“Ghosts of Illyria” is a great example of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds pulling off a classic science fiction mystery story. A strange disease is affecting the crew, flaming ghosts, an ion storm, and a couple of our crew keeping secrets? It’s a lot of ground to cover in this episode, so grab yourself some “Coffee. Black!” or “Tea! Earl Grey! Hot!” and let’s talk Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode 1×03, “Ghosts of Illyria.”
“If We Break Quarantine, We Could All Die.”
While that’s a quote from Ripley in Alien, I couldn’t help but think about Alien as I watched our crew deal with this unusual disease. Frankly, I also got some flashbacks to the earliest days of the pandemic when we weren’t sure how to stop the spread, who all might have been infected, etc. It was a bit unsettling to watch on a completely different level. This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten classic sci-fi vibes from Strange New Worlds. Last week’s episode, “Children of the Comet” had me thinking about Alien and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But the problem we’re facing this episode is a bit different. It’s a disease rooted in genetic modification, but one that is spread because of a secret. We’ll dig into that a bit more later.
Two big secrets get revealed in this episode. The first is that Una Chin-Riley, our first officer, is an Illyrian. For the uninitiated, Illyrians are a species that are banned from Starfleet due to their genetic modification. This is due to the horror of the Eugenics Wars of the 90s, as referenced in The Original Series. But just like a weapon in the hand of the right person protects life, genetic modification in the hand of the right person could do just the same. As Dr. M’Benga says after learning Una’s secret, “After we met our neighbors in the galaxy, we found new bigotries.” But bigotry is something that Star Trek has always worked to overcome. And that’s just what we’re doing in this episode with Una’s secret. However, she’s not the only one with a secret in this episode.
We learn that Dr. M’Benga didn’t allow the transporter to be updated when Enterprise was in space dock. Not because it wasn’t necessary, but because he’s been hiding his daughter’s transport pattern in the buffer. We’ve seen this technique done a few times in Star Trek. In most recent memory, that’s how the crew of the Discovery hid out in Star Trek: Discovery episode 4×06, “Stormy Weather.”
But in this instance, it’s Dr. M’Benga hiding his daughter’s transport pattern because he’s not found a cure for her incurable disease. It’s a bold and gutsy move and it adds a layer of ethical and emotional questions to M’Benga’s character. But I also admire M’Benga’s tenacity here. This is truly a father who is doing everything in his power to save his daughter. But even he has his limits. When he tells Una that he never would have risked the entire crew had he known that keeping his daughter in the pattern buffer would mess with the biofilter, he’s sincere. M’Benga isn’t an unethical mad scientist. He’s simply a father that wants to save his daughter from a terrible fate. I can’t fault him for that. I hope we get a happy resolution to this story in Strange New Worlds.
The Ghosts of Illyria
While the rest of the crew are fighting a light disease on the Enterprise, Spock and Captain Pike are trapped on the planet in the middle of an ion storm. While we are dealing with the biological horror story on the Enterprise, Spock and Pike are dealing with a mystery surrounding the fate of the Illyrian colony.
Spock is doing what Spock does, reading and researching; Pike is wondering just how they’re going to get off the planet before the ion storm tears through their shelter. They’re being pursued by these plasma creatures, or as I like to call them, fire ghosts. But just like everything else in this episode, there’s more here than meets the eye.
Spock speculates that these creatures are not here to harm them. They’re the Illyrian colonists who wanted to join Starfleet. They were in the process of removing their genetic modifications when an ion storm permanently modified their form. It’s a hard lesson for Pike and Spock. They have to ask the question, is it necessary or right for Starfleet to demand that genetically modified species stay out? Or is this a law made in fear? It’s a question for Starfleet and it’s a question for our society. Is this law rooted in fear? It’s a question for every law. As Una says in her personal log, “The lights are back on, but that doesn’t mean we see clearly.”
Aside from the big secrets revealed and the ethical questions being discussed, there were lots of fun moments in this episode. First, those jackets the landing party is wearing are SWEET! They better be putting those in the Star Trek merch store. Second, I laughed out loud when Pike, armed with a phaser, is preparing to face down the plasma creatures and Spock is still reading the journal entries of the colonists. “I’m arming us with knowledge” is a very Spock line.
Third, I love the “show don’t tell” reveal of Una’s genetic modifications. It would be tough to mask all that strength all the time. Watching her face off with La’an, even in La’an’s desperate state, is very impressive. Both of these ladies are tough as nails and it’s especially fun to watch them spar. Fourth, when watching this episode with a friend, he yelled, “Pah-wraiths!” when he saw the plasma creatures. I had to laugh out loud when I saw it because there is a certain likeness. For those who’ve not seen Deep Space Nine, check out this entry on pah-wraiths on Memory Alpha.
Finally, I can’t be the only person that thought Ensign Lance could be Ensign Loki, right? Just me? See for yourself.
What did you think of “Ghost of Illyria”? Leave me a comment and let’s talk Trek.
The next episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds will premiere on May 26, 2022, on Paramount+.