In the S02E02 of Star Trek: Discovery,

USS Discovery reached a planet in Beta Quadrant where its crew found human beings. They weren't a similar species which evolved fully independent of our race. They actually shared our ancestry. Their ancestors got transported to that planet from Earth during World War 3.

Now, my question is: Why is Prime Directive (aka General Order 1) applicable to them? Yes, they were pre-warp society, but they were humans.. Less-informed Earth's humans to be precise. Definitely, a less-informed poor society on Earth isn't left out in the name of Prime Directive.

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    Pike says that because the displaced humans didn’t get to the planet in a starship “that makes them pre-warp, subject to General Order One.”; syfy.com/syfywire/…
    – Valorum
    Jan 26, 2019 at 15:22
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    It's worth noting that this dilemma is central to the episode. Pike and Burnham disagree on the answer to this question.
    – Crashworks
    Feb 5, 2019 at 20:25
  • @Valorum - Isn't it infuriating? I agree this is pure BS, as PD is explicit in pre-warp requirement due to near-certainty that first contact with ETs haven't happened yet, thus maintaining non-contamination of the culture(s). It's fun to dis a show that I no longer watch due to BS level exceeding toxic levels, though.
    – AcePL
    Mar 4, 2019 at 13:35
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    Janeway didn't have the slightest issue with interacting with a pre-warp culture descended from Earth in VOY: The 37's
    – Valorum
    Mar 4, 2019 at 13:38
  • “Definitely, a less-informed poor society on Earth isn't left out in the name of Prime Directive.” When do we see that in Star Trek? Mar 4, 2019 at 17:16

3 Answers 3


General Order One forbids contact with a civilization or culture that has yet to achieve warp speed in order to avoid cultural contamination and alter the natural development of a society.

While the Humans that the Discovery found were not an independent species but were abducted from Earth, they did come from a time when warp speed had yet to be invented on Earth, and was thought of as a flight of fancy at the time, and, since their abduction, they formed a new society and a new culture which had not developed warp speed either.

Thus why the Prime Directive was applicable to them: neither those Humans nor their ancestors had access to warp technology at any point.

Besides, there has been numerous examples throughout the various series of the deleterious effect of First Contact with a pre-warp society:

  • In the aptly named First Contact episode of TNG, a high-level government official commit suicide and tries to frame Commander Riker for it, because he was so afraid of his planet being invaded by the technologically superior aliens.
  • In the TOS episode A Private Little War, Klingons provide a primitive society with advanced weaponry, disrupting the status quo and giving one faction the means to overpower and defeat their opponents, forcing Kirk to intervene.
  • In the TOS episode A Piece Of The Action, a book titled Chicago Mobs of the Twenties is inadvertently left behind on a pre-warp planet, introducing radical ideas and leading to a complete change of the society in a century.
  • In the TNG episode Who Watches The Watchers, Picard and the Federation observers are deemed to be deities by the proto-Vulcans on the planet, nearly prompting them to abandon their nascent logical ways and go back to the old religious ways, which included sacrifices to the deities, putting Commander Troi's life in jeopardy.

Warp technology is a useful metric for contact because, at that point, the civilization has the means to go out and establish contact by themselves, something that will quickly happen given how full of life and space-faring civilizations the Milky Way is, and they're supposed to be more or less ready for it.

As a side note, by the time of Discovery, Earth has united under one single government and everyone on the planet enjoy access to the same resources and amenities. There are effectively no 'less-informed poor society' left on Earth, except for the people who chose to forbid the available technology.

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    It might be worth pointing out that the TOS episode "The Paradise Syndrome" contained a similar situation: A culture descended from Earth (put there by the mysterious Preservers) but who was still pre-warp, and facing a disaster that the Enterprise helped with. In that episode too (although they never referenced the Prime Directive itself) they didn't point out, "Hey, we're all from Earth and space travel is really cool." Jan 27, 2019 at 0:52
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    But do the crew of the Discovery not owe it to their own brethren to assist them? I would be pretty mad if I found out that there were other humans with more advanced medical technology cruising around on their starships and not helping my world of humans. We’re all from the same planet. Jan 27, 2019 at 23:30
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    @DragonChampion7 That question falls under the purview of ethics and is outside the scope of this site. There is no mention is Star Trek of exceptions to the Prime Directive being made for the sake of species favoritism. Jan 28, 2019 at 5:03
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    @DragonChampion7 That said, I'm a bit offended that you seem to have implied that extra-solar humans deserve the benefits of advanced technology, but no other species do. There's an episode of Enterprise where a pre-warp species is dying from a plague and Archer refused to give them either the cure or warp technology, and justified his actions using the same logic as the Prime Directive. Jan 28, 2019 at 5:07
  • @ApproachingDarknessFish - fortunately for Archer plot supplied him with extra justification, which actually made his choice basically a formality. So not quite a comparison. And while I agree with you on the sentiment, I think Dragon hit on the logic: humans are humans. PD specifically says "species" and "to avoid contamination". Neither of those apply in this case, as it's same species and contamination already happened. I wonder if this society was humans with murderous intent toward rest of galaxy (for whatever reason) Pike would say the same
    – AcePL
    Mar 4, 2019 at 13:31

