How modern Trek ruined the Prime Directive

There are many positive concepts from the Star Trek franchise that have broken through to general popular culture awareness, including a techno-progressivism, a future devoid of racism or prejudice (for the most part, anyway), and a society that’s eliminated poverty. However, there’s another concept from Star Trek that’s entered the public consciousness which, while well-intentioned, has ended up far less noble in execution onscreen, often coming across as downright repugnant. I’m speaking of the Federation’s non-interference policy, better known as the Prime Directive.

The concept has many parallels in other sci-fi or fantasy stories. The Time Lords in Doctor Who have a concept of non-interference; so do the Watchers of Marvel Comics, with an early story depicting the origins of their non-interference rule in a disastrous attempt to give nuclear power to a race that wasn’t ready for it, resulting in destruction on a massive scale. And that’s usually been the type of example held up to show the supposed wisdom of non-interference: major technological advances thrust upon an unready culture.

How modern Trek ruined the Prime Directive

But there’s also the prospect of cultural imperialism when it comes to a society encountering another that’s much more advanced. Without a policy preventing interference, what’s to stop more powerful cultures from imposing their political values on weaker ones?

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In Star Trek, the Prime Directive has been around since the early days of the original series, but it’s changed radically in the way it’s been interpreted in-universe, as well as the role it’s had from a storytelling perspective. In Kirk’s time, the Prime Directive was principally about cultural interference, and could be interpreted very flexibly by starship captains. It also clearly didn’t restrict humanitarian interventions, as we see when the Enterprise saves a primitive society from an asteroid in “The Paradise Syndrome”. Kirk could also, on his own initiative, “correct” interference that had already taken place, often in freewheeling and creative ways (such as in “A Piece of the Action”).

How modern Trek ruined the Prime Directive

By the time of The Next Generation, however, something changed fundamentally in the way the Prime Directive was defined. No longer was it a malleable guideline against cultural imperialism. Instead, it had acquired a status akin to a religious commandment, a rule that tied a captain’s hands, preventing “interference” even in cases where the alternative was humanitarian disaster or outright destruction, as in “Pen Pals” or “Homeward”. So while it had changed in-universe for the worse, its role on the show had also changed.

How modern Trek ruined the Prime Directive

In post-TOS Trek, it seems the main purpose of the Prime Directive from a storytelling standpoint was to prevent simple resolutions where the captain could simply insert himself or herself into a situation where the Federation was the more powerful party, and just do what was needed, from supplying weapons, medical supplies, or scientific expertise to resolve the issue. It added a contrived obstacle and an ethical dilemma for drama’s sake. But ironically, the more rigid Prime Directive of TNG and beyond robbed certain situations of potentially greater drama by removing the possibility for action. And the crew mostly seemed to go along with interpretations of the Directive that were, frankly, monstrous (except for some notable dissenters, like Dr. Crusher).

On its face, this interpretation of the Prime Directive would seem to contradict what would traditionally be seen as the ethical viewpoint. In situations where a struggling or oppressed party is in need of help, we generally see it as a positive good to help them. Indeed, the TOS episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” has a nice bit about “let me help” being an important phrase, rivaling even “I love you.”

I mentioned earlier that other sci-fi franchises have explored philosophies similar to that of the Prime Directive. What’s interesting, though, is that most of them end up being very critical of the non-interference stance.

The Doctor of Doctor Who is constantly “interfering”, and the Second Doctor used the positive good he’d achieved in doing so as his own defense against the judgment of the Time Lords. The Jedi certainly believe in taking an active part in political affairs, and in The Phantom Menace, when Qui-Gon says he can’t interfere with the slavery he sees on Tatooine, he seems genuinely apologetic about it. Indeed, the point of that exchange seems to be how complacent and aloof the Jedi have become from important issues, not to congratulate them on their philosophical opposition to meddling in others’ affairs. And Uatu the Watcher decides to abandon his race’s non-interference policy on a few key occasions, again from a perspective of approval from the writer or writers of the story.

So it seems that post-TOS Star Trek is alone in presenting this policy as an uncritically positive one, which is problematic in several ways. First, if Starfleet’s mission is one of exploration and contact, a doctrine like the Prime Directive seems to fly in the face of that mission. Up-close observation of other civilizations will inevitably lead to interaction and influencing affairs, as has happened on a few “observation” missions gone wrong. One wonders why Starfleet’s mission statement wouldn’t be more along the lines of “to boldly stay home, mind our own business, and read a good book.”

