In Star Trek, Every Main Character Becomes A Celebrity

In the first episode of the second season of "Star Trek: Picard," called "The Star Gazer," the retired Admiral Picard (Patrick Stewart) goes to Starfleet Academy to make a commencement speech to that year's graduating class. Evidently, this is something he does regularly, and Picard is treated with the utmost respect when he enters various Starfleet facilities. This isn't merely because of his rank, but because of his fame. Jean-Luc Picard is a celebrity in "Star Trek: Picard," and younger officers look up to him. 

Throughout "Star Trek," captains are sometimes approached by younger officers who make a comment about how their exploits have become standard reading at Starfleet Academy. Because each "Star Trek" show tends to be about Starfleet's best and brightest inventing clever solutions to complex cosmic disasters, it does indeed stand to reason that their quick thinking and innovative ideas would eventually be taught to others. Characters on "Star Trek" are required to study "Star Trek." It may be a form of cheap fan-insert fiction, but many Starfleet ensigns are, essentially, Trekkies themselves. This phenomenon is never clearer than in "Star Trek: Lower Decks," where the central ensign characters can make passing reference to Jean-Luc Picard or Captain Janeway and be fully understood. 

When on duty, Starfleet bridge officers tend to be modest and professional, constantly alert and on the job. It's rare they behave as if they have fame or clout. They may use their elevated rank or position to call in favors with Starfleet from time to time, but when presented with a fan, Starfleet officers are either embarrassed or annoyed. Picard, for instance, hated that the children on his ship celebrated a Captain Picard Day. But in "Star Trek," every main character becomes a celebrity.

Fame as currency

This author has previously written about how, in Trek's post-capitalist society, prestige is the only currency that matters. The characters on "Star Trek: Lower Decks" serve on board a utilitarian ship that handles less-than-important missions, causing the captain and the crew to approach other, more prestigious Starfleet vessels with a hint of embarrassment. Serving on "more important" ships is what draws career advancement as well as exposure to more exciting adventures. There's a reason why admirals are so often untrustworthy in "Star Trek." Having reached the peak of their careers, admirals resort to extreme — often shady — scientific projects just so they can be noticed by their professional peers. 

The general argument made throughout "Star Trek," then, is that fame, like money and power, corrupts. The thirst for recognition can lead one to commit criminal acts. 

It's ironic, then, that "Star Trek" characters should be so readily recognizable. Picard, for instance, knows all about Captain Kirk (William Shatner) when the characters meet in "Star Trek: Generations." In an episode of "Lower Decks," the showrunners reenacted the same Picard/Kirk scenes from "Generations," but with Ensign Boimler (Jack Quaid) and Admiral Sulu (George Takei) in their places. Of course Boimler knew who Sulu was. 

In "Star Trek," fame is the ultimate goal, but it's also meant to be rejected. In retirement, a successful Starfleet officer aims to be instantly recognizable by an incoming class of cadets ... but incredibly modest about their achievements. 

By coincidence, the acquisition of fame has happened only to the characters audiences are familiar with. It happened to Kirk, to Picard, to Sisko, to Janeway, many of their officers, and will likely happen to others.

This strikes me as unfair and limiting.

The limitations of writing famous characters

If the characters on "Star Trek" are destined to be famous, it suddenly makes the universe of "Star Trek" that much smaller. 

The U.S.S. Enterprise may be the flagship of the Federation, but it is, by "Trek" lore, only one of thousands of ships sailing through the cosmos. While many of those ships may be attending to dry maintenance and mapping missions (a la "Lower Decks"), there are most assuredly other ships that encounter temporal rifts, angry space gods, and dangerous new species. If "Star Trek" has taught us anything, it's that the galaxy is textured, varied, and highly populated. One of the appeals of "Star Trek" is its expansiveness. Viewers know that there is an entire vast fleet out there having exciting adventures that we just don't get to see. Author Peter David once even created his own spinoff "Star Trek" series in novel form called "Star Trek: New Frontier" which took place on a new ship with a new crew, whose missions were exciting and unique. 

And yet, the characters in "New Frontier" aren't mentioned as celebrities by other Trek characters. I realize this is partly because of the "not-quite-canon" nature of "Trek" tie-in novels, but it illustrates the fact that wild adventures occur all the time in this franchise without their participants becoming celebrities. 

If Trekkies are imaginative enough to accept that there are Starfleet ships having adventures they are not savvy to, then they will have to accept that celebrity is being unduly granted upon the characters that are important to the viewers.

Darth Vader syndrome

It's more exciting to imagine the Enterprise (or Deep Space Nine, or the Voyager, or the Discovery) as ancillary examples of Starfleet's trials, not their only examples. The characters on any given "Trek" show may be important to the viewer, but it's a bit trite to imagine that they are just as important within their own universe. I would much rather see Kirk or Picard as supporting players of a larger, interconnected galactic network of drama.

The fame in "Star Trek" is, of course, linked directly to the characters' importance to the real-world viewers. One might refer to the expansion of Kirk's or Picard's importance within their own universe as Darth Vader Syndrome. If one thinks back to the original 1977 "Star Wars" film, the character of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) was a mere wizard-like lieutenant to the evil Empire. He was mysterious and wore a mask, but was a single officer in the Empire's employ. The character became so popular among viewers, however, that his role was expanded in the 1980 sequel "The Empire Strikes Back" to explain that he was, in fact, the right hand of the Emperor. In 1999, director George Lucas returned to "Star Wars" again, and made three entire movies about the origin of Darth Vader, all because he was important to us, the viewer. He went from being a single scary villain to, essentially, the centerpiece of the galaxy. 

Kirk, Picard, and others were Darth Vader'd by their own franchise. 

If "Trek" truly valued modesty, then the Starfleet captains we know would not be celebrities and would continue to work on the fringes, or remain retired peacefully. "Star Trek" may take place in a post-capitalist society, but it still seems fixated on the wealthy.