Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2. It didn’t take long in the second season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to return to a flashpoint surrounding the identity of one of its most prominent characters. Specifically, viewers were shown in the first season’s episode “Ghosts of Illyria” that Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), the USS Enterprise’s First Officer, is an Illyrian. Genetically engineered before her birth, Una’s heritage was concealed, so she could join Starfleet despite an ongoing ban on species and individuals who practiced genetic manipulation. Unfortunately, her Illyrian identity was revealed early on in Strange New Worlds, and this revelation came to a head in the Season 2 episode “Ad Astra per Aspera,” culminating in a court-martial for “Number One”.
But what’s the Federation’s major malfunction with genetic alterations? Strange New Worlds certainly touched on things, but newer Trek fans who may not be familiar with earlier iterations like Star Trek: The Original Series or the events that predated it chronologically in Star Trek: Enterprise may be left in the dark a bit. Although the United Federation of Planets is often portrayed as a beacon of egalitarianism, diplomacy, and acceptance, it has taken drastic measures during many points in its history to preserve its sense of security.
The Augments and the Eugenics Wars
In the 20th century of Star Trek‘s canon timeline, advancements in DNA sequencing allowed humankind to begin creating genetically-enhanced individuals. Anything ordinary humans could do, these “Augments” could do better; improved strength and speed, resistance to energy weapons, a doubled lifespan on average, and they could even destroy various infections and diseases in their body’s ecosystem. Their mental sturdiness even helped them resist the effects of the Vulcans’ nerve pinches and mind melds later on in their history. This is to say nothing of their genius intellect, rounding out a full package of genetic gifts. Unfortunately, as Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) once remarked in The Original Series, superior ability breeds superior ambition, and it wasn’t long before the Augments took up arms against the rest of humanity.
In 1992, Augments banded together and laid claim to over 40 countries across the globe, exploding into a four-year conflict that took tens of millions of lives in the process. The planet was plunged into a Dark Age, with much of the historical documentation during the time period being lost or fragmented. Scientists who had taken part in the genetic projects resulting in the Augments hadn’t accounted for their personalities, which often veered toward an air of superiority and entitlement. Non-augmented humans were killed or subjugated to slavery by the “supermen”, with Augment conquerors like Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban) seizing absolute power of over a quarter of the planet. Khan’s ambitions led other would-be Augment despots to rule their territories with an iron fist. Although Khan was believed to be a more “gentle” authoritarian who did not engage in conflict until infringed upon, the other Augment dictators were often much less merciful. Regardless, non-augmented humans had their freedoms severely constricted and were treated as inferior by their overlords across the board.
The wars raged on for four long years, with historians stating that the conflicts consisted of humanity rising up against the Augments while many Augment warlords also engaged in bloodied disputes with each other. The face of Earth was met with bombing campaigns that took the lives of over 30 million people, but the struggle eventually began to favor humanity. Augment leaders were deposed, and Khan himself was the last overlord to fall in 1996. Humanity’s sporadic governments eventually sentenced Khan and over 80 of his retainers to death, which likely delighted a human race that desired revenge.
The only problem was that Khan and his followers had managed to flee prosecution, slipping aboard an early space vessel known as the SS Botany Bay. Earth’s governments kept news of the missing Augments under wraps to avoid public panic, but Khan and his followers would resurface in the 23rd Century after Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner/Paul Wesley) had assumed command of the USS Enterprise from Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Anson Mount) after the latter’s promotion to Fleet Captain.
Obviously, the days of Jim Kirk’s captaincy aboard the Enterprise passes Strange New Worlds‘ events in the Trek timeline, but Earth had additional run-ins with genetically-altered beings well before the 23rd Century that steeled their resolve to enact the Federation’s encompassing ban on genetic engineering.
Augments, Illyrians, and the Enterprise NX-01
In the 22nd Century, Earth’s disparate governments had come together under the banner of United Earth after making First Contact with the Vulcan species in 2063. The unitary government made huge strides in technology and set its eyes on the stars above. This resulted in the NX Project, ultimately leading to the launch of the Enterprise NX-01 in 2151, the first United Earth space vessel capable of reaching Warp 5 speeds. The crew of Enterprise, led by Captain Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), began to explore planets and systems well beyond the reach of Earth and its closest stars, leading to encounters with various interstellar species along the way. In 2154, Enterprise and her crew would encounter another band of Augments. These superhumans were fostered by geneticist Dr. Arik Soong (Brent Spiner), who had stolen their embryos from Cold Station 12 and raised them in the Trialas System before he was arrested for his crimes in 2144.
However, a young Augment named Malik (Alec Newman) and his “brother” Saul (Fernando Chien) departed Trialas IV with many of their comrades and commandeered a Klingon Bird-of-Prey, causing a diplomatic disaster that drew United Earth to the brink of war with the Klingon Empire. Enterprise was dispatched to the lawless Borderland to apprehend the Augments, and Arik Soong was brought on board to (hopefully) navigate the situation without resorting to violence. However, Soong had other plans and managed to escape Enterprise and rejoin his “children”, assisting in their plan to free even more Augment embryos from Cold Station 12.
