The United Federation of Planets, the fictional space government within the star trek universe, was designed to show a utopia of human creativity and ingenuity, a fictional representation of the future of humanity. As the franchise plays with this idealized image in later series (especially during picard), it is often presented as the pinnacle of a united government. Much of this is Starfleet, a Federation-run organization – but what exactly is it?
Starfleet actually predates the formation of the Federation. It was originally created specifically by the United Earth government, specifically the United Earth Space Probe Agency, or UESPA for short – it was basically a more hands-on NASA thing. Things get a little hazy when it comes to the exact date of its founding, although its origins lie somewhere between 2112 and 2136. Around this time, it funded projects by Zefram Cochrane, who later discovered the abilities of distortion and initiated the first contact with logic. fanatical, ever stoic Vulcans. Once the Federation was formed in 2161, Starfleet gradually changed from an organization run by humans, specifically the UESPA, to one supported and maintained by, and thus serving the Federation as a whole.
While it might be easy to classify Starfleet as the Federation military, that definition wouldn’t be entirely correct. Fans are divided on this definition, as Starfleet has many parallels to modern military organizations, but those parallels also elicit a lot of conflicting emotions. They use the same military ranks, such as commander and captain, follow the same military chain of command, and even have very similar regulations and terminology. On top of that, anyone who breaks the rules set by Starfleet gets court-martialed, a term used multiple times in the franchise, which literally means “a court of law to try members of the armed and military forces.” If that weren’t enough to draw some striking parallels, every ship in the fleet is armed, even science ships and shuttles. And whenever there’s a cause for a combat situation, like a full-scale Borg invasion or a war with the Klingons, Starfleet is the one to respond.
The reason why classifying Starfleet as a military organization doesn’t sit well with fans is that while it’s primarily military, it embodies and represents so much more. Starfleet was founded to defend the Federation, not just to act as the arm that defeats its enemies. Many people think of the military as an apparatus used by governments in times of war, or to intimidate or defend a population by force. However, it is a very modern view of the military. Starfleet is much more like western armies of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially the navy. At the time, the British Royal Navy carried out trade missions, participated in diplomacy and, above all, carried out exploration missions. It’s no coincidence that the names of the starships sound familiar to you: the SS Beagle, the USS Challenger, the USS Endeavor and, of course, the USS Enterprise. All of these ships were also Royal Navy ships which were distinct from warships. These ships were designed specifically for exploration rather than battle, while still being armed as one in the event of hostile interactions. It was a time when the world was much bigger and these embassies had to act on behalf of their too distant government. It’s a lot like what space becomes for a culture of space people.
It is interesting to note here that while modern Earth has been explored to the point where very few mysteries remain to be uncovered, the modern military still supports large-scale scientific explorations in the few areas that are still surrounded by some kind of mystery. The frozen nature of Antarctica is one example, but so are efforts to map the ocean floor, a place almost as alien to us as space itself. Humanity has only managed to map an incredibly small percentage of 5% – who knows what might be lurking there. It could be argued that if more of the world went undiscovered, the modern military could look and act much more like Starfleet.
It is far from saying then that Starfleet is military, but is more akin to the navy than to the army. Even today, the navy shares many similarities with that of Starfleet, as many navies engage not only in military missions, but also in emergency relief and humanitarian aid, protecting from modern-day pirates. and helping diverse cultures around the world. If anything, looking specifically at the modern US military (arguably the most common comparison to Starfleet), it’s fair to say that their involvement in diplomacy and engagement with foreign countries outweighs the real combat missions.
Starfleet adds to this model, however, by emphasizing a massive scientific exploration element. And of course, it incorporates the directive of first contact. These elements cannot be compared to modern military organizations. The biggest differentiation here is that while it is a military force capable of great destruction, it is not militaristic in nature like the Klingons, for example. Starfleet is designed to be an embassy of peace. They never seek to fight, but rather to explore the universe and protect it if necessary. Their main directive, after all, is to “seek new life and new civilizations” and not to destroy them.
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