Warning: contains spoilers for the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds pilot.
The first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, called, aptly enough ‘Strange New Worlds’, was about as generic a Star Trek plot as you could imagine – and that proved to be a massive plus. The USS Enterprise arrived at a planet that was technologically not far off present-day Earth, inhabited by people that looked like humans with a new kind of bumpy forehead.
But not everything was well on this planet, in fact they were on the verge of a war fought with devastating weapons of mass destruction, and so it fell to Captain Pike and his crew to bring these aliens to the negotiating table (while bending “General Order One” as far as it can go without snapping).
Now obviously the idea that there is one “true” Star Trek is ridiculous, now more than ever, but the episode still felt like a throwback to a kind of Star Trek we haven’t seen in a while. And yet, somehow it landed a little weirdly.
The episode aired during a still-ongoing war of aggression by Russia against Ukraine. It referenced the events of January 6, as a prelude to the USA’s “Second Civil War”, which in turn would lead to World War III. ‘Strange New Worlds’ harked back to the grand tradition of Star Trek stories where two warring factions need only get around the negotiating table and learn to see things from the other person’s perspective and learn to compromise to bring about peace.
But Putin’s problem was never that he couldn’t see Volodymyr Zelensky’s point of view. The people who invaded the US Capitol building were not people who could be satisfied by compromise.
This is aside from the fact that the government Pike speaks to in the episode appears to be developing a “Warp Bomb”, a weapon that could potentially make nukes look like firecrackers, against dissidents among its own people. A government planning that doesn’t need to be negotiated with, it needs to be removed with prejudice.
As much as the episode felt like a truly classic slice of Trek, those plot elements feel weird against the backdrop of current events, but the reason for those story choices is tied to the very core of Star Trek, going all the way back to the original series.
Planetary War of the Week: a Classic Trek Plot
‘Planet engaged in a years/decades/centuries-long war that the Enterprise gets caught in the middle of’ is one of the great classic Trek plots. Perhaps the first and most archetypal example of this plot is in the original series episode, ‘A Taste of Armageddon’. The Enterprise attempts to make contact with a planet only to discover that, despite beautiful cities and an apparently peaceful existence, it is engaged in a bloody, centuries-long war with a neighbour.
For society to function in the presence of this ongoing bloodshed, the war is carried out by simulation, with any casualties on both sides notified of their death and ordered to report to a facility to be vaporised. It’s a surprisingly savage bit of satire. The ongoing death of millions of civilians is acceptable, even desirable, but what both, supposedly implacably opposed, governments can agree on is that their war should not damage property.
The simulated war itself, meanwhile, is fought with high-yield interplanetary missiles, echoing nuclear attacks by intercontinental ballistic missiles, because, like a lot of the Original Series, this was an episode about the Cold War. It is a subject that Star Trek’s original series returns to frequently, with this episode, with ‘A Private Little War’, and its cynical dissection of proxy wars, and sometimes in less subtle ways, such as ‘The Omega Glory’, which features a planet that not only has a Cold War but also independently evolved an American Flag and a US Pledge of Allegiance.
Faced with the Cold War, and more importantly, the threat of all-out nuclear war between the US and USSR, Star Trek’s ‘Get everyone around the negotiating table and talk it out’ philosophy makes sense. For the majority of its audience, whether the Soviet vision of communism or the US version of capitalism democracy won out was probably less important than whether the Earth would be reduced to a radioactive wasteland in the process.
Peace is the Word
Even early on, however, the metaphor started to show cracks when taken out of its lane. ‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ is probably one of the most famous, if least-watched examples of Star Trek’s ‘two warring factions’ plot, where one side is black on the left and white on the right, while the other is white on the left and black on the right. It probably won’t astonish you to learn that this episode was attempting to tell a story about racial conflict.
And it’s not great. We learn that one side oppressed and enslaved the other, that other fought the oppression of the former, even after they stopped enslaving them, and our enlightened, diverse, post-conflict Federation onlookers conclude that both sides are as bad as each other. It is in an episode whose message will probably appeal to some people today, but maybe it shouldn’t.
