Prime Directive

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In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive (also known as Starfleet General Order 1, General Order 1, and the "non-interference directive") is a guiding principle of Starfleet, prohibiting its members from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations.[1] The Prime Directive applies particularly to civilizations which are below a certain threshold of technological, scientific and cultural development; preventing starship crews from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on them.[2] Since its introduction in the first season of the original Star Trek series, it has served as the plot focus of numerous episodes of the various Star Trek series.

The Prime Directive

Although the concept of the Prime Directive has been alluded to and paraphrased by many Star Trek characters during the television series and feature films, the actual directive has never been provided to viewers. The most complete attempts to define the directive have come from non-canonical works and include:

As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet 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. Starfleet 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.[3][4]


The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet personnel and spacecraft from interfering in the normal development of any society, and mandates that any Starfleet vessel or crew member is expendable to prevent violation of this rule[5]

Creation and evolution

Creation of the Prime Directive is generally credited to original-series producer Gene L. Coon.[6] The Prime Directive reflected a contemporary political view that US involvement in the Vietnam War was an example of a superpower interfering in the natural development of southeast Asian society; the creation of the Prime Directive was perceived as a repudiation of that involvement.[7][8]

Although filmed between 2001 and 2005, Star Trek: Enterprise (ENT) is a prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) and references are made to the Prime Directive. Most notably in the first season episode, "Dear Doctor", Captain Jonathan Archer says "Some day, my people are gonna come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that says what we can and can't do out here, should and shouldn't do. But until someone tells me that they've drafted that directive, I'm gonna have to remind myself every day that we didn't come out here to play God."[9] Additionally, in the ENT episodes "Fight or Flight" and "Civilization", references are made to a Vulcan policy of non-interference that imply it may have been a model for starfleet's Prime Directive.

The first filmed reference to the Prime Directive occurs in the first season TOS episode "The Return of the Archons" (1966), when Spock begins to caution Captain Kirk when he proposes to destroy a computer controlling an entire civilization. Kirk interrupts him after Spock says, "Captain, our Prime Directive of non-interference" with, "That refers to a living, growing culture..." Later, Kirk argues the computer into self-destruction and leaves behind a team of sociologists to help restore the society to a "human" form.

In the TOS second season episode, "The Omega Glory", after finding out that Captain Tracy may have violated the Prime Directive, Captain Kirk states, "A starship captain's most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive."

In the TOS second season epsidoe, "Bread and Circuses", the crew discusses that the Prime Directive is in effect, saying:

No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space, or the fact that there are other worlds, or more advanced civilizations.

In the TOS second season episode "A Piece of the Action", interference 100 years earlier by the Federation ship, the Horizon, hints that the Prime Directive was not in force at that time.

"Bread and Circuses", "A Piece of the Action" and "Patterns of Force" mark three occurrences starfleet personnel attempt to minimize as much harm as possible, with an openness proportional to how significant the exposure has been, after the Prime Directive has been violated.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard states during the Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episode "Symbiosis", "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."

In the Star Trek: Voyager (VOY) episode "Infinite Regress," set nearly a century later, it is revealed that the Directive has 47 sub-orders.

In the VOY episode "The Omega Directive," an exception to the Prime Directive was introduced. Starfleet General Order number 0 authorizes a captain to take any and all means necessary to destroy Omega particles including interference with any society that creates them.

Picard mentioned in Star Trek: First Contact, that the origin of the prime directive came in aftermath to a negative initial contact with the Klingons which led to decades of war.

Use as allegory

Star Trek stories have used the Prime Directive as a literary device which allows the exploration of interactions with less advanced societies without the heroes having the overwhelming advantage of easy access to and use of their technology. Since Star Trek has consistently used alien interactions as an allegory for the real world, the Prime Directive has served as a template to tell stories which resemble those of real human societies and their interactions with less technologically advanced societies, such as the interaction between modern cultures and indigenous peoples. In the philosophical view of Star Trek, no matter how well-intentioned the more advanced peoples are, interaction between advanced technology and a more primitive society is invariably destructive.

In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive has special implications for civilizations that have not yet developed the technology for interstellar spaceflight ("pre-warp"), since no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or the existence of extraplanetary civilizations, lest this exposure alter the natural development of the civilization. "Pre-warp" is defined as any culture which has not yet attained warp drive technology and is thus, implicitly, unaware of the existence of alien races. Starfleet allows scientific missions to investigate and secretly move amongst pre-warp civilizations as long as no advanced technology is left behind, and there is no interference with events or no revelation of their identity. This can usually be accomplished with hidden observation posts, but Federation personnel may disguise themselves as local sentient life and interact with them.

In the Original Series episode "Patterns of Force," Federation cultural observer and historian John Gill openly created a regime based on Nazi Germany on a primitive planet in a misguided effort to create a society which combined what he wrongly viewed as the high efficiency of a fascist dictatorship with a more benign philosophy. In doing so, he contaminated the normal and healthy development of the planet's culture, with a power-hungry subordinate making Gill his puppet and causing the regime to adopt the same racial supremacist and genocidal ideologies of the original. This in turn forced Starfleet personnel to intervene directly to minimize the harm to the societies.

