Since the launch of The Original Series in the 1960s, Star Trek has always prided itself on its celebration of diversity. Through the philosophy of “infinite diversity through infinite combinations,” the shows and movies have continued to promote equality among real and fictional races, genders, and cultures. The new Paramount+ original series have continued this legacy, adding characters from the LGBTQIA+ and disabled communities.
The United Federation of Planets is presented as a beacon of hope for a contemporary society that still struggles with division and prejudice. There has been one major exception to this in Star Trek’s future history, and it is something that has become a focus for the new Paramount+ shows, especially Star Trek: Prodigy and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
Dal’s origins have been a big mystery and issue for the character since the series debuted in 2021. Previewing the final 10 episodes of the season, Dal voice actor Brett Gray told TrekMovie in October:
I’m most excited for people to see Dal’s origin story. I think it tackles one of the last prejudices, even of Starfleet. And I think it’s going to be a big moment in the Trek Universe for momentous change.
Now know have a good idea of what Gray was hinting at—in the latest episode, “Masquerade,” Dal learned he was genetically engineered; specifically, he’s a “human Augment blended with the most recessive traits of 26 species.”
Using genetic engineering to create augmented humans was first introduced in the classic episode “Space Seed” of Star Trek: The Original Series. The USS Enterprise encountered the Botany Bay, a ship full “superhumans” who were exiled from Earth in the 1990s following the Eugenics Wars. Their leader, Khan Noonien Singh, is still considered Star Trek’s greatest villain, especially after his return in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The rise of Khan and other supermen led to United Earth banning genetic engineering, a ban later adopted by the United Federation of Planets.
The Trek franchise has remained consistent with this ban on genetic engineering throughout the decades. More of the Augment backstory was explored in 2004 with an arc on Star Trek: Enterprise featuring Brent Spiner as geneticist Dr. Arik Soong, who was imprisoned for using embryos left over from the Eugenics Wars to create and raise a group of Augment children, leading to the “Augment Crisis” of the 22nd century which almost started a war with the Klingons. Dal was directly linked to this (and therefore to Khan and the Eugenics Wars) in Prodigy when Dr. Jago said he was the “handiwork of the protégés of Dr. Arik Soong.”
When “Space Seed” aired in 1967, the specter of eugenics was still fresh in the public’s mind, only a generation after the end of World War II and the rise of race-based fascism that led to genocidal policies. The story of Khan and his “supermen” was a cautionary tale against history repeating itself. At the time, the concept of gene splicing was still decades away, with molecular biologists James Watson and Francis Crick having just been awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962 for discovering the molecular structure of DNA.
Star Trek: The Next Generation began a new era for the franchise in 1987, and both the science and ethics of genetics had evolved, including the launching of the Human Genome Project in 1990, which completed its work of mapping all human DNA in 2003. The project also included a special committee to “plan for the ethical, legal, and social implications” that might result from the work.
Yet even in a more enlightened 24th century, a century after “Space Seed,” genetic engineering was only allowed in the Federation for the correction of genetic medical conditions. Any genetic enhancements or augmentation was against the law and any person benefiting from such work was banned from serving in Starfleet. This issue was explored on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when it was revealed that Dr. Julian Bashir was genetically enhanced. Julian’s father confessed to having him altered at a young age and was sent to prison, but Dr. Bashir was allowed to remain in Starfleet, with the warning that “for every Julian Bashir that can be created, there’s a Khan Singh waiting in the wings.” The series later introduced a group of genetically enhanced humans who had to be institutionalized after suffering a variety of different disabilities.
