Star Trek: TNG and The Prime Directive

I did not grow up with nerds. In fact, I did not even self-identify as a nerd myself until later in life. While I attended Comic-Con yearly, loved shows like Buffy and Firefly and had a very advanced addiction to books at a very young age I never connected these things to nerdiness. The first time I really understood the connection between fandom and nerd culture was when Netflix announced their streaming service and I was introduced to Doctor Who. With my newfound love of this show that had a deep history and culture, I started to realize that  the things I had always loved in isolation shared this same cultural identity and similar fan bases.

Since fully embracing my status as a nerd; I have tried to go and backfill my knowledge gaps; comics, video games (I’m not a gamer), but mostly through the shows offered on Netflix. The algorithm Netflix uses to suggest movies and shows I may like may not compare to the shows that I have been recommended by friends, but it’s still pretty amazing. Recently, I began watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, something I used to make fun of my aunt about, snarkily referring to her as a Trekkie – while I read Harry Potter for the eighth time and rejoicing at my luck of not being a nerd.

I remember learning about Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, later in life and greatly respecting his philosophy around the show and yet still holding onto the stereotype of the awkward Con-going Trekkie. Well, it’s been two weeks and two seasons later and I have come to the realization that I may have gotten it all very wrong. Besides starring some of my favorite actors Sir Patrick Stewart, Whoopi Goldberg and my best friend Wil Weaton, the series is incredibly enjoyable, moralistic and corny, sure, but also optimistic and beautiful. 

One of my favorite things about the show is the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive is not just a law but the guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets, the governing body of Starfleet. The Prime Directive states that Starfleet Command is prohibited from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations. This conceptual law applies particularly to civilizations which are below the United Federation of Planet’s threshold of technological, scientific and cultural development; preventing starship crews from using their superior technology to impose their own values or ideals on these “less developed” civilizations.

As Bayana noted in her last post, there is a tendency in sci-fi/fantasy to impose Western ideals and the allegories of oppression do not accurately acknowledge the role White People™ have played in that oppression. Often these stories present oppression and prejudice as a naturally occurring phenomenon in cultures, which may be true to a certain extent, but the systematizing and scaling of oppression is uniquely European. Star Trek’s use of the Prime Directive faces that reality head on.

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.

— Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Star Trek TNG Symbioses S1E22

In Star Trek: The Next Generation we have gone 200 years into the future but the lessons of the past are repeatedly brought up and used as evidence to why the Prime Directive is paramount. Even in situations when the Starfleet Crew is faced with the exploitation of a people they try to remain as non-intrusive as possible. The Prime Directive was first referred to in the original series in 1967 and has been thought of as an allegory for the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Would we have been better off maintaining our stance of isolationism and does the doctrine of interventionism continue to plague our politics today? It is quite common for science fiction and fantasy stories to provide commentary on contemporary society and to be critical of it – Octavia Butler may be my favorite practitioner of this. However, it is not as common for this style to be well-executed by White creators attempting to be critical of systems they currently privilege from (see J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”).

This is not to say that Star Trek is perfect on this account but The Next Generation certainly does have numerous examples of the ability to be self-critical. The Prime Directive is not exclusive to the Starfleet, though they may be the only people to refer to it as such. Q, a recurring antagonist to the Starship Enterprise is often used to illustrate what happens when the Prime Directive is flouted and a species interferes and infantilizes another culture. The results don’t often work in Q’s favor. There is also a lot of debate about the morality of the Prime Directive; is it moral or right to allow suffering that you are able to relieve for the sole purpose of non-interference? I am of the mind that either way is a slippery slope, however, in the universe of Star Trek I agree that the Prime Directive should prevail over questions of morality. In our contemporary world we are unable to board a spaceship and leave the planet, so in practice, a genocide in one country will directly impact another. However, how help is given should be determined by the people asking for help rather than the people giving it.

I am also eager to see how the Directive changes with the changing of time and what is happening in America at the time of the series. During the run of Star Trek: the Original Series (1966-1969) America was in deep turmoil. Malcolm X and MLK had been assassinated, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and America experienced a summer of riots and a summer of love. Star Trek: The Next Generation is set at the end of the ‘80s during the Reagan Presidency, the end of the Cold War, the rise of environmentalism, and the AIDS epidemic. I am sure that these contemporary news stories will be touched on in metaphorical and allegorical ways throughout the show’s run and I am curious to see how they are handled.

I’m grateful that Netflix has allowed me to rediscover and submerse myself in a classic like Star Trek: The Next Generation and I look forward to watching more episodes and seeing the future examples of The Prime Directive and how it is handled. Netflix has been instrumental in opening my eyes to all of these classic shows and though I feel sad that I wasn’t apart of the fandom at the beginning I am grateful that instead of watching as a child I’m able to view this series through the mature, cynical, skeptical, and informed eyes of an adult.