The latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds takes us on a race against the clock as a medical mystery sweeps through the Enterprise at the speed of light, and Captain Pike (Anson Mount) and Spock (Ethan Peck) fight to survive an ion storm on the surface of an abandoned planet. The episode is classic Star Trek, as our heroes work to solve tandem puzzles in high-stakes situations both on the planet and on the ship. Number One (Rebecca Romijn) takes center stage as we dive into her past in Strange New Worlds, Season 1 Episode 3, “Ghosts of Illyria.”

Illyrians are one of Star Trek‘s most elusive species having only been encountered in the primary timeline once on Star Trek: Enterprise. A humanoid alien race, the Illyrians are known for genetically modifying themselves to achieve perfection. While they haven’t done any specific harm, thanks to the Eugenics Wars from the 1990s — in which infamous Star Trek villain Khan Noonien-Singh played a major role — no genetically modified species are allowed to join the federation.

When a young ensign brings an infection back to the Enterprise, the crew begins behaving strangely — as their vitamin D levels plummet, crew members seek out light sources to the point of their own detriment. With the captain trapped on the planet below, it’s up to Commander Una to find a solution with Doctor M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) working to keep the infection from spreading.

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The Illyrians bring up a certain amount of understandable resentment in Chief of Security La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong). As humans, our personal experience colors our view of the world to a significant degree, as the descendant of a “bio-engineered mass murderer,” La’an has significant apprehensions about the Illyrians, believing that this infection is just another example of why genetic modification is so incredibly dangerous, especially in the wrong hands. While La’an does have a point, it’s equally dangerous to allow one person to shape the way we approach entire societies or identities.

As the infection spreads throughout the ship and senior staff members begin losing control, Una must reveal that she is an Illyrian. While little about Una has ever been explored on-screen, her connection to Illyria comes from a 1986 novel by D.C. Fontana titled Vulcan’s Glory. Recently, Star Trek: Discovery also pulled from the Star Trek fanzine Spockanalia to give the planet Vulcan its new name 900 years in the future. As a series that bridges the future and the past, it’s heartwarming to see Strange New Worlds continue to draw from Star Trek‘s deep history to inform these characters and their relationships.

Planetside, Spock and Pike discover that this particular colony of Illyrians was working to undo their genetic modifications in order to join the Federation. As the storm reaches a fever pitch, a trio of electromagnetic beings breaks into the library. While the captain and his science officer are expecting an attack from the sentient storm, instead the lightning-like creatures bond together to protect the two of them. Together they realize that the creatures are likely what’s left of the Illyrians as they evolved to survive this planet.

As Una fights to keep her crewmates from destroying themselves, M’Benga illuminates the fact that Starfleet’s disregard for Illyrians can be traced back through most of human history. “Prejudice has kept people from helping each other for centuries, with no scientific justification,” he tells her. Many people allow their biases and misconceptions to shape how they treat — or mistreat — certain groups of people. Star Trek has a knack for illuminating both the best and the worst of humanity in the pursuit of pushing us to be better.

This episode is primarily an action-packed adventure mystery but also delivers some solid character moments on the other side of the climax. Una confronts La’an after the contagion drove her to nearly dive into the warp core and to say some heated things to her superior officer. La’an’s history with Augments gives her deeply held beliefs that anyone with genetic modification is dangerous, so when she learns that Una, one of her dearest friends, is from a race of genetically modified beings, it calls that belief into question. Una’s dedication to Starfleet and her desire to not be mistreated for who she is are in direct conflict, which forces her to keep her identity a secret. The same concept can be applied to a plethora of minority identities as people of different races, sexualities, and cultures have had to make themselves fit into certain boxes in order to be accepted for centuries.

With her secret known by a handful of senior staff, Una seeks out Captain Pike to resign her commission and turn herself in for breaking Starfleet regulations. Naturally, he rejects her resignation. Pike carries no prejudice, and sites Una’s merit as “the best first officer in the fleet.” Even though the Federation could come after him for harboring her, Pike is steadfast in his belief that she belongs here. He’s a perfect example of how learning more about a group of people can and should build bridges of kindness and understanding. This moment also serves to further flesh out their relationship. Connections between the best captain/first officer duos, like Kirk and Spock (TOS) or Janeway and Chakotay (Voyager), require certain levels of trust and vulnerability, as well as differences that complement each other. Seeing Strange New Worlds lean into those aspects of their dynamic so immediately bodes well for Pike and Una.

Another key character revelation in this episode lies in the medical transporter. M’Benga reveals that he has a daughter with a rare form of leukemia that hasn’t been cured yet in the 23rd century. Though he accidentally risked the lives of everyone on board in order to save her, Una extends the same kindness Pike gave to her to M’Benga. They create a failsafe that will allow him to keep his daughter alive, suspended in time, as he searches for a cure.

This episode urges us to treat others with empathy and understanding no matter what the circumstances. When are open to new people and new experiences, are able to lift each other up. The parts of ourselves that we cannot change, such as race or where we come from, should have no bearing on our value as people, a concept that Una emphasizes as she ponders when it will be enough to simply “be an Illyrian.”

Rating: A

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is streaming now on Paramount+.

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