Star Trek and human rights

Sci-fi stories about real-world challenges: war, refugees, and facing the legacy of the past

By Murray Leeder and Alana Conway

Tags for Star Trek and human rights

A humanoid alien stands next to a wall.

Photo: CBS Television Studios

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Movies and television can be powerful ways to encounter and reflect on human rights issues. Star Trek has offered an intelligent, socially conscious approach to science fiction since it debuted in 1966. The franchise has evolved over the decades, taking on different issues and perspectives as times have changed.

Current Star Trek series feature complex, nuanced perspectives on important human rights matters. Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard both tackle issues such as genocide, refugees and how we can face the troubling aspects of our institutions and history.

The original Star Trek television series dealt with many issues of its time, including war, class and racism. Its treatment of human rights issues could be inconsistent – the series was frequently sexist – but its legacy of compassionate storytelling and thoughtful themes have echoed through the subsequent 50 years. Many Star Trek series and movies present an optimistic tone. They show a future where humanity has outgrown its warlike ways to take its place in the stars as a beacon of morality.

In this vision of the future, humans are a valued part of the multi‐species United Federation of Planets, and the upstanding institution of Starfleet is responsible for exploration and peacekeeping. More recent series, including Discovery (2017‐) and Picard (2020‐), also deal with pressing contemporary issues, particularly migrancy and the treatment of refugees. They have a darker tone, however, and take a more complex perspective on the role of institutions such as Starfleet. 

A large crowd of people dressed in Star Trek costumes.

Fans set a Guinness World Record for “largest gathering of people dressed as Star Trek characters” at the 11th Annual Official Star Trek Convention in 2012. The Star Trek series and movies have inspired a famously dedicated fan culture.

Photo: Getty Images, Albert L. Ortega

Migrancy and refugees

War, famine, and other large-scale international crises have led to mass migration and caused large numbers of people to become refugees in the past decade. This has made migrancy a highly visible and urgent human rights issue worldwide. Some recent migrant and refugee situations of note include:

The effects of international migration are felt globally. In 2019, the number of international migrants worldwide was almost 272 million: about 3.5% of the world’s population. In 2018, the global refugee population alone was nearly 26 million.1 Reflecting the importance of migration in the world today, a large majority of United Nations member states endorsed two non-binding global agreements in 2018. One
(The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration) addresses international migration and the other (The Global Compact on Refugees) addresses refugees.

Migration, in some form or another, is a universal human experience. It transcends present-day cultural and national borders and has shaped the modern world. But migrants and refugees remain vulnerable to human rights violations throughout their journey.

Commander Saru

While Star Trek has occasionally dealt with refugee issues before (notably with the Star Trek: The Next Generation recurring characters Ensign Ro Laren and Guinan, and in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Sanctuary”), it is a prominent theme in the newer series. Discovery includes a refugee character in its regular cast: Commander Saru (Doug Jones). Saru is a Kelpien, a race held in institutional slavery on his home planet by another species, the Ba’ul. “The Brightest Star,” an installment of the short anthology series Short Treks (2018‐), dramatized his backstory, in which he manages to contact Starfleet and gets a chance to escape, knowing he will likely never return.

Doug Jones and Commander Saru

A man sits at a microphone.

Doug Jones plays Commander Saru in Star Trek: Discovery.

Photo: "Doug Jones," Genevieve, CC BY-NC-ND 2.02.
A humanoid alien stands next to a wall.

Commander Saru is a complex character whose back story includes having escaped his home world as a refugee.

Photo: CBS Television Studios
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Saru is shown to have adapted admirably to his adopted culture. He has learned 94 Federation languages (despite the existence of a universal translator) and has become a model Starfleet officer. In the episode “The Sound of Thunder,” circumstances compel his return to his home planet. There, he uncovers a conspiracy and helps a revolution that overturns the balance of power. Rather than simply overthrowing the Ba’ul, we are told that a new and more balanced relationship will form between both species. This intriguing process happens offscreen, however, and will hopefully be picked up and explored in more detail in future episodes.

Picard

We see an even more thorough exploration of the causes and consequences of migrancy for refugees on Picard. The series backstory involves a natural disaster that devastated the Romulan Empire. Starfleet’s mishandling of the ensuing refugee crisis led Picard (Patrick Stewart) to retire in disgust. When we meet him at the beginning of the series, Picard employs two Romulan refugees as his personal staff and is haunted by his failures and those of the Federation. The show presents Picard as an embittered veteran who potentially suffers from PTSD and whose past glories seem distant memories diminished by a paranoid and fragmented world.

The world of ‘Next Generation’ doesn’t exist anymore. It’s different. Nothing is really safe. Nothing is really secure. [3]

Patrick Stewart

Picard clearly evokes historical and contemporary refugee crises in its plot and character development. And in the prequel novel The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack, the Federation organization in charge of refugee issues is even named the United Federation of Planets High Commission on Refugees (UFPHCR), an unsubtle reference to the United Nations’ UNHCR (now known as the UN Refugee Agency). This focus on refugee issues reflects Patrick Stewart’s own outspoken stances about Donald Trump and Brexit.He has also supported refugee aid organizations such as the International Rescue Committee.4 As an executive producer as well as the star of the show, Stewart insisted that Picard update the worldview of The Next Generation to re‐examine the nature of Starfleet and the Federation. This lets Picard reflect current crises of identity, democracy and human rights.

A man speaks into a microphone.

Patrick Stewart, star and executive producer of Picard, wanted the series to reflect the complexity and challenges of 21st‐century human rights struggles.

