Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 2 Episode 4
“Among the Lotus Eaters”
The crew of the Enterprise suffer widespread memory loss when Star Trek: Strange New Worlds sends the Enterprise to clean up an old mess.
Modern Star Trek often has problems with storytelling focus. Sometimes an episode doesn’t contain enough to fill its running time which makes it slow-paced and sometimes an episode either contains far too much which means nothing gets the required coverage. Other times, it fails to find an appropriate focal point which makes it clumsy as it isn’t clear what point is being made by the story being told. “Among the Lotus Eaters” falls into the camp of containing too much and failing to find an appropriate focal point which means it’s an episode that comes across as severely muddled.
The Enterprise is sent back to Rigel VII -the planet Pike and his crew visited immediately before “The Cage”- to clean up a mess of their making. Recent reconnaissance found evidence of cultural contamination as a result of the Enterprise’s last visit so Pike is tasked with removing all traces of Starfleet tech and iconography before more damage is done.
Arguably, this is another example of nostalgia-driven storytelling as fans familiar with deep-cut lore will recognise the planet name and be aware of the anecdotes brought up in “The Cage” detailing how horrific their mission was. Gene Roddenberry added it to the script as he wanted to establish the Enterprise crew as people with history. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock walked with a limp in the episode and Jeffrey Hunter’s Pike used Rigel VII as part of his reasoning for considering leaving the life of a Starship Captain behind. It added texture and scope to a single episode and now it forms the basis for this story; a sequel to an adventure that was never actually shown. It doesn’t fall into the nostalgia trap as the episode doesn’t build itself on the nostalgic reference. Whether the viewer is aware of the reference or not has no bearing as it’s simply a past mission that predates the show and isn’t remembered fondly by all that were involved.
This would seem to lend itself to this being a Pike-centric story and to some extent it is but the episode also opens with the strong suggestion that Ortegas will be the focus. The episode opens with her log entry, something viewers have been conditioned to interpret as an indicator of who will occupy the spotlight. The previous episode does this with La’an and it’s a tactic that was employed in the previous season.
Ortegas is a character that has been poorly served by this show. She has yet to be given an episode focused on her and hasn’t received much development beyond her enthusiastic demeanour, sarcastic personality and piloting skills. Melissa Navia is an engaging performer and everything known about the character suggests it would be interesting to explore her in more detail but the show has so far failed to do so and doesn’t quite correct this misstep by giving her increased screentime in an episode where she and the crew suffer memory loss.
Her log entry sets up that she is feeling stuck in a rut. She flies the ship and it has become repetitive for her. Much of the excitement has faded away and she is in dire need of a change of pace. Being chosen for an away mission excites her as it’s a departure from the norm even though part of that mission involves flying a shuttle through less-than-ideal conditions. It’s what comes after flying the shuttle that excites her for the same reasons that any Starfleet Officer would be excited by an away mission. It involves venturing into unknown territory where anything could happen which is very much the opposite of her day-to-day life on the ship. Orbital conditions mean that she is needed on the Enterprise so Pike benches her for the good of the ship. She understands but is visibly frustrated by the decision because it means a return to the mundanity of her normal job.
All of this sounds like a strong basis for a character arc. Ortegas is well-placed to examine her life choices and consider whether she needs to make a change. This does happen to a degree but the examination happens as a result of having no memory so the bulk of her screen time is spent terrified of the uncertainty around her own identity and then proudly owning the fact that she flies the ship after she manages to save everyone on board using nothing more than pure instinct and muscle memory.
The memory loss gimmick holds Ortegas back because she doesn’t develop as such, she simply comes to accept that being in her current position isn’t as mundane as she thought it was. It’s suggested that she feels somewhat superfluous as flying the ship is a boring task most of the time and the computer makes her feel important when she is consumed by fear brought on by having no memory and knowing that the ship is doomed by telling her that her role is to fly the ship. Even though she doesn’t know herself, she feels important because she knows that it’s her job to get the ship out of this mess. She accomplishes this and approaches her job with renewed vigour upon regaining her memory.
It’s certainly a triumphant moment and the set piece where Ortegas successfully navigates the asteroid field is exciting but it’s a wasted opportunity to develop Ortegas beyond the parameters already established for her. All that is learned is she was frustrated with a repetitive and unfulfilling job and changed her mind about it after the job provides some temporary excitement. Her pledge in the closing log entry is that she won’t let herself forget how important her role is. It’s unknown if this frustration will return at a later point but there’s no actual development of Ortegas as a character and that’s disappointing as her contribution to the episode amounts to more screen time than usual that wasn’t used effectively.
