Did Short Treks’ “The Brightest Star” Violate the Prime Directive?

The latest installment in the mini-anthology series Short Treks —“The Brightest Star”—is the first of these new stories not to take place on the starship Discovery, but, so far, it’s probably the installment that will be the most satisfying for hardcore fans. Not only do we find out how and why Mr. Saru joined Starfleet, there’s also a huge surprise cameo from a very familiar character at the very end of the episode. But the actions of that person, particularly in relation to Saru’s species, will bring up a very old Trekkie question: was the Prime Directive violated here?

Huge Spoilers for Short Trek’s third episode, “The Brightest Star” follow. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know what happens.

Though the entire story of “The Brightest Star” is set on Saru’s mysterious home planet of Kaminar, the universe outside plays a pivotal role in the episode. It turns out that the Kelpiens are a pre-industrial society incapable of interstellar travel and pretty much enslaved by another, more technology advanced unseen alien race called the Ba’ul who occasionally will beam a few of them up like cattle in a process that the Kelpien religion calls “the harvest.” We never see these unseen alien butchers, but the relationship between the two species mimics that of the Morlocks and Eloi from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, with Kelpiens like Saru as the “prey species.” This holds true even in the Mirror Universe episodes, where the Terran Empire was like the Ba’ul here, and kept Kelpiens as livestock.

But Saru doesn’t want to remain livestock—even though he doesn’t really know what happens to his brethren after they are taken. After stealing some technology from his captors (or farmers?) Saru starts texting—presumably via subspace—with an unseen ally. If you remember “Pen Pals” in The Next Generation (the one where Data corresponds with an alien child named Sarjenka) it’s kind of like that, only the audience doesn’t know who Saru is talking to until the very end. After asking for help, a Starfleet shuttle shows up, and out steps Lt. Philippa Georgiou, an officer (but not yet the captain) on the USS Shenzhou. She tells Saru that he can leave with her, but because of “many complicated rules,” he can never return to his home planet. She also mentions that the Kelpiens are a “pre-warp” civilization. In the larger canon of Star Trek, this should mean that Georgiou couldn’t have gone there in the first place, right? Didn’t she totally violate the Prime Directive? Data did in “Pen Pals” and Picard was pissed. Is Georgiou’s captain (whoever that is) also super pissed?

Briefly, the Prime Directive is basically a rule all Starfleet people have in all of Star Trek which prevents them from messing with a lesser-developed culture. In reality, it’s mostly a plot device to create a moral problem for futuristic enlightened humans to feel guilty about stuff they can’t do anything about. Weirdly, Star Trek Into Darkness has the most simple example of a Prime Directive plot: When a volcano threatens to wipe out an entire primitive alien race on a random planet, Kirk decides to save them by using advanced technology. The caveat here is that this is only okay if the natives never see them. Of course, they do, and that film implies that the native aliens now worship the Enterprise as a God. Now, according to real-deal Prime Directive, the Enterprise in Into Darkness shouldn’t have been there in the first place, because messing with the natural development (including weather and volcanos!) of another planet is a huge no-no. And in “Pen Pals,” Data’s correspondence with Sarjenka is similar: he was straight-up violating the Prime Directive because her impending doom was caused by nature, not any outside technological interference.

But it’s different in “The Brightest Star,” because the enslavement of the Kelpiens is not part of the natural development of the planet Kaminar. In fact, we don’t even know for sure if Kaminar is their home planet, it could just be a giant farm planet owned by the Ba’ul, and in their jurisdiction of the galaxy. Who knows, maybe in Ba’ul culture, what they do to the Kelpiens is considered ethical to them, the same way we rationalize free-range chickens.

The point is, Georgiou is presumably aware that Saru’s people are being enslaved by a species with an advanced culture, which we’re led to believe are from a different planet. This makes the situation a little bit more like the original series episode “A Private Little War,” or the film Star Trek: Insurrection. In both stories, there were two factions on a planet, but the technology distribution and basic civil rights were all out of wack. Captains Kirk and Picard (respectively) took up literal arms, personally, to help the less aggressive side of the conflict not get completely screwed.

The big difference in “The Brightest Star,” of course, is that Saru’s people are willing participants of this enslavement. “When my people look up at the stars they see only death, and they welcome it. They do not question it,” Saru says at the beginning of the episode. And this is probably the element that made what Georgiou did a little trickier. Because this is seemingly a choice on the part of the Kelpiens, the situation is similar to The Next Generation episode “Half a Life,” in which Lwaxana Troi falls in love with a man from a species of aliens who commit ritual suicide at fifty-years-old. (It’s like Logan’s Run, only for olds.) In that episode, Picard was appalled that Lwaxana would try to interfere with those customs, but there wasn’t a legal Prime Directive problem, because the ritual suicide aliens totally were part of the Federation and had warp drive.

It’s also not entirely clear if the Prime Directive really exists at this point in Trek history. When I reached out to one of the writers of “The Brightest Star”—Erika Lippoldt—she told me:

“In the writers’ room, we’ve talked about how these events took place at a point in time when the Prime Directive was not so well-defined, or at the very least not as strictly enforced (compared to The Next Generation). Therefore, more leeway was given for Starfleet’s commanding officers to use their discretion as to how they enforce it.”

Lippoldt’s statement is backed-up by canon, too. In “A Private Little War,” which takes place in 2268, Kirk makes reference to having visited the planet when he was way younger, and the people there knew he was from space. Presumably, at the time Georgiou makes contact with Saru, Kirk is probably a cadet. So, the short answer to all of this could simply be: Starfleet was way more loosey-goosey about the Prime Directive in the decades before the original series, which is when this all happens.

Further, Lippoldt asserts that”Georgiou didn’t violate the Prime Directive so much as make an exception to it.” Which means, Lt. Georgiou’s Prime Directive problem in “The Brightest Star” is unique within Star Trek.

In some ways, it might apply because the Kelpiens are seemingly acting of their own free will, and it’s possible this arrangement with the Ba’ul is part of their “natural development.” On the other hand, it’s very clear that this culture is oppressive, promotes intellectual stagnation, and removes free will from the individual, even if the majority wants to keep getting beamed-up and eaten. It’s an interesting thought experiment, and when Georgiou tells Saru “you caused quite a stir,” it’s perhaps the most tantalizing detail in the episode.

So many great Star Trek stories have dealt with debates about the Prime Directive, and it would have been wonderful to hear more from Georgiou on these points. But even in focusing on Saru, “The Brightest Star” took Star Trek’s well-trodden non-interference storyline boldly where its never gone before.

Ryan Britt is an entertainment journalist and longtime contributor to Tor.com. He is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths and the entertainment editor for Fatherly. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and daughter.

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