This week’s episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Ghosts of Illyria”, is a return to a storytelling device we’ve seen several times in the earliest episodes of new Star Trek series; the ship-wide epidemic. It was done in The Original Series’ (TOS) “The Naked Time,” The Next Generation’s (TNG) “The Naked Now” (an unabashed rehash) and Deep Space Nine’s (DS9) “Babel.” It’s a shorthand way to see how a new crew reacts when an alien disease lowers their guard, allowing latent personality traits to surface–thus, we get to know them more quickly.
Written by Akela Cooper and Bill Wolkoff, “Ghosts of Illyria” was directed by Leslie Hope (who also played Major Kira’s mother in DS9’s “Wrongs Darker Than Death or Night”). The story sees the Enterprise on medical lockdown; a situation that resonates deeply in the age of COVID. Instead of using the disease for comic effect (like the two “Naked” episodes), “Ghosts of Illyria” takes this opportunity to shake a few secrets from an Enterprise crew that seems to have quite a few of them.
I’m not sure if I will be able to review every episode of this new Star Trek series (I’ll be at a convention next week) but this episode offers a lot to examine. So, while I can, I’d like to take a closer look…
“Ghosts of Illyria.”
This episode focuses on First Officer Number One, aka Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn), so it’s fitting that it opens with her log, which nicely establishes the parameters of the story:
“First officer’s log, Stardate 1224.3. The Enterprise has arrived at Hetemit 9, the site of an abandoned Illyrian colony. Illyrians are a humanoid species known for modifying their genes to enhance their capabilities and levels of function. However, because genetic modification is forbidden in the Federation, they have always been outcasts. Our presence here is part of a standing mission to discover what happened to them. Unfortunately, research time on the surface is limited, as the planet is regularly swept by ion storms, one of which is fast approaching.”
As Una and Pike gaze upon the Illyrian ghost city from the windows of an abandoned science research complex, each share their thoughts on the centuries-old fear of genetic engineering; a holdover from Earth’s Eugenics Wars.
Note: The Eugenics Wars, originally established in TOS (“Space Seed”) as taking place between 1992-1996, but have since been retconned to some vague, undetermined point in our near future (see: “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” episode 1). Despite the time shift, the wars were still spearheaded by genetically-engineered villain, Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban/Benedict Cumberbatch), who controlled a quarter of the world with an army of “augments”–the term established in ENT’s “Borderland” as a shorthand slur for genetically-engineered persons.
Pike observes the rapidly approaching ion storm, and decides to gather the rest of the landing party, while he and Spock temporarily remain to further investigate the research center’s archives. Una tells the rest of the team to make final preparations for beam-up. Ensign Lance (Daniel Gravelle) does a last minute check of a nearby cabinet, which releases unobserved glowing particles, which react to his flashlight…
Note: The actor playing Ensign Lance bears an uncanny resemblance to “Dune” (2021) star Timothée Chalamet. Also of note; the metallic gray landing party jackets look like an updating of the field jackets worn by landing parties in “Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005), as well as the gray fabric jackets worn in the original TOS pilot “The Cage” (1964) which first introduced us to the characters of Pike, Number One and Spock.
With Ensign Lance in tow, the team gathers outside for a better transporter lock. Transporter Chief Kyle (Andre Dae Kim) tells Una there’s a lot of interference from the ion storm, and there isn’t enough power to compensate. With the storm rapidly overtaking the landing party’s position, Una insists. Kyle tries to beam them aboard, but the storm leaves him unable to complete their re-materialization…
Note: Ion storms as a potential space hazard were first established in TOS’ “Court-Martial,” when Capt. Kirk went on trial for prematurely jettisoning the ship’s ‘ion pod’ during a storm, just as his former Academy chum-turned-bitter-enemy Ben Finney (who was presumed dead) was inside taking readings. We later saw ionic interference (caused by the “quasar-like formation” Murasaki 312) wreak havoc with the Enterprise and its shuttlecraft Galileo in “The Galileo Seven”. The most famed ion storm in Star Trek was, no doubt, the one responsible for whisking a landing party into the savage Mirror Universe during transport in “Mirror, Mirror.”
