Star Trek, Prime Directive, and Human Failure

I grew up on Star Trek, the Original Series and Next Generation.

The latter particularly captured my imagination as it began when I was eleven years old and ended when I was twenty-three. Unlike the original series, Next Generation attempted to fill out the Star Trek universe and form a plausible fully-fleshed set of societies (Deep Space Nine further fleshed out these societies and added some more). The original series was an action show projected into the future whereas Next Generation attempted to envision the future as an entirely transformed place.

A few years ago, I decided to watch every episode of every season from the beginning. I’ve finally made it to the most recent series, Star Trek: Enterprise. I’d never watched it before. Many people seem to hate it. I began to see why in the first season, but I want to offer a nuanced (although short) review.

I liked the premise of this latest, hopefully not the last, series. It’s nice to see how human earth society slowly begins to develop into the Federation we already know they will become. The merit of this series is how human the characters are. They are temporally and culturally far closer to us than they are to the far future Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (it’s only slightly more than a century into the future that is the setting for Enterprise whereas the other shows are a couple of centuries following that).

In watching the episode “Dear Doctor”, the conclusion of the story left me perplexed. It didn’t seem very like the Star Trek I knew. It seems many others agreed with me. After reading some online reviews and criticisms, I considered another perspective. But let me first say a few things about the episode.

Basically, the captain and the doctor are presented with a dilemma. The dilemma is worthy, but the ‘solution’ is beyond unworthy. As others have noted, their response is equivalent to genocide and their rationalization for it has more than a whiff of Social Darwinism about it. It is supposed to be the origin story of the Prime Directive (non-interventionism in less-developed species; i.e., not playing God) and, as some see it, this adds yet another doubt to the merits and hence justification of the Prime Directive itself.

I can understand that view, but maybe it misses a point. No one ever claimed Star Trek society is perfect. A major theme is how imperfect humans are and continue to be. It is what makes us so endearing, right? It makes full sense that humans would carry our cognitive biases and moral weakness into space, and it would be even less plausible to portray a future where this didn’t happen. The Prime Directive was something that evolved through actual interactions with other species and societies. Of course, mistakes would be made and some of them quite horrific.

What makes that episode especially horrific is that it reflects upon our own present society. Some people pointed out, for example, how many governments have refused to intervene in genocides since WWII such as in Rwanda. Is it so surprising that our collective behavior that has been going on for centuries would linger still for another century or so?