Turns out that Captain Pike is so hot for the Prime Directive, he will literally jump on a phaser and die rather than interfere with a culture’s natural development. Except when it comes to giving out space batteries. Space batteries are fine. The point is, on some level Pike’s actions in the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery — “New Eden”—might scan as hypocritical. But, that’s not exactly Pike’s fault. Maybe General Order One, better known as the Prime Directive, is inherently hypocritical.
Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery season 2, episode 2, “New Eden.”
For diehard Trekkies, the Discovery episode “New Eden,” was a classic Trek premise insofar as it presented a classic ethical dilemma, with an interesting twist. Members of Starfleet aren’t supposed to interfere with the natural development of pre-warp cultures, but what if those cultures aren’t indigenous to the planet they live on? In “New Eden,” Pike twice explains that because the humans on Terralysium don’t have warp drive technology that makes them “subject to General Order One.”
In Trek lore, General Order One is better known as the Prime Directive, though it seems like at this point in Trek history (2257) no one actually calls it by that highfalutin moniker yet. In fact, it’s very likely that in the 2250s, General Order One is somewhat new. According to writers Erika Lippoldt and Be Yeon Kim, the events of the Short Treks episode “Brightest Star” takes place sometime in the 2230s, and at the time that Georgiou rescues Saru from his pre-warp home planet. They also explained that at that time “the Prime Directive was not so well-defined, or at the very least not as strictly enforced.”
So, from the time Lt. Georgiou picks up Saru in the 2230s, to the 2250s of “The Cage” and Discovery, General Order One becomes a little more ironclad. Or does it? Pike’s interpretation of General Order One seems pretty hardcore at first, but the ending of the episode suggests that Pike, and maybe the rule itself, is too confusing to enforce all the time.
In the film Star Trek: Insurrection (directed by Jonathan Frakes, who also directed “New Eden”) Picard accuses Admiral Dougherty of violating the Prime Directive by interfering with the peaceful Ba’Ku. The shifty, amoral Dougherty tells Picard, “The Prime Directive doesn’t apply. These people are not indigenous to this planet.” Now, although Dougherty’s motivations are unethical in this case (he just wants to take over the planet) he seems to be…right? Picard doesn’t come back and say “No, I’m right because as long as they’re pre-warp, the General Order One applies.” Instead Picard just throws this in Dougherty’s face: “Who the hell are we to determine the next course of evolution for these people?”
It’s a good question, and it’s central to all these Prime Directive/General Order One morality plays.
In a practical sense, the very existence of the Federation (and its star trekking ships) drives the need for the Prime Directive in the first place, as a consequence of exploring space. In the Discovery episode “Choose Your Pain,” Harry Mudd characterizes Starfleet as reckless: “Have you ever bothered to look out of your spaceships down at the little guys below? If you had, you’d realize that there’s a lot more of us down there than there are you up here.”
The thing is, Starfleet does “look down at the little guys” all the time, that’s the problem. The only real way for any of these starships to strictly enforce the Prime Directive is to fly by unexplored planets, and literally not do anything. No beaming down, no orbiting too long to freak out curious stargazers. Nothing. If everyone on Star Trek followed General Order One to the letter, there would almost never be any interesting stories. Here’s how every Star Trek episode would play out with captains who follow the Prime Directive to the letter:
Crew member: Oh hey, check out that cool planet. Want to beam down?
Captain: Hmm. Maybe. Are there people down there?
Crew member: Yep. They seem awesome, too.
Captain: Can they travel faster than light?
Crew member: Nope.
Captain: Okay. Fuck it. Let’s keep going. It’s going to be too hard if we go there.
Crew member: Good call. I love my job.
Captain: Me too. Hit it!
There’s a big difference between saying Don’t Interfere With the Natural Development of a Culture and Don’t Interfere With People Who are Pre-Warp. The people in “New Eden” didn’t evolve naturally: they were fucking abducted by aliens! (Weirdly, this makes “New Eden” more like the western episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, “North Star,” but I digress.)
The Prime Directive is a trap, and even a by-the-book, buttoned-up guy like Pike knows this. When I spoke to Pike actor Anson Mount ahead of the premiere of season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, he told me that “Pike views himself as an extension of Starfleet code.” In some ways, almost everything Pike does in this episode reinforces that idea. He really believes that if General Order One applies, that he and the crew can’t mess with the basic beliefs of the humans on Terralysium. But Pike can work around General Order One’s apparently narrow definition around “pre-warp” technology; the battery he gives Jacob to fix the church lights has nothing to do with warp drive tech and Jacob already knew about the existence of warp drives, so Pike figures he’s in the clear. Plus he has orders from Starfleet to find out anything he can about the Red Signals, which may carry higher priority than General Order One.
So, how does this all shake out in Star Trek’s future? At this early point in the timeline, General Order One seems overly specific, to the point of not being useful. The focus on “pre-warp” creates all sorts of weird loopholes, hence the plot of this episode. It’s possible—and perhaps likely—that Pike’s mission on the Discovery to the planet Terralysium actually changed the way Starfleet enforced – and defined—General Order One. The events of Star Trek: Insurrection occur in 2375, 118 years after this episode of Discovery. Was Admiral Dougherty’s argument sound, after all? Could he have said, “Listen, Jean-Luc, you used to be right. Back in the 2250s, that’s how we did General Order One, but then Pike found this fucked-up planet full of pre-warp humans from 2053, so you know, that shit doesn’t apply anymore.”
And when you look at it that way, not only did Captain Pike not violate the Prime Directive, he may have actually helped to invent it.