Friday, April 22, 2016

Blast from the Past: On Star Trek's Prime Directive

In 2006, I participated in a lively panel debate on the merits and flaws of Star Trek's Prime Directive. Below is an essay based on the outline I drew up for that event.


Starfleet General Order 1 - the Prime Directive - has gone through something of an evolution since Trek's inception in the 1960's. Originally, its purpose was to protect pre-warp civilizations from the meddling of their technologically advanced galactic neighbors; over time, it has come to include regulations against intervening in the affairs of warp capable societies as well. But however it is defined, it is an indisputable fact that this "most important law" of non-interference has provided the skeleton upon which many Trek episodes have been built; in fact, it can be argued that the Prime Directive is one of the cornerstones of the entire Trek philosophical edifice. Thus, it behooves us to critically examine its premises and effects. Is the Prime Directive good policy - or is it an easy way out?

As several episodes demonstrate, the consequences of accidental or deliberate interference with an alien society can be quite serious. Take, for example, John Gill. In the 1968 episode Patterns of Force, Gill, a well-meaning historian and cultural observer, finds the pre-warp Ekosians in a state of anarchy and decides to help their development along by introducing them to the statist efficiency of Nazi Germany. Gill, of course, tries to keep the Ekosians from drifting into Nazi sadism as well, but he is soon deposed by an ambitious local who has no such scruples. In the end, only the intervention of the Enterprise crew prevents the Ekosians from launching a war against neighboring Zeon. A case like this reveals that, whatever its flaws, the Prime Directive does contain within it a core of wisdom. We do need to be circumspect in our interference; indeed, sometimes it is best not to interfere at all.

But should the Prime Directive be treated as an absolute mandate? This is where I (and my co-author, for that matter) part ways with many Trek fans, as, quite frankly, I believe some applications of the Prime Directive just don't pass the common sense - indeed, the common decency - test.

First of all, it is pure folly to behave as if the Federation high ideal of non-interference is universally respected. In reality, other galactic powers don't recognize the authority of the Prime Directive and do interfere with other cultures without compunction. In the 1968 episode A Private Little War, Kirk and the others are dismayed to discover that the Klingon Empire has been arming one of two rival tribes with flintlock firearms. In the trilogy that opens DS9's second season, meanwhile, the Cardassians are caught covertly smuggling arms to a radical faction on Bajor in an attempt to instigate a civil war and make possible a new Cardassian occupation. In both instances, the cost of hardline Federation non-interference would've been unacceptably high. In the former case, an entire tribe of people would've been massacred; in the latter, the Bajorans would've once again found themselves toiling under the Cardassian jackboot. Thank goodness both Kirk and Sisko had the good sense to bend the rules. Ultimately, it all comes down to game theory: if we don't do something to stop the malefactors, we and a lot of innocent people are going to get kicked in the teeth.

Secondly, absolute application of the Prime Directive often has as its premise an untenable moral relativism. The citizens of the Federation are humane and liberal in the small-L sense, but the Prime Directive often forces them into the incongruous position of defending practices and beliefs that they should rightly abhor. It is horrifying to me, for example, that Timicin is returned to his planet at the conclusion of TNG's Half a Life even though his people believe he should die by ritual suicide for the crime of being too old - and that Lwaxana acquiesces to this turn of events! Cross-cultural dialogue is all well and good; by no means do I advocate running roughshod over foreign societies in a zeal to force our own values on others. But eventually, we have to be willing to draw some Lines That Must Not Be Crossed; we have to be willing to declare some human rights inviolable and be willing to defend them. Truth is truth on every planet.

And this discussion of universal human rights brings me to my last point: sometimes the Prime Directive has been wielded as an argument against intervening when a world faces an entirely natural cataclysm. In TNG's Pen Pals, for instance, we must endure this inhuman scene in which the characters debate over whether they should use their technology to halt the break-up of Drema IV and rescue little Sarjenka and her people. Why this matter should be so controversial entirely escapes my understanding. People have a right to life, full stop. If someone's house is burning down, you run and you help them. Standing back and acting as if the fire is somehow preordained by the laws of "natural development" is insane. Also insane is doing nothing while a disease wipes out an entire population because inaction will theoretically enable the ascendancy of a rival race - but this is precisely what Dr. Phlox urges Archer to do in ENT's Dear Doctor.

