrannical forces of King John we use these devices as a means to show the reader how they relate to the story, and Star Trek is no exception.
When Gene Roddenberry stated that at its core Star Trek must remain human many took it to mean he was speaking philosophically, but he was actually speaking as a storyteller. The reason there never was a Romulan series or a Klingon series is that he needed the humans for us to relate to, we didn’t grow up with the five lights of Cardassian society (Yes, there were 5 lights, Gul Madred wasn’t actually talking about the bulbs), so how do we root for a people we don’t fully understand? That was his point.
Now bear with me while we establish a few facts, we’ll circle back to the middle ground a little later on.
Rooting for the bad guys
We’ve all at some point rooted for the bad guys, whether it was Tony Soprano as the gangster with anxiety problems or Dany Ocean who wanted to rob a casino blind for revenge or Dominic Toretto trying to live the life of criminal and street racer, we’ve all rooted for them at one point or another, and it’s ok. They’re written for us to root for.
Now I know what you’re thinking, no, my examples aren’t Star Trek… Star Trek is better than that, and on some level better than us.
But it isn’t. Never has been.
Yes, the crews of the Enterprise, Voyager and DS9 were good people, but when did we forget their trips into the grey area?
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Captain Kirk in The Return of the Archons brought down a society and later promised to send educators to teach them a better way of life, In A Piece of the Action Kirk installs the Federation as the top gangster in charge of a planet (yes, it was a light funny ending but…)
Captain Picard in Conundrum destroyed the Edo’s religious culture to save a member of his crew and allowed Data to overwrite B4’s entire personality in Star Trek Nemesis after having personally defended androids rights to self-determination for over a decade.
Captain Sisko in his very first appearance in Emissary blackmailed Quark into staying in a place he doesn’t feel is safe for his family with the threat of incarcerating his nephew. Used a biogenic weapon to poison an entire planet in For the Uniform then threatened to use it on more to capture one man who had betrayed him, and that’s not even mentioning the things he did in the war.
Captain Janeway murdered a member of her own crew in the episode named after him, Tuvix, helped the Borg in their war with species 8472 at the cost of countless civilizations and destroyed years of history in Endgame just to do what she had already done but faster.
Captain Jonathan Archer hailed a ship for help in Damage and stole their warp coil when they refused to offer a trade.
Still think there was no grey area? There always was we just rooted for it because it was in our best interests at the time and we knew they only did these things for reasons we could see ourselves do the same things. Sure maybe some of us wouldn’t have killed Tuvix because he was a better character then either Tuvok or Neelix, or maybe wouldn’t have dismantled the Edo culture because we wanted Wesley to shut up, but we still understood, we still accepted the result.
By the same token we accepted the existence of Luther Sloan as soon as we met him in Inquisition because we could see as Odd could that the Federation had to have a branch like Section 31, everyone has an arm like section 31. The USA has the CIA, Canada has CSIS, England has MI6, Russia has the FSB, the Romulans have the Tal Shir and the Cardassians have the Obsidian Order. We accept it. We get it.
Star Trek Deep Space Nine Garak and Dukat
Ok, we accept that the grey exists, but it isn’t the star of Star Trek, it’s the exception to the rule!
Absolutely right. and here’s where the middle ground we talked about earlier and how this all ties into plot devices comes back into play,
As reported by our own David Goodman earlier in the week, Star Trek Section 31 show runner Bo Yeon Kim has already publicly stated that this series will not lose sight of what Star Trek represents, so lets give her the benefit of the doubt and take her words at face value.
The middle ground
So if a series about an evil agent of a grey organization can’t lose sight of what Star Trek represents, and it can’t be a light-hearted romp through the galaxy solving people problems and saving tribbles what is it? The most simple answer will come from looking at the most likely plot device for them to use in telling this story.
The fish out of water, is a technique writers use to help explain what’s happening to the audience without having a character talk to themselves, or say things to other characters who should already know them.
An easy example of this is a medial examiner explaining things to a rookie cop at his first big crime scene, the experienced cop knows that the marks on the neck are a sign of one of several possibilities so they don’t need to hear it, but the audience does, so they insert the rookie to have someone besides the audience to explain it to. The rookie cop is the fish.
But you can use the fish for more than just explanations, they take our place in the story, they’re the audiences eyes and ears in the universe, they can also be used as a balancing element for a character who’s too dark.
Take a look at Training Day and you’ll see this technique used, we follow a cop who is a fish out of water when it comes to the real world of crime, he rides with a corrupt cop and gets caught up in his story, and while we may think he’ll eventually go dark we root for him to eventually take down the bad guy.
The Search for Story
We’ve run a semi-regular series on Redshirts Always Die for a few months now in which we look at possible story setups for movies, series and miniseries, one of which was a Section 31 thriller with a good agent, sure he may cross the line now and then, but as we discussed earlier so have our favourite captains.
Here’s a quick version of how I would handle the setup for this middle ground if I were running the show:
Section 31 Agent Harris is a fully trained operative, but his exposure has so far been limited. He knows the system, knows the rules, knows that he may one day have to do some ugly things, he just hasn’t reached that point in his career yet.
He is partnered with a person he may have been told is a former Starfleet Captain, he likely doesn’t need to know more than that about her, she’s famous anyway, clearly her death was faked and she’s been working for Section 31 in some capacity since the Battle of the Binary stars he assumes. Now he’s charged with bringing her up to speed on the rules of Section 31, this is how the organization gets explained to her, and how the writer explains it to the audience.
But we all know she’s a monster, and as time goes on she can’t hide some of the knowledge she has, she pushes him to limits he didn’t think we’re possible, but he remains the audiences conscience and tries to be hers also.
Will he turn dark? Will she be in some way redeemed? is either even possible?
What makes darkness?
If our favourite Captains can do bad things does it make their shows dark? No.
If a good person makes a poor choice does it make them evil? No.
Can anyone be redeemed? Maybe?
The Star Trek optimism in us wants to say yes, even though we say ‘not her’ when it comes to the Emperor.
By the same token there are certain historical figures we would never consider it ok to say ‘he can be redeemed!’
Maybe in this case the optimism of the series is in the attempt more so than the idea. Maybe the writers have something entirely different in mind that will surprise us. We’ll find out when Star Trek Section 31 comes, until then let’s keep our own optimism and hope for a good show.