By the time of the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Prime Directive was indicated to apply not only to just pre-warp civilizations, but also, indeed, to any culture with whom Starfleet comes into contact. In such situations, the Prime Directive forbids any involvement with a civilization without the expressed consent or invitation of the lawful leaders of that society, and absolutely forbids any involvement whatsoever in the internal politics of a civilization.[2]

In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the provisional government of the planet Bajor experienced a power struggle that nearly led to civil war. During this conflict, Deep Space Nine Commander Benjamin Sisko's superior Admiral Chekote ordered him to evacuate all Starfleet personnel from the station, as the conflict over what form the Bajoran government would take was deemed internal to Bajor; the Federation had no business influencing the Bajorans' decision in this matter. Not even the knowledge that the Cardassians were secretly supporting one Bajoran faction dissuaded the admiral, who noted, "The Cardassians may involve themselves in other people's civil wars, but we don't."[10]

In the Next Generation episode "Pen Pals", the senior staff had a philosophical discussion regarding the Prime Directive. Troi and LaForge argued that if there was a "cosmic plan," that the presence of the Enterprise and its crew was also to be included in that plan and that this alone allowed them a legitimate claim to act on behalf of a people in need. Captain Picard argued that one's personal certitude was not relevant and that the Prime Directive was meant to prevent "us" from letting our emotions overwhelm our judgment.

On Star Trek: Voyager, the Prime Directive was used more than once as a plot device as well, and Captain Kathryn Janeway also applied the Prime Directive to a situation which clearly did not involve a pre-warp civilization in "State of Flux" and "Maneuvers". Also, in at least two different episodes in which they encountered civilizations that had technology which could shorten their journey home—"Prime Factors" and "Future's End (Part II)"—policies similar to the Prime Directive were cited as a basis for denying Janeway and her crew access to it. In the episode "Infinite Regress," Naomi Wildman revealed that there were 47 sub-orders of the Prime Directive.

On several occasions, characters indicate that the Prime Directive extends even to the point of allowing a civilization to end. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Pen Pals" features Lt. Commander Data befriending a child who lived on a doomed planet and offering help; this was presented as a problematic transgression. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Homeward", it is said that Starfleet had allowed 60 races to die out rather than interfere with their fate. In this episode, the loss of a planet's atmosphere was about to wipe out the last remaining members of a primitive civilization; Federation observer Nikolai Rozhenko refused to stand by and he violated the Prime Directive by saving a small group of that civilization.

In the TOS episode "A Private Little War", two different factions on a planet were at war with each other. But when it was found that Klingons were furnishing one faction with advanced weapons, Kirk responded in apparent violation of the Prime Directive, arming the other faction with the same weapons. This resulted in an arms race on that world, as a fictionalized parallel to the then-current Cold War arms race, in which the United States often armed one side of a dispute and the Soviet Union armed the other, in a practice known as proxy war. In "State of Flux", Voyager Captain Janeway refused to allow the Kazon-Nistrim and the Kazon-Ogla to have replicator technology, believing it would tip the balance of power among the Kazon factions.

On a planet that had two indigenous sentient species, the more advanced one was suffering from a degenerative genetic disorder. A cure was not pursued because it was determined that the more advanced species was genetically stagnant, and that the lesser one was genetically progressive. It was viewed as contrary to nature to help the dying race. Although this event took place in the series Star Trek: Enterprise, in the episode "Dear Doctor," and took place before the formation of both the Federation and the Prime Directive, it reflected the views of space-faring humans and their allies in the years leading up to the creation of the Federation.


One criticism (noted by real-world critics and viewers, but rarely in-universe) regarding the Prime Directive is that it is inconsistently applied, depending on a planet's strategic importance or the circumstances in which a starship crew finds itself.[11] For example, as part of the Federation's then-ongoing hostilities with the Klingons, Captain Kirk was ordered to make contact with the seemingly pre-industrial Organians in the episode "Errand of Mercy." In addition, Kirk directly interfered with the laws or customs of alien worlds in "Friday's Child," "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," "The Cloud Minders," "The Apple," "The Return of the Archons," and "A Taste of Armageddon," to achieve a Federation objective, to save the lives of his crew, or both.[11]

Compounding matters was that in the TOS episode "The Omega Glory," Kirk stated, "A star captain's most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive." Yet he seemingly violated the Prime Directive as "the only way to save my ship" in "A Taste of Armageddon". Also, there was no explanation for the Federation ambassador who tried to mediate between Eminiar VII and Vendikar—neither was a Federation member—without considering the parties' desires.[11]

