Did the writers care about the ranks of their characters?

I’m not talking about stuff like O’Brien’s hollow rank pip, I’m talking about stuff like “Why make Chakotay a lt. commander rather than a full commander?”

It seems like there was at least some forethought put into who has what rank, but it’s not clear to me how much thought, nor how much meaning was supposed to be baked in to those decisions.

For example, Dr Crusher was a full commander from Day 1, matched only by Riker on the main cast. Was that supposed to signify the authority afforded to the CMO? Was it supposed to be blatant enough for the audience to “get” it?

One of the most prominent examples is Sisko starting his series as a commander. Again — was that supposed to signify that he was more junior, a younger officer?

Behind the scenes, I wonder if we can trace a waxing and waning military influence in the writers room over the years. I know Roddenberry served, and I think some of the early TNG writers did as well. But I feel like that became less common in later series? (But I don’t know for sure.)

I think it’s striking that rank is significantly downplayed on DSC, except for Burnham and potentially Saru.


They weren’t always super careful about it.

Also, in the real life US Navy, ranks don’t always reflect positions. Captains are not always the Captains of ships, for example.

Madison_rogue avatar

Exactly this. A captain could hold a rank of Lieutenant, based upon the size of his ship/or command. For instance LT John F. Kennedy was the captain of PT 109. Destroyers captains often have the rank of Commander. Air Wing Captains are usually captains, as well as Aircaft Carrier captains.

Generally the rule in the U.S. Navy is that if you are the commanding officer a ship or a boat, you are its captain regardless of your rank.


Pursuant to this and maintaining consistency with the CO/XO dynamic on many Starships it’s totally reasonable to have a small vessel commanded by a Lt. Cdr. who we call the Captain, with a Lieutenant as the first officer.


Narratively rank is very important especially when you are trying to demonstrate a paramilitary organization in the confines of a television series. I think there are probably often arguments about this. Why is Ezri written as a counselor and an Ensign instead of a science officer of a higher rank?

I do think there is real world relevance sometimes. We see Worf and Geordi get promotions and become a larger part of the series with more screen time and character development. This works narratively to distinguish the change. An “on screen” promotion indicates some sort of character growth. We see this happen with Sisko likely because the only reason to distinguish him at first was because he was written to have a fairly minor (in universe) role which was greatly expanded.

In recent years I think rank has been downplayed as there are so many inconsistencies and patterns and anti-patterns throughout the series. It’s important that you’re able to tell a story where if someone is supposed to be in charge they have the appropriate rank for this. This is one of the reasons Discovery effectively promoted Tilly rapidly (all the way to being the XO for a little bit) because she was a pivotal part of the cast and needed screen time. In fact Discovery doesn’t “ignore” rank it rather ignores rank conventions by having a mutineer on the bridge as a ‘specialist’ and a command staff that almost just takes turns at the wheel.

In Lower Decks we can assume narratively no one is going to get promoted permanently or demoted permanently because the show depends on that dynamic. If we look to Strange New Worlds we see rank downplayed to a large degree because everyone’s rank is so close together. This is important to get Spock of a low enough rank so that he can be promoted to commander later. (Frustratingly there are still inconsistencies here. There seems to be confusion between Lt. and Lt. Jg. and Nurse Chapel’s rank, which may be provisional because she may be a civilian contractor who has a temporary commission and then later joins with a regular commission of a lower rank - or her rank is just not important - is also out of continuity.) But importantly for SNW - narratively it makes sense to have these people of these ranks in these positions so it just works.

In a more realistic depiction people would be moving through ships much more quickly. There would be fewer officers and they would move through the ranks regularly and not stay in one position for 7 years. Likewise mostly Enlisted people would be spending a few years at most and moving onto other careers in civilian life as most people don’t want to be in the military forever and if they do they become officers. Miles O’Brien (despite the insignia being weird) is probably most accurately depicted. He served on many posts, he left posts for some period of time and then returned to them in new capacities, he moved between posts. He joined in 2345 and by 2375 he was probably ready for retirement or in the case of a utopian future, moving back to Earth to teach at Starfleet until he is absolutely ancient because he’s got nothing better to do and he loves his job.

