Star Trek and the “Prime Directive”


I never really got into Star Trek until recent weeks through the magic of Netflix Instant. I’ve mostly observed “The Next Generation” (TNG) since I consider it to be my generation, but I suppose that when it was on TV that I didn’t have the patience for it.

Commander Riker

Commander Riker

I think there are many strong points to the series. I like how distinct most of the characters are and that the crew of TNG aren’t just re-incarnations of those from the original series. However, in some ways they seem to be too perfect. Only William Riker, the second-in-command, seems to desire promotion in rank, and even then he makes it seem noble and not based in selfish ambition. There is no bickering among a crew that spends pretty much every waking moment around each other. They don’t really criticize each other and totally trust one another. They appear to lack human flaws.

There are also some things I simply haven’t yet figured out:

  • Why, when visiting an unexplored planet, do they not wear space suits or some kind of protection from the environment? They have gotten so many crazy space diseases that could have easily been prevented with simple precautions. Same goes for when contagion breaks out on the ship. It seems like they would have figured out how to prevent things like this.
  • Why do the away teams (those that are beamed down to the planet) always consist of officers who have roles on the bridge? This makes no logistical sense to me. It diminishes the gains from the division of labor; it puts higher-ranking officers at risk (not that their lives or well-being are more important than a grunt’s, but if things get crazy you usually want your experienced commanding officers to be able to command); and it brings me to my next question.
  • Why are there over a thousand people on this ship? They obviously aren’t there to man the away teams. Since the primary mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise is to explore new worlds and seek out new civilizations, one might think that many of the passengers would be scientists of some sort to support that mission. But if so, showings of their daily activities are so seldom that it is unclear why they are on the ship at all. I doubt that they would be there in a crewman role; the original Enterprise had less than half the crew. It would be the opposite of progress if the ship required more people to operate.
  • Why are there so many kids on the ship? I suppose the obvious answer is that crew and scientists bring their families aboard. But does this seem at all responsible on a ship that is frequently at risk of being destroyed either in combat or in encountering strange space phenomena?

Perhaps a reader more knowledgeable about Star Trek could explain these things to me. But, as the title of today’s post suggests, I would like to talk about the so-called “Prime Directive” of members of Star Fleet. I can only imagine that such a directive was created because of the people of the future coming to realize the wisdom of non-interventionists such as Ron Paul.

The Prime Directive can be summarized as follows:

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. Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.


Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

And before you think that this sounds too isolationist, it only applies to Star Fleet personnel, not civilians. In this sense, I very much like it, though it is not consistently applied in the show.

The 21st episode of the 1st season, “Symbiosis”, involves the Enterprise rescuing people and their precious cargo from a malfunctioning cargo ship before it blows up. The people rescued are from two different planets: one planet is suffering from a chronic disease, the other planet’s entire structure of production fully specializes in producing a medicine for this disease. The saved cargo was this medicine; however, the goods to be traded in exchange went down with the ship. For about half the episode, there is a dispute over the rightful owners of the medicine: the sick claim that they traded for it and need it or else their people will die, the manufacturers of it claim that their payment was lost so they retain ownership of it.

It seemed to me that no matter what, the manufacturers are going to want to provide their customers with the medicine, either allowing them to just have it or on credit (which is what they eventually decide to do); they have no use for the medicine themselves and they would have no one to sell to if their steady customers die.


Dr. Crusher

But Dr. Crusher finds out that the sick are not in danger of dying; they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms and the medicine is actually a narcotic. She wants to tell the sick people about this and has the ability to synthesize an alternative that doesn’t have addictive qualities, but Capt. Picard doesn’t allow it. He says this would violate the Prime Directive.  This is what he decides to do: instead of telling them about the fact that they are not dying, he decides to not repair their remaining cargo ships as he had previously offered; he figures that they won’t be able to trade without them and by the time they are fixed they will have gotten over their withdrawal symptoms and addictions.

It certainly does seem strange that notifying someone that the drugs they are buying are addictive would be an unacceptable “intervention”, but repairing their ship would not be.  This seems inconsistent. Regardless, however, I appreciate the dedication to non-intervention. If Picard will refuse to do something even seemingly helpful if he thinks it could possibly negatively affect these third parties, how much more will he avoid nation-building or being the galactic police?

Indeed, I think there are several things Star Trek can teach us about foreign policy.




4 responses »

  1. Pingback: Alliance for Healing | Star Trek and the “Prime Directive”

  2. To answer your questions:

    They don’t wear protective clothing because the transporter is supposed to decontaminate them when they come back up anyway. That’s part of why diseases seem to spread so rapidly: They’re not detected until they’ve already begun to spread.

    The Away Teams are made up of senior personnel because they’re the most qualified. Riker’s second-in-command of the ship, so of course he’ll head down. Data can deal with just about anything, Geordi’s visor and expertise make him useful, Crusher’s the best doctor, and Worf’s the best fighter.

    A chunk of the people on the ship are civilians – families of crew. The idea was that, on long voyages, allowing the crew to bring their families would make for a more comfortable atmosphere. It was a foolish mistake, but there you go. The bulk of the crew is just handling the day-to-day activities of running the ship. Engineering staff, medical staff, security staff, assorted scientific staff, and Bridge staff for whenever any of the senior officers aren’t at their normal posts. The reason their duties are so seldom shown is simple conservation of detail. The show isn’t about them, it’s about the senior staff. Also, this Enterprise is much, much larger than the original, so it would require more staff. Also, it has more scientific equipment, so it can actually support a larger crew.

    Why yes, bringing kids around probably is a bad idea.

    Symbiosis was a pretty good episode. The moral conflict was good, and Picard’s resolution was clever.

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