In "The Return of the Archons" and "The Apple" reference to the "Prime Directive of non-interference" was made by Spock. In "The Return Of The Archons," Kirk says the Prime Directive referred to "a living, growing culture" to justify interfering with what he saw as the non-development of the computer-controlled culture, asking pointedly in reference to it, by contrasting it with living, growing cultures, "Do you think this one is?" In "The Apple" Spock pointed out that Starfleet Command might not agree with his choice to interfere with the computer-controlled culture. Kirk's reply to this was, "I'll take my chances."[11]

There are also episodes in which the Prime Directive should have been mentioned, but was not. In "The Paradise Syndrome", the Enterprise attempted to save a pre-industrial planet by moving an asteroid that was on a collision course with it; when McCoy asked Kirk if he should warn the people, Kirk and Spock only pointed out that the people would not understand the warning, and neither made any reference to the Prime Directive. In "The Cloud Minders," Kirk interfered with the culture of Ardana to obtain zenite, the only cure for a biological plague ravaging Merak.[11]

Vice Admiral Matthew Dougherty's reasons for violation of the Prime Directive in Star Trek: Insurrection in Picard's time echoed the reasons Kirk gave McCoy in "A Private Little War," but Picard considered them invalid. In "Homeward," Nikolai Rozhenko used holodeck technology to save the Boraalan and enforce what he believed was the spirit of the Prime Directive, even though Picard had already said that such actions violated what it actually stated. In "Pen Pals," Captain Picard rectified contact with an inhabitant of a pre-warp planet by ordering her memory erased. When contamination became too serious to be fixed by memory erasures, Captain Picard decided to make direct contact with a civilization's leaders in "Who Watches the Watchers" and "First Contact," although the latter episode involved a planet on the verge of achieving warp flight, and therefore eligible for First Contact. Finally, in "Natural Law", the Voyager crew took measures to ensure the protected isolation of a primitive people, even from a more advanced civilization who share the same planet.[11] In contrast, the Next Generation episode "Justice" did not explicitly explain whether the Edo people were pre-warp or were aware of offworld space travelers before the Enterprise's visit. If the case was the former, then when Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death, the violation of the Prime Directive had already occurred and the issue of rescuing him, while politically exacerbating matters, might not have been a violation of the Directive.[11]

Picard's nine documented violations of the Prime Directive are held as evidence against him during a witch-hunt investigation in "The Drumhead." Additionally, the non-canonical novel Prime Directive, written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, dealt with the political and career fallout from a violation Kirk had committed. In canon, James Kirk apprehended Captain Ronald Tracey of the USS Exeter when he found evidence of the latter's apparent violation of the Prime Directive. However, the aftermath of the arrest was not detailed.[12] In the film Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Captain Kirk was stripped of his command after revealing the Enterprise to the prewarp culture of the Nibiru to save Spock's life, aggravated by the fact that Kirk had deliberately lied in the mission report to Starfleet to cover for it, and was exposed when Spock clearly stated what happened in his report, which created a divide between them.

Temporal Prime Directive

The Temporal Prime Directive is intended to prevent a time traveler (from the past or future) from interfering in the natural development of a timeline. The TPD was formally created by the 29th century, and was enforced through an agency of Starfleet called the Temporal Integrity Commission, which monitored and restricted deviations from the natural flow of history.[13] However, several Star Trek: Voyager episodes specifically make references to the Temporal Prime Directive that suggest it retroactively applies across all of time.

The directive is regarded as "inviolable", and any Starfleet officer responding to a question regarding their prior actions with words to the effect of "I cannot reply due to the Temporal Prime Directive" would not normally be subject to censure, as long as some form of temporal instability had been sensed, however slight the signs.

As 31st century time traveler Daniels revealed to Captain Jonathan Archer in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Cold Front", as time travel technology became practical, the Temporal Accords were established sometime significantly before the 31st century, to allow the use of time travel for the purposes of studying history, while prohibiting the use of it to alter history. Some factions rejected the Accords, leading to the Temporal Cold War that served as a recurring storyline during the first three seasons of that series.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b Peltz, Richard J. (March 2003). "On a Wagon Train to Afghanistan: Limitations on Star Trek's Prime Directive". University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review. 25.
  3. ^ Menke, Bernard E.; Stuart, Rick D. (1986). The Federation. FASA. p. 5.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Michael and Denise Okuda, "The Star Trek Encyclopedia, 1999
  6. ^
  7. ^ Franklin, H. Bruce. "Star Trek in the Vietnam Era". Science Fiction Studies. Retrieved 2014-02-21 – via DePauw University.
  8. ^ McCormick, Patrick (March 1996). "Final frontier covers old ground". U.S. Catholic. 61, 3: 46, 48 – via Ebsco.
  9. ^ Decker, Kevin S.; Eberl, Jason T., eds. (2016). The Ultimate Star Trek and Philosophy: The Search for Socrates. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 9781119146025.
  10. ^ The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Circle."
  11. ^ a b c d e f g Farrand, Phil (1994). The Nitpicker's Guide for Classic Trekkers. Dell Publishing. pp. 84, 85, 148, 186, 192–193, 209, 215, & 235.
  12. ^ The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Omega Glory."
  13. ^ The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Future's End".

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