Star Trek Versus Imperialist Doctrine

Yves here. Despite being allowed to watch only one hour a day of TV as a kid, the Star Trek original series was a staple of my viewing diet. And I’m surprised and pleased to see that Yanis Varoufakis thinks there was and is a place for its idealistic stab at enterprising non-intervention.

By Yanis Varoufakis. Originally published at Project Syndicate; cross posted from his website

America’s liberal imperialist doctrine has been responsible for appalling carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Central America. But America has also produced a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine that remains ensconced in a TV series that has been captivating US audiences since 1966.

On February 9, 1967, hours after the US Air Force pounded Haiphong Harbor and several Vietnamese airfields, NBC television screened a politically momentous episode of Star Trek. Entitled “The Return of the Archons,” the episode marks the debut of the Prime Directive – the supreme law of the fictional United Federation of Planets, and its Starfleet, banning any and all purposeful interference with alien people, civilizations, and cultures. Devised in 1966, as President Lyndon B. Johnson was sending another 100,000 troops into Vietnam, the Prime Directive constituted a direct, though well-camouflaged, ideological challenge to what the US government was up to.

Having remained central to the Star Trek series to this day, the Prime Directive is even more pertinent now. Military escapades always entail a variety of separate issues, making it hard to have a rational debate about their merits. For example, were the US invasions of Vietnam or Afghanistan motivated by good intentions, whether containing totalitarianism or saving women from radical Islamists? Or were those intentions invoked to provide political cover for cynical economic or strategic motives? Were they wrong because the US forces were defeated? Or would they have been wrong even in victory?

The beauty of the Prime Directive is that it cuts through this labyrinth of confusion and deception: the invader’s motives, good or bad, matter not one iota. The Prime Directive bans the deployment of superior technology (military or otherwise) for the purposes of interfering with any community, any people, or any sentient species. It is, in fact, quite drastic: Starfleet personnel must respect it even if it costs them their lives.

In the words of Captain James T. Kirk, “a starship captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” To which his successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, adds: “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy … and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes … no matter how well-intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

Entrenching such a philosophy in a mainstream American TV series, and in the midst of the biggest escalation of the Vietnam War, was a bold move. There can be little doubt that it was an intentional critique of US foreign policy. In the episode “Patterns of Force” (1968), Star Trek’s screenwriters conjured up a Federation social engineer who tries to help a primitive planet develop by instilling in its people a humanist attitude while also building a state with the efficiency that only an authoritarian regime can muster. His well-meaning intervention soon unravels as the patterns of authority he introduced beget institutionalized racism, and the humanism he tries to nurture is crushed by a regime espousing genocide.

Star Trek’s writers were not naive moralists or isolationists. They understood that, as with all rigid moral imperatives, their Prime Directive could not be applied straightforwardly. Simply turning up in a foreign land, or on another planet, meant interfering in some way. Although Starfleet officers are shown prepared to die rather than violate the Prime Directive, in plenty of situations their moral outrage causes them to bend or even ignore it. In “A Private Little War” (1968), they encounter a planetary civil war where one of the two factions has been supplied with advanced weapons by the Federation’s arch foe, the Klingons. How could they respect the Prime Directive when the competing superpower is not?

Deciding that the best way to respect the Prime Directive is to violate it, they attempt to level the battlefield by providing almost identical weapons to the other faction. The result is an out-of-control arms race and a rare unhappy ending.

But not all violations of the Prime Directive lead to disaster. “A Taste of Armageddon” (1967) depicts a bizarre war between two planets whose leaders had agreed to simulate their battles on a computer in order to stop the endless destruction of infrastructure. But the people “killed” in the computer simulation are later taken to death chambers. Convinced that risking a return to full-blown war is preferable to letting the callous simulated-cum-actual killings continue, Kirk violates the Prime Directive by blowing up the death chambers.

Nonetheless, the screenwriters went to great lengths in such cases to show that good consequences resulted despiteviolations of the Prime Directive, not because of them. Or, more precisely, it is the belief, etched into the minds and souls of Starfleet personnel, that the Prime Directive is good and proper which makes it possible for violations of it sometimes to work out. Likewise, Western soldiers can occasionally do good in some far-flung war-torn country precisely because they do not believe it is sensible to try to build a coherent civilization at the barrel of a foreign gun.

Star Trek’s Prime Directive deploys popular culture to highlight the irrelevance of whether the stated good intentions used to justify imperialist escapades are real or bogus. It dramatizes brilliantly the manner in which top-down high-tech invasions planned in advance to save an “inferior” people from themselves can only lead inexorably to the nauseating lies, crimes, and cover-ups of the sort we encounter in the Pentagon Papers or Wikileaks.

The Prime Directive is also a necessary and useful reminder of the contradictions of American society – in particular, how it has produced not only the liberal imperialist doctrine responsible for so much carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but also a liberal anti-imperialist doctrine which remains ensconced in a TV series that has been captivating US audiences for longer than most Americans have been alive.

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  1. Joe Well

    IIRC the Prime Directive stopped being mentioned much in the programs after The Next Generation: DS9, Voyager, Enterprise, and now Discovery and Picard.

    Those shows seemed to portray the Federation (or Earth for Enterprise) as the beleaguered victims, the fantasy behind anticommunism and the War on Terror.

    Please correct me if I’m wrong, Trek was important to my childhood, too, and I hate that it is something else for me to be cynical about.

