This post contains minor spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1, Episode 3: “Ghosts of Illyria.”
After 60 years, Number One (Rebecca Romijn) has an onscreen backstory! The second-in-command of the USS Enterprise takes center stage in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1, Episode 3: “Ghosts of Illyria.” The results are a heartfelt and thought-provoking examination of one of Star Trek’s greatest legacy characters (I said what I said). The episode also further develops crew members like Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun).
Before we dive into the episode, I wanted to express my gratitude to the cast (especially Romijn) and crew who brought Star Trek: Strange New Worlds to life. “Ghosts of Illyria” continues the series’ trend of providing stunning visuals and engaging and thrilling material that re-examines classic Trek lore with a modern lens. The writers behind Strange New Worlds aren’t afraid of taking risks with familiar yet unexplored Star Trek content. The development of Number One, aka, Una is a clear example of this.
“Ghosts of Illyria” follows the Enterprise crew as they investigate an abandoned Illyrian colony. The Illyrians modify their genes to survive in various environments, an act forbidden in Starfleet, resulting in the Illyrians being considered outcasts. As Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and Spock (Ethan Peck) investigate the fate of the Illyrians on the planet’s surface, a virus spreads through the Enterprise causing the inflicted to be attracted to light—sometimes with potentially fatal results.
With Pike trapped on the planet’s surface, Una takes command of the Enterprise and grapples with a secret that could destroy her Starfleet career: she’s an Illyrian. Una’s Illyrian identity was established in the 1988 novel Vulcan’s Glory, written by Star Trek icon D.C. Fontana. It’s cool to see Strange New Worlds embracing and canonizing material from the expanded world of literature, especially from Fontana whose work includes some of the greatest Star Trek episodes: “The Enterprise Incident,” “Journey to Babel,” and “Yesteryear.”
Like her people, Una spent her childhood looking at the stars and dreaming of joining Starfleet despite the Federation’s ban on genetic modification. The virus once infecting the Illyrians sweeps through the ship, infecting most of the crew and putting Una in the precarious position of revealing her identity, even if it means jeopardizing her career and exposing herself to bigotry.
“Ghosts of Illyria” explores bigotry and prejudice in the classic Trek fashion of using alien metaphor. This episode takes it a step further by calling out bigotry for what it is; a cowardly tool used by people who view the world as an extension of themselves and who let fear, uncertainty, and personal bias dominate their lives. “Ghosts of Illyria” rightfully calls out bigotry as a systematic issue that can infect a peace-faring and highly advanced society like what Starfleet represents. It’s a battle that must always be addressed head on.
For all of its progress, Starfleet is still guilty of prejudice. Their prejudice leads to the ban of the Illyrians from entering the Federation, prompting the Illyrians to genetically de-modify themselves to fit within the organization’s standards. The episode explores the tragic implications of this act that mirror the loss of culture and livelihood from imperialism and exploitation.
It doesn’t take long for the episode to establish Starfleet’s bigotry comes from the fear of what genetic modification reminds them of: Khan Noonien Singh.
La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong), the chief of security on the Enterprise, name-drops her ancestor and one of the greatest villains in Star Trek as she remarks on the stereotypes of genetic modification. Starfleet only allows itself to look at genetic modification through one lens: it’s bad and anyone who engages in it has no place in the Federation.
Starfleet ignores the fact Illyrians didn’t use genetic modification the same racist and destructive way humans did. It was never about being genetically superior to other beings; it was about respecting the various worlds the Illyrians inhabited without terraforming them. Their usage of genetic modification came from a desire for co-existence with nature, not the domination of it to suit their needs. The cultural value of co-existence is as important for the Illyrians as it is for Starfleet, but the Federation doesn’t see this because of the generational harm its own abuse of genetic modification caused.
The parallel between La’an and Una and their distinct experiences with genetic modification culminates in a moment of connection between the two characters. It also mirrors the development of the relationship between Una and M’Benga. The doctor of the Enterprise reveals a secret of his own in the episode’s final act. The episode kicks off the start of a character arc for him I see continuing throughout the season.
“Ghosts of Illyria” offers a classic Trek episode: a virus infects the crew and causes everyone to lose control. But unlike episodes such as the original series’ “The Naked Now” and The Next Generation‘s “The Naked Time,” Episode 3 of Strange New Worlds has a lot to say, both in how it critiques Starfleet and in how it critiques the franchise itself.
The final scene in which Una reveals her true identity to Pike offers an emotional critique on the idea of “breaking stereotypes” that I wasn’t expecting, but one that I’m glad the episode addressed. People shouldn’t have to break stereotypes and “be the best” to be accepted. Why can’t we just let people exist as their true authentic selves? I think this theme ties nicely with Majel Barrett’s original incarnation of the character in Star Trek: The Cage, in which Number One had to be the best woman in Starfleet to prove her worth on the bridge.
She wasn’t accepted by the men around her, and she wasn’t accepted by Star Trek fans back when The Cage aired. The backlash to the character was incredibly misogynistic, especially among women who responded more negatively to Number One than men did. Her role in the show was never enough, even though she was deeply intelligent and competent at her job. Number One is my favorite Star Trek character. I’m glad the franchise is celebrating and developing her like never before.
All in all, another standout episode.
What are your thoughts about Episode 3 of Strange New Worlds? Let me know in the comments! For all things Star Trek and pop culture, check out my website. Stay nerdy!