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The Problem with the Prime Directive

by on June 1, 2013

So, this afternoon I went to go see Star Trek: Into Darkness. I’m somewhere in the happy middle of the Trek fandom; I liked it, didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I will no doubt be much more enthusiastic about the Superman reboot. Anyway. There is one thing about it that bugged me. It’s something that annoyed me when it happened in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and when it happened again .here. It speaks to, I think, a fundamental philosophical difference between me and the Federation. And because I am a nerd (to quote Weird Al, only question I ever thought was hard, was do I like Kirk, or do I like Picard, and truth be told I like Sisko), I am going to discuss this in depth and present it for your comment.

So here’s the scenario. The Enterprise is going on their merry throughout the Alpha Quadrant, when they happen upon a planet with a pre-warp civilization, meaning that they have no idea there’s anyone else out there in the universe. The Prime Directive, of course, forbids that the Enterprise interfere in any way with this planet, until they have achieved interstellar travel. Allow me to quote the appropriate passage.

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.

Now, that seems fair, you say. After all, suppose we have a planet that still thinks the wheel is a pretty neat idea, to paraphrase Douglas Adams. Then suppose the Federation shows up with their phasers and transporters and replicators, and, well, you know where this is going. Next thing you know this primitive civilization is worshiping the Federation as gods. (This actually happened to Picard once, if I recall correctly). Their culture suffers irreparable harm. And of course some corrupt Federation officer might abuse his power and rule over the planet with an iron fist. (This happened once when two Ferengi stumbled upon a pre-warp planet. It got complicated.)

Now, so far, I’m in agreement with the Prime Directive. But here’s the situation where it gets sticky. Suppose, to pick a random apocalyptic disaster, that the sun of this pre-warp planet is about to go supernova, which would of course wipe out all life on that planet. Now, luckily, the Enterprise is nearby and has the technological capability to stop the disaster. (Don’t ask me how. They fire a modified tachyon pulse from the primary deflector that reverses the star’s polarity and sends up a Palsgrafian Matrix…Thing. Whatever).  Now, at this point, were I captain, I’d say damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, right? Let’s save the people, save the civilization, and drinks all around for a job well done. But nooooo. Apparently, as happened at least twice in TNG and most recently in the Star Trek movie, the Prime Directive requires that the Enterprise sit back and watch while the civilization is destroyed. After all, to help them out would be to Interfere With Their Development. The crew of the Enterprise will of course be very sad, and will mourn the destruction of this proud civilization, and some of them may schedule additional meetings with Counselor Troi to address their feelings.

Well, I’m sorry, but no. You know what tends to interfere with cultural development? Extinction! Their development is about to end! The Enterprise is there, has the power to help, but the precious Prime Directive says they can’t. Now, yes, in some situations interference might result in the people of the planet realizing that they’re not alone in space. Maybe they’ll see the starship flying by to cryogenically freeze the volcano (I would’ve issued a spoiler alert, but seriously, this is in the first five minutes of Star Trek: Into Darkness , so it’s not exactly a secret for long). Maybe they’ll even start worshiping the starship as the vehicle of the gods. You know what? They’ll adjust. You know what they can’t adjust to? Death by volcano. Had Kirk followed Starfleet’s orders, that whole less-advanced civilization would’ve died in fiery agony. But the Starfleet admirals attack him for it. If I were a Starfleet admiral, I’d give him a medal.

Perhaps I’m wrong on this. Perhaps there are very convincing philosophical arguments out there against my position. I would welcome hearing them. And I’m not opposed to the general idea of the Prime Directive. All I’m saying is that, like almost every rule out there, it needs to have an exception. Something like, when the alien culture is about to be blown up by a volcano, you can pop in and help. Seems reasonable, yes?



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  1. Ah a follower of Sisko, a man after my own heart. Could not agree more, I believe Kirk violated the Prime Directive as well when he blew up that temple/computer thing that the albino people worshiped. He just said stated he allowed it, the civilization to continue instead of stagnate.

    • I’ve heard something about that; I’ve never seen the original series except for one or two episodes, but that sounds like something Kirk would do. And yes, Sisko was the best. He hit Q! Not even Picard hit Q! That was epic!

  2. I love theoretical debates like this. Just to play Devil’s Advocate, I can see reasons why the Prime Directive should always be followed. Chaos is an intrinsic part of the universe; just as some animals will go extinct even without help from humanity encroaching on their territory, things should unfold as they unfold, because that’s just the way that it works. Observers are not to change what they are observing. That being said, no way I could sit and watch a planet be demolished. So, I can understand it even if I couldn’t always follow it. You should watch some more of the originals, they’re always worth a giggle 😉

    • Well, I admit I could understand it too, and there is a sort of clarity in an absolute rule that says “don’t interfere, whatever happens.” But yeah, practically speaking, if I’m in that situation, I’m making the “save the people” call. I’m going through Voyager now, but soon as I finish I plan to dive into the originals. I’m looking forward to it. 😛

  3. I agree. The Prime Directive always seemed to me to be proof that the civil service are indestructible. They must be still around in a couple of centuries, because that’s the only way to explain the colossally callous nuisance the stuffed shirts of the Federation whack good people over the head with. Kirk knew what to do with it. So did Sisko. And Janeway, but only when it suited her.
    Up the revolution! Although not a great fan of TOS, I’m with Kirk all the way on this one.

    • I’m a little partial to Janeway, but primarily because I heard her say in one episode that she was born in Indiana, which is where I’m from. We Hoosiers have to stick together. (Though I doubt she’s even heard the word Hoosier in the 24th century….)
      At any rate, yeah. Starfleet seems to have a good bit of bureaucracy. I recall they even picked on Picard a time or two…though at least one of those times was because of that alien bug conspiracy plot that never went anywhere….

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