Star Trek as a Modern Day Myth: The Shifting Interpretation of the Prime Directive

So randomly recently I’ve had several people ask to read this paper that I wrote for a class back in 2008. I’m posting it here for general consumption.

WARNING! Super nerdy content ahead!

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Star Trek as a Modern Day Myth:

The Shifting Interpretation of the Prime Directive

As any Trekker knows, Star Trek began as the brainchild of the visionary Gene Roddenberry. Not only did Roddenberry conceive the idea of the Star Trek universe, he also wrote or co-wrote many episodes of The Original Series and of The Next Generation.  In the United Federation of Planets and its exploration-focused military force, Starfleet, Roddenberry created a utopian society based on humanism, friendship, tolerance, freedom, and mankind’s ability to overcome its basest instincts in favor of its inherent potential for goodness.

Although Roddenberry can accurately be called the father of Star Trek, the franchise’s development, like that of any child, was not influenced by its parent alone. As Jon Wagner puts it in his book Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos, “popular entertainment is always influenced, through a variety of direct and indirect avenues, by public taste and shared cultural assumptions” (8). Thus, the proverbial village had a hand in Trek’s rearing. Trek’s status as a shared cultural experience allowed the franchise to grow into one of the most enduring and popular myths in modern day America. Trek also makes exceptionally good mythic material due to the fact that it is set in the future. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive since traditionally, myths are set in the past, but in today’s science-focused society, we have the tendency to dismiss anything that is not factual and verifiable as “just a story.” That is not to say that myth is dead in modern day America – we have simply found different ways to frame our myths in order to make them plausible. One such way to accomplish this is to do precisely what Trek does: set the story in the future. Wagner writes, “both the future and the primordial time-before-time stand apart from concrete history, but with a big difference: the past either happened or it didn’t; but the future might happen” (7). The future is a blank canvas through which our logos-driven minds can be free to imagine a state of existence to which we can aspire.

Like all utopias, however, Starfleet is not without its problems. As mentioned above, Roddenberry’s vision of the Trek cosmos places particular emphasis on freedom and tolerance—ideals that often conflict with one another. Starfleet’s General Order No. 1, which prohibits Starfleet members from interfering with the development of other societies, is often a casualty of this conflict. This order, known as the Prime Directive, places tolerance of cultural difference in a position of utmost importance in Starfleet’s credo. Interference can range from revealing the presence of life on other planets to societies that are not yet aware of this reality to exposing a culture to a technology they have not yet developed themselves to aiding one side over another in a war or conflict. Clearly, the latter situation presents a moral dilemma when one party is oppressing or exploiting another. Which is more important: the oppressed or exploited society’s right to liberty, or Starfleet’s non-interference policy? Trek’s answer to this question varies depending on the social climate in the US and in the world at the time of the series in question: The Original Series tends to value freedom over diversity; The Next Generation places respect for cultural difference over the pursuit of liberty; Deep Space 9, in the postmodern spirit of the 1990s, attempts to mediate the two perspectives; and Enterprise represents a return to innocence of sorts, backing away from postmodernism and reaffirming respect for diversity as the pinnacle of enlightenment.

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3 thoughts on “Star Trek as a Modern Day Myth: The Shifting Interpretation of the Prime Directive

  1. Mike says:

    One can never certainly know what the outcome of interference will be. If one chooses to support the rebels against an oppressive regime, will the new order turn out to be more or less oppressive? And, might they ultimately turn on their supporters? History has shown us many examples of both.

    • Amber Brooke says:

      Very true… and ST canon certainly shows examples of both, as well. But it’s the attitude toward interference and how it relates to the current political state and current events in the “real world” that I find interesting. And very telling.

    • Amber Brooke says:

      One of these days I want to update this to incorporate ST2009 and ST:ID. Though maybe that would require analyzing all the movies, as opposed to the series.

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