WHY WE LIKE IT: Secrets and lies. Oooh, the gray jackets!
WHY WE DON'T: Peck pronouncing "colonists", "colniss". Drives me up the wall.
REVIEW: An abandoned Illyrian colony sets the stage for secrets being exposed while the crew is thematically threatened by a virus carried by light that turns everyone into dangerous light addicts. Wonky science (but definitely not outside the realm of Star Trek) but wait, haven't we heard of Illyrians before? Sort of. There's an Enterprise script ("Damage" during the Xindi season) that uses them, but I don't think the aliens are named onscreen. These guys had forehead ridges(TM), but as it turns out, Illyrians could have varied looks because they are a race that play with their own DNA to adapt to new environments rather than terraform the planets they colonize. That's interesting enough, but the Enterprise appearance was still a reference to something further back. Una isn't so much revealed to be an Illyrian in this episode as CONFIRMED to be one, since the notion started in Star Trek NOVELS. In D.C. Fontana's Vulcan's Glory, Number One is stated to be a human raised on Illyria and who benefited from Illyrian mental conditioning. In the 2010s, more books used this idea, but shied away from true genetic modification, stating something more akin to eugenics. The episode makes no bones about it: Between Number One's computer mind (suggested in The Cage) her mega-strength, and her ability to burn out the virus, she's definitely the product of genetic manipulation, as SECRETLY an Illyrian.
Secretly? How did she fool Starfleet for all those years? Did she cheat medical tests? Are the Illyrians former humans who chose a different path after the Eugenics Wars than what became the Federation? Her blood is certainly anomalous enough (who doesn't have any antibodies?), though the medical staff doesn't clue in until she actually says it. An early scene on the planet seems to imply Pike knows (a cryptic "even you"), but she later tells him, tries to resign and put herself up for disciplinary action, etc., so he wasn't helping her hide the truth (he is NOW). Una makes a good case against the Federation's absolutist ban on genetic manipulation, but I don't think it's exactly correct to chalk the policies up to reactionary fear of another Eugenics War. The better argument might be not to hold other species to human standards - it's obviously cultural for the Illyrians. The poor souls of this colony who tried to de-augment themselves just to join the Federation and ended up succumbing to the light virus as a result shouldn't have had to bend over backwards until they broke their backs. Credit to Pike that he's ready to go to bat for his Illyran Number One, but he shouldn't be doing it because she's "the best first officer in the fleet", considering she got there with that unfair advantage Bashir was accused of having on DS9. La'an acts the voice of the Federation's outrage, having a personal stake in that she is Khan's descendant. We knew this from the marketing, but it's actually another confirmation. I just noticed they usually stick to Noonien as her last name and don't add the Singh. Wouldn't she still carry modified genes, or was Khan only "bred" to be superior (as is actually suggested), something that would have been "bred out" over time?
The mystery of why the virus didn't get filtered out by the transporter also leads to a secret being exposed. As the emergency builds, Dr. M'Benga has cause to act damn suspicious about the medical transporter. We will learn that he's been keeping his little girl in the buffer, Scotty-style, for a year - she having less than 12 weeks to live due to a terminal, incurable condition - which initiates a long-running subplot. So as to not lose data, he's prevented Starfleet from updating the machine, and by episode's end, Una keeps his secret, refuses his resignation just as Pike refused hers, and puts a dedicated power source on it, isolating it from other systems. More on this later.
The episode also provides our first look at the new Engineering room. It's even bigger than the huge sickbay, rec deck and bridge, with a giant warp core in the back, after a veritable precipice. Gorgeous, and one gets the sense that with time, warp cores will only become smaller and more approachable, as they are TNG onward. Hemmer continues to be a fun, if under-utilized, character. He gives great attitude, and I love the bit where he puts his crew into action with a simple snap of his fingers. Of course, he's essentially a wizard when it comes to engineering, so when he's infected by the light virus, his addict's scheme is the most dangerous and flashy: transporting a molten part of the planet's mantle so he can throw himself in it. Crazy stuff, but this whole light virus business is full of crazy moments. I like the scientific detective work that goes into beating it - one key piece also shows Uhura's bunk, the closest thing we've seen to Lower Decks' accommodations - how the COVID era informs the lockdowns and lingo used, how Una essentially has to fight alone at the end, etc., but the solution is cursory at best, cheap at worst. Una healed herself from a dose of radiation while holding La'an real tight and it... transferred? And La'an got some of the right anti-bodies in the process..? Couple of lines and done, magic healing hands sort of stuff. Not convinced.
Meanwhile, Pike and Spock have their own little adventure on the planet surface, waiting out an ion storm while studying the Illyrians, mispronouncing words, and hiding out from weird energy ghosts. The ghosts are revealed to be the colonists, turned into electromagnetic creatures by the storms, and intent on protecting the two officers, not harming them. I certainly like the sense of riding out a storm (as on the ship, it's lights out for different reasons, but still looks like a power outage), but we're veering into science fantasy. It's fine, but the episode is probably trying to hard to justify Pike's stance about revisiting the augment issue. I think his loyalty to Una would have been enough.
SECONDARY WATCHING: So CAN Spock serve with a Noonien-Singh and not mention it in Space Seed? Having rewatched that seminal episode, he and Kirk prepared a presentation on the matter, and he's the one who gives Khan's biographical details. In other words, there's an unshown scene where they come to this realization and decide to tell the senior staff about it. Spock may very well have mentioned it then. Even before that, at the dinner, Kirk and Spock may already suspect, because they goad Khan into revealing himself. Spock may have clued in very early due to his personal connection to La'an. The beauty of having Spock bridge the two shows is that he is a tight-lipped character who need not say everything that's on his mind (he does not, for example, tell Khan he served with his descendant). The real trouble spots are Uhura and Chapel. Chapel isn't in Space Seed, but Uhura is and gets slapped around by one of his men. But she and Chapel get so few lines in most episodes that there's no time to hear their reactions anyway. No doubt, they gossip about this stuff all the time below decks.
LESSON: Stop hiding and step into the light.
REWATCHABILITY - Medium-High: Despite the weird physics causing plot holes in the fabric of space-time, the episode is still engaging and adds depth to a number of characters.