dying race

Prime Directive

In the fictional universe of Star Trek, 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 can be no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations, consistent with the historical real world concept of Westphalian sovereignty. It has special implications, however, for civilizations that have not yet developed the technology for interstellar spaceflight ("pre-warp"), since no primitive culture can be given or exposed to any information regarding advanced technology or the existence of extraplanetary civilizations, lest this exposure alter the natural development of the civilization. Although this was the only application stated by Captain Kirk in "Return of the Archons", by the 24th Century, it had been indicated to include purposeful efforts to improve or change in any way the natural course of such a society, even if that change is well-intentioned and kept completely secret.

"Pre-warp" is defined as any culture which has not yet attained warp drive technology. Starfleet allows scientific missions to investigate and secretly 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. This can usually be accomplished with hidden observation posts, but Federation personnel may disguise themselves as local sentient life and interact with them.

Variation and origin

The Prime Directive is explicitly defined in the Original Series episode "Bread and Circuses", which is set in 2267:
"No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations."
Whether this was the full text of the Directive is unclear, but by the Star Trek: Voyager episode "Infinite Regress", which is set in 2375, it is revealed that the Directive has 47 sub-orders.

The non-interference directive seems to have originated with the Vulcans. In Star Trek: First Contact, it is stated that but for Zefram Cochrane's historic warp flight, a passing Vulcan ship would have deemed Earth unready for contact and ignored the planet. However, the policy was not implemented immediately, and did not exist on pre-Federation Earth: in the Enterprise episode "Civilization", Tucker notes that the prohibition is a Vulcan policy, not human. 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, the Horizon, visits a primitive planet and leaves behind several items which alter the planet's culture significantly (most notably the book Chicago Mobs Of The Twenties, which the inhabitants quickly seized upon as a blueprint for their entire society).

An alternative origin comes from the Enterprise episode "Observer Effect," where it is revealed that the Organians also adhere to a form of the Prime Directive. However, as Starfleet does not officially make first contact with the Organians until the original series episode "Errand of Mercy," it is unknown what impact, if any, they had on the development of the directive.

In real life, the creation of the Prime Directive is generally credited to Gene L. Coon, although there is some contention as to whether science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote of the Prime Directive in an unused script for the original series, actually came up with it first. (In fact, the Prime Directive appears fully-formed as much as two decades earlier in Robert A. Heinlein's 1948 novel Space Cadet, which describes a military organization very similar to Star Trek's Starfleet). The Prime Directive closely mirrors the zoo hypothesis explanation for the Fermi paradox. In an interview with Gene Roddenberry in a 1991 edition of 'The Humanist' magazine, he implied it also had its roots in his belief that Christian Missionaries were interfering with other cultures.

Philosophy and allegory

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), in the Original Series episode "Patterns of Force", 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 society which combined what he viewed as the high efficiency of a fascist dictatorship with a more benign philosophy. However, the intervention proved disastrous with the regime adopting the same racial supremacist and genocidal ideologies of the original.

By the time of the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Prime Directive was indicated to apply not only to just pre-warp civilizations, but to any culture with whom Starfleet comes into contact. In such situations, the Prime Directive forbids any involvement with a civilization without the expressed consent or invitation of the lawful leaders of that society, and absolutely forbids any involvement whatsoever in the internal politics of a civilization. This understanding of the Prime Directive resembles the concept of Westphalian sovereignty in political science.

For example, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Redemption," when the Klingon Empire experienced a brief civil war, and Captain Picard refused Chancellor Gowron's request of aid, even though he was the legitimate ruler of the Empire, and even though the Romulans were suspected of supplying weapons to the opposing side, as a planetary civil war was deemed an internal conflict. Although the Prime Directive was not explicitly mentioned, it is presumable that this was the pertinent basis for Picard's refusal, in light of a later example on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, when the provisional government of the planet Bajor experienced a power struggle that nearly led to civil war. During this conflict, Deep Space Nine Commander Ben Sisko's superior explicitly cited the Prime Directive, and ordered him to evacuate all Starfleet personnel from the station, as the situation was deemed internal to Bajor, even though it was known that the Cardassians were supplying weapons to one side.