The memory loss gimmick holds back the episode in general as it isn’t used to deliver meaningful insight into the characters. The story is awkwardly split between the planet and the Enterprise which limits the time spent on either collection of characters. Outside of Ortegas, nobody on the Enterprise receives substantial screen time. Spock has more lines than most, Chapel gets to explain the problem being faced but doesn’t detail anything that isn’t expressed on the planet and Uhura introduces the notion of the Enterprise crew rapidly losing awareness of who they are. Much of the content aboard the Enterprise could have been cut in order to focus more on the away team.
There are a few things raised in the Rigel VII set scenes. One is Pike’s PTSD caused by what he experienced on his last visit. Several references are made to horrific things that happened and Anson Mount’s performance clearly shows how they have stuck with Pike. He doesn’t want to return to this place and would like nothing more than to just forget the whole ordeal.
A manifestation of how badly that mission went is Zack (David Huynh); an Enterprise crewmember who was believed killed but was actually left behind. In true Original Series tradition, he has installed himself as a dictator providing the natives with advanced technology in exchange for their devotion. Zack is very much a wasted opportunity as he personifies Pike’s mission. He is the thing left behind that contaminates the culture and could be far more effective than weapons or technology because he’s a person that can discuss the implications of influencing the development of a less advanced culture.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen and can never happen because he disappears for so much of the episode so the potential never has the chance to be explored. Pike’s PTSD is similarly never explored because he spends so much of the episode without his memory so it’s impossible to explore. The issue with Zack is resolved to a degree when Pike apologises for leaving him behind and shows that he understands that he felt abandoned while refusing to accept responsibility for everything that happened since. He flatly states that those were choices that Zack made and had nothing to do with Pike. It’s a simple appeal for Zack to take responsibility for his actions and impossible to argue with. The resolution works thanks to Anson Mount’s performance and Pike being a consistently written character but Zack is very much a non-entity within the story who does little more than add more underdeveloped content to an overstuffed episode.
Memory loss provides Pike with the opportunity to be free of his traumatic memories with the notable drawback of also being without every other memory. There was an opportunity to explore how trauma shapes personality but the episode doesn’t do much with it. It’s clearly established that Pike’s previous visit to this planet was disastrous and continues to haunt him but more attention is given to his relationship with Captain Batel.
That in itself isn’t a problem, particularly when the episode features tension coming into their relationship. The setup is interesting as it’s a believable conflict that would arise when two people are in positions of responsibility that have significant demands on their time. It’s prompted by her being denied a promotion, partially as a consequence of the events of “Ad Astra Per Aspera“. Pike feels guilty and wonders if their relationship is holding her career back in some way. She is at a vulnerable point after being passed over for promotion and Pike handles it poorly by suggesting they take a step back from their relationship. It’s absolutely the wrong approach as it makes Batel feel that both her career and relationship have suffered significant setbacks in a single day.
Her gift to Pike becomes important when he has no memory as it acts as a totem that represents his feelings for her. Even though he doesn’t remember her, it prompts powerful feelings in him and what the compass represents points him in a specific direction. Ultimately, the experience helps him resolve his conflicted feelings about how important Batel is to him and what he wants their relationship to be which leads to him committing to her fully. It’s a significant step forward because they are both Captains so both understand how demanding their jobs are and how difficult it will be to maintain a relationship when they may go months or even years without seeing one another. Despite that, she is important enough to him for him to try and he solidifies his commitment to her after a strong experience guides him through a difficult situation.
It is very much a manufactured problem for the episode itself. Batel has appeared in the show previously so there is a known connection between her and Pike that prevents the progression of their relationship from seeming forced. Using Batel earlier in the season and folding the consequences of her role into this episode works well but the problem is undeniably planted for Pike to resolve over the course of this episode. It’s a recent emotional problem contained in the confines of this episode and has less impact because the show has never explored the depth of Pike’s feelings for Batel prior to this point. She was introduced in the first episode of the show with the suggestion of a casual relationship between Captains whenever both had time. This was supported by Pike not hesitating to act on his attraction to Alora later in the season. The suggestion in this episode is that both of them have been denying the depth of their feelings for each other and have reached an impasse where they either need to embrace a committed relationship or part ways. It’s earned to an extent but also hasn’t been the fixture that this episode suggests it is.
