The open-secret nature of Section 31 on Star Trek: Discovery drastically contradicts its original characterization as a completely off-the-books agency, but the addition of Philippa Georgiou to their ranks could potentially explain that.
Ira Steven Behr introduced Section 31 on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as an autonomous, black-ops security organization devoted to protecting the Federation, but often using means that neither Starfleet nor the Federation would ever publicly condone. They remained largely enigmatic throughout their run during the final two seasons of the show, mainly represented by William Sadler as Agent Luther Sloan who repeatedly tried to recruit or outright pressed into service the naïve Dr. Bashir. Bashir’s romantic fascination with James Bond-type holonovels made him the perfect conduit for Behr’s cynical notion that the Federation could not survive in a world beset by enemies like the Romulans and the Cardassians without getting their own hands a little dirty. Perhaps predictably, reactions to Section 31 were mixed given the threatened to augment the foundational principles of Star Trek itself.
Fans argued that the entire point of Star Trek was that it was supposed to depict a humanity that had evolved beyond the kind of corruption Section 31 represented - that the very existence of Section 31 undermined the Gene Roddenberry's optimistic belief that the Federation’s could not only survive but rise to power living by a set of largely uncompromising humanist values. Sure, it might not have been realistic, but wasn't that whole point? Regardless of whatever critical objections emerged, other Star Trek series employed the conceit as they saw fit and evolved the organization as they went, but the agency remained a shadow operation, never coming too far into the light to give the impression it carried enough influence over Starfleet/Federation policy to define the existence of either.
However, Star Trek: Discovery's characterization of the agency threatens to blow that balance out of the water and that has both Star Trek purists and Section 31 fans up in arms. That said, there's an unexpected savior on the horizon whose involvement could appease both sides and she is none other than Philippa Georgiou, Former Emperor.
- This Page: The Problem With Section 31 On Star Trek: Discovery So Far
- Page 2: How Star Trek: Discovery Can Fix Section 31 With Georgiou
Star Trek: Discovery Has A Section 31 Problem
When Section 31 appeared on Deep Space Nine and later on Enterprise, it was a covert, black-ops organization so underground that its very existence was on a need-to-know basis. Captains Sisko and Archer are completely unaware of the agency until their crew members are basically extorted or coerced into Section 31’s service. Even then, Starfleet Command neither confirms nor denies their affiliation. Star Trek: Discovery is a very different story.
As early as episode 3, crew members are seen wearing the organization’s black insignias on Discovery in plain sight, and by season 2, Section 31 is a known entity to virtually anyone who’s paying attention. Ash Tyler walks the ship as a known Section 31 attaché, which not only implies the organization is more like the CIA than Alias’ SD6, but also implies that Starfleet openly sanctions their actions. It’s one thing to accept Section 31 as a necessary evil the Federation occasionally partnered with, but Discovery’s treating what is an autonomous security organization with no checks and balances to guard against the potential for limitless corruption as a part of the Federation’s infrastructure is quite another. Not only it is a drastic and curious departure from canon, it blatantly sullies the nature of the Federation’s guiding principles as an organization in a way that neither DS9 or Enterprise ever did. And it isn’t the first time.
While Captain Lorca did turn out to be a demonic megalomaniac from another dimension, he still got away with a lot of coloring outside the lines before anyone knew that about him. He tortured the tardigrade for his own benefit, belittled his crew on the regular and generally acted the opposite of any Starfleet captain we’d ever met. Even if he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that kind of behavior was a stark change from even the most unlikable Starfleet captains ever before seen on Star Trek. That indicated Discovery was going to push some boundaries with what it meant to be a member of Starfleet and by extension, the Federation. Admiral Cornwell’s later willingness to commit genocide to end the war with the Klingons represented another line we’d never seen anyone in her position approach much less cross. Whichever way you slice it, Discovery’s taken a grayer view of the Federation’s operational ethics than Star Trek ever has before, and their treatment of Section 31 is a manifestation of that. That’s a big change from the way the organization was depicted in Enterprise and Deep Space Nine, and if it goes unanswered it has big implications for the franchise as a whole moving forward.
This isn’t just a design change or the addition of a family member – without being too melodramatic, treating Section 31 the way Discovery does makes the agency less interesting at best and severely dilutes the idealism of Federation’s operational ethics at worst. Simply put, Section 31 and Roddenberry's original vision could peacefully coexist so long as the former remained enough of a secret for audiences to believe its influence wasn't far-reaching enough to taint the latter. Discovery is throwing that arrangement severely out of balance. But DS9 and Enterprise both treated the organization differently in their own rights, and that’s what allows for a way to “repair” this departure from canon if Discovery’s interested in doing so.
Section 31 Was Very Different From Enterprise To Deep Space Nine
In the Star Trek: Enterprise, the earlier Section 31 was just as off the books and autonomous as it was on Deep Space Nine. It followed the canon laid down by Luther Sloan in "Inquisition," when he explained to Bashir that Section 31 predated the Federation itself and was written into the charter when it was formed – specifically Article 14, Section 31. This granted the security organization unlimited agency when it came to dealing with threats to Federation security. That’s far too much power for anyone not to abuse, but, for the most part, the intelligence arm plays pretty nicely on Enterprise (for them).
They help the Klingons kidnap Dr. Phlox when the race desperately needs help fighting the augment virus threatening to wipe them out. They then use their former relationship with Malcolm Reed to slow the Enterprise’s investigation of said kidnapping to allow Phlox the time to finish his work. Their methods aren’t very pleasant, but they know that if the Klingon Empire destabilizes, that had the potential to be very bad for the as yet to form Federation. Similarly, at the end of the series, they provide Reed with information on the terrorist group Terra Prime that sought to obstruct the formation of the Federation. They didn’t give this information to Reed for free, but they did give it. This iteration of the agency engages in unseemly methods, but their intentions feel largely good. The same can’t be said of the Section 31 in the 24th century, the oldest example but most futuristic version of the organization.
Section 31 on Deep Space Nine is an agency fully corrupted by its power. Their greatest hits include attempted coercion and successful manipulation of Julian Bashir, framing a Romulan Senator for an assassination that was never going to happen so they could plant one of their own agents in the Romulan government and the attempted genocide of the Founders by the introduction of the morphogenic virus into the Great Link – via Odo (it's worth noting they infected Odo three years before the events of the seventh season in a preemptive strike to ensure a victory against the Dominion should things get to that point). The differences in operational values between the 22nd century and the 24th century are stark, and while that may not have been intentional, it does proffer a possible solution to Star Trek: Discovery’s departure from canon.