What is the Prime Directive?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The prime directive is a term used much in the Star Trek franchise to describe a social and political attitude toward other civilizations. The prime directive is present in the first Star Trek series, and has often been the subject of debate among Star Trek fans.

The prime directive is used in the Star Trek franchise to describe guidelines for exploring other worlds without cultural interference.
The prime directive is used in the Star Trek franchise to describe guidelines for exploring other worlds without cultural interference.

The prime directive is a set of laws decided on by the United Federation of Planets. It lays down guidelines for exploring other worlds without interfering in the cultural development of such worlds. This is particularly the case when these civilizations lack the advancements that make a culture a candidate planet for Federation inclusion.

Additionally, the prime directive forbids taking part in wars between civilizations not belonging to the Federation. It does not allow for the introduction of technology to less advanced civilizations, nor for providing weapons of any kind to a civilization at war. The only interference possible is when the warring civilizations are members of the Federation. Such wars may affect continued membership in the Federation.

The prime directive is the most important law in the Federation’s stance. Violations are treated with severe punishment, as they rip at the very fabric of the Federation’s political ideals. That being said, the captain and crew in numerous Star Trek episodes either deliberately or accidentally violate the prime directive. In fact many episodes address ways in which the prime directive can be obeyed in the face of difficult situations.

These episodes are often interesting to watch from a political standpoint. All the Star Trek series explored current day issues through their presentation in a fictionalized sense. Thus one early episode from the first series, A Private Little War is in strict violation of the prime directive. In this episode, Captain Kirk decides to give primitive weapons to a previously peaceful tribe to defend themselves against another tribe who has been provided with weapons by the Klingons, a race not a part of the Federation.

The episode aired in 1968 and was considered an interesting commentary on US and Soviet involvement in Vietnam. According to strict prime directive protocol, Kirk had no right to introduce weapons to a culture still using bows and arrows. Yet because part of another rival culture had been given weapons by an advanced race, Kirk justifies breaking the prime directive.

In actuality, a more strict interpretation of the prime directive could in no way interfere on this planet. Additionally, the culture having knowledge that Kirk has access to greater advancements is a violation itself. In the Next Generation series, rules for contact with “primitive” civilizations are more clearly defined.

A Private Little War represents just one of many breakages of the prime directive, which are too numerous to list. One can perhaps best understand the prime directive by comparing it to either animal behaviorist studies or cultural anthropology. Both strive toward observation that in no way changes a culture by an observer’s presence. However, we now know that even the quietest observation always has some affect on a culture or animal set being observed. Thus in its strictest form, the prime directive can never be truly adhered to.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


Wasn't it The Voyage home and it all about trying to communicate with whales that were killed off by humans?


in one star track move where a probe had been sent out that lost it prime directive do you know the name of that movie and what was the orignal prime directive of that probe?

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