Secondly, the criteria for when the Prime Directive no longer applies seems to be either arbitrary, callous, or highly prejudiced. Contact is generally deemed okay when a civilization has achieved warp drive or made contact on their own. Why would these be the deciding factors? A culture that’s chosen a less technologically advanced path can be as ethically or intellectually evolved as one with warp drive. In an effort to avoid colonialist thinking, the Prime Directive ends up embracing it, deeming certain cultures “worthy” of contact and aid when they prove themselves to be more like the Federation.

I haven’t touched on Deep Space Nine or Voyager, each for different reasons. DS9, due to its premise and setting, rarely dealt with Prime Directive issues. There were a few exceptions from earlier seasons when exploring the Gamma Quadrant was more of a focus than the Dominion War saga, but there’s still not enough material there to analyze the show effectively.

But Voyager doesn’t have that problem; it featured numerous Prime Directive stories, starting with the pilot episode. However, in Voyager’s case, the problem is that Janeway’s (well, the writers’, really) approach is so inconsistent that it’s hard to get a coherent philosophy out of it. In some episodes, she’s more like Kirk, a pragmatist focused on outcomes and willing to bend the Directive to get better results. In others, she’s by the book like Picard, insisting on strict adherence to Starfleet principles as she sees them. And the show in-universe seemed not to acknowledge the inconsistency, so it’s hard to figure out exactly how to approach Voyager’s handling of the matter.

But perhaps the nadir of the Prime Directive in modern Trek is Enterprise’s “Dear Doctor,” an episode that was inexplicably greeted with a positive reception initially, but has since become more controversial. Archer, on the quack medical advice of Phlox and his absurd interpretation of evolution, decides to withhold the cure for a genetic disorder from one race on the grounds that Phlox’s crystal ball o’ pseudoscience has shown him that another race on the planet is “destined” to become the dominant species.

How modern Trek ruined the Prime Directive

Although the above summary is heavily sprinkled with sarcasm, it’s still a fairly accurate description of the episode. The ending of “Dear Doctor” was a darkly fascinating combination of scientific ignorance, eugenics-based thinking, and nonsensical Prime Directive-based logic. It was possibly the natural end of a thread that started in early TNG, and it shows where the results of a stance elevating non-interference as a strict principle and positive good can lead.

There’s a saying that “tough cases make bad law.” I think that as far as the Prime Directive goes, the poor outcomes it’s produced could be an example of “rigid rules stripped of context or flexibility produces stupid results”, but that’s less catchy. Star Trek has also relied on absurd straw man arguments along the lines of that old Watcher story. I like to think that the opening act of Star Trek Into Darkness, where Kirk blatantly defies regulations in order to aid a primitive civilization, is a subtle slap at modern Trek’s use and interpretation of the Prime Directive.

If so, it may indicate that pre-Abrams modern Trek’s approach to the Directive has run its course, and a rebooted Star Trek universe will allow for a chance to start over with a more balanced and less ethically problematic Prime Directive. On the other hand, since this violation was used as an example of Kirk’s lack of maturity and readiness for responsibility of command, maybe not. In either case, it should be interesting to watch.

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  • Thomas Stockel

    Part of the problem with TNG had to do with communication. When you watched TOS there were instances where it could take weeks to get a message to or from Starfleet, meaning Kirk and co. were on their own when it came to making difficult decisions.

    But with TNG the concept of being on the fringes of known space, with Enterprise being on it’s own, was largely abandoned early on. Soon they could travel to and from Earth in a relatively short amount of time, and messages to and from Starfleet were seldom delayed. As a result there was constant oversight and I think that largely wrecked the exploratory theme of Star Trek. And it meant a starship captain had far less power and latitude.

    That was one of the (many) reasons I hated Enterprise. Rather than pursuing the feel of TOS, with Archer being at the edge of known space, he was always under some form of supervision/observation, if not from the Vulcans then Admiral Forrest. Yeah, season three had him in Xindi space, but by then I just lost interest in what was a show that was pretty much bankrupt of ideas.

    • Geoffrey Howe

      It gets a lot better towards the end of season 3, and during season 4. They certainly didn’t do anything to deserve your attention for that long, but if you skip ahead towards about the last third of Season 3, then from there on, you’ll find some pretty good shows. Just skip the series finale, it was pretty awful. Inexplicably, after some new people managed to make the show not suck, the finale was handed back to the people who had tanked the ratings and killed the show in the first place.

