In an age of drone-based conflict and the increasing use of Unmanned Aviation Systems (UAS) and ‘smart bombs’ to wage our arms-length, popularly anaesthetised wars, there are lessons to learn from Dreadnought.
Already quite far into its second season, Voyager is settling into new dynamics – the immediate rough edges of the combined Starfleet-Maquis crew are being smoothed off, though Tom Paris is increasingly chafing at the rigidity of Starfleet protocol (for reasons that become clear later in the season). But then, bam! Out of a clear starfield comes Dreadnought – a reminder of the divisions of earlier days, a reminder that when you send a warhead against a target, you’re aiming at its destruction, and a reminder that if you surrender control of that destruction to automatic systems, it becomes easier to forget, easier to rationalise - until it comes back to bite you.
The story of Dreadnought is fairly straightforward – imagine the most powerful, most sophisticated missile in the history of destruction. A missile big enough and powerful enough to destroy a moon, but clever enough to warn people to stay out of its way, to mask its trail so it’s practically invisible, to debate Descartes and the meaning of existence, and to take out anyone who tries to stop it completing its mission. Now imagine that when someone sent it to kill you, you managed to take control of it, repair it, and send it back at them, against the wishes of your leader. Imagine it disappeared, and you breathed a sigh of relief because then you could forget about it.
And then it turns up again. And rather than aiming at a fuel dump as you’d planned (because after all, you’re not a psychopath), now it’s aiming itself at a populated planet, convinced it’s in the right. Casualties are projected to be in the millions when it arrives and explodes. And it’s all your fault.
Hello B’Elanna. Have you had a pleasant day?
Oh yeah, swell day.
B’Elanna Torres was always one of Voyager’s more interesting crewmembers – half-Klingon, half-human, Starfleet-capable but hot-headed enough to join the Maquis, finding her way in the Delta Quadrant when given the responsibility of Chief Engineer. Here, the show is mostly B’Elanna’s, as it was she who captured Dreadnought when the Cardassians sent it to kill the Maquis, she who reprogrammed it with her own voice (in case the part where it’s all her fault needed further hammering home), and she who teleports aboard the missile to get it to shut itself down before it hits the planet Rakoza V and kills millions of people who’ve never seen a Cardassian or a Klingon, people who have no idea of the Maquis’ grievances.
The episode, written by Gary Holland, spends the majority of its running time in a War Games-style logic puzzle, and Roxann Biggs-Dawson, given the opportunity to explore B’Elanna’s sense of self, of purpose, and of responsibility, knocks the episode out of the park, never surrendering to the temptation to play the consequences with schmaltz, but delivering the supressed fury of her dualistic self, whether turned inward against herself for her past actions, outward towards Dreadnought itself, or generally towards the universe for bringing this genocidal problem home to roost and landing it in her lap.
There’s a sense of early triumphant relief, as B’Elanna at first seems to succeed in powering down Dreadnought relatively easily, and skips home with a job well done.
You got the part where this is a smart bomb, right?
The point of a smart bomb as smart as Dreadnought is that it can reason. It can adapt to new circumstances, and new realities. Which means it can tell lies, if lies are the easiest way to stop you interfering in its mission.
When a bomb starts talking about itself in the third person, I get nervous
Having beamed out, B’Elanna is horrified to learn that Dreadnought has been telling her smart fibs, and the stress of contemplating the bodies that will be laid at her door begins to tell on her. When she and Harry Kim finally punch her a way back on board the missile, it’s No More Ms Nice Klingon. B’Elanna tries everything she knows to reason Dreadnought out of its genocidal destiny, but – and this is the delicious irony at the core of the story – it refuses to listen to her, because the parameters she’s asking it to accept are too illogical for it. The idea of being in the Delta Quadrant must be a false assumption, and therefore it will ignore all other data – star charts, comms frequencies describing the target as Rakoza V and B’Elanna’s own insistence that they’re in the Delta Quadrant. In fact it will go further, describing them as part of ‘The Delta Quadrant Deception.’ The issue at the heart of Dreadnought is one of the hubris of remote war. If you make weapons smart enough they can genuinely resist tampering by an enemy force, the chances are they can genuinely resist tampering by you too, and that leaves you in a HAL-ish nightmare of uncertainty, hoping you’ve made them as smart as they needs to be. The irony of Dreadnought of course is that for all its adaptability, the missile is susceptible to the blinkers of its creators and programmers, and when it becomes crucial to expand its understanding of the universe, it proves incapable of going beyond those blinkers. In the end, both Janeway and Torres learn the ultimate price of a remote, smart weapon of war – if destroying something is important enough to make you build such a weapon, you have to be prepared to give your own life, either when you deliver its payload or when you try to stop it. For all her smart logic and re-programming, in the final analysis, B’Elanna has to resort to physical intervention to try and destroy Dreadnought – and it in turn has to try to destroy her to ensure the completion of its mission.
Who’d have thought, two years ago, when we were running all those diagnostics, that we’d end up out here, trying to kill each other
Meanwhile, Janeway evacuates Voyager, and is preparing to detonate the ship’s warp core in front of Dreadnought, like a bollard of destruction to stop it in its path. It’s a decision that gives us heart, and makes us trust Janeway’s judgment, that she’s willing to sacrifice herself, though not needlessly the lives of her crew, to prevent a massacre of the innocent by leftover tech from the Alpha Quadrant’s quarrels. Likewise, we gain more respect for B’Elanna from the fact that she’s willing to stay on board the missile, doing everything she can to stop it, even if it kills her. This double show of responsibility displays the kind of people the Federation makes us aspire to be, the kind of people in history and modern life to whom we give respect already. In a way, while the themes of Dreadnought are mostly for governments in terms of building war machines and distancing themselves from the destruction they bring, this core nugget of meaning is entirely personal, for you and me in our daily lives – do the right thing as far as you know it, every chance you get. And if the right thing turns out to be wrong down the line, cop to it, but don’t waste your time and emotions getting distracted by beating your breast over it. Fix it. Do whatever it takes, whatever you can, to appropriately make the situation right again. That’s a lesson in Dreadnought that B’Elanna learns, and which between them, Torres and Janeway teach to us. Fix it if you can, or you’ll live with it on your conscience. Whether the things you need to fix are war, famine, poverty and drought, or harsh words and unkind deeds, fix them any time you can or they’ll weigh you down. And, y’know, there’s space to explore, so you need to travel as light as possible.
Dreadnought is modern Trek, absolutely, despite now being almost exactly twenty years old, but in the lessons it teaches, it’s Trek in the great Roddenberry tradition that preaches that central message – fix it. Solve it. Cure it. Do it, because space is big and time’s a-wasting, so the sooner we get things right or put them right, the sooner we can begin a bigger, better adventure.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk