Last time, I talked about “Pen Pals”, the episode that might have the most detailed and direct discussion of the Prime Directive. Today, I’m going to talk about the episode “First Contact”, which focuses on a direct, non-disastrous interaction that has Prime Directive implications. To summarize, the Enterprise has been sent to a planet to do some final observations and preparations for first contact. Riker was on the away team, and was injured in a riot, and at the hospital they notice that his similarities to them really seem to be skin deep. His being missing prompts Picard to accelerate the first contact in an attempt to find Riker and avoid too many problems. He talks a bit with the leader of the planet about their first contact protocols, and at the end Riker is recovered, but an incident during that convinces the leader of the planet that they simply aren’t ready for contact with outsiders right now, and so no first contact will be attempted, yet.
Now, that summary leaves a lot out, but it should cover enough for the point that I’m trying to make here, which is about that whole “Don’t interfere in pre-Warp societies” thing. It could seem like pre-Warp is a bit of an arbitrary divide, since a society might be open and willing to have contact with outsiders even if they don’t yet have warp drive, and if there is a culture advanced enough to participate in a Federation of Planets but who due to some idiosyncrasy in their scientific models simply can’t develop warp drive it would seem that the ideal thing to do would be to contact them and give them warp drive instead of just leaving them on their own. So even making the primary point warp drive seems a little arbitrary. One explanation for that criteria is that once they develop warp drive you are indeed going to run into them so you are going to have to deal with them one way or another, and so it’s better to do it under more controlled conditions … but that doesn’t do anything to justify never dealing with advanced societies that aren’t anywhere near achieving warp drive, and definitely casts the Federation as a group who doesn’t really ever want to interact with any other societies until they have to. Which doesn’t seem consistent with at least the principles of Starfleet.
Fortunately, I think that there’s another explanation for it that follows from Picard’s interactions with the leader of the planet in “First Contact” and fits in with the general philosophy of Starfleet and the Prime Directive. In that episode, Picard consistently allows those in the culture to decide what is best for that culture. He lets the scientist decide if they should tell the leader about Riker or not. He repeatedly says to the leader of the planet that all he is doing is letting him know the consequences of contact with the Federation, and letting the leader of the planet decide whether that is good for the planet or not. All in all, the autonomy of the planet and the ability to decide what is best for them is always in the forefront, and this follows from the Prime Directive’s admonishment to not interfere in the internal matters of a culture. Or, rather, that overarching principle that cultures must be able to decide for themselves how they evolve and proceed leads to both the interaction here and to the admonishment against internal interference in the Prime Directive.
What isn’t usually considered in such cases, though, is that in general simply giving a choice isn’t enough to let a society choose its own path. In order for a society to be able to make a real choice, they have to be able to understand what the choice entails, what the choice really means for them as a society and as a culture. A culture that has never encountered outsiders before and that has never even really considered their existence isn’t really capable of deciding what it would mean to choice a huge interstellar alliance. On the one hand, they may consider these incredibly powerful and advanced beings as gods, like the society in “Who Watches the Watchers?”, or in general the culture might think that the more advanced culture is superior, and then simply subordinate themselves to that superior culture and lose their own. On the other hand, they may be unwilling to accept that they aren’t the pinnacle of culture and react in violent and destructive ways to that, as was somewhat seen in “First Contact’ and in the episode with Worf’s brother, who made the mistake of getting Sisko’s wife pregnant. At any rate, any culture that hasn’t really been considering whether or not there are other cultures on other planets is likely in for a massive culture shock, and without that preparation are likely to jump to some sort of knee jerk reaction … and so won’t be making an informed choice about to what extent they want to get involved in the galaxy around them.
The thing is that warp drive, as a technology, pretty much only has one use: to travel to other solar systems. That’s pretty much it. Well, sure, you might want it to travel faster to the planets in your own solar system, but various impulse engines seem to be able to get sufficient speeds to do that. Matter/anti-matter reactors, phasers, impulse engines, shields, and pretty much every other technology we see in Star Trek has a use beyond simply traveling between planets. Warp drive’s pretty much just about traveling between planets. And when you find it, you start thinking about what you might find out there, and one of the first things you start to think about are finding other forms of life. And you even have an explanation for why those other forms might not have bothered showing up before now: it takes far too long to get there without warp speed, and might even take a while with basic warp speed. And as far as they would know, they might be the first life forms to actually discover warp speed.
All of these considerations naturally follow from the theory and the purpose of warp drive, and so will be things that you have to think about when you get close to having a working warp drive. At that point, you start to prepare for what will happen should you actually run into another life form, and this infests your culture. As we saw in “First Contact”, the issue was known and had been thought about by many people, and some reacted badly to it. Having seen the reactions to just the possibility of encountered other life forms, the leader of the planet can make a pretty good guess about what would happen if they actually had a first contact … and can decide if that would be a good thing or a bad thing, and can see the potential problems that might arise and look for ways to ease those problems or address them before they happen … and can at least potentially delay their travels until the society is ready for it. Starting on a warp drive project forces them to think about what it might mean to interact with other life forms, both more and less advanced, and to allow the culture to adapt to that as a fact rather than just as something they see in fiction. Thus, they are about as prepared as they are going to be to judge how they should interact with their new neighbours.