Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Episode 3 “Ghosts of Illyria” Review
Like the previous episode, “Ghosts of Illyria” is an episode that’s not afraid to embrace the ensemble nature of Strange New Worlds, while delivering a timeless message about what it means to be true to yourself.
The episode sees the Enterprise crew checking out a long-abandoned colony once inhabited by the Illyrians, a species that genetically alters its populace, much to the Federation’s chagrin. An away team on the surface is trying to discover what happened to the colony, all while a dangerous ion storm is making things more difficult.
Naturally, one of the away team members contract a virus from the colony and brings it back to the ship, and thus begins an all-too-familiar endemic situation on the Enterprise. With Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and Spock (Ethan Peck) trapped on the planet below thanks to the ion storm, it’s up to Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romjin) and the Enterprise’s other officers to manage the virus and find a solution.
The virus forces the Enterprise crew to take severe measures to lower the virus’ transmission rate across the ship, including initiating contact tracing among Enterprise crewmembers and ship-wide lockdowns. (It’s okay to groan at these familiar terms!) This virus is a curious one; it makes a victim crave light, and it takes quite a bit of science-ing and outbreak control before Number One realizes it feeds and spreads via light.
During the crew’s attempt to manage the outbreak, Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) is the catalyst for a surprising and touching revelation about Doctor M’Benga’s (Babs Olusanmokun) life. As the engineer was trying to work on the sickbay transporter (the same one used in the show’s pilot), the doctor stops him via a clever distraction. Why would M’Benga want people to stay away from the transporter?
As Number One learns later, the good doctor is keeping his terminally sick daughter in the transporter’s pattern buffer, in the hopes that she remains suspended there until a cure can be found for her disease. In fact, not having the medical transporter be as updated as the ship’s other transporters was why the virus was allowed to get on board in the first place, meaning the endemic was largely Doctor M’Benga’s fault. How ironic. The doctor rematerializes his daughter from time to time to do fatherly things, like read a bedtime story, which is a touching bit of characterization for M’Benga. Unlike folks like Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) and, of course, the three Discovery veterans, we don’t know much at all about Doctor M’Benga, even considering his The Original Series appearances, so we were happy to see him featured so prominently in this episode.
However, we must raise an eyebrow at the thought of the doctor keeping his daughter in the transporter’s pattern buffer. Has he never had to explain to anyone what is constantly programmed in the buffer? Does he just give a blank denial to transporter maintenance? What if that part of the ship loses power? Luckily, Number One also thought up that last concern and promised the doctor a dedicated power source to ensure his daughter’s safety, so we’re curious when the young M’Benga will come into play again.
Anyway, back on the planet, Pike and Spock struggle to survive the raging ion storm. Spock is fascinated by the treasure trove of knowledge he is reading during the storm and learns that the Illyrians of this colony wanted to join the Federation, and thus attempted to de-engineer themselves to meet Federation genetic standards. But even checking out library books takes a backseat when the ion storm seems to deposit on ghosts who seem to harass the two officers. However, the ghosts aren’t as dangerous as they appear, as they ultimately save Pike and Spock during the worst of the storm. Spock, once again picking up a library book before returning to the Enterprise, determines the Illyrians’ de-engineering subjected them to the ion storm in a way that turned them into ghastly ion-based creatures, and that the colonist-turned-ghosts were simply protecting Starfleet officers.
“Do you think that thing has a setting for stun?”
“I am arming us with knowledge.” – Pike and Spock as Spock reads Illyrian literature while Pike prepares to fight.
The ghostly Illyrians aren’t the only members of that species in this episode. On the Enterprise, Number One reveals to Doctor M’Benga and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) out of necessity that she is an Illyrian, and has lied about being human so that she may serve in Starfleet. Ultimately, being an Illyrian means she easily defeats the light-crazed Noonien-Singh in battle and harnesses the power needed from the warp core to wipe out the light-feeding virus in both women. Nurse Chapel is then able to develop an antibody for the other crewmembers to use. So, the day is saved thanks to Number One’s genetic modification and a healthy bit of science-ing from the Enterprise’s medical staff. But at what cost?