    1. d w

      well for DS9, it would actually be odd if they encountered IIRC issues, Bajor wasnt a non warp capable civilization. Voyager seemed to be a trek version of lost in space. and Enterprise was pre-federation time. they were still trying to get used to traveling long ways, and meeting new people.

      so i will ask this, while i can question if USSR if it was communism (was more like a dictatorship….more than any thig else…and China is too…just with a smidge of capitalism). and the USSR (and to a lesser degree) did really want to attack the US, it was more propaganda that they didnt….and the successor Russia, isnt any different). so wasnt the US being threatened or not? and if not, why was Russia leading the way it lots of technology for war? it wasnt self defense, they are and were actually way to far away, with too big a military for the US (and its allies) to actually want to attack them (though i guess some rogue politican could advocate it….and they did)

      its not really different today, just seems to be a different politics that seem to have bought their story

      the US should never attack Russia, or China. but that doesnt mean we shouldnt be ready to defend our self, and try to encourage others to not try to attack us.

      1. Soredemos

        “and the USSR (and to a lesser degree) did really want to attack the US, it was more propaganda that they didnt”

        No, they didn’t. The Soviet Union never maintained a nuclear first-strike policy, and the nightmare vision of Soviet armor pouring through the Fulda Gap was never actually a thing (I remember reading an article years ago from someone in the hobbyist wargaming sphere, talking about coming up with a historically plausible scenario for a Soviet offensive. They had to literally invent a fictitious personality to make the scenario work, because no one in the historical roster would have plausibly thrown the first punch).

        The Soviet Union wanted to be left alone to manage ‘socialism in one country’.

        The Cold War makes a lot more sense once you start viewing it as fundamentally one of Western aggression. From the Russian perspective, it started in 1918 and started hot when the West invaded to support the Whites.

        1. Bill Smith

          “The Soviet Union never maintained a nuclear first-strike policy,”

          Nuclear, no first strike policies are meaningless. When push comes to shove, who enforces something like that?

          Soviet war planing usually went, NATO attacks us and then we overrun most of Western Europe.

          There are a lots of declassified Soviet documents that came out of former Warsaw Pact countries.

          1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

            Like most military planners, they expected a reprise of ‘Napoleon attacks us, we hold out until we can mobilize the nation and then stomp him’. It’s a story that’s worked for Russia moere often than not. Same as Germany’s ‘We’ll whip them with superior organization and unexpected manouvers’ or the British ‘Let’s you and him fight’ style of subversion and manipulation. The US is really an extension of Britain in this way.

            1. Bill Smith

              The Warsaw Pact planned to be on the Rhine River 7 days after the war started. That’s some pretty quick mobilization.

              1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

                Not sure when that plan was drawn up but it’s the kind of ‘home by Xmas’ thinking that leads to doom.

            1. Chris

              No way USSR acted war, but planning for an attack from USA was needed. The USSR suffered catastrophic damage economically, in human life,, structurally and otherwise. millions of people were dead and most entire cities destroyed where Germans set foot.

              In addition no aid was forthcoming from the country that suffered least, USA. Quite the opposite, sanctions and trade restrictions were the story. Plus Eastern Europe suffered equal levels of catastrophic damage, with no help from west.

        2. d w

          they didnt want to manage the their own country, they spread as far and wide as they could. and oddly enough there are records from the USSR where the plan was strike through Fulda Gap. i suppose Stalin would have been the most likely to execute their plan. now that might have been the same thing that the US does when it plans for wars with countries that dont make sense that we would go to war with. or not, if the USSR wanted to strike Europe it was going take a few weeks for their to be enough US forces to stop them.
          and the cold war also makes sense as a USSR war of aggression, unless you are are a Russian of course. there were lots of assets in Europe they could take and use for their own use (same as today too).. and you ointed out exactly why they would have done it: to attack first before the west was ready to defend it self. course Nazi Germany didnt give them any reason to allow any one around them to not be under their control either. but its also true that the Russian empire was as devious as those that followed them.

          1. Soredemos

            Stalin would have attacked the West? With what? A military and nation exhausted by the bloodiest conflict in human history?

            1. Generalfeldmarschall von Hindenburg

              Hitler inflicted a very long term and greivous wound on the USSR. They’ve only just recovered and they’re not the Russia of 1848 or the USSR of 1935. They’re just smart enouth to dial their expectations to match their throw weight.

      2. ambrit

        The Allied Powers, of which America was a major component, did attack the fledgling Soviet Union, back in 1919 and a little later. There were military interventions against the Soviets by the ‘Allies’ in Archangel, above the Artic Circle and in the Far East, (in which intervention Japan took a large part.)
        Add to this Western business support for anti-communist groups in Germany before WW-2, and you could forgive the Soviets for distrusting the Western Powers. When one factors in the Chicago Boys reign of economic terror against the Ex-Soviet economy post 1991, that “paranoia” is fully justified.
        Just to be a bit snarky; the Soviets had Stalin to be their ruthless autocrat, while America had the Dulles brothers.

    2. Elim Garak

      I can’t speak for the more recent iterations like Discovery or Picard as they’re more akin to the JJ-Trek Universe in spirit, where thoughtful ethical dilemmas take a backseat to action-driven conflict and lens flare. That said, Voyager and DS9 definitely touch upon the Prime Directive often and in thoughtful ways. In DS9 they even explore the darker sides of the Federation as the war with the Dominion becomes a greater storyline within the series.

    3. FriarTuck

      The latest shows (DSC and PIC) have a giant streak of nihilistic cynicism at their core; they’re not really representative of a Star Trek which centered itself on humanism. I find the new shows to be objectionable drek.

      The Prime Directive is a moral ideology birthed of humanism and collective self-determinism; an acknowledgement of the moral and existential limits of one society’s own authority over others.

      Breaking the Prime Directive seemed only a moral right when self-determinism was leading to self-destruction, and only an outside force could possibly break the near certainty of self-harm.

      I wonder if the latest shows grimdark narrative isn’t reflective of its writers and creators, who have been conditioned in late ultracapitalism and find it impossible to imagine a world which isn’t totally based on radical individualism and self interest.