Kyle calls down to Engineering, where Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak)–a naturally-blind Aenarian–calmly reroutes power from all emergency backups (including the sickbay emergency transporter). This rerouting of power causes the ship’s lights to flicker, but gives Kyle more than ample power to finish beaming up the away team. Once aboard, Una tells Kyle to beam up the captain and Spock as well, but the storm has completely overtaken their position. Even with the two of them outside, Kyle is unable to get a firm transport lock.
Note: Actor Bruce Horak’s portrayal of the sarcastic, curmudgeonly Hemmer definitely gives off strong “Odo” vibes (DS9). I’d like to think it’s a subtle tribute to the late Rene Auberjonois (1940-2019) but that’s entirely speculative on my part, of course.
Una calls down to a waiting Pike and tells him that he and Spock will have to take shelter within the research complex until the storm passes. Given the old glass windows of the abandoned building, Pike isn’t confident of its structural integrity, but with the storm rapidly approaching, Spock advises his captain to run.
Back on the bridge, Una tells the crew that Captain Pike and Spock are still on the surface, taking shelter until the storm passes. Until then, she is in command of the ship. Una tells Cadet Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) to monitor communications, and she orders the science station and transporter room to keep a close watch for any breaks in the storm.
Off-duty helm officer Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia) is strolling down a corridor of the ship, when she catches sight of Ensign Lance, who was on the away team, stripping down to his underwear (!). Ortegas kindly advises the exhibitionist ensign to take his business elsewhere, when she then observes him heat-butting a translucent glass panel–trying to get at the light source behind it. Deciding something’s up with the ensign, she calls security.
Note: Kudos to Melissa Navia, who, despite receiving limited screen time in this episode (again), still manages to be memorable whenever the camera is on her. She radiates a natural confidence and humor that comes through body language and delivery, if not in actual dialogue. Given this is only the third episode, I’m assuming her character Erica Ortegas will get a spotlight story soon.
With Lance taken to sickbay, Una goes to her quarters to unwind for a moment, when she finds herself mysteriously hungry for light. Ripping her tunic, she places herself directly under a lamp, as her entire body begins to radiate from within! The red glow then quickly diminishes. Realizing this may be significant, she carefully calls down to sickbay, without reporting her own symptoms. An overwhelmed Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) tells her that the rest of the away team are in his sickbay at the moment, each experiencing symptoms similar to those experienced by Ensign Lance.
Note: The moment where Una begins to radiate with heat and light energy reminded me of actress Rebecca Romijn’s prior work as the shapeshifter “Mystique” in the first three “X-Men” movies (2000-2006), before the role was handed off to future Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence in the 2011 prequel “X-Men: First Class.” Lawrence went on to play Mystique in three other X-Men movies as well (yes, even after winning her Oscar in 2014).
Una heads to sickbay, where Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) have their hands full; sickbay is treating the away team, who are in agony after burning or electrocuting themselves in various attempts to get more light. Ironically, light is the only thing that seems to calm them in their agitated state, as their bodies’ levels of vitamin D have dangerously plummeted. The doctor asks Una if she’s experiencing any symptoms, and she lies–almost reflexively–telling him she’s fine. Nevertheless, M’Benga asks for a blood sample, and she hesitantly agrees. When she asks M’Benga about the cause of the disease, M’Benga assures her the transporter bio-filters would’ve screened out any viruses or other contaminants during transport. Both express concern about Pike and Spock, who are still on the surface…
In Engineering, Una orders Hemmer to run a level-5 diagnostic on the transporter, to rule out the possibility of bio-filter malfunction. The curmudgeonly Hemmer dismisses the possibility (“Nonsense”), but begins the lengthy diagnostic, anyway.
