“Ghosts of Illyria”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1, Episode 3 – Debuted Thursday, May 19, 2022
Written by: Akela Cooper & Bill Wolkoff
Directed by Leslie Hope
Another strong outing from the new series takes familiar franchise elements and puts them together in a fresh way with a Star Trek-ian message to boot.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
“We have an emerging situation here.”
In a classic setup, Enterprise is researching a colony abandoned by Illyrians, “outcasts” who use forbidden genetic modifications. With an ion storm about to fry the planet, Pike orders Number One back to the ship while he goes to find Spock. Only through the self-avowed genius of Hemmer’s transporter backup boost does the landing party make it back, leaving Spock and Pike stuck in the colony library to wait out the storm. Things are just as dire on the ship as it soon becomes clear there is something off about the members of the landing party; they’re all now dangerously attracted to light, hurting themselves just to get as close as possible to light sources. It’s happening to all the landing party members except Una, who seems to be able to shake it off after her skin glows—something she fails to mention to a perplexed Dr. M’Benga. Curious.
In command, Number One looks to Hemmer, but he has no answers. The chief engineer asserts the transporters couldn’t let anything dangerous through, but he will do a Level 5 Sarcastic Diagnostic if she really wants. She starts her own research into Illryians and their genetic modifications for possible answers. Her friend La’an drops by to remind us her last name is Noonien Singh and that the teasing she got as a kid about being descended from an Augment was the worst thing that ever happened… until her family was used by the Gorn as egg sacks. But that teasing was really mean and she hates Illyrians and anyone else with genetic modifications because of it. Before La’an’s backstory can get any more tragic, she succumbs to the light-obsession thing—but wait a minute, she wasn’t on the landing party! The mystery disease is spreading and nobody knows how, so Number One orders a full lockdown. It’s March 2020 on the USS Enterprise.
“I don’t like feeling helpless.”
Back on Hetemit IX, a restless Pike frets as Spock continues his research. While he fails to reduce his captain’s frustration, the Vulcan is making progress, working out that the colonists wanted to join the Federation and they were attempting to “de-engineer” their genetic modifications to get into the club. That may be “fascinating,” but the storm outside is getting closer and a lot scarier, revealing spooky floating creatures that Spock figures out are related to the mysterious light disease, and they really want to get into the library. But it turns out these are nice screaming plasma creatures who protect Pike and Spock from the lethal storm, then leave without even saying goodbye. Spock, of course, has a theory: The creatures are the former colonists who merged with the ion storm after succumbing to the light disease. To prove him right, one last journal presents itself with a record of their initiative to renounce genetic engineering. “Even in death they wanted us to be aware of who they really were.”
With his sickbay bursting due to the light pandemic, M’Benga bristles at Hemmer who is passive-aggressively doing that diagnostic, and the doctor surreptitiously denies the Aenar access to the medical transporter. Una’s quest for answers leads her to Uhura’s quarters, noting the infection-free cadet likes to sleep in the dark. The “insidious” disease is carried on light waves! M’Benga and Number One agree: They have to turn off the lights on the ship—after sedating the “light addicts.” Una’s research also reveals something familiar about how Illyrians sparkle when fighting off disease, but she is distracted by Hemmer, who is conducting a “miracle” by transporting part of the planet’s boiling mantle; he just wants to feel the radiance on his skin. That is one light-crazy genius. She stuns him and carries the unconscious engineer to sickbay like he weighs nothing. There, Una reveals what you have probably figured out: she’s an Illyrian. Unfazed, M’Benga and Chapel inform her they can’t create a cure from her blood because her genetically modified immunity works too fast, leaving behind no antibodies to use for an antidote. And if that wasn’t bad enough, M’Benga is now infected and has to be put under. Oh, and the warp core is melting down. Una is just having the worst day ever.
“You are an example to them and to all of us.”
Seemingly the lone functional member of the crew, Number One works her way through the dark to engineering, only to confront La’an who wants to one-up Hemmer in the light-crazy Olympics by dropping the warp reactor’s containment field. Her protégé has some choice words (between punches) now that she has learned the truth, even calling Una a “monster” and an “abomination.” Words hurt, La’an. The raving security chief put up a good fight but was no match for the modified Una, and gets pinned as the compartment is irradiated. But the Illyrian’s sparkling immune system kicked in to do something unexpected—and also protect La’an—so with the help of Nurse Chapel, they’re able to technobabble a cure, and voila, crazy light pandemic over. Back in her right mind, La’an buries the Augment hatchet with Una over some comfort strawberries before Number One heads to face the music with the captain, back from the planet.
Una comes clean, telling Pike who she really is. She knows the rules and surrenders herself. But the captain rejects her resignation and calls her the “best first officer in the fleet.” He is willing to take the heat because her actions and those nice plasma creatures showed him that maybe Starfleet and the Federation have Illyrians all wrong. Una can stay. Her next task is to get those transporter biofilters fixed so this doesn’t happen again, leading her straight to Dr. M’Benga. Something he is hiding in his medical transporter prevented a critical upgrade, leading to the light infection getting through. Turns out he has a huge secret too: His daughter is being held in the pattern buffer to keep her in a kind of stasis as he searches the stars for a cure to her space leukemia. Now it is his turn to surrender and her turn to reject a resignation, with a bonus tech fix to his transporter buffer situation. As the good doctor brings young Rukiya back for a quick storytime before returning her to the buffer, Number One ponders the moral of her day’s story. Has she finally been accepted for who she is, or did she get off the hook merely because she saved the day? Big questions for another day.
