Star Trek: Starfleet’s Number One Rule Is Also Its Most Complicated

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If you have ever watched Star Trek, you already know what the Prime Directive is. General Order One. As Kirk describes it in The Original Series episode, “Bread and Circuses,” the order decrees Starfleet crews should make “No identification of self or mission; no interference with the social development of said planet; no references to space, other worlds, or advanced civilizations.”

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that. According to one episode of Voyager, the Prime Directive contains 47 sub-orders, including more than a few loopholes that have been exploited over the years, but the gist of it is, if a civilization has not yet developed warp travel, Starfleet is to treat their planet like a nature reserve, to be observed but never interfered with.

“I think of the Prime Directive as having two components,” says Robin Wasserman, who has written two episodes of Strange New Worlds. “One is the idea of non-interference with another civilization’s cultural mores (no matter how antithetical they may be to Starfleet values), while the other is the call to preserve a civilization’s ‘normal development’ by protecting them from knowledge (like, say, the knowledge of aliens) or technology that might provoke radical change.”

Bill Wolkoff, the writer of four episodes of Strange New Worlds, echoes this sentiment, calling the “spirit” of General Order One both “beautiful and aspirational.” He says, “The Prime Directive just keeps us focused on exploration. We’re not trying to play gods, we just want to meet the neighbors, share some cool things we know, and ideally learn from them, too. In other words, we’re not trying to make distant planets more like ours, or how we imagine they should be. We’re expanding our minds by discovering the universe as it is.”

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But the Prime Directive is also famous for being the rule that Starfleet captains, Kirk in particular, break most frequently, with gleeful abandon. While the Directive speaks to Starfleet’s noble ideals, in practice there is no denying it has some difficult implications.

“The question of ‘can or should you interfere in the development of other civilizations’ seems like it should have an obvious answer – ‘no,’” says Aaron J. Waltke, writer and co-producer of Prodigy. “But upon a second look, that response is somewhat reductive when you consider the complexities of when and how it’s applied to a spacefaring civilization.”

Waltke points out that the Prime Directive and the way it is applied has plenty of exceptions, varying from captain to captain or even episode to episode.

“Although it’s thorny and uncomfortable, each case needs to be examined on its own merits and flaws with nuances taken into account,” Waltke argues. One of the mandates of Star Trek: Prodigy, in particular, has been to introduce new and young audiences to the core concepts of Trek, and all the strange, wonderful and sometimes complicated issues surrounding them.”

That being the case, it’s not surprising that the series has already touched upon the Prime Directive, or at least the reason it exists in the first place. The episode “All the World’s a Stage” takes on a vintage TOS concept – an alien society gets “contaminated” by an Earth artifact and reconstructs its entire culture around it. Only in Waltke’s episode, the artifact is the idea of Starfleet itself, with the aliens of the week creating a kind of TOS-era Trek cargo cult.

“In some ways, ‘All the World’s a Stage’ is meant to reflect on the power of sincerity and its unswerving optimism to combat cynicism and self-doubt,” Waltke says. “Dal is quick to dismiss the Enderprizians because he worries their unapologetic embrace of Starfleet is ignoring the realities of their dire situation. In the end, it’s that very dedication to the thriving spirit of ‘Star Flight’ — curiosity, boldness, kindness — that saves Dal and the Prodigy crew. The spirit of the law is far more important than the letter — perhaps like the Prime Directive itself.” 

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A Rule That’s Made to Be Broken

But there’s “obeying the spirit of the law” and there is flat-out destroying the evil computer that has enslaved the entire planet, as Kirk has done more than once, or smuggling illicit art supplies to the local kids, as Beckett Mariner does on the regular in Lower Decks.

“Mariner has a personal code, she believes in the overall value of Starfleet, but she’s more than willing to get thrown in the brig for doing what she believes is right,” says Mike McMahan, Lower Decks’ showrunner. “The Federation and Starfleet might be the futuristic, ideal systems we think we want – but a system is never going to address the needs of every situation or individual. Blindly following rules has never been an appealing trait – on Lower Decks, we try to honor and celebrate what we love about Starfleet – but since we (the writers and the characters) know it so well, we’re the best at thumbing our noses at it.”

Some argue that it is precisely because the ideals behind the Prime Directive are so important that they have to be put through frequent trials by fire.

Anything worthwhile needs to be stress-tested. This is a unifying principle for all members of the Federation. Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites, and even those little gold people in fezzes picking at the buffet in ‘Journey to Babel’ all must adhere to it,” Wolkoff explains. “As it affects multiple billions of people, not everyone is going to approach it in the exact same manner. In order for it to endure, we must see what happens in those frequent instances where it is abused, used to shield wrongdoing, or where it simply does not apply in a binary way.”

Wasserman agrees that although the Prime Directive springs from a well-intentioned place, even the best intentions can have unintended consequences

“Which, of course, is presumably why Starfleet wanted a Prime Directive in the first place—because some well-intentioned efforts to ‘help’ or ‘improve’ alien civilizations went catastrophically wrong,” she says. “So they course corrected, and pushed policy to the opposite extreme.”

