The following contains Star Trek: Strange New Worlds spoilers.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Episode 3
Three episodes of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds down; three episodes that have essentially hit it out of the park. I’m afraid I’m going to start sounding like a broken record here fairly quickly but this show is simply delightful from start to finish, and its character work is as deft and entertaining as its standalone adventures are fun to watch.
This week’s installment finds the Enterprise crew investigating the site of an abandoned Illyrian colony, as part of a research attempt to find out what happened to them before they all vanished. Illyrians have a fraught history with the Federation, thanks to their history of genetically altering themselves in ways the organization forbids in the wake of the Eugenics Wars, and little is known about them. (Or what became of this particular group of colonists.)
The planet is frequently swept by ion storms, which renders extensive trips to the surface impossible and can be potentially life-threatening to organic life forms. That this is obviously where Pike and Spock get trapped should be a no-brainer to anyone who is even at least passingly familiar with this franchise, but what is a pleasant surprise is that because of this, they’re actually absent from the bulk of the episode, allowing us to spend most of our time with the main Enterprise crew we’re least familiar with (Una, M’Benga, Chapel, and La’an).
Though Spock definitely still gets the line of the episode with “I am arming us with knowledge” as he responds to an attack from an unknown and seemingly deadly energy creature by…calmly continuing to read a scroll. Goodness, but Ethan Peck is a gem.
“Ghosts of Illyria” is a perfect example of how this incarnation of Star Trek is more than capable of telling rich, character-focused stories right alongside close-ended adventures of the week. The fight against a virus that causes those infected to crave light so badly they will do literally anything to get more of it, from ripping out electrical fixtures to trying to open the warp core in order to bask in its radioactive glow is the primary problem for the Enterprise crew to solve, but it’s only about maybe the third most exciting thing going on this show this week. (Though, admittedly, it does provide us with some excellent horror-tinged moments along the way.)
Where last week’s installment was largely a Uhura-focused episode, “Ghosts of Illyria” is probably best categorized as a story about Number One, though it touches on many larger themes and topics. She’s the character that gets the opening and closing voiceovers, and it’s the secrets she’s been keeping that provide the hour’s most dramatic revelations. Given that we knew comparatively little about the Enterprise’s female first officer prior to this series, the idea that Strange New Worlds would be particularly eager to flesh out her character makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that any of us expected that she would be revealed as an alien essentially passing for human just so she could serve in Starfleet, but given her ridiculous work ethic and desire to prove herself it makes a bizarre kind of sense. (And it certainly explains how she’s so good at so many things.)
Though Illyrians have appeared in the Star Trek universe previously, they haven’t been the focus of an especially huge story. The idea that they’ve been forbidden Federation membership because of their interest in genetic modifications makes a ton of sense given the fact that Strange New Worlds isn’t that far removed, timeline-wise, from the Eugenics Wars and the defeat of Khan and his Augments. And the sentiment isn’t something that I think Federation and/or Starfleet are necessarily super proud of—Pike certainly isn’t, it would seem—but the lingering distrust of the race is very real and apparently quite widespread.
Una gets plenty of opportunities to be a complete badass this week though, from offering up her most closely guarded secret, her literal blood, and the rest of her career to try and save her crewmates. Not to mention stunning Hemmer and carrying him back to sickbay and then physically fighting La’an, before either of them can do something stupid like open the warp core or transport a piece of Hetmet-9’s core onto the ship. But perhaps the most heartrending moment of the hour comes after Number One confesses her years’ worth of lies to Pike, who predictably doesn’t care even the slightest bit and essentially promises to protect her if and when Starfleet eventually finds out.
Her almost giddy relief is such that one has to wonder if Una has ever truly had anyone accept her for herself before, or tell her that she has worth for precisely what and who she is. Sure, she doesn’t quite trust it, and her understandable angst about how Pike—or the rest of the Enterprise crew—might have reacted had she not also essentially been the outer space version of a model minority is something that I desperately hope this series gets a chance to address again at a later point. (And it’s a subplot that’s certainly worth thinking about and looking at more closely.) But truly, I just adore her and Pike’s friendship, with its firm trust, obvious love, and utter lack of sexual tension, and I hope that more shows take a lesson from this, is what I’m saying.
Number One isn’t the only main member of the Strange New Worlds crew dealing with long-held secrets and emotional damage though. Surprise, Dr. M’Benga is responsible for the medical transporter malfunction that allowed the virus onto the ship in the first place, basically because he didn’t allow anyone to do basic security updates on it when the ship was in space dock. Why? Well, he’s hiding his dying young daughter in the transporter’s pattern buffer, essentially holding her in stasis in order to keep her disease from advancing while he searches for a cure amongst the stars. And then there’s La’an, who’s feeling some kind of way about the secrets Una’s been keeping about her identity,
But after essentially facing years’ worth of persecution and abuse herself simply for being so obviously connected to the most famous Augment of all, her hatred of those who genetically altered themselves is certainly understandable (if not entirely fair). And though it seems as though the two women have essentially patched things up by the end of the hour, I doubt this is the last time we’ll hear about her past—both with Una and otherwise. I’m very much looking forward to the inevitable La’an episode, is what I’m saying. But for the moment, I’m content to just enjoy this ride.