      PS: Lower Decks, however, does have that humanism left in it, and I love it – despite feeling at times its a bit too reliant on references to earlier shows.

    4. Icecube12

      I didn’t much like or watch Enterprise, Discovery or Picard. But I was obsessed with Deep Space 9 (DS9) and Next Generation (TNG) for a lot of my teen years and watched some of Voyager too. The prime directive was vital to TNG, which makes sense to me as, like original Star Trek, it was a lot of the time about a starship traveling to a new place and meeting a new alien race, sometimes a highly developed one sometimes not, with the crew always supported by the power of the Federation and Starfleet.

      I don’t remember the prime directive being mentioned as much in DS9 and Voyager, true, but the settings of those shows were just totally different. They were also very much shows of the late 90s, so before the War on Terror but maybe after the pro-US idealism of the end of the Cold War had begun to run out.

      DS9 was set in a tricky political climate as the Federation and Starfleet set up on a Cardassian-built space station near Bajor right after the Cardassian occupation of Bajor had ended (I think the occupation was supposed to have lasted something like 50 years or something). So you had a planet coming out of decades of occupation by an alien race, and iirc a lot of the Bajorans didn’t really trust the Federation / Starfleet presence much either. So the show featured main characters from a bunch of different alien peoples with wildly different value systems (like not only the human characters but the Ferengi, Klingons, Bajorans, even a Cardassian ex-spy left behind after the occupation) who had to work together, usually with a lot of conflicts. The focus was less “episodic weekly adventures” and more “deepening political and interpersonal quagmires.” The Federation eventually does get into a war with a race of aliens called the Changelings, who are not solid but liquid beings, and there are changing alliances between planets leading up to and during the war. I know DS9 is controversial in Trek world, but man I loved it so much.

      I wasn’t very invested in Voyager, so I don’t have much less of an impression of that show, but the main story there was that the ship was lost and alone in the Delta quadrant, with no way to contact the Federation and constantly making first contact with new alien races and trying to navigate interstellar situations and conflicts they had never encountered before as they tried to make their way home. So the characters were sort of always on the defensive there.

      In any case, I see the prime directive as so important to TNG and the original series because those series present more instances of Starfleet encountering peoples that are technologically less developed than the Federation, whereas DS9 showed more political conflicts between planets and peoples with varying levels of military strength and technological (and also spiritual) development. DS9’s Bajorans were technologically and militarily weaker, and they presented as people who had been interfered with for decades and who just might be interfered with by the Federation as well (I think the Federation was presented much less idealistically than in the earlier series). But the Klingons, Cardassians, and Changelings were portrayed as strong adversaries, all with their own interests and points of view. And in Voyager the characters were sort of legitimately the underdogs as they were totally alone in whatever encounters and fights they got into (though I think they made some alliances too). From what i saw of Enterprise, I do agree it did seem very influenced by the war on terror, with a lot of the characters seeming very much the “with us or against us” type. I don’t know if the humans in Enterprise are portrayed as the beleaguered victims, but they do seem to view themselves in that way in the first few episodes. And Discovery and Picard just seem too much like the rest of the cynical-about-human-nature action crap on TV for me to really get into them. But no reason to be cynical about Trek of years past! Current culture turns a lot of older culture to crap, but I just try to ignore it.

  2. Science Officer Smirnoff

    . . . how it has produced not only the liberal imperialist doctrine responsible for so much carnage in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan

    Bogus Rationalization
    Or rather that doctrine was invoked cynically, particularly, in the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq to impart a feel-good glow to preventive war (“better sooner than later to take down Saddam”) among various objectives.

    1. d w

      and if you look back in history, we were much more active in meddling in other countries. not so much at the very beginning maybe, but after that, we became very active, even if it was pretty low key

      1. 1 Kings

        Well, we tried to take Canada in 1812, took the West’ from Mexico, Hawaii from the Hawaiians, Cuba and the Phillipines from the same via Spain, Central America ditto, meddled professionally in South America, and on and on and on.

        1. Science Officer Smirnoff

          ‘. . . The country has once for all regurgitated the Declaration of Independence and the Farewell Address, and it won’t swallow again immediately what it is so happy to have vomited up. It has come to a hiatus. It has deliberately pushed itself into the circle of international hatreds, and joined the common pack of wolves. It relishes the attitude. We have thrown off our swaddling clothes, it thinks, and attained our majority. We are objects of fear to other lands’
          William James on “The Philippine Question” (1903)

  3. Terry Flynn

    Lovely article. My only quibbles relate to how “modern producers” debased this. ST should have “gone on long hiatus” (like Doctor Who) after DS9. I don’t like the TNG movies (being nothing like the series), loathe Yoyager for “resetting everything” every episode (to enable syndication) – which is why Ronsld D Moore resigned immediately and then made the incomparably better BSG reboot. Then we got trash for people with attention spans measured in milliseconds with the reboots.

    TOS used stories and philosophical concepts from top Scifi writers. The prime directive had its flaws but generally served a good purpose. Then Voyager messed it up with the “Omega Directive” which was holier than Swiss Cheese. I know this sounds like an old f&rt but I was born after TOS and still recognize the brilliance of many stories (along with the total nonsense that some others engendered!)

    I’ve even given the first feature film a boost in my rankings now I really get it. ST2 is still the best though. Even though Horner wrote the score. *cough*Vaughan Williams really*cough*

    1. Terry Flynn

      I *get* on an intellectual level the need to tie up those loose ends. However I wish they’d left them alone. The emotional punch was given in real time. Like the famous story of how Nichelle Nichols “not being a maid” singlehandedly caused Whoopi Goldberg to realise another future was possible and probably helped Kickstart black women in Hollywood (as well as other related issues given that MLK persuaded Nichols to stick with ST because of what she represented).

