When people envision the future, they often see two possibilities. They either see a paradise in which all disease, war, and poverty have been eradicated and people are free to live their lives the way they want, or they see a future in which mankind has nearly destroyed itself and a small band of survivors is fighting to restore society to what it once was. Examples of the second kind are everywhere. Logan's Run, The Terminator, The Matrix, The Hunger Games, etc. are all examples of this grim view of the future. Star Trek, however, presents to us a very optimistic view of where humanity is headed. It shows us a society that is more cultured, more educated, more civilized than the society we live in now. Or does it?
What is Star Trek, Really?
Does Star Trek present to us a society that is indeed more civilized, and therefore superior, to the one we have now? Or does it merely show us a society that believes it is superior? Hmm...interesting question. Let's probe a little further.
If you are a Star Trek fan, then I don't need to explain the Prime Directive to you. For the rest of you, here's the abridged version. The Prime Directive is a strict rule of noninterference. Members of Starfleet travel throughout the galaxy and encounter countless lifeforms on countless worlds. Many of these lifeforms are intelligent and have formed their own societies. Starfleet's primary rule when dealing with these societies is to let them govern themselves. Let their civilizations develop in their own way. The last thing they need is Starfleet stepping in and telling them what to do.
The irony is that the actual people who make up Starfleet, or at least the people who are the main characters of Star Trek, do not believe in the Prime Directive. Oh, they'll say they believe in it. They'll say it's their most sacred rule. But how many Star Trek episodes have had as their central theme the idea that without the Prime Directive the whole situation could be much more easily resolved? I haven't done an exact count, but I'd be willing to guess at least half of the stories we've seen on Star Trek involve, at some point, a desire, even a need, to defy the Prime Directive.
When Has the Prime Directive Hindered a Mission on Star Trek?
When has the Prime Directive hindered a mission on Star Trek? All the time. My examples will come from the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation, because that's what I have watched most recently, but even in that small sample of the enormous Star Trek franchise, there have been several examples of a "need" to defy the Prime Directive.
One example is when Wesley is arrested for disturbing a flowerbed on a planet that imposes the death penalty whenever any law is broken. The Prime Directive dictates that Starfleet must abide by the laws of this planet while dealing with its inhabitants. But! But! If they abide by that planet's laws, Wesley will die! They simply cannot allow Wesley to die. They have to find a way to save him, even if it means disregarding the laws of the world they are visiting. Besides, that world's laws are cruel and barbaric, so to do what's right, they must rescue Wesley. And they do.
There is another episode where the Enterprise has to transport a group of diplomats who refuse to use the ship's food replicators. They insist on being provided with live animals so they can slaughter them and have fresh meat to eat. There is more than one scene in which we see one of the regular characters complaining about the finicky diet of the passengers. In fact, at one point, someone, while actually talking to one of the diplomats, says, "We no longer enslave animals for food." Well...if that statement doesn't carry an air of superiority, I don't know what does.
Why Does the Prime Directive Exist?
Star Trek is the story of a group of explorers. The very idea conjures memories of the European explorers of old sailing down the coast of Africa or setting off for the New World. What do we know about those explorers? Well, we know a lot of things, but one is that they most certainly did not have a rule of noninterference. They interfered everywhere. With everyone. Star Trek is supposed to take place in our future, so members of Starfleet carry those first explorers in their cultural memory as well. They don't want to repeat some of the viler things that were done in the past, so they resolve not to interfere. Sounds good, right? I wonder...
The Irony of the Whole Thing
What were the Europeans during the Age of Exploration? They were an advanced society with a strict code of conduct. When they encountered cultures who did not follow the same code of conduct, those cultures were labeled "savage" and "barbaric". They prided themselves on manners and proper dress. Cultures who had different ideas of how to behave in public were seen as "inferior". Music, art, and architecture in Europe were all reaching their height during the Age of Exploration. When Europeans first encountered the artwork of other societies, they labeled it "primitive".
Star Trek would have us believe that our future society is as far removed from that of those European explorers as a society can be. After all, Starfleet is not colonizing already inhabited worlds. They are not taking over and forcing everyone in the galaxy to obey their laws. So it seems that our species has really matured. Or have they?
How many times are words like "barbaric" and "primitive" used on Star Trek? How many times does the crew of the Enterprise encounter another culture only to be appalled at how its people behave? In the episode where Commander Riker takes a temporary assignment on a Klingon ship, there is even a scene in which several members of the crew are standing around making fun of Klingon food. So much for respecting other cultures.
The truth is Starfleet is travelling the galaxy, approaching new cultures with the exact same attitude as those Europeans of old. They have the Prime Directive rigidly preventing them from overstepping their bounds, but they do not like it in the least. In their hearts they all secretly want to step in and show these "primitive", "barbaric" cultures how things are done in the "civilized" world. So really, humanity hasn't changed a bit.