Prouvaire avatar

This is one of the reasons Discovery effectively promoted Tilly rapidly (all the way to being the XO for a little bit) because she was a pivotal part of the cast and needed screen time.

It's a testament to Mary Wiseman's acting that the writers sought to give Tilly more screen time. But the way they did it made my eyes roll through the roof. I did not for a second consider it believable that an Ensign, only a couple (?) of years out of the Academy, would be skyrocketed through the hierarchy to become the Chief Operating Officer of the ship.

Tilly's promotion was even more unbelievable than when Jed Bartlet made CJ Cregg his Chief of Staff, elevating her above her Toby Ziegler (whom she reported to) and Josh Lyman. I know why the writers did it - because Allison Janney was the best actor in a world-class ensemble, and they wanted to give her more to do. But it didn't ring true to me (even though there is an argument to be made that all the West Wing characters are so hyper-competent that reporting lines are mere formalities).

Sure, you could argue Starfleet has a history of promoting promising youngsters unbelievably fast - like when they gave that cocky repeat offender fresh out of school command of the most modern ship in the fleet simply as a reward for saving the world. But even so.

This actually goes to a related point about DIS and how the writers treated the rank of its main character. Discovery was notable in that it was the first show where the lead actor was also not the most senior member of the crew. As David Gerrold pointed out in The World of Star Trek (IIRC), there's a reason why the captain is the star of the show. Because in a crisis all decisions come back to that role. And the ability to make decisions is what makes for good characterisation (Hamlet notwithstanding). But if the command decisions, the decisions around which the plots and the drama pivot, are ultimately made by someone other than Michael Burnham, more senior than her and who can overrule her, what do you do then? Well, you make the Captain a baddie (like in season 1) or you find other ways of making the main character go against orders (which Burnham did repeatedly). Unfortunately that led to a backlash because the character, Mary Sue-like, was always proven to be correct whenever she went rogue.

I actually liked the fact that the lead character in DIS wasn't the CO. But - like Tilly's promotion - I just wish the writers had found a better way of exploring that dynamic. Having Burnham assume the traditional captain's seat in season 4 was - in some ways - an admission of defeat, but an understandable one.

Lower Decks of course pulls it off, but as a comedy the stakes are generally lower, and the fact that the main characters often don't know what's going on, or aren't in a position to decide how to shape events, is part of the gag.


That too for LD, especially in later seasons, the main characters are much more interesting than the average ensign and get a lot more to do. For example, Rutherford was previously injured in a ship racing accident and wrote an insane AI program, Boimler has a “dead” transporter clone in Section 31, Mariner is the captain’s daughter, and Tendi is from an Orion pirate family. Not only that but whatever they are doing that episode usually has some impact on the “main” plot, like how Rutherford ends up acting as a diplomat in one episode or how they attempt to steal the Cerritos.


Likewise mostly Enlisted people would be spending a few years at most and moving onto other careers in civilian life as most people don’t want to be in the military forever and if they do they become officers.

We see this bear out in Miles O’brien. He enlisted in starfleet rather than attending the academy. He climbed the ranks (mostly in backstory) and by the time we meet him in TNG he’s a chief petty officer, non-commissioned but officer nonetheless. When he accepts the promotion/transfer to DS9 he achieves the rank of senior chief petty officer.

Its hard to say for sure that the rest of the show is inaccurate (or otherwise) in this regard because the shows mainly focus on bridge officers. Many characters receive offscreen promotions throughout the shows and you have to pay close attention to their uniforms and rank insignia to catch it. But also, you have to bear in mind how narrow a view we get of any crew outside of like Voyager.

For example, the Enterprise-D, as a Galaxy-class starship, can have a crew complement of anywhere from 1,000 to 6,000, and TNG as a show overwhelmingly focuses on just 7 of them. “best” case that’s a view of about a half a percent of them, so it would be easy to draw nonsensical conclusions if you overly extrapolate from that small percentage. Maybe a lot of crewmen do actually retire after just a few years, it’s hard to say for sure since there is basically no evidence either way.

