Star Trek: Strange New Worlds meets the “Ghosts of Illyria” and uncovers some dark secrets of the crew

It’s time for the next Star Trek: Strange New Worlds review. Reviews of previous episodes (well, just two so far) may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut!

The episode opens with the Enterprise exploring the remains of an Illyrian colony on a planet called Hetemit IX. The Illyrians, so the voiceover courtesy of Una Chin-Riley a.k.a. Number One informs us, are a humanoid race who genetically modify themselves. This brings them into conflict with the Federation, where genetic modifications are banned because Khan Noonien-Singh was a murderous arsehole who started a war. And yes, this literally is the explanation given. As a result, the Federation wants nothing to do with the Illyrians. They can’t join the Federation and individual Illyrians are not allowed to join Starfleet and probably not even to become Federation citizens.

Watching this episode, I had no idea if the Illyrians had ever been mentioned in Star Trek before. But luckily there are people like reviewer Keith R.A. DeCandido who know more about these things than me. And Keith R.A. DeCandido reports that the Illyrians were first mentioned in a 1989 Star Trek novel named Vulcan’s Glory by D.C. Fontana, which is set before “The Cage” (and consequently before Strange New Worlds) and which mentioned that Number One a.ka. Una Chin-Riley is a genetically modified Illyrian. Until fairly recently, this was one of the very few things about the character that we knew. Considering that the Federation feels about genetically modified individuals much like ordinary humans in the Marvel Universe feel about mutants, it’s easy to see why the fact that Number One is Illyrian will become a problem.

Number One is a member of the away team exploring the ruins of the Illyrian colony on Hetemit IX along with Pike, Spock and a bunch of redshirt ensigns. Since Hetemit IX is battered by regular ion storms, the away team cannot stay on the surface for long, because another storm is approaching. Number One gathers the team together, including a floppy-haired ensign who seems overly interested in some test tubes and other chemical equipment – because touching chemical equipment of unknown origin is such a brilliant idea – to beam everybody up. This proves to be difficult, because the storm is interfering with the transporter – at least until Hemmer, the brilliant but grumpy Andorian chief engineer, works his engineering magic and provides an extra boost of power for the transporter. Hemmer was largely a cameo appearance in the first two episodes, but this episode finally gives him more to do as well as a personality. Unfortunately, that personality is Dr. House, only as a blind albino Andorian engineer.

But even though Hemmer and the young transporter operator Chief Kyle manage to beam up the away team, there’s still trouble, because Captain Pike and Spock are still stuck on the surface, because Spock found the colony’s library/archive and forgot the time over reading, which Keith R.A. DeCandido says is the most Spock thing ever. So the Enterprise has to wait for the ion storm to subside before they can beam up Spock and Pike, who need to find shelter in the abandoned colony in the meantime.

At this point, I assumed we would be in for a spooky survival thriller in the abandoned colony on Hetemit IX and we do get some of that. However, the bulk of the episode is set aboard the Enterprise, for it turns out that a biological contagion hitched a ride on the transporter. Which is not supposed to happen, because the transporter’s bio filters are supposed to filter out any contagions. Someone should tell Discovery this, which had an issue with bio filters in spacesuits not filtering out psychedelic alien dust in season 4.

The first indication that something is wrong is when the floppy-haired ensign who messed about with the test tubes in the ruined colony (I knew that was a bad idea) suddenly starts tearing off his clothes in a corridor, crying that he needs more light, and then breaks a light fixture, injuring himself in the process. Erica Ortegas, who finds him, takes him to Dr. M’benga, where it turns out that the floppy-haired ensign is not the only person desperate for light. And all of those affected were members of the away team on Hetemit IX.

Meanwhile, Number One is in her quarters and suddenly finds that it’s rather dark in there. She order the computer to turn up the light and even tears open her uniform to soak up more light. Then she suddenly begins to glow orange and seems to be normal again. Shortly thereafter, M’Benga calls her to inform her that the Enterprise has a problem. Several members of the away team have fallen ill, all are craving light and have abnormally, even dangerously low vitamin D levels. Dr. M’Benga and Christine Chapel suspect that an unknown alien virus is responsible for the problem. Number One asks M’Benga to check her out. He does, but her vitamin D levels are normal.

This was the first point in the episode where I thought, “Now wait a minute, this makes no sense.” For starters, while it’s true that the body needs light to generate vitamin D, it needs sunlight, specifically UV-B light. Artificial light from lamps, etc… won’t do, because lamps don’t normally give of ultraviolet light nor do you want them to, because too much ultraviolet light is harmful. Of course, there are specific ultraviolet lamps used in greenhouses and the like (and for indoor marihuana plantations), but I doubt that the regular Enterprise lights are ultraviolet lamps. Furthermore, while vitamin D deficiency can have serious health consequences (low bone density and immune system problems and low vitamin D levels are also associated with severe cases of covid), it is easily treated by vitamin D supplements which you can buy in any drugstore. My Mom takes them regularly, because she does not go out a lot and doesn’t get enough natural sunlight. I sometimes take them, too, when I haven’t been outdoors for a while. So when Dr. M’Benga started talking about dangerously low vitamin D levels, I thought, “I have an almost full pack of vitamin D pills in the cellar that I’d be happy to donate to the Enterprise crew.”

