We explain the history of Star Trek's Augments.
Recently, the Star Trek prequel show Strange New Worlds made Augments the center focus of the franchise in a big way. However, these episodes didn’t exactly make it clear to newer fans exactly what the Augments are and why they have been such a big deal in this fictional universe for centuries. If you found yourself confused, don’t worry: we’ve got a breakdown of everything you need to know about augmentation in Star Trek, including the most famous Augments throughout the franchise.
Star Trek: The Original Series introduced the concept of Augments in the episode “Space Seed” by introducing us to the most famous augment of them all, Khan Noonien Singh. Captain Kirk thawed Khan out from a cryogenic freeze only to belatedly discover that he was a genetically altered (hence, the term “Augment”) tyrant who was driven from Earth centuries ago along with the rest of his kind.
Khan and the rest of the Augments tried to use their superior mental and physical abilities to take over the planet, and after they were deposed (Khan was the last to leave), most people assumed they would never be a problem again.
Because Khan and the rest of the Augments came close to conquering Earth, all genetic engineering was banned on the planet, and those who had been engineered were forbidden from joining Starfleet (more on this later). The ban didn’t keep scientists from working on this technology, and in Star Trek: Enterprise, we found out that Augment embryos from Earth’s past had been carefully stored away.
After an ancestor of Commander Data’s creator retrieved some of the embryos, he ended up raising three Augments on his own.
As we saw in Star Trek: The Original Series, these Augments proved to be devastating and dangerous foes to anyone who opposed them, especially after they stole a Klingon Bird of Prey. Captain Jonathan Archer managed to stop them, but the Klingons later used the Augment DNA to begin their own genetic engineering experiments.
This resulted in a plague that spread throughout the empire, and though Dr. Phlox was able to save millions of Klingon lives from the plague via a cure, it resulted in some Klingons losing their famous forehead ridges (this is the canonical reason why the Klingons look so different in The Original Series).
Due to the messy history of Star Trek’s earlier augments, Augments were forbidden from joining Starfleet. This became important in Strange New Worlds when it became public knowledge that Una Chin-Riley, the first officer of the USS Enterprise, was part of the Illyrian race for whom genetic modification is a cultural ritual.
She was able to stay in Starfleet thanks to a legal technicality regarding her effectively seeking asylum with Starfleet, but this law would remain in place for another century, and the augmented Dr. Bashir was only allowed to retain his commission because his father volunteered to go to jail over having his child genetically modified.
While the laws in Star Trek concerning Augments often seem harsh, the return of Khan helped emphasize why those rules are in place. After Khan and his surviving Augments took over the USS Reliant, it was only through the courage of Kirk and the sacrifice of Spock that he was able to be defeated.
Still, the fact that Khan very nearly got away with the potentially-apocalyptic Genesis device (which could destroy entire planets if they were already inhabited) helped ensure that Starfleet’s laws against genetic engineering would remain in place indefinitely.
However, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine showed us how Starfleet was finding creative ways to put certain Augments to work. A Federation organization known only as the Institute helped to house and care for genetically-engineered people (including fan-favorite characters Jack, Patrick, Lauren, and Sarina Douglas) who had superior minds but not the superhuman strength of Khan’s augments. Later, these augments would briefly serve in a kind of consulting capacity when it came to Starfleet’s dealings with the Dominion.
Most recently, Star Trek: Prodigy introduced us to an Augment named Dal R’El who dreamed of joining Starfleet, and Vice Admiral Janeway was able to convince Starfleet to let him and his colleagues serve as warrant officers on her ship. However, it is very clear that it takes all of Janeway’s pull and persuasive powers to make this happen. Therefore, it doesn’t look like Starfleet’s ban on (and prejudice of) Augments is going away anytime soon.