Star Trek ,The Prime Directive, and Literary Studies


For the past few months, I’ve been undertaking my own private, systematic study of Star Trek–not the movies, or the Next Generation, or any of other spin-offs, but the original series. It began as a way to lure me into mundane chores, like ironing, during which I would watch the first few episodes; then it morphed into a means of occupying my mind while pedaling an exercise bike. I’m happy to report that in the last couple of months I’ve lost about ten pounds, more or less, as I pedaled my way through various adventures with Mr. Spock, Captain Kirk, Lieutenants Uhura and Sulu, Lieutenant Commander Scott, and the irascible Dr. McCoy.

I’ve learned a couple of things during this rather pointless but driven exercise. First, and most surprising, even those of us who were alive in the ’60s, we who remember the first-run reruns of the series, have seen far fewer episodes than we think we have. Oh, sure, we all remember “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but do we remember the episode in which Spock has to answer a call of nature (i.e., a mating ritual–which is to say he goes into a terrifying version of Vulcan rutting season) and nearly kills Kirk? Do we remember the first episode in which the famous Vulcan mind meld was ever used (“The Devil in the Dark,” Episode 26 of the first season)?

And what about the Prime Directive–a concept so compelling that it informs each iteration of Star Trek?

You can look up the Prime Directive in Wikipedia, and you’ll get a nice informative take on it there. In fact, if that’s what you want, you should probably stop reading this now and hop on over to it. While you might get a more systematic understanding of the concept there, you would miss my attempt to connect The Prime Directive with literature and writing, so I’m hoping you’ll stick it out for the rest of this post.

What I’ve found is that in the first season of the series, the Prime Directive is relatively unimportant, just a tidbit tossed in during random episodes. It’s first mentioned quite casually by Mr. Spock, as a regulation requiring non-interference in alien cultures, but only, he says, for living, creative cultures. It’s apparently perfectly acceptable to interfere with cultures that are neither living (what would that look like? isn’t the very definition of “culture” something that is dynamic and subject to change and thus living?) nor creative. The question is, of course, who determines whether a culture is living and creative? A few minutes later in this episode (“Return of the Archons,” Episode 21), Captain Kirk redefines the Prime Directive in Utilitarian terms: it is “the good of the body,” he says, going on to philosophize, “without freedom of choice there is no creativity, and without creativity, the body dies.” This is amended once more, only a few minutes later, when Kirk tells the evil robot Landru, “The evil must be destroyed: that is the Prime Directive. And you are the evil! Fulfill the Prime Directive!”

What we have here, then, is a mess of competing, non-aligning definitions, all iterated within a few minutes during one episode. (I’ll leave the connection between the Prime Directive as presented here and Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to real science fiction scholars.) It’s remarkable that the concept of the Prime Directive is so unstable that within a single episode–indeed, within a ten-minute span of a single episode–it changes three times. Only late in the second season will it attain the kind of stability and prominence that gives rise to our lasting notion of the Prime Directive. In Episode 27, “Errand of Mercy” — an embarrassingly implausible episode that deserves critical attention only because of how it redefines the Prime Directive–we see Captain Kirk’s reaction to his dawning realization that the Starship Captain of the Exeter, Ron Tracy, has violated the regulation. He declares in a solemn voice that Captain Tracy has “been interfering with the evolution of life on this planet. It seems impossible: a star captain’s most solemn oath is that he will give his life, even his entire crew, rather than violate the Prime Directive.” Kirk’s sense of awed distress drips with drama and significance.

This episode, which is quite bad in and of itself and is based on a rather stupid allusion to the Cold War, becomes important in that it is responsible for the first serious definition of the Prime Directive.

Okay–fine. So what does it have to do with literature?

First, it shows us how concepts change and develop over time. It demonstrates that history–even the paltry history of a television series made 50 years ago–is not static, but is itself unstable, changing, and growing if we look at it closely enough. It also shows us that anything is a text that can be analyzed: a television show, a concept introduced by that show, even our attitudes towards that show. It illustrates that there is value in analyzing even (perhaps especially) those things we think least “artistic,” because, functional and practical in nature, they inform the way we think about a lot of different things. And finally, in terms of literary studies, it shows us that there is great value in studying an entire body of work, such as an entire television series, or all of Hemingway’s novels, or the films of Alfred Hitchcock, because when we do engage in this long (and often tedious) work, we are rewarded with greater insight into the ways in which ideas, themes, and the work of art itself develops.