Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1 Episode 3

May 19, 2022 | Posted by in TV
Strange New Worlds

“Ghosts of Illyria”

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds puts Una in command as a mysterious virus infects the crew of the Enterprise.

The medical emergency is one of the oldest recurring Star Trek stories. It can be a good budget saving plot as most of it can take place on standing sets with regular cast and crew. That isn’t always the case but it’s definitely a reason for doing so. It also typically allows whoever the Doctor is to be the focus.

Strange New Worlds

It’s all in the genes

Amusingly, this episode offers none of those things as there are some expensive visual effects on display and Una is the focal character rather than M’Benga so in those ways it’s an atypical medical emergency plot. In every other way it’s fairly standard as these stories go but the story isn’t the contagion; the story is how Una deals with the crisis and what is revealed about her in the process.

There isn’t much to say about the outbreak. It spreads throughout the ship quickly with the notable quirk of those suffering to crave light due to a Vitamin-D deficiency as is identified in dialogue. Curiously nobody is guzzling dangerous quantities of orange juice to offset the symptoms, but the idea is for light to become the enemy. The plot plays out well enough with some logical issues that simply have to be dismissed such as most of the lights being turned off on the Enterprise but not all of them. The solution involving chimeric antibodies being passed between Una and La’an is less than satisfying but most other example of this type of story have struggled to create jeopardy beyond escalating numbers of infected and those suffering from the affliction recklessly putting themselves and others in danger. This episode does nothing new with the way stories like this plays out but there’s very little that can be done to make a viral outbreak interesting by itself. There are attempts such as Hemer trying to beam up a sample of the planet’s mantle and the countdown to a warp core breach but they do little to increase the tension.

Additional jeopardy comes from Pike and Spock stuck on the planet because everyone on the Enterprise is dealing with the virus. Initially an Ion Storm prevents them from being beamed up and they essentially have to survive the night. Spock is defined by his scientific curiosity as shown by his keen interest in reading the journals of the colonists and Pike is more worried about the situation on his ship. There’s a revelation in that infected colonists somehow became energy beings that now live inside the Ion Storm who end up protecting Pike and Spock, but it comes up late in the game and isn’t as fully developed as it could be.

Strange New Worlds

Important work

One thing that stands out is how out of character Pike seems at points. He is a ball of anxiety around the situation on the Enterprise and seems to forget that part of being a Captain is remaining calm under pressure. Spock is the one who has to remind him of this which makes sense for him because he is practiced in compartmentalising emotion and focusing on the task at hand. He’s interested in the scientific opportunity afforded by being stuck there and his approach to the threat is a measured one. Pike is calmed by his advice but it’s outside of what would be expected from him. This was likely a shortcut for the benefit of the audience so that they could understand Pike’s concerns, but a more sophisticated approach would have worked far better.

The main driver of the episode is Una who takes charge of the situation. This is the first showcase of her being in command and it’s immediately evident that she belongs in that role. her orders are delivered confidently, they make sense and Rebecca Romijn effortlessly exudes authority in her performance. Subsequent decisions she makes are equally intelligent and the steps she takes in determining what causes the virus to transmit are simple yet effective.

Much of the episode circles around a secret that Una is keeping. Fans of non-canon written Star Trek works will start to put it together even when knowing the title of the episode but the information is delivered well. Dialogue early in the episode details the Federation’s ban on genetic engineering and that being the reason that the Illyrians have been denied admission into the Federation. The Eugenics Wars were mentioned in the first episode and this one goes into more detail surrounding the ban. A conversation between La’an and Una goes into some detail through revealing that one of La’an’s ancestors is Khan Noonien Sing; a genetically engineered dictator well known to fans of this franchise and a figure that those producing it have been frustratingly obsessed with for a long time.

Strange New Worlds

Surviving the night

La’an talks about being ostracised as a child because of her ancestry and provides some -though not a lot- of context as to why her surname carries a stigma with it. An emotional outburst towards the end of the episode details that she was called “Augment” as a derogatory term and the emotional scars linger to this day. Una is able to relate to La’an more than she is initially prepared to let on because she is genetically enhanced and has been lying about it for years. Had she been honest then she would never have been allowed to join Starfleet.

The handling of this backstory element is mixed. In terms of the acting and the emotional beats that exist in the episode there is a lot to recommend but the reveal isn’t as much of a shock as the episode needs it to be. It fails on two fronts; the first is that this is the third episode of the season and the first to feature Una prominently. There is no basis for the audience to be invested in her character nor has there been any prior suggestion that she is burdened by a secret. A reveal like this would be better placed coming later in the season after the audience has had more time to warm to Una and the suggestion that she’s hiding something significant was seeded in some way. As presented, it comes out of nowhere and has limited impact because little is known about Una as a character.

