Friday, October 25, 2013

Trek Tropes: The Prime Directive and its Varied Applications

Greetings again, fair science fiction fans - I'm happy to be back and scribbling my incoherent thoughts on modern science fiction, even if at a vastly reduced rate compared to this blog's glory days.  As I mentioned last week, I have amassed - through my many hours spent watching and reviewing Star Trek (all incarnations), Stargate, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Farscape, Babylon 5, Firefly, etc. - an astounding collection of broad themes in science, philosophy, politics and religion that are repeatedly explored by modern American and British science fiction writers and frequently become cliche tropes on Star Trek in particular.  Since I have been able to jot down well over a dozen different broad Trek tropes whose existence troubles me enough that I want to discuss them, I thought it would make a good "meta" series for the readers here.  A selection of additional planned "Trek Tropes" topics is posted in the side bar to give you an idea of the types of conversations I wish to have going forward.

For now, let's begin this little journey with the hottest topic in Trek circles - the Prime Directive.  If you've been reading this blog for years and are somehow still around after our almost-full-year hiatus, you'll remember that we discussed the Prime Directive once before.  You're right!  I will present you with the link to the post we have on the subject.

That post is an excellent conversation starter - a good place to begin our trip through the various uses of the Prime Directive in Trek episodes and movies.  My co-author notes that the use of the Prime Directive has changed over time and mentions one such change (the move from requiring that Star Fleet officers not interfere with the internal affairs of prewarp civilizations, to requiring that Star Fleet not interfere with the internal affairs of any other sovereign worlds).  I would submit (as would my co-author, I'm sure) that the changes in the Prime Directive we've observed are not simply in how it is strictly applied, but how it is received by Star Fleet officers as problems present themselves.  Those more subtle changes reflect the evolving views of the writers as different groups have had their turn as the show's philosophical directors.

