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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.


  1. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 5:23 am

    I always quite enjoyed this story, though I never had the direct and meaningful engagement with how actual anthropology works that would spark my ire. But consider this.

    Every Prime Directive story (that's good) is simultaneously a critique of the principle. It's a hard and fast rule that, like all such unyielding principles, generates hard cases in its application. This episode presents a vision of how having to obey the Prime Directive would destroy all the progressive processes and techniques that were developed in anthropology.

    The unyielding principle of the Prime Directive is that there must be no interaction with cultures that haven't yet developed faster-than-light travel or communications technology. So anthropologists are forced into methods that prevent respectful interaction with the societies under study. As a result, those techniques are forgotten, and we end up with the contemptible anthropologists whose response to the crisis is openly trying to convince Picard to pretend to be their god and explicitly deliver them moral rules based on the Federation's mainstream principles.

    Picard ends up as the voice of Malinowski in this scenario. The Prime Directive has separated technologically advanced cultures from those that are less so. Once such a divide sets in, the condescension can bleed from there into other contexts, as in the initial attitudes of the crew and their frankly dumb-as-rocks plan to trick the Mintakans into changing their beliefs. When the crew treats the Mintakans as if they're stupid, they respond stupidly, kidnapping Troi and playing into all the stereotypes of primitivism and savagery that condescending attitudes hold to low-tech cultures.

    Picard's response is to treat the Mintakans as moral and intellectual equals, talking through the problem with the community's leader and defusing the conflict on the ground through his own direct intervention. And he instead leaves a legacy that doesn't dictate to them from a superior position, but the inspiration of a fellow traveller. They now have something they can look forward to as a culture, and the confidence that they can take their own path into the stars.

    The Enterprise has overcome the constraints of the Prime Directive by treating the less advanced as equals.


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  2. Josh Marsfelder
    January 28, 2015 @ 6:32 am

    That's a terrific redemptive reading and certainly fits with the general themes I'm working with here. My big concern though would be the way Star Trek most typically ends up trying to explain the Prime Directive.

    My opposition to the Prime Directive springs from my anthropology training, but I think Gene Roddenberry had development in mind when he created it (which is one of the reasons I keep tending to bring that up) and I think this is also the way most of the subsequent creative teams have thought about it.

    Way back in "The Apple" (or maybe it was "Return of the Archons", I can't remember offhand) I pointed out that the reason someone might want to prohibit interfering with other cultures (ignoring for the moment the somewhat loaded lexicon of "more developed" and "less developed) would be to prevent things like Modernization Theory: A sweeping, cack-handed set of vague policies and initiatives based on making nonmodern, nowestern cultures as modern and western as quickly as possible.

    Now, Roddenberry was somewhat hypocritical IRT his attitudes about this: When pressed, he'd say the Prime Directive is a Very Good Thing and a sterling example of the Federation's utopia. But in a lot of his stories he winds up criticizing it, usually with the basic plot that "this time" intervention is a necessary evil to straighten out a bad situation.

    In other words, these primitives are so backwards they desperately need the help of our Modernization Theory regardless of what the suits tell us.

    In my opinion, the vast majority of Prime Directive stories in Star Trek fall into one of these two camps (sometimes, confusingly, both). As a narrative device, it's so FUBAR that even the criticisms of it become ludicrously problematic. To me, it's one of those things that sounds really nice and rosy on paper, but turns out to be a complete clusterfuck in practice. Much like International Development theory, actually.

    I'm also hesitant about any attempts to paint one or more Enterprise crewmembers as in the wrong or splitting them off from the rest of their peers. Especially not when the one who gets lionized is the charismatic leading man. In my view, each member of the crew should be equally utopian and idealistic, just in a diverse set of ways that are natural outcroppings of their positionalities and situated knowledge-spaces. And if nothing else, not doing that here winds up saddling this episode with that "Iditot Plot" the writers of "Tin Man" get so wound up about.

    Though I will say, based on that last paragraph or so, I'd love to see you rebut Ira Steven Behr.


  3. Josh Marsfelder
    January 28, 2015 @ 6:34 am

    "In other words, these primitives are so backwards they desperately need the help of our Modernization Theory regardless of what the suits tell us."

    Or, put differently, it's wrong to forcibly impose our beliefs on others unless we really, really have to for their own good.


  4. Ross
    January 28, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    Now, Roddenberry was somewhat hypocritical IRT his attitudes about this: When pressed, he'd say the Prime Directive is a Very Good Thing and a sterling example of the Federation's utopia. But in a lot of his stories he winds up criticizing it, usually with the basic plot that "this time" intervention is a necessary evil to straighten out a bad situation.

    Not really all that different to how Isaac Asimov proposed three simple rules that could safely govern robot behavior, then made a career out of writing stories about loopholes and edge cases that made those rules fail to safely govern robot behavior.

