Brought to the Light – Review of “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” Season One, Episode Three “Ghosts of Illyria”

Another week and another stellar episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds became available on Paramount Plus. Since the start of the series two weeks ago, I’ve definitely been enjoying this latest Star Trek series and this week’s episode, titled “Ghosts of Illyria”, is no exception. Secrets have a way of eating away at people and the connections they form with others. “Ghosts of Illyria” is focused squarely on rooting out those secrets, exposing them to the light of day and hopefully, to the benefit of more than just the secret keepers.

Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.

Much like last week’s episode, “Ghosts of Illyria” picks one of the senior staff and centers the episode from their point of view, in this case Rebecca Romijn’s Una Chin-Riley (affectionately called Number One). The reveal that Una is an Illyrian, a humanoid race who have willfully undergone genetic modification, was a welcome reveal, providing Una with a great deal of character development throughout the episode. The inciting incident of the reveal involves a virus being brought on-board the USS Enterprise from an away team mission to an Illyrian planet. The virus makes individuals addicted to light, seeking greater and greater illumination in the process and suffering a psychedelic glowing veins effect in the presence of light.

Una is one of the first to show symptoms but she quickly recovers, whereas the virus spreads rapidly through the crew of the Enterprise. The reason, we discover, for Una’s rapid recovery is that her Illyrian genetic modifications allowed her body to effectively destroy the virus before it could take hold. This also proves to be a detriment later when Una tries to convince Doctor M’Benga to synthesize a cure from her blood. Since her body defeated the virus before it could create antibodies, there’s nothing in the blood to synthesize as a cure for the virus.

As more and more of the crew begin to succumb to the disease, Una finally comes clean about her status as an Illyrian. Due to the events of the Eugenics War (a subject touched on briefly in the first episode), the Federation has outlawed all forms of genetic modification. And due to the Illyrians making extensive use of said genetic alterations, no Illyrian has been permitted to join Starfleet. Una lied to gain admittance to Starfleet but in the process, she became an exemplary officer and friend to many, including La’an and Captain Pike. This makes the confrontation between La’an and Una that much more heartbreaking once La’an learns of Una’s augmentation. La’an Noonien Singh is a descendent of Khan Noonien Singh, the augmented tyrant who ruled over a portion of Earth during the Eugenics War (and who is destined to have an encounter with the next Captain of the USS Enterprise in the future of Strange New Worlds setting). Because of her family’s sordid history, La’an has had to deal with a great deal of bigotry and in turn, has developed a bigotry of her own toward augmented people. The conversation between La’an and Una at the end of the episode is a heartwarming moment but I feel that this new information has formed a crack in their friendship, potentially providing greater drama down the line.

In the midst of the ship-side emergency, Captain Pike and Spock are stranded on the Illyrian planet as an ion storm descends on the facility. The jump-cuts between the drama on the Enterprise and Pike and Spock felt a little jarring at times but it was a welcome respite from the ensuing chaos on the ship. Through this B-plot, we’re able to see that the illness affecting the crew also affected the Illyrian colonists, driving them insane enough to run into an ion storm to chase the lightning. Exposure to the ion storm caused these Illyrians to transform into beings of energy. At first, it appears that they are going to attack Pike and Spock while the two seek refuge from the storm. Instead, they protect the pair from the storm after it knocks out a large window, preventing the ion storm from affecting the two officers. It is revealed through Spock’s reading of the Illyrian outpost’s archives that these Illyrian colonists were in the midst of de-evolving, removing their genetic modifications in order to qualify to join Starfleet. The tragedy of that decision (as shown through Una’s ability to overcome the virus) is that by removing their genetic alterations, the Illyrians from the outpost were left unable to fend off the virus, leaving behind a barren planet and only written records of their intentions.

Which leads to the closing scenes of the episode. Una reveals her status as an Illyrian to Captain Pike and resigns her commission, ready to stand before Starfleet Command and be judged. Given her previous heroics and the revelations from the outpost, Pike refuses to accept her resignation, instead choosing to stand by his officer and friend. In turn, Una shows the same kindness and forgiveness to Doctor M’Benga. It’s revealed that the reason the virus was able to get past the biofilters of the transporter system (which usually weed out contagions and viruses as part of the standard transportation process) was due to a power drain from the medical transporter in M’Benga’s office. The reason for this draining of power though, is another heartbreaking moment, one that casts M’Benga as a tragic figure. M’Benga’s young daughter was given a terminal diagnosis, with only twelve weeks to live. In an effort to save his child, M’Benga has placed her in the transporter buffer (a trick seen in previous Star Trek shows). By storing his daughter’s transporter pattern in the buffer, he is stopping both her aging and the progress of the disease. M’Benga’s hope is that he will find a cure for his daughter’s illness during the voyages of the Enterprise.

Facing the same situation as Pike did when she revealed her truth to him, Una shows her compassion to M’Benga. Rather than report him for this obvious misuse of the ship’s systems, she will provide M’Benga with all the power he needs to keep his daughter’s pattern safe and sound, while also upgrading the medical transporters to prevent an incident like this from occurring again. We see M’Benga bring his daughter back at the end of the episode, reading her a story he’s read her a hundred times and enjoying this brief moment with her before returning her to stasis.

Overall, this was a solid episode, with a great deal of heart and emotion behind the traditional sci-fi “problem of the week” format. My hat’s off to both Rebecca Romijn and Babs Olusanmokun for their standout performances in the episode. Romijn brought a level of clear-headedness and empathy to Una, rounding out the often-serious demeanor shown in her first appearances. Babs was a revelation in the final scenes, mixing the regret of knowing M’Benga’s choices endangered his crew but also the elation that he will have more time to potentially save his child. A wonderful episode and yet another example of why I continue to love the Star Trek universe.  

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