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The Star Trek universe was built on characters that mostly hold firm morals and ideals. The message of Trek is: Humanity can be better than it is, it can reach for the stars, and it can foster friendships with other races. Everyone can be stronger together, harmoniously doing “the right thing.”
If Star Trek was that simple, then it would be incredibly boring. Even in the 23rd century and beyond, things aren’t all sunshine and root beer (or prune juice). For every exemplar of selfless morals in Trek, there is a morally dubious character that challenges everything. Most of the great episodes that provide ethical debates are possible because of this.
Some of these morally dubious characters only appear in one episode, and some are series regulars. All of them bring the drama and make everything more complicated. That’s bad for the main characters, but it’s great for the viewer. All of the captains have had to make questionable moral choices, so we’re not including them here. We're also not including Q, because we don't really know how to evaluate the morals of omnipotent god beings.
As Benjamin Sisko once said, “It’s easy to be a saint in paradise.” These 13 characters don’t live in paradise, and they are definitely not saints.
1. Dr. Marr In TNG's "Silicon Avatar"
The Crystalline Entity was thought to be a nefarious being that recklessly destroys entire colonies, including the one where Data was first found. After another attack, Dr. Marr is brought on board the Enterprise-D to address it. She has studied it relentlessly after suffering directly from the entity’s actions.
A way is found to destroy it, but the crew also discovers that there may be a way to communicate with it. Some manner of “first contact” could be possible, and the Crystalline Entity may not be malevolent after all. Dr. Marr pulls the trigger and blows it to hell anyway.
Destroying a truly unique life form (while on the brink of understanding it) is counter to the very core of Starfleet, but Dr. Marr has suffered too much loss. Her grief has consumed her, and she doesn’t want to run the risk of those losses being visited on anyone else. Her actions aren’t justified, but we can understand them. Some hurts go too deep to stand up to Federation ideals, and the story of Dr. Marr is a prime example of this.
Picard himself has similar moral quandaries every time he faces off with the Borg.
2. Lt. Stiles In TOS' "Balance of Terror"
Prior to this original series episode, no one had ever seen a Romulan. Kirk and the Enterprise crew encounter them in a tense battle near the Neutral Zone, and they finally get a look. They look just like Vulcans, so Mr. Spock gets some serious side-eye as a result. Only Lt. Stiles gives in to outright bigotry.
Stiles is a proficient enough officer, but he lets his anxiety and xenophobia get the best of him. He doesn’t trust anything that comes out of Spock’s mouth, and even though Captain Kirk tells him to leave his bigotry in his quarters, Stiles keeps bringing it to the bridge. The episode would have rung a little hollow if there was no one like Stiles onboard, because not every problem has magically vanished in the 23rd century. Having said that, we’re glad that he’s never seen again.
3. Marla Gilmore From Voyager's "Equinox Parts 1 and 2"
The U.S.S. Equinox was dragged to the other side of the galaxy just like the U.S.S. Voyager was, but unlike Voyager and her crew, they did not adhere to Starfleet ideals in order to survive. Under the command of the frayed Captain Ransom, the crew of the Equinox went to very dark places. They murdered innocent lifeforms and turned them into fuel.
Engineer Gilmore was quite complicit in these actions, but when the Equinox encounters Voyager, she starts to voice misgivings. When Ransom chooses to commandeer Voyager, she questions things even more. In this riveting two-parter, Gilmore ends up doing the right thing, turning on Ransom, and helping Voyager's crew by helping stop the slaughter of these lifeforms. Her actions and those of the Equinox crew on the whole are terrible, but not every ship is Voyager and not every Captain is Janeway. Humans will do awful things in order to survive, and morality isn’t going to stop that. It can bring them back from the brink, though, as it does in the case of Marla Gilmore.
4. Nikolai Rozhenko In TNG's "Homeward"
Worf has a foster brother, and he is Paul Sorvino!
Though Nikolai and Worf were both raised by the Rozhenko family, Nikolai dropped out of Starfleet Academy and doesn't care for the Prime Directive. That's why he is so hellbent on involving himself in the lives of the pre-warm civilization of Boraal II, a populous he was only supposed to monitor for research. How involved? He tells them lies about their origins to protect them from the truths of the 24th Century and he has a child with one of them.
