*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and possible spoilers for Star Trek: Discovery, up to, but not beyond, episode 2 of its second season.
Star Trek: The Next Generation – “Who Watches the Watchers” (season 3, episode 4)
Written by Richard Manning & Hans Beimler; directed by Robert Wiemer; first aired in 1989
The Enterprise travels to the planet Mintaka III, where a team of Federation anthropologists are using a cloaked research station to observe the local Mintakans, a “proto-Vulcan” civilization who aren’t yet technologically advanced enough for first contact. But first contact happens anyway, accidentally, when the anthropologists’ generator explodes, exposing their research station to the Mintakan Liko, and his daughter Oji. Liko spots the Enterprise away team who’ve come to help the anthropologists, and is badly injured by the continuing malfunctions, prompting Dr. Crusher to violate the Prime Directive of non-interference by bringing him onboard the Enterprise for medical treatment. Captain Picard is none too happy about this, and is determined to salvage the Prime Directive and keep the cultural “contamination” to a minimum while searching for a missing, injured anthropologist, but these efforts fail dramatically when Liko returns to his people and rekindles their long-abandoned belief in a god-like “Overseer” … whose real name, Liko informs them, is “The Picard”. The cultural contamination spins quickly and wildly out of control, to the point where a terrified Liko becomes determined to sacrifice an undercover Counsellor Troi to The Picard, who must try to convince the Mintakans’ leader, Nuria, that he is not, in fact, a god.
Star Trek: Discovery – “New Eden” (season 2, episode 2)
Teleplay by Vaun Wilmott & Sean Cochran; story by Akiva Goldsman & Sean Cochran; directed by Jonathan Frakes; first aired in 2019
The Discovery uses its spore drive to travel to the Beta Quadrant, continuing the investigation into a series of mysterious signals. This particular signal leads Discovery to a human colony which shouldn’t exist so far from Earth. Captain Pike, Commander Burnham, and Lieutenant Owosekun beam down to investigate, and find themselves in a settlement called New Eden, populated by the descendants of humans abducted – or saved, as the New Eden-ites see it – long ago, during Earth’s World War III. The people of New Eden believe the rest of humanity was destroyed in the war, and follow a religion “cobbled together” from the various beliefs of their ancestors, in which the aliens who saved those ancestors are revered as “angels” … aliens who resemble a winged figure which, Burnham finally admits to Pike, she glimpsed while investigating the first mysterious signal. Pike insists that the Prime Directive, or General Order 1, applies to the people of New Eden, human or not, and orders Burnham not to tell them anything that would threaten their belief system. But the New Eden-ite Jacob, a descendant of scientists, doesn’t believe their cover story about being from another settlement on the planet, and is desperate to confirm his belief that Earth still exists, and that the away team has the technology to travel through space. Burnham follows her captain’s orders – this time – but convinces Pike to bend the rules by telling Jacob the truth in exchange for an old video recording of the “angels”. (A lot of other stuff happens, too, but this description is already on the long side as it is.)
At a time when dystopias dominate much of our speculative fiction, Star Trek is often pointed to as the counter-example, the most widely-recognized piece of popular utopian fiction. But throughout the decades, from one series or film to the next, the details of how that utopia came to be, and of how it works on a daily basis, have been touched on only vaguely, when they’re touched on at all. We’re told that poverty and injustice have been all but eliminated on Earth, but we’ve never really seen enough of 23rd or 24th-century Earth (so far, at least) to know how that was achieved or what it looks like. (After all, there are leaders today, in the real world, who would claim that the land they control is free of injustice, but I would tend not to believe them.) We’re told that the Federation is a post-scarcity economy where no one has to worry about money, but again, we’re never really shown how that works: our main characters are still largely defined by their jobs, after all, and their miraculous technology must consume a great deal of energy. It’s understandable that these things have never been explored in depth by any series of Star Trek (with Deep Space Nine coming closest, albeit not on Earth or even in Federation space), since each of those series (with the exception, again, of DS9) has been set on a starship, crewed by exceptional people getting into exceptional situations; we don’t see much of everyday life in the Federation because these series aren’t really about everyday life in the Federation. But over the course of their final-frontier adventures, there’s one detail of how their utopia works that those Starfleet officers remind us of repeatedly: the Prime Directive, or General Order 1.
