Star Trek Strange New Worlds – Season 2 Episode 2
“Ad Astra Per Aspera”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds puts Una on trial and broadly interrogates the Federation’s position on genetic engineering.
This franchise has no shortage of trial episodes. The Original Series gave us “The Menagerie” which provided an excuse for the characters to sit and watch “The Cage” while court-martialling Spock for commandeering the Enterprise and going into restricted space. James T. Kirk himself would stand trial in “Court Martial”. The Next Generation‘s “Measure of a Man” and “The Drumhead” are widely considered to be excellent examples. “Encounter at Farpoint” began The Next Generation by putting humanity on trial, something that was revealed to have never actually ended so The Next Generation is arguably a neverending trial. Some examples aren’t as strong like Voyager‘s “Author, Author” but it still has interesting ideas being covered. It also extends to film with one of the celebrated films, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country containing an iconic trial sequence. There’s also a smaller one in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home so putting characters on trial has been a staple of the franchise throughout its existence.
Star Trek is a franchise well-known for exploring moral questions through a sci-fi lens. Trial episodes are the ideal way to do that because it provides a natural format to raise and debate whatever the core issue is without it being contrived like it would if two characters were to bring it up and debate it in the middle of a crisis or similar. A character is put on trial for a reason that links to a wider issue that can then be explored organically through questioning witnesses, delivering statements and coming to a decision. It’s the rare instance where exposition is acceptable because the setup demands that both sides of the debate explain themselves.
Una is put on trial for committing fraud. She lied about her origins when enlisting in Starfleet and is facing the consequences now that the truth has become known. The added complication is that she is an Illyrian who has been subject to permanent genetic alterations, something that is illegal in the Federation so she is also on trial for being who she is though the core issue is the fraud she committed and the ongoing deception while she was serving as a member of Starfleet.
The episode wastes no time in establishing that the odds are stacked against Una. Captain Batel offers her a deal that keeps her out of prison but has her dishonourably discharged from Starfleet while sealing her records. As Una points out, Starfleet is looking to cover up its mistake. Her observation invites speculation that the deal is about protecting Starfleet’s reputation by covering up the fact that a genetically engineered person was able to serve for 25 years completely undetected. Her lawyer is also less than invested in fighting to prove her innocence as shown by his instant advice for her to take the deal without even taking a moment to discuss it in private; something else that Una points out. Both examples lead her to conclude that her trial is anything but fair, making the situation seem hopeless.
Fortunately, Pike has this covered. His absence in the previous episode was so that he could track down the best lawyer in the galaxy to defend Una. Neera (Yetide Badaki) is initially unwilling to take the case due to animosity between her and Una. Bizarrely it’s introduced as if it will be a major fixture of the episode but it ends up being almost completely superfluous. The implication is that the root of their rift is Una’s dishonesty but it doesn’t progress much beyond defining that animosity exists. Una suggests that they should talk about it to clear the air and Neera refuses to so the opportunity to explore their connection is never taken. This makes the animosity between them feel out of place as it’s established as a detail and largely forgotten about. The idea of Neera resenting Una for hiding her true self when others can’t and working to blend in which perpetuates the prejudice because she doesn’t actively resist it is an interesting idea but the detail is lacking so it gets buried.
Neera is a legal force of nature who is confident, formidable and very clear on the direction of her argument. Her aim is to frame the law that was broken as an unjust one. She provides several examples of laws that discriminated against people that no longer exist. All sorts of persecution have been perfectly valid in the eyes of the law in the past but they were eventually identified as wrong and done away with. The point is that the law against permanent genetic modification should be among those left in the past because it’s another example of legalised persecution.
Her argument then moves on to point out that the law itself is based on fear. It was enacted as a consequence of the devastation on Earth as a result of genetic engineering. Fear of that or worse happening again means that the law exists and seems to justify horrific examples of hatred directed at those who are genetically engineered. Neera’s point is that by perpetuating the law the Federation have become persecutors and that assessment seems supported to some degree by the reality of how people like Una are treated. She paints a grim picture of what it was like growing up in an anti-Augment society. It’s a harrowing tale of people giving into their fear and hatred because the law supports them doing so. It’s very much the opposite of what the Federation is supposed to stand for but Una directly witnessed that persecution happen to people she cared about. Making it worse was that the hatred was often directed at children from other children which suggests that prejudice was being ingrained from a very young age.
