The Starfleet Burden

By Jaylene Chung

The Starfleet Burden: What We Can Learn from Star Trek

I have a confession to make. Well, it’s not so much a confession as a declaration of pride: I love Star Trek. I’ve watched The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise (I’m admittedly still struggling through this one), and even part of the Animated Series. These are series, so with an average of 6 seasons, about 25 episodes each season, and each episode being an average of 48 minutes – that’s roughly 573.5 hours. I’ve watched all 12 movies (yes, there were 10 movies before the most recent alternate universe reboot). I have Star Trek ringtones, mugs, shirts, pins, and uniforms (yup, plural). I even made a parody fan film with my friends, but I am certainly by no means a hardcore Trekkie – I can’t even speak Klingon.

As I have tried to explain to many of my friends, Star Trek is more than just a show about space, aliens, and questionable outfits. It’s a reflection, an in-depth examination of what it means to be human.[1]

If you don’t know what Star Trek is about, here’s a very basic rundown: thanks to the discovery of warp drive in 2063, humanity makes “first contact” with an alien race, the Vulcans (actually, it’s more like humans are deemed technologically and sociologically ready to meet their galactic neighbors). The human race’s first clumsy forays into space exploration and diplomatic work over the next couple of centuries inspire social and personal development to the point that war, disease, and even the need for money is eliminated.

As relationships with alien races strengthen, various planets join together into a semi-autonomous governing coalition that upholds universal liberty, rights, and equality through peaceful sharing of knowledge and resources. This group becomes what is later known as the United Federation of Planets, which maintains Starfleet, the organized vehicle for exploration and peacekeeping.

Kirk & Uhura – Television’s first interracial kiss

Starfleet develops from being culturally ignorant explorers to diplomats, then to partners with other species throughout quadrants of the galaxy and beyond. All the while, crew members and their respective captains grapple with difficult issues: civil rights, love, origins, imperialism, xenophobia, classism, specism (the more evolved version of racism), sexism, faith, sexuality, honor, violence, war, genocide, slavery, revenge, and the list goes on and on.

To help each of the crews and their respective captains as they struggle to navigate these dilemmas, there is one guiding principle considered to be the most ethically important: the Prime Directive. The Prime Directive prohibits Starfleet crews from interfering with the natural development of alien civilizations, even if well-intentioned and potentially life-saving, so as to avoid “playing God.” Some captains take the Prime Directive so seriously that they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their crews to uphold it. This principle generally applies to societies that have no knowledge of life outside themselves, and are comparatively speaking, technologically primitive cultures.

There are 47 sub-orders contained within the Prime Directive, which include: not introducing technology beyond a civilization’s development, not helping a society to avoid the negative consequences of its own actions, not taking action to favor a faction within a society over another, and not interfering with a society’s internal affairs. Crews encounter societies that suffer from problems that seem to have easy solutions, especially if Starfleet resources like food replicators, cures for diseases, and technology were made available to them. And indeed, there are many instances of Starfleet captains struggling with how to interpret and uphold the Prime Directive in good conscience.

It is interesting to note that the Prime Directive was a direct reflection of a common political opinion of U.S. foreign policy, especially in regards to its involvement in the Vietnam War. It is even cited as a development from Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s opinion of Christian missionaries and their destructive involvement in other cultures.

Jean-Luc Picard (my absolute favorite of the Starfleet captains) says, “The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules; it is a philosophy… and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever [hu]mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.”

And this makes me think of my job. My real, right-now job, not my dream job as a Starfleet captain in the 24th century. The whole point of development, of a lot of non-profits’ work, is to interfere with other cultures and societies. With this in mind, the Prime Directive may seem harsh, but is it, really?

In this time reality, where we haven’t yet united as a species while superiority complexes abound, where we over-consume in a race to planetary self-destruction, where we haven’t discovered warp drive yet (I’m counting on Elon Musk to be our Zefram Cochrane), we (especially the West) are interfering, meddling people. Those who have less resources than us are often automatically considered inferior and in need of our help, even if this isn’t specifically articulated.

At some point it begins to feel as though development projects are science experiments that advance the organization’s public image, rather than those they claim to help. This can be seen in the NGO that distributes water catchments to villagers before researching whether they’ll be used, or even wanted. Or the Christian missionaries that set out to baptize entire countries, and then teach that only their Western brand of songs, clothing, and churches is acceptable. Or a corporation masquerading as a charity, like TOMS shoes, that make consumers feel good about their purchases, while perpetuating the Western savior mentality and being virtually ineffective in solving issues of poverty.

It is certainly good to be philanthropic, but how we think about who we help, and whether they really want or need our help in the first place, is crucial. As economists like Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly argue, foreign aid is often just another form of colonialism.

I’m not suggesting that we take an extreme interpretation of non-interference; globalization and trade make that impossible anyway. Societies, states, and even countries are not isolated entities engaged in a Hunger Games-esque death match, though I suppose that’s what war and capitalism would have us believe. And admittedly, in the Star Trek universe, a lot of Starfleet captains’ struggles with the Prime Directive result in taking interfering action anyway (there are always exceptions to any guiding principle), which doesn’t always turn out for the best.


Blog author depicted as the Trill captain she sometimes imagines herself to be.

As Archer, Kirk, Janeway, Picard, and Sisko discover – each situation has its own complicated context, and there is no one easy solution. Perhaps the answer lies in an ideological shift. Roddenberry imagined a world where people treated one another (and the environment) with mutual respect, whether they lived in the same country, planet, or quadrant. Physical, political, and financial violence was unnecessary. They shared resources, knowledge, and culture with one another peacefully, enriching the lives of all involved.

This is unusually idealistic of me to say, but I believe that the Star Trek universe can be a reality, and it’s up to us to make it so.


[1]One of my criticisms of Star Trek is that despite its progressive nature, it is human-centric (there are no captains of other species). The Federation and Starfleet in its beginnings primarily consist of humans, though as time progresses and Starfleet’s understanding of its surrounding galaxy advances, it becomes decreasingly xenophobic, and the use of the term “alien” falls out of fashion.

5 thoughts on “The Starfleet Burden

  1. The hardest question i struggle with is whether im doing something to help another, or doing it out of a need to play savior/appease my desire to serve. Not all of which is helpful.

    Thank you J, this was a pleasure and a challenge to read. Love it.

    • That is definitely something I’ve struggled with as well. It’s hard when we’ve been taught so many sides of the coin: serving is a reward in itself, serving can give you the reward of making you feel good, and serving can be a huge sacrifice (which is also supposed to make you feel good, in a way). That could be a whole other article, though – thanks for the idea!

      Thanks for reading, Tyler. Hope it was helpful in some way!

  2. Good Stuff Jaylene,
    I have definitely thought about the principles of the Prime Directive when it comes to development as well. It was entertaining and refreshing to see someone explore the topic in any sort of depth.

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