Spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode three to follow!
The U.S.S. Enterprise arrives at a colony abandoned by Illyrians, who were first encountered by the NX-01 in the Delphic Expanse a century earlier. Unknown to Captain Archer at the time, the Illyrians engaged in genetic modification, which had been banned by the Federation as a result of the devastating Eugenics Wars. An ion storm approaches as the landing party prepares to beam up, and as any Trek fan will tell you, ion storms and transporters do not go well together. Even worse, young Ensign Lance opens a cabinet that contains mysterious glowing objects.
While Captain Pike searches for Spock, Number One and the rest of the team beam back aboard the ship. With their patterns nearly scrambled, it briefly felt as if we might have another Tuvix situation on our hands! Luckily, Hemmer saves the day, though the ion storm prevents Pike and Spock from returning to the Enterprise. Things begin to get a bit strange, as Erica Ortegas finds Ensign Lance injuring himself in an attempt to get closer to a lighting fixture.
In her quarters, Number One also seems invigorated by light, but following a moment where her skin appeared to glow, the symptom apparently passes. Doctor M’Benga reports that the other away team members aren’t as fortunate, as they are experiencing Vitamin D deficiencies in addition to the strong urge to get perilously near light sources. Hemmer is adamant that the transporter’s biofilters would have screened out any contagions, yet the affliction soon begins to spread among the crew.
Number One discusses the situation with Security Chief La’an Noonien-Singh, who voices opposition to genetic augmentation, specifically citing her ancestor Khan Noonien-Singh as an example of a bioengineered mass murderer. La’an comes down with the condition, perplexing Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel as they seek to trace the source of the infections. As a precautionary measure, Una initiates the Enterprise’s lockdown protocol, a procedure far too familiar to those of us struggling through the COVID pandemic.
Further research reveals that the contagion travels on light and uses it to trigger the pleasure centers of its victims, thus encouraging them to seek out more light and further spread the condition. Think of it as the outbreaks in “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now” crossed with the euphoria of the anaphasic “ghost candle” from TNG’s “Sub Rosa.”
On the planet below, Spock locates a journal that indicates the Illyrians from this particular colony hoped to reverse their genetic modifications in order to join the Federation. The ion storm continues to rage, and both Pike and his science officer see what appear to be plasma lifeforms soaring through the gusting winds. The creatures make their way into the building, but rather than harm Pike and Spock, they shield them from the strengthening storm. Afterwards, Spock theorizes that these lifeforms used to be Illyrian colonists who succumbed to a disease and somehow became one with the electrical fields contained in the planet’s ion storms.
Back on the Enterprise, Number One stresses to M’Benga and Chapel that the key to immunity must exist in her blood sample. Why? Number One is an Illyrian, though from a different colony. The Federation prohibits mixing modified Illyrian blood with that of other species, prompting an excellent discussion of bigotry that parallels modern day legislation that prevents gay and bisexual men from donating blood due to offensive stereotypes. Once again, Star Trek manages to seamlessly add meaningful commentary into its storylines.
When Number One prevents La’an from enveloping the ship in light via a warp core breach, the two officers become irradiated. Una’s modified genes healed her, and her proximity to the Security Chief allowed La’an to be saved, as well. Chapel harnesses this information and is able to synthesize a cure for the crew. With the crew out of danger, Number One reports her true heritage to the captain, who has no interest in reporting her. Much like the genetically augmented Julian Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Una will continue to serve Starfleet.
However, the episode still has one surprise left to spring on us. The contagion breached the biofilters because Dr. M’Benga refused to permit spacedock engineers to upgrade the emergency medical transporter. M’Benga confides to Number One that, similar to Scotty’s transporter exploits in “Relics,” he has secretly stored his daughter’s pattern in the buffer to prevent an incurable illness from progressing any further. Una passes the empathy Pike showed to her on to M’Benga, agreeing that they will keep his daughter safe until a cure is found.
“Ghosts of Illyria” shifts its focus away from Pike and Spock, successfully leaning on Number One and the rest of the senior staff to drive the action forward. The episode does a magnificent job of asking difficult questions and juxtaposing a 23rd medical mystery with references to our current pandemic and bigoted blood donation laws. Una’s decision to delete a deeply personal log in the show’s closing moments serves as an excellent homage to Captain Sisko’s erasure of his own report in DS9’s “In The Pale Moonlight.” How will the surprise revelations about Number One and Doctor M’Benga play out? Perhaps we’ll find out as the Enterprise’s adventures continue. In the words of Captain Pike, “Hit it!”
Jay Stobie (he/him) is a freelance writer and consultant who has contributed articles to StarTrek.com, Star Trek Explorer, and Star Trek Magazine, as well as to Star Wars Insider and StarWars.com. Jay serves as a BoldlyGo Campaign Ambassador for The Roddenberry Foundation. Jay can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @StobiesGalaxy.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., Latin America, Australia & the Nordics. The series will air on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel & stream on Crave in Canada with additional international availability to be announced at a later date. The series is distributed by Paramount Global Content Distribution.