I like to joke that my favorite kind of television science fiction features people sitting around in a room talking. But the source of this joke is a serious truth: the best episodes of any version of Star Trek frequently feature something resembling such a scenario, but instead of regular clothes, everyone is wearing their outer-space pajamas.
The reason Trek has endured for a staggering 45 years is not because it has nifty space battles or awesome catch-phrases; instead because it’s usually about something. We could call this writing “ripped from the headlines” or instances of the writers wearing their “politics on their sleeves.” In any case, what makes Star Trek a political badass is its insistence on taking on important issues. And sometimes that means a lot of people in Starfleet uniforms sitting around and talking in a room. Here are ten episodes from the various shows with politically resonate stories that we’re still talking about today.
10. “A Private Little War” – The Original Series
(Written by Gene Roddenberry & Jud Crucis)
This classic critique of the Vietnam War sees Kirk and Bones struggling with the ethical dilemma on whether or not to arm a primitive culture with weapons. Violating the Prime Directive of non-interference goes out the window with Kirk on this one since the Klingons are already arming different native peoples. Kirk is adamant that his primitives of the planet Neaural are peaceful people, and will be crushed if their enemies are allowed to have more advanced weapons. The Klingons are giving their faction flintlock rifles, and so Kirk arms his side with the same. It doesn’t take long for Bones to point out the slippery slope they’re on. He famously references the “brush-wars” of Earth’s 20th Century and how Kirk is leading the Federation into a similar balance-of-power situation on this planet. If Star Trek first became famous for obvious political allegory by commenting on something which was occurring in real-life, it was probably right here with this episode.
9. “Terra Prime/Demons” – Enterprise
(Writte by Judith Reeves-Stevens, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Manny Coto, & Andre Bormanis)
As Earth and its allies try to come together in unity, jingoist and isolationist elements on Earth hatch a xenophobic scheme to prevent the founding of any such alliance. Stealing the DNA of Trip Tucker and T’Pol, the terrorist group Terra Prime creates a human/vulcan hybrid baby. The idea is to shock the humans of Earth with what Terra Prime considers to be an “abomination.” These people are so racist and nuts they’re willing to blow up Starfleet Headquarters if any aliens remain on Earth soil. The great thing here is that the main characters are central to the conflict. Trip and T’Pol certainly had sexual tension throughout the series, but they also represented some of the racial problems between the Earth and its alien neighbors. The fact they have to painfully deal with those differences while fighting for their own survival — and the survival of the child they didn’t know they had — is powerful stuff. Shockingly, this smart, provocative episode was the penultimate outing for Enterprise. A great moment indicative of what good Star Trek is all about.
8. “Duet” – Deep Space Nine
(Written by Peter Allan-Fields, Lisa Rich, & Jeanne Carrigan-Fauci)
The tension between the Cardassians and the Bajorans evoked middle east Israel/Palestine conflicts right from the start, but combined it with a Nazi-Germany Holocaust backstory. At the start of the series, the Bajorans have only barely regained their sovereignty from a brutal Cardassian occupation. But instead of portraying the Bajorans as victims, the Deep Space Nine writers turned it around almost immediately by having elements of Bajoran society be just as militant in the persecution of Cardassians as the Cardassians had been to them. This episode is a standout example, as Kira begins a quest to prove the guilt of someone she believes to have been present at one of the most infamous Cardassian death camps. An older Cardassian named Aamin Marritza comes on the space station and carries a physical condition called Pottrick Syndrome, which supposedly could have only be contracted at the mining camp Gallitep. For Kira, this means this guy is definitely a war criminal—sight unseen. And yet, as the story unfolds, it seems Marritza wanted to be caught by Federation and Bajoran officials.