Another issue is that the genetic engineering ban hasn’t been covered in enough detail. It’s clear that there is one but the details remain unknown. There is enough to suggest that the ban is driven out of fear and it’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first example of that in the franchise. Two other fear-based decisions are detailed in Star Trek: Picard with the ban on synthetic research after a catastrophic event involving synths and forbidding Seven of Nine from joining Starfleet due to her being a former Borg. Those examples happen later in the timeline than this show but together with the fear of genetic engineering a pattern is forming around the Federation making decisions out of fear. The claim to be tolerant and inclusive but there is definitely a limit to it.

Strange New Worlds

Solving the problem

Doctor M’Benga reiterates that idea by pointing out that going into space provided opportunities to find new bigotries and that prejudices gets in the way of people helping each other. It’s a less than ideal reading of the Federation but a compelling one. Una is the perfect example of his point as her genes hold the key to solving the problem. If she wasn’t on the ship, then it’s very likely the crew would have died though that renders her a fortunate exception rather than an agent for widespread change. Deep Space Nine was a show that routinely challenged the utopian promise that the Federation defines itself by and it’s encouraging to see the beginnings of holding the organisation to account for the clear blind spots. Even though the coverage of the issue is confined to Una specifically with the wider implications tabled for a later time.

As good as it would be to fully explore the external details of the ban on genetic engineering, the episode makes up for this by making it a very personal story for Una. It says a lot about Una as a person that she is willing to give up her secret for the good of the crew. As soon as she learns that her biology might be able to help then keeping the secret becomes unimportant. It’s a definitive display of her morality as well as how seriously she takes her responsibility to the ship and crew. Her personal log gives insight into her thoughts and feelings in the wake of what has happened. She ponders what would have happened had the outcome been a different one. Una might find acceptance because she has a career filled with excellence and was instrumental in saving the ship in this instance. If the outcome was less positive then she may be looking at a very different future. Her final question before erasing the log is “when will it be enough to just be an Illyrian?”. It’s a question with no answer and a final reminder that the prejudice against the genetically enhanced is no closer to going away. She wonders when she gets to be herself without being faced with fear or persecution. Una has a Captain who is understanding and progressive but many don’t have that luxury so it remains an open question that will continue to haunt her.

Pike’s handling of learning Una’s true origins is excellent and consistent with him being established as the embodiment of the ideal Federation and Starfleet values. He acknowledges the merits of Una as an officer and as a person so has no intention of letting her give up everything she has worked for because of where she came from. He states that he doesn’t accept the ban at face value and welcomes the discussion that will come when Starfleet demand answers. He pledges to support his officer and friend before sending her on her way to perform her duties. People like Pike are what Starfleet should be but still has ways to go to get there. It’s inspiring to see him be a shining example of the idealism and tolerance that made the franchise famous. Anson Mount performs it so earnestly that it doesn’t come across as preachy or performative.

Strange New Worlds

A friendship damaged

Getting to continue in her role as first officer despite her background could be argued as a consequence free ending to such a startling revelation and there is some truth to that. This is something that will have to be revisited in future but there are personal consequences for her in how it impacts her friendship with La’an. Their friendship is damaged because La’an feels betrayed by Una being less than honest with her. It stings more because La’an has dealt with persecution her entire life due to her ancestry so resents the fact that Una was able to hide and avoid it. La’an’s admission that what she said wasn’t entirely down to the virus shows that she values honesty and there’s a real sense that it will take time for their friendship to be repaired in the wake of this.

Una pays Pike’s support forward by extending the same understanding to M’Benga. He also hides a secret, and his deception was the reason the virus made it aboard in the first place. Instead of blaming him she finds out what it is he’s hiding and offers to help him. His secret is that his daughter is terminally ill, and he is halting the progress of her illness by keeping her in the transporter pattern buffer. That way she is effectively paused along with the virus. He plans to do this until he finds a cure for the condition and lets her out periodically for a short time so that he can read her a bedtime story. It does add yet another tragic backstory to the mix but this one is relevant. M’Benga’s account of what his daughter is dealing with is heart-breaking and the scene they share where he reads the story makes it real rather than a detail that is discussed. It’s a heart-warming scene and Una’s promise to divert resources to give M’Benga the time he needs. It’s another clear example of idealised Starfleet and Federation values as well as a showcase of compassion on Una’s part along with understanding that M’Benga feels guilty for the trouble he unwittingly caused. All of this gives this episodic tale meaning because the character specific consequences will continue.

