The whole “ban on genetic engineering” thing in the Federation has always seemed a bit… unthought out. Not in-universe, but metatextually. The logic of it is, “well, Khan was a super-evil dude, so maybe we shouldn’t do that.” And, fair enough, you can see the sense there, and for that being presented as the reason to avoid it. But also… to the point where other species can’t even be allowed in to the Federation? That seems a bit spurious — something which has been done for plot reasons rather than because anyone has sat down and gone, “well, do we really think the Federation would actually respond in this manner?”
And that, at its heart, is what “Ghosts of Illyria” is about. Essentially the whole episode is a morality play on the idea of unintended consequences. In attempting to reverse the genetic modifications they have made to themselves, the Illyria wipe themselves out. Oops. Obviously, that’s not what the Federation meant when banning genetic engineering within it’s walled garden, but that’s still what ended up happening anyway. M’Benga’s desire to keep his daughter alive, too, is the law of unintended consequences, since it’s that (and his failure to have the medical transporters upgraded) that leads to This Week’s Threat.
The problem with the genetics ban — and it’s a fairly hefty one — is that “because Khan” just doesn’t carry enough weight to rest the policy on. Khan, in terms of both the character and the film that bears his name, already exert far too much gravity on Star Trek as it is. A simple invocation of his name (and, in the case of Strange New Worlds, his descendent) just isn’t enough to get us over the line this time out when it comes to the reasons behind the ban. Nor quite how completely inflexible that ban is enforced. Ok, so the Illyria have modified themselves genetically and that’s not allowed. So they can never join the apparently-enlightened Federation because of that? Even if they stop, and renounce any intention of ever doing it again? Yeah, no.
It’s a problem with this episode, but, as with the previous two episodes, this is still a strong piece of work. It’s probably a slight step down from the first two episodes but if it is, it’s only a slight step down. What we have here is a good, old-fashioned Star Trek morality play, and one about prejudice to boot. Because, it turns out, Number One is also an Illyrian, and lied to gain entry into Starfleet. We find this out because she’s immune to a light virus and can generate antibodies to defeat the infection — like you do — and so, in saving the crew, her genetic legacy is laid bare for all to see.
That’s a classic Star Trek right dilemma right there. The light virus thing is a bit of plot fluff to get things moving, of course, and not really important in the grand scheme of things beyond being This Week’s Threat. But it’s what happens once the plot’s all been tidily tucked away that really matter. Pike chooses not to turn Number One over to the authorities despite her deception. Why?
Well for one it leaves a lingering plot thread to come back to (it would be genuinely amazing if this never comes up again) so we can get a little bit of serialisation in. That’s a very TNG model of serialisation, though, and certainly the best approach in this case. It’s worth mentioning there’s no heavy-handed foreshadowing either (This Plot Will Return! of the type certain other Star Trek shows can be rather guilty of) so if it doesn’t come up again, that’s fine. It was the prejudice that was discussed this week and we move on. But, also, it does of course show Pike being open-minded enough to not only accept Number One for who and what she is, but he states he’ll support her if and when things go further.
And that’s just great! As ever, Anson Mount sells the hell out of Pike as a leader, someone absolutely will stand by his crew member when it’s needed. But full praise here to Rebecca Romijn, who’s given the first chance to really stamp some kind of personality on Number One (or Una Chin-Riley, to give her actual name) and runs with the chance. As with Celia Rose Gooding last week with Uhura, given a character with very little to work with she finds whole ways of making Number One a compelling character all one her own, and deserves much praise for her work here. And speaking of nothing characters getting fleshed out…
Hey, Doctor M’Benga, it’s your moment in the spotlight! Even less significant than Yeoman Rand or Nurse Chapel in the original series, Doctor M’Benga was, in a very literal sense, background colour in a tiny number of TOS episodes. He was sickbay’s Uhura — African-American representation at a time, and in a field, when that simply didn’t happen. Except, unlike Uhura, he was never a full member of the crew and even dedicated Star Trek fans might struggle to remember that he even existed at all (despite the labours of many spin-off novels to flesh the character out).
Hark, then, at just how fucking brilliant Babs Olusanmokun is in the role. A sick child, a bafflegab way of keeping her alive, and a tragic backstory are such stuff as cliché’s are made of. Yet Olusanmokun is simply outstanding here. This ought to be a bit hacky, and on paper it pretty much is. Yet he gives an astounding, soulful performance that really sells the heartbreak of what he’s trying to achieve. The simple pain he feels about being a chief medical officer on board the fleet’s flagship yet unable to cure his own daughter again ought reduce to straightforward cliché, but it doesn’t. Well, alright, it does, but he’s a good enough actor to make it seem like it doesn’t. M’Benga has been a pleasing presence in the first two episodes but here, seeing how much Olusanmokun puts into the role, the character suddenly and unexpectedly deepens. It’s this episode’s strongest moment by far.
So with all this good stuff going on, why is this a step down? In truth, while so much of the episode works, and works well, there’s just one too many familiar notes for this to work. Number One forgiving and assisting M’Benga paralleling Pike doing the same for her is fine and fairly successful. Throwing the augment side of Christina Chong’s La’an Noonien-Singh into the mix pushes it into the realm of heavy-handed when it really doesn’t need to be (Chong’s doing well with the role, though). There’s lots of pleasing nods back to TOS — ion storms, transporters not being able to get everyone off the planet, that sort of thing — but they feel a little more foregrounded this time out, rather than the slightly more natural integration in the first two episodes. The episode also suffers from Too Many Endings Syndrome, a condition even Starfleet’s finest medics can’t apparently cure. It’s not Return Of The King level, but the episode really does feel like it ends a good half-dozen times. And, yes, the Khan thing. It’s wishful thinking, but enough already.
But, to circle back to where we started, if this does feel like it’s not quite on the same level as the first two episodes, the qualitative differences between them are still very slight. This is an episode which isn’t afraid to wear its TOS-style morality play on it’s gold-braided sleeves, and it is to be commended for that. If this episode isn’t 100% successful, well, it’s not like TOS got it right every time either. The performances all remain pretty terrific — I didn’t even talk about albino Andorian Hemmer, but he’s a fantastic, sour presence in the middle of everything — and the way the show manages to be so completely relaxed about what it is makes it a pleasure to watch.
Indeed, “relaxed” is maybe the best way to describe Strange New Worlds three episodes in. It simply gets on with the business of being great Star Trek without having to be all tense and angsty about it (Discovery) or leaning on heavy-handed nostalgia (Picard). I mean, obviously there is a nostalgic element to it, yet this show would work just as well even if you had never seen a single episode starring William Shatner. That’s a real triumph — invoking the spirit of the past without simply being a bland recitation of it. Strange New Worlds continues to surprise and delight, and it’s genuinely exciting to see where it’s going to go next.
Also, nice jackets.