The episode goes through a lot of twists and turns and at one point Marritza claims to really be Gul Darhe’el, otherwise known as “The Butcher of Gallitep.” In the real world this would be like someone copping to the fact they were in charge of Auschwitz. But it’s all a ruse and a ruse of a strange kind. This guy really is innocent and is pretending to be a war criminal because he thinks his planet needs to pay publicly for their war crimes. When Kira figures it out, she immediately demands Marritza be released, only to see him tragically knifed on the promenade. This was a really early episode of Deep Space Nine and set a different tone for Star Trek: the political roles between victim and aggressor aren’t always cut and dry, even for those who participated in a past war.
7. “Workforce Parts 1 & 2” –Voyager
(Written by Kenneth Biller, Michael Taylor, and Bryan Fuller)
In many ways, Voyager was closer to the original Star Trek than any of the other spin-off shows because it mostly featured a fun crew jumping around from planet to planet and space politics were usually left back in the alpha quadrant. But occasionally Voyager’s social commentary rocked, and this little-talked about two-part episode is a great example. In an inversion of stories about labor politics, Captain Janeway and crew find themselves in bizarre situation: a culture which doesn’t have a shortage of resources, but rather a shortage of labor to fill jobs. The solution? They poach people with the necessary skills, wipe their memories and put them to work. With echoes of Philip K. Dick’s “Paycheck” this episode put familiar characters in brand new circumstances in which their solid character traits nonetheless emerged. More importantly, the society that is depicted makes a fairly strong commentary on not only negative working conditions, but also the educational infrastructure of the future.
Though it’s not stated outright, the implication of this situation indicates a lack of education. In short, this planet favored industry over information, resulting in a surplus of one and a lack of the other. Way back in the original series episode “The Cage” the notion of a society who forgot how to repair the machines built by their ancestors was explored. This isn’t that extreme, but it does touch on similar themes. Without kidnapping and brain-washing smart, well-rounded people like the crew of the USS Voyager, this space factory wouldn’t be able to run. The other notion presented here is even more insidious: maybe some people stuck in mediocre factory jobs really have the potential to be the Captain Janeways of the world. But if the economic class system is as rigid as this, how would we ever know?
6. “The Maquis Parts 1 &2” – Deep Space Nine (Written by Rick Berman, Jeri Taylor, Michael Piller, and James Crocker)
The idea of the civilian population of the United Federation of Planets was rarely dealt with prior to Deep Space Nine. Just who are all these people in this grand alliance of peaceful planets? It turns out some of them are just ordinary people not too dissimilar from homesteaders of previous centuries. The basic premise of Federation colonies suddenly finding themselves in enemy space because of a new treaty is jarring because these people are effectively kicked out of the Federation. The Wesley Crusher episode of TNG, “Journey’s End,” dealt with the initial insurrection of some of these colonists, but because the story focused so much on Wesley, Picard, and the Traveler, the colonists were ultimately not given a fair shake. This two-parter corrects that oversight by plunging Sisko in the middle of the conflict and having one of his closest friends resign from Starfleet to join the Maquis. The audience gets the sense that the Maquis are in the wrong and that taking up arms will only create more violence.
But, we’re made to feel even more uncomfortable when Sisko has to take a small fleet of runabouts to shoot down ships that are being piloted by his friends. Just like the roles between the Bajorans and the Cardassians aren’t black and white, this episode, and subsequent Maquis storylines really demonstrated the problems of a government as disconnected from its citizens as the Federation seems to be. Sure, the United Federation of Planets is a great idea, but if they’re kicking their less fortunate citizens on dinky little planets to the curb just because it solves some treaty negations, maybe it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
5. “Chain of Command Parts 1 & 2” – The Next Generation (Written by Frank Abatemarco)
Though the first portion of this story doesn’t really deal with the narrative’s primary issue of torture, the political situations that will end up resulting in the events of “Preemptive Strike” and the aforementioned “The Maquis” originate here. The notion of the demilitarized zone and the idea that Federation is trading backwater colonies full of innocent people just to gain some diplomatic advantage is pretty scary, and really gestures at a darker galactic government structure than was previously revealed on Star Trek. All of this creates a creepy atmosphere, which results in Picard getting kidnapped and brutally tortured by the Cardassians.