Strange New Worlds

Stolen moments


Verdict

A good episode with more strong focus on character in the midst of a familiar Star Trek plot. The medical emergency is one of the oldest recurring Star Trek stories and this one is fairly standard as these stories go but the story is more about how Una deals with the crisis and what is revealed about her. There are attempts to increase tension such as Hemer trying to beam up a sample of the planet’s mantle and the countdown to a warp core breach but they do little to ramp up the threat. Additional jeopardy comes from Pike and Spock stuck on the planet. Spock is defined by his scientific curiosity as shown by his keen interest in reading the journals of the colonists and Pike is more worried about the situation on his ship. There’s a revelation in that infected colonists somehow became energy beings that now live inside the Ion Storm who end up protecting Pike and Spock, but it comes up late in the game and isn’t as fully developed as it could be. One thing that stands out is how out of character Pike seems at points. He is a ball of anxiety around the situation on the Enterprise and seems to forget that part of being a Captain is remaining calm under pressure. Spock is the one who has to remind him of this which makes sense for him because he is practiced in compartmentalising emotion and focusing on the task at hand. Pike is calmed by his advice but it’s outside of what would be expected from him. This was likely a shortcut for the benefit of the audience so that they could understand Pike’s concerns, but a more sophisticated approach would have worked far better.

The main driver of the episode is Una who takes charge of the situation. This is the first showcase of her being in command and it’s immediately evident that she belongs in that role. her orders are delivered confidently, they make sense and Rebecca Romijn effortlessly exudes authority in her performance. Much of the episode circles around a secret that Una is keeping. A conversation between La’an and Una goes into some detail about the aversion to genetic engineering through revealing that one of La’an’s ancestors is Khan Noonien Singh. La’an talks about being ostracised as a child because of her ancestry and provides some -though not a lot- of context as to why her surname carries a stigma with it. Una is able to relate to La’an more than she is initially prepared to let on because she is genetically enhanced and has been lying about it for years. The handling of this backstory element is mixed. In terms of the acting and the emotional beats that exist in the episode there is a lot to recommend but the reveal isn’t as much of a shock as the episode needs it to be. It fails on two fronts; the first is that this is the third episode of the season and the first to feature Una prominently. There is no basis for the audience to be invested in her character nor has there been any prior suggestion that she is burdened by a secret. As presented, it comes out of nowhere and has limited impact because little is known about Una as a character. Another issue is that the genetic engineering ban hasn’t been covered in enough detail. Doctor M’Benga reiterates that idea by pointing out that going into space provided opportunities to find new bigotries and that prejudices gets in the way of people helping each other. It’s a less than ideal reading of the Federation but a compelling one. As good as it would be to fully explore the external details of the ban on genetic engineering, the episode makes up for this by making it a very personal story for Una. It says a lot about Una as a person that she is willing to give up her secret for the good of the crew. She ponders what would have happened had the outcome been a different one. Una might find acceptance because she has a career filled with excellence and was instrumental in saving the ship in this instance. If the outcome was less positive then she may be looking at a very different future. Pike’s handling of learning Una’s true origins is excellent and consistent with him being established as the embodiment of the ideal Federation and Starfleet values. Getting to continue in her role as first officer despite her background could be argued as a consequence free ending to such a startling revelation and there is some truth to that. This is something that will have to be revisited in future but there are personal consequences for her in how it impacts her friendship with La’an. La’an’s admission that what she said wasn’t entirely down to the virus shows that she values honesty and there’s a real sense that it will take time for their friendship to be repaired in the wake of this. Una pays Pike’s support forward by extending the same understanding to M’Benga. He also hides a secret, and his deception was the reason the virus made it aboard in the first place. Instead of blaming him she finds out what it is he’s hiding and offers to help him. M’Benga’s account of what his daughter is dealing with is heart-breaking and the scene they share where he reads the story makes it real rather than a detail that is discussed. It’s a heart-warming scene and Una’s promise to divert resources to give M’Benga the time he needs. It’s another clear example of idealised Starfleet and Federation values as well as a showcase of compassion on Una’s part along with understanding that M’Benga feels guilty for the trouble he unwittingly caused. All of this gives this episodic tale meaning because the character specific consequences will continue.

Overall
  • 7/10
    Ghosts of Illyria - 7/10
7/10

Summary

Kneel Before…

  • a strong showcase for Una as a character
  • Rebecca Romijn’s excellent performance
  • consequences evident in the damage done to La’an and Una’s friendship
  • Una’s concerns around what a less than positive outcome would have meant for her
  • M’Benga’s words about finding new bigotries holding the Federation to account in an interesting way
  • Pike embodying the idealised Starfleet values
  • Una paying that forward by extending M’Benga the same understanding
  • the heart-breaking and heart-warming moments between M’Benga and his daughter

 

Rise Against…

  • Una’s secret coming out of nowhere as the character isn’t known well enough to the audience for it to have the desired impact
  • almost no context to flesh out La’ans backstory
  • a glancing exploration of the genetic engineering ban
  • the medical emergency plot being very by the numbers
  • attempts to increase tension not working as intended
  • Pike’s anxiety countering his established character and level of experience

 

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User Review
7/10 (1 vote)

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