May 25, 2022

Streamin' Meemies: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ep 3, "Ghosts of Illyria"


So the pattern of this show seems to be set. Plot-wise, the episodes are one story and done. Character-wise, the arcs seem to be continuing through the season. And so far, the evidence shows that one character in particular is spotlighted per episode. In the first episode, it was Captain Pike; in the second, Cadet Uhura; and now in the third it is Number One, Commander Una Chin-Riley.

(Although that comes with a bit of a caveat in this episode, as Dr. M'Benga also has a character spotlight, even if it's not the primary one.)

The episode opens with the First Officer's log, Una explaining that Enterprise has been dispatched to Hetemet 9, the site of an abandoned Illyrian colony. Illyrians are a humanoid species forbidden to join the Federation because of their habit of genetic modification. Enterprise was sent here to find out what happened to the colony, but they can't stay on the surface long because of ion storms, "one of which is fast approaching." As the landing party gets ready to leave, Pike goes to grab Spock, along the way collecting an ensign who is shining his flashlight around a just opened cabinet (as ominous music plays). Una and the rest of the landing party try to transport out, but Kyle can't get a lock on them. He calls down to Chief Engineer Hemmer for help, and Hemmer (accompanied by his usual snotty remarks) reroutes auxiliary power to give the transporter a boost. (The camera lingers on the engineering set, which is gorgeous.) This works so quickly that Kyle gasps: "How did you do that?"

"I am a genius. Move quickly." 

(The actor is playing Hemmer's arrogance to perfection, but man, it's already getting tiresome. I hope something happens soon to take this jerk down a peg.) 

Pike and Spock are still on the surface; in fact, Spock is pulling what look like lighted canisters out of the wall in the "library," and the one he is looking at is "a journal of previously undiscovered relevance." They go to the beam-out point, but the storm is too strong and Kyle can't get a lock on them, so they run back to the building to take shelter. Una goes to the bridge and explains the situation to the crew. 

Down one of Enterprise's corridors, Lieutenant Ortegas finds the same hapless ensign standing before a porthole, pulling his pants off. "It's too dark in here. I need to feel the light on my skin." She tries to talk him down, but he bashes his head through the glass (it's a damned good thing this is apparently a decorative covering, rather than the outer hull itself) and she has to wrestle him away while summoning security. The ensign isn't the only one: in her quarters, Number One looks at the decorative lamp and asks the computer to increase the illumination 25%. She also starts tearing at her uniform to expose more of her skin to the light. But then something strange happens: her face and hands start to glow red, and after a few moments she snaps out of it. Realizing something very weird is going on, she calls Dr. M'Benga and asks him the status of the landing party. The doctor says he was about to call her, because "I have several of them in here as we speak, presenting with some very curious symptoms." Una goes to sickbay, to find the people there have burned and/or shocked themselves to get closer to illumination: "They're being attracted to light." 

M'Benga: "So much so they're willing to hurt themselves to get to it."

The crew members have no viral/bacterial contagion as far as Dr. M'Benga can determine, but are showing severe drops in vitamin D. He says the landing party must have come into contact with something the transporter biofilters missed. Number One goes down to engineering to ask Hemmer about this, and the chief dismisses the idea: "Nonsense." He nonetheless says he will run a level 5 diagnostic, "which, I might add, may well take all night." Una goes back to the bridge and is briefly able to communicated with Pike, telling him she has a "situation," before the signal is lost. 

Next, she goes to the ready room and asks for everything the computer has on Illyrian genetic modifications related to disease control. Before she can really get started on what's available, La'an enters in response to her summons. Una tells La'an what's going on and asks her to have her security team keep an eye out for "strange behavior." La'an sees what she's researching and asks if what's happening has anything to do with the Illyrians. "It seems to me things like this are exactly why the Federation is so wary of genetically modified species like the Illyrians. You start breaking down the genetic code, who knows what the unexpected consequences can be?"

Una: "If the problem originated with the Illyrians, maybe they could also provide us with a cure."

La'an: "Isn't using any Illyrian medical tech against Federation regs?"

Una: "Thanks to the Eugenics Wars. I imagine you know all about that period in history."

Then it comes out: La'an is a descendant of Khan Noonien Singh, and was tormented as a child because of it. But that conversation is cut short as La'an begins exhibiting symptoms, remarking how dark it is in the room before shining Una's desk lamp full on her face. She's taken to sickbay, where everyone realizes the contagion is spreading but they have no idea how it's happening. Dr. M'Benga urges a full lockdown, and Una orders it. 

During the lockdown, Uhura is in her quarters in bed. (It's rather convenient that her "bedroom" is a bunklike nook in the wall with a sliding door that puts her in total darkness.) She is awakened by her roommates experiencing symptoms. In sickbay, Dr. M'Benga notes there are more than 50 affected people. In the middle of all this, Hemmer comes to sickbay, snottier than ever and still running his diagnostic, wanting to check the emergency medical transporter. M'Benga objects (and we see him surreptitiously flicking a switch that will dim the lights and agitate the patients): "Please stop messing around in here!" and Hemmer leaves. 

Down on the planet, the ion storm is still raging, and Pike is pacing in the library where he and Spock have taken shelter. Spock observes that "a watched kettle never boils," and when Pike corrects him with "Pot," notes that "You are deliberately mixing my metaphor to indulge your anxiety." Well, of course Pike is, because people are sick on his ship and he can do nothing. Spock is still reading the journal-canister he pulled from the wall (which is kind of weird, actually; that should be a tablet or a printed book or something, rather than a canister that looks like it could be used to shoot deposits through a bank's drive-through pneumatic tube). At any rate, he discovers this group of Illyrians wanted to join the Federation, so much so "they were attempting to reverse their DNA modifications to gain entry." But this conversation is cut short as they hear shrieking outside, and look out the window to see what appear to be orange energy beings flying through the storm towards them. 