When the Boraalans are in danger, Nikolai protects them with some holodeck magic. (Similar to the holo ship employed to keep another pre-warp society in the dark in Star Trek: Insurrection.) Nik's rebellious nature leads to a clash with Picard, because he needs the Enterprise's help to save this people before calamity strikes. Picard refuses because it would violate the very Prime Directive that Nik doesn't care for. Of course, Nikolai ignores Picard's moral standing and uses the Enterprise anyway. (Yeah, um… it’s not your ship, man.) Nikolai is an impulsive liar, but like many other Trek characters before and after him, he makes us question the flexibility of the Prime Directive itself. Why sit back and watch a society be wiped away when you can save it? This debate is a popular one in Trek, with Nikolai being one of the most memorable participants in that debate.
5. Zefram Cochrane In Star Trek: First Contact
We meet the inventor of the warp drive in the Original Series episode “Metamorphosis,” but we meet a different, earlier version of him in the movie Star Trek: First Contact. His invention is the reason that first contact happened in the first place, so he must be a highly-ethical man, right? Nope. He is a day-drunk genius, whose motives for creating FTL travel were: “Money. Dollar signs.” Before the landmark first contact between humans and Vulcans, Zefram was just a drunk who wanted to get rich. After, he finds himself on the path to becoming a guy who others build statues for and has high schools named after. It's with a great sense of irony that the Federation exists because of the merits of a dancing fool with a penchant for throwing whiskey bottles.
6. Emperor Georgiou From Star Trek: Discovery
A Terran from the Mirror Universe, the corrupt, murderous double of the honorable Captain Georgiou winds up coming into the Prime Universe thanks to Michael Burnham. While Mirror Georgiou becomes a valuable asset to the crew during her time on Discovery, she is always quick to point out more violent paths.
To make her dubious-morality complete, she joined the shady intelligence service of the Federation, Section 31. Her blunt honesty and self-serving nature (and the way she chose being practical over being moral) sparked significant debate and conflict among her non-Mirror U counterparts. But her views and opinions were often entertaining, even in sharp contrast to those with more evolved sensibilities.
7. Ro Laren From Star Trek: The Next Generation
Ensign Ro Laren was introduced into Trek canon at the same as the story surrounding the Cardassian occupation of Bajor. In the process, Ro become a recurring featured character on Picard's ship, someone that fans could count on as being a constant source of conflict with her blunt assessments.
Ro went from Starfleet outcast to vital officer; anti-hero to hero. She redeemed herself in the eyes of her crew, especially those of her Captain, but she walked an ethical tightrope in her last on-screen appearance, the penultimate Season 7 episode of TNG, “Preemptive Strike.” When Picard sends Ro on a covert mission to infiltrate the Maquis resistance, she struggles with her loyalties to Picard and to their cause. She has more in common with these freedom fighters than she expected, and summarily joins their cause. She leaves behind the closest thing to a home she ever had to help the Maquis. She defies and betrays Picard, all in the name of doing what she thinks, and feels, is right. It's hard to disagree with her.
8. Michael Eddington From Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Another officer who defected to the Maquis, Starfleet Security officer Michael Eddington defied Captain Sisko in the process and became the subject of a vendetta of sorts for Sisko. Eddington's betrayal cut Sisko deep, but even Ben could see what what Eddington and the Maquis are fighting for isn't wrong, only their methods were. They certainly don’t follow Starfleet morality, but then again, neither does Sisko when he finally captures Eddington in the Deep Space Nine episode “For the Uniform.” To say that Sisko takes drastic steps there is an understatement. Few characters challenge the morals of the great Captain Sisko like Eddington does. As for Eddington himself, his methods are worse than his morals. No matter what he may think, he’s no Jean Valjean.
9. Mirror Spock In TOS's "Mirror, Mirror"
Thanks to Mirror Spock, we now know the tell-tale sign of arriving in a Mirror Universe: growing a space goatee. Also, torturing crew members and offering Nazi-like salutes to fellow officers.