On the bridge, Una is briefly able to contact Pike, who is holed up with Spock in the colony’s archives, waiting out the storm. Just as Una is about to explain the medical situation, the ion storm surges, and blocks communications again.
Going over Illyrian genetic modification records in the ship’s conference room, Una is met by Security Chief La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong). Una tells her about their medical situation, and orders La’an to keep a lookout for odd behavior by the crew. La’an wonders if the genetically-engineered Illyrians might somehow be responsible for the outbreak. Una says if they are, they might also have records for a solution. However, use of Illyrian medical technology is forbidden by the Federation, due to Earth’s turbulent history with the Eugenics Wars. La’an, herself a descendent of the Eugenics Wars’ chief architect, Khan Noonien Singh, is all-too-familiar with the curse of her family tree. This makes La’an particularly sensitive on the subject of “augments.” La’an then begins complaining about the darkness of the room, just before putting a lamp to her face. Una calls to sickbay, where La’an is immediately taken and sedated. La’an was not on the away team, which means the disease is spreading…
Note: I must admit, I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of this series referencing Khan Noonien Singh yet again. I’ve always felt that Khan has been mistakenly reimagined as the Trek’s answer to Darth Vader. As much as I love “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982), I wish it hadn’t established this false precedent of Khan as Star Trek’s ‘greatest’ nemesis. Clearly, he’s not. Other entities have posed far greater threats than Khan, including such solar system-destroyers as V’ger, Nomad and the Doomsday Machine. Hell, even the bumbling space-pimp Harry Mudd successfully took over the Enterprise with an army of androids in “I, Mudd.” Khan really isn’t all that and a bag of chips.
Sickbay has gone from busy to utter chaos as new patients are placed wherever possible, all of them given lamps or personal flashlights in a desperate effort to pacify them. Una learns through contact tracing that La’an shared a turbolift with Ensign Lance–the source of the infection. Given the emergency situation, M’Benga recommends that the ship be placed on immediate lockdown. Una gives the order, and all non-essential crew are confined to their quarters. Duty crew are also ordered to remain in small groups until further notice.
Note: Once again, the notion of a shipwide epidemic plays with more urgency today in the COVID-era than it did in 1966, 1987 and 1993, when TOS, TNG and DS9 aired their early ‘disease’ episodes, “Naked Time,” “Naked Now” and “Babel, respectively. COVID-19, the worst pandemic in over a century, has killed over one million Americans and over 7 million worldwide.
Meanwhile, Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is in her closed bunk compartment, trying to get some sleep, when her two rowdy, infected roommates are using a holographic simulation of a sun to give themselves additional light. Uhura, awakened by the light seeping through the compartment, orders the simulation shut off, much to her roomies’ wrath. With Uhura’s roommates taken to sickbay, Una wonders why Uhura herself wasn’t infected. The cadet tells the acting captain she sleeps in a darkened, closed compartment.
Note: As we saw in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and in “Lower Decks”, junior crew members often share unisex quarters, sleeping in bunk beds, much as crewmen on modern naval vessels do today. Uhura, who tells Una she needs total darkness to sleep, might’ve requested a special closed sleeping compartment, or this might be a standard feature on the Federation’s flagship (perhaps one of the reasons it’s such a plumb assignment…?). The starship Discovery (from the same era) also has shared quarters (Burnham & Tilly’s quarters from season 1), but those quarters had full beds, not bunks. However, this may be due to Discovery’s smaller 136-member crew.
Hemmer continues his diagnostic of the transporter system, when he detects unusual power usage from the sickbay’s emergency transporter system. A suddenly defensive Dr. M’Benga tells Hemmer that he’s running an experiment with the system, and angrily demands that the engineer let it be. Hemmer takes the message, and leaves. Given that Uhura sleeps in total darkness, Una and the doctor realize the disease is transmitted by light–something a bio-filter might not be programmed to suppress. With that new information, all illumination aboard the Enterprise is immediately dimmed to impede transmission.
