“The idea of leaving any species to die in its own filth when you have the ability to help them… it’s a bunch of fascist crap,”
– Robert Beltran, C│NET, 2016.
Starting in 1780, an estimated 350 to 400 massacres of indigenous Australians are committed by colonists. These Killing Times continue until about 1930. Exact numbers of victims are unknown, but it is estimated that 65,180 people are killed in Queensland alone.
In 1939, the SS St Louis arrives in Cuba and then Miami, carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees who are fleeing the Holocaust. They are sent back to Europe, where many of them die. Just over 60 years later, in 2001, the MV Tampa arrives in Australian waters, carrying hundreds of (mainly) Afghan asylum seekers. The Australian government refuses to take them.
In 2019, a 26 year-old US missionary approaches an isolated group of indigenous people whom he is seeking to convert to Christianity, and they kill him in order to protect their culture, their privacy, and – although they may not realise it – their vulnerability to attack from microbes beyond their isolated island.
In August 2021, the US-led military forces in Afghanistan withdraw, leaving behind an inadequately trained defence force and a human rights catastrophe facing tens of millions of civilians who have been abandoned by the western nations. Critics of the US-led occupation argue that Afghanistan should be left to sort out its own problems.
Such examples – out of myriads in our recent and collective human history – demonstrate a principle that was examined in modern science fiction pop culture – within the Star Trek TV series.
To Boldly Go?
Elizabeth Welch provides a succinct summary of the principle within the Star Trek franchise:
“The Prime Directive, or Starfleet General Order 1, states that members of Starfleet are prohibited from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations. In other words, colonization of inhabited worlds is a no-go.”
Various episodes of various Star Trek series have explored the Prime Directive,often pitting Enterprise crew members against indigenous laws or customs that they consider to be barbaric or ethically unsupportable.
YouTuber Steve Shives points out the problem with this principle, even within the context of the Star Trek series: “At some point, one of the writers or producers must have noticed that pledging to uphold a non-interference principle is kind of an odd thing for people to do when their primary mission is to seek out new life and new civilisations…” (Shives, 2018b, @4:10). He also asks whether it is ethical to prevent saving a civilisation that faces extinction from a natural disaster.
Outside of Star Trek, its Prime Directive has inspired varied philosophical ponderings and posturings, ranging from the question on whether aliens are avoiding us because they are following the Prime Directive, to whether or not God is following the Prime Directive. (I find such unsupportable musings to be somewhat silly; one might just as easily ask whether unicorns or Klingons are hiding from us for similar reasons.)
All in all, the Prime Directive might seem to be an interesting intellectual exercise, except…
Falling Back to Earth
Star Trek’s Prime Directive was problematic from the start. The original series forbade the Enterprise crew from interfering with the ‘natural’ development of any indigenous world – undoubtedly as a response to US involvement in the real-life Vietnam War. The original series treated the Prime Directive with ambiguity, as Eric Greene (2006, 60) points out:
“…in the course of the series, the Prime Directive was often debated, occasionally derided, but rarely obeyed. The Prime Directive was not a directive as much as it was the Prime Question: how much power should a superpower use when dealing with other peoples?”
Exceptions to the rule of non-interference were permitted (and frequently carried out by Kirk) if deemed necessary to reset a cultural aberration back onto ‘healthy’ development or to rescue victims of injustice. One commentator summed up Kirk’s frequent violation of this policy: “The Prime Directive was instituted to protect people. When the directive gets in the way of protecting people, ignore it … People will be more important than rules.” (Marinaccio, 1994, 50.)
This was a humanitarian principle that the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) conceded in the 1989 episode, Justice, the very first time its characters clashed with alien laws:
“There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”
“When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?”