      Why are we pulling on loose threads of the tapestry? Pun intended for those who know their ST lore.

      1. ambrit

        I’m sorry but, the Giant Kali Cornucopia has turned and is now eating us. (Where is William Windom when we need him?)

        1. Terry Flynn

          I raise you the horta…. Aka man in a psychedelic duvet… .. I really couldn’t take that episode seriously despite the fact its tenet – SILICON based life – is a really honourable thoughtful science based take on alternative forms of life.

          And you did it. With a duvet.

          1. ambrit

            Yes. I too get an enfolding comfy warm feeling harkening back to TOS. (A younger person I conversed about Early Star Trek once said that her generation imagined TOS to mean ‘The Old School.’)
            One clue to Roddenberry’s “proclivities” is his scripting Spock as a half Vulcan, half Human hybrid. The give away is that that plot device presupposes Panspermia as a valid evolutionary theory. Roddenberry, from what I have read, was a fervent proponent of panspermia on a personal level (often horizontal.) Another episode has an alien race state that they spread a genetic line across various systems. The Vulcans state that they have suspicions concerning their own origins. Kirk demurs and claims that Earth scientists have found proof of evolution on the Home Planet. However, both cannot be true. If Humans and Vulcans can cross breed, then a common ancestral line is needed. Said genetic source can be either Earth itself or an outside resivoir. I loved this as a sly dig at the ‘certainty’ of Terran human ‘scientists’ about the authenticity of their ‘discoveries.’
            The original Star Trek was subversive, in the best possible manner. The later series’ struck me as basically soap opera in space. But what do I know? I’m just here for the ride.

          2. ambrit

            I wish I could curse in Klingon! The Internet Dragons ate my reply to you!
            (I do want to see “A Klingon Christmas Carol” or “tlhIngan ram nI’ bom” before I shuffle off to Sto-vo-kor. Call it an item in my Bucket of Blood List.)
            I no longer feel the warm, enfolding peace of snuggling under a pile of dessicated tribbles.
            Needless to say, I had a disquition on the literally cosmic ramifications of Spock being a Terran human and Vulcan hybrid.
            Suffice it to say, I took that plot element to be proof of Roddenberry’s espousal of Panspermia, in both it’s cosmic and strictly personal levels.
            Stay safe and prosper!
            PS: Oh bloody h—! Now it appears! Q must be playing with my tenuous hold on “sanity.”

            1. The Rev Kev

              I’ve always been a fan of the Klingon Warrior’s Anthem myself-

              ‘Hear! Sons of Kahless.
              Hear! Daughters too.
              The blood of battle washes clean

              The Warrior brave and true.

              We fight, we love, and then we kill.
              Our lives burn short and bright,
              Then we die with honor and join our fathers in the Black Fleet where
              we battle forever, battling on through the Eternal fight.’

     (1:00 min)

                1. Keith Newman

                  You can take lessons to learn Klingon on Duolingo. I am informed by an anthropologist that Klingon was devised by two anthropologists with the intention to being as non-earth sounding as possible.

  4. zagonostra

    I was/am a sci-fi fan and continue to marvel at the screen writings of the original Star Trek series. Some of the episodes were written by masters of the sci-fi genre, like Norman Spinrad. I never was able to enjoy, nor have I watched any other Star Trek series that came out.

    The Prime Directive (entelechy) and its violation in the episode referred to in the article could just as well be about mandatory CV19 and vax passports, security and individual freedom. When is violation of the latter justifiable. Are we plotting a course where where “people are killed in computer simulation only to find out years from now that we voluntarily walked into “death chambers.”

    1. d w

      hm, what does COVID ‘passports’ and COVID have to do with the prime directive? while some may complain it restricts their freedom, not doing any thing about protecting your self puts others a risk. and could in theory put those who done protect themselves at risk of being charged with manslaughter or even murder if the person they infects dies, and possibly even if they survive, be on the hook for damages (i.e. hospital and other medical costs), when they are the cause f it (since they can identify where the virus came from) plus possible assault charges. and employers/business are on the hook for damages if they dont try to reduce the threat of infection.i dont think this will lead to death chambers (for any thing but major crimes), in the old days, it used to be your rights ended where some one else did. and unlike a simulation, the virus this isnt fake, its real. they have existed as long as humans have. some have no impact on humans, some do. this one does. it can kill you, or make you badly sick, though many dont have any symptoms of the infection. so how do you square your rights to do as you please with others rights to live? and i suspect if many if us become suspicious that many more of us will stay home, and not let any one in our homes (it is ours not yours). i suppose we can allow employers/business to mandate vaccines and masks, to enter their property (since they have a risk, and its is their property, not yours). oh wait they can do that already! and i suppose we will still be in the virus hell we are in, for your freedom to infect others. the virus doesnt care if you believe in it or not, but not believing in it. is a great gift so that it continue infect others, which is the entire reason for it to exist!

      1. ambrit

        You are assuming that the vaccines are fit for purpose and do no harm themselves. (That’s as close to that subject as I dare get.)
        These vaccines are being politically used as ‘deus ex machina’ to get the ‘Authorities’ out of a very hard dilemma. To truly manage this pandemic, rice bowls would have to have been broken. Our present system “maximizes shareholder equity” and thus puts the public at the tail end of the bankruptcy pay out line.
        Since the vaccines have very short effective life spans, (six to ten months is the average efficacy I read,) the “Covid Passports” are nothing more than socio-economic kayfabe. “See. We’re doing something! We deserve our budgets! Etc.”
        And have we once again thrown the entire female segment of the Terran human species “under the bus?” Female reproductive ‘issues’ arising from the vaccines themselves are getting short shrift.
        There is too much wrong with the Pandemic response for any of us to pay the slightest attention to the posturings of the Medical and Political Establishments about the coronavirus pathogen.