I think Star Trek can roughly be broken up into four "great movements" that directly reflect the political environments of the real world (and no, these periods do not necessarily align with specific franchises).
  • The Idealistic Period (1966-1989)
    • During a period of constant conflict abroad, American TV audiences wanted something that gave us reason to hope that humanity would some day rise above our petty and not-so-petty disagreements and become something greater and more prosperous.  The original Star Trek (TOS) was full of cornball hackery, most of which was the direct result of an untenable universe populated by worlds where the rules of the game were (for the most part) simple ideals.  That's not to say that TOS lacked good ideas or good certainly had its moments; and, after all, it sparked a 50-year phenomenon that is alive and strong to this day.  But few can deny that a typical TOS episode involved a simple dilemma with an obvious moral truth directly communicated by Kirk, Spock, or McCoy.
    • The early Trek, which included the first two plus seasons of The Next Generation (TNG), detailed an idealistic world where there was no need for money, where no one starved, where few died of disease, and where there was complete harmony within the ranks of the Federation.
    • In the ideal Federation, people were motivated by a desire to better themselves, help their fellow men, learn and explore.  The things we humans today think of as primary motivations - evolutionary imperatives like sex and procreation, security, power - those things essentially did not exist on Federation worlds (well...they had lots of sex, but it wasn't what motivated people and gave meaning to their lives. :) ).
    • These early episodes were filled with relativistic moral jeremiads delivered in the way that a prophet might do - from on high in the form of an impassioned speech.
  • The Humanistic Period (1989-1996)
    • With the arrival of Ron D. Moore, Michael Pillar and Rick Berman and the ouster of Gene Roddenbury (shortly before his death in 1991), TNG episodes began to change.  The philosophy of Star Trek's new managers was that, in order to properly portray an optimistic future, we needed to think of our heroes (and villains) as human, complete with recognizable human desires and flaws.  The result was a show that began to look a lot more like the prosperous 1990s in the real world.  During this period, the show still exuded idealistic motivations, but, rather than delivering sermons like Aesop or Avicenna, our heroes and villains would show a real diversity of thought and the show would be more open to multiple viewpoints.
    • This period made frequent references to trade, money, and compromise.  Where an episode from the idealistic period would portray diplomacy as (generally speaking) unfailing when the parties involved were the least bit interested in peace, a show from this period might suggest that we'd like to work through diplomatic channels, but that process is extremely difficult and requires us to settle for a less-than-optimal outcome - such as, for example, the Federation/Cardassian peace treaty and its requirements that millions of Federation citizens be forcibly removed from their homes to appease the Cardassians.  Where an early episode would suggest that money was an entirely foreign concept to the Federation, later episodes made direct reference to deals between the Federation and the Ferengi, including trade taxes (!) and fees paid for by the Federation.  Somehow.
    • During this period, romantic love returned to its place as a primary motivated factor in life's biggest decisions.  Rather than seeing sex as something everyone does for fun only, episodes from this period frequently motivated the entire conflict of the story through romance.  Near as I can tell, this happened only once or twice on TOS (the most famous being Kirk's love affair with Edith Keeler in "City on the Edge of Forever") and not once in the entire first two seasons of TNG.  Now, Trek's success with realistic depictions of romance is, unfortunately, DEEPLY limited, but these episodes nonetheless became much more important to the show.
  • The Militaristic Period (1996-1999)
    • Moore, in particular, wished to push the boundaries of Trek toward discussions of war and conflict heretofore absent from the show at the insistence of Roddenbery.  Convincing arguments have been made that the militarization of Star Trek actually began with "The Best of Both Worlds," but I think the real change did not finally take place until the arrival of The Defiant (otherwise known by SFDebris as "Ben Sisko's Mother-F***ing Pimp Hand"), or even until the beginning of Deep Space Nine's (DS9) 4th season, when the station was outfitted with an enormous weapons grid to fend off Dominion attacks and a pitched battle was fought with 50 Klingon war birds (!).
    • During this period (and primarily on DS9), issues of when and how to go about the use of force, the trade off between security and liberty, and the horrors of all-out war were finally discussed.  All other moral questions tended to be seen through the framework of a citizenry facing constant threat of warfare and destruction.
    • The very nature of what it meant to be a Star Fleet officer was redefined gradually, beginning in the 6th season of TNG with Deanna Troi's attempts to qualify as a bridge officer and coming to full climax in DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight."  Where Roddebury and the early producers of Trek saw Star Fleet officers as a think tank in space - out there primarily to learn and to explore and capable of fighting only in their own self defense and as a last resort, Ron Moore viewed them as soldiers in a massive interstellar Navy - a Navy that spent a lot of time doing peaceful work for the good of the Galaxy in the same way that the US Navy presently spends the vast majority of its money and people on projects intended to raise the standard of living around the globe, but a Navy nonetheless.
  • The Simplistic Period (1995-2005)
    • There's a bit of overlap here, because, while Ron Moore, Michael Pillar and the team of writers assembled to craft DS9 were busy talking about military conflict, Rick Berman, Brannon Braga and a rotating cast of guest writers were busily backtracking to a simpler time with Star Trek: Voyager (VOY).  Voyager and Enterprise (ENT) both approached most of their ethical dilemmas by seeking the simplest way AROUND them (that is until some new faces arrived during ENT's third season and pitched the show briefly back toward an amalgamation of humanistic and militaristic stories - some of which worked and others did not).
    • This period differs from the idealistic period in that the idealistic period tended to stand for a specific set of ethical standards, while the simplistic period tended only to stand for very generic platitudes and ill-considered speeches.  Voyager isn't as bad as some people (including SFDebris) frequently claim - it has things to recommend it from time to time - but it fails compared to TNG and DS9 because it does not present realistic, believable human beings very often and it is rarely grounded in real consequences.  I get on Roddenbury's case (for example in this post: Gene Roddenbery: Hack!), but he did have a coherent, guiding set of principles.  The last two versions of Trek failed even to come this far.
Followed by the 2009 Star Trek film and its attempt to reboot the Trek capital wealth engine for a more general interest audience.

I've said a lot and we haven't even really discussed the PD yet.  But I said all of that because how it was used throughout Trek history reflects the core beliefs of Trek's storytellers.  Let's look at some examples of PD usage in each period, and you'll quickly see what I mean.