The Terran Empire of the Mirror Universe is wicked, but Mirror Spock ends up having some morality despite the Empire's morally-eroded ways. He goes along with the amorality of the Mirror Universe mostly because that’s just how things are; the fact that any kind of morality could be possible is unthinkable. But when such a thing seems possible, he questions everything. Well, everything but that goatee. By episode’s end, he is in charge, and he’s ready to make some big changes. We’d learn many years later (on DS9) that he did make those changes. He brought morality to the Terrans, and the entirety of the Terran Empire fell apart as a result.
10. Shran From Star Trek: Enterprise
Before the Andorians became a valued part of the Federation, they were a lot like Star Trek: Enterprise's Thy’lek Shran. He was a violent member of his species and he trusted no one, especially Vulcans. He struggled to trust Jonathan Archer of the Enterprise NX-01.
Shran did whatever he had to do to make sure that his people were protected. Spying and taking hostages were perfectly necessary if Shran deemed them so. Some may have just thought him paranoid, but — on more than one occasion — his suspicions were proved correct. Eventually, Shran and Archer became allies and friends. Shran's tactical prowess proved invaluable to Archer's efforts during the war with the Xindi. But diplomacy wasn't his strong suit; he was more of a kidnap and torture kinda guy. He wasn’t just a consistent moral challenge for Archer, he provided moral challenges to everyone on this show. If he’s in the episode, chances are it’s a good one.
11. Sybok In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Spock’s secret half-brother, Sybok, rejected logic and embraced fanaticism on his quest to find god at the center of the universe. He turned away from Vulcan society, learned a special trick that let him take people’s pain away, and then he started a cult. He was determined to find ultimate knowledge; for him, this came in the form of the god known as Sha Ka Ree.
If that’s what you want to do, go for it, Sybok! Go out there and find that god! The problem comes with what lines Sybok is prepared to cross in order to find the higher power he seeks. He takes hostages within the walls of a city on the planet of so-called galactic peace before hijacking Kirk's Enterprise. He puts Kirk's entire crew at risk for his hubris and vanity. He arrives at his sacred destination only to discover that his god is more of a devil. It is an entity imprisoned on a barren rock, which Sybox's arrogance ultimately frees. Sybok dies trying to save Spock and the rest of Kirk's crew, which is arguably the only redemptive thing he has ever done.
12. Quark From Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The morals of the Ferengi are in direct opposition of the Federation, which is why Quark was such a welcome presence on Deep Space Nine. Who cares about helping others? Quark is out for himself. Greed is good. It’s all about acquisition, not service. The Ferengi love the concept of acquisition so much that they made a list of rules about it.
As a shadow of what humanity once was (and still is in real life), Ferengi culture butted heads with Federation culture constantly. Even when Ferengi culture began to change at the end of DS9, Quark refused to change with it. He flouted station rules so often that he wound up in the brig many times. No matter what went wrong every week, Odo always considered him a suspect. Don’t try to get on a soapbox; Quark will put you in your place. Judge not, because nobody on that station was as virtuous as they thought they were. Quark had dubious morals, he knew it, and he owned it.
He also knew what it would take for humanity to leave all of its morals in the dust. In the underrated DS9 episode “The Siege of AR-558,” Quark shares with his nephew, a Starfleet officer, the following observation on humans: “They're a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts, deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers, put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
13. Garak From Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
As amoral as Quark tended to be, he couldn’t hold a candle to the true amoral figurehead of Deep Space Nine (and of Star Trek in general), Elim Garak. He’s just a humble Cardassian tailor, what’s the big deal, right? He’s a super spy as well, and he’ll shoot you in the back if he has to. It is the safest way.
Not only does Garak challenge the morality of characters like Dr. Bashir and Odo, he becomes the character that others went to when dirty work needed to be done. They might not have known that’s what they were doing, but worry not… Garak always let them know.
There’s no finer example than the episode “In the Pale Moonlight…”, where Captain Sisko and Garak spend some quality time together plotting a ruse to lure the Romulans into the Dominion War. At the end of the episode, Sisko admits the following: “I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder.” All of this is true, and he did it all with the help of Garak. As Garak tells him when confronted, this is why Sisko went to Garak in the first place. He knew that Garak would do what needed to be done, and in this case, that meant that one Romulan senator needed to die.
Morality is not in the job description for a tailor/super spy/exile. The Federation benefits from his actions all the time, and no one complains. More than any other character, Garak provides a true moral mirror. Also, he's a very good tailor.