      • Thomas Stockel

        Oh, I tuned in for an episode here and there, but I thought turning T’Pol into a crack whore with Trellium D was one of the dumbest ideas ever. And The Xindi Death Star rip off was pretty lame.

        As for season four, nothing really held my interest. I mean, we started off with time travel and space Nazis, and frankly for me it didn’t get much better. I did like the Mirror Universe episodes, but the second part hasn’t aged very well.

        Maybe the problem is none of the characters clicked with me. Archer is lame, Reed, Hoshi and Mayweather never got much in the way of character development, Phlox conspired to murder an entire race, and Tucker was the show’s butt monkey with something bad always happening to him. If a guy can’t grow to like, identify or sympathize with someone on a show, or even find them at least interesting, what’s the point?

        • RockyDmoney

          What gets me is that they already had a blueprint for what worked(Later DS9 and TNG) and what didnt (Early TNG and Voyager) So why was enterprise so awful?

          • Thomas Stockel

            Because the producers were Berman and Braga, the same guys who gave us Voyager. And by the time Enterprise aired a lot of the writers who helped shaped those earlier ‘Trek shows were gone for one reason or another. Guys like Joe Menosky, who wrote Voyager’s Year of Hell Scorpion and Latent Image, who had been with the franchise since TNG. Ira Steven Behr was gone, too as was Kenneth Biller, Michael Piller, Michael Taylor, Peter Allen Fields, Rene Echevarria, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Ronald D. Moore, people who were either not asked to come back, did not want to come back for one reason or another (Like Moore becoming producer of Battlestar Galactica), or who weren’t brought back because Berman and Braga could not afford them. I don’t think it was ego that caused Braga to write so many Enterprise episode but more due to budgetary constraints.

            Even so, a writer is bound by the limits imposed by the producers. Gene Roddenberry, for example, didn’t want any conflict between people in TNG, which is one of the reasons why the first two seasons suck so badly. By the time Enterprise aired B & B were running on fumes creatively and simply were not the right guys to produce any sort of ‘Trek, let alone a prequel.

    • Greenhornet

      I quite agree. The old show version of the PD could be likened to the “gunboat diplomacy” of old; Those crews not only had to protect their countries’ citizens and interests, but also be diplomats. “We could wipe out your village with one salvo from our guns, but that’s not our way. We would rather be friends”.
      The over-sight and constant orders from above in the later series could lead to disaster if the captains must answer to everyone from the local bureaucrat to the high whosit, asking permission for everything at each level. (Just look at the Viet Nam war and the current Muslem war)

  • Premonition_45

    I remember the Star Trek: Insurrection recap also bemoaned the fact that TNG twisted the Prime Directive from “Don’t take advantage of other people(s).” to “Never help anybody.”

    SF Debris also did a video about how ludicrous and hypocritical such thinking had been throughout TNG, describing this as Social Darwinism masquerading as enlightened thinking.

    • RockyDmoney

      SFDebris is great. Very insightful reviews

    • Markward

      That’s my go to for trek reviews and his analysis of the PD (or as he called it: The call of the Geek”) was spot on. When SHTF, that is when critical thinking is most needed, not dogmatism.

    • The show was written toward the end of the Cold War, and the idea of puppeteer-ing countries or sending them aid for favors down the line was in people’s minds.

      The idea of a government that didn’t constantly insert itself everywhere might have been refreshing. But TNG frequently broke with the Prime Directive when confronted with a humanitarian cause, like the “Pen Pals” exploding planet.

      • Premonition_45

        Iran/Contra demonstrated “puppeteer-ing [sic] nations or sending them aid for favors” never stopped after Vietnam. In fact, it’s gotten *worse* as we’ve seen with the War on Terror, especially the clusterfuck with ISIS.

        • Graeme Cree

          This article is really about Star Trek. Do you have any thoughts about that? Or at least a way to apply your political views to the subject at hand?

      • Geoffrey Howe

        The problem, however, was that Pen Pals was presented as having a serious moral dilemma, when there was no such thing. Yes, they broke the PD, and a later episode makes a reference that Picard was never in trouble for this action, which does mean that Starfleet is okay with making exceptions.

        But the episode is framed in a way that suggests that there is something serious to consider here. Worst case scenario, they reveal themselves to the natives, who now know they are not alone in the universe, which would have very severe consequences on their culture, but even that is clearly a better option than ‘everybody dies’.