Number One goes to see Hemmer and asks him how the hell some kind of virus could get aboard the Enterprise with the away team. Hemmer insists that this is impossible, because the biological filters should have filtered out any unknown contagion. Number One insists that Hemmer run a full diagnostic anyway, which he reluctantly does.

Not long thereafter, security chief La’an Noonien-Singh begins to show the same symptoms as the members of the away team. However, La’an was never on Hetemit IX, suggesting that whatever causes the disease is spreading from person to person. As more and more crewmembers fall ill, Number One orders a shipwide lockdown with all non-essential personnel confined to their quarters.

As a cadet, Uhura is considered non-essential and so she’s sent to the quarters she shares with two other crewmembers. She goes to bed and when she wakes up, she finds her two roommates dancing around a sun simulation. Both of them have contracted the disease, but Uhura is perfectly fine. Number One believes this may be the key to finding out what triggers the disease and asks Uhura exactly what happened. It turns out that Uhura closed the sleeping compartment, when she went to bed, and was in complete darkness. This leads Number One and M’Benga to assume that the disease is transmitted via light. And yes, I know that lightwaves don’t normally transmit diseases, but I could have suspended my disbelief for this, if not for the other gross stupidities perpetrated in this episode.

In spite of the shipwide lockdown, crewmembers keep falling ill and M’Benga and Christine Chapel have their hands full, when Hemmer shows up and wants to check the emergency medical transporter as part of his general diagnostic. Dr. M’Benga is not at all happy about this and insists that the emergency medical transporter is not the source of the problem. Hemmer insists on checking it anyway, when the lights in the sickbay suddenly go off. “Hmm, this shouldn’t have happened”, Hemmer mutters and leaves. The camera pans in on M’Benga to show that he has clandestinely operated the master light switch in the infirmary. Looks like the good doctor has something to hide.

Now the crew knows that the disease is transmitted via light, Number One orders all lights aboard the Enterprise dimmed. Because this causes pain for those struck by the disease, Number One and M’Benga decide to sedate everybody. And still nobody even considers just giving the affected crewmembers vitamin D supplements, intravenously if necessary.

Number One receives a message about a problem with the transporter. She goes to investigate and finds Hemmer trying to beam a glowing piece of Hetemit IX’s mantle aboard Enterprise, so there will be enough light. Unfortunately, the manooeuvre would also seriously endanger or even destroy the ship and it would do nothing to help Hemmer, because planetary mantles do not emit ultraviolet rays, never mind that it’s not even sure if Hemmer, who is a completely different species with a different skin colour, synthesizes vitamin D from UV-B light, like humans do. Since Hemmer is endangering the ship, Number One stuns him and bodily carries him to sickbay, even though Hemmer is rather heavy, something that Christine Chapel comments upon.

Now Number One finally comes clean. She already caught the virus, but her immune system fought it off like it has been engineered to do, since she is one of the dreaded Illyrians. She tells M’Benga that the cure is in her blood and asks him to synthesize it. M’Benga says that he can’t, whereupon Number One tells him that she’s aware of Starfleet regulations forbidding the mixing of human with evil genetically engineered Illyrian blood, but there are lives at stake here. M’Benga replies that’s not the reason, he recognises the ban on genetic modification as the idiotic overreaction and prejudice that it is. However, Number One’s immune system has done such a good job at wiping out the virus that there’s nothing left for M’Benga to analyse.

While all this is going on, Pike and Spock are still stuck on Hetemit IX. Pike is pacing the archive, while Spock continues his study of the records left behind by the Illyrians. The storm closes in and in the storm, Spock and Pike see strange glowing energy creatures, the titular ghosts. And they truly are ghosts, because as Spock learns from the archive (Spock’s role in this episode is basically Mr. Exposition) this particular group of Illyrians was so desperate to join the Federation that they attempted to reverse their genetic modifications. As a result, they caught the same virus that strock down the Enterprise crew and since they had de-engineered their boosted immune system, they all died. Some of the colonists were affected so badly by the virus that they ran into the ion storms seeking light and were transformed into the friendly energy ghosts that protect Pike and Spock from the storm, when it breaches the compound.

Aboard the Enterprise, Number One – who is one of the last crewmembers left standing – receives a message that the Warp field containment is weakening. She goes to investigate and finds La’an, who has knocked out Christine Chapel, when she tried to sedate her and now decides that breaching the warp core will finally give her enough light. I suspect that a warp core breach might emit UV-B radiation along with a whole lot of other, far more deadly spectrums of radiation.

