Sunday, 8 June 2014

A Question Of Governance - What is The Federation?

To Combine Our Efforts To Accomplish These Aims

When one is running an RPG in an established universe, you find yourselves having to invent or expand bits and pieces of background.  There are some things which don't come up in a TV show or book or what have you either because they are not relevant to the story or because they never occurred to the author - but when a player asks an awkward question, you must come up with an answer.

For example, when we played our Dune game, how communication between planets worked was questioned - can we use some sort of "interstellar radio"?  The original Frank Herbert books don't mention this explicitly, but we inferred from the other technology present that they do not and instead couriers must deliver communiques between the nobility.  We could just have easilly hypothesised a quasi-telepathic network between planets allowing instantaneous transmission, though .  (And indeed the "House" prequel books by Herbert Jnr/Anderson say the former is true while also showing someone developing the latter.)

The following question, therefore, is one which I am pondering for our Star Trek game: What exactly is the Federation, anyway? The exact nature of this organization is pretty hazy considering there's been over 540 hours of Trek put to film - not counting the various deutero- and non-canonical sources like comics, novels, computer games, role-playing supplements and the like.  Every series has main characters representing the Federation, yet quite how this grouping of planets operates and how tightly bound it is is something we can only infer from various, sometimes conflicting sources.

So, naturally, I'm going to try and unconflict 'em.

Kirk and the first ever Federation insignia.  Classy!
First up, let's go over the canon facts from the TV show.

  • The Federation was founded in 2161, in the aftermath of the war with the Romulans
  • The founding members were Earth, Vulcan, Tellar and Andor.  (And maybe Alpha Centauri?)
  • The organisation spreads over the Alpha and Beta Quadrant of the galaxy, though it often refers to itself as being "Alpha Quadrant" only for some odd reason.
  • By the latter half of the 24th century, the Federation consisted of 150 member worlds and over 1,000 semi-autonomous colonies
  • Planets can apply for membership; they must meet certain technological and political targets, though their membership can still be impeded by current members.
  • It's headquarters are on Earth; the Federation Council meets in San Fransisco, the President sits in Paris.
  • Starfleet is it's military and exploration arms, and is also headquartered in San Fransisco along with its Starfleet Academy for officer cadets.
  • Starships are built in several locations but most we see on screen are built on Earth or Mars.
  • Most Starfleet officers we see on screen are human, though many aliens are mentioned as also serving.
  • The Federation isn't universally loved by its members - organisations like the Vulcan Isolationist Movement suggest they have their own versions of UKIP
From that, we still have rather a lot of gaps.  For one thing, how closely tied is the Federation and it's member planets?  At times they have individual ambassadors for member worlds - Vulcan ambassadors, say - but at other times the Federation acts as one whole unit.  This makes it hard to deduce whether it's supposed to be a political union of sovereign states like the European Union or a federal government of semi-autonomous nations like the United States of America.

In one moment, we have in-fighting between planets and suggestions that Tellarites will prevents someone joining the Federation because it would mess with their financial interests....

Looks a lot like the Germans and French arguing in Brussels
 ...the next we've got an attempt at a military coup of the Federation, suggesting one man has absolute authority over all these worlds and colonies.

These guys think it's more like America, though.
My gut is to read it more like the EU, and say that the planets are fairly autonomous.  I think it's easier to accept that all those planets wouldn't be able to be run any other way - and it explains the colonies which seem always mono-race. You don't have Texan, Floridian or Minnesotan colonies but you do have French Colonies and British Overseas Territories.

You'll notice the Earth centric nature of the Federation - we somehow end up the headquarters of the organisation even though we're arguably the most junior of members in 2161.  This may have been political - like choosing New York or Strasbourg as the locations of the United Nations and European Parliaments respectively, there may have been a factor of neutral territory, ease of transport by members etc.  Enterprise does seem to back up the notion that the Andorians, Tellarites and Vulcans aren't great mates and its the humans keeping them together.

This doesn't explain so much why it's got military headquarters there, though.  For what it's worth the fans of the 60s and 70s did not assume this - the FASA RPG puts Starfleet Academy on Alpha Centauri, and the Star Fleet Technical Manual puts both the Academy and Star Fleet HQ in a giant space-station in deep space.

Not even vaguely near Earth.
The question of the human dominance of the organisation is of course a real world logistics issues - hard to put everyone in makeup, and the movies, novels & cartoon went a big way to showing more and weirder aliens.  Still, there may be practical reasons for this in story as well - perhaps ships are set at ambient atmosphere, temperature etc of the dominant species and so ships are ran principally as Human, Vulcan, Andorian etc.  The people stationed on ships outside their comfort zone have chosen this.

Not the only Vulcan captain of a supposedly Vulcan crew.

Alternatively the ships could be semi-owned by planets, not the Federation.  Kirk refers to his ship as being launched by the United Earth Space Probe Agency and the Enterprise-B is still marked as such - while also being a Federation ship.  Are human-heavy Federation ships in fact UESPA ships currently on Federation assignment?  My gut is no, but then I must explain why UESPA is still on a ship in the 2290s....

The politics is a harder one because we see so little.  What we do see is coloured by the show being set in a military background - which has led some to conclude the Federation is a military-ran communist state.  While the linked article is a bit hyperbolic and coloured by being written by (a) an American and (b) a rabid "Star Wars is better than Star Trek" fan, it's not the only time I've seen the argument and you can read the events we see in show that way - like the presence of many uniformed military officers in what is supposedly the Federation Council, not an ideal situation for a representative democracy.

Compare number of uniforms here vs number of uniforms in Westminister, Holyrood or the Reichstag.
Now we can blame this on the focus of the show but that isn't entirely fair.  Why is it always Ambassadors and Admirals making treaties or speeches but never ministers, councillors, cabinet secretaries or vice-presidents?  Babylon 5 has an almost identical starting setup to Deep Space 9 yet I have a far firmer idea of how Earth is run there - indeed, there's a presidential election at the start of series 1.

They also seem to read the news rather than listen to opera.

Anyway, most novels and the like assume Starfleet to be a representative democracy which I think is more logical and intended that EVIL COMMUNIST REGIME OF DOOM.  The President is possibly voted from within the council, the same way a Prime Minister emerges from a legislature, and will have term limits.  How the individual planets choose representatives I don't know as we don't see terribly many - it's possible the Council is a Senate-esque higher body, and there's a lower chamber of Congressmen or Ministers made up of hundreds of representatives to ensure every planet has a say.  (This makes more sense to me than a single house somehow controlling the whole Federation - I think single-house parliaments aren't a good idea for countries, let alone stellar empires.)

If we accept that the UFP is like the EU then this handles only interstellar matters, with planets running themselves.  Tellar still handles its own agricultural policy, though there may be a common set of laws on animal welfare, grain taxation, farmer subsidies etc.

The presence of uniformed men?..... Well, Starfleet isn't entirely military as Gene was always trying to tell us so maybe we should see that more like having NASA attend.  On the occasion we saw it like that they were carrying out chat on military matters and a sort of court martial - Starfleet had a reason to be there.  They may have been guests to witness rather than voting members.  Perhaps Starfleet is allowed to vote on purely military matters and keeps the hell away from gay marriage, food standards and other questions outside their remit?

I'm interested on extra data points, opinions and interpretations.  What do you think the Federation is?  How do you think it works?

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