What is so notable about this episode is just how real the torture scenes are when contrasted with the rest of the honkey-dory Starfleet universe. If Star Trek was a family show at this point in history (I certainly watched this episode as an adolescent) it became a very different sort of family show after this. Not a single note of characterization or dialogue is corny in this episode, despite the melodramatic subject matter. The greatest irony to the torture sequence is Picard really doesn’t have the military secrets the Cardassians are looking for.
As a viewer, one’s emotional focus is so utterly manipulated by this episode that the audience is almost longing for Picard to give in, if only because it would mean the end of his and their suffering. So, when Picard is back on the ship, sitting in the comfy beige of his ready room and tells Deanna that he almost could see the 5th light, we totally know what he means. The idea that governments tolerate this sort of behind-the-scenes brutality is part of the issue being explored here, but also the limits of what a person can take physically and psychologically. Sir Patrick Stewart apparently researched the hell out of this one, and was really stripped naked for these scenes in order to have the horror of Picard’s loss of dignity come across as genuine. One of the heaviest Star Trek’s ever.
4. “Homefront/Paradise Lost” – Deep Space Nine (Written by Ira Steven Behr & Robert Hewitt Wolfe)
Though this two-part episode aired in 1996, its themes creepily predict the Patriot Act and concerns about Homeland Security in a post 9/11 atmosphere. When shapeshifters plant an exploding bomb at Federation conference, Captain Sisko and Odo are called back to Earth to help Starfleet deal with the problem. Since Odo is a shapeshifter and Sisko has been fighting the Dominion, these seem like just the guys for the job. Soon, Siko and Odo are recommending mandatory blood screenings for everyone on the planet and in the wake of a planet-wide power failure, they advocate putting armed Starfleet troops on the streets. Everything culminates for Sisko in one particular moment when he tries to force his father (played fantastically by the late Brock Peters) to submit to a blood screening. Tragically, it turns out Sisko and everyone are being manipulated by Admiral Leyton (Robert Foxworth) and a group of his followers. The shapeshifters bombing of the diplomatic conference was real, but the blackout was faked by Leyton to get everyone worked up about the danger of shapeshifter saboteurs.
This episode works so well because the people pushing for civil rights to be taken away are actually our regular heroes. Only when they start noticing little logistical hiccups in the evidence do their ethics start to turn around. In part 1 of this story, you feel like the Federation is finally stepping it up and taking the fight to the bad guys instead of all that pansy Star Trek crap. And then, like a slap in the face, the pansy Star Trek crap comes back and reminds you how easy it is to forget about human rights in the pursuit of shapeshifting terrorists. Roddenberry might not have been crazy about Starfleet officers doing such sneaky stuff, but the points made with this story are at the core of Star Trek’s hopeful — if sometimes cautionary — political agenda.
3. “Past Tense Parts 1 & 2” – Deep Space Nine (Written by Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe and René Echevarria)
Sisko, Dax and Bashir are thrown back to Earth circa 2024 in this jarring science fiction take on the separation of economic classes. Though in Star Trek’s past, this version of Earth is the viewer’s near future, specifically a future where the homeless and poor are rounded up and thrown into what are essentially neighborhood-sized ghetto-prisons, which run under the official euphemisms of “Sanctuary Districts.” Taking place in San Francisco in America, Sisko quickly figures out he and Bashir are about to participate in historical events, specifically a time when “The Bell Riots” occurred. Named for a community leader, Gabriel Bell, it was a movement in this fictional future history in which one man organized a take over of the Sanctuary District in San Francisco. However, in some confusion, Gabriel Bell is killed and Sikso is forced to step in and take his place in order to keep history on track.
