In “Ghosts of Illyria,” Strange New Worlds Tackles Tolerance and Hypocrisy

Yesterday, the trailer debuted for a new studio romantic comedy called Bros, written by and starring comedian Billy Eichner. In the trailer, Eichner’s character describes being invited by a movie studio to create a “straight-friendly” gay romcom that demonstrates that gay relationships are really just like straight relationships. Except, he explains (well, yells, because it’s Billy Eichner) they’re not. “Our friendships are different! Our sex lives are different! Our relationships are different!” The rest of the trailer is essentially a pitch for the movie that he would make and has now actually made, an uncompromised depiction of gay romance and culture as he sees it, packaging it in a way that’s familiar but without catering the content to the comfort or expectations of straight audiences.

The trailer (and presumably, the film itself) speaks to a hypocrisy common in American culture, which professes tolerance and inclusion while actually demanding assimilation. Even if the intent is to foster empathy (and not just to rake in dollars at the box office), there’s something insidious about the idea that, in order to gain acceptance from the majority, a minority has to convince them that they’re essentially the same. That’s not celebrating diversity, that’s dismissing diversity, diluting it so as not to offend the sensibilities of people who take the acceptance of their own culture for granted. Then there’s the added metatextual layer of the author needing to have accumulated mainstream cache over decades just to be invited to make the movie in the first place. 

Oddly enough, this plays right into the themes of this week’s episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Ghosts of Illyria.” It’s a story about a shunned out-group that tries so hard to bend to the comfort of a more powerful in-group that they actually destroy themselves, breaking under a pressure that no truly tolerant culture would apply.

Full spoilers for the episode ahead.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Number One of the Good Ones

In “Ghosts of Illyria,” the Enterprise pays a visit to Hetemit IX, a planet once colonized by the Illyrians that is now a ghost town buffeted by frequent ion storms. The Illyrians have been denied entry into the Federation for their custom of modifying their genome, something that has been forbidden since the inception of the Federation and illegal on Earth since before even that. As a result, they remain shrouded in mystery, with even the seasoned Captain Pike (Anson Mount) knowing little about them beyond unflattering rumors. An away team including first officer Commander Una “Number One” Chin-Riley, (Rebecca Romijn) returns from the surface carrying a strange, untraceable pathogen that makes them irresistibly attracted to light. Crew members begin smashing open light fixtures and burning themselves on white-hot holographic suns just to satisfy the urge, and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) and Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) must rush to find a cure.

The nature of the disease itself is a pretty cool sci-fi idea — it’s a lightborne virus that triggers its host’s pleasure sensors when in proximity to light, encouraging its spread — but the illness itself is only an accessory to the episode’s theme. The real story is about what’s happened to the colony below, and how it relates to Una Chin-Riley. Shortly after returning from the away mission, Una experiences the same uncontrollable attraction to light as the rest of the crew, but only for a moment. Her body glows red, and she quickly returns to normal. Later, when Dr. M’Benga asks her if she’s experienced any symptoms, she lies and says “no.” It’s only later, after practically everyone else has gotten sick and Chief Engineer Hemmer (Bruce Horak) has nearly melted himself with a chunk of hot magma that we find out why: Una is secretly an Illyrian herself (from a different faraway colony), and has been hiding not only superhuman strength but a superior immune system that destroys the pathogens in her body in a matter of minutes. If she hadn’t had to hide her identity in the first place and had come right to sickbay after recovering from the illness, M’Benga might have been able to synthesize a treatment before the disease spread throughout the ship. Now, it’s too late, and her hyperactive metabolism has already erased any evidence that she was even sick.

By the time Una comes clean about her heritage, Dr. M’Benga and Nurse Chapel are the only other crew members who haven’t been sedated and they’re well beyond caring that she’s been passing as human for her entire career. But, since genetically engineered individuals are forbidden from serving in Starfleet (we’ll get to that), she’s certain she’ll be drummed out of the service. That is, if she even survives the afternoon, as her mentee Lt. La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) has awakened and intends to get her light fix by overloading the warp core, destroying the Enterprise in the process. Luckily, Una saving La’an from radiation poisoning also passes on her immunity to the light virus, from which the doctor can inoculate the crew. Una’s saved the day, so when she tells Captain Pike the truth she’s been hiding throughout their long friendship, he refuses her resignation. Una is touched that he’s willing to stand up for her to Starfleet, but is also quietly frustrated about the nature of her reprieve. Pike justifies defying regulations on her behalf by pointing to her heroic actions during this crisis and her years of exemplary service, saying that she defies stereotypes about Illyrians. He stops just short of calling her “a credit to her people.” Alone in her quarters, Una wonders what would have become of her if she wasn’t a model officer. Why should she even have to worry about this at all?