Basically everyone in the commissioned officer corps (ensign and above) attended the academy first in order to receive the officer commission. You would not go to officer academy in real life if you did not intend to dedicate your main career to being a military officer, and likewise, people who attend starfleet academy generally intend to dedicate their careers to starfleet. Every depiction of the Enterprise is that it is the federation flagship and so we can consider a station there as being highly sought after and likewise regarded, it represents a high potential for being a crowning point on anyone’s career, so it kinda makes sense that the core officers might be reluctant to trade in for an inferior assignment, even if it meant a bigger promotion. Another aspect of this is loyalty: most of the officers depicted across all of the shows are supposed to be stand-out talents among the federation, with solid leadership skills that clearly foster loyalty. Loyalty that can create a reluctance for too much change. We see this reflected in Riker’s long resistance to getting promoted off the Enterprise to Captain. He doesn’t want to, partly out of loyalty to Picard, but also partly out of loyalty to the officers that report to him, and by extension the rest of the crew, and partly out of the chance that his potential new command is simply not as cool as being the first officer of the Enterprise.

Voyager has different circumstances, of course: the crew complement is much smaller, and they are stranded, but Rick Berman also decided that field promotions would be unlikely in their circumstances since they have no real way to gain more crew

There would be fewer officers

Important to note that even among the enlisted ranks, the NCO corps begins just one rank above crewman. Similar to real life military there are only 3 ranks of non-officers

Prouvaire avatar

We see this bear out in Miles O’brien

IIRC Roddenberry's idea was that everyone in Starfleet was a commissioned officer, but later writers overrode that.

One of the things that was good in the way O'Brien was written is that he was clearly a senior and respected member of the command structure. But that did not mean he had the positional authority to disobey a commissioned officer's orders should he disagree with them. Something that came out in... err... I think it might have been "Hippocratic Oath", where even though O'Brien had more years of military experience, and Starfleet experience, he still had to obey Bashir's orders (who might still have been a Lieutenant Junior Grade at the time?).


A couple of quibbles that no one else seems to have brought up. Ensign Tilly was not promoted to XO - she was assigned to the position of acting XO while remaining an Ensign. The designation of “acting” makes it clear she’s just holding down the slot temporarily until Saru makes a more permanent selection, and makes it much more tolerable for those she’s now in charge of despite the lower rank. It probably wouldn’t have been tolerated (by the Admirals at Command) even in the lax standards of Starfleet, but even ADM Vance realized Saru had to pick from the tiny crew he brought to the future with him, so he let it go.

As for Ezri, again, remember that rank and position are only loosely connected, while rank and specialty (Counselor, science officer, engineer, navigator) are COMPLETELY unconnected. Ezri is a counselor because they wanted to make her distinct from Jadzia, and is an Ensign to highlight her inexperience both as a person and in dealing with a symbiote.

But yes, it does seem like the writers’ familiarity comes and goes. I swear there are at least a few episodes (and I can’t remember which series, because I’m alternating between three right now) where people refer to a Lt. Cdr. as “Lieutenant” instead of the proper term of address, “Commander.”


Tuvok is such an example as he is almost always referred to as Lieutenant and later he’s promoted to Lt. Cdr properly, but he wore Lt. Cdr. rank insignia for like maybe the first season without anyone really correcting it.

It’s true that Tilly was not ‘promoted’ to any rank and kept her rank simply being assigned a position, however, I think it’s weird for her to be the XO except that she was part of the principle cast and they needed to give her a reason to be part of the overarching narrative for each season.


Oh, absolutely, story/cast reasons were the real reason - but while assigning an Ensign to a Commander slot is extreme, assigning people above their rank and above higher ranks in the process is not completely unheard of, even in today’s military. Given their utterly unique situation as an in-universe excuse, I don’t have any real problem suspending disbelief on Tilly’s assignment there.


I thought it was a clever way to handle it, but it was… strange because it telegraphed it’s narrative purpose rather than keeping it as part of the narrative. But I mean - to be fair I can’t think of a better way to make it work than exactly what they did and I thought it kind of worked out well all things considered.