Not everybody is on board with Number One’s true nature, however. While Captain Pike decides not to allow Una to resign thanks to her Illyrian nature, as he thinks Illyrians are misunderstood, Noonien-Singh takes offense to Una’s genetic modification. This bias against genetically modified beings is rooted in Noonien-Singh’s family history – you know, the whole Khan thing – and we’re curious how long she will hold his against Number One. Remember, it was the older officer who rescued Noonien-Singh after her Gorn entrapment (as described in the series premiere). How will this warm-then-cold relationship play out in subsequent episodes?
Importantly, Number One describes the Illyrians as not a race who augment themselves to be superior to everyone else, like Khan and his allies, but as a species who adapts their own genetics to better fit their environment. As Number One explains, “Instead of terraforming planets, we modify ourselves.” This interpretation of Illyrians raises the question: why didn’t the Federation want to accept the Illyrians if this was indeed the pacifist reason why that species alters their genetics? For an organization that seems to accept infinite diversity in infinite combinations, it seems fairly short-sighted. There might be more backstory here; we won’t be surprised if Number One gets her own novel, one that describes her Illyrian origins and entry into the Federation.
Doctor M’Benga and Number One aren’t the only characters who get some time to shine. After a brief introduction to Hemmer in the previous episode, we get more exposure to him as he and the other crew fight the virus. If there’s one domineering personality trait for Hemmer thus far, it’s that he is cocky. Too cocky. It’s an unproven cockiness that is not endearing. It would be one thing if Hemmer has shown the audience why he is the best engineer in the fleet, but at this point, we don’t know anything about him that would make us respect his abilities. Moreover, he seems to treat others, including his engineering staff, as if he is far superior to them, like when he signals to his team with a condescending finger snap. Hopefully, Hemmer gets fleshed out more to show he isn’t just an unreasonable arrogant engineer.
Taken together, “Ghosts of Illyria” leans on its excellent ensemble cast to present us with a fascinating story about what happens when you aren’t true to yourself. The Illyrians on the colony ultimately died because they wanted to join the Federation and thus had to adapt their own genetic structure, the basic building blocks of any individual. Meanwhile, Number One finally has a reckoning with herself and her crew after being forced to reveal her true Illyrian nature. In terms of targeting a specific allegory, this episode does that well.
Moreover, “Ghosts of Illyria” also gives us some dangling threads to consider as we watch the rest of the season. Will Doctor M’Benga find a cure for his daughter’s ailment? Will Number One and La’an’s friendship be altered in any way thanks to the latter’s bias against augments? And while we don’t expect this to be answered anywhere on-screen, how will Captain Pike convince Starfleet to overlook having an Illyrian on the Enterprise? There’s nothing to do but see what the next episodes have in store for us.
- This episode was directed by Leslie Hope, who played Kira Nerys’ mother in Deep Space Nine.
- Trying to beam people up through an ion storm is what introduced us to the Mirror Universe in the TOS episode “Mirror, Mirror,” so that’s where we first thought this episode was going.
- Despite experiencing light sensitivity, Number One assures Doctor M’Benga that she is okay after he mentions the away team has strange symptoms, and then she repeats the lie a few minutes later. Having a character pretend everything is fine after presenting symptoms is such a tired cliché, and Number One, even if she is trying to hide her true nature, should know better.
- This episode shows that the Enterprise’s crew quarters appear to feature hologram-generating display technology, likely a precursor to the full-fledged holodecks we see in other Star Trek shows.
- After seeing his work on the medical transporter seemingly impacting sickbay’s lights, Hemmer just walks out without making sure the lights come back on. That’s slightly irresponsible for a chief engineer.
- Doctor M’Benga notes that there is no limit to how long someone can be stored in the pattern buffer, which makes us remember TNG’s “Relics,” the episode where Scotty was stored in a pattern buffer for decades before being found by the Enterprise-D.
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