– Picard and Riker
And yet in this episode, there was a problem with this outcome – Riker and Picard seemed to be making excuses on why their own people should be singled out for special treatment, implying that Federation citizens were entitled to human rights whereas citizens of other (or indigenous) planets were not – a form of apartheid. Here we see a fundamental change. The Prime Directive had been written into the original Star Trek series as a means to challenge the 1960s Vietnam War and thereby confront cultural imperialism that was being enacted by a superpower. Two decades later, the same Directive was reinterpreted in the era of the Gulf War (and wars in Rwanda and Bosnia and Iraq and other places, US aggression in Paraguay and Libya and Panama etc) to reinforce the entitlement of superpower citizens – the metaphoric Federation – with human rights that were denied to those living on subordinate worlds.
In 2021, we see the real-life outcome of such a disgusting policy – the withdrawal of western military troops from Afghanistan, and the abandonment of tens of millions of human lives on the implicit justification that these lives are somehow of lesser value than those of people in western nations.
On the whole, TNG prohibited virtually all interaction between the Enterprise crew and indigenous worlds which might allow for the transfer of technology, morality or life saving necessities. Needy planets were denied technology until their civilisations collapsed (“The Last Outpost”), drug traffickers were allowed free travel (“Symbiosis”), and even planetary genocide was allowed (“Homeward”). In this allegorical future, ethnic cleansing would be dismissed as a localised problem, a Christian theocracy would be free to persecute gays, and honour killings would be permitted across the galaxy wherever women were oppressed under some interplanetary version of Sharia law. This dystopia is far removed from the humanist utopia envisaged within the original Star Trek series.
Possibly the worst offender of Prime Defectiveness can be found in the first season of the series Star Trek: Enterprise in 2002 (just after the real-life ‘War on Terror’ had commenced), where the captain and doctor debate the ethics of their eventual collusion to conduct planetary genocide (by neglect) upon a sentient species in the episode, Dear Doctor. One wonders whether the Jewish staff working within the Star Trek offices had ever heard of the Holocaust.
In 2003, under a pen name, I criticised the ethics presented in this episode:
“… Captain Archer alludes to the Prime Directive, which [in his timeline] is not yet written. He decides that until any such set of rules is in place, he will not “play God” – but then he does exactly that – plays God – by genociding a whole race. We would suggest that Archer’s humanitarian attitude for most of the episode should have led to his proclamation that until the Prime Directive was written, he would always err on the side of compassion” (Gaetano, 2003, 6).
Nearly twenty years later, I agree with Edward Clint, who in a cogent written piece, argues that the Prime Directive is an example of Star Trek’s Doctrine of Moral Laziness:
“The utopian future of Star Trek (most specifically, that of The Next Generation [TNG]) is sometimes described as an idealized liberal world… Unfortunately, TNG also encodes some of the utter failures of 20th century liberal thought. The consequences of adopting them, whether in fiction or real life, can be pretty horrifying, not to mention morally disgusting.”
Star Trek was originally born during the era of hippies, civil rights, and baby boomers at the height of their idealism. Decades later, younger generations have rebooted the franchise to be less optimistic, more nuanced and sadly much more cynical. Let’s use that nuance to correct and reboot the Prime Directive so it becomes an inspirational philosophy rather that a source of nihilism and human rights abuse. Star Trek has the power to inspire and educate; let’s make it so.
Adrian Gaetano, 2003. ‘Review: Enterprise: Bad Science, Bad Fiction’, in Geoff Allshorn and Miriam English (eds.), Diverse Universe: Newsletter for the club ‘Spaced Out’, Melbourne: Spaced Out, #16, June, 4 – 6.
Eric Greene, 2006. ‘The prime question’, in David Gerrold & Robert J Sawyer (eds.), Boarding the Enterprise: transporters, tribbles and the Vulcan death grip in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Dallas: BenBella Books, 57 – 86.
Dave Marinaccio, 1994. All I really needed to know I learned from watching Star Trek, London: Titan Books.
Ian Sherr, 2016. Star Trek’s Robert Beltran: The Prime Directive is ‘fascist crap’, C│NET, 7 Sept.
© 2021 Geoff Allshorn.