        1. d w

          well so far over 170 million have taken them, and few have had real issues with it. if some had, i am sure Fox would have been yelling about high and low, but they havent been. and people get sick and die from all sort of things, like water, air, so the really is nothing that is %100 safe. and the vast majority if those who get covid, and unvaccinated. well its off from some to claim they want to protect female reproductive ‘issues’ when those same folks want to take control over it lock stock and barrel. since some vaccines have short life spans as does natural immunity, since they are basically one and the same. except we do know that for most getting infected is a non event. but we also know that there are those who end up with is long covid, and some of those got it last year, and still are sick this year, and of course some die. and since we dont yet know who is at risk, means that anybody can be, and death has come for all ages, background, and conditions, including thoe who dont believe the virus exists. so why should those who dont want to get infected, be willing to trust those who dont care about them, and done care to try and avoid the virus?

          1. d w

            and oddly enough, while Feds are paying for the vaccine shots, its not a big amount of money, except because of the numbers (currently there are about 150+ million who have been vaccinated (even if the vaccine a dollar that is not exactly a huge amount. now i suppose you will tell me that the nurses and doctors on the front lines who threatening to quit because of burnout, are just doing for miracle bag of money from some place? now as it turns out my daughter works in a hospital, in the their lab, she has covid (has to stay home for now), her daughter (about 5) has it (probably gave it to her mom), her in-laws have it also, her husband so far doesnt have it. my wifes niece has had it, her husband too. so far all have been lucky, none have died, or ended up long covid

            1. ambrit

              You have my sincere wishes for the return to good health of your family members. At the granular level, we are all potential ‘victims’ of chance.
              My problem with the ‘framing’ of this pandemic is that we are still in the ‘early days’ of the phenomenon. Past pandemics took years, even decades to play out. Modern times are accelerated, in all aspects of life, and pandemics are no exception. Fast international travel has essentially made any pathogen a world wide event in a short time frame. This is not necessarily a benefit. Old style rolling pandemics could be ‘ridden out’ by regions in order of infection. There was thus always a resivoir of uninfected or recovered populations to ‘pick up the slack’ as it were. Now, the entire world falls ill almost in tandem. Resilience is not a part of such an experience. Hospitals are overwhelmed in multiple regions simultaneously. There is no ‘slack’ medical infrastructure to utilize. Triage is a result. I have already read of “hidden triage” happening in parts of America. People being sent home because there is no excess medical infrastructural capacity to be utilized in a crisis. The base line for triage is that one segment of the population is sacrificed for the “greater good.” America is very good at making such sorts of decisions based on wealth. Is this the sort of society that we want? Furthermore, who exactly is “we?”
              Additionally, while the vaccine might be “free,” the administration of those “free” vaccines generally is not. The Medical Industrial Establishment wants it’s “pound of flesh.” Clinics want to be paid for their tender ministrations.
              The argument that the nurses and doctors who are threatening to quit are just “in it for the money” is a strawbeing argument. The money is just one part of this equation. As our esteemed hostess remarked in another post, female reproductive issues associated with the vaccines themselves are a major issue for reproductive age women.
              Also, long covid is not an immediately diagnosable issue, at least as far as I have read. We are talking about decades of deleterious effects arising from this. The closest analogue I can think of is the cardiac issues resulting from having scarlet fever or rheumatic fever when young. People recover from the initial infection but succumb later, often decades earlier than their statistical lifespans would indicate, to the side effects.
              So, we are in the ‘early days’ of a long term Terran human adaptive crisis.
              It almost makes me believe in “The Jackpot.”

      2. tegnost

        Regarding the “freedom to infect others”, when the ferry arrives in friday harbor it is filled with vaccinated seattlites not wanting to wear masks. They’re basically super spreaders due to thinking that vaccines means they’re safe. I am currently much more worried about the careless vaxxed than I am about the unvaxxed. Scratch the surface a little bit and you might find that among those vaxxed seattlites are a good percentage who don’t think infecting an unvaccinated person is a bad thing, too many deplorables anyway…so I think the moral superiority is pretty hollow.
        could in theory put those who done protect themselves at risk of being charged with manslaughter or even murder if the person they infects dies, and possibly even if they survive, be on the hook for damages (i.e. hospital and other medical costs), when they are the cause f it (since they can identify where the virus came from)

        you don’t know where the virus came from.

        1. d w

          well so far you dont either. as nobody(and they are talking) does since nobody can go into China and do the research (China for some reason doesnt want foreigners in their country..imagine that!). will we ever find out? maybe, but just like the Spanish flue (which oddly enough didnt start in Spain by the way), actually started in the US, and mostly was a byproduct of WW1. and while it was really deadly the number of the dead have a range of 19 million to about 50 million. but it has taken about 100 years to actually figure out what happened.
          they can and do identify where the person got the virus. and its likely they will get even better at that

    2. Randy G

      Norman Spinrad?

      How about Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon, two amazingly talented writers who crafted scripts for the original Star Trek.

      Ellison, who could be a bit of an enfant terrible, was not happy with the meddling done to his award-winning script, The City on the Edge of Forever.

      Sturgeon wrote two brilliant episodes — Shore Leave and Amok Time.

      Evidently, the famous Vulcan hand signal and the greeting “Live Long and Prosper” were coined by Sturgeon.

      Ellison also wrote two excellent scripts for the original Outer Limits — The Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier. The later script was eerily similar to The Terminator in some respects, and James Cameron was compelled to credit Ellison for his work in a later film.

