Secrets and Lies — Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: “Ghosts of Illyria”

Back in 1989, D.C. Fontana—who was the story editor for most of the original series’ first two seasons, the show-runner for the animated series, the uncredited co-creator of TNG, and who wrote for all those shows as well as one DS9 episode, many of which were excellent and influential episodes—wrote a Trek novel called Vulcan’s Glory. It took place prior to “The Cage” (and retroactively, shortly after the Short TrekQ & A“), and chronicled Spock’s first mission on the Enterprise.

It also established that Number One was a genetically engineered human from the colony of Illyria, a backstory that was used in several other works of tie-in fiction (notably 2010’s The Children of Kings by David Stern and 2016’s Legacies trilogy by David Mack, Greg Cox, and Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore).

Said backstory has now been incorporated into the onscreen canon, with an interesting twist…

One of my biggest issues with the first two episodes of SNW is the lack of focus on Number One. As I said back when SNW was formally announced as a thing that was happening, Number One is the one member of SNW’s “big three” that is a totally blank slate, as prior to Discovery season two we had no idea what the character’s fate was after “The Cage.”

The fleshing out of Number One had already taken one cue from the novels—the first name “Una,” from Legacies, which means “one” and also a tribute to Trek novelist Una McCormack—and this episode gives her the last name of Chin-Riley, and also establishes that she’s Illyrian.

But there’s one big difference between Trek now and Trek in 1989 when Fontana created that backstory for Number One: it wasn’t yet established that the Federation had banned genetic engineering, a rather huge overreaction to the Eugenics Wars (and, out of the box, a reason for the lack of any kind of genetic engineering in a show populated by actors who are from contemporary Earth).

“Ghosts of Illyria” combines those two notions (and apparently ignores the Illyrians seen in Enterprise’s “Damage”) by establishing that Illyrians have been denied Federation membership because they genetically engineer themselves. Number One has kept her Illyrian heritage secret, but is forced to reveal it this week for reasons of plot.

That plot, ironically, involves an Illyrian colony that is on a planet regularly wracked by that original series standby, ion storms! Said colony was wiped out and Pike and the gang beam down during one break in the ion storms in an attempt to find out what happened. However, a stormfront moves in and everyone except Pike and Spock are able to beam back—the latter two are stuck because Spock was in a library reading, which is the most Spock thing ever, and by the time they made it to the beam-out point, the storm was too brutal.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

Unfortunately, the landing party brings a contagion back onto the Enterprise, one that causes people who have it to seek out light, often to the exclusion of common sense. It starts with one ensign shoving his head through glass to get closer to a light source, and ends with Hemmer trying to beam a piece of the planet’s mantle on board and La’an trying to make the warp core explode.

The key to stopping the contagion is in Number’s One’s genetically engineered immune system, which aggressively wipes out any disease or virus. The problem is, it’s so aggressive that there’s nothing left for M’Benga to work with by the time she admits her heritage. But La’an’s attempted warp-core breach results in radiation flooding engineering (something we also saw happening in The Wrath of Khan) and Number One’s hyper-immune system cures both her and La’an and it’s sufficiently complicated that her antibodies are still at it long enough for Chapel to get a sample and use it to cure the crew.

This is the third time in the last three weeks that a Secret Hideout Trek show has referenced the Eugenics Wars. There was Adam Soong’s “Project Khan” folder in Picard’s “Farewell” and Pike referencing it as part of Earth’s ramp-up to nuclear armageddon shortly before first contact in “Strange New Worlds.” And given that it’s part of the backstory of both Number One and La’an, I suspect it may come up again, and I’m wondering if there’s an endgame to that…

Yes, La’an, too. From the beginning, she was established as having the same family name as Khan Noonien Singh from the original series’ “Space Seed” and the movies The Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness. In this episode it’s established that she is a descendant of that tyrant, and it was a source of merciless teasing when she was a child, and on into adulthood where she was accused of being an Augment, even though she isn’t one. (Why she didn’t just change her name is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Upon finding out that Number One is an Illyrian, and while still under the influence of the virus, which makes everyone who gets it more than a little binky-bonkers, La’an says some pretty nasty things to her. After being made fun of for so much of her life, to find out that her mentor is in reality what she was accused of being is a bitter pill to swallow.