Idealistic Period

Justice (TNG 1:8) - The gang arrives at an Eden-like planet where everyone has sex as often as possible and there is no suffering or crime - all because the laws are enforced with lethal injection (!).  It doesn't matter what law you break, you die.  So when Wesley doesn't see the "don't step on our flowers" sign while playing ball and entirely accidentally smashed up their display, he is sentenced to death on the spot.  This wouldn't be much of a story if everyone was sane.  If all of the players were sane, Picard would have beamed Wesley right on up to the ship, told those aliens to suck it, and warped away before the orbiting space monster had time to attack.  But, instead, Picard spends half the show trying to get the people to please kindly not murder his crewman for stepping on the flowers so that he doesn't have to violate the PD.  The violation does follow, but the giant space God is there to make sure we only do so after massive hand-wringing and genuflection to the PD.

This one is not complicated.  If you believe in natural law and inviolable human rights, then that natural law must supersede all other ethical constructs.  Wesley Crusher is entitled to his life.  No rule of law should deny him that right (yes, I'm anti-death-penalty in general), or his liberty (unless his actions infringed on the liberty of others).  Those things come before general orders.  It is only when your legal system is devoid of the natural laws that you NEED to apply something like the PD as an absolute.  Moral relativism creates this kind of dilemma.

Symbiosis (TNG 1:22) - The Enterprise rescues a damaged freighter and offers to help their crew make repairs when the crew discovers that one alien race is knowingly keeping another alien race addicted to a narcotic-like drug for its own prosperity.  Crusher wants to interfere - tell the Omaran people that they are healthy and simply addicted to a drug - but Picard enforces the PD, saying that they cannot go around applying the PD only when it is convenient:
PICARD: "Beverly, the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy... and a very correct one. History has proved again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous."
CRUSHER: "It's hard to be philosophical when faced with suffering."
PICARD: "Believe me Beverly, there was only one decision."
CRUSHER: "I just hope it was the right one."
PICARD: "And we may never know."
EVERY time, Picard?  What about when the more developed west offers medication and infrastructure assistance to struggle countries in Africa?  That outcome is unquestionably disastrous?  What about all of that aid going out to third world nations by institutions like the Catholic Church, the Red Cross and the Peace Corps?

Pen Pals (TNG 2:15) - The Enterprise is investigated the sudden total destruction of planets in a distance star system and Data inadvertently discovers that one girl is calling for help on her radio as her planet has also begun to tear itself apart.  He answers her and the two strike up a conversation.  That is until Picard finds out about it...he orders Data to stop because he is in violation of the PD.  They then argue about what to do next, including some (admittedly well-acted) of the following dialogue:
WORF: "There are no options. The Prime Directive is not a matter of... degrees, it is an absolute."
PULASKI: "I have a problem with that kind of rigidity. It seems callous, and even a little cowardly."
PICARD: "Doctor, I'm sure that is not what the lieutenant meant but in a situation like this, we have to be cautious. What we do today, may profoundly affect the future. If we could see every possible outcome..."
RIKER: "... we'd be gods, which we are not. If there is a cosmic plan, is it not the height of hubris to think we can or should interfere?"
LAFORGE: "So what are you saying? That the Dremans are fated to die?"
RIKER: "I think that's an option that we should be considering."
LAFORGE: "Consider it considered and rejected!"
TROI: "If there is a cosmic plan, are we not part of it? Our presence at this place at this moment in time could be part of that fate."
PICARD: "So you believe we should help the Dremans, whether we know what impact that decision will have or not?"
LAFORGE: "In the case of a natural disaster?  Absolutely."
PICARD: "What if the cause is an ecological disaster?  What about disease?"  (LaForge still nods) "What about a war.  Ah, we're not so certain about our positions now, are we?"
As my co-author already pointed out, warfare is very different than a natural disaster, and it is obvious that, before entering into any conflict, one should have all of the facts, and that taking sides in a war that is not your own should be avoided whenever possible (note: if your interests are involved, it is not a war that is not your own!), but that's a non sequitur.  The question before them is whether we should offer aid in the face of a natural disaster.  Star Trek can't seem to agree with itself on this question - the writers make opposing arguments all the time as you'll see in later periods.  But this is the idealistic period, and all manner of aid to a new species is unjustified if any manner is clearly unjustified.  The only thing that allows for Sarjenko and her people to be spared is the mere fact that they were already involved.  If Data had heard the voice but not answered...they never would have saved those lives.

