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I am a geek (If this is news to you, Hi! Welcome to Ricochet!) and the recent announcement of Sir Patrick’s return to Star Trek (in some manner we know nothing about and that inshallah won’t be an amalgam of Star Trek Nemesis attempts to make a 70-year-old man an action star and early seasons of TNG that gave Picard “here’s how we’re so much better than you” speeches) has got my friends all in a tizzy. We’re reexamining best captains, best series, best seasons, and best episodes, and I noticed a theme that crops up over and over again in Star Trek: how to resolve the trolley problem.
The trolley problem is a thought exercise in ethical philosophy: a trolley is barreling toward five people on the track. You can’t stop it, but you could switch the tracks so the train hits one person instead. Is it ethical to deliberately act to kill one in order to save five? Well, we know the toddler solution to the problem:
But Star Trek, over its hundreds of episodes and dozen movies with scores of writers spanning 55 years, has also tackled the problem, leading to some of the best and worst moments of the franchise.
The Original Series’ (TOS) “City on the Edge of Forever” is perhaps the best known episode dealing with this. Written in part by Harlan Ellison and winning a Hugo, Dr. McCoy travels back in time to 1930 and saves a woman named Edith Keeler from a car accident. This causes a peace movement that results in the Nazis winning WWII and prevents the creation of Star Fleet. Capt. Kirk and Comm. Spock travel back as well and must decide whether to prevent McCoy saving her or allow history as we know it to unfold.
It’s well-written, well-acted, and reinforces one of the themes running throughout Star Trek: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or one. Its only two flaws — and they’re quite minor at that — are that by being a time travel to the past episode, we know what Kirk will choose, and that we’re merely told and not shown what happens in the timeline where Edith Keller lives.
Deep Space Nine’s (DS9) “In the Pale Moonlight” addresses the first of these flaws. The episode is told as a recollection of Capt. Sisko’s thoughts and actions into his log, trying to make sense of the choices he’s recently made. The Federation is in a desperate losing war with an alien slave empire known as the Dominion. The Romulans, the Federation’s traditional enemies, have a powerful and fresh fleet, but also have non-aggression treaties with both sides. Capt. Sisko, with the help of a former Cardassian intelligence officer Garak, manipulates them into believing that the Dominion is about to break the treaty by murdering a Romulan senator and planting false evidence of Dominion plotting. At least, that was Garak’s plan all along; Sisko finds himself pulled one agonizing step into criminality after another. Sisko is wracked with guilt until Garak lays the situation out in almost exactly trolley track terms: the Dominion was going to murder and enslave the entire quadrant of the galaxy, but because of Sisko’s actions to kill one convicted forger and one senator (unmentioned are the senator’s security guards, but they presumably died too), the Alpha Quadrant at least has a fighting chance.
This is an extremely controversial episode in Trek fandom. Fans of it, such as myself, appreciate the brilliant acting by Avery Brooks and Andrew Robinson, the riveting writing that leaves you wondering how it will end — will Sisko’s conscience stop him from making the plan work as one principle after another is sacrificed? — and the rather unusual acknowledgement in Star Trek that winning wars require doing things that will stain one’s conscience. Detractors note, with justification, that Sisko’s actions are a betrayal of the “superiority of the future man” idealism of Gene Roddenberry. What makes this episode so controversial is essential what makes the trolley track problem so thorny — what should one sacrifice to save others?
The Next Generation’s (TNG) “Yesterday’s Enterprise” adds another twist on this theme. Rather than a person from the future going back in time, here a ship from the past, the hitherto unknown Enterprise C, travels to the TNG present in the middle of a fight defending a Klingon colony from the Romulans. This causes the TNG peace treaty with the Klingons to never exist. In the new timeline, the Federation is close to losing a war with the Klingons, and unlike in “City at the Edge of Forever,” we actually see the crew dying due to this wrong future. The only salvation for the Federation of the present is if the Enterprise C returns to her certain destruction. Here, we have the problem of needing some few people to die so that others may live, but we have the added punch that Picard refuses to simply order them to do so. Yes, they’re part of Starfleet and have volunteered (at least, based on everything we’re shown about the Federation) to lay down their lives if that’s what it takes, but Picard insists that they specifically choose to be hit by that trolley. (We’re later told that the survivors were executed save one, who became a concubine to the Romulan commander and was later killed attempting to escape.) Of course, dying for others is a possibility that all military personnel face, and we see that over and over in Star Trek. Think Spock’s sacrifice in “The Wrath of Khan,” as just one example.
DS9’s “Broken Link” has Garak and Worf explore how military personnel might make that self-sacrifice. Under a flag of truce, the main cast has arrived at the headquarter planet of the Dominion’s slave masters, a species of shapeshifters with no other name than “The Founders.” Garak attempts to seize control of the Federation ship Defiant to obliterate the entire species on the basis of “better for the few of us to die killing all of them than the entire Alpha Quadrant to go to war.” Worf, a Klingon driven almost entirely by his sense of honor, disagrees. (It’s worth noting this episode is a couple of seasons before the aforementioned “In the Pale Moonlight.”)
Of course, it’s one thing to die for others and another to kill for others. But Star Trek also had a principle called the Prime Directive, which enshrines the notion that the Federation should never switch the trolley tracks, no matter how many people are die as a result. Frankly, the episodes which adhere to that notion are some of the worst of Trek, culminating in Enterprise’s “Dear Doctor” where the “ethical” decision was to let a space-faring (though pre-warp drive) civilization requesting medical help die of a preventable disease because … evolution wanted the other humanoid species on the planet to become dominant.
So what’s Star Trek’s verdict? The trolley’s on its way, and don’t you dare touch that switch. Except when you should, because as Picard asks in Insurrection, “how many people does it take, before it [forcibly relocating a culture so another culture can terraform their planet and render it uninhabitable] becomes wrong?”