USS Clueless -- Notes on Star Trek: The Next Generation

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Notes on Star Trek: The Next Generation

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" was one of my favorite TV shows, and nearly the last one I watched regularly. It had many virtues, but certain thing about it grated; minor details that always struck me wrong. It was clear that no-one associated with the design of the show knew the first thing about naval operations.

Roddenberry had this wonderful idea that every member of Starfleet should be an officer. He stole this idea from Heinlein, by the way; it comes from the novel "Space Cadet". But there are two distinctions. In Heinlein's Patrol, a large ship had a crew of 14. A small ship might have a crew of seven or even fewer. And even among that huge 14-man crew, several were likely to be cadets. So there's plenty of room for a reasonably narrow branching hierarchy. Moreover, at one point Heinlein explains that strictly speaking the Patrol is not really a military organization. It is, rather, a repository for weapons too dangerous to trust to a military organization (thermonuclear devices).

Meanwhile, Roddenbury designed Enterprise D with  full complement in excess of a thousand, about half of which were not subject to military discipline (being family members and civilian employees such as Guinan). Conservatively, assume a military organization of some 400 people every one of which held a commission, and that entire hierarchy is crammed into only 6 ranks levels -- and one of those ranks, Captain, is exclusively held by a single person! (For review, in descending order: Captain, Commander. Lieutenant Commander, Lieutenant. Lieutenant Junior Grade and Ensign.)

It is not practical to cram 400 people into only five ranks, and no such organization would actually be created.

To take a real-world example, a US Aircraft carrier has a total complement between 4500 and 6000, counting the air wing. Of those, perhaps 800 are officers (compare to 400 officers on Enterprise D), and of those over 100 will be officers because they are pilots and the US Navy commissions all pilots. One of our air craft carriers will typically carry at least five officers with the rank of Captain, not to mention one Rear Admiral.

One captain is actually in charge of the ship, and he's typically called the Skipper. He's the one people think of as being "the captain"; he's Picard.

But in addition, the ship's executive officer ("Riker") will be a captain, the head of engineering ("LaForge") will be a captain, often the chief of air operations will be a captain, and the commanding officer of the Air Wing will be a captain. (And the exec of the air wing will usually be a captain.)

Just incidentally, the CO of the air wing does not report to the skipper. Rather, they both report to that admiral I mentioned, who operates from the carrier but in fact commands the entire battle group. This would also include two or three cruisers and perhaps a dozen destroyers and frigates, plus possibly two or three attack subs.

It's necessary to have that many "captains" on that carrier so that there is sufficient room beneath them for far more commanders and lieutenant commanders and other subsidiary ranks to form a reasonable hierarchy.

A hierarchy which is wide and shallow is extremely vulnerable during a conflict! A typical branching structure will have each officer command three to five officers at the rank just below him. That means that if he becomes a casualty during hostilities it is usually not hard to figure out who moves up to replace him, so that operations continue. With the sparseness of officers at the top level of ST:TNG's Enterprise, the branching necessary below that would be impractically wide.

At the very least, Riker should also be a captain, and Data should be a full commander. And you can make a plausible case for LaForge also being a captain as head of engineering, but at the very least a full commander. (In fact, for part of the series he commanded engineering as a lowly lieutenant, which was preposterous.)

Just like civil law, military law has a long history and much of that precedent exists because it works. It's the collected wisdom of millenia of practical experience. There are two absolute military precedents which have been routinely flaunted on ST:TNG:

1. It is always illegal for any officer to issue an order to an officer of higher rank.

2. All line officers automatically outrank every staff officer.

That second one usually takes people by surprise because they're not even aware that such a distinction exists. Basically, line officers are those in the business of harming the enemy, and staff officers are everyone else.

In the US Army (which is typical) Line is infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and helicopter pilots (commonly "Warrant Officers"). Staff is medical, chaplains, quartermaster, transport, intelligence and a lot else like that.

Most people have heard of "the Battle of the Bulge" from WWII, and how the 101st airborne got surrounded (along with about a third of an armored division which most people conveniently forget) at the town of Bastogne, and of the famous "Nuts!" answer (which I'm afraid history has censored; the real answer was far more vulgar) when the Germans requested a surrender.

The commander in charge of the 101st during most of that battle was Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, and he did a superb job. But here we leave the realm of common knowledge. Max Taylor was fifth ranking officer of the division, being in charge of the divisional artillery. All four officers above him, the division commander and commanders of all three infantry regiments, were at a conference in London (hostilities not having been expected) and couldn't rejoin because weather was too poor for flying. Chain of rank is very real and very important. Taylor was in top in line of command because he was artillery which made him line rather than staff. The four ranking officers begged to be given the chance to parachute in, but flying weather was simply too lousy. I can't imagine the sheer frustration those four men must have felt to sit out that battle while their own division fought for its life. Fortunately, Max Taylor performed as well as anyone could possibly have hoped, under the circumstances.

If a Second Lieutenant of the infantry (a line officer) gives an order to a surgeon whose rank is full colonel (but nonetheless a staff officer), military courtesy demands that it be phrased as a "request", but military law firmly establishes that it has the force of an order, and if the surgeon refuses to carry it out, he risks court martial.

In ST:TNG, I think we can safely say that "line" is everything necessary to fight the ship, and staff is everything else. Line is command, navigation, engineering, weapons, and security; staff is medical, science (and there's a lot of that on Enterprise D), stores (quartermaster) and of course anyone not under military discipline.

