First do no harm: Star Trek’s Prime Directive

Star Trek‘s Prime Directive is a nice moral statement but a pain in the butt when it came to actually writing episodes.

The Prime Directive, as every Trekkie knows, is the rule that the Federation and its starships don’t interfere with cultures that have not achieved spaceflight. No intervening in them politically or changing their natural course of development. No giving them signs that life exists beyond their world, such as showing advanced tech or evidence of alien life. This is so fundamental, if it’s choice between saving your ship, your crew and yourself and breaking the Prime Directive, a starship captain should choose death before dishonor.

I’ve read this was partly a pushback against the Vietnam War. During the Eisenhower presidency the U.S. had supported the French colonial regime to stop the Vietnamese independence movement — communist oriented, therefore the bad guys — from winning. Eventually the country divided into two parts, North and South Vietnam, with elections to follow; as it was obvious the revolutionaries would win, the U.S. and its allies refused to let elections happen. Instead, we provided military support for South Vietnam, then eventually committed our own troops. It was a major scar and influence on U.S. society at the time, and increasing numbers of people went anti-war (you can read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam for an excellent history of the nation and the war).

Vietnam wasn’t a unique screw-up. We overthrew lots of democratic governments in the 20th century — El Salvador, Guatemala, Iran, Chile — because we didn’t like who the people voted for. While we saw ourselves as the champion of freedom against tyranny, all too often we went in the other direction. And as David Rieff says in A Bed for the Night, any attempt at a humanitarian military intervention is a contradiction in terms: military force isn’t humanitarian in nature. As in a lot of things, I think the part of the Hippocratic Oath that says “first, do no harm” might be good advice for us.

In practice, though, the rule was a mess. If we go by the Prime Directive, Kirk had no right to challenge the Landru-computer’s control of its world in Return of the Archons, or to take down Vaal in The Apple. Indeed, the latter story seems like a textbook example — Vaal’s control of his people is totalitarian, but it does apparently keep them at peace, happy and immortal. Will destroying Vaal improve things? Will shutting down the war computers in A Taste of Armageddon actually end the nightmare war, or will they go fully nuclear? As a kid, these episodes worked fine; as an adult I wonder if Kirk has not, in fact, done harm.

Of course not intervening is the opposite of how we expect heroes to work. When good guys stumble into a tyrannical society, fictional convention says they’re supposed to liberate the people, not turn a blind eye. That can, of course, make for dramatic tension, but it could obviously turn a lot of people off: what if the Enterprise crew doesn’t intervene at all to affect the repressive caste system of The Cloud Minders?

There have been multiple expansions and explanations of the details of the directive to handle all the contradictions and try to rationalize it. Ultimately it’s an interesting idea but very awkward, perhaps unworkable, in practice.

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