According to Memory Alpha, the wording of the prime directive is:

As the rights of each sentience species to live in accordance with the normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture.

Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.

Starfleet personnel may not violate the Prime Directive even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.

That means that an argument could easily be made for contacting the humans openly.

  1. They were not an alien life or culture. They were human, which makes them by definition not-alien.
  2. It would be an action to right an earlier violation. Their ancestors were abducted by aliens, which is as violating as it gets without using orifice probes.
  3. The culture was already contaminated by influences from another species. Their glass window contained the image of an alien.

Memory alpha also contains references to exceptions for cultures that send general distress signals, which would also apply to this episode.

Since no such argument wasn't made, it's possible that the wording was changed later down the timeline or they are using more specific definitions for alien, violation and contamination.

Personally, I think it was just an excuse to insert more tension into the episode. Unlike TOS, TNG and even Voyager, Discovery doesn't do diplomacy, so talking to the people on the ground was out of the question.

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    In English, 'Alien' doesn't mean 'non-human' but 'foreigner'. The term has been popularized as meaning extraterrestrials or non-human by the famous movie, but that's not it's primary meaning. For example, people who immigrate into the US are 'Legal aliens'. So, in this case, since they've been separated from Earth culture for well over a century, one could say that they are an alien culture, thus they fall under the Prime Directive. As for righting an earlier violation, this is usually understood as a violation by StarFleet or Federation personnel, although there has been exceptions.
    – Sava
    Jan 28, 2019 at 11:20
  • It's nice to note that although "pre-warp" is thrown around, that metric/milestone is not actually mentioned in the wording of the prime Directive - especially considering that Voyager met at least 2 species who achieved FTL travel without Warp technology Mar 4, 2019 at 13:46
  • A few weeks ago I watched "The Masterpiece Society" TNG S5 E13 and I remember Riker exclaiming "Prime Directive? They are humans," or something along those lines, so I think even In-Universe people are confused about it.
    – user99956
    Mar 4, 2019 at 13:58
  • I'm not sure that wording is canon, unless it actually appeared in screen in Into Darkness? Mar 4, 2019 at 17:18
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    @Sava indeed and a parallel on Earth would be Australia and Great Britain. Australia was federated around a century ago and had British settlement for around a century before that. It now has a different an unique culture from its British "parent" culture. And this is with constant exposure to British culture. Without that exposure the culture differences would be even far more radical. And this is all on Earth. The differences would be even more enormous on a new planet with a new environment.
    – Stephen
    Mar 25, 2019 at 2:52

So they're human. So what? Exactly how would a bunch of pre-medieval dirt farmers integrate into a warp drive civilization? The Prime Directive isn't about species. It's about cultures and those people were not at all part of Earth's current culture. If they were going to to be brought into the 23rd century it would have to be handled with caution and circumspection or else they'd lose their religion, their self-respect and their sense of community and just end up drinking themselves to death. And it doesn't help that they were 50,000 light years away and it will be centuries before the Federation has a chance to expand far enough to make contact with them again.

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    "drinking themselves to death" Not with synthehol :P
    – Hans Olo
    Jan 28, 2019 at 10:07
  • This logic is flawed for the humans in the episode because they grew in an environment of science fiction. Remember, when Cochrane invented the warp drive, rest of the humanity was pre-warp.
    – user931
    Feb 12, 2019 at 18:04
  • An environment of science fiction? They can't even remember how to generate electricity. Feb 13, 2019 at 7:33
  • Well they were pre-warp. Not by much (maybe a decade or so) but they were.
    – Stephen
    Mar 25, 2019 at 3:10

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