As the storm progresses, the "ghosts" are gone....or are they? Spock mentions that "the journals did mention unconfirmed rumors of creatures living inside the storms," as they start pounding on the door. (With what, since they don't have any flesh-and-blood hands to pound with, I'm not quite sure, but whatever.) Pike is standing and facing their hastily erected barricade with his phaser drawn, and Spock (bless him!) is still trying to read his cylinder. Pike asks: "Does that thing have a setting for stun?" (This line, like all of Anson Mount's lines, is delivered to perfection.) 

"I am arming us with knowledge," Spock insists, and says the creatures started to appear as the Illyrians were dying from a mysterious disease. 

The storm intensified, popping Pike's ears. As Spock announces that it is now "fatal to organic life," the beings break through the door and stream in. Pike and Spock hit the floor, and the creatures hover over them, sheltering them.

In sickbay, Una is trying to figure out why Uhura isn't sick. Uhura says she went to bed--"I closed the door. I need it pitch-black to fall asleep"--and Una realizes the contagion travels on light waves. She decides to turn off the lights aboard the entire ship and sedate everyone in sickbay. She then goes back to researching Illyrian genetic modifications, and is interrupted by a "blackout override in the transporter room." Hemmer is there, in the grips of the infection and attempting to beam aboard a chunk of the planet's mantle (!!!) to bathe in its 10,000 degrees of light and heat. Una phasers him and carries him down to sickbay (although it's rather obvious the actor is carrying a pair of pants stuffed with straw and/or feathers and not the person). She dumps Hemmer in sickbay, and Dr. M'Benga says he needs to be sedated next. At this point, Una 'fesses up: "I'm immune. I've already come down with this and my immune system did what it was engineered to do. I didn't tell you earlier because I'm an Illyrian." It's clear she expects the doctor and Chapel to be shocked and fearful, but they're not. In fact, M'Benga is discouraged by her admission, as her blood, drawn earlier, has "no novel antibodies"--Una's Illyrian immune system burns out new infections immediately, and there is nothing there to synthesize. (In the background, La'an sits up, hearing this.) Una puts Dr. M'Benga out, and another crisis arises: "Warp core containment field has been deactivated." It's La'an, who knocked Chapel out and ran.

Una runs down to engineering, and she and La'an get in quite a fight. La'an gives a good account of herself, even as she is lashing out at Una, calling her "an augment, a monster," which is what La'an was called as a child. Una knocks La'an out, but the radiation levels have risen high enough that her immune system kicks into overdrive again as she crouches over La'an's unconscious body. 

On the planet, the storm is finally over. Pike asks why the energy beings saved his and Spock's lives but didn't save the colonists, and Spock theorizes that the energy beings were the colonists (which was obvious). He says the journal cylinder he was reading reported that the infected Illyrians ran into the ion storms, and due to some improbable handwaving technobabble the storms created the energy beings after the colonists' bodily deaths. 

In sickbay, Una wakes up Dr. M'Benga and says she has a cure. Apparently La'an, being so close to her when the containment field went down, received a high dose of radiation but was able to create "chimeric antibodies" (how would that even work? this stretched my suspension of disbelief more than a little) that Chapel was able to synthesize. Una then goes to talk to La'an and clear the air. She explains why her people bioengineered themselves: "My people were never motivated by domination. Illyrians seek collaboration with nature. By bioengineering our bodies, we adapt to naturally existing habitats. Instead of terraforming planets, we modify ourselves. And there's nothing wrong with that."

La'an: "If that's what you believe, why do you hide it?"

Una: "I've been hiding it from a lot of people. All I ever wanted, since I first saw the stars, was to join Starfleet." 

La'an, relenting a bit: "And you gave me that dream."

Pike and Spock have beamed back aboard by then, and Una goes to turn herself in. She admits to lying to Starfleet and breaking regulations, and presents herself for a disciplinary tribunal. Pike refuses to accept her confession. Una points out "if you shelter me, they could come after you too."

"I welcome that discussion," Pike says, and calls her the "best first officer in the fleet." He tells Una to let him worry about Starfleet, and tasks her to fix the transporter's biofilter. Una investigates, and goes to confront Dr. M'Benga: "It was your medical transporter that inhibited the biofilters." He's storing something in it, something he risked the entire crew over, and she demands to know what it is.

"Not what," M'Benga says. "Who." It is his young, terminally ill daughter, who he's been storing in the pattern buffer, rematerializing her periodically. Her disease is brutal, but in the buffer it cannot progress, and he is hoping that in Enterprise's travels he will find a cure for her condition. He says he won't risk the crew again and asks to spend some time with his daughter before Una turns him in. But Una, paying forward what Pike has done for her, says she will provide him with a dedicated power source to keep the girl safely stored. 

The episode ends with Una making another log entry, recounting how she confessed to the captain and wondering if he only spared her because she saved the crew. She also wonders when, or if, the time will come when she will be free to be "just an Illyrian." Meanwhile, Dr. M'Benga is reading a story to his little girl in sickbay. 

Well. This was a taut little adventure story, shining light on Number One and M'Benga in particular (Una is shown to be decisive, level-headed and very competent, and Rebecca Romijn plays it beautifully) while strengthening Pike and Spock's relationship. But there are also decisions made in this episode which will presumably (at least I hope they will be followed up on) come back to bite Captain Pike in the ass. I don't think this was quite as good as the first two episodes, but it was still a solid hour of Star Trek

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