In over 50 years, Star Trek has had a lot of villainous aliens. A few are fantastic, still inspiring people to this day. Others, as we saw last week, are complete garbage. But then we have the aliens who are harder to categorize. Often, they have cool ideas but are held back by a critical flaw, while others stubbornly refuse to grow a second or third dimension despite multiple episodes of development. They are, in a word, mediocre.
In a reverse from last time, today we’re starting at the lowest rung of mediocrity, then slowly clawing our way toward being almost good.
In olden times, the Pakleds had one significant appearance in The Next Generation, and it was really bad. They’re a species entirely built on the “fat and stupid” stereotype, so both ableist and fat shaming. Bleah. And apparently they were envisioned as “third-world aliens,” so racism too. The triple threat nobody wanted!*
Bigotry aside, the Pakleds are super frustrating to watch because they’re so obviously incompetent that it’s impossible to believe Picard’s officers would fall for their tricks. The episode has some implications that the Pakleds are only pretending to be incompetent, but then the Enterprise crew tricks them with a kindergarten-level ruse, so I guess it’s not a pretense after all. Outside of this episode, Pakleds are only ever mentioned or seen in passing, often with jokes about how silly they are.
Going off this one appearance, the Pakleds would have been at the very bottom of last week’s list, except they wouldn’t even have qualified because of how little we see of them. However, recent developments require that I take another look: specifically, Lower Decks using Pakleds as the big bads of seasons one and two. That was not what I expected.
Lower Decks is a comedy, so incompetent villains work much better than in serious Star Trek. Instead of getting frustrated that the heroes are struggling against an incompetent enemy, we can laugh because it’s all a joke. Lower Decks even manages to make the Pakleds more realistic than previous incarnations, as they’re being supplied with weapons and technology by a more traditional villain.
These new Pakleds also make for an interesting message, or at least an interesting attempt at one. According to showrunner Mike McMahan, the Pakleds are meant as an allegory to the rise of modern-day fascism. Specifically, they’re a threat we thought was dealt with, and no one takes them seriously because they seem too silly to be a threat until it’s too late. That doesn’t apply to every modern-day fascist, but it’s a familiar story in the United States.
All the same, the only reason I know about this message is that I went looking for behind-the-scenes information on Pakleds. I doubt many people watching made that connection, as there are just too many degrees of separation. Plus, the ableism and fat shaming remain. Lower Decks does a much better job than the Pakleds’ original conception, but for now it remains entirely in the realm of “has potential.”
After the Kazon, Voyager’s second recurring bad guys are the Vidiians: they want to steal your organs! And unlike the Kazon, they actually have the tech and firepower to make good on their threat. There’s something viscerally terrifying about the villains who want to harvest parts of your body, much more so than if they just wanted to shoot you, despite the end result being similar.
This is a good place for a new villain to start from, and it could have positioned the Vidiians as one of Star Trek’s few successful horror villains. However, we run into logical problems pretty quickly, as the Vidiians are described as stealing organs from any species they come across. That would make them effectively at war with every other species in the Delta Quadrant. While I’m sure they could take the Kazon, there are a lot of much nastier enemies in that area of space whom I doubt the Vidiians are ready to tangle with.
The Vidiians’ motivation is also extremely suspect. Supposedly, they need to constantly replace their organs because of a flesh-eating disease called the Phage, so that’s why they go around snatching other people’s insides. Fair enough, except that this is Star Trek, where cloning tech is a dime a dozen. We’ve seen plenty of episodes where Starfleet grows entire new limbs for wounded officers, and the Vidiians’ medical tech is supposed to be even more advanced. In fact, there’s even an episode where a Vidiian scientist splits Torres into two people, which also doubles the number of organs available. Maybe try that before going to war with literally everyone?