Voyager763, (edited )

“Why make Chakotay a lt. commander rather than a full commander?”

Even after all these years, I’m not convinced that they did.

I’ll note upfront that I know his provisional rank insignia was that of Lt. Commander, and I know that it’s common practice to refer to a Lt. Commander as simply “commander”. Data, Worf, and Tuvok were regularly referred to as simply “Commander”. I fully understand this. But the thing is that these other officers were introduced, or introduced themselves, in formal situations by their full rank on more than one occasion. When the plot called for their personnel files to appear on screen, their full ranks were displayed with their name as “Lt. Commander”.

Chakotay was never, not even once, referred to out loud or in text as “Lieutenant Commander”.

From a Doylist perspective, I’m of the mind that the writers intended for Chakotay to be a full Commander, the same rank as Riker or early-DS9 Sisko, but the costume department goofed and it was simply never corrected — because on the screens of the era, it didn’t really matter because who’s gonna look that closely at the guy’s neck?

A possible Watsonian explanation is that while he was granted the rank of Lt. Commander provisionally (the rank he held prior to his resignation from Starfleet as well as the rank held by Janeway’s original XO), he was also given the rank of Acting Commander… as a courtesy, maybe? Or maybe Starfleet regulations prevented Janeway from granting any provisional ranks higher than Lt. Commander because that’s the rank her XO held. Compare this situation to Wesley Crusher, who was granted the rank of Acting Ensign but never wore a rank insignia because Starfleet never gave him one. So Janeway could formally grant Chakotay the rank (and the accompanying rank insignia) of Lieutenant Commander in the field, then found a loophole somewhere in the regulations that allowed him to introduce himself formally as Commander.


because on the screens of the era, it didn’t really matter because who’s gonna look that closely at the guy’s neck?

Maybe I was a weird kid but I was keenly aware of the pips on the uniforms after the point in TNG where they vaguely explain how the rank insignia pips work. It was never for any particular reason except to know another “thing” about my favorite characters.

That’s not to say that you’re wrong, maybe that’s what they told themselves when they didn’t change it! But if so they definitely underestimated some fans, lol



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  • VindictiveJudge,

    The commissioned officer pips were easy to see and read, but I had a very hard time telling what the provisional officer pip bar things they gave the Maquis crew members had on them. They were much more low contrast and the insignia was smaller.


    That’s a good point, I mainly paid attention to the officer pips


    This is an excellent analysis. And you are totally right about Chakotay: he is never ever referred to as “Lieutenant Commander”. I like your Watsonian explanation! That’s a really interesting take.

    Of course, this is also the show that was bizarrely inconsistent with Tuvok’s rank. Interestingly, between Kes, Neelix, the Doctor, and Seven, I think VGR may have had the most rankless characters of any series up to that point. I suppose DS9 could be tied, since VGR only had three rankless characters at once, as did DS9 (Quark, Odo, Jake).

    But yeah – I wonder if this reflects a larger trend. ENT definitely leaned on simplified ranks as well – instead of the TNG-era 7-rank scale, we only ever see four on ENT: Captain, Commander, Lieutenant, and Ensign. (It’s not clear to me that the costume department even designed a “hollow pip” for the ENT uniforms.) Under that analysis, we see a gradual trend toward de-emphasizing rank, from DS9 to VGR to ENT to DSC to PIC & PRO (though not LDS).


    Idk about the writers, but the accountants did if you remember Wil Wheaton’s ‘raise’ lol.

    @charonn0@startrek.website avatar

    What bothers me the most is that Data was still a Lt. Cmdr after 25+ years of exemplary Starfleet service. It’s not like he’d fail the bridge officer’s test.

    theinspectorst avatar

    I think it's clear throughout TNG that many in Starfleet had reservations about treating an android equivalent to a biological officer, as evidenced by A Measure of a Man (where it was clear many in Starfleet had considered him a piece of property) and by Pulaski's early interactions with him. Data raised the question in Redemption Part 2 about whether Picard's initial failure to assign him to command one of the ships was because of unease about an android captain, indicating that such unease was not an outlandish concept to him.