Humans are not meant to be Social Darwinists. It is natural – in fact, it’s a moral imperative – to help those who are in genuine need. Mother Theresa is revered for a reason; she and aid organizations like the Peace Corps and the Red Cross represent our best instincts. When sentient life is in danger, humanity should win out over "evolution." Moreover, Federation citizens should be allowed to live and act according to a code that respects freedom. They should not be forced to tolerate exploitation, political oppression, or slavery when it is present in other cultures. To apply the Prime Directive as an absolute vitiates our humanity and demonstrates a profound lack of trust in a Federation citizen’s ability to tackle difficult moral and political questions. The complex societies of the Milky Way – and the complex interactions between those societies – demand that we avoid forcing our policies to conform to a one-stop-shop ideology.

What is needed is a commission charged with making interference decisions on a case-by-case basis. This government body would better reflect the on-starship reality of the Prime Directive’s application – a reality in which starship captains frequently decide to violate the Prime Directive in large part because it has come into conflict with one or more of their basic values. Furthermore, when the Prime Directive Council makes a decision in favor of interference, it should also assume complete responsibility for any negative consequences. This is where thinking, moral human beings are meant to live – smack dab in the center of the storm of cause and effect. Retreating to the Prime Directive in all cases is retreating from reason and adulthood.


  1. I would submit that the urge to help those in need is part of our evolutionary history, and therefore preordained by the laws of "natural development". Therefore, it is those who would enforce a rigid adherence to any non-interference directive who are violating the natural development of a species.

    I'm reminded of an episode of STNG where the Enterprise discovers a sleeper ship and manages to revive three of the sleepers and cure the diseases that would have killed them in their own time. The doctor gives a brief talk to one of the sleepers about how "we modern folk no longer fear death but accept it as part of the cycle of life". It's probably just as well I wasn't that patient, since I might well have asked how that philosophy squares with reviving me and curing my cancer.

  2. I got so impatient with the Prime Directive that I wrote a whole novel about how silly it is.

    Sure, nobody likes the idea of humans with starships acting like Space Conquistadors . . . but does that mean you leave planetary populations under the heel of Space Aztecs? (When Cortez marched into Mexico City his army had ten times more Mexicans than Spaniards in it. Evidently the Aztecs had made themselves unpopular.) Do you, in effect, refuse to send the Allied armies across the Channel in 1944 because you don't want to "interfere" with France's "natural development"?

    More to the point, it requires a very particular set of cultural circumstances to come up with the Prime Directive. You need a very powerful civilization (like the Federation or mid-Sixties America) which nevertheless has a profound sense of inferiority and inherent "sinfulness." If Gene Roddenberry had been writing his TV show before World War I it would have dealt with issues of how Captain Kirk should best intervene in the affairs of primitive planets in order to guide their development toward civilization.

    And let's remember something: the whole point of the Prime Directive is to create opportunities for drama and conflict! Most of the episodes in which it is a major plot element are those in which it conflicts with the basic morality of the characters. The Prime Directive exists to be defied!

  3. " It is horrifying to me, for example, that Timicin is returned to his planet at the conclusion of TNG's Half a Life even though his people believe he should die by ritual suicide for the crime of being too old - and that Lwaxana acquiesces to this turn of events!" "

    I have a strong belief in personal freedom. I always have. I always will. That much being said:

    At the end of the day Timicin CHOSE to go back. Picard was willing to grant him asylum IF HE CHOSE TO STAY. He did not. You can fault the man for doing what others believed that he must. I cannot hold the Federation at fault this time.

    It was Timicin's life and it was his choice to make. Holding him against his will when he had committed no violation of Federation law would have been just as wrong as forcing him to go back and for the exact same reasons. He did what his conscience demanded of him because of his personal beliefs about right and wrong. I would not have acted the same way but it wasn't my choice. The rest of this I agree with.

  4. Allow me to rebut this by posting the lyrics to a certain song by a famous West Indian singer:

    Them crazy
    Them crazy
    We gonna chase those crazy baldheads out of town
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of our town
    I'n'I build a cabin
    I'n'I plant the corn
    Didn't my people before me
    Slave for this country?
    Now you look me with that scorn
    Then you eat up all my corn
    We gonna chase those crazy
    Chase them crazy
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of town
    Build your penitentiary, we build your schools
    Brainwash education to make us the fools
    Hate is your reward for our love
    Telling us of your God above
    We gonna chase those crazy
    Chase those crazy bunkheads
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of the town
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of the town
    We gonna chase those crazy
    Chase those crazy bunkheads
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of the town
    Here comes the conman
    Coming with his con plan
    We won't take no bribe
    We've got to stay alive
    We gonna chase those crazy
    Chase those crazy baldheads
    Chase those crazy baldheads out of the town (explains the deeper meaning in the lyrics of the song)

    What's said in this song is a good reason (one of them, anyway) why there's a Prime Directive.