Star Trek Strange New World’s “Ad Astra Per Aspera” is an episode which keys in on classic Trek storytelling.
While Gene Roddenberry always espoused an idyllic society spotlighted with the Federation as all-encompassing and wise, that organization can and does make mistakes. Our best example is probably Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Measure of a Man.” In that episode, Data wasn’t “property” as inferred by Commander Maddox. Instead, Picard reframed Data’s status not as an inanimate object but rather as a self-aware “slave” with no say in his own fate. On top of that, he was “sentient life” that Picard and company sought out every week. The Federation looked pretty bad in that episode while also making the audience a little uneasy as well.
So too Una’s own personal freedoms were ignored and simply deemed too dangerous for Starfleet and the Federation. But by reframing the discussion, using the trial storyline, we saw her own individual rights crushed in the process. It is her own passion to right that obvious wrong, and she also brings her own humanity into focus. Once again, this is not only embarrassing to the Federation but anathema to what it is supposed to stand for.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Una shows how damaging it is to hide truth others are uncomfortable with.
Una’s need to hide part of her own persona to prevent arrest and/or suffer stigma is central to good Star Trek storytelling. When Roddenberry in the 1960s pushed past television censors by telling stories about little purple people, while really talking about our own failings as humans, little did he know, he was also doing the same thing for his future (and long-lasting) “Star Trek” audience generations later.
The courtroom drama exposition also laid out for the audience the finer points of civil rights and the law versus societal norms and conventions. While internet message boards (reddit.com) rightly argue how this trial might have been resolved very differently, one point rings true, you don’t ask for amnesty during a court-martial. Certainly that “plot contrivance” caused lawyers to roll their eyes in disbelief. But another point rings true: the fundamental rule of law is meant to shine a beacon of freedom and domestic tranquility and should not do the opposite. When a law oppresses others deliberately, or even unintentionally, it is also the duty of those oppressed and their champions to change that law. This is a fundamental, rock-bed principle of a liberal society.
When a Star Trek audience argues “issues” rather than “semantics”, that episode is a success. It will probably endure as “one of the best.” When presented with a controversial and pertinent story involving characters with different political, social, and personal perspectives, we also allow the audience to do the same. It gives weight to discussions involving the “here and now.”
In today’s world, there’s no shortage of opinions involving personal rights and legislative initiatives which seek to quell personal expression for the “greater good” of society. Good Trek always bends a current event and turns it into a 24th-century drama. When an episode provides enough tangible, personal, and emotional conflict, many Star Trek fans will also discuss those issues in an equally compelling way. The finer points of empathy, civil discourse, and societal normalization are the bedrock to these stories and can raise the level of discussion beyond the standard arguments about canon, Trek technology, or the latest “Q-numdrum” (pun intended). In short, substantive storytelling leads to substantive discussion.
Finally, and this is an important part of what makes “Star Trek” so important to us over its half-century, is how WE were impacted by such episodes. When something rings true to us and impacts us personally, it will do the same for the next generation of fans. Think about how many people became engineers, doctors, lawyers, and even astronauts watching episodes that struck a personal chord. It was why they passionately took up a particular profession. I think this is one of those episodes. While it is imperfect from a legal, procedural standpoint, do expect it to be remembered as one of Trek’s best. I suspect this one will produce a whole crop of future civil liberties attorneys.