Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 3 review: “A Trek story on autopilot is still inherently watchable”

Warning: Our Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 3 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…

After well over 800 stories told across seven decades, 11 TV series, and 13 movies, official Star Trek continuity is arguably even more labyrinthine than Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away. Throw in the missions from Trek’s numerous spin-off novels and comics – AKA the non-canon Beta storylines – and you’re looking at so much content that even Lt Cmdr Data would take his time getting through it all.

The current crop of Star Trek shows has a proven track record of plundering the franchise’s extensive on-screen back catalog for plot, but ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ launches Strange New Worlds into the realms of that rich expanded universe. That the Enterprise’s first officer, Number One (Rebecca Romijn), is actually an Illyrian – a member of a genetically engineered race of augmented humans – had been long established in novels. Now – much as Star Wars Rebels lifted Grand Admiral Thrawn from Timothy Zahn’s classic Expanded Universe novels – the history she’s previously kept hidden from her shipmates is officially part of mainstream Trek canon.

With Number One (we now know her full name is Una Chin-Riley) delivering the scene-setting log entry at the beginning of the episode, there’s never any doubt this week’s focus will be firmly on her. In fact, by the time the opening titles roll around, she’s already assumed command of the Enterprise, with Captain Pike trapped (alongside Spock) on the surface of the show’s latest strange new world. 

The crew had beamed down to investigate the disappearance of a group of Illyrian settlers, whose genetic modifications have made them – and any associated technology – illegal in the Federation. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Pike and co have stumbled into an unlikely melting pot of familiar Trek clichés, with an approaching ion storm forcing the rapid evacuation of the away team, leaving key officers out of communications range, and exposing the Enterprise a dangerous and highly infectious virus.

Both the original series and The Next Generation dealt with unconventional contagion early in their runs (with ‘The Naked Time’ and ‘The Naked Now’, respectively), so ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ feels like it’s exploring overly familiar territory – even though the specter of Covid-19 adds a spooky, all-too-real dimension to the story’s novel pathogen and lockdowns. 

While the plotting is anything but original, the symptoms are far from conventional, as crew members develop a thirst for light so unquenchable that Ensign Lance (the ship’s answer to Timothée Chalamet) is soon shoving his head through a computer panel to get his photon fix. Number One is also briefly infected, but after a brief episode of intense glowing – it looks like Strange New Worlds’ effects team have borrowed some visuals from Iron Man 3’s Extremis soldiers – she’s seemingly in the clear. Could her immunity be connected to her Illyrian DNA? 

The answer is never in doubt, and that’s the episode’s problem in a nutshell. Few of the plot twists in ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ will come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched Star Trek before, with many of them telegraphed from light years away. Indeed, given Spock’s well-publicized intellect, it’s baffling he has to read so many of the Illyrians’ journals before he realizes that the effervescent ghosts floating around the planet’s surface are actually the settlers in a new non-corporeal form.  

Back on the ship, Una has become a one-woman taskforce, offering her augmented immune system as the source of a cure – it won’t work, the medics claim, because her super-antibodies have already vanished – while preventing her infected shipmates from killing themselves with objects like super-heated fragments of planetary cores. 

The solution to the epidemic is almost farcically convenient, based around an inexcusable moment of deus ex machina that sees Una protecting La’an from a warpcore-induced dose of radiation, while simultaneously generating the antibodies that can save the crew. 

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds episode 3

(Image credit: Paramount)

The good news, however, is that even when Strange New Worlds is telling a Trek story on autopilot, it can’t help being inherently watchable. 

While ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ sticks to the standalone story formula that’s been serving Strange New Worlds so well, it’s also finding ways to develop its characters – arguably the series’ most powerful weapon – at impressive speed. And even though the laugh count is a bit lower than in previous episodes, Andorian engineer Hemmer is staking a claim for the title of most sarcastic officer in Starfleet, while Pike and Spock’s slightly antagonistic interplay proves that being stuck on a hostile alien world doesn’t have to be dull. “Consider skipping to the end before the storm tears this building apart,” the captain reminds his verbose science officer, just one of many moments that hints their relationship could become just as memorable as the iconic Kirk/Spock axis. 

But there’s no question that Number One is number one on this episode’s call sheet, as a character who debuted in original Star Trek pilot ‘The Cage’ gets her first moments of genuine on-screen development. As you’d expect from the first officer on the flagship of the Federation, she’s brilliant at her job, but ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ allows her to evolve beyond the logical, efficient exterior that’s traditionally been the character’s trademark. 

Just as The Next Generation gradually developed Worf’s relationship with his Klingon homeworld, Una’s augmented heritage is bound to be explored further as Strange New Worlds progresses – especially now that La’an has revealed that being a descendent of Khan Noonien Singh has made her somewhat hostile towards anyone with an artificially enhanced genome. 

Pike’s sympathetic refusal to accept Number One’s resignation is a wonderful display of solidarity, and it undeniably informs her decision to allow Dr M’Benga to keep his terminally ill daughter in stasis in a transporter buffer – even though his actions led to the virus making it on board the Enterprise.

That said, from Kirk to Picard and beyond, Starfleet commanding officers have a long history of turning a blind eye to breaches of Federation protocol – in an episode as by-the-book as ‘Ghosts of Illyria’, any other outcome simply wouldn’t feel right.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is currently airing now in the US on Paramount Plus. A UK airdate is TBC – though Paramount Plus launches in the UK on June 22. For more, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.

The Verdict


3.5 out of 5

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 3 review: “A Trek story on autopilot is still inherently watchable”

The weakest episode of the season so far is nonetheless a fun trip into Star Trek’s expanded universe. While the virus plot is Trek-by-numbers, Rebecca Romijn’s Number One emerges as Strange New Worlds’ latest star – and her genetically enhanced backstory has plenty of potential for the future.

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