The Existential Crisis of 25th Century Starfleet

I just finished rewatching the series finale of Star Trek: Picard, just to have some comfort viewing on my latest sleepless night. And there they all were again, sitting around a table playing cards, happy in the company of one another and glad to be free of that terrible ending given them in 2002 with the film Nemesis. I also went back to watch a few key scenes that I absolutely LOVE from season 3, most of which center on Captain Liam Shaw, of course.

As I watched the USS Titan zoom through the formation of Borg-controlled starships and marveled at the massive structure of the classic Enterprise-D sliding into “park” overhead inside the burning Borg cube, I was free of that initial wave of nostalgic euphoria. I was no longer in that sandbox of toy ships and action figures making up that final two episodes of the season and … there was something wrong with it all and I couldn’t figure it out right away.

Overnight, as I worked thorugh another rough evening of ignoring the side effects of a recent surgicalo procedure, I passed the time thinking about the show again from a different perspective. I watched a few videos by YouTube commentator Steve Shives, who happened to have a new re-watch of “The Best of Both Worlds” episodes that are so important to Trek history and these characters in particular. I considered episodes of the various Star Trek series where the the Borg attack of 2367 represented personal and cultural woulds still fresh among the survivors. I noticed that the Borg and Dominion Wars represented a shift from Starfleet’s long-established identity as an exploratory arm of the Federation to one of defense, a shift from the soft, circular designs of the familiar starshiup primary hull to the arrowhead of war popular on all new vessels built after that time.

The powers of the Alpha and Beta quadrants were on notice that the next major threat could come at any moment from any direction and in any form, so the Federation’s illusion of being that fleet of peace had to be broken in order to provide its citizens a sense of safety and security.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The Consequences of Being Locutus

Much of Jean-Luc Picard’s identity is influenced by his experience being assimilated by the Borg collective and being forced, as Locutus, to help destroy Starfleet’s defense force at Wolf 359 and 11 THOUSAND people. Picard’s PTSD was on full display in the film First Contact and, despite the outcome of that film, I doubt it gave him much closure. After all, more of his crew died or were assimilated on that mission and he nearly lost the new Enterprise.

For decades after, it wasn’t just Picard’s lonely task of coping or dealing with the issues in therapy. It was clear that SOME Starfleet personnel had a hard time forgiving or understanding Picard’s ordeal. Commander Sisko on Deep Space Nine did not hide his contempt and rage at losing his wife at Wolf 359 and did not make a distinction between the man and the Borg. Yes, that wound was just a year or so fresh, but it had to represent some of Starfleet’s command structure that always wondered what it would take to switch those Borg implants back on again. In fact, so frightened of that prospect was Starfleet that when the Borg showed up again and made a direct attack on Earth, the Enterprise-E — a ship specifically designed to deal with the Borg threat AND manned by some of the most experienced Starfleet officers to ever deal with the Borg — was kept out of the fight. It wasn’t until a repeat of Wolf 359 and the destruction of Earth was imminent that Picard took the Enterprise against orders into the battle.

In Picard’s third season, prejudice against the Borg is clearly a lingering factor among the emerging senior officers of the fleet, those who survived the Borg and Dominion Wars like Captain Shaw who was just a “dipshit from Chicago” but ascended to captain a deep space exploratory vessel. It makes sense that with a personnel shortage after two horrible wars, Starfleet had to direct some of those junior officers into command school rather than where their gifts might have otherwise taken them.

The result was that the USS Titan’s captain carried as much if not more trauma than Picard after the battle of Wolf 359. After a terrifying experience where he survived the battle by luck of the draw, it must have been even more horrifying to learn that the carnage was successful because a Starfleet officer like Picard was leading the attack. Eleven thousand dead and Shaw had to spend the next few decades pondering why he lived and why he ended up in the center seat. Shaw blamed Picard in probably the same way many Starfleet officers did and do. The Borg are (or were) a faceless enemy without personality or identity, so Locutus represented a face – a direction to send the hate for the species. And it was not hard to suggest that Picard’s “easy” rescue afterward by the Enterprise crew suggested that PERHAPS Picard didn’t fight hard enough to save his own people. He was reinstated almost immediately to the flagship of the Federation and life continued for them without Picard having to answer a single charge or undergo any public scrutiny. It was suggested that Picard’s pain was his private struggle to manage.

This is why I think that the end of Picard places the United Federation of Planets in the greatest crisis of its existence and how it represents at least a partial victory for the Borg.

The Borg plot in season 3 was revealed to be a secret infiltration of Starfleet, first by shape-shifters to replace key personnel across the Federation and the fleet, and to introduce an organic Borg “script” into transporter codes that would line the DNA of anyone using them with a Trojan Horse virus capable of turning them into Borg with the transmission of a signal.

So instead of just capturing one Starfleet captain, the Borg managed to assimilate an entire generation of Starfleet officers and crew who were able to capture all of Starfleet over Earth in a single transmission.

Think about that. You’re a junior officer on a Starfleet vessel, celebrating “Frontier Day” one minute, and losing your entire self the next. Something inside you just takes over and you begin murdering your crewmates, attacking other Starfleet vessels, and destroying a massive spacedock complex manned by thousands of military personnel and civilians. In order to take command of these ships, these new Borg would have to slay most of a ship’s senior staff and put down anyone who dared get in their way, which was anyone “over 25 years old”.

It has been documented that Captain Picard was aware of the things he did while under the control of the Borg collective, so imagine being along for the ride, just a kid perhaps fresh out of the academy, as you systematically destroy all the things in your life that you worked hard to achieve and all those you loved with the goal of bringing down Earth’s defenses and laying waste to the 10 billion people on the surface.

And on the surface, Starfleet crewmembers who were able to watch Frontier Day from the comfort of their homes, with family, were suddenly taking up arms against their parents and friends as the Borg programming compelled them to rise up and attack, kill, and assimilate. Who knows how many young people on Earth heard the same transmission as those in space above them? Just because they used a tainted transporter, they would wake up on the other side of the battle with blood on their hands surrounded by the corpses of those closest to them.

So while Picard and his crew were enjoying hands of poker together, I imagine there were quite a few Starfleet officers staring quietly out into space from their dark quarters wondering where to go from there, reliving the atrocities they committed, and wondering when it might happen again. Like Picard, each of them will have to live with the sound of the collective echoing in their minds as they are forced to track crewmates down corridors to shoot them down in cold blood, unable to resist their new programming or even understand what is happening to them.

So we have the loss of senior officers (like Shaw) who survived the Borg and Dominion and other conflicts only to die on Frontier Day. The last of the experienced breed of Starfleet officers… gone.

And we have a generation of junior officers who probably don’t want to deal with those horrors ever again. I would assume that this level of trauma would be grounds for a medical discharge.

One could argue that this is contrary to that whole Starfleet “can do” spirit and that this, too, would become a rallying cry to rebuild and respond…but consider how Shaw, Sisko, and Picard demonstrate the long-term scars of their experiences – and those were exceptional, legendary, examples. Shaw is probably the most realistic depiction. He’s not a hero. He doesn’t want to be one. He lived to keep his crew SAFE. His entire motivation throughout the season was to avoid the things that Picard and Riker brought the USS Titan into. The things that made him a “dick” to viewers initially make perfect sense in context.

It would make sense for a young Lieutenant or Ensign to look at this experience and prove unfit for duty, unable to use a transporter or trust a senior officer for fear that a shapeshifter may have slipped through Dr. Crusher’s magic “make it right” detector. They may not be able to sleep without the image of their phaser gutting their mentor or section chief or best friend or even the idea that Starfleet allowed something in that deprived them of their very agency and nearly forced them to obliterate Earth and the Federation.

Personnel issues aside, it is also time for Starfleet’s inevitable accountability to the Federation itself. Starfleet was compromised at all levels. How would member worlds respond to this? How would this near-cataclysm challenge their trust in the military-defense arm of the Federation to protect them when needed most? In hindsight, will the profoundly stupid idea of assembling “the entire fleet” in one place represent a structural failure across all Starfleet operations? Politically, the survivors of this fight will have much to answer to and it is a stretch of the narrative license to say “but it was the shape-shifters” to excuse it all and move on. It hasn’t been long since the attack on Mars depicted in S1 of Picard killed around 92 THOUSAND people, so Starfleet’s effectiveness is easy to question. Given that Section 51 and various classified secrets are part of the narrative, one must wonder what story the public will be told to explain things while assuring similar horrors will not happen again.

With Starfleet recovering on multiple fronts, it represents a sign of weakness among regional powers who will test Starfleet as it scrambles to take inventory and assess the impact of the Borg attack on its leadership, infrastructure, vessels, and crew.

The show zips ahead about a year and plays events as though they had little significance on Starfleet. We’ve buried Shaw and renamed his ship as though it had no role in winning the day, and gave Crusher’s second child another “special position” on board the bridge of the new Enterprise. So I guess it all worked out, at least in script form.


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