Photo: “Patrick Stewart,” markbach, CC BY-NC 2.0, image cropped from original5

Romulans and responsibility

These dynamics come to the fore most dramatically in the episode “Absolute Candor.” Picard revisits the planet Vashti, where he helped resettle hundreds of thousands of Romulan refugees. He is dismayed to discover that circumstances there have disintegrated, and laments, “The poverty, the degradation, the ethnic strife.” At the climax of the episode, Picard, a hated figure among the Romulans living there, walks into a bar marked “Romulans Only.” He rips down the sign and enters the bar, where he is confronted by a former Romulan senator named Tenqem Adrev (Evan Parke). Adrev accuses him of having misled and taken advantage of the Romulan people in their time of crisis and attempts to force Picard into a duel. Picard is saved by another Romulan refugee, the young warrior monk Elnor.

The decision to call off the rescue and to abandon those people we had sworn to save was not just dishonourable; it was downright criminal.

Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, Picard Episode 1 “Remembrance”

This scene includes several significant references to human rights issues in our world. Adrev mentions being transported to Vashti on a Wallenberg‐class starship named Nightingale. The ship’s name references Florence Nightingale, the British nurse who parlayed the fame she achieved during the Crimean War into social reform initiatives. The name “Wallenberg‐class” refers to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish architect who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and whose fate remains a mystery to this day. Wallenberg was the first person declared an honorary citizen of Canada. He is recognized in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ Honorary Canadians exhibit, and his name graces the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights in Montréal.

A group of men in military uniform.

As commander of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1994, Roméo Dallaire (second from left) witnessed the genocide against the Tutsi.

Photo: Getty Images, Scott Peterson

The scene may have another resonance for Canadians, however. Jean‐Luc Picard here resembles Canadian General (and later Senator) Roméo Dallaire, and the scenes on Vashti recall the aftermath of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda that Dallaire witnessed as United Nations peacekeeping force commander. Picard is haunted because his forces had to pull out too quickly and because the Federation failed to support the resettlement of Romulan refugees. This had terrible consequences for the inhabitants of Vashti and for the whole Romulan population.

In the 2004 documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, Dallaire returns to Rwanda ten years after the genocide. He gives a speech to a packed stadium crowd about how the major world powers, via the United Nations, failed to protect Rwandans during the genocide. He feels personally responsible for failing in his peacekeeping mission in Rwanda and apologizes to those present:

Video: Roméo Dallaire speaks in Rwanda, 2004

In “Absolute Candor,” Picard addressed his failures to the Romulan bystanders in similar terms: “The Federation failed you all. I failed you all. I broke faith with you, and the result was terrible. Pain and loss for you all. And I am sorry.”

Picard also involves two other groups whose plight resonates with the experience of those affected by genocide. One is the “Synths,” advanced androids whose very existence is prohibited under Federation law and who are forced to live a secretive, paranoid existence. The other is former Borg, or “xBs,” individuals liberated from their forced recruitment into the dreaded Borg Collective. In the episode “The Impossible Box,” Picard, himself once forcibly converted into a Borg, reconnects with Hugh, a former Borg who had been introduced on The Next Generation. Hugh is leading a program that helps rehabilitate former Borg, and Picard is amazed at his progress. They have this exchange:

Picard: “After all these years, you're showing what the Borg are underneath. They're victims, not monsters.”

Hugh: “Still, we remain the most hated people in the galaxy.”

The plight of the xBs resembles that of child soldiers or other combatants who have put their violent past behind them but are still in need of careful reintegration into society. All three of these groups (Romulan refugees, the Synths and the xBs) are linked through Picard’s personal journey: all are misunderstood, displaced and in need of protection and support to thrive again.

Institutions and ideals

The recent Star Trek series have been much less optimistic in tone and content than is traditional for the franchise. This is most obviously the case with Picard. The United Federation of Planets has always been a reflection on the United Nations (even their logos are very similar). This new pessimism seems to reflect recent failures of international bodies to effectively address global crises. The two global compacts mentioned above offer an important recognition that the world needs to come together to address international migrancy, but there is still a lack of effective action.

Major challenges include fully funding refugee resettlement programs and migration support systems, upholding the human rights of migrants and refugees, and encouraging meaningful international cooperation instead of isolated nationalism. Picard, in a change from the optimistic future familiar in earlier Star Trek series, shows the Federation as little better than many countries today: it has turned its back on a refugee crisis in favour of pursuing its own interests.

I saw hope in the stars. It was stronger than fear. And I went towards it.

Saru, Short Treks Episode 3 “The Brightest Star”

For all this pessimism, it is refreshing to see migration and refugee stories figure centrally in popular series. Characters like Saru offer a well‐rounded examination of a refugee character’s life experiences. His story includes but is not limited to having been displaced from his home world. This reflects the reality that people migrate for many reasons, “including poverty, lack of access to healthcare, education, water, food, housing, and the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change, as well as the more ‘traditional’ drivers of forced displacement such as persecution and conflict.”

Having more understanding and empathy for the lived experiences of these alien characters could inspire audiences to be more welcoming, accepting and empathetic towards refugees and migrants here in the real world. The focus on refugee and migrancy issues in these recent series adds an updated, complex and realistic element to Star Trek’s longstanding commitment to human rights ideals.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is science fiction an interesting way to get us thinking about real-world human rights issues? 

  • What other kinds of pop culture entertainment deal with human rights? What do they have to say?

  • What can you do to support migrant, refugee and immigrant communities in your area? 


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