If I'm not mistaken, nearly every attack on a ship in Star Trek (usually followed by a declaration like "We're are under attack!") is followed by the captain, or another senior officer, saying one or more of these:

  • Red alert! or Battle stations!,
  • Shields up! or Shields to maximum power!
  • anything similar or related.

A similar thing can be observed with many contacts with the Borg (especially in VOY: Scorpion). A crew member (Tom Paris?) informs the captain that they're being chased by five or more Borg cubes (where meeting just one would most likely mean assimilation or destruction) and the captain must order him to raise shields, go to red alert and start evasive manoeuvres.

Why is this so? Why does any sign of attack not imply automated shields up and automated red alert? If the survival of the ship (and its crew) is the most important part of every journey through space, then why do such procedures not happen automatically and nearly always have to be ordered?

  • 10
    it would make the show boring :) Mar 25, 2014 at 8:24
  • it would make it boring, but also who wants free will among the crew to that extent, even in the army today orders for obvious things can still be given...
    – Marriott81
    Mar 25, 2014 at 10:40
  • 2
    @Marriott81: Free will among the crew can be problematic. Just ask the Borg. Mar 25, 2014 at 12:06
  • 4
    “If survival of the ship (and its crew) is the most important part of every journey through spaces” — I don’t think that is the most important part. The Kobayashi-Maru test is designed to teach cadets that survival is not always the goal. Apr 4, 2014 at 11:18
  • 3
    Does this answer your question? Why are starships in Star Trek so slow to retaliate when fired upon in battle? Apr 12, 2020 at 3:14

4 Answers 4


@Dreamwalker’s comment is correct; it heightens tension in the audience to see and hear such orders being given and precautions taken. You see helmsmen/ pilots taking evasive manoeuvres on their own in all five Star Trek series, so the order definitely isn't necessary.

This is speculation, but I would assume it takes the authority of whoever has the conn to initiate a Red Alert, but that in situations where the ship is in danger the individual officers have the authority to act on their own instincts. This is the case in modern navies. I vaguely recall Jadzia Dax informing Captain Sisko; "I'm way ahead of you" when he ordered her to raise shields on the U.S.S. Defiant at some point, but do not remember when and therefore can't cite it.

Also bear in mind that raising shields and arming weapons can be perceived as hostile. Captain Picard's refusal to ever listen to Worf's recommendations on simply firing torpedoes at every ship is a well-known trope, and in The Wrath of Khan Kirk refuses to follow protocol when contacting the U.S.S. Reliant as he doesn't want to accidentally initiate conflict with a fellow Federation vessel. You wouldn't want to automate such a procedure; it should be done only on an officer's authority.

  • But if everyone knew it was automated and no-one made the choice to raise the shields, why would it be seen as hostile? Oct 17, 2015 at 0:53
  • 5
    @CameronJWhitehead: because of cultural conflicts. Starfleet's mission to "seek out new civilisations" means they'll be coming into constant contact with people who don't know that these things are automated, so saying that "everyone knew" is a bad assumption. Similarly, in Babylon 5, this is exactly what provoked the Earth-Minbari war (gunports open was a sign of aggression for humans, but for the Minbari it represented a sign of openness and trust, by not hiding their weapons).
    – flith
    Oct 12, 2016 at 11:27

The shields do turn on automatically.

The order to "raise shields" appears to be more a question of following a set of military procedures rather than actually being needed every single time.

In TOS: The Changeling, the shields turn on automatically when the ship detects a fast-moving object on an intercept course:

SULU: Captain, shields just snapped on. Something heading in at multiwarp speeds.

KIRK: Evasive manoeuvres, Mister Sulu.

In TOS : The Immunity Syndrome, the deflector shields turn on when the ship detects an energy pulse:

KYLE: Captain, deflector shields just snapped on.

KIRK: Slow to warp three.

KYLE: Warp three, sir.

SPOCK: Indications of energy turbulence ahead. Unable to analyse. I've never encountered readings like this before.

in TNG: The Arsenal of Freedom the shields come on automatically when the ship detects a ship decloaking nearby

LAFORGE: Good. They must have freed Commander Riker. Transporter Room, get a lock on the away team and beam them up.

WORF: Shields just came on. Deflectors also up. I'm picking up an object off the port bow. It's firing!

(Enterprise's shields light up from a green beam)

LAFORGE: Red Alert! Battle stations! We can't beam the away team up with our shields in place.

  • 4
    Spoke like Yoda, LaForge has
    – Izkata
    Dec 11, 2014 at 0:41
  • @Izkata - In this case, I think I'll correct it even though that's what it says in the script.
    – Valorum
    Dec 11, 2014 at 5:58
  • I would guess that when the shields go up by themselves, they are probably in "partially engaged" state: the officer in charge of the shields has the option of either fully engaging the shields or leaving them at that. When the captain gives order of engaging the shields, it tells the officer not to leave them in a partially-engaged mode. Furthermore, the automatic engaging of shields might depend on the severity of the attack. Multiple hits or detection of military-grade weaponry might automatically turn shields to maximum power, unless overridden by the officer in command.
    – sleblanc
    Oct 17, 2015 at 0:29
  • @sleblanc - It looks like they can (like pretty much everything on the ship) be overridden by a competent officer. The ship = pretty intelligent, but not infallible.
    – Valorum
    Oct 17, 2015 at 6:05
  • 2
    Even when the crew (or computer) is expected to do certain things automatically, it's a smart practice for officers to give the order anyway to remind the crew to do it (or double-check that the computer did it) as expected, just in case.
    – StephenS
    Apr 11, 2020 at 21:55

In addition to the other answers that indicate certain decisions must be greenlighted by the commanding officer, also consider the following:

For all we know, the procedures are highly automated.

Raising the shields alone is probably a technically complex procedure, involving various shield emitters around the ship. This probably goes along with a number of other procedures, such as interacting with the transporter systems to avoid interrupting a transport.

All kinds of other automated activity might be happening, as well. Crew members might be alerted or dispatched automatically to certain stations. In fact, the command "All hands to battle stations!" most likely does not mean some officers call all crewmen who are meant to man battle stations one by one, but that some automated procedures are started that, on the one hand, ready weapons systems, and on the other hand notify the respective crewmembers to proceed to the terminals they are assigned to as per the duty roster.


Because the captain is in command of the ship, and there may be cases where raising shields is not the correct thing to do. Star Trek is full of cases where ships encounter unexpected situations that require thinking outside the box.

In many cases, standard procedure leads to problems. In fact, those tend to be the most dangerous and challenging situations, and so the best possible decision-maker is given full authority on what the ship should do, and that is a starship captain, the best-qualified agent that civilization has been able to produce and select.

It's also quite possible that for technical reasons, it would not help anything to automate the reaction, anyway. It's been shown (e.g. Wrath of Khan) to take some time to raise the shields, involving some more detailed stages than just the final order, so taking a second or two extra may make no effective difference as to when exactly after a threat is detected that a ship is able to gets its shields up.

Meaning, the weapons officer and/or engineering and/or the computer may have already begun whatever process is needed to make it possible to raise the shields on command without committing to raising the shields.

If that pre-process detail takes two seconds or more, then waiting for the commander to order shields up is not going to delay the actual raising of the shields.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.