Back in 2015, the crew discussed everyone’s favorite rabble-rouser, Ro Laren. As one of The Next Generation’s most celebrated characters, Ensign Ro (Michelle Forbes) left an impression on fans that resonates today. But to explore Ro’s impact, one must also examine the state of the Federation during her service.
We meet Ro on the heels of a prison sentence, and after serving time for disobeying orders and the resulting deaths of the officers in her away team. The crew of the Enterprise was less than thrilled to see her when she boards the ship to carry out orders from Starfleet Command. Ro was met with several layers of discrimination and cultural insensitivity from her commanding officers, including the suppression of her religious expression when Riker demanded that she remove her earring when she boarded the ship.
The crew went on to voice multiple complaints about her presence, until Guinan was able to convince Picard that the ensign was more than her reputation. Ro was eventually able to prove her usefulness regarding the political intricacies of Bajor, earning enough respect from her captain to remain a part of the crew.
In later episodes, Ro not only served as helm officer, but also acted as a dose of reality for the crew. Many of the crew and passengers of the Enterprise were fortunate enough to avoid poverty over the course of their lives. Ro did not have that luxury. At this point in Federation history, Bajorans were still recovering from being occupied by the Cardassians, pushed off of their own planet, and considered to be social pariahs. Their complex political status, including provincial factions and a religio-political influence, positioned the population of Bajor precariously in the harbors of Federation diplomatic practices.
While Ro may have been a bit rough around the edges, the refugee conditions of her Bajoran upbringing enriched her perspective beyond the parameters of Federation privilege, a trait that proved invaluable during her time on the Enterprise.
We last see Ro at the end of TNG’s seventh season, caught between another rock and a hard place. By this point, Deep Space 9 was commanded by Starfleet and Bajor was deliberating joining the Federation. As if Bajoran political matters weren’t complicated enough, the mounting threat of the Maquis added another layer of difficulty to the political climate. Starfleet command assigned the now lieutenant Ro to a covert reconnaissance mission, exposing her directly to living conditions within the Demilitarized Zone. While it’s understandable that Ro would develop feelings of camaraderie with members of the Maquis, it would be a disservice to her sacrifice if the magnitude of her impact was not mentioned.
Star Trek goes on to focus on two major elements of the Bajoran struggle over the course of the next two series. Both DS9 and Voyager deal with the specific issues within Cardassian-Bajoran relations, as well as the Maquis presence, and defense, of the Demilitarized Zone. While it stands to reason that these two situations would have been addressed eventually, we can surmise that the popularity of Ro Laren and her particular intersections were the foundation of exploring the nuances of such complicated diplomatic occurrences.
Picard was visibly disappointed when he learned of Ro’s desertion. His privilege prevented him from completely understanding Ro’s position at the time, but he wore the expression of someone accepting the validity of a struggle they did not and could not comprehend. This is meaningful, because most of what we’re led to accept from Starfleet and the Federation is the importance of an officer’s ability to follow orders. But, as later examples will prove, Starfleet is strongest when it employs officers who question command, especially at their own risk.