It's interesting to consider how "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," a single episode of DS9 that was written to give its central character a story amid a 26-episode season, essentially retroactively established the entire legal framework around genetic engineering in the Federation. Up to that point, the topic of the Eugenics Wars functioned as a major one-off (well, two-off) via "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan — but genetic modification had not been established as universally canonically illegal (unless I'm forgetting or overlooking something).
In "Ad Astra Per Aspera," Commander Una Chin-Riley gets her day in court, following Starfleet's discovery that she's not human, but rather a genetically modified Illyrian who lied on her Starfleet records. After she turns down a plea deal (against the advice of her Starfleet-supplied lawyer) that would dishonorably discharge her from Starfleet with no jail time, the prosecutor, a rather inflexible-seeming Vulcan named Pasalk (Graeme Somerville), decides to make an example of her with charges of sedition carrying up to 20 years in prison.
Pike travels to Illyria, where he makes an urgent plea to renowned civil rights attorney Neera Ketoul (Yetide Badaki), who has a personal history with Una (which is initially left unrevealed but hints at a long-ago rift). She reluctantly agrees to take the case, but has a more ambitious agenda than merely keeping her client out of jail. She wants to put Starfleet's unjust prejudice against the genetically enhanced on trial, arguing that the law itself is what's wrong.
"Ad Astra Per Aspera" is a fairly compelling — although not gripping — legal procedural. In targeting the law against "augments," the story's real target is prejudice of all kinds, without a specific allegorical analog. Pick your poison and it will fit. Going back to "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," I've always felt that the blanket ban on genetic enhancement was awfully black-and-white where it seemed like this was the sort of wide-open topic in Trek that would need to be far more morally gray. This episode tackles that very premise — although it does so in a way that ultimately maintains the status quo, since this must still obviously be illegal a century from now.
The story uses its courtroom scenario to also dig into Una's backstory as an Illyrian. Illyrians perform genetic augmentation as a cultural practice, but at a young age Una moved to a Federation colony where such practices were forbidden. With its large Illyrian population, persecution and strife on the colony became so bad that it was eventually segregated into Illyrians and non-Illyrians. Una's parents remained in the non-Illyrian zone, which made it impossible for Una to get mainstream medical attention without seeking under-the-table arrangements. This comes up in testimony that reveals the true hardship this was for a child who had no choice in the matter.
Perhaps the best courtroom scene is the one where Neera calls Admiral April on the stand and questions him on his multiple examples of breaking Starfleet General Order One (aka the Prime Directive) in order to save alien civilizations. Shouldn't the law be flexible, as he had decided in those cases, in order to accommodate realities that are in the interest of the greater good? Despite the sound logic, April himself is not convinced that augmentation isn't dangerous, and the entire tactic appears to backfire as it's seen as attacking a witness who is not on trial. The testimony is stricken from the record.
Perhaps less effective is the episode's (and prosecution's) defense of the illegality of genetic augmentation — something that, on its face, seems like it could have a great deal of societal benefit and be regulated in a way that could make it morally neutral. Like in "Doctor Bashir, I Presume," the primary argument is that augmentation is simply too dangerous based on the Eugenics Wars that happened well over 200 years ago. The blanket ban has never felt like it was adequately explained to rise above perfunctory, either in this episode or that one. The courtroom scenes here also perhaps rely too much on testimony about Una's unimpeachable character when, to the legal points and ethics around augmentation, most of that is irrelevant.
But notably, Rebecca Romijn gets her spotlight episode after season one frequently under-utilized her, and she's very good in a performance that features a lot of different emotions in a modulated and understated way. The episode also makes good use of the other characters rallying to her defense: Pike is dogged and loyal in his determination to defend his first officer; Spock has a very Vulcan-like adversarial standoff with Pasalk; La'an, as a descendant of Khan, has some personal angst that is dredged up in all this, as well as her guilt around a personal log that she believes (incorrectly) may have resulted in Starfleet learning of Una's augmentation.
It turns out Una actually turned herself in, because she could no longer live in secret. This also sheds some light on her past with Neera: Una could always pass as a non-Illyrian, going so far as joining Starfleet, even as other Illyrians she grew up with, like Neera, could not. As for how this episode resolves the legal conflict: Neera uses a clever reading of the Federation asylum law to give just enough leeway to interpret Una's actions in outing herself to Pike as an example of requesting asylum. It's enough to give the judges a legal loophole that allows them to acquit her in the interests of moral justice, but without undermining the underlying law (which, as a prequel, this episode by definition can't do).
As a dialogue-heavy courtroom episode that pulls together its plot points and character moments into a well-oiled and solidly written piece, this works. As an argument that tackles prejudice in a very generic, all-encompassing way, this works. As a story that breaks new ground or rises to a level of excellence instead of merely being effective and competent — well it probably doesn't quite get there, but this is a solid Trekkian episode in the classic Trekkian spirit.
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