WARNING: The following contains spoilers for the season 2 finale of Star Trek: Picard, now streaming on Paramount+.
In Star Trek: Picard fans were introduced to yet another Dr. Soong who happens to look just like Data (or, more accurately, Brent Spiner the actor who played him). In the last scene we see of this character in the past, he’s holding a file called “Project Khan” dated 1996. While it might seem like a quick reference to Star Trek’s most infamous villain, it may actually be the first step to fixing the franchise’s biggest history problem.
The original series’ USS Enterprise encountered the Botany Bay spaceship adrift in the void in the 1967 episode “Space Seed.” There they met Khan Noonien Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban. In the briefing Spock gives to the crew, it’s revealed that from the years of 1992 to 1996, this genetically engineered superhuman—and a group of others just like him—took over the entire Eastern hemisphere and fought a bloody war that killed millions. After the war, he and the other augments were sent into space in suspended animation.
At the time when this was written, 1996 was three decades away. During the second wave of Star Trek storytelling, Khan’s reign came and went in the real world’s history. Yet, despite numerous Trek characters traveling back to our present since, the Eugenics Wars—which lead directly to World War III—have never been retconned. They still happened from 1992 through 1996 as far as the in-universe canon is confirmed. However, the Project Khan file Dr. Soong is looking at in the Picard finale is the first reference to the date specified in the original series since.
The next hard date we get comes from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, episode “Past Tense.” Some characters are sent back to Earth in 2024, which is the same year Picard travels to. It’s just two years before the start of World War III. In Star Trek: First Contact, after an encounter with the Borg, the Enterprise travels back in time to the day before humans made first contact with the Vulcans. That date is April 4, 2063, which is “about 10 years” after the end of the third world war. So, that means the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s, allegedly the precursor to nearly 30-year World War III was separated from it by another 30 years.
When the original series prequel Star Trek: Enterprise aired, they did a few episodes about Khan’s fellows, now dubbed “augments.” This storyline was meant to address the inconsistency of how Klingons looked in the original series versus how they came to look (with advanced makeup effects). While it illuminated a lot about their creation and their connection to the sinister Soong family, it did not go into the war or the timeframe of when everything went down.
As is typical with these big “Star” franchises, in between installments they turn to their expanded universe to address these problems. Author Greg Cox wrote a trilogy of novels to help “fix” the Khan story, including how Khan knew Chekov in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, since Walter Koening hadn’t been cast when “Space Seed” aired. In these books, Cox takes a unique approach to the Eugenics Wars. While this book is not canon, it is a blueprint for how future Star Trek tales could make it so.
In the Khan book trilogy, rather than lead their conquered territories openly, Khan and the other augments stick to the shadows. Through puppet governments, lies, and fake disasters to cover up the body counts, the Eugenics Wars were waged in secret. Now, the easier thing to do would be to retcon the dates of the war itself. Yet, with the file folder in Star Trek: Picard it seems that something happened in 1996 with Khan, and Dr. Soong was involved. This may be the first step of Star Trek finally addressing the glaring disparity between their fictional history and our real-world one.
In Strange New Worlds while talking to an alien race about how their divisions could destroy them, Captain Pike shows “historical footage” of the January 6, 2020, riot in the US Capitol as part of a presentation on how World War III almost destroyed humanity. The 1990s may have been problematic for the “troubled history of the future” 1960s Star Trek envisioned, but the 2020s seem to be meshing with their pessimistic vision too well for comfort.
Series creator Gene Roddenberry and his fellow Trek storytellers are not fools. They knew that getting into the “history of the future” in the show was a tricky proposition. Thus, since the beginning, various Trek characters noted that the historical records of the mid-20th through mid-21st century are spotty and full of inaccuracies. This detail alone means they could merely hand-wave away any such inconsistency. Yet, putting 1996 on the Project Khan file means that franchise producers Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman are possibly going to address this in a future series, whether it’s Picard season 3 or some other show.
Even so, it’s unclear what Project Khan would be. After seeing the events of Picard season 2, Dr. Soong was likely heavily involved in eugenics projects of the past. So, the file could be details about how he helped created Khan and the other augments. Yet, since the file was dated 1996, it might deal with the creation of the Botany Bay and the hibernation technology. Soong used it to keep his creations alive rather than have them executed for their crimes.
Ultimately, the Project Khan file might just have been an Easter Egg thrown into the Picard season 2 finale by the writers because they’re massive Star Trek fans. Yet, if it does signal a future show or streaming service exclusive movie focused on Khan, the biggest Star Trek history question could finally be answered.
Look for more clues to what Project Khan is in Star Trek: Picard, all seasons currently streaming on Paramount+.