Prime Directive

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In the Star Trek fictional universe, the Prime Directive, Starfleet's General Order #1, is the most prominent guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive dictates that there be no interference with the natural development of any primitive society, chiefly meaning that no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or alien races. It also forbids any effort to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept totally secret. "Primitive" is defined as any culture which has not yet attained warp drive. Starfleet allows scientific missions to investigate and 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.

It appears that the non-interference concept originated with Vulcans and predated the formation of the Federation in 2161 but did not exist on pre-Federation Earth. The Prime Directive was not actually written into law until some years after the formation of the Federation — in the Original Series episode "A Piece of the Action", an early Federation ship visits a primitive planet and leaves behind several items which alter the planet's culture significantly (as did the book Chicago Mobs of the Twenties, which the inhabitants quickly seized upon as a blueprint for their entire society).

In real life, the creation of the Prime Directive is generally credited to Gene L. Coon. The Prime Directive closely mirrors the zoo hypothesis explanation for the Fermi paradox.



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 advanced 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 broken on many occasions intentionally and unintentionally. 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), 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 more benign version of the original. However, the intervention proved disastrous with the regime adapting the same racial supremesist and genocidal ideologies of the original.

On Star Trek: Voyager, the Prime Directive is one of the more commonly used plot devices. However, in many instances, the idea of the Prime Directive as used in Voyager is not consistent with that of the other series. On more than one occasion, Captain Janeway applies the Prime Directive to a situation which clearly does not involve a pre-warp civilization. Also, in at least two different situations, the Prime Directive or a policy similar to it was used against Janeway and her crew, wherein they encountered civilizations that had technology which could shorten their journey home, but were denied access to it because the alien cultures likewise had policies against sharing advanced technology with other races. By the end of the series, some fans came to feel that the Prime Directive was becoming an overused plot device.


The concept of non-interference can be seen to prevent foreign contamination of native unique 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 six races to die out.

In at least one case, 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, 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 exact same weapons. This resulted in an arms race on that world, and was seen as a fictionalized parallel to the Cold War arms race then going on in which the Soviet Union often armed one side of a dispute and the United States responded by arming the other.

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 (TNG episode "Homeward"). 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.

Some may see 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 as an attitude of moral cowardice by 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 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. However, recent archeaological evidence (DS9 episode "Explorers") has proven that the Bajorans were indeed capable of interstellar travel before the Cardassians were, using solar-sail vessels; the Prime Directive only prevents action against pre-warp cultures.

Usage of the term in other science fiction

Jack Williamson's novel The Humanoids features invulnerable robots who ruthlessly follow the "Prime Directive", which is to "serve and protect" all humans. It is more closely related to the Three Laws of Robotics. This book was published in 1949, so it predates Star Trek. In The Humanoids and its sequel The Humanoid Touch (1980), the Prime Directive is rather sinister, because the Humanoids take extreme measures to protect humans. This protection even goes against the wishes of the humans being protected. They do succeed in stopping all wars and running a perfect economy. However, potentially dangerous activities such as skydiving or using power tools are strictly forbidden. The Humanoids are so well-designed that all human attempts to thwart them fail. The humans being protected usually disapprove of the Humanoids' restrictions, but any active protesters are drugged into submission.

Babylon 5

In the Babylon 5 science fiction universe there wasn't any actual Prime Directive for most of the races featured in the series. Some races didn't have problems with sharing technology — the Centauri for example shared jump gate / hyperspace technology with humans, while others, particularly the Vorlons, deliberately kept some advanced technology out of the hands of yougner species (although sharing and instigating some other developments). Later the Interstellar Alliance shared advanced technology, such as artificial gravity, with races that did not yet have that technology.

However the concept of keeping advanced technology from the less advanced races was at times used to keep techonology out of the hands of those who were not ready for it.

  • In the episode, "Deathwalker", a renegade scientist named Jha'dur who is obviously modeled by Josef Mengele is captured but bargains her freedom with an breakthrough medication that grants immortality. However, just before her departure to the winning bidder, she sadistically reveals that the manufacturing process involves fatal extractions of essential materials from the same species as the recipient. Helpless to stop this obvious trigger to societal chaos, Babylon 5 looks on as Jha'dur departs, only to have her and medication suddenly destroyed by the Vorlons who would only explain that the young races weren't ready for immortality.
  • When Epsilon III was discovered to be harboring a gigantic machine in the two part episode A Voice in the Wilderness, it is discovered that a living being named Varn had integrated himself with the machine to act as a CPU for the machine. Because this being was dying, the Minbari Draal took the place of Varn as the CPU. In space, a battle was taking place over ownership of the machine. The Earth Alliance was fighting to keep criminals that were the same species as Varn from taking the planet. Draal appeared to everyone involved in the dispute. He said that because the planet's technology would give an unfair advantage to any one race, that the planet was off limits to all. When Varn's people approached, he destroyed the ships. A year later however, Draal offered his services to John Sheridan to help him fight the Shadows.
  • After the Vorlons had left the galaxy, a number of people attempted to travel to Vorlon to lay claim to the advanced technology there. The planet's automated defense systems destroyed those who approached the planet. In the episode "The Fall of Centauri Prime", Lyta explains that humanity was not presently meant to have Vorlon technology. She went on to say that humanity would be unable to go to Vorlon until they were ready, which would be at least one million years after the events of the series. Humanity did leave Earth for Vorlon in the episode "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars", which they renamed New Earth. Afterwards Earth was destroyed when humans caused the sun to go nova.

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