The Duty to Rescue and Pinky Swears on Star Trek Discovery

Is there a duty to rescue Starfleet Officers kidnapped into the Mycelial Network? Are pinky swears legally enforceable? And is someone still a murderer when the murder victim comes back to life? The Star Trek Discovery episode “Saints of Imperfection” boldly explores these legal issues.

Does Being in Starfleet Create a Duty to Rescue Shipmates?

Captain Christopher Pike ordered the USS Discovery to go on a rescue mission to find Ensign Sylvia Tilly who had been kidnapped to the Mycelial Network. Captain Pike explained that “Starfleet is a promise,” that “no one gets left behind,” and that “we keep out promises.” This is absolutely the best core values of Star Trek, but was there a legal duty to place the USS Discovery in danger to rescue Ensign Tilly?

There is no general common law duty to rescue someone unless there is a special relationship. Rhodes v. Illinois Cent. Gulf R.R., 172 Ill. 2d 213, 232-233 (Ill. 1996). A duty to rescue can be created between individuals by 1) statutes; 2) contractual relationships; or 3) impliedly by virtue of the relationship between the tortfeasor and a third party. Bobo v. State, 346 Md. 706, 715, 697 A.2d 1371 (1997).

Captain Pike’s first duty was to the safety of the USS Discovery. He himself admitted the plan to partially jump into the Mycelial Network was highly dangerous. Moreover, if the ship was destroyed or life lost, there is a good argument Pike could have been charged with willfully hazarding a vessel. 10 U.S.C.S. § 910. There is a sound argument that Pike had no obligation to launch a rescue mission that could have endangered the lives of everyone on the ship.

The fact that the crew of the USS Discovery purposely embarked on a dangerous plan to rescue a fellow shipmate is why people love Star Trek. There was no legal duty for the crew to place themselves in danger to save Ensign Tilly; it was a choice to leave no one behind. The crew knew the risks and went on the mission anyway. Those are the qualities of why fans have loved Star Trek for over 50 years.

Are Pinky Swears Enforceable?

Ensign Tilly made a “Pinky Swear” with Mycelial entity known as May to help her with a “monster” that had invaded the Mycelial. When challenged about helping May, Tilly responded, “I told you I would try to help you. We keep our promises.”

Did Ensign Tilly and Mycelial May have an enforceable contract agreement? Basic contract formation includes offer, acceptance, consideration, and performance. There are many types of contracts that require a written document to avoid any issues from the Statute of Frauds.

There was an offer and acceptance for Tilly to help May. However, while contract law does not specifically address Pinky Swears, the law does recognize oral contracts. In California, all contracts may be oral, except such as are especially required by statute to be in writing. Cal. Civ. Code § 1622. The list of contracts that must be in writing is a long one, but overall includes contracts that cannot be performed within one year to real property and payment of debts, plus similar contractual relationships. Cal. Civ. Code § 1624.

Tilly’s promise to “help” has serious vagueness challenges to performance. What exactly did the term “help” mean for Tilly’s performance? Contracts must be for a lawful objective and cannot be ones for personal service. Cal. Civ. Code § 1550 and Cal. Civ. Code § 3390. Moreover, unenforceable unlawful contracts are ones that are contrary to an express provision of law; contrary to the policy of express law; or contrary to good morals. See, Cal. Civ. Code § 1667. As the term “help” is not defined, there is real danger that Tilly could be required to perform an action that is against public policy, which the law would not allow.

The “monster” causing harm to the Mycelial Network was a resurrected Dr. Hugh Culber, who had avoided being digested the Mycelial spores with tree bark toxic to the spores. If May’s idea of “help” was murdering Dr. Culber, there is no way a court would enforce Tilly’s performance. Murder is against public policy.

On the flip side, Tilly does “help” May by explaining the Dr. Culber was a victim and to him, the spores were monsters literally burning away at him.

In the end, Tilly and crew do keep their promise to help, without violating public policy.

When Your Murder Victim Comes Back to Life

Dr. Hugh Culber is alive….again? Lt. Ash Tyler killed the good doctor while the Klingon Voq was in control of Tyler’s body. While there is a strong insanity defense argument for Tyler, things get weird fast with a murder victim returning from beyond the veil. If Tyler wanted to clear his name, attorneys could try to prove Tyler’s actual innocence by arguing that Culber never died and had been in the Mycelial Network for months. This is a problematic argument, because there is a body of Dr. Hugh Culber with a snapped neck. Even if Tyler wanted to clear his name, there is no good legal strategy for that goal, because there is still a dead body of Dr. Culber; that Voq committed the act of murder; and no matter what, Dr. Culber has a newly reconstructed body. Dr. Culber coming back from the dead does not give Voq a mulligan for murder.