Number One’s response is to point out that genetic engineering doesn’t have to lead to tyranny. What Illyrians do is adjust themselves to fit their environment better—rather than terraform planets they terraform themselves. They make themselves better, helping the evolutionary process along with less risk.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

When Number One comes clean to Pike and offers her resignation, Pike refuses to accept it. When she reminds him that that makes him an accessory to her lying to Starfleet, his glorious response is, “I welcome that conversation.” She’s the best first officer in the fleet, and she just saved everyone’s asses. And the implication there is that he agrees with her that the genetic engineering ban is a silly goose. Though Number One does muse in a personal log (that she immediately deletes) that Pike’s response might have been different if she hadn’t just saved everyone’s asses, though I think that’s not giving the captain enough credit.

Rebecca Romijn is superb in her long-awaited spotlight, as the character’s cool confidence and no-nonsense leadership and easy professionalism is leavened nicely by her conflicted impulses with regard to revealing her heritage.

But she’s not the only one with a secret, as we find out how the contagion got on board the Enterprise despite there being bio-filters in the transporters: the emergency medical transporter didn’t get the same upgrades as the other transporters when the ship was upgraded prior to “Strange New Worlds.” And the reason why is also a potential explanation for why M’Benga has a lower position in the sickbay hierarchy when we see him in the original series’ “A Private Little War” and “That Which Survives,” to wit, he’s keeping his sick daughter in the medical transporter’s buffer. She has an incurable disease, so he’s keeping her in the buffer—rematerializing her periodically to prevent the pattern degradation that would happen if she spent too long in there, as established in TNG’s “Relics.” Number One not only doesn’t punish him for this, she promises to find a way to make it a more stable proposition. Earlier in the episode, Number One hesitated to do everything she could to save lives because of Starfleet regulations, and most of the crew got really sick and almost died. She won’t make that hesitation again, and so she more aggressively chooses M’Benga’s daughter’s life over regs.

The B-plot here is Pike and Spock down on the planet, and not only does it continue to solidify the Pike-Spock dynamic that would lead to Spock breaking dozens of regs to help Pike a decade hence in “The Menagerie,” but it’s also a master class by Ethan Peck in continuing the character of Spock. Every line of dialogue is delivered in a manner that is at once very Leonard Nimoy-like, and yet totally Peck as well. (Credit also to screenwriters co-executive producer Akela Cooper and supervising producer Bill Wolkoff for penning very Spock-y dialogue.)

This part of the story is also a poke in the eye to the Federation’s ban, as Spock learns from his reading that the Illyrians on this colony wanted to join the Federation, and as a good-faith gesture attempted to “de-engineer” themselves by removing their genetic modifications. It kinda failed, and resulted in them either dying from the same virus that nearly wipes out the Enterprise or turning into energy creatures.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Screenshot: CBS

The genetic engineering ban has been a bit of an odd duck since it was established in DS9’s “Dr. Bashir, I Presume?” in 1997. I can see why they thought it would work for that episode and for the character of Julian Bashir in particular, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it in the larger context of the Trek universe, for the very reasons Number One enumerates to La’an. One wonders if the show is going to continue to challenge that twenty-five-year-old plot point…

Points also to giving everyone something to do, even if it’s minor—Ortegas’ only scene, for example, is discovering that one of the landing party has the virus, while Uhura only has two scenes—without making it feel like they’re being sledgehammered in. Everyone has a role to play, and it works nicely.

I’m still not entirely sold on Hemmer as a character. He’s still not much beyond “arrogant genius,” a character type that can wear out its welcome pretty quickly without something to ameliorate it. Hemmer hasn’t really had much to do yet, and it’s mostly been the usual “I’m so brilliant, and I’m just humoring the dummies around me” stuff. Bruce Horak is playing the part very well, mind you, and the producers seem determined to give everyone a spotlight (Pike two weeks ago, Uhura last week, and Number One this week), so let’s hope that Hemmer gets his day in the sun.

We’ve also got now three crew members who are defying regulations in a manner that should probably have consequences—Number One for hiding her heritage, M’Benga for hiding his sick daughter, and Pike for not doing anything about either one—and one wonders when those chickens might come home to roost…

Keith R.A. DeCandido has an essay in the new collection Unauthorized Offworld Activation: Exploring the Stargate Franchise, edited by Rich Handley & Joseph Dilworth Jr. Keith—who did a Stargate Rewatch for this site in 2015—wrote about how the three leaders of the expedition in Stargate Atlantis were let down by their writers. The collection also features essays by Jo Duffy, Dr. Anastasia Klimchynskaya, Robert T. Jeschonek, Kelli Fitzpatrick, Mark L. Haynes, Brandon Jerwa, Ren Cummins, Bryanna Elkins, Frank Schildiner, Edward Dodds, Val Nolan, and Darren Sumner, and has a foreword by Alexis “Skarra” Cruz.


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