On the planet, Pike and Spock are still holed up in the abandoned archive, when they notice swirling energy patterns emerging from the clouds of the ion storm outside. These manifestations appear to be luminescent ghosts of some kind. Spock hurriedly continues his research of the archives, as Pikes stands by with his phaser trained on a weakening door through which the Illyrian ‘ghosts’ are trying to enter. A nervous Pike wonders aloud if the Illyrians had a defense against these creatures. Spock deduces from the Illyrian records that the creatures began to appear as the Illyrians were dying out.
Note: The B-story of Pike and Spock on the planet, as well as Spock’s conclusion about the fate of the Illyrians isn’t terribly surprising, given the vaguely human shapes of the ‘ghosts’, but its still engaging enough for the presence of actors Anson Mount and Ethan Peck, who have great chemistry together.
Unable to keep them out, the Illyrian energy-ghosts bore through the door, leaving Spock with a minor cut to his neck. Before they can react, Pike suddenly feels his ears pop, indicating a change of pressure. Soon, the fragile outside window shatters from the storm, and fatal ionic radiation floods the complex. Unexpectedly, the Illyrian energy-ghosts surround the two men, creating a protective barrier from the flood of ions in the room.
Later, Spock concludes what most viewers have already deduced–the energy beings are the surviving Illyrians. Spock also learns the Illyrians’ fate wasn’t due to their self genetic-engineering; it came from their trying to undo their genetic tampering, in order to gain Federation membership. Trying to conform to a Federation standard was their ultimate undoing. Later, Spock comments, “It would seem even in death, they wanted us to know who they are.”
Note: Much like DS9’s “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?”, this episode makes a compelling argument for acceptance of genetically modified persons, despite their presumed advantages.
As Una tries and fails once again to access the ship’s computer on restricted Illyrian medical technology, she receives a warning about a temperature overload in the ship’s transporter room. Once there, she finds an infected Hemmer standing over one of the twin transport consoles. Noticing a large glowing rock partially-materialized within the chamber, she’s surprised to discover the light-hungry (blind) Aenarian is trying to beam aboard a chunk of the planet’s near-molten mantle, which radiates large amounts of light but also dangerous levels of heat. Such heat could burn out the transporter system–leaving them unable to rescue Pike and Spock when the storm breaks. Hemmer begins to walk towards the suspended molten-rock like a moth to flame. With no time to argue, Una draws her phaser and stuns the surly engineer. Quickly, she beams the mantle back to the planet before it can melt the transporter chamber.
Una then effortlessly hoists Hemmer over her shoulder and carries him to sickbay–demonstrating atypical strength for an Earth woman. Arriving in sickbay with Hemmer over her shoulder, a stunned Chapel asks how she was able to lift him so easily. Ignoring Chapel’s query, Una notices that Dr. M’Benga is now infected. Before Una agrees to sedates the doctor, she comes clean with a secret she’s been hiding since her career in Starfleet began. Una confesses she’s an Illyrian; genetically modified, and, with that admission, disqualified from serving in Starfleet. M’Benga suspected as much when he ran her blood tests; she has no natural antibodies–her system simply burned the infection off (which explains her rapid recovery from her light addiction, not to mention her self-induced radiance). M’Benga tells her that he believes the Federation’s prejudice against Illyrians is foolish and outdated. It’s all-too similar to other old prejudices against ‘mixing blood’ between races. A thankful Una then sedates him, leaving Chapel in charge of both sickbay and finding a cure, as yet another problem demands the First Officer’s attention…
Note: Una hoisting Hemmer over her shoulder and carrying him through the corridors without so much as breaking a sweat is impressive. With non-essential crew confined to quarters, it was presumably safe for her not to be seen by the entire crew. The athletic Rebecca Romijn also looks powerful enough to make the moment credible.
