A Short History Of Space Pirates In Star Trek

Last week, "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" introduced one of the series' most entertaining new characters to date: Captain Angel (Jesse James Keitel), the roguish and theatrical leader of a pirate ship called The Serene Squall. Angel ingratiated themselves to Spock (Ethan Peck) under the alias of Dr. Aspen, but in reality, the charismatic criminal only wanted to free their husband from prison.

Captain Angel and their band of dissatisfied foodie marauders are far from the first space pirates to plunder their way through "Star Trek." That honor belongs to a very different — if equally dramatic — character by the name of Harcourt Fenton "Harry" Mudd. The scallywag, who is played by Roger C. Carmel in the older series and Rainn Wilson in "Star Trek: Discovery," is a sort of con-man jack-of-all trades. Mudd establishes the moral grey area that pirates and their ilk will occupy for the rest of the franchise in his appearances on "Star Trek: The Original Series," where he drops some good points about how knowledge should be free and the death penalty is bad — but, unfortunately, also traffics mail-order brides and steals alien technologies.

Smugglers, thieves, and privateers

Mudd reappears more than many classic Trek characters, even popping up in "Star Trek: The Animated Series" to steal a spaceship and hawk faulty love potions. He's a dastardly dude to be sure, but he's also more overtly funny than many Trek villains thanks to Carmel's winking performance and epic mustache. Not every pirate in "Star Trek: The Original Series" is as comically villainous as he is, though. In the episode "And The Children Shall Lead," the Enterprise crew stumbles upon the ghost-like figure of the last of a race of marauders on the planet Triacus. The being, called Gorgan, gathered a following of children who ended up driving the adults around them to mass suicide, all to further its quest for domination.

Pirates, marauders, smugglers, and privateers all serve a complex place in real earth history, so it makes sense that they show up in many different forms across "Star Trek" lore too. Some are bucking the status quo or just trying to get by within a broken system, while others are cutthroat criminals. In fact, the original Enterprise crew themselves technically qualify as pirates at one point, when they steal the USS Enterprise — and later a Klingon ship — on a cross-galaxy quest to save Spock (and some whales). 

Several planets in the "Star Trek" universe have become known for piracy and smuggling. In "Star Trek: The Animated Series," Orion pirates hijack precious medical cargo that's the only cure for Spock's fatal illness. This seems like a loose riff on a real story about the pirate Blackbeard, who legend says once held up a whole harbor of ships in a quest for some medicine.

A wide spectrum of hijinks and villainy

"The Animated Series" also introduced privateers into the franchise (privateers are essentially government-sanctioned pirates who are commissioned to fight pirates). A privateer ship called the "Traitor's Claw" appears in "The Animated Series," while in "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," the mirror universe version of Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) worked as privateer. Sisko actually ended up roped into near-piracy in two universes, as his partner, Kasidy Yates (Penny Johnson), ended up in prison after taking up smuggling amidst an inter-planetary conflict. In fact, geopolitics often play into the version of piracy presented on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," with smugglers like Razka Karn (Roy Brocksmith) and Latha Mabrin (Matt Roe) supporting the Bajoran resistance — albeit, sometimes through villainous means.

Some "Star Trek" shows clearly love the adventure and criminal intrigue of pirates more than others, and "Star Trek: Enterprise" brought them back in a big way. One episode of the show's first season saw the crew try to help a group that was savaged by Nausicaan pirates, while another sees Ferengi bandits attempt to loot the Enterprise. Later in the series, an episode sees the crew try to teach a group of beaten down colonists to protect themselves against Klingon marauders.

Pirates have played a versatile role in "Star Trek" history, sometimes representing the worst the galaxy has to offer, and other times representing a flicker of resistance in the face of injustice. Despite their ruthlessness, it's still not entirely clear where deliciously mean-spirited Captain Angel falls on the villainy spectrum. Still, the Serene Squall has ties to the newly revealed villain of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds," so we'll almost certainly see this pirate crew again. "Star Trek" continues to boldly swashbuckle where no man has swashbuckled before.