Star Trek: Enterprise challenged the Prime Directive in the episode “Observer Effect”.
Star Trek: Enterprise is a show that quite often found itself in a unique place when it tackled some of the franchise’s more common tropes. Since the series is set before the Federation and Starfleet proper were created, and such concepts as the Prime Directive were just ideas, it often had to tackle specific subject matter in a different way.
In a show like the Next Generation or Voyager, the crew knows what they’re doing goes against or along the guidelines of Starfleet and the Prime Directive. But in Enterprise, the ship and its crew are mostly just going about things by the seat of their pants.
So when they want to tackle questions like “is the Prime Directive just”, they have to do it in unique and different ways. Which usually makes for some incredible storytelling.
This is the situation for the season four episode, “Observer Effect”. The show follows two non-corporeal aliens as they inhabit and control various members of the Enterprise crew to see how they react to an air-borne pathogen that was found on an M-Class planet.
Charles “Trip” Tucker and Hoshi Sato were on the planet investigating a Klingon garbage site, where they’re infected with an illness that is extremely contagious and fatal. The aliens knew that the crew members sent there would discover the virus and become infected. They would then use the infection as a way to watch what different species do once they find out members of their crew is sick.
As the story unfolds, we found out that when the Klingons who first landed on the planet were infected, the Klingon high command simply killed everyone who may have been infected to spare them an epidemic. So the non-corporeal aliens, later identified as the Organians, were somewhat surprised when the Human crew of the Enterprise did everything they could to save the infected.
At various points, Phlox and Jonathan Archer found out about the aliens and confronted them about how they could let this keep happening if they knew what the outcome would be. To the Organians’ credit, watching the humans fight gallantly against the odds inspired them to make changes to how they handle their first contact protocol.
Star Trek: Enterprise found ways of tackling concepts without the convenience of storyline structure other shows had
There are so many plot points in “Observer Effect”, that I recommend you go watch it for yourself as I won’t be able to cover every plot point here. This was a great episode however if you like the idea of challenging the Prime Directive that Starfleet would one day bring to the table. Archer becomes enraged at the Organians, and demands to know why they would one, let this keep happening and two, why they wouldn’t intervene.
The Organians had similar principles to Starfleet in the sense that they never got involved and only ever watched the events unfold, not wanting to interrupt the natural course of events. They did this to better understand an alien race in the event they decide to make a first contact. They never really did. At least not that anyone would remember.
In the end, Archer pointed out that while they didn’t need to intervene every time someone got ill, they could at least warn others of the dangers, so they wouldn’t fall ill as well. This point causes one of the Organians to recommend new policies for his people to follow, while Archer leaves a warning outside of the planet, alerting those who venture near what may happen if they land.
The episode did a great job of looking at the right and wrong of not only the Prime Directive but how others go about collecting scientific data. The idea of challenging the Prime Directive, especially when it could save lives and reduce suffering, is one as old as the franchise itself and it’s fantastic that Enterprise found a few ways to do their own story around that topic.
It wasn’t, however, the only one they would ever do but that’s a different story for next time.