The Humanistic Period

Redemption (TNG 4:26/5:1) - This is the first example I can find where the PD is rewritten to apply to all civilizations and their internal matters, not just prewarp species.  Here, the Romulans plot to advance the House of Duras and overthrow Gowron as Chancellor with the goal of then having an alliance with the Klingon Empire against the Federation.  Despite the fact that Federation interests are clearly in play, Star Fleet orders Picard not to interfere in internal Klingon matters because the PD applies.  Picard chooses to very creatively interfere in his own way - by convincing Star Fleet to deploy to the Klingon/Romulan border in an attempt to catch cloaked Romulan ships crossing into Klingon space.  This leads to some serious bad-assery by Captain Data (seriously...that part of this episode is a hoot), but more to the point, they succeed in catching the Romulans, allowing the Federation to bring this information to Gowron and thus end the civil war.  But not before perhaps tens of thousands of Klingons perish and the Federation comes perilously close to losing an ally to the Romulans.

Homeward (TNG 7:13) - Here, Worf's brother from Earth violates the PD because he falls in love with one of the people he's supposed to be studying.  When he realizes that the planet's atmosphere is about to be totally destroyed by a cascade reaction, he abducts a small group of survivors to the Enterprise Holodeck and, while searching for a new place for them to live, he and Worf must team up to lead them on a Holodeck generated trip across increasingly unfamiliar terrain to get them used to their new home.  Here, we get a particularly annoying application of the PD.  Because the planet is about to die a natural death, we should allow an entire species to cease to exist.  On the other hand, the cost of giving these people aid is also expressed through the suffering and lonely death of one man who discovers the deception.

The episode ends well enough, but Picard's refusal to offer aid in this circumstance strikes me as rather obtuse.  If the guaranteed outcome from taking no action is DEATH...I think the alternatives should at least be considered, no?  At the very least, the problem posed by rendering aid is given a cover of layers of complexity and Worf's brother takes on a heroic quality as he takes responsibility for his actions and settles into a new life when the misadventure on the Holodeck finally ends.  This one doesn't feel like a sermon about the righteousness of the PD - more like a discussion starter.

The Siege (DS9 2:3) - Here, hard-line isolationist Bajorans are being manipulated by Cardassian weapons into a coup on Bajor and they demand their station back.  Sisko, fully aware of the scope of the problem, begs Star Fleet to intervene, but they rule that the Federation cannot get involved in a Bajoran civil war - the PD applies.  Sisko - our story's hero - correctly files that order under "f**k you" and makes a last stand on the Station in an attempt to buy time for Dax and Kira to get proof of Cardassian involvement in "The Circle" to the Chamber of Ministers.  This one feels like a direct criticism of the PD applied rigidly.  Situational awareness matters - ESPECIALLY in matters of war.  The result of allowing the coup to occur would be the subjugation of the Bajoran people under the jackboot of Cardassian tyranny.  That outcome carries enough cost (and certainty) that the alternatives must be explored.

