Good Essay On “Who Watches The Watchers?” Star Trek Through An Anthropological Lens
Anthropologists are constantly grappling with the human version of the Observer Effect—the fact that it is almost impossible to observe something without changing it in some way. This concept has been explored a multitude of times throughout the history of literature and film, and speaks deeply to the human consciousness. In the film The Truman Show, the protagonist grows up observed by the whole world; however, he eventually becomes aware of their observation and his behavior changes.
In the Star Trek episode “Who Watches the Watchers,” the characters on the Enterprise are acting in an anthropological capacity on a planet that has not yet developed; due to a series of unfortunate circumstances and mistakes, the effects of their observation have long-lasting effects on the development of the planet (“Who Watches the Watchers”). The issues examined in this episode are an accurate depiction of the issues addressed by anthropologists every day in their work; the lessons that can be gleaned from the actions of the characters and the outcomes of their behavior are important considerations for anthropologists of all stripes and disciplines.
The episode “Who Watches the Watchers” begins with an anthropological outpost on a planet with a Vulcan-like race that was very early in its development. In the Star Trek universe, the “Prime Directive” is a rule that states that Starfleet officers cannot make contact with civilizations that have not yet reached a certain level of development; in short, Starfleet cannot interfere with the development of civilizations by forcing them to develop too quickly, because interference with development is something that is considered to be immoral and outside the purview of Starfleet command (“Who Watches the Watchers”).
The general code of ethics for anthropologists who study human behavior is very similar to the idea that the Prime Directive instills in the Star Trek universe. Obviously, human beings have not achieved the ability to travel vast distances in space, nor has humanity met other intelligent civilizations. It stands to reason, however, that if humanity were to meet another alien civilization that contact with a civilization that is essentially still in the Bronze Age would change the course of development for that civilization entirely. Anthropologists studying human behavior and human communities do not need to be as secretive, but there is still a very real risk for changing the development of a community if an anthropologist makes their presence too apparent.
Anthropologists have it in their own best interest to ensure that they minimize the amount of disturbance that they cause in the communities that they are studying as well, however. When studying a community that is insular, it is particularly difficult to not cause a disturbance; in this case, becoming integrated into the community may be the only option for the anthropologist. The opportunity that is presented to the anthropologists in “Who Watches the Watchers” is almost the ideal for any anthropologist that is interested in studying an insular or cloistered population—if the hologram had not failed, then the anthropologists would have been able to continue their observations of the population of the planet for years without any kind of interruption (“Who Watches the Watchers”).
The fact that the community began to see Picard as a God-like figure is also interesting from an anthropological perspective. It is an extreme response, but not one that is unheard of—it is reflective of the idea of the cargo cults that happened in Melanesia in the late 1960s. These cultures were suddenly exposed to the cargo and shipping routes of the western world, and developed a number of strange and even bizarre rituals and beliefs surrounding these cargo and shipping lines. This is in the same vein as the interaction that the Mintakan people had with the crew of the Enterprise. Because they could not explain the interaction that they had in any real way, they developed a number of bizarre beliefs about the nature of the experience (“Who Watches the Watchers”).
Despite the fact that the episode had a good resolution, there was undoubtedly a long-lasting effect on the civilization. Because the Mintakan people would never forget that there are other civilizations out in the stars, they would develop differently than other civilizations (“Who Watches the Watchers”). An anthropologist that chooses to study a community by embedding themselves into the community will similarly change the outcome of the behavior of the individuals in the community forever. The invisible ways in which the crew of the Enterprise tried to observe the community is the ideal way to carry out anthropological studies in many cases; however, the trouble that occurred as a result of mistakes and accidents is also reflective of the kind of things that happen in real life to complicate anthropological studies. This episode serves as an excellent anthropological allegory for the difficulties commonly faced by anthropologists in the field.
'Who Watches The Watchers'. CBS, 1989. TV programme.