A more serious contradiction is that all Vidiians are supposed to be infected by a flesh-eating disease that causes mass organ failure, but they’re also supposed to be intimidating soldiers. One episode even goes into detail about just how debilitating the Phage is, which seems like it would make phaser fights a bit challenging. And speaking of a flesh-eating disease, I’m not thrilled with the choice to make the Vidiians super ugly as a sign of how evil they are.*
The Vidiians are left in an interesting place where they seem really intimidating upon first meeting them, but the more we find out, the less sense they make. With a better reason for needing all those organs, they could have been great.
Of all the species on this list, none deserve the title of mediocre quite like the Hirogen. They’re basically what the Kazon would be if you took away the abject incompetence: yet another warrior species who wants to fight Starfleet for some reason. They at least have the skills and technology to serve that role, allowing them to meet the bare minimum requirement for a hostile species.
What’s supposed to make the Hirogen stand out is that they’re all about hunting, but that barely matters in Star Trek. A space battle is a space battle, whether the enemy says you’re their prey or they have to kill you to avenge their honor. For a hunt to be different from a battle, you need to create a scenario where the prey has to run away and use tricks because they’re much weaker than the predator.*
The only time the Hirogen ever achieve this dynamic is when they’re hunting a bunch of sapient holograms who were originally created as target practice but then rebelled. This is the Hirogen’s best showing, but the holograms themselves are also portrayed as villains,* so the Hirogen’s role is somewhat muddled.
The most interesting aspects of the Hirogen are the tantalizing hints that never went anywhere. The first time we meet the Hirogen, it’s because Voyager has stumbled onto a galaxy-spanning communication grid that ancient Hirogen built but modern ones mostly ignore. That sounds interesting – I’d love to know more about that! What other mega-structures did the Hirogen build? Why did they shift from galactic architects to nomadic hunters? Do any of them want to try their hands at building grand projects again?
If you were hoping to explore any of that, then too bad, because the Voyager writers apparently weren’t interested. We do meet one Hirogen leader who talks about how it’s not sustainable to focus an entire society on hunting, but he soon dies and that issue is never mentioned again. Instead, Voyager eventually leaves the Hirogen behind, potential entirely untapped. Just some very forgettable bad guys we met in the course of Voyager’s travels.
4. The Maquis
The observant among you will notice that the Maquis aren’t a single species at all. They’re mostly human, but with a smattering of other species as well, mostly from the Federation. However, the Maquis function as an antagonistic group the same way Klingons or Romulans do, so they’re close enough.
The Maquis’ origins are bizarre, from both a storytelling and a production standpoint. Originally, the Maquis were heavily featured in late Next Generation and early Deep Space Nine, so fans would have already known who the Maquis were when Voyager’s first episode aired. That show planned to have a crew split between Starfleet and Maquis, but then the writers quickly decided they weren’t interested, and the former Maquis became indistinguishable from their Starfleet counterparts.
TNG was over by then, so DS9 was left with this group of anti-Federation rebels that it never asked for. In-universe, the Maquis come from Federation colonies that were given to the Cardassians in a territory swap that also saw some Cardassian colonies end up in Federation space. I’m at my wits’ end trying to imagine how this could have happened, but none of the shows ever examine it in detail, so it remains a big set of question marks.
The Maquis are by far the most politically complex of Star Trek’s many bad guys, which is also their core problem: the politics never make any sense. In theory, the Federation has to fight the Maquis because most Maquis members are Federation citizens,* which makes the Federation responsible when Maquis attack the Cardassians. Otherwise, the Federation would just stay out of the conflict.
Despite this, the Federation doesn’t seem to care when the Cardassians attack and kill Maquis civilians, or when Sisko virus-bombs a Maquis planet.* Nor does Starfleet raise any objections when the Dominion rolls in and wipes out all but a handful of the Maquis, which sounds like an act of war.
With enough work, it’s possible to imagine the various Federation responses taking place offscreen. Maybe Federation diplomats were also working to end the violence on the Cardassian side, and maybe Sisko only avoided getting court-martialed because he was important to the Bajorans. But not seeing any of this leaves the Maquis’ central premise unfulfilled, almost like they’re an afterthought that DS9 only included to help out another Trek show.