The Militaristic Period

Very few episodes focus in on PD matters as the pivot point for the plot during this period.  However, the PD is, evidently, flagrantly ignored repeatedly during the Dominion War arc.  In Inter Arma, Einem Silent Leges (DS9 7:16), the Federation tricks the Romulans into ousting Senator Kretak in exchange for a Federation sympathizer to become the leader of the Senate - under the heading "In times of war, the law falls silent."  We find out that the Federation has plotted to wipe out the Founders (!) as the war comes to a close.  Sisko makes regular use of a Cardassiasn spy (Garak) to infiltrate the Cardassian Empire.  All of those things are technically not PD violations if you understand its meaning as only applying when your own interests are not at stake...but clearly that is not the meaning ascribed to the PD during the humanistic period (see above).  On top of that, we have Bashir finding a vaccine for "The Quickening" - a Dominion biological weapon - to stop the death of a species in whom we have no vested interest (and in so doing, likely saved them from eventual extinction and took sides in a war during a time where they had not yet formally declared war on the Dominion).  We have the Federation rendering aid to the new civilian government of Cardassia while the Klingons tried to finish them off (gee...that sounds an awful lot like interfering in a war in which your own interests are not directly at stake), Sisko bombing two planets with a biological weapon to flush out a single Maquis terrorist (!), Sisko encouraging Kira to get state secrets from a Cardassian friend while his government (who has a legitimate legal claim to that friend that Picard might have respected) attempts to get him back, and the DS9 crew using Ferengi spying to acquire intelligence about potential threats to the station.  Sisko and the PD just do not get along. :)

In general, the PD is reduced in role during this time, with its invocation usually being a cause for Sisko to go renegade and get something done.  The argument is consistently made throughout the Dominion War epoch that such things as the PD must not be viewed as absolutes to be respected above the basic needs of a people - such needs including the right of that people to survive, to be free, and to seek happiness.  Sounds a lot like a certain document I love to quote and certain progressives love to twist.

The Simplistic Period

My co-author already mentioned the morally abhorrent decision of Archer and Phlox to decline aid to a race dying of a plague they could cure because another race might rise to prominence if the first dies out (Dear Doctor).  But during this period, the PD seems only to be applied when it helps the dramatic tension of the story to apply it.  At various times, you see Captain Janeway (VOY) invoking the PD as an absolute (as in "Time and Again" (1:3), and Prime Factors (1:10) - frequently deploying some really obnoxiously debate tactics (as I already discussed when reviewing the former episode).  At other times she does everything from attempt to forge an alliance with a couple of Kaazon sects (wow!) to offer technology to the Hirogen to get them to go away (!!).  One minute, she's insisting that no Voyager tech find its way into alien hands...the next minute she's offering it up on a platter if the mood suits her.  That is the difference between this period and the idealistic period.  Here, ideals are presented just as heavy-handedly as they were in the first season of TNG or during TOS, but not on a consistent basis.  The whiplash you get as you watch several consecutive episodes of VOY or ENT is astonishing.

The upshot of all of this is that the reason for the confusion about the application of the PD is simply that it has always been a foil for the motivations of its writers.  This bothers me because it's a moving target when you start arguing the conservative perspective on it.  Fans can point to all different levels of application for the PD in its defense.

I thought it necessary to clarify my own position on it before we move on to other topics.  I don't believe the PD is a philosophy.  I believe it is an ethical code.  A proper use for ethics is to be a guard against immoral decision-making in COMPLEX situations where your moral philosophy does not give you a clear answer.  The way that the PD has actually been applied (as variable as that is) has frequently included the realm of philosophical/moral construct.  No ethic can replace morality.  When you believe in absolute truth - the natural law - the PD must come second to that law along with all of your other ethical standards.  Without the guiding compass of moral authority, ethics can lead you to make horrible decisions. an ethical standard, I think the PD holds up just fine, so long as it is properly checked by a moral value system that places the right to life, liberty and property ahead of the basic letter of the laws of man (such as the PD).


  1. From TNG onward, this summary is accurate, but I would dispute lumping TOS with the early seasons of TNG -- at least on this particular topic. While many TOS episodes do hit you over the head with the Two-By-Four of Moral Truth, Kirk's relationship to the PD is actually quite flexible and humanistic. He destroys a civilization-supporting super-computer and justifies it by claiming that said computer is arresting its culture's development -- TWICE. He also arms a group of low-tech natives so they can defend themselves against another tribe that is being armed by the Klingons. So yeah -- the absolutism on the PD didn't really appear until the 1980's.

    1. There are actually very few direct references to the PD in TOS...I don't think the idea of the PD was all that strong in the minds of the writers back then...I don't think they thought it through by that time.

      But's been decades since I watched every TOS episodes...last time I saw many of them was back in the 1990s when they were still in syndication if you went to the right channel at the right time.