        If the episodes dilemma had been “What plan has the right balance of risk of exposure versus likely efficacy” then that would have been fine. But as long as the episode (and several other episodes like it) spent time on the “Should we help these people, or let them all die” question, then it’s a failure.

      • Jason Clark

        .

        • This is not a good comparison. The Legion were not in starships and thus completely able to just not interact with the other tribes and leave. They were a political movement that would have had to deal with those tribes in waste regardless.

          What is more “Darker shade of Grey”? The society that enslaves all women and is a brutal autocratic regime out to annihilate democracy, individuality, and all other lesser civilizations? Is that shade of grey black? I have played about 200 hours of that game including all DLC, the Legion is unquestionably evil.

    • Graeme Cree

      Dear Doctor was the worst example of that. Not only Social Darwinism but out and out pseudo-science, in imagining that evolution had wants and desires and wanted certain species dead.

  • Cameron Vale

    I like the strict version of the Prime Directive, and find the alternative far more chillingly imperialistic. If you claim to possess the ability to save a planet facing certain destruction, you are basically claiming that your own way of life is unambiguously superior to that of the planet in question. There’s no way to really be certain that the planet doesn’t have its own way of dealing with the issue, in which case “solving” the problem only imposes the Federation’s own version of the solution upon them.

    • What? And if the planet is going to blow up? How precisely is standing by and watching it explode better than fixing it so it doesn’t explode?

      • Cameron Vale

        That could be an exception (assuming that the planet contains civilized inhabitants lacking the ability to fare in space) but even then I’m hesitant, recalling the TOS episode ‘All Our Yesterdays’.

    • maarvarq

      There’s no way to really be certain that the planet doesn’t have its own way of dealing with the issue…
      Ask them, maybe? Note that the strict PD doesn’t even allow the Enterprise to do that.

      • Cameron Vale

        But let’s suppose that there’s a planet with two different civilized races, and they don’t get along. And we only see one of them, possibly because the other lives underground or doesn’t conform to our understanding of what a civilized race could be (like a Horta), and as a result we only sympathize only with one of them and unwittingly sabotage the other. But at least one of them will survive and someday realize its potential… or so we assume. If they haven’t demonstrated their sapience in some profound way (like, for example, warp capability), there’s no way to know for sure that we aren’t just helping some pseudo-civilized animal without any real potential that we haven’t “helped” them to realize.

        • maarvarq

          Again, go look, remember the Hortas, keep an open mind. All better than sticking your fingers in your ears and going “La, la, la, I can’t hear you”, which is what the strict PD wants you to do.

    • DohADeer

      That’s what I said to the police when they came and tried to arrest the guy that was robbing me- “F*ck you, imperialists! With your whole ‘not getting robbed’ superiority!”

    • Lord ShinyPants

      It’s true that the planet may have a solution of its own, but the costs if it doesn’t seem a little high.

      “No, Mr. Worf, don’t activate the reverse polarity needle and thread ray. This world may have a way to counteract the bombardment of dihydrogen monoxide droplets. Yep. Any time now. Any… Oh. Ew. Well, I think we may have to put this one in the ‘loss column.’ What’s our next destination? Titanicus Woopsidaisy 3? Maybe this time we’ll… make it sew.”

  • I’m sure this wasn’t deliberate, but the change in how the Prime Directive works between TOS and TNG does illustrate how vigorous laws can ossify over time, becoming rigid, with layer after layer of interpretation added over the years, until they’re being followed mostly because they’re in the rulebook.

    (Archer’s interpretation can be explained by bad advice and generally being a dumbass.)

  • GreenLuthor

    Peter David (writer of some of the licensed Trek novels and comics), back in 1990, put forth an idea about the Prime Directive (from a production standpoint) that I think makes some sense. Why did the interpretation of the Prime Directive change so much between TOS and TNG? Vietnam.

    At the time of TOS, before public opinion in the United States turned against the Vietnam War, there was still the sense that the US could and should involve itself in situations around the world. After Vietnam, that opinion changed; Americans seemed less likely to support such “interference”, an attitude that still affected foreign policy at the time TNG started. Thus, the more rigid “it’s not our place to get involved” Prime Directive of TNG. Both shows reflected the attitude towards foreign policy and American intervention of the times they were created.

    Sounds like there could be some validity to that argument.

