The Stupid Prime Directive

As a long-time fan of Star Trek, I have to say that the Prime Directive is majorly stupid and incoherent.

Now, I realize I risk alienating a large number of people simply by speaking seriously about Star Trek. So I will hasten to add that I’m not one of the “Get a life!” people who has trouble realizing there isn’t a real Enterprise and that Klingons don’t exist. I’m simply one of those people who recognizes that the stories we tell ourselves tell us about ourselves. And the evolution of Trek attitudes to the Prime Directive tells us a lot about how we’ve changed in 40 years.

The Prime Directive never much bothered me in the original series because Captain Kirk basically ignored it in every episode. Oh sure, there would be some Spockian moralizing about it. But then Kirk would say something like, “But these people are stagnating, so it doesn’t count!” or “But we have to set the Nazi planet to rights since one of our guys contaminated it!” Kirk never seemed to find himself bound to actually obey the Central Command of the Entire Federation Ethos. 

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

And good for him, too. Because as the franchise progressed, it became more and more moronically devoted to the PC pieties of Roddenberry’s incoherent humanism and less and less able to account even for its own “Let’s go explore stuff!” joy of discovery that made it such a fun universe for geeky boys like me.

Here’s the thing: Why in the world does the mere discovery of warp technology suddenly render a civilization “ready for First Contact”? More to the point, what is so magical about warp technology that makes a civilization like, say, ours suddenly ready to enter the community of leotard-clad UN conflict-resolution counselors that is the United Federation of Planets? That’s my first difficulty. I think the sensible thing for Vulcans to do, given that they’ve been watching us and have witnessed our three World Wars and our million-year-long penchant for ever-increasing slaughter (a penchant only magnified every time we invent a shiny new toy), is to target phasers on our first warp-capable ship and blow it out of the sky. The last thing alien civilizations need is our fallen race carrying forward the various projects of conquest and rapine that have been the hallmark of our species throughout its entire existence.

I think C. S. Lewis is entirely right: God may well have designed the immensity of space as a sort of quarantine against the horrors of what we would inevitably do if we happened on a species weaker than ourselves on other worlds. If you wonder what that might be, ask the black man or the red man, says Lewis.

But here’s the thing: Our penchant as fallen creatures to act fallen is the only justification for the Prime Directive — to keep Homo sapiens from acting as he has always acted since our First Parents listened to the serpent. But in the Star Trek universe, Roddenberry’s thin humanist optimism has banished such barbarous myths as the Fall. We are to believe that within a century of our last and most devastating world war, we suddenly abolished money, dropped religion (except for nice safe stuff like “Native American spirituality” — none of that vile Abrahamic evilness), donned polyester jumpsuits, and devoted ourselves to the abstract pursuit of knowledge and self-giving benevolence for its own sake. War, violence, money, religion, and exploitation are all a thing of the past.

So then, why the Prime Directive? We evolved into harmless fuzzballs. We’re not going to hurt anybody.

The reason given within the Star Trek universe is that the “evolutionary process” is, itself, sacrosanct. Why? Well, because the Vulcans told us we should do what they do and not “interfere” with the natural course of evolution on other planets. In short, we earthlings accepted a piece of Vulcan cultural imperialism as the basis for our approach to other planets. We can’t “interfere with” the evolution of a planet — that is, until they become warp capable. Then it’s okay. Why? Because.

The first practical result of this reasoning, applied to earth history, is that every voyage of exploration Europe ever undertook should have turned back the moment they happened on anybody in a loin cloth in Africa, Asia, or the Americas. Not, mind you, out of fear of committing sins of rape and pillage, but out of fear of “interfering” with cultures that were still functioning at Pleistocene levels of hunting and gathering. In short, the Prime Directive spells the death of the Exploratory Spirit that used to animate the old show. 

More than that, however, the Prime Directive has mutated into a positively evil expression of the Dictatorship of Relativism in the final stages of the Trek franchise. In one episode of Enterprise, Archer and the gang happen on a planet where there are two sentient races (sort of like earth when there were both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens). Dr. Phlox, a cultured fellow and the soul of Federation-style mixtures of Darwinian bafflegab and cultural relativism, realizes that one race is dying. He has it in his power to save millions of these people from extinction, but he persuades the captain to “not interfere with the normal course of evolution” on the planet — and the captain agrees. This appalling decision is treated as the Tough but Ethical Thing to Do. Try applying that horrific “If they be like to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population” thinking to our AIDS policy in Africa.

Good old Kirk would have punched out the doctor (“I! Have Had! Enough of you!”) and done the right and prudent thing: help save a race of people from extinction. The Evolved Star Trek ethos (which is to say, the current cultural ethos that Star Trek always reflects) thinks it is better to let millions die than to “interfere with nature.”

I understand, of course, that all this is a reaction of screenwriters to colonialism and that this, not Vulcans, is the real origin of the Prime Directive. What I don’t understand is how, in either the fictional or real world, it ever got to be the Prime Directive, the First Commandment, the Federation Equivalent of the Sh’ma, or the Creed. Why is this stupid rule at the heart of the New Secular Jerusalem?

I can see it as a General Guideline to not screw around and exploit technologically weaker races. But as idiots like Dr. Phlox make clear, the Federation (and their Hollywood creators) is willing, not only to sacrifice millions of innocent lives to this stupid dogma, but to portray fidelity to it as the sine qua non of all that is valorous and virtuous in the Federation ethos. Over the life of the franchise, various Federation figures have been willing to lay down their lives rather than just tell the brutal interrogator, “Relax! I’m not an enemy spy from the neighboring nation state. I’m from another planet. Your enemy Oceania does not have cool new weapons necessitating your entry into an arms race guaranteed to destroy your world. It’s just one of my phasers. So chill, behave yourselves, and let me go or my ship will vaporize some unimportant rock formation somewhere as a public demonstration that I mean business.”

In short, I don’t see what is so sacrosanct about evolution. The worship of evolution is the worship of Whatever Happens to Come Next. I see no reason why contact between two cultures should not be part of What Comes Next. Good and evil enter into the equation, not merely because cultures contact each other, but because they behave in good or evil ways toward one another. Saving innocent people’s lives is good, and refusing to do so when you have it in your power is evil, theories of “natural evolutionary courses” be damned. A pagan and a Christian culture were at least capable of seeing this elementary fact, even if they did not always do the good they aspired to. A postmodern culture is now so shackled to the Dictatorship of Relativism it can’t figure out this bit of intellectual child’s play.

Some evolution.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...