Around 20 minutes into the season 2 Next Generation episode 15 Pen Pals, the senior staff has a philosophical discussion regarding the Prime Directive. Troi and LaForge argue that if there is a “cosmic plan” that the presence of the Enterprise and its crew is also to be included in that plan and that that alone allows them legitimate claim to act in behalf of a people in need. Captain Picard argues that one's personal certitude is not relevant and that the Prime Directive is meant to prevent “us” from letting our emotions overwhelm our judgment. This conversation reveals many personal interpretations, by senior officers, of the Prime Directive. Ultimately Dr. Pulaski states that the subject of that episode must be allowed to be the person they were meant to be as she conducted a memory wipe.

On Star Trek: Voyager, the Prime Directive was used more than once as a plot device as well, and on more than one occasion, Captain Janeway also applied the Prime Directive to a situation which clearly did not involve a pre-warp civilization. ("State of Flux," "Maneuvers") Also, in at least two different episodes in which they encountered civilizations that had technology which could shorten their journey home, "Prime Factors" and "Future's End, Part II", policies similar to the Prime Directive was cited as a basis for denying Janeway and her crew access to it. In the episode "Infinite Regress," Naomi Wildman reveals that there are 47 sub-orders of the Prime Directive.

The Prime Directive is known to be superseded by only one other directive, the Omega Directive.


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 (TOS episode 'A Private Little War'), 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 same weapons. This resulted in an arms race on that world, and was seen as a fictionalized parallel to the then-current Cold War arms race, in which the United States often armed one side of a dispute and the Soviet Union armed the other. A similar arms race served as the backstory of the TNG episode "Too Short a Season." Conversely, Voyager Captain Janeway refused to allow the Kazon-Nistrim and the Kazon-Ogla to have replicator technology, believing it would tip the balance of power among the Kazon factions. ("State of Flux").

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. 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 characters have viewed 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 an attitude of moral cowardice by critics of 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.


One criticism regarding the Prime Directive is that it is inconsistently applied, depending on a planet's strategic importance or the circumstances in which a starship crew finds itself. For example, Captain Kirk was ordered to make contact with the seemingly pre-industrial Organians in "Errand of Mercy". In addition, Kirk directly interfered with the laws or customs of alien worlds in "Friday's Child", "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky", "The Cloud Miners (TOS episode)", "The Apple", "The Return of the Archons", and "A Taste of Armageddon", in order to achieve a Federation objective, to save the lives of his crew, or both. Kirk also states in TOS "The Omega Glory" that "A star captain's most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive." However, in "The Apple" and "The Return of the Archons", in which Kirk and his crew (and in the former episode, the Enterprise) are captured by pre-warp cultures, Kirk states the Prime Directive only applies to cultures that are in a state of living development, and that the cultures in those episodes had become stagnant as a result of being controlled by computers. Interference with a planet's natural development also occurs in "A Taste of Armageddon" and "The Cloud Miners" with no real justification given. In The Paradise Syndrome, the Enterprise attempts to save a pre-industrial planet by moving an asteroid that was on a collision course with it; when Kirk asks Spock if he should warn the people, Spock only points out the people would not understand the warning, and makes no reference to the Prime Directive.

Admiral Dougherty's reasons for violation of the Prime Directive in Star Trek: Insurrection in Picard's time echoes the reasons given by Tracy to Kirk in "The Omega Glory" and Picard considers them just as invalid as Kirk did a generation before. In "Homeward" Rozhenko uses holodeck technology to save the Boraalan enforce what he believes is the spirit of the Prime Directive even though Picard has already said such actions violate what it actually states. In "Pen Pals", Captain Picard rectifies contact with an inhabitant of a pre-warp planet by ordering her memory wiped. When contamination became too serious to be fixed by memory wipes, Captain Picard decided to make direct contact with a civilization's leaders in "Who Watches the Watchers" and "First Contact", although the latter episode involved a planet on the verge of achieving warp flight, and therefore eligible for First Contact. Finally, in "Natural Law", the Voyager crew took measures to ensure the protected isolation of a primitive people, even from a more advanced civilization who share the same planet.