    (If you want to read that column, you can find it here: http://www.peterdavid.net/2002/10/31/in-space-no-one-can-hear-you-laugh/ Again, it’s from 1990, so none of the later Trek shows are mentioned, and the political notions have changed in the intervening years, but it’s still an interesting theory.)

  • RockyDmoney

    What bugged me the most of Into the darkness besides its stupid incoherent story, numerous logical gaps and blatant lazy fanboy appealing writing, God I hated that movie. It was so freakin stupid Orci and Kurtzman are THE biggest hacks in hollywood, I mean just look at them. They just look like smug arrogant douchebags…wait what was my point again? Oh yeah…so STID they blast Kirk for violating the Prime Directive…ummmm…the whole mission was a violation of the Prime Directive. The PD would say let the volcano erupt and destroy the village so the culture learns not build villages at the base of volcanos and that all the praying in the world wont save them. Also…COLD FUSION BOMB!! COLD FUSION BOMB!!! COLD FUSION DOES NOT PRODUCE EXTREME COLD ORCI!!YOU STUPID DUMB LAZY HACK!! God a simple Google search would have told you that

  • davidcgc

    I thought the apotheosis of the TNG version of the PD was its very first serious test, in “Pen Pals.” Riker literally argues that they shouldn’t save the endangered planet because it’s possible God wants all the people there to die. That’s basically what it boils down to. Every planet has their own cosmic destiny, until they make a warp engine, in which case the Federation can swoop and deflect all the stellar core fragments or whatever that they want. I guess faster-than-light travel is already spitting in the face of the natural order, so after that all bets are off.

    It’s completely insane. Being rendered extinct by a super-volcano is “natural development” and “self-determination,” unless you have a magic rocketship, in which case it’s a humanitarian crisis. Count me in on the idea that future incarnations of Trek should go more towards the TOS interpretation. More fist-fighting crazed captains who set themselves up as a god by calling their phaser “Thor’s lightning bolt,” less arguments about why it’s morally obligatory to stand by and watch little green men in togas get smashed by asteroids.

  • Eliot Littlejohn

    The prime directive is a useless as the delta flyer or voyager in general. Every time it was a story point the captain would obey it or break it with no consequence or just stern talking from a admiral.

  • mamba

    I always figured that in the cases where an entire civilization is about to be obliterated (natural disaster, asteroid, etc), you have nothing to lose by interfering.

    If you do nothing, they all die and are erased from time.

    If you do something and it goes horribly wrong, at least they are alive and have a CHANCE to adapt. Even is the circumstances would be insanely impossible, it’s still better than TOTALLY impossible due to death of your entire species/planet, right?

    And of course minimize the interference and damage as much as possible, try and make it easy for them (like Picard in that episode where he was forced to fake a village’s home in the holodeck until they got to a new planet totally, when originally he just wanted them to all die while he watched)

    But yeah, “They’re warp capable, let’s talk to them!” seemed a silly guideline AT FIRST, but the explanation is the same as on Earth…starfleet is thinking “When they are warp-capable, they might come to OUR home. Better make sure we’re ready for them and see if we WANT them to come here”. Just like on Earth…we only care to talk to tribes on islands when they either have something we want, or get to the point where they can potentially interact with us on their own. Otherwise we ignore them and could care less if they all die, or we study them from satellites and other methods.

    Just like Star Trek, we look down on other cultures and only talk when we might benefit, or have no choice. I don’t think the parallel is accidental.

  • Gallen_Dugall

    Outstanding article.
    One issue you don’t touch on is the reality that non interference exists in the real world mostly as an excuse to avoid lending “expensive” or “unprofitable” aid. The USAlund has repeatedly shown that it will allow genocide to go on simply because it would be too expensive or there wouldn’t be enough political reward for getting involved to stop it. Even saber rattling is avoided under the pretense of not getting involved in the internal affairs of other nations. Very much the Federation starts to come off the same way.
    Then there’s the “eugenics-based thinking” which is part of a modern trend. The world rapidly has slid into an acceptance of ideas that we once exclusively associated with the Nazis, and have long since debunked, with the term Nazi having been stripped of meaning in favor of its use as an empty pejorative. This expresses itself all over the place in “science fiction” these days; from that episode of Enterprise to recent The Divergent Series.