The Prime Directive – Starfleet’s policy against contact with alien societies which haven’t yet developed advanced spaceflight technology – shows us one way in which the Federation stays relatively utopian, and gives us a glimpse of the shift in human thinking which led to that utopia. The idea that might makes right – that those with more power have the right, or even the responsibility, to determine the fates of those with less power – has been at the root of the greatest evils of our real world: colonialism, slavery, and genocide. The lore of Star Trek is filled with warnings against such thinking as well, in references to the dark times preceding its 23rd and 24th-century paradise, including the eugenics wars which produced one of Trek’s greatest villains, and the “post-atomic horror” and its “kangaroo courts” which serve as evidence against humanity in a “trial” which bookends The Next Generation as a series. It stands to reason, then, that part of what makes the Federation utopian would be its explicit ruling that might does not make right, and that the tendency of those with more power to impose their will and values on those with less power must be guarded against, at all costs.
Granted, The Original Series is infamously full of examples of Captain Kirk disregarding the Prime Directive as he sees fit; and while the commanding officers of later series would tend to take the Directive more seriously, it would continue to be true that any episode which explicitly mentions the Prime Directive is likely to end with that Directive being broken, or at least bent, intentionally or otherwise. But, again, I think that reflects the priorities of a TV drama more than the priorities of the Federation; General Order 1 is, after all, a general rule, and we watch TV dramas for, well, drama – for exactly the sort of exceptional situations where general rules might not apply. Still, where so many contemporary TV shows generate drama by asking how bad things have to get before we’re willing to abandon our values, I appreciate Star Trek’s general unwillingness to question the values underlying General Order 1, instead creating drama by asking how our characters reconcile the spirit of General Order 1 with the letter of the law. When the Prime Directive is broken by our main characters, it’s not a rejection of the compassion for other species, or the regard for their rights, which led to the Directive in the first place. It’s an attempt to maintain that compassion and respect those rights in a difficult situation, one which calls the letter of the law, but not its spirit, into question.
We see just such a situation in The Next Generation’s “Who Watches the Watchers”. By the mid-point of the episode, Captain Picard has been left with a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. Mintakan culture has already been irrevocably affected by the Enterprise’s presence; a strength of this episode is the way it effectively puts us in Picard’s shoes, watching as one accidental violation of the Prime Directive spirals into another, and another, in a sort of absurdist comedy of errors. At this point, Picard could opt to ensure that the Prime Directive isn’t violated any further, at least, by simply ordering the Enterprise and the Federation’s anthropologists to abandon the planet. This is, presumably, what the letter of the law would dictate, and unlike his predecessor on The Original Series, Picard is very much a letter-of-the-law guy when it comes to the Prime Directive, as we see when he confronts Dr. Crusher about her choice to help the injured Mintakan, Liko:
Crusher: Before you start quoting me the Prime Directive, he’d already seen us. The damage was done. It was either bring him aboard or let him die.
Picard: Then why didn’t you let him die?
C: Because we were responsible for his injuries!
P: I’m not sure that I concur with that reasoning, Doctor.
He may not be the most sentimental person, but we know Picard, by this point in the series, to be compassionate and deeply moral, and I honestly find it a bit shocking to hear him declare, forcefully and without hesitation, that the doctor should have allowed an innocent person to die when she could easily save his life. If he believes so strongly, and so literally, in the Prime Directive, then we might very well expect him to stop any further “contamination” by cutting his losses and leaving the Mintakans to their already-tampered-with fate. His only other option is to continue violating the Prime Directive, this time on purpose, in a way that might mitigate the damage already done. Dr. Crusher’s argument foreshadows his later choice, I think, when she points out that she wasn’t just helping an injured local in need; she was, herself, trying to lessen the damage that was done (physical damage, in this case) when Liko saw the away team, and subsequently injured himself. Picard does eventually come to “concur” with her “reasoning”, I think. He realizes that they’ve reached a point where their ethical responsibility to the Mintakan people is no longer to leave them alone, but to tell them the truth; since their culture has already been affected by their encounter with the Federation, they should at least be allowed to go forward with an accurate understanding of that encounter.