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Wasserman believes that for every ethically thorny, narratively potent encounter that makes up an hour of Trek storytelling there are a hundred others that go pretty much by the book, with the Prime Directive suiting everyone just fine.

“But what do you do when theory collides with practice, when good intentions collide with intolerable consequences, when upholding what’s ‘correct’ means betraying what’s right?” Wasserman asks. “My favorite Prime Directive episodes are those that leave you just as tormented as the characters are about what they’re doing—and what they should have done.”

The Storytelling Directive

As for those other hundreds of encounters?

“On a very simple storytelling level, if the Enterprise arrives on a planet, takes a look round, and the captain says, ‘Oh, they’re not space-faring, better jog on…’ then that makes for a very short episode, doesn’t it?” points out Una McCormack, the author of both Spock and Kathryn Janeway’s autobiographies, as well as numerous other Trek novels.

Whatever the Prime Directive’s virtues and problematic implications in-universe, the fact is it has turned out to be a rich ground for storytelling.

The Prime Directive is such an interesting aspect of Star Trek storytelling. I like that Starfleet has rules to protect those that they observe. It feels scientific and ethical, but it’s also fun to see captains constantly break it when their own morals demand it,” McMahan says. “The Prime Directive serves as a great storytelling function for the morality tales that Trek often tells. I love the conversations that come from the Prime Directive in Trek, and that it comes from the post-scarcity aspect of the show which allows this huge fleet to dedicate so many resources to the pursuit of knowledge.”

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As clearly defined as the Prime Directive appears to be, Waltke points out that like Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” there are enough loopholes and grey areas to make for interesting exceptions to the rule.

I suspect the reason the Prime Directive has such an enduring legacy in pop culture is because it isn’t obvious when and how it should be applied, which leaves room for a lot of rules lawyering and philosophical debate,” Waltke says. “I personally think there are interpretations of the Prime Directive that I find difficult to support as a 21st-century human – for instance, Picard’s willingness to allow an entire planet to die in ‘Homeward’ and ‘Pen Pals,’ or Janeway’s refusal to warn a civilization their actions will destroy themselves in ‘Time and Again’ or ‘Thirty Days.’ However, even the captains in those episodes have arguments with their crew in those episodes about the pros and cons, and sometimes even change their mind.”

“As for the restrictions it imposes, that just allows our characters the opportunity for outside-the-box thinking,” Wolkoff says. “I’ll always love a good Prime Directive story. Because you’ll never know when it’ll force Kirk and Spock to dress as Chicago mobsters and invent fake card games like Fizzbin to get out of a bind.”

But Wolkoff, with Wasserman, also wrote a hard-hitting episode of Strange New Worlds that features no such loopholes or get-out-of-jail-free cards. In “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” Pike encounters a seemingly idyllic, technologically advanced, progressive society that depends entirely on a single child being hooked into a machine and tortured to death. It’s a modern-day reworking of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and there is no feel-good heroic ending for the Enterprise crew at the end of it.

“That was a real bind for Pike,” says Wolkoff. “Their way of thinking was abhorrent to him, and many (if not all) of us. But I think it would have been potentially more harmful for him to march in there phasering stuff up like the police of the universe and showing other Federation members that we really are colonizers no matter what we claim.”

Wasserman adds, “What I loved most about this episode was the final confrontation between Pike and Alora, and her effort to draw a moral equivalence between their two societies. Alora wants to believe that the suffering of one child is acceptable if it means alleviating a planet’s worth of pain. And I think she might argue that Starfleet, by following the Prime Directive here, is doing the same.”

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But then, that the Prime Directive can deny you that heroic “overthrow an alien culture and save the day” moment is also part of its strength as a storytelling tool.

The Prime Directive is the best kind of narrative tool, less a final answer than a burning question—the kind of question that forces us to interrogate what we believe in, what we care about, what the purpose of exploration and governance and life itself may be,” Wasserman says.

The reason it seems counter-intuitive is that it is a moral guideline that requires our heroes not to act, which goes against our fundamental storytelling instincts. That is even more clear in an interactive environment like a tabletop RPG, but Jim Johnson, who heads up Star Trek Adventures for Modiphius Entertainment, argues that even here, the Prime Directive offers players the opportunity to make a choice.

“Players still have all the agency; the PD provides guidance on what they should or shouldn’t do,” he says. “It’s never as simple as black and white, do this or don’t do this. There’s always nuance. It’s up to the players what they do with the information they’re given.”

The Prime Directive on Earth

But this is not just an argument about in-universe lore or storytelling techniques. Star Trek has never been a show that is just about spaceships and aliens.

“All science fiction tells us more about the time in which it was written than about the future that’s being imagined, and Star Trek is no exception,” McCormack insists. “From the outset, Star Trek is telling us about the USA’s vision of itself in the world. Specifically, in the case of the Prime Directive, 1960s Star Trek is making a clear statement about the misguidedness – the immorality – of American military involvement in Vietnam. It’s also a broader statement against colonialism.”