    Voyager was a great example of the root cause of the problem in the franchise – bad writing. The good writing makes us overlook the problems created by bad writing. Over the years the bad writing has caused serious paradoxes in the show’s premise to the point where you can’t say that the Federation are the good guys anymore.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      also I wouldn’t say TOS was exempt from responsibility here
      the episodic nature of the show, with a lack of consideration for continuity, is a big player in how bad writing kept making its way into canon

  • Kind of funny how one of the best examples in fiction on the dangers of taking dogmatic approaches to any idea (even a good one) seems to have been completely by accident. If I thought for a moment that the Prime Directive as Dogma thing that really began before Roddenberry got kicked upstairs after Season 2 of TNG was on purpose, I’d call it a genius piece of Swiftian satire.

  • Gearóid

    It’s hard to say how humans would deal with a different alien culture in reality, trek is just fiction and I think the writers are just trying to be balenced in relation to the modern world and how it operates. Intervention in foreign cultures didn’t stop after Vietnam they were just not reported as viguriously as was Vietnam in the late 60s early 70s.
    If you think of the Iran Iraq war, the United States sold chemical weapons and military hardware to Iraq after the Vietnam war all the way up to the late 80s and many thousands of people died. Or if you look at the hundred of thousands who died in Central America with U.S. Support.
    The writers of TNG at least must of had these things in mind because they were in the public consciousness, at least a little. Thus drawing the conclusion that interference is bad, based on what was happening in the world at the time.

  • David Conrad

    I’m against the PD, even defined as a check on cultural imperialism, so that’s my starting point here.

    Thought 1: Who Watches the Watchers is so damn good, I’d watch it right now.

    Thought 2: “But ironically, the more rigid Prime Directive of TNG and beyond robbed certain situations of potentially greater drama by removing the possibility for action.” – I disagree. The subtle drama of a captain’s hands being tied is superior to the drama in “A Piece of the Action.”

    Thought 3: “On its face, this interpretation of the Prime Directive would seem to contradict what would traditionally be seen as the ethical viewpoint.” – Yes, but that’s merely on the face. The whole point of TNG-era PD is that what appears to be the ethical thing might not actually be the ethical thing. Their answer might not be convincing, but the existence of the question is certainly something the writers understood (in the better episodes.)

    Thought 4: “So it seems that post-TOS Star Trek is alone in presenting this policy as an uncritically positive one” – It isn’t generally presented that way in the best episodes; the show generally places characters and the audience on the side of intervention, and places the PD as an obstacle to the fulfillment of positive intervention. The show sees the PD as useful and good, but that does not imply that it presents inaction as good. The TNG-era PD presents us with a true ethical dilemma: a choice between two imperfect alternatives. Star Trek isn’t a subtle show, but it’s subtler than I think you’re giving it credit for.

    Thought 5: “First, if Starfleet’s mission is one of exploration and contact, a doctrine like the Prime Directive seems to fly in the face of that mission.” – No, because, as you acknowledge in the next paragraph, the mission now refers to meeting space-faring species. And maybe studying some non-space-faring ones from a distance.

    Thought 6: “Why would these be the deciding factors? A culture that’s chosen a less technologically advanced path can be as ethically or intellectually evolved as one with warp drive. In an effort to avoid colonialist thinking, the Prime Directive ends up embracing it, deeming certain cultures ‘worthy’ of contact and aid when they prove themselves to be more like the Federation.” – I agree with this point 100%, and it’s the reason I oppose the PD.

    Thought 7: “Dear Doctor” is so great. One of only a few Enterprise episodes that deserves that adjective, in my opinion.

    Thought 8: “a rebooted Star Trek universe will allow for a chance to start over with a more balanced and less ethically problematic Prime Directive.” – I doubt it. The rebooted universe isn’t looking to engage with ideas at all, from what I can tell. Maybe these ideas have run their course as storytelling devices (I don’t think they have, because we’re still debating them and they still apply to real world problems), but don’t look for Trek movies to fix anything.

    Good article, thanks for it!

    • Geoffrey Howe

      Dear Doctor is great? In my opinion, it’s the worst episode of the entire franchise. Please elaborate. Even if I accept Phloxs pseudo-science as just being how the Star Trek universe works, it’s still not moral to let people die when you are literally holding the cure for their illness in your hands.

      I will admit, I did like the first 40 minutes or so of the episode. Up until the end, it was my favorite episode of the first two seasons. It was only those last “Let nature make the choice” moments that turned me against it.