    It seems to me like the prime directive stories follow the pattern of some other things that come up later in the canon that boils down to "There are certain cultural bugaboos that sends humanity (usually humans in particular, but possible the federation at large) off the deep end causing them to set up profoundly stupid rules that forbid behaving sensibly." And these tend to center around anything that tacks anywhere in the general neighborhood of "playing god" (Only, according to a very specific and limited notion of what playing god entails, since "Let's genetically engineer a super-race" counts but "Let's kick the laws of physics in the balls" doesn't)

    I have an easier time accepting prime directive stories framed behind that "No, it's really not a good policy. It's a stupid policy we enacted because we've got this major cultural bugaboo about it and don't trust ourselves to behave reasonably"


  5. Josh Marsfelder
    January 28, 2015 @ 6:55 am

    Well, that's certainly fair. And I mean full disclosure I happen to adore the episode actually called "Playing God" at least partially (IIRC) for a lot of those reasons, so I can certainly get behind that line of defense.

    I mean if it were me I wouldn't have even written the Prime Directive into Star Trek in the first place. But I'm not writing Star Trek and that's a perfectly solid reading I'm happy to throw support behind.


  6. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 8:49 am

    I could see the Prime Directive as being primarily motivated by the experience of the Cargo Cults. The Vulcans (and later the Federation as a whole) wouldn't want to end up disrupting a culture that doesn't know how to conceive of advanced technology and alien worlds. The religious beliefs around "The Picard" turned Jean-Luc himself into the deity of a Cargo Cult, a technologically advanced foreign entity perceived as a divine figure.

    I suppose that's my rebuttal to Behr's position that Picard should have stayed on Mintaka to comprehensively repair everything that had gone wrong (though I haven't yet found the text of what he precisely said, so I may be hitting wide of the mark). Picard would still be acting from the position of a cultural superior dictating terms to his inferiors so they can be good and proper little pre-warp civilizations.


  7. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 8:51 am

    This is a pretty interesting critical essay on the episode too.



  8. Ross
    January 28, 2015 @ 9:22 am

    @Adam: Personally, I like to believe that the Prime Directive is the way it is because, after Archer declared that evolution "wanted" one race to die out in favor of another, they decided that captains were too damn stupid to be trusted.


  9. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 9:37 am

    A civilization like ours that has relatively advanced planetary technology and a strong tradition of sci-fi media/literature could probably handle contact with actual extra-terrestrials, but it would still be a tough judgment call requiring a lot of detailed study of our cultures, ethics, and human personality tendencies to know whether contact would more likely benefit humanity and the visitors than put us both at risk.

    It may just be safer for the ETs to step off until we develop faster-than-light travel tech and they have to deal with us whether or not they want to.


  10. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 12:32 pm

    Ross, having not actually seen very much of Enterprise, I didn't know that was how one of the episodes went down. Holy crap.

    Well, any law usually has more than one reason why it's there.


  11. Ross
    January 28, 2015 @ 2:08 pm

    He even says "Maybe someday Starfleet will have some kind of rule, a 'directive' if you will, that will give us clear guidance on how to deal with this sort of thing."


  12. Adam Riggio
    January 28, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

    Oh, for fuck's sake. This is why I stopped watching Enterprise.


  13. K. Jones
    January 28, 2015 @ 7:56 pm

    From a writerly standpoint the prime directive always interested me because of Murphy's Law. You don't introduce a rule like that unless you intend to break it, because that's melodrama. The conflict has to happen. Nobody wants to watch an episode where the Federation anthropologists safely watch this weird culture from afar and never the two shall meet. So it's an inherently flawed concept in general to ever get caught up in the philosophical or "rules are rules" aspects of a Prime Directive story.

    If Murphy's Law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (eventually), Murphy's Law of Storytelling should be "anything that can go wrong, will go wrongest in the course of an hour."

    I skip this episode a lot.

    The one thing that is memorable for me though is the idea of Vulcanoids. In a universe where we accept that you can go to faraway planets and find cultures that are built from the same or incredibly similar building blocks as Terrans, and we call them Humanoids … OF COURSE there must be Vulcanoids! And of course they must be somewhat rarer than Humanoids! With copper-based blood due to the rare occasion when an Earth-like world has more copper than iron (iron of course being the most common elemental residue). With slightly more electrical conductivity leading to slightly more ordered brain patterns and far more aptitude for tactile psychic linkage!

    They didn't all have to have the same stupid haircuts, though!


  14. Adam Riggio
    January 29, 2015 @ 5:27 pm

    Another idea occurred to me about possible ideologies underpinning the Prime Directive. During his conversation with the head anthropologist, when Picard reacts with revulsion to the suggestion that he become a literal god to the Mintakan community, the anthropologist suggests that because the Prime Directive had already been broken, the floodgates for interference were open.

    It's as if entering interstellar communities and relations cost a culture some primordial purity. I came across this frequently in some of my research on environmentalist philosophy that all too often romanticized indigenous peoples as existing in some mystical communion with nature. It was the eco-imbecile's version of the Eden myth that was often used to dehumanize indigenous cultures.

    A similar thing seems to be happening here with at least one (of the many) justifications of the Prime Directive. Pre-warp cultures are depicted as living in a state of purity, and the Prime Directive is a rule against cultural contamination. We can only engage with a planet's people when they cross the technological divide on their own (when they contaminate themselves).

    Just another depressing way in which the Prime Directive has, in the world of Star Trek, destroyed all that was great about the human discipline of anthropology.


  15. Ross
    January 30, 2015 @ 2:53 am

    I get the feeling that the idea behind the prime directive, ill-conceived though it might be is less "We must not contaminate the purity of these cultures" and more "We don't trust ourselves to only intervene in 'good' ways and therefore will err on the side of doing nothing"


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