In the universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive, Starfleet's General Order number 1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there can be no interference with the internal development of alien civilizations.
It has special implications, however, 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. Although this was the only application stated by Captain Kirk in "The Return of the Archons", by the 23rd Century, it had been indicated to include purposeful efforts to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret. "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.
The only stated exception to the Prime Directive is the Omega Directive, Starfleet's General Order number 0, in which a Starfleet captain is authorized to take any and all means necessary to destroy Omega Molecules when detected. Whenever the Omega Directive is in force, all other general orders and regulations, including the Prime Directive, are effectively rescinded. Knowledge of the Omega Directive is heavily restricted, however, so as far as the majority of Starfleet and the Federation at large are concerned, the Prime Directive is still Starfleet's paramount principle. 
This directive can be found in the Articles of the Federation, Chapter I, Article II, Paragraph VII, which states:
|“||Nothing within these Articles Of Federation shall authorize the United Federation of Planets to intervene in matters which are essentially the domestic jurisdiction of any planetary social system, or shall require the members to submit such matters to settlement under these Articles Of Federation. But this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.||”|
It has been further defined in this way:
|“||As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Star Fleet 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. Star Fleet 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.||”|
In other words, the Federation cannot expose an evolving species to technology that the species has not yet discovered or is currently capable of developing.
Variations and origin
The first reference to the Prime Directive occurs in the episode "The Return of the Archons."
|“||"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 civilizations."||”|
Whether this was the full text of the Directive is unclear, but by the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Infinite Regress," which is set in 2375, it is revealed that the Directive has 47 sub-orders. However, once contamination has occurred, Starfleet personnel are allowed to directly intervene on the planet to attempt to minimize the harm as much as possible with an openness in proportion of how significant the exposure has been. For example, in "Bread and Circuses" itself, James Kirk and crew investigated the fate of a ship's personnel on a planet while attempting to keep their origins secret even while the planet's rulers were aware. By contrast, in "Patterns of Force," where the crew discovers that a Federation cultural observer has contaminated the culture he was supposed to be observing by having blatantly reformed a planet's government to emulate Nazi Germany, they help the local resistance overthrow the government.
The non-interference directive seems to have originated with the Vulcans. In Star Trek: First Contact, it is stated that but for Zefram Cochrane's historic warp flight, a passing Vulcan ship would have deemed Earth unready for contact and ignored the planet, and in the Enterprise episode "Fight or Flight" T'Pol makes reference to a Vulcan policy of non-interference. However, the policy was not implemented immediately, and did not exist on pre-Federation Earth: in the Enterprise episode "Civilization," Charles "Trip" Tucker III notes that the prohibition is a Vulcan policy, not human. In another episode, "Dear Doctor," 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."||”|
The Prime Directive was not actually written into law until some years after the formation of the Federation — in the Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action," an early Federation ship, the Horizon, visited a primitive planet and left behind several items which altered the planet's culture significantly—most notably the book Chicago Mobs Of The Twenties, which the inhabitants quickly seized upon as a blueprint for their entire society.
An alternative origin comes from the Enterprise episode "Observer Effect," where it is revealed that the Organians also adhere to a form of the Prime Directive. However, as Starfleet does not officially make first contact with the Organians until the original series episode "Errand of Mercy," it is unknown what impact, if any, they had on the development of the directive.
In real life, the creation of the Prime Directive is generally credited to Gene L. Coon, although there is some contention as to whether science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote of the Prime Directive in an unused script for the original series, actually came up with it first. The Prime Directive closely mirrors the zoo hypothesis explanation for the Fermi paradox. In an interview with Gene Roddenberry in a 1991 edition of 'The Humanist' magazine, he implied that it might also have had its roots in his belief that Christian Missionaries were interfering with other cultures.
Philosophy and allegory
"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."
