Star Trek knows the cost of peace.
The original Star Trek was a product of the cold war. One of the recurring themes was that peace was always achievable with any adversary you could talk to. This message was particularly potent in an age where it seemed that humanity’s lust for conquest would be the end of us all. When humanity is on a knife edge like that, the issue can seem very simple and black and white, a binary choice between war and peace, the destruction of human civilization, or a future of enlightened utopia.
While the issue is more complicated than that, I don’t mean to criticize the simplistic representation of it. It made for a powerful and effective message. Despite the complicated issues that surround war it is still frequently a binary choice; we, as humans, are frequently faced with the decision to go to war, or not, and no matter how complex the surrounding issues get, it is always possible to simply choose peace. War is not an unavoidable force of nature, it’s caused by malefactors choosing bloodlust and ambition over the lives of the innocent.
Star Trek’s simplistic representation of the issue dovetailed with its message of hope for the future. It was a reminder that a future of peace and enlightened utopia is a choice away.
The Prime Directive: A Difficult Path To Utopia
But just because a choice is simple, that does not make it easy. Star Trek’s famous prime directive, the rule that Starfleet may not interfere in alien cultures was a reaction to the Vietnam War. America’s involvement in the war was sold as an act of peace, the stated aim was to defeat the Viet Cong and bring peace to Vietnam. Those aims sound noble, however, America’s involvement prolonged the war. Had America chosen peace, it would’ve meant watching idly while the war raged on in another nation. But history shows that would’ve been the right thing to do.
The simple binary of war and peace is the very core of Star Trek, and I hope that never changes. But just like with Vietnam, choosing peace often has a difficult price, which Star Trek is now acknowledging.
In an excellent recent episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, veterans of the Klingon war, Dr. M’Benga, Nurse Chapel, and Erica Ortegas had to deal with a former Klingon warlord turned diplomat being escorted on the Enterprise to a diplomatic engagement. The Federation wanted Dak’Rah to meet with war veterans as a show of peace and unity, but the forced cordiality was too much for the three veterans, and the whole affair ended in tragedy.
The Federation was right in wanting comity, such gestures build trust, which is essential for peace. The Federation was choosing peace, and the real anguish felt by the veterans was the price of peace. Strange New Worlds was bold in exploring how the price of peace can itself be deadly.
That episode has been compared to the Deep Space Nine classic In The Pale Moon Light, but another parallel occurred to me, the arc on Star Trek: Picard where our titular hero was confronted by his former charge Ro Laren.
On Star Trek: The Next Generation, Ro was a was a survivor of the Cardassian occupation of Bajor, who Picard dispatched to infiltrate the Maquis, another group who were fighting to free their homeworlds from Cardassian rule. Ro, of course, defected to the Maquis.
Again, The Federation was right to support the Cardassians against the sympathetic Maquis. Supporting former enemies to protect the terms of a peace treaty against belligerents is choosing peace, but no treaty could nullify Ro’s trauma, which Picard and The Federation were tragically naive not to understand.
A peaceful utopia without cost would be a fantasy. Ultimately, by exploring the sometimes difficult and tragic costs of choosing peace, Star Trek is being honest about what it will take to get there. It may not be easy, but Star Trek is giving showing us a realistic utopia that we can believe in.