In the Maquis’ favor, they’re presented as more morally nuanced than most Star Trek baddies, with a few significant side characters defecting to join them over the years. But without a more robust political context, that just leads to flame wars in fan groups whenever someone asks if the Maquis were noble freedom fighters or genocidal terrorists.
5. The Emerald Chain
Ah ha, I’ve tricked you with another group that’s technically got multiple species but is mostly just one: the Orions. Sure, there are a few Andorians around too, but they’re obviously junior partners in this alliance, which is fine. It’s clear that the Orions have become a dominant power in the 32nd century, so putting them in charge works great. It’s also really nice to see some Orion women in roles other than sexy slave or evil seductress.
From what I can tell, the Emerald Chain appears to be Discovery’s writers taking the original Ferengi concept out for a second spin. We have a capitalist superpower that’s taken advantage of a natural disaster to expand at the Federation’s expense, but no one acts like a sniveling Jewish stereotype this time, so that’s nice.
Unfortunately, Discovery runs into another problem with the Emerald Chain: despite being the big bad for an entire season, very little about it is ever explored. We see that the Chain operates trading ports for commerce and also exploits people in labor camps, but that’s about it. While there is dialogue indicating that the Chain has a complex political structure, we only ever see one leader, a lady named Osyraa.
This gives very few chances to contrast the Federation against the Emerald Chain, which is something you really need in a story about competing political systems. The characters talk about Federation ideals a lot, but almost never get specific about what that means or how they’d do things differently than the Chain.
My best guess is that the writers thought we’d be bored by a lot of space politics. Either that, or they were actually hoping to avoid making the show come across as overtly political in the first place. If that’s the case, it was a lost cause from the start, as casting anyone but the straightest, whitest guy you can find* is more than enough to get shows labeled as political.
Whatever the writers’ motivation, it means that when Osyraa finally has it out with the leader of Starfleet, it’s impossible to tell what they’re talking about. They have an extended negotiation with no stakes that mean anything to the viewer because we have no context for any of it. When Osyraa demands that capitalism be allowed in the Federation, I don’t know if she’s talking about simple trade, privatizing government services, or something else entirely.
When the negotiations predictably fail, the Emerald Chain arc is resolved by a space battle, but it’s not even clear what the characters are fighting over. Is the Federation at war with the Chain now? Would Osyraa just leave if given the option? No one knows. The show also acts like the Chain is dealt with once Osyraa dies, but that’s not usually how governments work. Maybe the Emerald Chain just needed another season to develop, but it wasn’t to be, as Discovery moved on to other things.
In Deep Space Nine, the Prophets are super-advanced aliens who exist outside of linear time and serve as gods in the Bajoran religion. At some point in season five, the writers had an idea: What if there were evil Prophets? Wouldn’t that be cool? They were almost right!
The Pah-Wraiths do a great job being evil and sinister when they possess people or show up in visions. Plus, the actors get an excuse to ham it up like supervillains, which is a good time for everyone. There’s also a very cool arc during the Dominion War where the Pah-Wraiths collapse the wormhole entrance, which coincides with a surge in the Dominion’s fortunes. While there’s no proof that the two are linked, it gives the Pah-Wraiths a kind of malicious mystique that fits well with their role as evil gods.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only time they really feel like evil gods. The rest of the time, they’re just another sinister alien species with possession powers. They don’t seem like evil Prophets at all, and the reason is probably that the Prophets are too powerful for that to work.
While DS9 isn’t entirely consistent about it, the Prophets seem to have the godlike power to rewrite time at will. The only reason they don’t immediately destroy the story is that they have an immutable law against interfering in the affairs of less advanced species. Obviously they break this rule whenever the writers feel like it, but there’s at least a pretense that the Prophets can’t just do whatever they want.