While the scene at the end of the episode in which Una ponders aloud “When will it be enough to just…be an Illyrian” is definitely on the wrong side of corny, it’s also bold of writers Akela Cooper and Bill Wolkoff to have Captain Pike step into this common pitfall of well-meaning people of privilege and then to call him out on it in the text. Pike is a paragon of virtue, but he’s also a human Starfleet Captain, and though white and male privilege are assumed to no longer exist in the 23rd century, it’s still a part of how he’s read by modern audiences. People of similar privilege (myself included) are naturally going to relate to him, and some may not even twig that he’s misstepped here because, like Una, people who are praised for “defying stereotypes” are often not in a safe enough position to challenge such condescension. Pike misses out on this teaching moment, but the audience doesn’t. At the same time, Una faces some backlash from La’an, who as a distant descendant of genetically-engineered tyrant Khan Noonian Singh has lived with a stigma all her life. She resents that her mentor was able to exercise a sort of passing privilege while she, not even an Augment herself, was teased as a child for her ancestry. But Una can’t be blamed for that, either. The same culture that told La’an to be ashamed of who she was told Una to be afraid, to hide herself or to face expulsion, which she may now have avoided only by proving herself useful to someone in power.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Pros and Khans

Una’s struggle turns out to be a microcosm of a much greater one that took place down on the surface of Hetemit IX. While the Enterprise copes with the outbreak, Pike and science officer Spock (Ethan Peck) remain trapped on the planet, where they take shelter from the ion storm and the strange glowing specters who reside within. Hiding out in an abandoned Illyrian archive, Spock discovers a document of the colonists’ attempt to reverse their genetic augmentations in order to gain entry into the Federation. It doesn’t take too long to put two and two together and realize that the scary-looking (but actually benevolent) red-orange wraiths are the survivors of the de-engineering effort, which saw countless innocents die when they were stricken by the same disease that now afflicts the Enterprise crew. The mystery of Hetemit IX turns out to be a great tragedy, the story of a people who tried to change themselves to be accepted by a powerful majority. As Una later explains, Illyrians don’t modify their genetic makeup in the service of some arbitrary idea of perfection, but to adapt to new environments rather than terraforming them to their specific needs. It’s an act of harmony, not of ambition. Rather than learn to understand the context in which they practice a long-standing taboo, the Federation rejected them outright. And so, the Illyrians of Hetemit IX attempted to adapt to yet another environment that they’ve discovered to be hostile — the Federation itself — and were unmade in the process.

Of course the Federation feels justified in denying membership to the genetically-enhanced Illyrians. Moreover, part of what makes this story so effective is that its social allegory depends on a futuristic prejudice that Star Trek has instilled in its viewers for half a century. The franchise has made a number of strong arguments that human genetic augmentation is immoral and potentially dangerous, and as a lifelong viewer I am predisposed to agree. That’s part of the point: It doesn’t really matter what I think. Una and her culture have a totally different relationship to genetic engineering than the humans in the Federation or the humans in the audience do. There’s no indication that their use of it has done harm in the way that it has in our experience, nor that they would attempt to force the practice on other member worlds. The Federation has imposed its own context on Illyrian culture, passed judgment, and determined that they should be excluded from their community. Considering that the Federation is the dominant political and economic force in this part of the galaxy, the Illyrians have only two choices: to remain pariahs, as Una’s colony has, or to conform to the Federation’s standards even at the expense of their own identity. In the case of the Illyrians of Hetemit IX, their attempt to conform cost them their very lives. 

After learning the fate of colonists, Captain Pike feels that the Illyrians are severely misunderstood by the Federation. He’s moved by their effort to accommodate the Federation’s misgivings about them, regretting that their “good faith gesture” as he calls it got them killed. Pike is on the right track here, and knowing him as we do it’s likely that he understands that the tragedy is not that their transformation failed but that they felt it was necessary in the first place. Tolerance thrives on common ground, certainly, but it cannot be contingent upon it. The most important thing two groups need to share in order to coexist is the sincere desire to do so. If one group requires that the other bends to fit neatly within their understanding, then their desire to coexist is not truly sincere. In other words, if a straight audience wants a gay romantic comedy that’s just like a straight romantic comedy, then they don’t actually want a gay romantic comedy.