A new view
Star Trek’s view of genetic augmentation as dangerous is somewhat inconsistent with how it treats pushing the frontiers of other technologies. A prime example of this is artificial intelligence. Trek has plenty of stories dealing with the dangers of AI and robots, a staple of science fiction, yet there was never a stated ban on the science behind AI (except for a period after “Synths” were framed for a terrorist attack in the late 24th century). Star Trek: The Next Generation famously featured Commander Data (Brent Spiner again), an android and a senior bridge officer who became one of the most celebrated and beloved characters of the franchise. Data’s rights as an android were explored in multiple episodes, and the theme of sentient technology was later picked up on Star Trek: Voyager with the Holographic Doctor as a main character. The entire first season of Star Trek: Picard revolved around Data’s “daughter” and Synths being vindicated and accepted by the Federation.
Now the new Star Trek shows are revisiting the topic of genetic engineering in both live-action and animation. Much like the treatment of artificial intelligence in the ’90s Trek shows, Augments aren’t being seen as something to fear, but as people we should sympathize with and understand.
The first season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds first tied into the history of genetic engineering with the main character of La’an Noonian-Sing, a descendent of Khan’s who is not genetically enhanced, who feels shame over her family’s past. This created conflict when it was later revealed her close friend Una Chin-Riley, the first officer of the USS Enterprise, was an Illyrian, a humanoid race that practiced genetic engineering, a fact she’d kept hidden from Starfleet. While La’an took some time to accept it, Captain Pike was clear he would not expose her, saying, “I don’t care where you come from. You’re the best first officer in the fleet.”
In that same episode, “The Ghosts of Illyria,” the Enterprise discovered a colony of Illyrians who had doomed themselves after trying to remove their genetic modifications in hopes of joining the Federation. Strange New Worlds shone a light on the rigidity of the Federation’s policy, showing it can cause harm as it did for those ill-fated Illyrians. The debate will be explored further in the upcoming second season as it addresses the season 1 cliffhanger where Una was arrested for being genetically enhanced. Hopefully, the show finds a way to allow her to remain in Starfleet even if she might only be an exception to the policy; after all, the series is still set in the 23rd century.
And now, Star Trek: Prodigy is also challenging the genetic engineering conventions with the big reveal about Dal. When Dal was hurt to find out he didn’t have any actual parents, his friends rallied around him, assuring him there was “no one else like you.” The episode also explored the cautionary side of genetic “cheating” when Dal asked Dr. Jago to enhance his dormant genes, with comical and dangerous results.
This still leaves the issue of Dal being the result of genetic engineering. Just passing through a Starfleet scanner in episode 11 set off alarms to notify Starfleet immediately. This is going to be a big issue for Dal, who has led the USS Protostar crew through the first season with the main goal of getting to the Federation and eventually joining Starfleet Academy. Based on franchise history and known 24th century Federation law, there’s no way for Dal to attend Starfleet Academy or join Starfleet—but surely there must be something that can be done.
Given Brett Gray’s comment about genetic engineering being one of the “the last prejudices” in Star Trek and how this is “going to be a big moment in the Trek Universe for momentous change,” it looks like the franchise is ready to start treating genetic engineering the same way it views artificial intelligence. Sure, there are dangers, but there are also opportunities. And wasn’t it Captain Picard himself who said (in TNG’s “Justice”): “There can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”?
Another clue may come from the executive producer and co-creator Dan Hageman, who said in his midseason interview with TrekMovie, “I want these characters to become young adults and someday adult crew members.” He also said, “We want to make sure that kids today can dream about the day that we can get our stuff together.” So it doesn’t sound like they are going to crush Dal’s dream of joining Starfleet Academy, though it might be a hard road to get there. It can’t be an accident that Dal’s complicated genetic makeup includes all four founding members of the Federation (Humans, Vulcans, Tellarites, and Andorians). How can the Federation say no to that?
What do you say?
Is it time for Star Trek (and the Federation) to loosen up when it comes to genetic engineering and Augments? Will Number One be allowed to return to her post on the Enterprise? Will Dal be accepted into Starfleet Academy? And will the Federation and Starfleet go beyond making exceptions and expand their diversity to simply accept the genetically augmented? Let us know in the comments below.
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