This is a tricky one for me to write up1I typically don’t like writing negative posts, so this will probably be shorter than my previous rewatch posts (I hear at least one person cheering…).. First off, I’m going to acknowledge and then disregard the fact that this week’s story is a major lift from the Ursula K. Le Guin short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” That’s because, despite this fact (or perhaps because of it), “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” is a damn good piece of science fiction writing. Whether or not it’s a good episode of Star Trek or one that I particularly enjoyed is perhaps another matter.
I’ll also point out that, on my initial watch, I ranked this episode pretty highly. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve significantly changed my opinion during the course of this rewatch. Partly I think it’s because like most stories with a twist ending, it doesn’t work the same on subsequent viewings. But while some stories are able to compensate for that by structuring things in such a way that they are entertaining in a completely different way once you know the twist (for example, see all of Jason Isaacs’s acting choices in the first half of season one of Star Trek: Discovery), I found myself consistently saying to myself “oh, of COURSE the ending is what it is.” This may just be a failing on my part, but it’s a big part of why I have ranked this episode where I have this go-around.
But the main problem I have is simply that, while acknowledging that this is a solid piece of science fiction writing, I struggle watching an episode with a premise that rests on child torture. Of course the show in no way condones such horrible acts, but they are the crux of everything we see. And as effective as the “gotcha” reveal is, it’s still very hard for me to watch.
This feeds back to my other critique in which I said that the show worked much better for me the first time around, because there is a lot in here that I like! The problem is, knowing where the story goes makes me all the more uncomfortable throughout—especially the more light-hearted moments.
We start off seeing Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) now on security rotation with La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong), and naturally La’an is being a bit of a hardass, because that’s in keeping with her character. The scene in the turbolift between Pike (Anson Mount) and Uhura gives the ship a nice lived-in feel that has, frankly, been missing in a lot of the more modern incarnations2Is Pike/Anson Mount’s impression of La’an cheesy? Yes. Did I laugh at it (in the right way)? Also yes.. This lighthearted moment is cut short when their simple star-mapping mission in the Majalan system is interrupted by a mysterious ship firing on a shuttle nearby.
In the process of rescuing those on board the shuttle, Enterprise also shoots down the attacking ship. In the meantime, the survivors from the shuttle are beamed aboard—a man, a child, and a woman with whom Pike clearly has had a history…
Another thing that really rubs me the wrong way is how Pike is reduced to a bit of a bumbling fool once Alora beams aboard3He actually handles the return of Vina in “If Memory Serves” with a much more level head.. Not to mention that he seems to have a semi-serious thing going on with Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano)4Season Two certainly bears this out.. The fact that he is apparently head-over-heels crushing on this new arrival feels born more out of the necessity of the plot than anything consistent about Pike’s character. If anything, in this episode, Pike feels more like TOS Captain Kirk than anyone we have seen on this show so far. He also goes out of his way to excuse Alora’s behavior that, especially on second watch, is very suspicious, which feels out of character for him.
Some Good Stuff
The child is soon revealed to be the First Servant of Majalus (Ian Ho) who is accompanied by his father, Gamal (Huse Madhavji), who also seems to serve as his personal physician. Their arrival in sickbay takes Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) away from reading time with his daugher, Rukyia (Sage Arrindell). The reveal that the Majalans are much more advanced medically certainly piques the interest of Dr. M’Benga.
I loved this. I appreciated how the writers returned to Rukiya here, and tied her plight into the overall plot of the story. There’s a clear scenario of “these people are way more advanced than we are and that can help us/me” here that reminds me a bit of “Prime Factors” from Star Trek: Voyager5Though overall, I found rewatching this episode not at all pleasurable.. Skipping to the end, there’s a wonderful little scene between M’Benga and Gamal where, perhaps for the first time, M’Benga feels a sense of optimism about his daughter’s condition. I also remember thinking that I hoped that we got to see him continue to make discoveries that would eventually help her6Oh well….
I also love the later scene where the First Servant has discovered Rukiya in the pattern buffer and has let her out to play a bit of futuristic hop scotch. Kids so rarely get to just be kids in Star Trek, and this was a lovely little moment that allowed for that, as bittersweet as that is for the audience. Ian Ho also makes some acting choices here that suggest he understands what is going on with Rukiya and her need to exist within the transporter.