      1. Zagonostra

        Duly chastised, Theodore Sturgeon especially filled out my world as a teenager a early college days. His last book, that he only allowed be published posthumously, ‘Godbody’ , was a mind/culture bender akin to Heinlen’s ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’

      2. Jeremy Grimm

        I believe Leonard Nimoy invented the hand spread hand signal. He took it from a Jewish hand gesture: “The Vulcan greeting is based upon a blessing gesture used by the kohanim (koe-hah-NEEM) during the worship service.” []

      3. ambrit

        Wait there. You also left out David Gerrold (“The Trouble With Tribbles”) and D C Fontana, who was also the script editor. (She wrote quite a few scripts in several Star Trek series.)
        It’s almost like a religion, isn’t it. Then, “Science” partakes much of the qualities of religion. See today’s hijinks concerning a Dreaded Pathogen.

        1. The Rev Kev

          D. C. Fontana only passed away about two years ago and deserved a lot of respect. Hard to believe now but in the 60s she used the name D. C. Fontana to hide the fact that she was a women writing these scripts which some big-wigs frowned on back then. Of course Gene Roddenberry gave her his full support.

          Fun fact. When Star Trek Voyager started filming in 1995 some thirty years later, it featured the first female Starship captain – Captain Kathryn Janeway aka Kate Mulgrew. Mulgrew relates how when filming the first few episodes, they had executives on the set watching everything that she was doing as they were nervous to see if a women could be in the role of Captain of a Starship.

  5. Acacia

    I always thought U.S. foreign policy was best expressed by the I.S.S. Enterprise gunboat diplomacy (“it is regrettable that this civilization has chosen suicide”) in the TOS episode Mirror Mirror.

    1. d w

      i think that ISS was very much patterned on what happened in
      pre WW2
      as just about every western (and probably others) practiced it. course it might be hand waved away as the need to protect their citizens….which probably was true…but then why let their citizens go there???)
      course we still do it today, which is why Presidents have asked the military where are the carriers? while they can conquer a country, they can impact its policies, and can also rescue Americans

      which just make one think that its the human condition that drives this, political, and economics. with a covering of morale ‘need’

      1. Acacia

        As you say, it’s still what the U.S. does today (augmented with sanctions, freezing of assets à la Afghanistan, drone and cruise missile strikes, etc.), though I had assumed the point of reference for TOS Mirror Mirror was Commodore Perry in Tokyo Bay.

        Composer Fred Steiner’s main cue for this episode was actually called the “Blackship theme”, with the I.S.S. Enterprise as the kurofune, and the Empire’s threats to the Halkans being analogous to Perry’s threats to the Japanese. The Halkans have an ethic of total peace (like Article 9 of the postwar Japanese constitution, by chance), and will be annihilated by the Empire if they refuse to allow Dilithium mining. As a footnote, it seems that when Steiner asked Roddenberry for his thoughts about the score for this episode, the reply was: “Captain Blood in space”.

  6. The Rev Kev

    In Star Trek lore, the Prime Directive took some time to evolve out of disastrous first experiences of humans trying to help others. This was mentioned in several episodes. One way this played out was in the series ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ (in the early days of Starfleet) when a planet was discovered with two intelligent species with the dominant ones apparently on the way out to be replaced by the other. So do you go in and cure the former or step back and let nature take its course? This was the subtle genius of Star Trek from time to time. To pose moral questions in an alien setting that had no easy answers- (4:53 mins)

    1. Howard Beale IV

      I remember that episode – that was during the Xiindi story arc, which was mighty fine writing.

    2. Alex Cox

      I only saw the first seasons – captain Kirk days – but IIRC they disregarded the Prime Directive in just about every episode where other civilizations were encountered.

      There was also an episode based on Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker that was pretty good.

  7. saywhat?

    Even as flawed* as the West’s economic system is, it still has enormous objective power and philosophical attraction (soft power).

    Imagine then if those flaws were removed? Imagine the peaceful “conquest” of the world that would follow then?

    *Per the Bible: eg. government privileges for private credit creation; eg. no limits to the concentration of land ownership.

  8. gsinbe

    Hmmm…. This article makes me wonder if “The Trouble With Tribbles” was really about human overpopulation???

    1. ambrit

      That and how easily Terran humans can be psychologically manipulated. “They’re so cute! Furry and cuddly. I want one!”
      It is only much later that you discover that the microchip embedded in the feline is really there to track the owner.

  9. Soredemos

    I always found something implicitly imperialist-ajacent about the whole ‘seek out new life and new civilizations’ part. What gives anyone to the right to wander the galaxy, bumping into cultures and then deciding whether or not to interact with them? And there’s always the potential to inadvertently violate the Prime Directive and reveal yourselves to an ‘unprepared’ civilization without meaning to.

    1. ambrit

      Exactly. That’s why the UFOnauts do not land on the White House lawn.
      Of course, if I were an intrepid UFOnaut, the perfect place to land and not be caught out would be Disneyworld. Suspension of disbelief is a very tentacally tool.

  10. Terry Flynn

    Let’s not forget Gene Roddenberry was no saint. He was a sex maniac and maybe a pervert. NBC got thoroughly annoyed at him casting women he was sleeping with. Painting them to look alien didn’t fool executives.

    Plus even on his 2nd chance (ST:TNG) there are really dodgy episodes under his watch (early on before they booted him upstairs just like they did in the 60s) and no Trek fan is unaware of the (nothing wrong with but undoubtedly went under the execs’ radar for syndication purposes) male Starfleet officer wearing a dress!

    1. Mikel

      “Painting them to look alien didn’t fool executives. ”

      Biggest laugh so far this morning. Thanks for it.