Separated from Sisko and Bashir, Dax is living the high life with what is essentially the rich 1% of this society, but still trying to assist her compatriots from the inside. Though everything turns out correct in the end and the three are returned to the more idealistic future of the 24th century, the fact that Sisko participated in bringing about something as extreme as the Bell Riots is pretty hardcore. Star Trek always struggled with the simple fact that most of its main characters were representative of a kind of outer-space military, in essence “the man.” In order to “fight the man,” the characters are frequently put in situations where they have to see how the other half lives. In this case, Ben Sisko literally pretends to be someone else. Is this similar to the rich and powerful marching along side the Occupy Wall Street protesters? When you think about the justifications given for the Sanctuary Districts in this episode, it doesn’t sound too dissimilar from the wealth gap we see in America now.
2. “The Drumhead” – The Next Generation (Written by Jeri Taylor)
When Picard is in a courtroom setting, there’s really no stopping him. In this quietly disturbing episode, an inquisition occurs on the Enterprise after a saboteur is suspected following an explosion in the engine room. Quickly, a bon-a-fide spy is uncovered, but the investigation lead by Admiral Satie (Jean Simmons), doesn’t end there. Soon, she she’s questioning the loyalty of timid junior crewman, Worf, and then Picard himself. The notion of paranoia and specifically McCarthyism is evoked strongly, though the initial thrust of the investigations seem like a good idea. We all like the peaceful utopia represented by the United Federation of Planets, so if there’s someone out there righting the legal wrongs inside of it, that might be a good thing, right?
In the end Picard gives Worf a convincing talk that certainly colors the episode as a cautionary tale, but the entirety of the story is more complex than just that. A normal person would probably wonder about Picard’s experience with the Borg, as would they be a little curious about the whole situation with Worf’s parents betraying/not betraying Starfleet way back in the day. Because we’re with these characters all the time, we trust them. But an outsider might not understand all that. Meaning, without all the information, a McCarthy style witch-hunt can happen at any time, if only because a person with insane zeal might have begun their quest on the foundation of quasi-legitimacy.
Unlike TNG’s other big courtroom episode — “The Measure of a Man” — this one doesn’t really have much actual science fiction central to the conflic other than the standard trappings of the Enterprise and its crew. Almost every TV show has an inquisition-style episode in which everyone’s loyalty is tested, but this one is so well executed because you don’t actually see the witch-hunt until it’s firmly upon the characters. Also, despite Picard sort of demonizing her at the end, Satie comes across as a fairly rounded and well-developed character. We really believe she believes she’s doing the right thing. Like all the best Star Trek stories, this one doesn’t really have a clear-cut bad guy. The only thing we gotta watch out for is the kind of stuff smart people will do with a little bit of paranoia and a bit too much power.
1. “A Taste of Armageddon” – The Original Series (Written by Robert Hamner and Gene L. Coon.)
Possibly my favorite of the Original Series for a variety of reasons, this episode’s musings on the speculative politics of war is timeless. Kirk and the Enterprise arrive at Eminar VII, a planet which claims to be embroiled in a bloody and terrible war with a neighboring planet. But when the crew beam down to the surface, there is no sign of destruction of any kind. Soon an attack is announced and everyone starts running around like crazy. However, Kirk, Spock and the rest of the landing party observe no actual explosions or death. Nonetheless, casualties are declared, including the Enterprise itself! Quickly it becomes apparent to Spock that these planets fight their war with computers. War has been programmed into this society as an inevitable fact of life, necessitating a complex system of computers to solve for it. Everything about war which destroys “society” has been expunged from this model: buildings and cultures are maintained, art and philosophy flourish. However, death remains. The casualties are calculated and the citizens of the two planets walk happily into incineration booths. If one is declared a casualty, it’s compulsory to fulfill your duty as a victim of war.
Of course, Captain Kirk isn’t having any of this and he and Spock begin a battle to prove to the citizens of both planets that war isn’t something you can just program into a computer. Kirk’s assertion of the inherent barbarism of humanity coupled with our desire to overcome it is one of the most beautiful paradoxes uttered in all of Star Trek. Sure, Captain Kirk’s a killer. But he won’t kill — today.
There are certainly more great examples of politically-minded Star Trek. The above were my favorites. Tell me about yours below!
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He would still want to live in the United Federation of Planets, despite some of its more questionable actions.