Being evil, the Pah-Wraiths don’t have this constraint. If they were more like the Prophets, the story would be over. Our heroes couldn’t fight back because the Pah-Wraiths would just go back in time and stop their grandparents from hooking up. This is why most of the Pah-Wraiths’ big plans end up pretty underwhelming, like that one time they possessed Jake so he could have an anime beam battle on the promenade, or their big climax being a short punch-up between Sisko and Dukat.
For the Pah-Wraiths to reach their true potential, we’d need more robust limits on the Prophets’ powers. Personally, I’d go with the idea that they can’t interfere that much because they exist in higher dimensions and affecting things on the human scale is difficult for them. That would make the Pah-Wraiths akin to elder gods in a cosmic horror story: almost unimaginable power, but distant and enigmatic so they don’t just devour the characters on page one.
As a side bonus, making the Pah-Wraiths more like eldritch horrors would reduce the problem of their weak motivation, since no one expects Cthulhu to explain why he does what he does. We know the Prophets care about helping Bajor in their own weird way, while the Pah-Wraiths are… against that? For reasons?
Enterprise’s third season introduces the Xindi, who are one of the most frustrating species to watch because they’re so close to being good. Almost there. Just a little further! But not quite.
To start, the Xindi are actually five different species, all of which evolved concurrently on their homeworld. There used to be a sixth, but it was wiped out in the many wars the Xindi fought among themselves. While this concept is highly questionable from a scientific perspective, it offers a lot of novelty in Star Trek, where single-species empires are the norm among villains.
The Enterprise writers then take this concept a step further than other multi-species groups like the Maquis and the Emerald Chain: they show us internal divisions within the Xindi. While all five Xindi species may be united in a common cause, they still have old grudges and competing interests. Our heroes even gain a foothold by exploiting these divisions, playing one Xindi faction against another. It also helps that we see a lot of individual Xindi over season three, so they can demonstrate a variety of outlooks and motivations.
Like the Suliban, the Xindi are also part of the Temporal Cold War, but it works okay in this instance. For one thing, the Xindi are actually quite powerful, so it makes sense that a time-traveling faction would want to enlist their help. For another, we actually learn what the Xindi’s benefactors are up to. They’re manipulating the Xindi to knock off potential threats like Earth, while also gradually making the Xindi’s home space unlivable so the benefactors can colonize it. Honestly, you could drop the time-travel aspect entirely and just have the benefactors be extra-dimensional imperialists.*
What holds the Xindi back is that for all the time spent developing their politics and motivations, they still fall prey to the ugly=evil trope. Of the five species, the humanlike Primate and Arboreal Xindi are the good guys and the whalelike Aquatics are neutral, while the Reptilians and Insectoids are evil. ‘Cause lizards and bugs are bad, m’kay? At best, it’s a tiresome cliché. At worst, it can play into bigoted assumptions about what people look like.
The Xindi’s plan is also a weak point because it makes no sense. They want to wipe out humanity because they’ve been told that otherwise, humanity will wipe them out in the future. Reasonable so far. To do this, the Xindi construct a giant spherical battle station that can destroy planets. Star Wars comparisons aside, why bother? The Xindi fleet is more than powerful enough to wipe out all life on Earth; there’s no reason to demolish the entire planet.
This plot point exists purely so the good guys have something to stop in a climactic battle. While it’s reasonable to want something like that for an exciting finale, the execution is contrived.
With a little more fine-tuning, the Xindi could have been great. Instead, they sit at the high end of mediocre, forever held back because someone in the writers’ room wanted to copy Star Wars.
If I weren’t limiting this analysis to species with a significant presence in the story, most of Star Trek’s aliens would probably belong on the mediocre list. I’ve lost track of how many times our heroes encounter a one-off alien whose only defining trait is being just annoying enough to generate 45 minutes of conflict. Thankfully, these seven are mediocre for interesting reasons, and next week, we’ll get to talk about alien species that are actually good at being evil!
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