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.
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?
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”).
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.
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.
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.