But while there are a handful of examples of this plot in the original series, when Star Trek: The Next Generation came to our screens the number of these plotlines positively exploded. On board the Enterprise D barely a week could go by without the ship flying off to some peace talks somewhere. The episode ‘Lonely Among Us’ has one such set of peace talks going on as a B plot, and ends with one of the delegates literally eating another off-screen as a comic aside. We see it in ‘Too Short a Season’, ‘The Vengeance Factor’, and ‘Loud As A Whisper’, to pick a few from a very long list.
Often these stories are vague about why the alien factions are fighting. It is simply enough to say that both sides need to sit down and negotiate to achieve peace.
At the same time, the Cold War metaphor was one that was felt less keenly by Star Trek: The Next Generation’s audience. While the show was on the air the Berlin wall was coming down, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended, and the USSR came to an end, replaced by the Russian Federation. The wars Star Trek: The Next Generation’s planetary conflicts stood in for were no longer the Cold War.
Leaving the Cold War Behind
‘The High Ground’ was censored when it was first broadcast in the UK, for citing “The Irish unification of 2024” as an example of a time when violence had successfully brought about political change. The Israel-Palestine conflict is also waved at by various stories. These wars aren’t treated as the potentially world-ending arguments of the Original Series’ nuclear metaphors, but as artefacts that seemed to appear fully formed, intractable, with origins in ancient history, and very rarely with any real, material bones of contention.
By Star Trek: Deep Space Nine there is sometimes not even a metaphor in place. The story ‘Battle Lines’ is almost as archetypical a Star Trek story as ‘Strange New Worlds’. A planet locked in eternal war, where the combatants can never die. We are never really told why they are fighting, and the soldiers don’t seem to know. It has simply Always Been That Way.
It is probably for the same reason that the factions are fighting for in Star Trek: Voyager episode ‘Nemesis’, when Chakotay is unwittingly recruited as a soldier, or the Kyrians’ and Vaskans’ historic conflict in ‘Living Witness’.
It continues all the way through to the Cold War stand-in in the Enterprise episode ‘The Communicator’, or the holy war in ‘Chosen Realm’, where one faction believes the world was made in nine days, and the other believes it was made in ten.
The moral is hardly sophisticated. ‘War is bad’, ‘People fight for stupid reasons’, and ‘People who have been fighting a long time find it hard to make peace’, are common and recurring messages throughout Star Trek. But scratch any holy war and you will find material concerns underpinning it, find any senseless, centuries-old grudge and you will find very real and current patterns of exploitation or oppression bringing it into the present day.
War is bad, it is also expensive, unpopular, and dangerous, if a leader or a people are going to engage in it, there is a concrete reason for it. Maybe the soldiers on the front line don’t have a good reason, but somebody always does.
A Just War?
We do see wars fought for meaningful reasons in Star Trek. We see Starfleet officers at war with Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, Xindi, Borg, and the Dominion. These wars are seen as bad, and even drive good people to do morally questionable things, but one thing that is rarely ever in question is whether these wars are worth fighting. The Federation, and the ideals it represents, need to be protected, even if that means violence on a galactic scale.
‘Strange New Worlds’ is a story that happily steals its story beats from the classic sci-fi movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an alien from a galactic federation lands on the White House front lawn and says “Guys, quit it with the nukes already or we’ll have to sort you out”, with Pike playing the role of Klaatu. However, it is also stealing from a source slightly closer to home – ‘Errand of Mercy’, the first appearance of the Klingons.
In that episode, far from landing on an alien world to teach the primitive locals the beauty of mediated negotiation and conflict resolution, Kirk and Spock are trying to persuade them to take up arms against occupying Klingon forces. Then, it turns out that the primitive locals are actually all-powerful ascended energy beings, to use Pike’s parlance “they have the bigger stick”, and they waste no time in confiscating the toys from both sides and imposing their own peace. While Kirk can eventually see the funny side, it is telling he is as outraged as his Klingon counterpart when it happens.
Keeping that in mind, the Federation’s bemusement at less advanced culture’s wars can seem more like an act of patronising colonialism – the very thing “General Order One”, the Prime Directive, exists to prevent. All wars seem silly when you’re floating above them in a giant spaceship, just as they seem justified and necessary when you’re on the front lines.