Monday, October 21, 2013

Whose Prime Directive?

An oft-used bit of Star Trek legalese is the Prime Directive, which states that Starfleet must not interfere with the social order of any non-Federation planet.  Also known as Starfleet General Order One, it is, behind the scenes, a writers tool which prevents the franchise from beaming down a small army and taking over all because the captain's beagle was lost on the planet's surface.  It also reflects a certain enlightened perspective of the show--that "we" (America, the West, and so forth) do not impress our important but self-held and ultimately local values upon a different culture.  (Alas, George W. Bush, that you weren't a Trek fan!)  In the course of the franchise, it also allowed various Starfleet personnel to interact and preserve new life forms and new civilizations.

Timicin and Lwaxana
However, an interesting comment has made me wonder as to the scope of the Prime Directive.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Half a Life," the guest-alien Dr. Timicin is a respected scientist from his world who, it is revealed, has reached the age of 60.  At that age, on his world, one says goodbye to his or her family and friends then commits ritual suicide.  As the episode touches upon the heady ideas of elder care and family obligations, the indefatigable Lwaxana Troi rails against the practice, despite all Starfleet officers agreeing personally but refusing to intercede due to the Prime Directive.  At one moment, when told she cannot beam down to the surface to raise cain, she states to her Starfleet officer daughter, "It's your Prime Directive, not mine!"

Hence, I leave myself wondering to whom the Prime Directive applies.  Yes, it has been defined as a Starfleet-only rule.  Does this mean that Joe the Trader, in the 24th Century equivalent of an 18 wheeler, has full access to find himself on some armpit planet and rule it like a king?  Or to impose preferential eugenics like that seen from the people of Cheron?

Star Trek is, above all else, about optimism in the human condition.  That optimism is usually the first thing presented, sometimes to the fault of the franchise.  Thus we rarely see the seedy underbelly of the Federation; such things are not part of Gene Roddenberry's view of the future.  Yet with Lwaxana's simple statement--"it is your Prime Directive, not mine!"--I must wonder what future an unscrupulous (or unscrupulously principled?) Federation citizen might make in some quiet corner of the galaxy with a world and indigenous culture to make all their own.

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