Some significant missed opportunities exist related to the memory loss gimmick. It’s interesting that Pike, La’an and M’Benga fall back on their foundational traits. Pike is a natural leader, La’an is a warrior and M’Benga is a healer but the episode fails to exploit the connection between memories and trauma. The first season was built around Pike dealing with the knowledge of his fate, something he is no longer aware of when he has no memories so some indication of carrying less weight on his shoulders may have been appropriate to feature. More blatant is how La’an has been defined by her trauma. So much has been done with her struggles dealing with her experience with the Gorn as well as the baggage that comes with her family name so it may be interesting to see the sort of person she is without knowledge of either of those things.
According to this episode, being without those memories doesn’t change her in any noticeable way. An extreme personality shift in La’an along with some commentary on the bravery and strength her experiences cultivated would have presented an acting challenge for Christina Chong and possibly made the memory loss plot something close to meaningful, especially when the point is made about the importance of context where memory is concerned. The line “some memories are worth the pain of others” is said which delivers the thesis of contrast being important as good memories are made better when considered along with the bad ones. Kirk in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier stated something similar in relation to the removal of pain. His point was that he needed his pain because it’s part of who he is. This episode makes that point in the opposite direction by stating that it’s worth enduring the negative experiences because of the positive ones that counter them.
This could have easily provided a strong realisation for La’an. Perhaps if she found herself scared because she doesn’t have access to the memories that inspired her to face danger with courage and strength then realised that without enduring all she experienced when held captive by the Gorn she wouldn’t have achieved all that she has then it could help her add helpful context to her trauma. It does admittedly risk straying into dodgy territory of trauma being a necessary part of her background but if handled correctly then it could be established as something she can deal with positively. Ultimately it would come down to which version of herself La’an prefers and coming to understand how she has been shaped by all that she has experienced could have been instrumental in accepting herself for who she is. It could have acted as a natural companion to her growth in the previous episode. Instead, the memory loss has no purpose for La’an.
Part of what makes it such a clumsy episode is that any potential message is muddled by everything that it contains. The totems that prompt emotion without context suggest there’s some kind of innate importance to sentiment but nothing is ever done with it, mentioning that people outside the palace do all the work while those inside do nothing makes a very basic point about hierarchies in society and inequality inherent within a class system but nothing is done with that either. This would have been another thing Zack could have slotted into but the point is made and then fades away like the memories.
Another piece of messaging that may qualify as problematic is around trusting emotions. Ortegas ends up saving the ship because she trusts her instincts and the advice given on the planet is to trust feelings because they are the most consistent thing they have. That makes sense when there is no other baseline but one of the core aspects of therapy is understanding that your emotions don’t represent truth and not dealing with them properly can be harmful to overall wellbeing. Spock -sans memory- even says “emotions are not facts” but people are constantly encouraged to trust them. The episode doesn’t really say anything about this either way but the repeated insistence that feelings and instincts are to be relied on is something of a troubling message, particularly when no context is provided to deliver a fuller examination of the merits of such a claim. It especially stands out when the importance of context is acknowledged in other areas.
One strong addition is the handling of the Prime Directive. Pike takes action that is an interpretation of the meaning of the rule rather than the dogmatic doctrine that is often portrayed. Spock even briefly challenges Pike’s reading of the situation as a prompt for him to explain his reasoning. According to Pike, the crashed asteroid changed the course of history on the planet so that doesn’t count as natural development. Arguably he’s wrong because the asteroid crashed with no external intervention so it’s an unfortunate development but also a natural one. If someone was to scrutinise his interpretation, they could cite the example found in “Children of the Comet” where the comet alters the atmosphere so that it’s capable of producing more rain. By Pike’s own standards, that is also not natural development and the intervention of Spock’s shuttle was what caused that. It was instead of the comet obliterating the planet but the argument remains valid. Whether Pike is wrong or not, it shows flexibility as he has interpreted the rule and is able to make a case for it rather than treating it as rigid.
A clumsy episode that isn’t without good ideas but packs far too much in its running time to explore them properly and misses out on some obvious potential.
- insight into Ortegas’ mindset about her job through her log entry
- the exciting asteroid field navigation set piece
- Ortegas gaining newfound passion for her job after realising how exciting and important it is
- the depiction of Pike’s PTSD related to Rigel VII
- Pike committing to Patel after her gift guides him through his memory loss and realising how important she is to him
- the interpretation of the Prime Directive and how that factors into the episode
- an Ortegas heavy episode providing no meaningful insight into her due to the memory loss
- not fully utilising the memory loss concept
- Zack being ideally placed to be the personification of the mission to clean up cultural contamination but not making proper use of him
- the muddled and potentially problematic messaging around trusting emotions
- too much content in the episode with no clear focus
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