Star Trek: Discovery has premiered with a bang, giving us our first new Star Trek on television in over a decade. While generally well-received, the first episodes ended up being somewhat controversial, as the action focused on an extremely flawed character (Michael Burnham) whose mistakes lead to intergalactic war and death on a horrific scale. Offscreen, the controversies continued, with the cast posing for an image that showed their support for NFL players who protested the National Anthem by kneeling.
However, the Star Trek franchise has been closely involved with various controversies for as long as it has appeared on our screens. The various Trek shows have used their sci-fi setting to offer exploration and commentary on subjects ranging from the civil rights struggle to equality for the LGBT community. And while Star Trek’s ongoing commitment to social justice has ruffled more than a few fans’ feathers, the show has also stumbled at times, giving us episodes that glorified issues such as racism and even terrorism.
Don’t believe us? You don’t need to hop to a different timeline to discover these moments... just read our handy guide to 15 Most Controversial Things Star Trek Has Done!
15 Trill Wives Kiss
For all of its inclusiveness regarding things like race and class, Star Trek has always been a bit skittish about portraying gay characters. One of the reasons for this might be how much their simple explorations of any kind of same-sex romance riled audiences up. We can see that at play with Deep Space Nine’s episode “Rejoined”.
While they were introduced in Star Trek: The Next Generation, DS9 let us fully explore the aliens known as Trills. Science Officer Jadzia Dax is one such alien, and she hosts a symbiote that has inhabited generations of previous Trills. In “Rejoined”, Dax is reunited with another Trill who used to be her wife in a previous life. Despite cultural laws forbidding it, the two resume their old relationship, giving us our first onscreen, same-sex kiss in Trek history.
The moment was sweet, but very controversial, with some TV stations refusing to air the episode and others editing the kiss out. Paramount was inundated with negative phone calls regarding the episode, forcing staff to work back-to-back shifts just to deal with the volume of calls. While the episode has aged well, Trek hasn't done much more in terms of gay representation.
14 Interracial Kiss
In terms of making waves, Trek may have never been as controversial as it was with the Original Series episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The weird plot involved the Enterprise crew encountering aliens who loved dressing like ancient Greeks and using powerful telekinetic abilities. In one demonstration of their power, the aliens made Kirk and Uhura kiss, and TV was never the same again.
Many people think this was TV’s first interracial kiss on American TV, which is wrong— there were smaller shows that did so before Trek However, Trek was a bona fide cultural phenomenon, and this was a striking onscreen moment to portray during the height of the civil rights struggle.
For this reason, NBC executives were fearful that TV stations (particularly in southern states) would be deeply offended by it. However, to hear the actors tell the story, the reaction to the episode was overwhelmingly positive, and they received letters ranging from praise of the episode’s politics to questions about how cool it was to kiss Captain Kirk.
Thus, in a single scene, Star Trek gave credence to the idea of racial equality— not just in the 23rd century, but in the here and now.
13 Captain Murder
For better or for worse, Star Trek was founded on the idea of a Utopian future. As a result, the Starfleet characters often come across as squeaky-clean moral heroes out to do the right thing and help whoever they encounter. When Deep Space Nine shifted to a prolonged story of Starfleet at war with the Dominion, we got to see what happened when that morality met with bleak reality. The most controversial (and best) episode about this was “In the Pale Moonlight".
The plot involves Captain Sisko teaming up with former Cardassian spy Garak to create fake evidence of the Dominion plotting against the Romulans. This is a ploy to get the Romulans to join the war, but a Romulan leader sees through the deception. Garak blows up that Romulan’s ship, killing all aboard. When the damaged evidence is retrieved, the Romulans think it’s real and join Starfleet’s side in the war. He got everything he wanted, but Sisko is forced to confront that he gave up countless ethical principals and is now complicit in murder.
As he chillingly recounts in a personal log, “I can live with it,” showing how much the war has chipped away at his humanity.
12 Captain Terrorist
Sisko and Deep Space Nine pop up several times on this list, and for good reason: the show is one of Trek’s murkiest when it comes to morality, and Sisko is a suitably conflicted character. One episode where we see that murky morality on display is “For the Uniform," where Sisko is obsessively trying to catch and arrest Michael Eddington, a former Starfleet officer who joins the terrorist Maquis organization.
Eddington has acquired a special biogenic weapon that forces Cardassians off planets by making the planets uninhabitable. When Sisko cannot beat Eddington, he creates his own special biogenic weapon and fires it at a Maquis planet to make it uninhabitable for humans. After Sisko threatens to do this with more planets, Eddington turns himself in, but the episode never deals with the fact that Sisko acted like a complete psychopath!
He justified his plan by saying that the Maquis and Cardassians can switch planets, but this meant he forced thousands of people to start their lives all over again. Furthermore, he made it that much likelier the Maquis and Cardassians will have more territorial disputes over these planets, which is what started the conflict in the first place!
11 High-speed lizard copulation
Star Trek: Voyager has always been the redheaded stepchild of Star Trek. Many people consider it the weakest Star Trek ever made, though Enterprise tried to give the show a run for its money. Voyager’s poor reputation is part of what makes “Threshold” stand out, as it is often called the worst episode of Voyager, and possibly the worst episode of Star Trek ever made.
