56 Years Later, Star Trek Canon Finally Addresses Its Trickiest Moral Question
Genetic engineering doesn’t make you a villain.
People will never get over Khan. From his introduction in the 1967 episode “Space Seed,” to the famous Wrath of Khan, to the Benedict Cumberbatch version in 2013, and most recently, his distant descendent, La’an Noonien-Singh in Strange New Worlds, Star Trek’s most infamous genetically enhanced supervillain casts a long shadow. But, 56 years after Khan’s debut, the Trek canon is flipping the script on the nature of Khan’s villainy. For a long time, Star Trek has (mostly) posited that people like Khan were evil because they were genetically enhanced. But what Strange New Worlds presupposes is — maybe not?
In the Season 2 Strange New Worlds episode “Ad Astra per Aspera,” Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) faces legal charges. In a bit of retcon, Season 1 of SNW established that Una was secretly an Illyrian, an alien culture that practices genetic modification as a way of life. In “Ghost of Illyria,” we learned that Una had hidden her genetic modifications to blend in at Starfleet, and in “A Quality of Mercy,” Starfleet arrested her for violating its anti-genetic modification laws. Why can’t you be genetically modified in the open-minded, egalitarian Star Trek future? Well, it all comes down to Khan.
Khan’s genetics backstory explained
When “Space Seed” aired during Star Trek’s first season in 1967, the show was still making up its future history. Even the year The Original Series took place hadn’t been established. Khan says he’s been sleeping for “200 years,” but because this episode of TOS was later established to have taken place in 2267, it’s more like 271 years. But the point here is that Star Trek pre-history begins in the 1990s.
“Space Seed” established that Khan was a tyrant who ruled part of Earth in the 1990s and was exiled in suspended animation “sleeper ship” in 1996. This conflict was called the Eugenics Wars, which in “Space Seed” Spock calls “the era of your last so-called World War.”
Trek canon has been stuck with this tricky chronology ever since. Once the Eugenics Wars failed to occur in the real 1990s, various Treks lampshaded or outright contradicted their date and Khan’s rise to power. Greg Cox's trilogy of novels, The Eugenics Wars, began in 2001 and combined fuzzy Star Trek history with real ‘90s history by making Khan’s rise to dominance a secret war fought under false flags and without the general public's knowledge. In the 1996 Voyager two-parter “Future’s End,” the crew traveled back to 1996, where they shrugged their shoulders at the fact there was no evidence of an ongoing World War III. More recently, in Strange New Worlds and Picard Season 2, it’s been suggested the Eugenics Wars led to World War III, and that led to a third of the Earth’s population dying. Then you’ve got a Mad Max-style Earth until 2063 when the Vulcans make first contact.
Trek canon has some wiggle room. In “Space Seed,” Spock said, “Records of that period are fragmentary.” So if you think the new Trek canon is retconning Khan’s origins a bit, brace yourself for even more changes in the future. Was Khan really around in the 1990s? Or was he on Earth later?
How Strange New Worlds goes deeper than TOS
If you put aside the trickiness of early Star Trek chronology, what’s interesting about “Ad Astra per Aspera” is that it inverts previous assumptions about the Federation, and turns the existence of Khan into a scapegoat for massive bigots at Starfleet. Season 1 of Strange New Worlds explored this a bit with La’an’s backstory and Number One getting arrested for being an Illyrian, but now it’s going much deeper. Here, Una’s Illyrian lawyer, Neera (Yetide Badaki), has no love for the Federation or Starfleet, because she’s experienced prejudice for being genetically altered her entire life. Neera makes it clear the Federation has used Khan’s atrocities to justify widespread discrimination.
This stigma runs so deep that, during a private conversation with La’an, Neera points out that just because you’re descended from a supervillain —La’an is distantly related to Khan — that doesn’t mean “there’s a monster” inside you. La’an is human, but Neera and Una are not, and thus Strange New Worlds makes a leap that Trek has never quite made before.
In the Deep Space Nine episode “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” it’s revealed that Julian Bashir was genetically enhanced by his parents when he was very young. A similar conflict arises, and Khan is alluded to, but there’s a crucial difference. In TOS and Deep Space Nine, the idea that genetic alterations could be a cultural norm is never explored. It’s always viewed as a moment where science goes too far. Julian is nice in spite of his genetic modifications, but his parents still transgressed human cultural norms.
Strange New Worlds builds on all of this and makes the subject much more interesting because while Una has violated Federation law, we see an entire culture of Ilyrians living and thriving in the Volterra Nebula. Some may pass for human, but judging people by their appearance is a practice Star Trek has often strived to dismantle. When Pike visits the Illyrian world to recruit Neera, the environment is hostile to his biology. The Illryians aren’t monsters. Pike is the gas-mask-clad outsider, and a representative of the Federation the Illyrians view as narrow-minded bigots.
The resolution of “Ad Astra per Aspera” creates a loophole where Una can stay in Starfleet while making it clear Starfleet isn’t changing its mind. This preserves canon, but the impact is deeper than dot-connecting. With this episode, Strange New Worlds has pointed out that the so-called utopia of the Federation still has its biases and bigots, and that even in the 23rd Century, humans can do better.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams on Paramount+.