An alarm goes off in Engineering; someone is actively attempting to deactivate the warp containment field, which would cause the matter/antimatter to annihilate. Reaching the engine room, Una sees an infected La’an at the controls, madly hoping the suicidal warp collapse will give her the light she so desperately craves. Una pleads with her to stop, and, in a second of lucidity, La’an angrily snaps at Una lying to her about her own augment heritage. With time growing too short to argue, Una engages La’an in an all-out fist fight, ultimately knocking the security chief unconscious. Despite toxic levels of radiation flooding the compartment, Una is able to absorb it with her augment physiology. With that threat nullified, Una reengages the warp core containment and the ship is saved.
Later, it’s revealed that despite her lethal radiation exposure, La’an’s proximity to the Illyrian Una allowed her to create natural antibodies to the disease within her human body as well, which Nurse Chapel was able to synthesize into a cure. “Don’t thank me. I know I’m good at my job,” Chapel slyly quips.
Note: First off, the bare-knuckled, quasi-martial arts fight in Engineering is a callback to several TOS episodes including the aforementioned “Court-Martial” where Kirk fought the vengeful records officer Ben Finney, and, most famously, the fight between Kirk and the “augment” ruler himself–La’an’s own ancestor, Khan Noonien-Singh, in “Space Seed” (the barebones prequel to the far superior “The Wrath of Khan” feature film). With its large spaces and inherent dangers, TOS’ engine room was more like a gymnasium at times; in fact, it even doubled as the ship’s gym in “Charlie X.”
Secondly, the reimagined Nurse Chapel played by Jess Bush is one hell of an improvement on the original. No offense to the late Majel Roddenberry (1932-2007), who was only playing the part as (under)written. More on new Chapel later…
With a cure in hand, the warp core breach averted, and the ion storm dispersing, Spock and Pike are beamed aboard. With life aboard ship returning to normal, the Illyrian Una has to tend to some unpleasant personal business. First, she goes to the ship’s lounge, where La’an is sitting alone, eating a bowl of strawberries. Una mentions that she packs one hell of a punch, but she’s willing to forgive and forget. Unfortunately, La’an seems less willing to forget Una’s hypocrisy in purposefully lying about her own “augment” lineage. In her defense, Una offers that her people never used genetic engineering to destroy their own world; they used it to adapt to life on inhospitable planets. All that Una ever wanted for herself–the very reason she lied on her Starfleet application–was to see the stars, without fear of prejudice for being Illyrian.
Note: I’ll be honest; three episodes in, and La’an is still my least favorite character. She’s got a chip on her shoulder the size of Jupiter, and her nonstop, po-faced bitterness makes her unappealing to me as a character. Nothing against Christina Chong, of course, but it’d be really swell to see La’an lighten the hell up a bit one of these days…
Now onto the hardest part. Una goes before Pike in the conference room, where she makes a full confession; she’s a genetically-altered Illyrian, and she lied to get into Starfleet. She’s broken many Starfleet codes of conduct, and she fully expects the captain to replace her immediately. What Una doesn’t expect is Pike’s response–he rejects her resignation offer. Following his own firsthand experiences with the surviving Illyrian colonists (who saved his life), Pike’s reevaluated many of Starfleet’s prejudices about the genetically-modified Illyrians. Una is both grateful and concerned; what will happen to him if Starfleet finds out? Pike smiles, and assures his first officer, “Let me worry about Starfleet.” Before she’s dismissed, he asks if she can make sure the ‘glitch’ in the transporter bio-filters is fixed.
Note: In DS9’s “Doctor Bashir, I Presume?” Chief O’Brien tells his own genetically-augmented friend Julian that there hasn’t been a reported case of a genetically-engineered person serving in Starfleet in “over a hundred years.” Una’s admission, which presumably went public after her tour aboard the Enterprise, may have been the case O’Brien is referencing.