Number One tries to stop La’an, whereupon La’an, who was mercilessly bullied as a child (that would have been before she was abducted by the Gorn) for being the descendant of that noted mass murderer Khan Noonien-Singh, screams at Number One that she is a genetically engineered monster. Now La’an has not inherited Khan’s modifications, though she does prove that people named Noonien-Singh should be kept away from the Enterprise‘s warp core at all costs. Number One finally manages to subdue La’an when the warp containment field begins to fail, flooding engineering with radiation. Both Number One and La’an glow.

There is a cut and the episode continues with Dr. M’Benga being woken from sedation by Christine Chapel and Number One. It turns out that Number One’s augmented immune system saved her from a lethal dose of radiation. However, it saved not only her, but La’an as well and cured the disease in the process, too. And since La’an is not Illyrian, but a plain regular unmodified human, she developed antibodies, which Christine was able to synthesize to cure the crew. And if you’re screaming at the screen at this point, “This is not how immune systems work. None of this makes any sense,” then you’re not alone.

Number One also tells M’Benga point blank that they have found the cause of the problem, namely the emergency medical transporter, whose bio filters were not upgraded along with the regular transporter, because Dr. M’Benga refused the upgrade. Number One further reveals that she knows that M’Benga is storing something in the pattern buffer of the transporter and wants to know what the hell he was thinking. M’Benga reveals that what he’s keeping in the pattern buffer of the emergency medical transporter is not a something but a someone, his terminally ill daughter. Because M’Benga can’t cure her, he keeps her in the pattern buffer until a cure is found. Upgrading the emergency medical transporter would have interrupted the power supply and deleted the pattern buffer and his daughter. M’Benga fully expects that Number One will order him delete his daughter and only asks for some time with her, but Number One will do no such thing. Instead, she will arrange for the emergency medical supporter to get a permanent power supply to keep the daughter safe. Of course, the away team didn’t even use the emergency medical transporter, but the main transporter with the bio filter upgrades, but the episode is not concerned with such details.

Once Pike and Spock have safely returned from Hetemit IX, Number One goes to see him and offers to resign her commission, since she hid the fact that she was an Illyrian to join Starfleet. Pike, however, will have nothing of this and when Number One says that not turning her in might get him into trouble, Pike replies with, “Let them try.”

Finally, Number One goes to see La’an in the Enterprise mess hall to make up – the first episode revealed that they have a close connection. Number One says that the Illyrians were not like Khan, they genetically modify themselves in order to adapt to their environment rather than terraform planets, which reminds Paul Levinson of the 1950 science fiction story “Enchanted Village” by A.E. Van Vogt.

The Enterprise mess hall displays yet more of the glorious retro design that characterises Strange New Worlds so far, e.g. the sets look like something from the 1960s, only with a much higher budget. And so the Enterprise mess hall is reminiscent of Verner Panton’s Spiegel cafeteria from 1969 in all its psychedelic glory. Thr Illyrian archive is furnished with midcentury Knoll International sofas and the abandoned colony on Hetemit IX looks like an abandoned World Fair of the late 1960s or early 1970s, complete with Buckminster Fuller domes, glass bricks, walkways and brutalist architecture, which is very fitting, since science fiction films liked using abandoned World Fair sites for filming in the 1970s and beyond (large parts of Iron Man 2 were shot on the grounds of the 1964 World Fair in New York City).

But while the visuals and the acting of Strange New Worlds continue to be great and I really like the characters, plus everybody passes the “What would Commander McLane do?” test this episode, I still can’t look beyond the fact that the entire light virus plot is complete and utter nonsense that makes zero scientific sense. Ditto for the fact that Number One was somehow able to join Starfleet and serve for years without anybody ever scanning her to notice that a) she is not human, though she looks human, and b) she’s genetically modified.

But then, telling a science fiction story that makes sense is not what this episode is about. Instead, “Ghosts of Illyria” is another example of Star Trek using a science fiction story to deliver a moral message, in this case that blanket prejudices are wrong. And while the message is still rather blunt, “Ghosts of Illyria” manages to do a better job at delivering it than “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”, not that that is a high mark. And indeed, this would have been a good episode, if not for the fact that the science makes so little sense that my suspension of disbelief was completely shattered. It also doesn’t help that while I may be able to except a lot of gobbledegook about transporters and pattern buffers, since there are no transporters and pattern buffers in the real world, I know how vitamin D works, how ultraviolet radiation works and how immune systems work and so the many mistakes just pulled me out of the story.

I’m actually surprised that most reviewers seem to have enjoyed this episode, for while it was enjoyable enough to watch and also has something to say (but then it’s Star Trek and Star Trek always has something to say), the abysmally bad science really ruined this one for me.

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