The cardinal rule in the Star Trek universe is the Prime Directive, which forbids the super-advanced Federation from interfering with the development of less-advanced cultures. Of course every crew breaks it regularly, but some crews have broken it more than others. Since Star Trek often tries to make reference to current U.S. politics, we decided to see if there was a relationship between these imaginary violations and what the US was doing in the world. Click through for a comparison of U.S. overseas troop levels and Star Trek's meddling, which may surprise you.
As you can see, Trek's crews have always treated the Prime Directive like a speed limit on the Interstate. But the high point of Prime Directive violations was the late 1990s, which surpassed even the late 1960s of Kirk's cowboy-ism.
At the same time, the United States was reducing its troop presence around the world. Why did Starfleet start interfering more, even as America was throwing less of its weight around? The late 1990s was an era of military spending cutbacks and base closures, when the U.S. seemed to be less influential without the threat of the Soviet Union to rally our own citizens, let alone our allies.
I know what you're going to say: It's all down to Star Trek: Voyager's Captain Janeway and her "anything goes" approach. But first of all, Janeway's not the only culprit. Ben Sisko on Deep Space Nine also played fast and loose with the Directive more in the late 1990s than in its earlier seasons. And the Federation also threw its non-interference principles out the window, in different ways, in both 1998's Star Trek: Insurrection and 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis.
But also, consider that Voyager is a metaphor for the U.S.' more confusing situation after the Cold War. Instead of being one superpower facing another (like the Klingons, Romulan or Borg) suddenly the Voyager is isolated in a quadrant full of independent players, each of whom has its own agenda. Just as the Soviets were replaced with Bosnians, Serbs and Kosovans and the U.S. had to form alliances to deal with messy situations, Voyager faces a bunch of warring races and Janeway has to strike deals with different races to escape in one piece.
All of which makes us wonder: If Star Trek were on the air as a television show now, and it took place during an era where the Directive applied, would we see fewer violations? After all, U.S. troop levels in other countries have rebounded, and we're once again involved in a massive confrontation overseas. Would a 24th century Trek step more lightly around the galaxy, to counterbalance the United States' greater use of force?
Illustration by Stephanie Fox. Additional reporting by Nivair H. Gabriel.