The weird plot concerns Tom Paris using a new fuel source to take a shuttlecraft to Warp 10. He succeeds, but it changes his body and his mind, and he eventually kidnaps Janeway and goes to Warp 10 again. When the crew finds them, they have devolved into literal lizards.
If that wasn’t weird enough, the lizards have been having sex and cranking out lots of lizard babies before they are rescued. So, how bad is this episode? It’s the one that writer Brannon Braga says everyone always brings up. Despite writing hundreds of Trek episodes, he is remembered for this hot mess.
Janeway actor Kate Mulgrew says it was the episode she was most uncomfortable with, on account of the weird lizard sex.
10 Killing the boss
Although it became absolutely beloved by fans over the last three decades, it’s an open secret that the first and second seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation were extraordinarily rocky. Sometimes, the episodes were philosophical and thought-provoking: sometimes, they were hokey or downright racist. And then there’s the first season episode “Conspiracy”, which was controversial in a number of ways.
The plot of the episode involved Picard and the Enterprise crew discovering that many high-ranking Starfleet admirals have been infected by aliens controlling their brains. After discovering the conspiracy, Picard and Riker team up to kill the main parasite. They kill the man hosting it and then kill the alien, resulting in an explosion of goo.
It was too much for some viewers: Canadian stations would only the air the episode after they aired a warning about its content, and was outright banned by the BBC before they decided to air an edited version.
While the episode was actually pretty good, it’s controversial with fans for another reason: the episode ends with a cliffhanger implying that these aliens would attack the Federation again someday. Thirty years later, these aliens have never appeared again in any version of Trek!
9 Creating the worst finale in history
Part of the tragedy of the Enterprise TV show is that it had actually gotten better before being canceled. For the final season of the show, Enterprise brought on legendary writers Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. We got a series of cool episodes exploring topics like Vulcan history, Khan’s peers, and the ancestor of Data’s creator. Then came the final episode, “These Are the Voyages”, which managed to shoot the show in the foot even as it was walking out of the door!
First off, it’s actually a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, with Commander Riker viewing the crew’s adventures via holodeck. This reduces our main crew to bit players as we focus on Riker. Over the course of the episode, they kill beloved character Trip Tucker for no real reason, and the whole thing features a needless time jump, taking place six years after the events of the previous episodes.
The final episode ignores all of the great storytelling of the season before it so we can have creepy scenes featuring Riker kissing a holographic recreation of T’Pol. Basically, they could not have ended an already-unpopular TV show on a worse note if they had tried!
8 It's all a (really racist) dream
There are many things that might make a Star Trek episode controversial, and Deep Space Nine hit pretty much every one of them over the years. Sometimes, the controversy actually enhances what is already an amazing episode. Fortunately, that’s the case with “Far Beyond the Stars".
In this episode, Sisko is transported (with very little explanation) into 1950s Earth. He’s no longer Captain Sisko, either, but “Benny Russell,” a black sci-fi writer struggling with racial prejudice in New York City. He is trying to get his stories about “Deep Space Nine” published, but the public isn’t ready for a black hero, and he faces more opposition in the form of police brutality.
Ultimately, this may be the finest episode of Deep Space Nine ever made. What, then, makes it so controversial? By never really explaining why Sisko has these vivid visions of Benny Russell, the writers leave open the interpretation that every single episode of Deep Space Nine exists outside of Trek canon. Instead, it may all be the fevered writings of a man who is, as a preacher tells him, “the dreamer” as well as “the dream.”
7 Edith Keeler and the past
Many fans describe “City on the Edge of Forever” as their absolute favorite episode of Star Trek: The Original Series. The plot involves Doctor McCoy accidentally injecting himself with drugs and then escaping into the past through a portal known as the Guardian. He manages to disrupt the timeline, so Kirk and McCoy go back to stop him.
The mission turns to heartbreak when they realize that all McCoy did to change the future was save a woman’s life. She was a peace protester who kept America out of World War II, allowing the Axis to win the war. Reluctantly, Kirk must hold McCoy back and let this woman he had fallen in love with, Edith Keeler, be killed by an oncoming vehicle.
The controversy comes on two fronts for this one. Some fans were turned off by the simple fact that Kirk is willing to let someone die to save the future. Also, Gene Roddenberry drastically changed the script written by Harlan Ellison. They spent decades feuding, with Roddenberry spreading lies about the original script (saying Ellison turned Scotty into a drug dealer) and Ellison eventually suing CBS for money he was owed. They settled out of court.
6 The most racist episode
In general, Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t make a lot of waves due to its racial politics. For better or for worse, the show tackled race and racism far less than shows like The Original Series did and Deep Space Nine eventually would. However, in the show’s first season, Next Generation explored race via the most racist Star Trek episode ever created: “Code of Honor".
The bare-bones plot of the episode featured the Enterprise crew delivering vaccines to the Ligonians. When one of them kidnaps Tasha Yar to be his wife, she ends up having to fight to the death against another woman. It would have been a dumb plot no matter what, but all of the Ligonians were black, and some of their costume design was modeled after African designs.
