“Resignation denied” — How a Single Scene Undermined the Worldbuilding and Credibility of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
One scene. That’s all it took to undermine the worldbuilding of three episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. With a single scene, the series made its setting feel artificial and removed the weight from one of the show’s key sources of moral conflict — what one should do vs. what one is allowed to do.
The scene is a major emotional beat at the end of episode 3. The first officer, Una (known as “Number One”), reveals to Captain Pike that she is an Illyrian — a member of a species denied Federation membership (and, it is implied, participation) due to their genetic augmentation, which is illegal in the Federation — and that she has been concealing this fact for her entire career. She then offers her resignation, clearly expecting severe consequences. Pike refuses to accept her resignation, and assures her that he will handle any blowback. She then leaves.
It is a heartwarming scene and a worthwhile emotional beat, and it fits within the optimistic setting of the show — a clear statement that who you are is immaterial to the quality of your character.
The problem is that in a real, credible setting, it is not a decision Captain Pike would ever be able to make. And, the fact that he disregards this and the consequences that must follow undermine a core element of the entire series.
The Problem of Security
To understand why this is such a problem, one must first understand the role of the Enterprise in Starfleet. The Enterprise is stated to be a flagship, which is a very specific role: it is the ship from which a flag officer — a commodore or admiral — commands a task force or fleet.
This means that as a flagship, the Enterprise would have certain features that a normal starship would not. It would, for example, have an enhanced communications package and extra redundancy. It would have a CIC, or Command Information Centre, from which the flag officer and his or her staff could command the operation. It would have access to all of the additional information — most of which would be classified — that would be required to carry out the operation. And, it would have additional security to protect the CIC, the flag officer and their staff, and the operation itself.
This does not mean that there will always be a flag officer on the ship — as we see in the show, when the Enterprise is operating on its own, there is no need for one, and these rooms go unused and unseen to the viewer. However, even if they aren’t being used, they and all of the technology and information access required to support a flag officer and their staff would still be present. This is so that, as soon as there is more than one ship involved, the flag officer and their staff can immediately board the Enterprise and start doing their jobs.
As a result, security is taken very seriously. If a foreign operative — or somebody who is not who they are claiming to be — were to gain access to the CIC or any of the additional infrastructure used to support it, they could compromise any operation in which the ship is involved. In the case of a major fleet operation, this could cost many thousands of lives.
And herein lies the problem — Number One is not who she says she is. She reveals herself to be a member of an outlawed species with the very augmentations that caused them to be barred from Federation membership in the first place. Further, she reveals that she has successfully concealed this fact for her entire career. And she is the Executive Officer of the ship, with access to everything in it.
The moment she reveals this, she has revealed that the Enterprise is not only compromised as a flagship, it has been compromised since she arrived on board. At the very least, medical systems must have been tampered with to hide her identity, and measures taken to ensure that they do not appear to have been compromised. Just determining what systems function as they should, as well as whether the classified information she had access to is still secure would require a major investigation, one that would spread to every ship she had ever served on.
This revelation is massive, and not one that Pike can ignore. Even if he wants to be able to clear her name, he would have to strip her of command access and place her under house arrest so that a proper investigation could proceed without risk of her interference. His responsibilities as commander of a Federation flagship would leave him no other choice, and the Federation would not allow a flagship to be commanded by a man who would shirk such a responsibility in light of such a major security risk.
And the fact that Pike does choose to ignore this risk not only undermines the worldbuilding and credibility of the episode, but the entire series itself.
The Problem of Consequences
One of the major themes of Strange New Worlds is that of what one should do vs. what one is allowed to do. The crew is bound by regulations limiting their actions — they cannot, for example, interfere with developing species. What creates conflict is when intervention in a situation regarding a developing species becomes a moral necessity — to do the right thing, Pike and his crew must do the very thing that they are not allowed to do. If they take the morally correct action and break regulations, they risk severe career-ending consequences, or even imprisonment. This gives the conflict weight, and places them in a situation where they can do the right thing and pay the price, do the wrong thing but remain safe, or find some third option that allows them to resolve the situation in a way that neither compromises their morals nor violates the regulations under which they serve.
The problem with Pike’s decision is that by removing consequences from a situation in which they must exist, he has in effect removed the consequences from everything else as well. The series has now established that you can take an action that would potentially compromise the highest level of fleet operations without so much as a slap on the wrist. There is now no longer any risk involved in breaking regulations. The conflict is no longer one in which violating the Prime Directive to do the right thing requires sacrifice, or at least a willingness to sacrifice, or following it and doing the wrong thing is safer. The decision has no weight.
The tragedy of this is that if the writers had been willing to take an episode to deal with the realistic aftermath of Number One’s revelation, they could have not only had their emotional beat, but heightened the weight of the conflict between what is right and what is allowed, as well as sent the positive message they were attempting to send. This hypothetical episode would have started with Una in the brig, had Pike serving as her advocate before the investigation, and ended with her cleared and returned to duty based on her actual, unimpeachable, conduct, this time able to live openly and without secrets. By doing this, the series would have established that there are consequences to the actions of the characters — maintaining the risk of breaking regulations to do the right thing — but also that prejudices can be overcome through the simple act of being yourself and trusting others to see you for who you are.
Unfortunately, the show did not do that, and as a result, it is the lesser for it.