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 fictional storyline, the Prime Directive was created by Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets shortly after they were first formed. Since then the Prime Directive has been breached on many occasions, both accidentally and deliberately. Sometimes when a Federation starship or vessel crashes on a planet that has a pre-warp civilization, the survivors or the wreckage are collected by the natives, and this then influences their society, especially when Federation technology is recovered and added to the technology of the planet. Sometimes the Directive is deliberately violated. Circa stardate 2534.0 (2266), in the Original Series episode "Patterns of Force," 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 viewed as the high efficiency of a fascist dictatorship with a more benign philosophy, thereby contaminating the normal and healthy development of the planet's culture. Much to his regret, the intervention proved disastrous 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, forcing 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. This understanding of the Prime Directive resembles the concept of Westphalian sovereignty in political science.
For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Redemption," when the Klingon Empire experienced a brief civil war, Captain Jean-Luc Picard refused Chancellor Gowron's request of aid, even though he was the legitimate ruler of the Empire, and even though the Romulans were suspected of supplying weapons to the opposing side, as an imperial civil war was deemed an internal conflict. Although the Prime Directive was not explicitly mentioned, it is presumable that this was the pertinent basis for Picard's refusal, in light of a later example on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when 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 explicitly cited the Prime Directive, and ordered him to evacuate all Starfleet personnel from the station, as the situation, i.e. a conflict as to what form the Bajoran government would take, was deemed internal to Bajor, and the Federation, it was felt, had no business influencing the Bajorans' decision in this matter.
Although it was known that the Cardassians were supplying weapons to one side, Sisko's superior noted, "The Cardassians might involve themselves in other people's civil wars, but we don't." This highlights that the Federation considers the Prime Directive as binding only to itself and neither expects other governments to adhere to it nor attempts to convince them to do so.
Around 20 minutes into the season 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, "Pen Pals," the senior staff has a philosophical discussion regarding the Prime Directive. Troi and LaForge argue that if there is a “cosmic plan,” that the presence of the Enterprise and its crew is also to be included in that plan and that this alone allows them a legitimate claim to act on behalf of a people in need. Captain Picard argues that one's personal certitude is not relevant and that the Prime Directive is 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 on more than one occasion, Captain Kathryn Janeway also applied the Prime Directive to a situation which clearly did not involve a pre-warp civilization. ("State of Flux," "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 reveals that there are 47 sub-orders of the Prime Directive.
The concept of non-interference can be seen to prevent foreign contamination of unique native language and customs. On the other hand, dedication to non-interference has been shown to go beyond this. The dedication is such that by 2364 Starfleet had allowed sixty races to die out.
In at least one case (TOS episode "A Private Little War"), where two different factions of one race were at war with each other, the Prime Directive had been interpreted to mean that neither side could have an advantage (i.e. that there had to be a balance of power). With this race, when it was found that Klingons were furnishing one portion of the race with advanced weapons, Kirk responded by arming the other faction with the same weapons. This resulted in an arms race on that world, and was seen 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 (a practice known as proxy war). A similar arms race served as the backstory of the TNG episode "Too Short a Season." Conversely, 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. ("State of Flux").
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. Despite the fact that this event took place in the series Star Trek: Enterprise, before the formation of both the Federation and the Prime Directive, it reflects the views of space-faring humans and their allies in the years leading up to the creation of the Federation (ENT episode "Dear Doctor").
In another case, a starship stood by and watched as the loss of a planet's atmosphere was about to wipe out the last remaining members of a primitive civilization, rather than interfere to save their lives. However, the Federation observer refused to stand by, and violated the Prime Directive by saving a small group of that civilization.
There are different conclusions as to the purpose of non-interference. One is that the ends do not justify the means. No matter how well-intentioned, stepping in and effecting change could have disastrous consequences. Another conclusion (strongly implied in the ENT episode "Dear Doctor") is a belief that evolution has a "plan" of sorts, driving species toward purposes. Interference would therefore be unnatural, in that it would go against what is supposed to happen to the species in question. This conclusion, however, is a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, which is reactive to environmental changes and therefore has no plan. Furthermore, in the episode, it is implied that evolution has selected one species for extinction, which is the opposite to what evolution is: an attempt to adapt to avoid extinction.