      Also, the mini-skirt survived long into the future in the Star Trek universe, unlike the long robes of the Star Wars universe. Just another observation

    2. Acacia

      Fun fact: before his career as a producer, Roddenberry was a cop in the LAPD. He left the force to develop a TV series about social issues (check out The Lieutenant) in the military. When it was censored by NBC, he decided the way to approach social issues in a TV series was via science fiction and allegory.

      Imagine that: a member of the LAPD who wanted to make a TV series about, among other things, inter-racial conflict in the US and the prospect of a more harmonious society in the future. How far we’ve fallen.

      1. Terry Flynn

        Yeah one gets the feeling he understood the social issues that led to the problems of policing decades before others. He also knew how to convey these in an acceptable way that made people think. I will reproduce a quote from a right-of-centre person I’d usually have little to agree upon but which we both took from original ST (compared to current versions).

        Star Trek (the original) never dictated to me WHAT to think but it definitely taught me HOW to think. The latter has IMHO implications for lots of current hot topics including things like vaccination. Pretty high praise if you ask me.

  11. Terry Flynn

    Like the prime directive, Star Trek has somewhat painted itself into a corner with “socio political issues” elsewhere. Notably money. It is canonically stated not to exist in the 24th century. Writers should have consulted people like Stephanie Kelton to both sound more realistic and get more people looking up topics like “how is money created and destroyed”.

    As it is there are problems making it relevant to exist in the 24th century. Writers should have consulted people like Stephanie Kelton. I feel like science fiction in popular culture is losing the ability to look forward. It’s as if we are being ENCOURAGED to think that our way is the only “logical” way. That way lies civilisational collapse.

    1. LifelongLib

      IIRC the 23rd century original series economy did use money (“credits”) and was basically similar to ours, although supposedly most diseases and social ills had been eliminated.

      In the 24th century of TNG energy and materials were so abundant that everything was free, so money was no longer needed. People worked (if at all) for self-improvement rather than survival.

      1. The Rev Kev

        There was one ST TNG episode where they played off a businessman from 1980s America with 24th century economics- (3:04 mins)

        And it subtly makes the point that all the things like want, poverty and homelessness we see are not the way that things have to be. All of them can be eliminated if there was the will to do so.

  12. Alex Morfesis

    Why do Americans have to be perfect ?? Lucille Ball pushed through Star Trek when no one else thought it had legs…smart cookie shebee…live long and syndicate…but how is a nation which is less than 5% of the world’s population forced to justify every fumble ?? The french do more damage with their African franc helping to supplement their economy by butchering the economies of their continued economic colonies…but they have such wonderful cheese and champagne…lest we not mention them…and pandapoobear hugging any and every tinpot dictator on the planet while defaulting left, right and square on all the “promises” of investment by the arms of the red army ?? Does China really need the former japanese territories commonly known as Taiwan ?? Does Russia really imagine those lazy progeny of the Reich will suddenly rise up and attempt to push through Poland again ?? Last one checked, the alemans are getting all the oil and gas products they want from Russia without having to pull out a knife…yet the moscva krewe are more than happy to play along… America has never been perfect and to suggest otherwise is sad…life is not a sci Fi flick…

  13. Gulag

    “…it is this belief etched into the minds and souls of Starfleet personnel that the Prime Directive is good and proper which makes it possible for violations of it to sometimes work out.”

    Alas, the type of inner moral strength and selfless dedication expected of Starfleet personnel is no longer seen as an important part of most political conversations. It seems especially politically quaint to actually believe that the most important part of politics centers around the character traits of the participants rather than the issue of designing regimes or reforming institutions.

    Today politics is primarily viewed as the pursuit of power or the drafting of better laws—the question of the moral qualities of the participants and how such qualities are created are considered largely irrelevant..

    Forget about humility or truthfulness—such virtues are have little to do with power or persuasion.

  14. Alphonse

    In the 1969 story, “The War Games”, Doctor Who introduced the same non-interference policy: the timelords most important law is that they not interfere in the affairs of other planets. They accuse the Doctor of breaking it. He admits he is proud of doing so, and they sentence him to exile.

    The world of Star Trek is almost clinically clean. The culture is uniform and Utopian, with little in the way of cultural variation. You see this with constant references to chess and Shakespeare in The Next Generation: culture is static, not dynamic. When a video game shows up in TNG, it is as threat, a virus that must be extinguished.

    Of course Starfleet is a rather rigid hierarchy. And it’s gendered. The final episode of the original series, “Turnabout Intruder,” reveals that women are not permitted to be captains. There is a strong didactic message in the old series that men and women are and should be fundamentally different.

    Contrast that with the bohemian aesthetic and chaos of Doctor Who. The Doctor breaks the rules – for better and for worse. The law of the Timelords is wise and just – yet their punishment of him is not. And in stories contemporary with Star Trek, despite lots of screaming damsels in distress, women are often placed in active, unfeminine roles – e.g. Barbara as an Aztec god in “The Aztecs” (1964), Fariah as a subversive in “Enemy of the World” (1967), and Miss Kelly as a senior official in “Seeds of Death” (1969).

    To me, from across the 49th parallel, the quintessentially American liberal imperialism of Star Trek was only underlined by its progressive pretensions. In The Next Generation, conflict after conflict turned out to be a consequence of misunderstandings. Resolution was simply a matter of convening a meeting of the Enterprise brain trust and negotiating a solution. This is a word in which there are no fundamental differences, no irreconcilable divergence of interests, where people are rational and comprehensible and liberalism always triumphs.

    I tried watching an episode of The West Wing once. It gave me the same vibes. I could not watch another. (Give me Yes, Minister any day.) And I think history has made it clear that imperial hegemony is only barely concealed in the velvet glove of liberal ideals.