      • David Conrad

        You’ve explained why I love it. It engages in a serious and new way with an old Trek idea, and it has the guts to end in the harder, more unexpected way. I don’t even care whether Phlox is right, I just admire the episode for letting him win with the harder case to make, and not the side most of us naturally agree with. Innovative, brave, serious. Scientifically dicey, but so are a lot of episodes.

        • Geoffrey Howe

          Except it’s not serious. It uses voodoo evolution. It’s so absurdly wrong that it’s hard to take seriously. It’s like asking me to seriously consider whether it would be okay for me to kill Bugs Bunny if he jumped out of my TV and threated me with a mallet.

          But even setting that aside, if I watched a show wherein Hitler had to passionately make the case that all the Jews / Valakians needed to be wiped out to ensure the preservation of the Aryan / Menk race, then I wouldn’t consider it “Innovative, Brave, Serious”. I’d consider it a disturbing look into the mind of mad man.

          Deep Space 9 posed some serious dilemmas that went against what we’d expect. The Federation engaged in a number of serious war crimes, in particular the plague of section 31 that almost wiped out an entire species. But that was because they were on the brink of destruction. As morally repugnant as those actions are, they could be justified with the “It’s them or me, and they started it” defense.

          However, when Archer basically makes the decision to commit genocide (deliberately with holding a cure to a disease that will kill billions of people cannot be anything less), he’s not doing it because the Valakians are exterminating the Menk, and it’s one or the other. The Valakians are actually co-existing with the Menk fairly well, and the Menk are essentially treated like Caucasian Americans treats Native Americans. Not great, but hardly worth killing all the Caucasians.

          I’ll defend Sisko tricking the Romulans into the war. I’ll even make the case for Section 31 attempting to wipe out an entire species. But just because I’m willing to debate difficult issues doesn’t mean there isn’t a line that can be crossed.

          Even if I accept the worst Trek Evolution science this side of Threshold, I’ll still take Evolved Valakians and Simple Menk over Evolved Menk and Dead Valakians. If they made any attempt to make the Menk look truly abused and oppressed and the Valakians evil and bigoted against the Menk, then there might be a good episode there.

  • Geoffrey Howe

    The “They Have Warp Drive” endpoint for the Prime Directive makes sense. At this point, the species is perfectly capable of contacting other species on their own. The changes in their society as a result of technological advancement or the realization that other life exists in the universe is now inevitable.

    There’s also the fact that warp drive requires anti-matter powered engines. Anti-matter is more than a little dangerous, and any species that demonstrates they can safely handle that have proved that they will be able to handle even more advanced technology.

    It IS an arbitrary line, but policies like that usually have to place a line somewhere, and that’s a pretty good spot to draw the line. And at least in TNG, it’s still only a guidelines, not a hard line, as Picard was exonerated of all charges of breaking the Prime Directive when he did so, as one episode has it mention that he’s broken the PD on several occassions, but was never disciplined for them, implying that what he’d done is considered acceptable given the circumstances.

  • The biggest irony with the PD is that according to certain TOS episodes, the only reason Earth survived long enough to become warp-capable was due to helpful aliens manipulating human culture as well as preventing humanity’s demise on various occasions, all of which would never be allowed if those aliens lived by Starfleet’s PD code.

  • Glad to know others see the problem with how the PD was handled. I think Kirk would be ashamed of what Starfleet had become during his ‘vacation’.

  • For yet another take on the Prime Directive, check out “The Night the Stars Fell From the Sky”, a Project: Potemkin story (I’ts on YouTube).

    Poul Anderson’s story “Lodestar” touches on what might happen in the absence of a PD – even with the best of intentions. Societies that don’t have interstellar travel essentially stagnate under a benign economic imperialism as all their reasons for development and advancement vanish. “Cure for disease? Here, take these pills when the symptoms first appear. You’ll be right as rain in the morning. Cheap, pollution-free power? One of these devices in each town or village will take care of that!” It’s not just a matter of becoming dependent on foreign aid. What would it do to a society to find that all its hopes and dreams have already been taken care of by someone else? “And by the way, don’t bother going out into space and exploring, we’ve mapped and settled every star system in the area. You can come and join us, if you want…”

    Primitive societies (TOS “The Apple”) can deal with you as gods of a sort. More advanced ones, those who at least know about the possibility of interstellar travel and are OK with the idea of aliens, can also be “interfered” with (TOS “A Taste of Armageddon”). It’s the ones in between that you have to be careful with. A really good captain (none of whom we’ve seen in any version of Trek, as far as I’m concerned) would know when – and how – to interfere.

