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Star Trek: Discovery tackles General Order One, World War III, and the Prime Directive
For old-school fans of Star Trek, the latest episode of Star Trek: Discovery, “New Eden,” puts a subtle twist on a very old idea. So if you’re brand new to Trek or a little hazy on the history of Starfleet and all their rules, you might have been wondering why Captain Pike was constantly talking about “General Order One.” Why couldn’t Burnham, Owosekun, and Pike reveal their awesome 23rd-century tech to the pre-warp humans living on this planet? And what the hell is this World War III that’s only like 20 years in our future? Here’s what it all means.
**SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Discovery Episode 2, "New Eden."**
In “New Eden,” the USS Discovery accidentally rolls up on a planet populated by people (not aliens!) descended from humans who were mysteriously whisked away from Earth in the year 2053, during “World War III.” In Star Trek canon, characters have been referencing “World War III” since the original series, but there’s a tiny bit of confusion as to when, exactly, it happened. In the 1966 classic episode “Space Seed” (that’s the one with Khan), Spock referred to the Eugenics Wars on Earth as being “the last of your last so-called World Wars.” And, because Trek was written in the ‘60s, this future war — involving genetically enhanced dictators — was said to have taken place in the 1990s.
Since then, Trek canon has grappled with this detail, since, as far as anyone knows, there wasn’t a World War III in the ‘90s involving genetically engineered crazy people. However, there is a series of non-canon Trek novels called The Eugenics Wars, by Greg Cox, that convincingly retcons Khan and this war as a “secret war” taking place outside the awareness of the American population. These books rock, and they even reconcile the faux ’90s of old-school Trek with the "real" ‘90s as seen in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Future’s End.”
In any case, even though Spock calls the '90s Eugenics Wars the “last of the World Wars,” Star Trek subsequently created a different World War III, and that’s the one that’s being referenced in the new Discovery episode. In the 1969 episode “The Savage Curtain,” Kirk and Spock team up with a simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln to duke it out with historical villains, including Genghis Khan and the Klingon messiah, Kahless the Unforgettable. But one of the other historical villains is a guy named Colonel Green, who Spock identities as a major jerk from World War III. Here’s the rub, though: This time World War III is said to have happened in the 21st century. From that point on, Star Trek canon stuck with the idea that a major world war happened in the 21st century.
In the very first episode of The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q mocks Captain Picard by confronting him with simulacrums from World War III as proof that humanity sucks. (This happens a lot in Trek, aliens recreating historical figures or, more relevantly to “New Eden,” transporting humans from the past to distant planets. In the 1995 Star Trek: Voyager episode “The 37‘s,” the USS Voyager finds a bunch of humans from 1937 on an alien planet, including Amelia Earhart.)
Right now, Trek canon has World War III lasting from 2026 to 2053. In “New Eden” the crew discovers the far-flung humans are from 2053, which means the mysterious “Red Angel” aliens transported them across the galaxy the same year that war ended. In the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact, Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise travel back in time to 2063, which Riker establishes is 10 years after the end of World War III. Funnily enough, the episode “New Eden” is directed by Jonathan Frakes, who is not only famous for playing Riker in The Next Generation series and films but also directed First Contact.
Speaking of “first contact,” the central conflict of “New Eden” is Pike’s insistence that the landing party can’t reveal that they are really humans from a contemporary Earth with advanced technology. 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.” In all of Star Trek lore, General Order One is more commonly known as the Prime Directive, which basically states that Federation starships can’t interfere with the natural development of cultures on planets that don’t have interstellar travel. Basically, once a society achieves the ability to travel through space at speeds faster than light, it’s fair game to talk to them, but before that, it's forbidden to introduce advanced technology to a “lesser-developed” culture, even if it means saving a bunch of lives.
There are countless examples of people talking about — and debating about — the Prime Directive, in literally all versions of Star Trek, from the original series' “The Omega Glory” to the film Star Trek: Insurrection.
Obviously, like most fictional rules, the Prime Directive/General Order One exists only to be broken, in a variety of dramatic ways. In the 1989 Next Generation episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” Captain Picard tries to avoid breaking the Prime Directive after a group of villagers on a pre-industrial world believe he is a god and the Enterprise runs on magic.
In the 2013 movie Star Trek Into Darkness, the entire prologue of the film centers on the crew of the Enterprise trying to save a hunter-gatherer alien society from a volcano eruption, but of course they’re not supposed to show their faces or reveal the Enterprise while doing it. But because Kirk wants to save Spock, they do it anyway, and those aliens also seem to start worshiping the Enterprise as a deity. (Into Darkness was co-written by Alex Kurtzman, the current showrunner of Discovery.)
In “New Eden,” Pike and Burnham quote science fiction legend Arthur C. Clarke: “Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” a sentiment that obviously informs the entire plot of the episode. To a culture without advanced science, the things that the people on Discovery can do seem like magic.
Clarke is probably most famous for co-writing the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey with Stanley Kubrick, but this Trek episode is subtly referencing one of Clarke’s novels: Childhood’s End. In a sense, that Clarke novel is like the reverse of a Star Trek plot. Instead of trying not to interfere in the development of a lesser developed culture, advanced aliens called the Overlords actually just show up on Earth in the middle of the Cold War and take over the planet, albeit peacefully. Like “New Eden,” the novel also ruminates on the places where religion and science intersect, and even suggests that the Overlords could have inspired biblical demons.
The newest season-long mystery for Star Trek: Discovery is connected to the mysterious “Red Angels,” which, like many Treks before it, seems to be speculating on the place where faith and interference from advanced aliens might intersect. But, as “New Eden” demonstrates, sometimes people doing the divine intervention aren’t angels, they’re actually just humans from the 23rd century with their phasers on stun.