A third thing love is the B/C plot of Uhura’s rotation in security with La’an. Like with Hemmer in “Children of the Comet,” Uhura gives her usual “above and beyond” effort to satisfy La’an, even when it initally appears that she has been given a bunch of tedious busywork. Uhura’s discovery that the attacking ship, which comes from an offshoot called Prospect VII, uses a very similar language to Majalas itself and therefore is a Majalan colony brings to mind the Ba’ku/Son’a reveal in STAR TREK: INSURRECTION both superficially and also that both are pretty much expected if one is paying attention.
…and the Less Good
Meanwhile, there’s mystery surrounding who attacked Alora, Gamal, and the First Servant and why. I’m a big fan of mysteries, and this one is laid out pretty well…except that so much of what happens here happens because Pike is, frankly, being an idiot. He goes out of his way to take Alora’s side multiple times that just don’t line up with what we see of him elsewhere. Where we typically see Pike looking for the expertise of his crew, here he actively fights against it or seems annoyed when he is presented with facts that don’t jive with what he wants to hear.
When Alora (accidentally?) kills one of the First Servant guards who was involved in the attack, Pike’s reaction is right out of the Captain Kirk playbook from TOS7I’m sure he told Captain Batel about this. Right?. I get that Alora has much more agency here (as well as an agenda that we will get to) but these kinds of moments that include waxed chest8I have no evidence suggesting that Anson Mount waxed his chest for this scene, but the parallel to William Shatner is too close to ignore laying-in-bed confessions feel like something that we have moved beyond at this point.
Pike’s obliviousness continues all the way up through the moment where, having returned the First Servant to Majalus, he attends a celebratory event in honor of the First Servant’s imminent “ascension” followed by his walking into a “creepy cave of doom” right out of science fiction central casting.
It’s not until Pike watches the Majalan guards carrying the desiccated remains of the previous First Servant away that he finally clues in that something awful is about to happen. But of course it’s now too late. The new First Servant is plugged into whatever system powers the planet, condemned to live out the rest of his life in, what we assume is continual agony.
The final scene between Pike and Alora is well done, though I find her equivocation between her society’s choices and those of Pike’s to be flawed. She suggests that there are children in the Federation who are also suffering and that the Majalans are somehow better because they own up to that fact. In some way, we the audience have no way of refuting this because we simply haven’t seen Federation life (or even that of the people of Earth) in the 23rd century to any extent9I would absolutely love a Star Trek show that focuses on civilian life within the Federation.. It’s also hard to listen to Alora’s explanation that boils down to “this is how our founders made things, and there’s nothing to be done about it” without wanting to wishing that the people of her planet would try just a little harder10 It’s also hard for me to get through those lines without thinking about the (to me at least) nonsensical hand-waving that Second Amendment defenders make when trying to excuse yet another school shooting.. That said, both Anson Mount and Lindy Booth are excellent in this scene, and I appreciate that Pike leaves without any hesitation at all.
At this point all that’s left to do is get the heck away from Majalus, though not before Gamal meets with M’Benga in the scene I mentioned earlier to share a bit of insight into Rukya’s condition. While I like the hopeful aspect of this scene in isolation, it’s certainly colored by the events of Episode 8—and oh boy, will we get to that later.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, I thought much better of this episode the first time I watched it compared to now. While it’s still a solid piece of science-fiction, it’s just not an episode I enjoy watching because I know where things are going. On the one hand, that’s not really something to blame the writers for. On the other, I do wish they had camouflaged things a bit better. Once you know the twist, so much of what comes before feels like it should come with flashing warning lights, which in turn makes certain characters, especially Pike, make choices that seem completely wrong. Pike, for lack of a better term, spends much of this episode thinking with his dick rather than his head, and that’s just not a good look for the captain, especially in 2022-23, and certainly not given all of the positive aspects we have seen from him in the past. That said, I can understand why some people will think more positively of this episode. This is entirely a matter of taste here. For me, I don’t think I will be revisiting this one anytime soon outside of a full rewatch. Oh well…
Moment of Melumad
While it’s a theme we have heard previously (and one that I have called out previously), the music that plays over the final shot of Pike ruminating in his quarters over a glass of brown liquor is just so good. It’s a top-five music moment of the season for me. This theme has certainly established itself as the most emotionally affecting in Strange New Worlds so far11It has another glorious statement at the very end of the Season Two epsiode “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”.
- In researching this post, I realized that this episode came out a week after the Uvalde, Texas school shooting. Given the subject matter and general premise, that was sobering to say the least.
- A lot of Majalus reminds me of Stratos from the TOS episode “The Cloud Minders.”
- Part of their pillow talk involves Alora suggesting Pike come live on Majalus after his accident. If his disgust at how her society functions wasn’t clear at the end of the episode, he ultimately chooses to live the illusion of being healed vs. the real thing.