Someone who works on Photon Torpedoes is line. An astrophysicist is staff.

One of the more interesting episodes involved what Hitchcock referred to as a "McGuffin" a double-talk cosmic string with which the ship collides and is severely damaged. The real point of the episode was to tell a series of "fish out of water" stories: Picard saving three children who are trapped in a turbolift (because Picard feels uncomfortable around children), Worf (Worf??) delivering Keiko's baby in 10 forward, and so on. One of the things they wanted to do was put Troi into a command situation, and this they botched.

They killed everyone on the bridge except Ensign Ro, Chief O'Brien (what was he doing up there, anyway?) and Counseller Troi. At one point the question arises as to who is ranking officer, and O'Brien points out that Troi has a rank of Lt. Commander, higher than O'Brien's rank of Lt. or Ro's rank of Ensign; and so they paced Troi into her fish of water position. Troi assumes command.

Wrong. Dead wrong. In fact, Ensign Ro was ranking officer among the surviving officers on the bridge. Lt Cdr Troi is medical, which is staff. O'Brien (showing pips of a Lt JG) is operations, also staff. (Operation of transporters is not a combat function.) Ensign Ro is navigation and weapons, a line assignment. As such, Ro automatically ranked both other officers irrespective of the fact that she actually held the lowest rank there in overt terms.

However, it's barely possible that O'Brien is considered engineering, in which case he would be ranking officer (because engineering is line).

The one person there who could not command was Troi, unless everyone else had died or become incapacitated.

In general, they totally botched their handling of Data in terms of military protocol AND of the law, all through the series. Both Picard and Riker were entitled to call him simply "Data" because such familiarity flows down in rank. But it never flows up unless the senior officer grants permission. Geordi is permitted to call him "Data" because they are friends and Data has granted him permission. Every time Troi or Crusher calls him "Data" they violate military discipline. The only major character who handled it properly was Worf, who invariably addressed Data as "Commander", which happens to be the correct form of address for any officer junior to Data. (By tradition, a Lieutenant Commander is simply addressed as "Commander" in normal circumstances. I might mention that O'Brien usually handled it right, too.)

Through some form of lunacy, they decided that medical officers could through a simple test qualify to be "Officer of the Day" (watch-stander) and in one episode, Picard even leaves Crusher in command of the ship. In that case they made a double mistake, for Picard does not have the privilege of shifting command that way. Though he sent 90% of his crew to the ground, he himself cannot yield command of the ship except under direct orders of an officer senior to him. That is also military law. "Last man off the ship" is merely tradition, but he does not have the privilege of abandoning his command. But even had he done so, he did not have the privilege of transferring command to a staff officer. He must transfer command to a line officer if necessary, such as if he were laying dying and had to select a replacement in his final moments.

But the real problem was that in that episode Crusher already had watchstanding privilege, and the back story was how Troi gained it.

(The entire idea was ludicrous; it takes years to gain that privilege. But continuing...) By gaining privilege to stand watch, they become line officers. Lt Cdr Data is second officer of the ship; on paper he ranks everyone except Riker and Picard. And yet you have two full line Commanders, and it is illegal for Data to issue orders to either of them even though he should rank them. At about that point, the TO&E of the Enterprise become an incoherent mess.

This situation did not arise while Crusher and Troi remained exclusively medical and thus staff, since as a line officer Data would automatically rank them both irrespective of their formal ranks.

In the US Navy, every Destroyer or Cruiser has two battle bridges, widely separated, and during hostilities the skipper mans one and the exec mans the other. Because of this, the main bridge can be destroyed and the ship can still fight or flee. Enterprise D has a second bridge, we've seen it. In any circumstances in which hostilities threaten, that should be Riker's station. And yet invariably Riker was on the main bridge.

Why does Enterprise D have turbolifts? Wouldn't transporters make more sense?

Probably my favorite episode in the entire series was when Commander Maddox showed up and tried to take Data away for dissection. In a good episode of a dramatic series, a character will suffer a life-crisis, one which changes them forever. In this episode, no fewer than five characters suffer such crises. Dramatic wealth beyond our wildest dreams.

That episode was superb. It's too bad that they botched the law in it.

There was a woman Captain in it whose name I can't remember, so I'll call her the JAG (Judge Advocate General). Here's the sequence of events, shorn of the drama:

Maddox shows up with orders from Starfleet transferring Data to Maddox's command. (Maddox is full commander and ranks Data as a Lt Cdr.)

To void those orders, Data resigns from StarFleet.

Maddox appeals to JAG and gets an order from her declaring Data to be the property of StarFleet, thus voiding his abilityto resign. Based on that, JAG orders Data to accompany Maddox. Everyone else assumes that this will result in Data's "death" (as far as that term applies to him) because no-one has confidence in Maddox's ability to do what he proposes without causing irreversible damage to Data.

Picard goes to the JAG and asks for a hearing to appeal and overturn that order.

Let's emphasize that last point: the status quo was the JAG's order that Data accompany Maddox. Picard wants to change that.

Picard was assigned the position of pleading to overturn the order. Riker very reluctantly assumed the job of defending the order.

Note this, because it's critical: Picard was the plaintiff, attempting to overturn the JAG's order. Riker was the defense, attempting to maintain the status quo.

In the episode, Riker makes his case first. Good drama, but terrible law.

In every court case, the plaintiff pleads first. Picard should have made his case before Riker, not after.

I enjoyed the series, but as a student of military history I really wish they had been more careful about military organization and military law.

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