Neera comes into this trial with her own agenda; intending to hold a mirror up to the Federation and directly ask if they are practising what they preach. From her perspective, the answer is a firm no but there’s a clear desire to make sure that those present are aware of that. One possible solution to this trial is proving that the law itself is unjust and doing away with it for that reason. Shining a light on the suffering that has happened as a result of that law is a powerful way to do that and gives Rebecca Romijn a platform to showcase her range as an actor. There’s a tenderness and sorrow in her voice as Una describes what she witnessed and went through. It’s impactful, moving and arresting.
As a contrast, that fear is illustrated brilliantly by Admiral April’s testimony. Neera’s questioning is overly aggressive and attacks him for what could be considered breaches of the Prime Directive as if breaking protocol in order to save countless lives is comparable to lying on an application form but the point of her questioning is to get April to deliver his opinion on the law and he proves her point when he does. He talks about the law being made to save lives and prevent genocide before doubling down on his insistence that he would have denied her application to join Starfleet had he known at the time. He believes that the law exists to prevent what devastated Earth so he is -perhaps accidentally- tarring all genetically modified people with the same brush and making the assumption that they are innately dangerous. His fear has prevented him from considering the nuance of the debate because he believes it’s necessary for ongoing safety. This is something that many in the Federation have done and it’s why the law goes largely unchallenged. There is no acknowledgement of the alternative point of view for many which means that progress is currently impossible.
A bizarre omission from the overall discussion is that the law exists because of what happened on Earth which suggests that only Humans are responsible for it but the Federation is made up of many species. Do Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarities or any other member species feel the same about genetic engineering? If that’s the case then why do they feel that way as they presumably haven’t endured what Humans did in order to inspire the creation of the law. It’s an obvious point that is never made.
This episode runs the risk of painting Starfleet and the Federation in a very negative light. If the audience is convinced by Neera’s arguments then the Federation is a society driven by fear and incredibly hypocritical by defining what they deem as acceptably different rather than flat acceptance of anyone as the charter claims. The counter to that comes from Una following the reveal that she turned herself in because she was tired of hiding and wanted to be known for who she really was rather than continuing to live a lie in order to satisfy those who won’t tolerate her. Her statement about her genuine belief in Starfleet founded on her observations of a Starfleet crew as a child is beautifully written and delivered. She talks about how they were so different from one another yet working together with no fear, hatred or animosity in sight. Her view was that if so many different people could work together then there was hope for her and her fellow Illyrians one day becoming part of it. Part of her rationale for joining Starfleet was out of a desire to show that there was nothing to fear; something she lost sight of before turning herself in so that she could be seen for who she really is.
Her point of view is crucial to presenting the nuance of the Federation as an entity. She points out that her experience is Starfleet and the Federation are far from perfect organisations but she truly believes that they strive to be and that’s what matters as far as she’s concerned. Achieving that perfection may be difficult or impossible and will almost certainly take a very long time but the drive to achieve it is the important thing in Una’s eyes. This allows her to be persecuted for what she is while still taking pride in being a part of Starfleet with a strong desire to play her part in helping them become the perfection they strive to achieve. It shows that she is a part of the organisation for the right reasons and upholds its founding principles.
The title of the episode comes from the pre-Federation Starfleet motto. “Ad Astra Per Aspera” means “To the stars through hardship”. Originally it was a reference to what humanity had to go through in order to create Starfleet in the first place but Una has a more personal interpretation of it. For her, it means that the stars could help people overcome anything and that everyone working together to explore them will lead them all to some sort of salvation whether that be personal or otherwise. It’s a romantic notion but something Una clearly feels very passionate about.
There’s a delicacy required in reaching a verdict because of Star Trek canon. Deep Space Nine is set over a century later and has the character of Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig) outed as genetically enhanced. It’s a problem because it’s still illegal in the Federation and particular strings are pulled so that he can remain in Starfleet and continue practising medicine. The law is still in place and based on the exact same fear that is depicted in this episode so in order to gel with canon, this episode couldn’t end with the law being changed.
The solution is for Una to be found innocent on a technicality. Neera presents a convincing argument that Una fulfilled all of the criteria required to request asylum and have that granted. Her interpretation is that Pike granted asylum in his capacity as a Starfleet Captain so even though the law has been broken, Una can be considered to be protected under the Federation’s asylum law which apparently supersedes the law banning permanent genetic alteration. This allows her to go back to work as if nothing happened while Star Trek canon remains intact. It’s a clever solution that allows for a meaningful story to be told through the lens of an engaging trial episode without rocking the franchise in any way. Neera wins by appealing to the better natures of those responsible for rendering the verdict which in turn proves Una’s point about striving for perfection.
