The Star Trek TV renaissance just keeps getting bigger and better. Having already announced the untitled Picard show, the animated Lower Decks, and more of the popular Short Treks, CBS made waves recently by announcing yet another new show. The new series, which currently lacks a title and a release date, will star Michelle Yeoh as the mirror universe’s Philippa Georgiou. It will focus on her exploits as an agent of Section 31, Starfleet’s disavowed black-ops group.
For fans of Star Trek: Discovery, or for casual viewers, this is great news. For some more conservative sections of the hardcore Star Trek fandom, this is terrible. While we understand the hesitance to embrace change, a Section 31 series is vital to Star Trek’s long-term success and appeal.
What Is Section 31?
Fans of Star Trek will sometimes accuse writers and directors of not “liking” or “understanding” the franchise. The charge has been levelled at the likes of Nemesis director Stuart Baird, J.J. Abrams, the writers behind Discovery, and current franchise leader Alex Kurtzman. It’s funny, then, that it rarely gets thrown at the one creator this accusation fits best: Deep Space Nine showrunner Ira Steven Behr.
To be clear, Deep Space Nine remains the gold standard of writing for Trek on TV, and Behr made it what it was. The franchise was forever changed for the better by his involvement. But Behr’s approach was typified by an overt skepticism of Star Trek’s utopia. Behr sought to add a touch of darkness and realism, specifically by showing that the Federation was far from perfect. His masterstroke in this regard was the creation of Section 31, in DS9’s sixth season.
Officially non-existent, self-righteous, and morally bankrupt, Section 31 was Behr’s rebuttal to the idea of a utopian future. They are, in his words, “the weasels under the coffee table” who fight dirty to protect the squeaky-clean Federation. In their most heinous act, the organization develops a virus and attempts to use it to eliminate the entire Changeling species in order to win the Dominion War, making the Federation a party to attempted genocide. They are the antithesis of what Starfleet and the Federation stand for.
When Darkness Overtakes a Hopeful Franchise
Section 31’s reveal was probably Deep Space Nine‘s most controversial moment, as summarized by DS9 writer David Weddle:
“There were many that were screaming for our heads over [the episode “Inquisition“, which introduced Section 31], that it betrayed everything that Star Trek stands for, and the value system that Gene Roddenberry promoted. Others said that of course the Federation would have to have an organization like this. Fans would get into these long ethical and political arguments, really struggling with issues like that, which was great to see.”
It’s hard not to see where some fans were coming from. Roddenberry would have abhorred Section 31 and everything it represented. On a metatextual level, one could argue that its inclusion essentially breaks Star Trek’s premise because it destroys the hopeful vision of the future typified by The Original Series and The Next Generation.
But the concept was out there, and successive generations of writers have run with it. Section 31 reappeared on Star Trek: Enterprise, which means they predate the founding of the Federation. They have their own non-canon book series. They were the true antagonist in Star Trek Into Darkness, and reappeared on the small screen in Discovery‘s first season. Like it or not, since Deep Space Nine, darkness has been a fundamental part of Star Trek’s makeup. It was only a matter of time before Section 31 — as the most tangible avatar of that darkness — became the subject of a new Trek project.
Section 31 Won’t Appeal to Everyone — And That’s Great
We’ve written before about how Star Trek needs to “reconstruct” itself in order to grow. Dealing with the darkness needs to be part of that. That doesn’t mean dark, controversial storytelling should go away — far from it. It needs its own place, and to be dealt with properly. The franchise is too big to be all things to all people. But Discovery, like the recent movies, struggles in part because, as the only version of Trek we have right now, it is expected to be all things to all people.
In the 1990s, Trek didn’t have that problem. TNG, and later the TNG movies, offered optimism, speechifying, and Shakespeare. DS9 offered grit and complex drama. Voyager, and later Enterprise, offered action and adventure. Recently, Alex Kurtzman indicated a need to return to this model, insisting that each new TV offering has to be “unique”. Love him or hate him, Kurtzman gets it.
Sweeping Section 31 under the rug won’t erase the legacy of how Star Trek has been changed. It needs its own corner of the universe. The gritty moral complexity that it exemplifies is as much a part of Star Trek as the woke optimism Gene Roddenberry prized. In this new age of Trek on TV, we may finally get to flesh all of that out and reconcile the competing visions. That means fodder for new stories, new growth, and new possibilities. A Section 31 show isn’t just a marketable idea — it’s what Star Trek needs.
Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery airs Thursdays on CBS All Access in the United States and on Space in Canada, with international releases on Netflix the following day. The Picard show is expected to premiere sometime in 2019.