He Said, She Said: The Prime Directive
by Steve Johnson and Michelle Erica Green

Don't Interfere


This week Steve and I are going to talk about something that doesn't really exist, namely: The Prime Directive. To quote The Star Trek Encyclopedia, "The Prime Directive mandates that Starfleet personnel and spacecraft are prohibited from interfering in the normal development of any society, and that any Starfleet vessel or crew member is expendable to prevent violation of this rule." In practice, "normal development" seems to mean that a technologically advanced culture can't have too much to do with cultures deemed less advanced, particularly pre-warp cultures, though spiritually "advanced" officers seem to get to proselytize all they want about loving thy neighbor, obeying the last five of the Ten Commandments, and other traditional Western human values...but I digress.

This column represents the first time I ever actually looked up The Prime Directive in the encyclopedia, which was most helpful in pointing out what General Order One isn't. Specifically a dictum to military officers, it's not a law which impacts every Federation citizen. It doesn't state that no diplomats or doctors may ever get involved in the affairs of developing worlds...which would be a lot more helpful in preventing the insidious, imperialistic spread of the Feds, but would also stop them from assisting dying underdeveloped cultures. Which begs the question of why Worf's brother Nikolai didn't call in a science vessel instead of a starship when the primitive people he'd been observing were faced with extinction, but doesn't make it any easier to swallow Picard's rigid belief that, under the Prime Directive, the entire culture had to be allowed to die because death was preferable to the changes they would undergo if someone from the outside interfered and rescued them. One must wonder whether, if stronger aliens had come by to save those people, Picard would then have blown them up in order to leave the natives to their "natural" deaths. For that matter, one must wonder whether Kirk should have killed Gem in "The Empath," since stronger aliens were planning to use her as the excuse to save her race from extinction when their common sun went nova.

Even with a formal definition, I don't really get the Prime Directive, and what's more, I don't like it. It isn't a law that prevents colonialism but encourages it - stopping the trade of technology for ideas or talents or supplies that could be mutually beneficial to everyone, but especially the so-called developing cultures, keeping them in a position where they can't contribute and so can't benefit. It's patronizing - it creates a Starfleet-centered view of what's valuable and important in the universe, then refuses to share with those who don't have. I've always been a bit clueless on why Janeway thought it would be such a big deal to swap technology with the Kazon - they might not have had replicators, but they clearly had warp capability, and the mere fact of Voyager's presence in their quadrant had already altered the balance of power among their sects, so why not open dialogue to everyone's mutual benefit? She agreed in principle for a moment, but when it didn't work out, she started citing Prime Directive in everyone's face again. Poor excuse for bad choices of friends.

All of Voyager is arguably predicated on a Prime Directive decision, so let's extrapolate. After Janeway's sidestepping of the PD when she blew up the Caretaker's array, shouldn't her next move logically have been to blow up Voyager, since it was interfering with the natural development of all the locals who weren't as advanced? It was suggested several times that B'Elanna Torres' phage-resistant DNA be offered to the Vidiians in trade for assistance; wouldn't ending a Delta Quadrant plague with Alpha Quadrant genes be the gravest form of interference with normal development? Or would it just count as a natural part of the mixing of the races which occurs via intermarriage and migration?

By strict interpretation of the law, one of the gravest violations of the Prime Directive on Star Trek was when Chekov and his girlfriend got caught necking by the natives in "The Apple" - their sexual mores were probably warped for generations by that sight. It should have been a death-penalty offense. Obviously it was a bad idea for a starship captain to model a society on Nazi Germany, and to do as the Romans did, but it's arguable that even saying "hello there" to a species could alter that species forever. The only way to enforce the Prime Directive would be to make everyone stay home.

No, I'm not serious, but it's hard to take this Prime Directive stuff too seriously without getting really angry about it. Who the hell are these little people, Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Janeway, to be announcing that in the name of the enlightened law of their common culture, they get to decide which species has qualified to come play among the stars and which is going to be condemned to a few thousand more years of disease and squalor on a planet with no resources in which the Federation is particularly interested? We've seen that races with dilithium are treated to a double standard by both Starfleet and the Klingons. We've seen Starfleet members seduced, coerced, kidnapped, and talked into getting involved in ways which will clearly impact the natural development of cultures - sometimes by teaching ideas, sometimes by accidentally dropping a tricorder, sometimes by saving a single life.

Sisko doesn't mention the PD much, which is all to the good, and Picard was contradictory: "Pen Pals," in which he let Data save a planet out of affection for a little girl, makes a good antidote to the abovementioned instance of comfort with genocide as part of the natural order of extinction. We all know Kirk's track record: "But Spock! These people are controlled by Ba'al/Landru/that war machine/some entity that offends me, and I say we free them!" Janeway's almost as bad, but then she's had all these years of contradictory Starfleet history to confuse her. No wonder she spoke of Kirk and his guys with such admiration in "Flashback" even as she was telling Harry that none of them would make it in Starfleet in her era. It's a pity: they were making policy from a bad law. She's merely making a mess from their precedents.


The Prime Directive is clearly intended to prevent what happened to the Aztecs, the Inca, the American Indians, just about everybody in Africa and Asia, and the Australian aborigines when the Europeans came: centuries of personal or national enslavement and murder. And to that extent, it's a good idea.

Elevating this good idea (don't enslave and murder helpless low-tech aliens) into the fundamental moral philosophy of the Federation is, on the other hand, a very BAD idea. It's reflective of the starry-eyed Sixties in which Star Trek was conceived, and the deeply flawed Eighties in which it flowered from a show into a "franchise." I submit that a nation that doesn't interfere in foreign affairs, even when they could effortlessly put a stop to a famine or plague with the enthusiastic agreement of the locals, is going to eventually lose all influence over the larger world to more interventionist states from whom foreigners may fear invasion, but from whom they can at least hope for assistance as well.

No real Federation would ever adopt anything like the Prime Directive, and if it did, it would be disobeyed with a breathtaking unanimity matched only by the Russian Federation's tax laws or our own 55-mile-an-hour speed limit. So we may assume that, like the transporter or warp drive, the Directive doesn't exist for realistic reasons, but dramatic ones: after all, if you don't have to respect alien cultures, the solution to most episodes is pretty straightforward. Vaal is enslaving the natives? Blow it up. Some guy turned Ekos into a clone of Nazi Germany? Disable the Nazi space fleet, bust the concentration camps wide open, arrest the Fuehrer and disband the Nazi party at gunpoint. Hey, in 1940, that's what WE did, and nobody complained about altering the natural destiny of German culture.

But if we have to work in secret, according to the local rules, then there are many more opportunities for chases, captures, escapes, and other TV action-adventure. That's why we have the Prime Directive; like the transporter, it's an easy out. And like the transporter, when it gets in the way of the storyline, poof! It doesn't work any more.

If you want every episode to be packed with cheap thrills, you have to give up a certain degree of consistency; neither technology, nor law, nor even character can be allowed to get in the way of the predetermined plot. This makes riveting children's programming, which is one reason a lot of us like the original series best; we were six, or ten, or twelve when we first saw it, and it fit our requirements exactly.

But if you're going to make a TV show to appeal to adults, you have to occasionally say, "Yes, it would be very dramatic to have Janeway running around with a phaser rifle, but it doesn't make any sense!" or "I know we want to tell a story where our heroes have to trust the Borg to defeat a greater threat, but given their history, there's no way they'd ever do that," and then try and think of something else. Given the huge committees that write Trek these days, the pressure of time isn't an excuse any more. If the writers and producers aren't making an effort to appeal to the more sophisticated among us, it's because they don't want to.

This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.

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