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In the fictional universe of Star Trek, the Prime Directive (also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or General Order 1) is a guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets prohibiting the protagonists from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations. The Prime Directive has been used in five of the six Star Trek-based series. This conceptual law 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. Since its introduction in the first season of the original Star Trek series, it has served as the focus of numerous episodes of the various series. As time travel became a recurring feature in the franchise, the concept was expanded as a Temporal Prime Directive, prohibiting those under its orders from interfering in historical events.
Creation of the Prime Directive is generally credited to original-series producer Gene L. Coon. An alternate contention holds that science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon actually came up with the concept and put it in an unused script for the original series. The first appearance of the Prime Directive on film is in the episode "The Return of the Archons". That episode was written by Boris Sobelman and based on a story by creator Gene Roddenberry.
One theory holds that the directive reflected a contemporary political view of critics of the United States' foreign policy. In particular, the US' involvement in the Vietnam War was commonly criticized as an example of a global superpower interfering in the natural development of southeast Asian society, and the assertion of the Prime Directive was perceived as a repudiation of that involvement.
The term "Prime Directive" appeared in the television series Lost In Space before it was used in Star Trek. The Robot says that "The prime directive forbids taking human life," which is more like Isaac Asimov's First Law of Robotics than Star Trek's Prime Directive.
The first reference to the Prime Directive occurs in the February 1967 episode "The Return of the Archons." In this episode, Captain James T. Kirk and his crew encountered a planet which was enslaved 6,000 years earlier by a computer intelligence, its society stagnating into mechanical obedience. Asserting that the society it had been programmed to preserve was already effectively "dead" under its control (violating its own "prime directive" to protect it), Kirk argued the computer into self-destruction, then left behind a team of sociologists to help restore the society to a "human" form.
The Prime Directive is explicitly defined in the March 1968 episode "Bread and Circuses":
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.
However, it has been stated that once a violation of the Prime Directive has occurred, Starfleet personnel are allowed to directly intervene on the planet to attempt to minimize as much harm as possible, with an openness proportional to 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 discovered that a Federation cultural observer had contaminated the culture he was supposed to have been observing by having blatantly reformed a planet's government to emulate Nazi Germany, they helped the local resistance overthrow the government.
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. Although this was the only application Kirk actually stated 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.
In the April 1998 Star Trek: Voyager 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. These are artificial particles with destructive capabilities deemed so dangerous that they are to be destroyed at any cost, including interference with any society that creates them.
Use as allegory
"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."
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 some episodes, the Directive is deliberately violated. 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.
For example, 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 UFP 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."
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. A similar arms race served as the backstory of the TNG episode "Too Short a Season". 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 ENT 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. 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.
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.
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."
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
In fictional universe
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.
Note that the above bears a striking resemblance to text in the actual United Nations Charter, corresponding even in exactly the same chapter, article, and paragraph number, and with the reference to Chapter VII allowing exceptions for enforcement.
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 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.
In other words, the Federation cannot expose an evolving species to technology that the species has not yet discovered or is not currently capable of developing.
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.
Kirk hints in "Private Little War" that the Prime Directive formally came into effect within the last 13 years as he states he recommended in his survey of a world that there be no interference with normal social development with the planet. Logically if the Prime Directive had existed then Kirk would have had no reason to make such a recommendation.
Picard mentioned in "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.
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.
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. 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.
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