    Doctor Who was not consistent. Sometimes it preached intervention; sometimes not. I think one of its best stories, “The Aztecs,” concludes that there are no answers. Barbara, worshipped as a god, tries to end human sacrifice so that a brilliant civilization will not be destroyed by the Spaniards. She does no harm, but she fails. The sacrifical victims go willingly to their deaths, the rains come, and history keeps to its tragic course. In another celebrated story, “Genesis of the Daleks,” the Doctor basically has the chance to kill the ultimate space Nazis at birth. He hesitates, end the opportunity is lost. We are not gods, and there are no simple rules.

    For the record, I really do like “A Taste of Armageddon.”

  15. Thomas P

    As a contrast you have Iain Bank’s Culture, well meaning and always ready to meddle in more primitive civilizations, with very mixed results. (Well, presumably there are plenty of good outcomes that would be boring to write stores about) The ultimate utalitiarians, ready to use any dirty trick if necessary for the greater good.

    The exception was Earth, which they visited and decided to leave alone as a reference to see how it evolved on its own.

  16. ewmayer

    You do realize that in the original Star Trek, they flagrantly violated the Prime Directive roughly every other episode, yes? Think of Klingons and Romulans as Soviet and Chinese commies, the United Federation of Planets as U.S./NATO “making the world safe for ‘democracy a.k.a. western-style kleptocapitalism’ interventionists”, and that gives a more accurate portrayal of the series.

    1. JBird4049

      If it had be produced and broadcasted today, it would be a very problematic show. It was using a fantasy Western civilization, American style, as the good guys, also true, but… aside from the cheesy sets and Shatner’s “acting,” for something broadcasted from 1966 to 1968 it is not too bad.

      A fifty five year old show from during the Civil Rights Movement. A time so socially backwards that not only was it controversial to have a Black woman playing (horrors) a prominent role as an equal to all the other White cast members. There was an uproar that Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner actually kissed. “Miscegenation” as a crime was still on the books in many places even if the Supreme Court had made them unconstitutional in 1967, right in the middle of the show’s original run.

      Heck, it was during when the Cold War between the capitalist Western and the communist Soviet blocks threaten to became very hot for decades. No poverty, homelessness, or hunger. Aliens as equals. Anti-war, pro-peace, pro equality. It is practically (a communistic or socialistic) utopia. Again, the horror.

  17. Dave in Austin

    I always though the original Star Trek was a weird take on 1900-45 naval warfare with federation starships with names like the Enterprise (the only pre-Pearl Harbor US aircraft carrier to survive the whole war in the Pacific in the front lines), The King George (?) (the last WWII British battleship; an homage to faded Brit naval glory), the Potemkin (from the 1905 Potemkin mutiny in Russia) and, of all things, the Chairman Mao. No French, no Japanese.

    And the Prime Directive. In that era one of my readings from the University of RI used book sale was a history of the honorable Quakers who were the honest Indian agents in turn-of-the-20th-century Oklahoma. One of the tribes was keeping up the great plains traditions, When girls hit puberty they were married off to “warrior” of the tribe, often twice their age and often as second and third wives. The Quakers nudged and cajoled. The tribal elders understood that the age of the warrior for the tribe was past and times would have to change as the members became surprisingly sucessful small farmers. The changes were made (passive sentence intended). The girls became “American” with all the good and bad qualities that means. The Quakers, also believed in “the Prime Directive” but they were Quakers and honorable people. With that background reading and a lot of sci-fi, I always looked at the Prime Directive with a semi-jaundiced eye.

    1. Nom de Hair

      I always though the original Star Trek was a weird take on 1900-45 naval warfare with federation starships with names like the Enterprise (the only pre-Pearl Harbor US aircraft carrier to survive the whole war in the Pacific in the front lines), The King George (?) (the last WWII British battleship; an homage to faded Brit naval glory), the Potemkin (from the 1905 Potemkin mutiny in Russia) and, of all things, the Chairman Mao. No French, no Japanese.

      Actually in TNG, the sister ship to the Enterprise is named the “Yamato” after the flagship of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

  18. Jeremy Grimm

    I watched the original Star Trek and very little of the later derivative series. I do not recall any episode where the prime directive was part of the plot outside a context of first encounter, or in couple of episodes about efforts to correct a renegade ship captain’s violation of the prime directive. I do not think u.s. incursions into the affairs of other nations really fits the Star Trek context. The u.s. Empire expressed its aggression in nations known — long known — that the u.s. regarded as weaker. After many years trying to find some sane rationale for u.s. military actions I remain mystified.

    Star Trek’s prime directive can have little impact on the soldiers and officers executing an aggression. U.s. soldiers and officers lack the agency entrusted to a Star Trek starship captain. I suppose the prime directive might be of value were it adopted by the masters of the u.s. Empire, but I will not hold my breath. I am skeptical the masters of the u.s. Empire could be swayed by any sane rationale to guide their actions. I believe they are unable to consider even the completely unmoral rationale of long-term self-interest.

  19. vlade

    I am disappointed, because Strugackys (who are IMO vastly under-appreciated by the western readers – even Stalker got action-hero treatment, which is a great shame) wrote “It’s hard to be a god” in 1964.

    Which has also been given a cinematic treatment, although I’m not sure how good it is.

  20. HH

    The most under-reported story of the last two decades was the discovery that the estimated number of habitable world in the observable universe is on the order of 10 to the 21st power, or a billion trillion. This makes the notion of space exploration not only impossible but ridiculous. Thus, the voyage of a heavily armed starship on a mission of peaceful exploration that frequently involves space combat is an absurd fantasy. What Star Trek affirms is the enduring allure of redemptive violence, destructive action serving a noble purpose. This allows Americans to be the “good guys” in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and untold future nightmares. The beat goes on.

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