Like Picard, Captain Pike is against this argument at the beginning of Discovery’s “New Eden”, but comes around to it, at least somewhat, by the end. Pike, too, is presented as a General Order 1 absolutist, to the extent that he’s willing to apply the Order to a settlement of humans. The literal, non-metaphorical humanity of the New Eden settlers leads Michael Burnham to argue that General Order 1 doesn’t apply, but Pike counters that New Eden, isolated from the rest of humankind for 200 years, is technically a pre-warp-flight society, and that telling them what has become of Earth would disrupt the culture and religion they have built for themselves since being “saved” by the mysterious “angels”. That second counter-argument is undeniably true, but it doesn’t feel sufficient on its own; even a post-warp-flight society would be disrupted, to some extent, by first contact with the Federation, as any society is disrupted, for better and for worse, by any major event in its history. And the first counter-argument is certainly open to debate. Personally, I think I agree with Burnham that the Prime Directive shouldn’t apply to the people of New Eden. Not because they’re biologically human; I wouldn’t make the same argument about the Mintakans from “Who Watches” just because they’re biologically “proto-Vulcan” (an interesting detail which is neither explained nor developed further, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had less to do with world-building than the logistics of TV production – Vulcan prosthetics and makeup being pre-designed – though I don’t know that for sure). The Prime Directive stops applying to the Mintakans, I think, because their culture has already been interfered with, however accidentally; the horse has already escaped the barn, and Picard rightly concludes that the best course of action is to go find that horse and lead it home, not to close the barn door behind it. And in “New Eden”, that barn door was left open 200 years ago by the so-called angels, who clearly qualify as a warp-capable species, whatever else they may turn out to be. The New Eden colony, itself, is the result of cultural “contamination”, which is why Burnham argues (as would I) that General Order 1 doesn’t apply to its people.
But while I disagree with Pike’s reasoning, I do think that “New Eden” does as good a job as any other Trek episode (maybe even better than most) of showing a situation in which multiple interpretations of the Prime Directive make sense. Again, it’s called General Order 1; it’s not meant to dictate exactly what to do in every situation, but to apply broadly across the whole spectrum of possible encounters with other societies, some predictable, some not. The existence of a distant human colony like New Eden is, obviously, something the in-universe authors of General Order 1 could not have predicted, and while Pike’s rank grants him final say in how to apply the Order, both his and Burnham’s views are reasonable responses to an extraordinary situation. I like that “New Eden” references Burnham’s past as a mutineer who disobeyed her captain’s orders, not because she disagreed with those orders on principle, but because she was afraid of their outcome. But I’m also impressed that this episode doesn’t go for the obvious conflict between Burnham and Pike by having her disobey his orders, as well, opting instead to use the opportunity to show their trust in each other growing. And the episode earns that opportunity, I think, by showing that Pike genuinely seems to be deserving of Burnham’s trust (and, by extension, ours). He’s principled, yes, but also flexible, and – maybe most importantly, in the context of Star Trek – compassionate. Burnham doesn’t change his mind on what General Order 1 says about the New Eden colonists as a society, but her arguments do help him to see an opportunity to show some mercy to one particular colonist, the non-believer Jacob, who desperately needs to hear that he isn’t crazy not to believe.
