Few people have heard of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov, which is a shame, as we all owe him our lives. A silent and obscure hero, Petrov can claim the honour of single-handedly saving the world from nuclear annihilation, all by humbly opposing authority. In late September 1983, the Soviet Union detected a nuclear missile launch originating from the USA. Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was the duty officer in charge of reporting any attack to initiate immediate retaliation. In a brazen act of courage, Petrov judged the launch to be a false alarm, and disobeyed his orders.
The planet destroying doomsday machine introduced in this episode packs a similar punch to total nuclear warfare. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy meet a battle torn Commodore Decker, of the USS Constellation, who saw his entire crew devoured by the machine after he evacuated them in an attempt to save their lives. Guilty, shaken, and not thinking clearly, Decker is nevertheless determined to right his mistake. His choice to fly a shuttle into the doomsday machine is in blatant disregard for orders, but it also gives the Enterprise crew the information they need to defeat it. Crashing a bigger ship instead, the remains of the Constellation, was enough to destroy the machine for good and save the galaxy. Commodore Decker’s sacrifice, and more importantly his choice, was necessary to prevent disaster.
The fictional Commodore Decker made a dramatic hero’s sacrifice, but Colonel Petrov was later honored for his quiet choice. Our silent heroes may not always get the celebrity renown they deserve, but it was never the point. In the face of intense pressure, they maintained their convictions.