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Even today, the Prime Directive works as a metaphor to examine how we interact with cherished real-world political institutions.

“An institution with a noble charter can sometimes fall short of its founding principles because even good institutions are imperfect and can be perverted to do harm,” Wolkoff says. “Take the Supreme Court. The Constitution has lots of good directives that justices have interpreted in a calculated manner to do bad things. But I would also argue that our constitution does a lot more good on aggregate, and by design gives us tools to keep fighting to restore any rights the court takes away.”

But as Waltke points out, our ethics and values in these situations are far from constant.

“Human civilization is constantly reassessing what is acceptable and what isn’t when it comes to geopolitics, and when to intervene in another country for humanitarian purposes or in war,” Waltke agrees. “We also face similar conundrums around ‘uncontacted’ people who still live in isolation in shrinking rainforests being devastated by climate change and whether it’s our place to introduce them to the outside world.”

Obviously, our own history with “first contacts” ably demonstrates the case for a non-interference directive, as science fiction author Adrian Tchaikovsky points out, “One feels that if some 15th-19th century political theorist had framed and popularized a doctrine borrowing from the Prime Directive then European contact with other cultures might have been considerably less genocidal.”

The big difference is that in Star Trek these cultures each live on their own world, separated by light years of space, while we share one increasingly interconnected planet.

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“We can all agree, I hope, that every society should have cultural autonomy—but how do we navigate that in an increasingly entangled global order?” asks Wasserman. “When is non-interference an obligation—and when, if ever, is it a moral crime?”

Changing Directives

While the Prime Directive is enshrined in the origins of the Federation, attitudes change. McCormack has written for Star Trek characters in all eras, and has seen how the interpretation of General Order One has changed through the generations.

“There’s an undercurrent in the earlier conception of the Prime Directive that civilizations naturally go through stages of development and become increasingly sophisticated [until they’re] ‘mature’ enough to enter the great galactic community,” McCormack says. “This kind of language seems to lessen (it doesn’t go away entirely). There must have been a big change in Federation social theory, I’m glad to say.”

“It’s paternalistic: Who is the Federation to decide when a civilization is and is not ‘ready’ for radical change?” Wasserman agrees. “Who is the Federation to deprive a civilization of the opportunity to make its own choice about how to handle the reality of the universe?”

But sometimes, as Deanna Troi says, a cake is just a cake, and some of what we should take from the Prime Directive is straightforwardly literal.

“I feel that, on the basis that we’re likely to be sending probes to exoplanets within my lifetime, we should probably be trying to work out a genuine space-based code of conduct for how to approach any alien world with anything recognizable as a biosphere on it,” Tchaikovsky points out.

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Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations

Star Trek is not the only space opera, and certainly not the only science fiction to deal with the ethical briar patch surrounding first contact.

Tchaikovsky’s sci-fi trilogy, Children of Time, Children of Ruin, and Children of Memory charts a course from relatively hard sci-fi where space travel spans evolutionary epochs, to a multispecies faster-than-light interstellar civilization that wrestles with similar dilemmas to the Federation.

“In Children of Time the baseline ethos is something that both the Federation or Banks’ Culture would recognize and approve of, at least a little,” Tchaikovsky says. “That idea of empathy for the other, giving personage and respect to sapient life that’s very different to yourself.”

However in Children of Memory, without their own “Prime Directive,” Tchaikovsky’s space explorers are forced to establish their own morality around these dilemmas from first principles.

“Because the universe they are exploring is far more depauperate than Trek’s when it comes to life, and sapience in particular, they want to study life as it has developed independent of their coalition. On the other hand, the life they find is having a very tough time of it, practically begging for an advanced civilization to step in and help,” Tchaikovsky says. “But the moment they do that – in any way – they destroy the thing they are trying to observe.”

It was a book that changed Tchaikovsky’s own perspective on the Prime Directive.

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“I think it’s a profoundly noble ideal to basically have- ‘we won’t exploit the less powerful,’ and to recognize that even the most peaceable contact will constitute unpalatable interference. Except then I wrote Children of Memory,” Tchaikovsky says. “Do you have a duty to relieve ‘naturally occurring’ pain and suffering? How does that differentiate you from any cultural imperialist who feels that life would be better if they were more like us? I don’t think there’s an easy answer.”

But as McMahan points out, “The Prime Directive isn’t ‘the only directive.’ Life is rare, we’re all here together and we have to support each other. The Prime Directive’s function is cautionary, so you don’t destroy while trying to preserve. While I don’t love that the Prime Directive demands inaction, it’s based in respect and empathy. A little more of that from everyone would be great.”

Ultimately, the question any Prime Directive story comes down to is “What would you do?” You might expect most people to go full Kirk, knocking over any oppressive planetary regime they encounter. However, in playing and running Star Trek Adventures games, Johnson has seen people are a bit more complicated than that.

“In my decades of Trek roleplaying and gamemastering, I’ve noticed that players will almost always try to adhere to at least the spirit of the Prime Directive,” he says. “Sometimes the best course of action is the least-worst course of action, and sometimes there’s no right answer.”

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