A succinct enunciation of Star Trek' 'Prime Directive'
March 30, 2015 6:38 PM   Subscribe

I need a piece of material for a classroom exercise which involves some succinct explanation of the 'prime directive' in the Star Trek franchise (with which I'm very unfamiliar). Ideally it would be Kirk explaining it interestingly and theatrically, but any bit of video or text, that I could show or read to my class, would be useful.
posted by Fiasco da Gama to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy... and a very correct one. History has proven 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." Jean-Luc Picard, 2364
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:56 PM on March 30, 2015 [6 favorites]

That's from the Memory Alpha link for the Prime Directive. A great place for you find out more about the Prime Directive.
posted by Rob Rockets at 6:57 PM on March 30, 2015

That link explains the prime directive very well.

I don't know the context you need this for. But it may be important to note, given that you say you are very unfamiliar with Trek, that characters in the Trek universe go on about how vital and important the Prime Directive is at the same time that they are constantly and blatantly violating it. So that may be something to keep in mind.
posted by Justinian at 7:13 PM on March 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It's a first year uni history class on colonialism, and I'd like it for a controversial discussion point on an 'idealised' notion of how to do cultural contact and how not to be exploitative. But the more I look at this the less applicable it seems to be...
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:21 PM on March 30, 2015

The next generation episode 'Who Watches the Watchers' may be up your alley
posted by wallawallasweet at 7:56 PM on March 30, 2015

Symbiosis was another good TNG episode that had some interesting Prime Directive wrangling.
posted by sparklemotion at 7:58 PM on March 30, 2015

Part of the problem is that baked into the very notion of the Prime Directive are big, troublesome (even in-universe, per DS9) concepts about "development" or "civilization" or "modernity" where the Federation is portrayed as the objectively more advanced culture and whomever's being contacted as the objectively inferior culture. And this, obviously, is more than a bit a mid-century colonialist discourse, and not necessarily something you'd want to recapitulate as an ideal version of cultural contact.

Like obviously Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Janeway have starships and godlike powers to make Earl Grey or Trademarkable Alien Cappuccino-style Coffee Product out of thin air but there's a lot of colonialist baggage you're buying into with the Prime Directive and I think applying it to the way colonial projects of exploitation played out in history without talking about the ways the civilizing mission was constructed and how the Prime Directive reflects that history isn't a great idea.
posted by The Bridge on the River Kai Ryssdal at 8:36 PM on March 30, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Prime Directive is generally applied in two ways. The first is the one that has been discussed thus far: not to make contact with less-advanced civilizations. The divided line for "advanced" was clear - whether or not the civilization had invented warp travel. Once a civilization had invented warp, the Federation would make first contact. One episode of ST:TNG, "First Contact", depicts how the process works. It makes sense to me to wait until a civilization is space-faring before inviting them to your space-faring society, but this is apparently the cause of some handwringing.

The second application of the Prime Directive is not to interfere in the internal affairs of civilizations even if they are warp-capable, most notably in a number of Voyager episodes. I don't know how that might fit within the scope of your class.

It has been many moons since I have taught university students but I'd generally advise using material in class if you are not familiar with the material. This probably goes double for something like Star Trek with a fandom that makes it likely that at least one student knows the Prime Directive far better than you do.
posted by Tanizaki at 9:00 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

This collection of clips is certainly theatrical: Star Trek: TNG "Prime Directive"

and it claims to be "created for educational purposes under the "fair use" provisions of 17 U.S.C. s.107"
posted by Little Dawn at 9:24 PM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'd like it for a controversial discussion point on an 'idealised' notion of how to do cultural contact and how not to be exploitative. But the more I look at this the less applicable it seems to be..

Yes, I would advise against this.

The Prime Directive is not a good example of an anti-imperialism law, treaty, or ethical guide. It is a good example of a concept invented for dramatic purposes, which the creators then feel free to hand-wave or disregard entirely whenever convenient.

It was invented in and for the original series. Out of 79 episodes I count 19 where the Enterprise came into contact with a planet/civilization that lacked interstellar technology.*

One hundred percent of the time, either the "no references to other worlds", "no interference with social development", or "no identification of self or mission" clauses are violated -- often all three -- sometimes first by a previous Fed contact or by Klingons, but often initiated by Kirk and his crew. As often as not, Kirk willy-nilly destroys the planet's existing social order entirely because it didn't appeal to him. There may be discussion, even angry disagreement among the Trio, but interference always wins.

Too, I wonder if the way the Prime Directive actually works isn't less about anti-imperialism and more like a nuclear non-proliferation agreement. As in: "We have enough headaches out here with the blueskins and knuckleheads who already have interstellar technology. Let's not spread it around to these plebes unless they can figure it out for themselves."

More Help
WP: The Prime Directive
The Prime Directive: Star Trek’s doctrine of moral laziness
Have there been any exceptions . . . ?
Star Trek's 'Prime Directive' is stupid

*Special cases: Three eps: Aliens have interplanet, but not interstellar technology; One: Space technology is doled out by a computer as needed, but otherwise unavailable; One: Aliens had apparently been planted there long ago by another space-faring civilization; One: Bronze age aliens are actually "highly evolved energy beings"; One: Whatever you'd call the Hortae.
posted by Herodios at 8:49 AM on March 31, 2015

I'm not sure that just because Star Trek only depicts violations of the Prime Directive is a reason not to use it.

First, what you're really concerned about it is the doctrine itself, and not however it's used for dramatic purposes.

Second, even though the shows only show its violation, this seems more of the exception proves the rule (and this is to get into the Star Trek cannon and help legitimize its use in the show). I've only watched Star Trek Voyager, but in it it's clear that Captain Janeway wrestles with the Prime Directive. It's an ideal that is close and dear to her heart and self-identity, and is only violated with great pain, and only because there is felt to be such an overriding need to do so. And this is something that most Starfleet Officers are indoctrinated with. It acts in this way as a system of checks. The Prime Directive helps make it so that interference should only happen under very critical circumstances.

On this second point, one might also compare Christian and Islamic religious law. I don't have a quote handy, but I think I read it in Toward an Islamic Reformation by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im. He writes that Muslims are more prone to hypocrisy: That is to say, when the needs of reality confront their ideals, they don't try to change their ideals... instead they accept that their ideals need to be set aside. Whereas for Christians, their tendency is to change their ideals with the times.

Consider then two societies, both which interfere with other societies. Isn't there an important difference between the two societies, if one of them sees nothing wrong with its interference, and another which interferes begrudgingly/knowing that they are doing something wrong?
posted by Dalby at 8:25 PM on March 31, 2015

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