“Where no man has gone before”: How Star Trek can help explain international law

Michael Scharf animated as a Star Trek character
Michael Scharf animated as a Star Trek character

When the television series Star Trek launched in 1966, it set out to chronicle the exploits of the starship USS Enterprise’s crew in the 23rd century. What the show’s creators likely didn’t anticipate was the impact Star Trek would have on popular culture for decades to follow. 

As the series characters pursued their mission to “seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” they also forged a lens—and an enduring franchise—with which people can consider current events.

For long-time Star Trek fan Michael Scharf, co-dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, that lens is particularly interesting when applied to the field of international law. Nearly 30 years ago, he penned “The Interstellar Relations of the Federation: International Law and Star Trek: The Next Generation,” an article that examined the law of Star Trek: The Next Generation from an international legal perspective. 

He revisited the concept in 2021 when, to commemorate the 55th anniversary of the shows’ premier, the International Red Cross asked Scharf to discuss the relevance of Star Trek to today’s international crises. In an hour-long webinar, Scharf discussed controversial issues in international law by comparing them to the interstellar law encountered by Captain Picard and the intrepid crew of the Enterprise in seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. 

In recognition of Star Trek Day, celebrated Sept. 8 to mark the date of the series’ U.S. premiere, Scharf sat down with The Daily to discuss his fondness for the series and how Star Trek can help explain our world’s global legal landscape. 

What led you to first consider international law from the lens of Star Trek? 

I was familiar with law and literature articles written about the works of Shakespeare and Dickens. At the time, Star Trek: The Next Generation was a hit TV show, and the interstellar law of Star Trek was surprisingly similar to international law of the 20th century. So, I thought, why not use the series to teach the concepts of international law to students who might know more about Picard than Pol Pot, Klingons than Koreans?  

Have you always been a fan of Star Trek, and did becoming involved in international law increase your appreciation of the series?  

I loved Star Trek as a kid, and I think the new Star Trek series “Strange New Worlds” is the best one yet. As I developed an expertise in international law, I came to appreciate how much research and thought went into creating the legal rules of the Star Trek universe, and how similar they are to international law.

What—if anything—has changed in the international law sphere since the article was first published?  

International law has evolved quite a bit since then. Here is a great example. From the original series 55 years ago, the Enterprise crew have violated the Federation’s Prime Directive against interfering in the domestic affairs of foreign worlds on several occasions for humanitarian reasons. Only recently has the international community begun to recognize a parallel right of humanitarian intervention. The U.S. and U.K. used the rationale to justify their 2018 airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities. 

Aside from its applications to international law, what other lessons can be learned from Star Trek

The genius of Star Trek is that for 57 years, it has grappled with the most controversial public policy issues of the day—racial equality, bodily autonomy, the death penalty, the use of torture against terrorists, artificial intelligence, to name a few. But because it takes place in a fictional sci-fi context, it facilitates less emotional, more thoughtful water cooler discussion.    

Star Trek has provided a huge amount of content since it began nearly 60 years ago. Do you have a favorite episode, movie or moment from the series?  

I just saw an episode of the new series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, called “Ad Astra per Aspera.” It was a really fantastic courtroom drama whose resolution turned on the international law of asylum. Only Star Trek could make immigration law so riveting!