How will Discovery use the Prime Directive?


The Prime Directive was an element of Star Trek that was often referred to, but infrequently followed. How will Discovery apply the Prime Directive?

In March of 1968, the episode “Bread and Circuses” of Star Trek’s Original Series aired, and had a specific definition of the Prime Directive: “No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or that there are other worlds or civilizations.”

For ardent fans, no list of episodes, novels, or movies needs displayed for us to know how rarely this directive was either glossed-over or outright ignored. In fact, Captain Kirk explicitly states on a few occasions that he doesn’t care about this defining principle supposedly devised by Captain Jonathan Archer.

The ideal is laudable, but not practical. In the film “Insurrection” it’s even slightly stupid, as any earnest investigation of the Baku would have revealed they had already been a space-faring race. While the implications of Starfleet snooping around were something interesting, it was clearly a giant plot hole that has lingered through the decades of Trek.

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Captain Picard even trumpets the benevolence of the directive in the The Next Generation episode “Symbiosis”:

“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 when mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

But does it hold true? Not once has there been an episode that demonstrated how a violation of the prime directive resulted in catastrophic or cascading consequences other than a plot-twist, or dramatic ending. This – very critically – makes the Prime Directive seem like a plot device, a trope, employed to suggest a moral standard adhered to throughout Starfleet and the Federation.

The Prime Directive, with its comforting moral warmth, fails to recognize that the goal of Starfleet is to “seek out new life and new civilizations”, unless, as it would seem, we are to believe this is strictly a voyeuristic endeavor. I cannot think of any Trek storyline involving an alien species that has been entirely devoid of interaction of some sort.

Perhaps the notion is a vestige of the era that TOS was produced, considering it aired during the height of the Vietnam War, an event that was largely seen as US intervention in a sovereign nation without good cause. Or, as the decades have passed and it has continued to be employed by the writers, it is meant to be a reminder, or cautionary device.

Next: T'Kuvma and the Klingons... come in peace?

Will Star Trek: Discovery use this same tactic in story telling? It seems likely. However, based on the trailers we’ve seen thus far, they may be avoiding it for the first few episodes, perhaps even the first season. We are very close to finding out.