In contrast, the Next Generation episode "Justice" did not explicitly explain whether the Edo people were pre-warp or were aware of offworld space travelers prior to the Enterprise's visit. If the case is the former, then when Wesley Crusher is sentenced to death, the violation of the Prime Directive had already occurred and the issue of rescuing him, while politically exacerbating matters, might not have been a violation of the Directive.

There are two special cases in which the Prime Directive does not apply: General Order 24, in which a captain for whatever reason has to destroy an entire inhabited planet's surface, and the Omega Directive, in which a captain is authorized to take any means to destroy Omega Particles when detected.

While no prosecution for a violation of the Prime Directive was ever seen in a Star Trek episode or film, Picard's nine documented violations are held as evidence against him during a witchhunt investigation in "The Drumhead". Additionally, the non-canonical novel Prime Directive, by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, deals with the political and career fallout from a violation allegedly committed by Kirk. In canon, Captain Kirk apprehended Captain Tracey of the USS Exeter when he found evidence of the latter's apparent violation of the Prime Directive. However, the aftermath of the arrest is unknown.

Temporal Prime Directive

The Temporal Prime Directive is intended to prevent a time traveler from interfering in the natural development of a timeline. The TPD was formally created by the 29th Century, and was enforced through an agency of Starfleet called the Temporal Integrity Commission, which monitored and restricted deviations from the natural flow of history.

As 31st Century time traveler Daniels revealed to Captain Jonathan Archer in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode "Cold Front", as time travel technology became practical, the Temporal Accords were established sometime significantly prior to the 31st Century, in order to allow the use of time travel for the purposes of studying history, while prohibiting the use of it to alter history. Some factions rejected the Accords, leading to the Temporal Cold War that served as a recurring storyline during the first three seasons of that series.