    If I recall correctly, Data also indicated at some point that even though his positronic brain meant he could ace his way through any Starfleet tests, he intentionally didn't seek to advance through the ranks any faster than a biological officer.


    Pulaski’s early interactions with him

    Pulaski might not be the best example, since she’s also fairly plainly stated to be a bit of a traditionalist when it to technology, even if she does keep up with modern tech and techniques. A sapient machine doesn’t seem to be something that is common enough in Starfleet that she might have encountered one in her medical career, so some ignorance around Data is to be forgiven.

    The crew of the Sutherland might be a better comparison, where Data almost had an outright mutiny on his hands after they thought of him as little more than a walking computer, with no more care about lives than you would numbers on a chart.

    If I recall correctly, Data also indicated at some point that even though his positronic brain meant he could ace his way through any Starfleet tests, he intentionally didn’t seek to advance through the ranks any faster than a biological officer.

    He was able to pack an immense number of people into that brain of his, having the records of the entire colony he was part of stored, and the thousands of people uploaded to him in “Masks”. The relevant information to succeed in Starfleet tests would be small potatoes.


    It’s not like he’d fail the bridge officer’s test.

    He was clearly a qualified bridge officer. As a member of the regular chain of command (and being the one regularly in charge of the night shift due to not needing to sleep), he had to be. (In fact, he was put in command of another ship once which would have been impossible if he didn’t have the qualifications.) In his case it’s probably a lack of ambition that led to him being stuck in that rank; he had no real desire to be promoted to another ship when his friends were on the Enterprise and he had every opportunity to learn about meatbags there.

    @UESPA_Sputnik@lemmy.world avatar

    I remember an interview with Garrett Wang who talked about a conversation with Rick Berman where he asked him whether Kim would ever be promoted to Lieutenant. Berman pretty much shot him down, saying that someone has to be an ensign.

    And I think that’s pretty much all the thought that went into it: have characters with a variety of ranks. Possibly to help the audience distinguish them better (“Join me in my ready room, [Rank]”). Although admittedly that didn’t work in the second half of TNG when pretty much everyone (except Worf) was addressed as “Commander” because by season 3(?) everyone was at least a Lieutenant Commander.

    With Sisko I think they wanted to distinguish him from the other two Captains Kirk and Picard, and since he commanded “only” a space station that was an in-universe excuse to make Sisko a commander.


    Yeah I think that, aside from adding a bit of navy-esque flair to the shows, it also helps distinguish who is “in charge”, and frames the way orders are issued and followed in a way that readily makes sense to the audience


    I remember an interview with Garrett Wang who talked about a conversation with Rick Berman where he asked him whether Kim would ever be promoted to Lieutenant. Berman pretty much shot him down, saying that someone has to be an ensign.

    I always thought it would’ve been a fun twist if Harry got a promotion once Tom got demoted in Thirty Days.


    with Sisko it’s specifically because, until they discover the wormhole, DS9 is considered a backwater post.

    Typically, base commanders are at least captain rank. Sometimes bases are commanded by lower ranks, and there can be different reasons but in this case: it’s remote and considered a less important “backwater” post compared to other bases. His eventual promotion to Captain belatedly corrects for how important the station became, as a trade/transit hub and as a strategic asset, after the wormhole discovery


    This is an interesting question. As prior military and a fan since childhood I can honestly say that I never paid much attention to it because the shows and movies put so little emphasis on how these people interact with each other through protocol unless it is a plot driven device.

    SeeJayEmm, (edited )
    @SeeJayEmm@lemmy.procrastinati.org avatar

    Yeah I think it provided a rough hierarchy and that’s about about it.

    Dr. Crusher being a commander, it may have made sense given that the CMO is one of the few people on the ship who has (limited) authority over the captain, and it would feel off to give that authority to someone of lower rank.

    Edit: typo

    HubertManne avatar

    I always felt lt. commander made more sense as it should be the doctor in combination with another senior officer. At least that is how they portrayed it in tos.

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