Some characters have viewed the Prime Directive as a negative policy, because it prevents introduction of technology (especially medical technology), culture, and resources that may improve quality of life. It also has been considered an attitude of moral cowardice by critics of the Federation — that the Prime Directive gives the Federation an excuse not to act. During the brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor in the early 24th century, the Federation refused to act on the grounds that, since Bajor was at that time considered part of the Cardassian Union, the occupation was an internal matter of the Cardassian government and to help the Bajorans would violate the Prime Directive. Many Bajorans resented the Federation for years after the occupation because of this attitude. Those in favor of the Prime Directive have said that no one has the right to impose their own standards on others and it is hardly moral cowardice to keep to a difficult, but ultimately beneficial principle in the face of temptation.
One criticism[by whom?] (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. 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 "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," in order to achieve a Federation objective, to save the lives of his crew, or both.
Compounding matters is that in the TOS episode "The Omega Glory," Kirk states, "A star captain's most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive," and yet he seemingly violates the Prime Directive as "the only way to save my ship" in "A Taste of Armageddon" and no explanation for the Federation Ambassador trying to mediate between Eminiar VII and Vendikar (neither of which are Federation members) regardless of their wishes on the matter is given.
In "The Return of the Archons" and "The Apple" reference to the "Prime Directive of non-interference" is made by Spock. In "The Return Of The Archons," Kirk says the Prime Directive refers to "a living, growing culture" to justify interfering with what he sees 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 points out that Starfleet Command may not agree with his choice to interfere with the computer controlled culture to which Kirk replies "I'll take my chances."
There are also episodes in which the Prime Directive should have been mentioned, but wasn't. In "The Paradise Syndrome"," the Enterprise attempts to save a pre-industrial planet by moving an asteroid that was on a collision course with it; when McCoy asks Kirk if he should warn the people, Kirk and Spock only point out the people would not understand the warning, and neither makes any reference to the Prime Directive. In "The Cloud Minders Kirk interferes with the culture of Ardana to obtain zenite the only cure for a biological plague ravaging Merak.
Admiral Matthew Dougherty's reasons for violation of the Prime Directive in Star Trek: Insurrection in Picard's time echoes the reasons Kirk gives McCoy in "Private Little War" but Picard considers them invalid. In "Homeward," Nikolai Rozhenko (Paul Sorvino) uses holodeck technology to save the Boraalan and enforce what he believes is the spirit of the Prime Directive even though Picard has already said such actions violate what it actually states. In "Pen Pals," Captain Picard rectifies 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.
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 prior to the Enterprise's visit. If the case is 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.
Picard's nine documented violations of the Prime Directive are held as evidence against him during a witchhunt investigation in "The Drumhead." Additionally, the non-canonical novel Prime Directive, written by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, deals with the political and career fallout from a violation allegedly committed by Kirk. In canon, Captain Kirk apprehended Captain 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 is unknown. In the film Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Captain Kirk is 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 deliberately lied at the mission report to the 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 Star Fleet called the Temporal Integrity Commission, which monitored and restricted deviations from the natural flow of history. However, several Star Trek: Voyager episodes specifically make references to the Temporal Prime Directive that suggest that it applies in the 24th century.
The directive is regarded as "inviolable," and any Star Fleet 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 prior to the 31st Century, in order 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.
- Star Trek: Voyager episode The Omega Directive
- STAR TREK TECHNICAL MANUAL (TOS) By Franz Joseph, (The Articles Of Federation, Chapter I, Article II, Paragraph VII)
- Giancarlo Genta, Lonely Minds in the Universe: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Springer, 2007, p. 208.
- "Quotes/Star Trek - Television Tropes & Idioms". Tvtropes.org. Retrieved 2013-11-02.
- The Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Circle."
- The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Homeward".
- The Next Generation episode "Ensign Ro."
- Phil Farrand; The Nitpicker's Guide for Classic Trekkers; Dell Publishing; 1994; Pages 84, 85, 148, 186,192-193, 209, 215, & 235.
- The Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Omega Glory."
- The Star Trek: Voyager episode "Future's End.".