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.” Anyhow, Kirk never seemed to find himself bound to actually obey the Central Command of the Entire Federation Ethos.

And good for him too! Because as the franchise progressed, it become more and more moronically devoted to the PC pieties of Roddenberry’s incoherent humanism and less and less able to account even for it’s own “Ahoy there! 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, oh, 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 leotards, 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.

Now 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 Neandethalensis 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) are 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 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 you 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 wben 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 Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • LarryW2LJ

    I was an avid fan of the original Star Trek and The Next Generation. My “fandom” waned as I saw the whole Star Trek phenomena turning into a religion. Not that I’m against a TV show trying to foster values – but the values have to agree with mine. And hey, whatever happened to action/adventure just for entertainment only?

  • goral

    Mark, a split middle digits solute and may you live long and prosper.

  • DWC

    Stardate 0826.09. During a routine reading of catholicexchange, we intercepted a transmission.
    I have agree with Larry. Interestingly, I always kindof looked at the prime directive (whether followed or not) to be as much respectful of a higher being than that of pure evolution (and I don’t see these in conflict). The issue was whether an alien community with so much more vast power than the current establishment …. “could” use that power to adversly affect what God may have planned. Now we could argue that God was in that decison too …. and the circle continues …. But for what it’s worth, we all know that ‘superpower’ could be used for good or evil. So the theory points to the fact that even the ‘superpower’ can not have the vision that God has. So don’t mess it up captain. Following .. one could argue that once “warp technology” was achived, that signified a more balanced approach …. and removed the “superiority” element from the equation — thus eliminating the drastic risk of “over powering” one side. Hey, I wouldn’t want Lt Klingon siding with Hitler in his visit to earth!
    Jesus … beam us up.

  • raulito

    When I was a teen and in my early twenties, I loved watching Star Trek:TNG. However, I viewed the series without being critical of it or even aware of the agenda woven into the series. Now, in my late thirties and after my conversion to Holy Mother Church I have found it an interesting endeavor to re-examine all of the media I swallowed without examination to include music, popular cinema and television to include the Star Trek franchise. Mark, your thoughts on this matter have mirrored my own with respect to the dogamtic ‘Prime Directive’ and you have commented on the matter very eloquently. I would add that many of the episodes in this entertaining series is tainted with a radical leftist agenda to include euthanasia (‘Half a Life’), acceptance of homosexuality (‘The Outcast’), militant feminism/trivilization of the necessity of marriage (‘Reunion’),etc. Legions of others can be found though there are some bright spots that uphold Catholic values such as pro-life ideals in ‘The Child’ though even this episode was not without its problems, i.e. suggesting an immaculate conception via alien.

    Just my two cents. Keep up the good work, Mr. Shea.

  • bonesmccoy

    Two things:

    1) JJ Abrams seems to have utterly destroyed the politically correct Star Trek universe. In his reboot of TOS, the entire calamity the young Kirk, Young and Old Spock and the rest of the crew face is a direct result of the stupid Prime Directive. The series has returned to its cavalier, cowboy adventurist rootsl; let there be much singing and dancing and playing of drums.

    2) Evolution is driven by natural competition and adaptation, ie the introduction of new features into an otherwise stagnant environment. Which makes the entire hands off philosophy of the Prime Directive remarkably silly. If the Federation were really interested in respecting evolution, they’d be sharing technology and information to any civilization that needed it. Without some kind cross-pollination and competition, evolution simply wouldn’t occur.