  • The_Stig

    The Prime Directive was ruined when it stopped being an order and became a dogma. The Prime DIrective is absolute and should not be questioned ever—for a society that’s supposedly evolved past superstition this sounds awfully religious. I suggest you look up SFDebris’ video regarding his thoughts on the Prime Directive, he nails it.

    • Gallen_Dugall

      That was a pain in the ass to find so here’s the link
      http://sfdebris.com/videos/startrek/zprimedirective.php
      He agrees with me in a long winded way – It’s bad writing. Not consistently bad writing. If it were consistently bad it would be easy to dismiss, which is what happened to Enterprise and nu-Trek.
      Their writers are good enough writers for most writing, they’re just not good enough to write science fiction. If you write “contemporary” fiction you’ve got it easy because you know the setting in depth and fantasy is just whatever you want it to be – incidentally making fantasy the easiest genre to write. Space-fantasy is just fantasy.

      • Wolf_Plague

        Thanks for the link!

        • Gallen_Dugall

          been addicted to these videos ever since

  • Capt. Harlock

    Wow, where to start. Good article, but I want to comment on the comments:

    Some of you are obviously young. The “popular” and common view of the Viet Nam war being referenced for TOS in these comments didn’t actually gel until after the (specious) reporting on the Tet offensive in 1968, halfway through the second season. Kirk’s jingoism, combativeness, womanizing and arrogance was more of a subversion of the American Hero/Commander archetype that had dominated US movies and TV since the early 40s, since many of the writers were still following the WW2 propaganda template for those kinds of characters.

    As to the Prime Directive, that was less about some imaginary “American Imperialism” and completely about the real Imperialism perpetrated by the Europeans for 400+ years leading-up to the World Wars of the 20th century. The Dutch, English, French, Spanish and later Germans and Italians did HORRIFIC things to indigenous peoples, many of whom were still in the stone age when “first contact” occurred. For all of the petty wars, banana republics and political interventions She IS guilty of, one cannot blame America for much of the destruction of “simpler” cultures around the globe; not even the Cargo Cults of the Pacific islands, as those began with European traders in sailing ships. The Iroquois? Nope, the Dutch, the English and the French corrupted them. Plains Indians? Nope, that was the Spaniards. Same mechanisms, too; steel tools, metal utensils and glass beads. Oh, and let’s not forget the horses.

  • I agree 100% with the assessment of the Prime Directive in the article. In fact it is much like a summary of the many points of criticism in my reviews of many modern Trek episodes, and especially

    “Homeward”: This is the arguably most hypocritical Star Trek story ever because everyone (and especially Picard) is perfectly comfortable with letting millions of people die in a planetary disaster but accuses the one who tries to save at least a few of causing inconvenience. And the worst of all is that in the end a member of the “primitive” people commits suicide apparently because he was not ready for the miracles of the starship, thereby retroactively proving Picard and the PD right.

    “Dear Doctor”: The twisted interpretation of evolution is just one of many mistakes of this episode. Just imagine the Valakians had caused their genetic deterioration by themselves (for instance, in a nuclear war or with biotechnology), by the logic of this episode Phlox and Archer would have helped them because it had not been a “natural” development. How cynical!

  • Graeme Cree

    It’s true that Modern Trek made it much worse. When you withhold humanitarian help and allow a civilization to die because you have some muddle-headed idea that Evolution “wants” them dead, you’ve hit rock bottom.

    Or when you allow one race to defraud another on the deck of your own ship because you have some muddle-headed idea that it would be interfering to tell them so, then you’re just confused. Especially if you first gave parts and assistance to one of those races, and then have to take them back again because you realize belatedly that THAT was interference as well, then you’re just confused. Picard’s Enterprise often suffered from terminal confusion.

    But to be fair it was a muddled mess even in the days of TOS. It applied haphazardly and was ignored frequently. The rules were contradictory. In Bread and Circuses, we’re told that identifying yourself as an alien or referencing the existence of other worlds is forbidden. In Omega Glory, however, Kirk cheerfully volunteers that information without imagining that he’s breaking the rules. You can say that the rule was very flexible, subject to interpretation, yet they also talk as though there are clear violations of the directive. It could be set aside completely if the Federation wanted to mine Topaline, or establish a military base. The rule never quite made sense even on its best day.