HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
Strange New Worlds has certainly hit the ground running. Episode Three puts us on an abandoned colony whose inhabitants were struggling to undo genetic modifications that barred them from entry into the Federation. As the story unfolds, the episode’s message becomes clear–bigotry in all forms is deadly. This is Trek in its purest form because “Ghosts of Illyria” is a story about one issue that gets flipped on its head but resolves relatively well. The story has its issues to be sure, but it’s for sure a solid installment in the show’s first season.
An Away Team including Pike, Spock, and Una beams down to an abandoned Illyrian colony in order to investigate what happened to the colony’s inhabitants. However, their time is limited as the planet is plagued with severe ion storms that can turn lethal. One such storm arrives faster than anticipated, prompting most of the Away Team to return to the Enterprise. However, Pike and Spock remain on the surface and must take refuge in the colony’s crumbling buildings.
Back aboard the ship, several members of the Away Team begin displaying strange symptoms, including an obsession with light that leads several crew members to engage in potentially disastrous behaviors. Una found herself briefly affected, but she quickly recovered. No other member of the crew was quite as lucky. Working with M’benga and Chapel, she deduces from Cadet Uhura’s experience that the strange virus travels most strongly in light. M’benga discovers that the primary symptom of the disease is a severe Vitamin D deficiency that results in an obsession with light.
This being the Enterprise and thus full of over-achieving geniuses, several crew members develop fascinating solutions to their problem. Hemmer attempts to beam up part of the planet’s mantle, which would have been fatal. Lance uses his head to destroy the plating between himself and a light source. La’an shuts down the warp containment field because the explosion would produce light.
Una quickly realizes that her unique physiology allowed her to overcome the virus because as an Illyrian, she has been genetically modified. Unfortunately, those modifications are illegal in the Federation due to Earth’s traumatic past with the Augments. Revealing her species would destroy her career, but Una goes to M’benga to see if he can use her blood to synthesize a cure. Unfortunately, her modified immune system works all too well, so there’s nothing there he can use. Having contracted the disease himself, M’Benga demands to be sedated, and Una complies.
Alerted by an alarm, Una rushes to the engine room to find La’an in the process of shutting down the warp containment field. La’an viciously attacks her, angry both because Una lied about her species and because Una’s genetic modifications fall far too close to those of her own ancestor, Khan Noonien-Singh. Eventually, Una defeats La’an, but the radiation in the room has reached lethal levels. Una’s immune system heals both herself and La’an, and La’an therefore has enough antibodies that Chapel can create a cure.
On the planet, Pike and Spock discuss the colonists’ fate and opine that their desire to join the Federation may have been the reason they all perished as they’d removed the enhancements to their immune system and left themselves vulnerable to a strange virus. The storm batters the shelter, and the two Starfleet officers quickly realize that they may not survive the storm’s fury. Golden figures appear to fly out of the storm-clouds and bear down on Pike and Spock, who flee. The figures break into their last hold-out just as the storm blows out their shelter’s windows. The figures protect Pike and Spock from the fatal storm and then disappear as the storm wanes. As they prepare to leave, a last canister of data recordings extends automatically. It contains the colonists’ manifesto.
Back on the Enterprise, Una tries to resign, but Pike refuses to accept her resignation. He says he’ll fight for her, but he does tell her she has to address the issue that caused the contagion. As it happens, M’Benga is the proximate cause. He refused to allow the medical transporters to be modified and upgraded because he’d been keeping his daughter, Rukiya suspended in the pattern buffer in order to give her more time. She was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and he’s been waiting for a cure to be found. Una promises him a designated power source to protect his daughter but explains that he must correct the issue with the transporter.
In her own quarters, Una muses that she has Pike’s protection because she’s a hero. Just before deleting her log entry, she wonders when just being Illyrian will be enough.
“Ghosts” is a story first and foremost about discrimination. Una had to lie about some of the most fundamental parts of herself in order to join Starfleet, and by all rights, she should be stripped of her commission for doing so. Pike offers her his protection, which is in essence, a free pass, but he does so not because it’s the right thing to do but because she’s exemplary. Una’s experience here recalls the particularly pernicious myth of the “model minority,” in American society. The idea, at its basest level, is that by acting in a certain way, by performing at high standards, members of this minority “earn” acceptance by the larger majority. That is, of course, damaging nonsense.
The point “Ghosts” wants to make is that IDIC must mean radical acceptance if it’s to have any meaning at all. As Pike and Spock discover, the Illyrians on the planet literally died because in their efforts to force themselves to meet the Federation’s expectations, they removed the key element of themselves necessary to defeat the ravages of the virus. In true Trek fashion, Una’s genetic modifications end up being what saves the day. The Federation’s refusal to accepts the Illyrians on their own terms has therefore had lethal consequences, and the episode certainly doesn’t imply that Una’s actions will do much to undo that prejudice. While she herself may escape heavy censure, she is only permitted to do so because she’s acting as a model officer.
Her point is that she should have the right to exist; that right is not something that should be earned, especially in a society that prides itself on its inclusiveness. That is, of course, the lesson for us, the viewers. “Ghosts” reminds us that we should always evaluate our prejudices, no matter how legitimate we believe them to be. La’an’s experience serves to remind us that the prejudice doesn’t just affect the Illyrians but has also been turned on other humans simply for being born with a particular last name. Nothing good comes of it. That’s staple Trek fare, and “Ghosts” manages it beautifully.
I have real questions about some of the plot elements, however. How does Una’s immune system heal La’an? Why didn’t La’an’s immediate forebears change their name? I don’t believe that every question needs an answer; I like that Pike and Spock leave the planet without coming to a concrete conclusion about the figures that saved their lives. However, a little more development on Una’s magical immune system would have been nice.
Four and a half time crystals.
Stray Thoughts From the Couch:
- Una deleting her log entry reminded me very strongly of “In the Pale Moonlight.”
- The last time we saw Illyrians was in Enterprise.
- Una Chin-Riley is rocking some fierce manicures in this show, and I am here for it.
- Extreme vitamin D deficiency in humans used to be known as “rickets” and resulted in bone malformation. This must have been special, but I am certainly no medical professional.