The investigation of that ‘glitch’ leads to another uncomfortable admission. Dr. M’Benga denied engineers access to sickbay’s emergency transporter system during the ship’s last refit, due to an ongoing ‘experiment’ he’s kept in the sickbay transporter’s pattern buffer. That ‘experiment’ is his own terminally ill daughter, Rukiya (Sage Arrindell). A heartbroken M’Benga confesses to Chapel that Rukiya was diagnosed with terminal cygnokemia, and was only given 12 weeks to live. M’Benga took it upon himself to store her in the pattern buffer, periodically re-materializing her for brief intervals to prevent pattern degradation. Una understands the doctor’s grief, despite the danger it caused for the ship. She promises M’Benga a power supply to the sickbay transport buffer direct from the ship’s warp core, so that this can’t happen again. Later, alone in sickbay, M’Benga re-materializes the un-aged Rukiya, and reads a bedtime story from where he left off months earlier…
Note: This scene references TNG’s “Relics,” where it was revealed that ‘miracle worker’ Engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) survived a shipwreck for 75 years by remaining within a transport pattern-buffer, along with the captain, Matt Franklin. Since no one remained to periodically re-integrate them at regular intervals, Franklin’s pattern degraded below a point where he could be recovered. Scotty observed, “He was a good lad…”
Alone in her quarters, a contrite Una gives a full confession in her personal log… which she then deletes. She simply needed to get it off her chest.
Note: A nod to Ben Sisko’s own deleted personal log confession in DS9’s “In the Pale Moonlight.”
Summing It Up.
What could’ve been another “Naked Now” ends up being a meaningful look into several characters; spotlighting the closeted “augment” First Officer Una Chin-Riley, the angsty (similarly augmented) Security Chief La’an Noonien Singh and even the good doctor, M’Benga. Una and La’an share a secret lineage, that, if widely-known, could possibly kick them both out of Starfleet. M’Benga’s secret is more personal (and heartbreaking), yet it’s still a secret that put his entire ship and crew in danger. These secrets reiterate that none of us–even virtuous Starfleet officers–are perfect.
We each have aspects of ourselves we’d prefer to keep from the light of day. It’s interesting that light is the means by which the disease of the story is transmitted–like an uncompromising ray of truth. We see the characters involuntarily drawn to light, even if (indirectly) it could serve to expose their inner-selves and ‘burn’ them (metaphorically and physically). The episode also examines the pros and cons that come with keeping secrets. If Una revealed her genetic engineering, she would have never been accepted into Starfleet. However, her genetic engineering also made her invulnerable to to the disease, which allowed her to save the entire ship. Conversely, Dr. M’Benga secretly keeping Rukiya’s pattern in the sickbay transporter created their near-fatal predicament in the first place…
One element of this series that’s no secret is the new and improved Nurse Christine Chapel, so gamely played by Jess Bush, who is a far cry from the pining doormat we saw throughout most of TOS. This Nurse Chapel doesn’t isn’t the type who’d spend her days weeping over spilled plomeek soup (“Amok Time”); this version of Chapel would chuck that dirty bowl right back in Spock’s face. I realize she might be a deviation from the character created by the late Majel Roddenberry, but I don’t mind at all. The new Nurse Chapel is witty, even a bit geeky, yet full of moxie. As a character, I simply adore her. It’s almost disheartening to remember that the character will remain a nurse for as long as she does (TOS). I could more easily see Jess Bush’s Christine Chapel quickly getting her MD and heading up sickbay in a few years.
Three episodes in, and the show is on a roll. The ‘shipwide disease’ story was well-used to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of these characters, all the while solidifying them as another eminently watchable family in the greater Star Trek canon.
Where To Watch.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is streaming exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States, and can be streamed on Crave in Canada (it will also air on CTV’s Sci-Fi Channel). Paramount+ will also be unveiled in the UK on June 22nd, and in other European markets later on, so all of Paramount+’s Star Trek content, including “Strange New Worlds”, should soon be accessible to overseas fans as well. Hopefully all fans everywhere will soon enjoy this new incarnation of Star Trek. Live long and prosper!