After a damaged Enterprise underwent repairs, it pursued the Augments to the station. Having successfully secured the embryos and several deadly biological agents, Soong intended to break off from United Earth and flee with his Augments for good. The pathogens would be used as “insurance” to ensure their escape. However, a rift grew between Soong and Malik over how to treat the staff aboard the space station, leading Malik to rise up against his “father”. Enterprise and Captain Archer arrive and the Augments threaten to breach containment and release all the biological agents aboard, killing the station’s staff and the Enterprise’s away team. Thanks to the quick application of Enterprise’s phase cannons by Commander T’Pol (Jolene Blalock), the away team and all surviving station personnel are beamed back to the ship as the pathogens are vented into space.
Soong and the Augments take the Bird-of-Prey into Klingon space, where they assume that Enterprise won’t follow. Malik and Soong continue to spar over authority, with the former suggesting that the secured biotoxins should be fired on the Klingon world of Qu’Vat to instigate a war between Earth and the Klingons to ensure that the Augments are left alone. Soong detests the idea, considering it mass murder, ultimately leading to Malik staging a mutiny and Soong ejecting from the Bird-of-Prey via an escape pod.
Soong is retrieved and brought back aboard Enterprise, joining the crew in stopping the Augments despite suspicions surrounding his loyalties. Fortunately, Captain Archer’s faith in the geneticist pays off when the team evades a boarding attempt by a Klingon battlecruiser and catches up to the Augments, ultimately disabling the Bird-of-Prey. Malik overloads the ship’s Dilithium matrix, presumptively killing him and the other Augments aboard in the explosion. Soong is taken into custody and Enterprise prepares to return him to Earth when Malik reveals he had beamed aboard Enterprise and attacks, but Archer manages to kill the bloodthirsty Augment with a particle rifle. Soong is returned to incarceration on Earth, realizing his work on perfecting humans is foolhardy, and begins his plans to create a perfected artificial life form instead.
Enterprise encountered more genetically-altered species in 2154, albeit not of the human variety. After a battle that devastated the ship near Azati Prime, an Illyrian vessel was spotted disabled by an anomaly field. The Illyrians proved to be helpful to Enterprise by assisting with repairs. Although Archer and the crew were grateful, they needed to return to Earth as quickly as possible to stave off a threat by the Xindi. Enterprise requested to trade for the Illyrians’ warp coil, but the latter refused since it would heavily lengthen their journey home. Feeling the urgency of the Xindi bearing down on Earth, Archer managed to board the ship with several MACO troopers and steal the warp coil, allowing Enterprise to return home. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for the Illyrians, now stranded in space with a three-year journey on their hands.
Later on in 2154, the Klingon Empire devised a way to create their own Augments due to the assumption that Earth would eventually use Augments aboard their starships. Despite the Vulcans telling the Klingons that humanity had discarded any desire to use genetic manipulation, the Empire seized what was left of the Augment embryos from Malik’s destroyed Bird-of-Prey and attempted to splice their DNA with Klingon hosts. This resulted in the affected Klingons taking on more human-like characteristics, losing their iconic cranial ridges, but gaining immense strength and intelligence. Unfortunately, an unexpected side effect arose in the form of neural degeneration, which killed the modified Klingons when their neural pathways broke down. Even worse, one Augmented Klingon was carrying the Levodian Flu virus, which caused the Augment manipulations to spread across the Klingon Empire and infect countless individuals.
The good news is that thanks to the work of Enterprise’s Dr. Phlox (John Billingsley), the first stage of the Augment virus was reversed. This left the infected Klingons with no boosts to their strength and intelligence, and their human-like appearance was also irreversible for the time being. However, the Klingons would avoid death via the breakdown of their neural networks. Generations of the warlike race would continue to carry human-esque traits in some populations, though they began to phase out in the latter portions of the 23rd century.
The Federation’s Bans and Stigma Towards Augmentation
Fast-forward to 2259, and the United Federation of Planets had clearly seen enough danger from multiple Augment-related crises to institute a ban. Genetically-altered beings, regardless of species, were prohibited from joining Starfleet. Furthermore, species that practiced genetic manipulation were also denied membership in the Federation. The term “Augment” transitioned to a pejorative word used to denigrate any species or individual who was genetically engineered in any capacity. The distaste also dogged the descendants of the Augments who participated in the Eugenics Wars, leading to enmity toward the likes of Lieutenant La’an Noonien-Signh (Christina Chong), the USS Enterprise’s Chief of Security during Strange New Worlds. Despite both Una and La’an being model Starfleet officers worthy to serve aboard the Federation’s flagship, the scars of the Eugenics Wars and United Earth’s early conflicts with augmented species unfairly falls on their shoulders.
The laws against genetic engineering remained a part of the Federation and Starfleet well into the 24th century. However, certain exceptions were made along the way, particularly in the case of Una herself and Dal R’El (Brett Gray), a multi-species Augment hybrid who was permitted to join Starfleet in 2384 after then-Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) remarked that he was a living example of Starfleet’s ideals. Pain remains for many genetically-engineered species and individuals, but there are signs that their rights are making inroads after centuries of conflict and suspicion. The tides of progress appear to roll along slowly, even for an organization like the Federation that prides itself on inclusivity and acceptance of differences.