Una being granted asylum is acknowledged as the start of a very long road; one with no measurable progress by the time Julian Bashir is discovered. Of course, this episode doesn’t acknowledge that because doing so would make no sense but it makes the conclusion a bittersweet one for those aware of Deep Space Nine. The episode ends on a hopeful note with widespread acknowledgement of this being a step in the right direction. Neera is even inspired by the fact that the Enterprise crew are elated to have their First Officer back with no hint of prejudice from any of the senior staff. It’s a practical example of what Una was talking about in her testimony and Neera departs on an optimistic note.
The episode is mostly focused on the trial though Una is more of the subject of the episode rather than having a significant role in it. Neera propels the plot and checks in with various characters as she does so with periodic sidebars to do things like enhance the personal stakes by addressing how difficult it is for Pike and Batel to be on opposite sides of the issue considering their relationship. It isn’t something the episode dwells on but it does create an extra layer of anxiety that helps root the overall experience emotionally.
Another strong emotional beat is between La’an and Neera. La’an is initially concerned that the truth about Una becoming known was her fault because she recorded an unflattering personal log shortly after learning it. The conversation that results from La’an’s concern helps underscore how personal this case is for Neera. She talks about genetics not being destiny and that her being brought up to believe that’s the case is completely incorrect. As far as she’s concerned every person has the potential to take action whether that be good or bad and their genetics don’t dictate that. People aren’t innately dangerous or monstrous regardless of their background and the fact that people are brought up believing that is something Neera finds offensive. Yetide Bedaki’s performance in this scene is excellent. She plays it with such conviction which fully sells Neera’s desire to push through the social conditioning that makes La’an doubt herself.
This conversation seems to confirm that La’an has her family’s augmentations which probably means that she inherited them though they’ve likely been diluted over the generations which means that she’s technically not genetically augmented in the way that is illegal. She does worry that it makes her dangerous which prompts Nira to tell her that she isn’t and she shouldn’t worry about it. She isn’t Khan and shouldn’t expect to turn out like he did. Nira’s passionate words help highlight the social conditioning that those born into the Federation experience that forms the basis of their fear of the genetically enhanced or makes those who are augmented feel shame.
The episode isn’t without its problems though one of them is a persistent issue the show has that can’t be easily solved. Spock, La’an and M’Benga acting as character witnesses rely on camaraderie that hasn’t actually been established. The limited number of episodes means that it can’t develop organically, particularly when the focus is weighted in the direction of specific characters. This problem is mitigated to some degree by choosing characters that do have an on-screen history with Una. M’Benga is grateful to her for looking the other way when he was hiding his terminally ill daughter in the transporter buffer, La’an is her close friend who is grateful because Una found her after she was released from the Gorn breeding planet and she opened up to Spock on his very first day on the Enterprise as depicted in a Short Trek. This adds weight to their testimony as there is an established relationship but at the same time, there’s a lack of shared screentime beyond those pivotal examples. It’s hopefully a problem that will be solved the longer the show goes on but for now, it’s a glaring systemic issue.
An excellent episode that delivers a nuanced, thoughtful and moving exploration of a complicated issue from a variety of perspectives and ranks among Star Trek‘s best trial episodes.
- the characterisation of Nira as a legal force of nature
- her personal connection to the case founded on her background
- her excellent advice to La’an
- Yetide Bedaki’s performance throughout
- holding a mirror up to the Federation to challenge whether they practise what they preach
- exploring the basis of the law and highlighting what makes it unjust
- Una’s harrowing account of the hatred and persecution the law creates
- Rebecca Romijn’s strong performance
- contrasting this by using April as a showcase of the fear that is the basis of the law
- Una’s perspective prevening the Federation being portrayed in a negative light
- Una fully buying into what Starfleet stands for and firmly believing that they strive for perfection even if they don’t achieve it
- the asylum solution preserving canon while allowing Una her freedom
- Neera appealing to the better natures of those making the decision proving Una’s point about striving for perfection
- acknowledging that they have achieved the start of a very long road
- Neera observing that the Enterprise crew stands by Una with no hint of hatred or prejudice and departing on an optimistic note
- no coverage of how other member races feel about genetic engineering
- Nira’s interrogation of April creating an unbalanced comparison
- a continuation of the systemic issue around the lack of organic cameraderie
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