Which brings us to another of the very few specific societal changes Star Trek has pretty explicitly stated as a prerequisite for utopia, though this one is mentioned less often, probably because it is undoubtedly more controversial: the end of religion. The Original Series outlined a vision of the future which was relatively secular, but I think it’s in The Next Generation where that secularism tends to be the most explicit and deliberate, with “Who Watches the Watchers” standing out as probably the most obvious example of this. Picard pretty directly states his belief that abandoning their religion was a positive, inevitable step in the Mintakans’ cultural evolution, and he states even more directly his belief that it would be a step in the wrong direction for the Mintakans to rekindle that religious belief – and not just their misguided belief in “The Picard”, either; I think it’s pretty clear he feels this way about any religious beliefs they might develop. As a non-believer myself, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I’ll admit I find such an unapologetic endorsement of a secular worldview refreshing. If this episode were being made for a major American network today, I don’t think there’s any way Picard’s views would be allowed to be the episode’s final word on religion, as they are in “Who Watches” – not without giving the “equal time” for “the other side” which the so-called culture wars demand any time the status quo is challenged. Don’t just take my word for it: look no further than “New Eden”, which first aired in 2019, and does exactly that, framing Michael Burnham’s views on religion as one side of a debate with Captain Pike, rather than allowing her views to be the show’s views, as Picard’s certainly seem to be for TNG.
On the other hand, as suspicious as I’ve become of the knee-jerk tendency to insist that “both sides make valid points”, I still think “New Eden” has the more thoughtful and nuanced approach to the place of both religion and secularism in society, as compared with “Who Watches the Watchers”. For all the impressive boldness of “Who Watches”, its willingness to entirely write off religion as a part of Trek’s future utopia ultimately feels both unrealistic and unfair. It seems likely that this tendency originated with Gene Roddenberry himself, given that Deep Space Nine, the first series of Star Trek to debut after his death, would take a notably different approach. It made the religion of the Bajoran people a central part of its ongoing storylines, and portrayed that religion in a way that was mostly sympathetic, if complicated by the fact that the Bajoran deities, the Prophets, are objectively real, and are seen to interact with believers and non-believers alike. “New Eden” takes a similar approach to the “angels” who rescued the New Eden-ites’ ancestors from World War III. The angels also certainly seem to be objectively real, and to be capable of greatly affecting the material lives of both believers, like most of the New Eden-ites, and non-believers, like Burnham, who had her own angel encounter in the previous episode. (The exact nature of these so-called angels will presumably be revealed over the course of Discovery’s second season, which is still airing as I write this, but I’m keeping this article free of spoilers for anything after “New Eden”.) This adds an interesting sci-fi wrinkle to the simplistic binary of “science vs. faith”. To have faith in the Prophets or the red angels (or even “The Picard”) isn’t to have faith that they exist – they do exist, as we, the viewers, can plainly see – but to have faith in their intentions; faith in the role they play in the lives of the faithful; and faith that this relationship means something.
This is where “New Eden” is at its strongest, I think: in its recognition that no matter how technologically advanced we become, it will never be enough for us to simply understand how the world works – we will always need it to mean something. Unlike “Who Watches the Watchers”, “New Eden” presents religion as a valid way for people to find meaning in – or give meaning to – the events in their lives and in their past … as it is in real life. But the episode makes it clear that there are other valid ways of finding meaning, as well, things that non-believers like Burnham or Jacob (or myself) can have faith in. We see Jacob’s faith in the knowledge passed down by his ancestors, and in the hope it gives him that humanity survived the war those ancestors were rescued from, and continued to develop in the New Eden-ites’ absence. And as a part of Discovery’s ongoing second-season storyline, this episode also uses that theme of faith to flesh out the developing trust between Burnham and Pike, after Burnham’s betrayal by her previous captain, Lorca, and her own betrayal of Captain Georgiou before that. Over the course of “New Eden”, Burnham puts the lesson she learned in season one into action, accepting that she needs to have faith in her colleagues and in the principles of Starfleet, even when she might disagree with them. This has been a defining feature of Star Trek since the first time Kirk, Spock, and Bones ever lovingly bickered amongst themselves like an old married throuple, and while it may not be as explicit as the Prime Directive, I think we can assume it’s another ingredient in Trek’s mostly-secret recipe for utopia.
Next week, we’ll compare what might be the most iconic episode of Star Trek ever made to my personal favorite episode of Star Trek ever made, when we look at The Original Series‘ “Arena” and The Next Generation‘s “Darmok”!