Use in other science fiction

  • In Olaf Stapledon's 1937 novel Star Maker, great care is taken by the Symbiont race to keep its existence hidden from "pre-utopian" primitives, "lest they should lose their independence of mind". It is only when such worlds become utopian-level space travellers that the Symbionts make contact and bring the young utopia to an equal footing.
  • 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.
  • In the Babylon 5 universe, the concept of keeping advanced technology from the less advanced races who were not ready for it was cited.
    • In the episode, "Deathwalker", a renegade Dilgar scientist named Jha'dur, who is modeled on the notorious sadistic Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, is captured but bargains her freedom with a breakthrough medication that grants immortality. Before her medication can be mass-produced, she is killed by the Vorlons. Ambassador Kosh tells an assembled audience 'You are not 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.
    • 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.
    • On the other hand, in the Crusade episode Visitors From Down The Street, Captain Matthew Gideon would launch a full spread of modified probes (uploaded with considerable information about Earth and other Interstellar Alliance worlds, and about certain recent events which had transpired aboard the EAS Excalibur) at a pre-hyperspace planet where Humans had been cast (by the local government) in a role reminiscent of the Grey Aliens in our culture, in order to expose the locals to the truth. His Exec, John Matheson, would make reference to the gist of the Prime Directive as a criticism some might apply to this act. Captain Gideon acknowledged the possible critics, but then said "S____'em."
  • In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series, the Starways Congress established the law that no alien culture found is to be provided with superior technology or any information about the human society in order to preserve the natural development of the culture. In Speaker for the Dead, this is interpreted very strictly, to the point that the scientists studying the Pequeninos are not allowed to draw blood, for fear of giving the Pequeninos the hint that there is something to be learned from studying blood. The scientists, however, violate the prohibitions.
  • In Futurama, The Democratic Order of Planets' "Brannigan's Law" is a parody of the Prime Directive, and prohibits interfering with undeveloped worlds. Zapp Brannigan, after whom the law is named, states that "I don't pretend to understand Brannigan's law; I merely enforce it."
  • In the Animorphs series, the Law of Seerow's Kindness was passed by the Andalites to outlaw the passing of technology to alien species. This law was a consequence of Seerow's Kindness, in which an Andalite named Prince Seerow gave the Yeerks advanced technology, leading directly to their sudden rise in galactic importance.
  • In the Stargate Universe the Prime Directive as portrayed by Star Trek is hard to follow, as the Stargate network allows even relatively unadvanced civilizations to traverse interstellar distances; in the Pegasus Galaxy, even the least advanced groups can operate the Stargate, and attitudes toward a noninterference policy vary throughout.
    • The Tau'ri, or humans of Earth, have a totally opposite spin on interference than the Federation, holding it to be Earth's duty to assist humans on other planets, and most other non-hostile races, wherever possible in whatever way possible. However, they never share technology without good reason, and are often hesitant to give potentially dangerous technology such as weapons or strategically important materials away. They also refuse to accept or give technology to any civilization which practices morally reprehensible deeds, including one which practiced racial superiority and ethnic cleansing. The relatively middling nature of Earth technology, and the suddenness with which Earth became a major interstellar player, may have something to do with this attitude. In any event, the Tau'ri are wary of following in the footsteps of the Goa'uld, who pose as gods on less-advanced worlds.
    • The Tollan followed a policy effectively the same as the Prime Directive, following the destruction of a neighboring planet caused by the misuse of power-generating technology given to them by the Tollan.
    • The Asgard dislike sharing most of their technology, but nevertheless were willing to give technology in gratitude to an inferior race; this is how Earth got its hyperdrive and power source for that hyperdrive. However, they draw the line at providing any form of offensive technology to other races.
    • It is unknown whether the Ancients shared much technology pre-Ascension, but post-Ascension they adopted a policy of strict noninterference for any reason, as a consequence of their belief in reason and the generally deontological mindset they tended to express.
    • The Ori, on the other hand, flaunt the technological benefits of Ascension; while it cannot strictly be said that they share technology, they do interfere with the less-advanced.
  • The Time Lords of Gallifrey in the television show Doctor Who are said to have practiced non-interference, especially related to their ability to travel anywhere in time or space. However there episodes that directly contradict this view: "Genesis of the Daleks" (Where the Time Lords ask the Doctor to prevent the creation of the Daleks or change them into a less violent race), "Image of the Fendal" (where the Time Lords destroyed the fifth planet of Sol and then used a Time Loop to hide all records of its existence), "Two Doctors" (Where the Time Lords enlist the aid of the Doctor to prevent the independent development of their method of time travel), and Five Doctors (where is is revealed that in the time of Rassilon the Time Lords used time scoops to capture beings for gladiatorial like games).
  • Sylvia Louise Engdahl's novel Enchantress from the Stars also features the Prime Directive. A member of the original crew is killed upon landing on a primitive planet, Andrecia, when she is shot at. She dies without defending herself despite being able to shield herself using advanced technology.
  • Although the term is not used in Arthur C. Clarke's novel 2010: Odyssey Two or the film adaptation of the book, David Bowman warns humanity to "attempt no landings" on Europa, presumably to allow the lifeforms there to evolve naturally.
  • Thomas Pynchon's 2006 novel Against the Day, in a parody of serial fiction, features a young men's organization, the "Chums of Chance", whose Charter includes a paraphrase of Star Trek's Prime Directive, "never to interfere with legal customs of any locality at which we may have happened to touch."
  • The Swedish artist and poet Johannes Heldén made a poetic web-installation entitled The Prime Directive in 2006, located at the Danish virtual exhibition room for visual poetry, literature, and visual art, Afsnit P
  • The Star Ocean series of video games - which is already heavily influenced by Star Trek - feature a Prime Directive in all of its titles. For example, the Pangalactic Federation in the game Star Ocean: Till the End of Time has a similar law to the Prime Directive called the Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact (UP3), violations of which are only mitigated under situations where there is a significant threat to "life and limb."
  • In Chapter 21 of Arthur C. Clarke's 3001: The Final Odyssey, a parallel is drawn between the prime directive and the monolith's forbiddance of human-Europan interaction.

See also


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