Next Generation writer Tracy Torme’ would later compare this episode to “Amos n’ Andy” (the old radio show that had white actors portraying black characters, and where all of the “comedy” came from racial stereotypes). The actors hated it, too: Riker actor Jonathan Frakes tried to keep it from ever airing again, while Patrick Stewart confirmed “we all felt quite embarrassed” about the episode.
5 The gay conversion episode
Star Trek: The Next Generation made a rare exploration of gay culture and gay rights in the episode “The Outcast”. The plot involved them dealing with the J’naii, a genderless race of aliens. One of the aliens falls in love with Riker and begins to identify as female, and when her people find out, they force her to undergo therapy so she will go back to being genderless.
The episode was clearly intended as an allegory for the evils of so-called “gay conversion therapy,” something that has continued in our culture to this day. However, some in the LGBT community took exception to the episode because they felt it endorsed this practice (or, at the very least, did not offer enough criticism of it). Others, including Jonathan Frakes himself, thought the episode chickened out by making the J’naii Soren look overtly female from the beginning, which was a way of sidestepping lots of fans asking if Riker was bisexual.
Interestingly, while the episode was created to explore gay rights, its focus on gender identity vs. government repression means that it now functions much better as an allegory for transgender rights and the fight for transgender equality.
4 The next best thing to killing Neelix
Over the course of Star Trek: Voyager, Captain Janeway ended up being one of the most divisive Star Trek characters ever created. She was forced to make a series of difficult decisions in a great many episodes, and these decisions often portrayed her as hard and cruel. Perhaps the best illustration of this was the episode “Tuvix”, in which she effectively murdered someone!
The plot involved a transporter mishap merging Tuvok and Neelix into a new person. He is, effectively, new life (that thing that Starfleet is supposed to seek out), but when the Doctor finds out how to split him back into Tuvok and Neelix, Janeway authorizes it... even as Tuvix points out that this effectively murders him!
The show received a lot of letters and online criticism for this action, with many fans believing that Janeway had violated both the ethos of Starfleet and her own basic morality in choosing to murder someone. Worse, members of the crew such as Kes and Chakotay were okay with this decision. For some viewers, the Voyager crew could never have the moral high ground on any issue ever again.
3 Proving that terrorism works
Speaking of “The High Ground”, that’s the name of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode which is primarily controversial for a single line of dialogue. This is known as Next Generation’s one and only “terrorism episode,” and in it, Picard and the crew must try to rescue Dr. Crusher when she is abducted by terrorists with fancy transporter technology. What made the episode so controversial, then? We can blame this one pretty squarely on Data.
When our favorite android is discussing the history of terrorism actually being effective, he casually mentions how terrorism led to “the Irish Unification of 2024.” The episode came out in 1990, and at the time, Ireland was plagued by a violent conflict that had killed thousands over the decades. Data’s line about the country being united through terrorism resulted in the episode not airing in Ireland, and it didn’t air in the UK with unedited dialogue until 2007.
Aside from its politics, Next Generation guru Brannon Braga thought it was disappointing that they based the show on an “issue” (in this case, terrorism) instead of “neat science-fiction twists.”
2 Half the fun of playing god is genocide
Something that Enterprise did pretty well was return to the idea of space as a frontier. Characters like Captain Archer represent Starfleet exploring this frontier for the first time and having to lay the groundwork for what would be future Starfleet policy. This is the case with “Dear Doctor”, an episode that features Archer and Doctor Phlox operating without the Prime Directive in place and determining the fate of an entire species.
The plot revolves around a planet with two dominant species. It turns out that one of them is thriving while the other is dying from a genetic disease. Phlox figures out how to cure them, but he and Archer decide to withhold both the cure and warp drive technology from the affected race. The reason? The one race dying out is the natural development of their planet, and they felt it would be wrong to interfere with that.
While this scenario is the kind that would eventually be determined by the Prime Directive, many viewers still felt it was cruel to see Archer and Phlox play god and let an entire species die out, with reporter Stuart Laidlaw comparing it to nations sitting back and abetting the Rwandan Genocide.
1 Starfleet is a complete and utter lie
The Deep Space Nine episode “Inquisition” is another Trek episode that manages to be riveting television while also being highly controversial. In this episode, Doctor Bashir discovers the existence of Section 31, a secret Starfleet organization that has existed from the very beginning. They operate with no oversight or rules, and they silence, capture, or kill anything that gets in the way of Starfleet and the Federation.
Section 31 would go on to feature prominently in more Star Trek episodes and even in the movie Star Trek Into Darkness. However, their very existence puts the lie to everything Starfleet has ever stood for.
We have always rooted for the moral characters that inhabit this Utopian future world, but now we find out that Starfleet is secretly responsible for any number of horrific actions. The list includes murders and assassinations, political restructuring of planets like Romulus, and even the attempted genocide of the Founders.
Even when Bashir helps find a cure for Section 31’s genetic poisoning of the Founders, Starfleet refused to share it, which helps further illustrate that all of the morality and ethics of Starfleet are really nothing more than a sham!
Have a controversial Star Trek moment that we missed? Be sure to beam over to our comments!