The secrets we keep
In an episode about revealing secrets, Strange New Worlds shows it has tapped into the secret sauce of Star Trek… delivering a focused sci-fi adventure with action, character stakes, and a message. Using a setup akin to other medical mystery episodes like “The Naked Time,” this episode gives us our closest look inside Una Chin-Riley, with Rebecca Romijn showing off her range as she mixes character drama with action. Even though the show continues to stay true to the standalone format, a number of elements from just the two previous episodes pay off here, especially with the relationship between Number One and La’an. And this episode reveals more than just secrets and backstory, but a much-needed understanding of Una and what motivates her, almost sixty years after the character was introduced in “The Cage.”
And in good Star Trek tradition, this medical plot and character nicely tie into the franchise themes of inclusion and the fight against prejudice. The twist here is shining a light on the Federation’s stereotypes against the genetically modified, with the revelation that Illyrians like Una (and the colonists) aren’t anything like the Augments of the past who inspired the prejudice. And there is a clear message relatable to many, with Number One wondering when will it just be enough to be herself, and not have to prove herself to be “one of the good ones.” Speaking of allegories, while there may not be a message, the writers seem to at least have been informed by the COVID-19 pandemic, infusing this medical mystery with now-familiar terminologies like lockdowns and contact tracing.
Other characters had their moments in the light in this episode, including the gruff Hemmer, with Bruce Horak delivering a fun performance that feels familiar to fans of characters like DS9’s Odo. Babs Olusanmokun was also a standout, showing us M’Benga’s heart as he struggled to find a cure. However, adding the daughter in the transporter storyline here feels like one secret too many for an episode that already fit together nicely, creating a sort of unnecessary double ending to the otherwise well-paced episode.
And with so much focus on the various character dynamics, the plot got a bit short-chained. It would have been nice to learn a bit more about the mystery of the colony, and are they just going to leave those plasma creatures to their fate? And while the show tries to stick to the science, solutions continue to feel rushed, hand-wavy and even deus ex machina.
While some issues remain here or there, this new series continues to impress, something most Trek shows struggle to do during their first seasons. Let’s hope Pike and the gang can keep up the good work.
- This is the first Star Trek directing credit for Leslie Hope, who began her career as an actress and for the last decade has worked both behind and in front of the camera.
- Hope appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in 1998, playing Kira Meru, mother of Kira Nerys.
- This is the first Star Trek writing credit for co-executive producer Akela Cooper, who has previously worked almost exclusively on genre projects including The 100, American Horror Story, and Luke Cage.
- This is also the first Star Trek writing credit for supervising producer Bill Wolkoff, who has also primarily worked on genre projects including Star Wars: Rebels and Once Upon a Time.
- Stardate: 1224.3.
- Illyrians were previously encountered once on screen in the Star Trek: Enterprise episode “Damage,” although in that they had prominent forehead ridges.
- Like with her name being Una, Number One’s connection to Illyrians and their history of genetic modification comes from Star Trek novels, including ones pre-dating that Enterprise episode.
- Spock indicated he does not have a carotid artery in the same location as humans.
- Ion storms are a staple of Star Trek going back to TOS, causing all sorts of problems. It was an ion storm combined with a transporter that caused a landing party led by Kirk to jump into the Mirror Universe.
- The scenes on Hetemit IX were shot at the Ontario Place waterfront entertainment venue in Toronto.
- M’Benga mentions the common cold. Later, Dr. McCoy would note how 23rd-century medicine was still searching for a cure, something still not accomplished by the TNG era of the 24th century.
- M’Benga refers to the Enterprise as the “flagship” of Starfleet.
- The USS Enterprise sickbay was shown to have an extra second level that can be opened up for emergencies.
- M’Benga says someone can be kept in a transporter pattern buffer with “no limit” as long as they are periodically materialized. In a few decades, Montgomery Scott will store himself in a transporter buffer by locking it into a continuous diagnostic, being revived 75 years later in the TNG episode “Relics.”
- In addition to an old ship navigational sextant, Pike’s desk includes a replica of the bronze statue “Trooper of the Plains” by early 20th-century artist Frederic Remington.
- Una deleting her final personal log feels like an homage to Sisko doing the same at the end of DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight.”
- This is the first time seeing the Enterprise’s landing party jackets. While Enterprise landing party jackets were seen in the original pilot “The Cage,” they were not used for Star Trek: The Original Series.
- The landing party outfit also includes gloves, which seems like a no-brainer, although it didn’t keep Ensign Lance from getting infected.
- Amazingly Lance (Daniel Gravelle) appears to have survived and not befallen the fate of many “red shirts,” indicating this may be a trope Strange New Worlds won’t be indulging.
More to come
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New episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debut on Thursdays exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., Latin America, Australia and the Nordics. The series airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave in Canada. In New Zealand, it is available on TVNZ, and in India on Voot Select. Strange New Worlds will arrive via Paramount+ in select countries in Europe when the service launches later this year, starting with the UK and Ireland in June.