Adopted Families in Star Trek
PHLOX: When you invited me to join this crew, I thought it would be an interesting diversion for a few months. Some time away from the complications of family, which on Denobula can be extremely complicated. I didn’t expect to gain another family. (close to tears) It hurts as if she were my own child. “Terra Prime” (2005)
When Trip and T’Pol lost their cloned child, Phlox shared in their pain and remarked on how the crew had become his family though it was clearly what he least expected. Separated from the complexities of his extended Denobulan tri-family, he became united with a new clan, the extended family of the Enterprise. There is a repetitive theme in the stories of the Star Trek universe of bonding and forming families outside of the immediate family one is born with. Likewise, this trait has been inherited among those who love Star Trek. We identify with adopted families, because we form them, become part of them, and find ourselves, however unlikely, among the foremost parts of those extended adopted family units.
There was a classic missed opportunity in Deep Space Nine’s “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1998) when Nog returns to the station and Rom and Leeta go to meet him as he arrives:
ROM: I just don’t want to say the wrong thing.
LEETA: You’ll be fine. But maybe I shouldn’t be there when he arrives.
LEETA: Well, when he was in the hospital, he didn’t answer any of my letters. That’s okay. I’m only his stepmother. But he’s going through something so personal maybe he only wants his real family around.
ROM: You are real family.
“You are real family,” Nog interjects. Here, though not an adopted family in the sense that we have come to know it, but a newly integrated family, Leeta feels out of space with the business of family relations. Star Trek could have focused an entire episode on the familial relations of second marriages, family formation, and sociopolitical relationships between those who have always been there and those who have just arrived. More often than not, there is a shared value between the family who gains a member as also having just arrived; arrived to a place where they are able to welcome in the nurturing disposition of the heart that new love brings. Instead, in “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” as well as the entirety of the remainder of Deep Space Nine, Leeta’s place in the new family formation is not mentioned again. What is suggested as a hint of familial inadequacy is not returned to as a theme to be explored. The only closure to the issue that was raised is later in the episode with Rom and Leeta visit Nog in the holosuite and Leeta informs him of Rom’s promotion. However, the focus is on Nog’s detachment from the family and the interaction is over in a quick moment.
Though the avenue for Leeta’s predicament was not explored, certainly adopted family was. After Jadzia was killed, Sisko leans over her coffin pleading and feeling the pain one does with a friend who is like family is no longer there:
SISKO: The funeral service is due to begin in a few minutes, Jadzia but I need to talk to you one last time. When I first met you, you told me that my relationship with Jadzia Dax wouldn’t be any different than the one I had with Curzon Dax. Things didn’t work out that way. I had a hell of a lot of fun with both of you, but Curzon was my mentor. You, you were my friend and I am going to miss you. I should have listened to the Prophets and not gone to Cardassia. Then maybe you’d still be alive. Damn it! Why aren’t you still here, Jadzia? I need you to help me sort things out. Something’s happened to the Prophets, something that’s made them turn their backs on Bajor and I’m responsible. And I don’t know what to do about it, how to make it right again. I’ve failed as the Emissary, and for the first time in my life I’ve failed in my duty as a Starfleet officer. I need time to think, clear my head, but I can’t do it here. Not on the station, not now. I need to get away and find a way to figure out how to make things right again. I have to make things right again, Jadzia. I have to.
Sisko is so distraught by Jadzia’s death that he leaves the station and returns to Earth. The loss of family had condemned him to a solitude that none could recover. It would only take time and a mission of meaning (and a rejoining with Dax) to place him in a psychological state where he could even bear to leave his father’s restaurant. It is no wonder that after losing such an integral part of his extended family, Sisko returned to his biological family for comfort and healing. Likewise, Neelix could only leave his adopted family of the Voyager crew when he integrated into a new family with Dexa and Brax in Star Trek Voyager’s “Homestead” (2001).
This marker of the extended family, this integral unit of integrity and love is expressed as the hope of Starfleet. Even Data was not without the dependence on friends as an extended family unit. In the episode “The Next Phase” (1992) when Ro and Geordi are believed to have been killed, Data embarks on the process of establishing a proper death ritual for his best friend, Geordi. When Ro and Geordi is discovered to still be alive, there is a moment where Data just looks at his friend with the deep, sad contemplation and realization that he thought he had lost him forever. In “Time’s Arrow Part I” (1992), Troi paraphrases Data’s synopsis of what it means to experience friendship and close bonds even for an android, “As I experience certain sensory input patterns, my mental pathways become accustomed to them. The inputs eventually are anticipated and even missed when absent.” Data loves. Data, an android, finds the unity of friendship in Starfleet; and an extended, adopted family.
There is one Next Generation episode where family is particularly emphasized. In “The Inner Light” (1992) Picard experiences life as Kamin and 40 years of family life outside of Starfleet after being forced into unconsciousness by a probe. Perhaps this extended immersion into family is a metaphor for family made by a career made in Starfleet. This is re-emphasized as a mark of vulnerability when he retells the experience to Lt. Commander Nella Daren, who he forms a relationship with in “Lessons” (1993). Daren, who represents Picard’s most immediate intercession into family, must hear and share Picard’s experience as Kamin; as they do through music. In a trailer for Star Trek: Picard, B4, who represents Data for Picard’s memory’s sake is sitting with Picard who states, “I don’t want the game to end.” Here Picard is channeling his friendship of unity – his extended, adopted family – with the memories of Data and Enterprise.
Nowhere is the theme of the adopted family more literal than with Michael Burnham having been adopted into Amanda Grayson’s and Sarek’s family. Being Spock’s sister, Michael channels a history of Starfleet that is adamant in its repose from that which is a career and an undertaking over to a direct tie to immediate family. The realization and fulfillment of the Red Angel saga would not have been completed or even understood without the unification of family ties. As I suggested above, there is a dual catalyst to the ramifications of what Starfleet brings to its crew as careerists of noble purpose and the emotive underside of adopted family that is shared among those within the platform of searchers and travelers. There is a large message being advertised in Star Trek: Discovery. The fact that both Michael and Spock enter Starfleet and excel in that universe’s medium and disciplines, is representative of the family bonds that occur in Starfleet. From Picard’s beloved friendship with Corey Zweller and Marty Batanides from his days at the Academy as seen in “Tapestry” (1993) to Jett Reno’s bonding with Stamets and Tilly, as well as the rest of the crew as seen in “Through the Valley of Shadows” (2019), there is a bonding of friendship that conforms only to the positive message of integrated individuality.
Jett Reno instinctively understands how to connect with Tilly, Stamets, and the crew not long after joining Discovery because of the medium of Starfleet. The essential essence of learned exploration and the incentive to discover other species opens a well into the re-discovery of the self through those around you; through adopted family. It is no wonder that various Star Trek communities from around the world find such common ground and identify with each other without forced effort. The values of Starfleet resemble those of the tenets of adopted family. If there is a message to take with us into the 2020s that we can learn from Spock’s and Michael’s relationship as well as that of the indices of Starfleet, it is to allow new relationships to be born of common vulnerability and seek the unification of command together in spirit, soul, and adapted intrigue of our mutual investments on this rocky plane.