Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1 Episode 6
“Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds faces Pike with a blast from the past upon rescuing the crew of a damaged shuttle leading the Enterprise crew to be faced with a confusing mystery.
Historically, Star Trek is at its best when exploring difficult questions of morality. The franchise has always been about being presented with different ways of thinking; some of which are less than palatable when considered alongside the core values of the Federation and those who represent it. A number of episodes of The Original Series detailed Captain Kirk pronouncing judgement on a society he deemed to be backwards in some way and taking action that would change that. Strange New Worlds has a far different approach with the opinion of the characters made clear but a more nuanced approach to what can realistically be done.
The Prime Directive -or General Order One as it’s known at the point the show is set- has been either raised or hinted at on a couple of occasions. It was deemed breached in the first episode with a technicality protecting Pike from more severe consequences and arguably breached in the second episode with no mention of any potential conflict. This episode marks another example of where General Order One prevents action from being taken against what could be seen as an injustice. Early on, the question of involvement is dealt with by the Enterprise being attacked and Pike declaring that regulations mandate they investigate. Further complicating the notion of involvement is Pike’s prior affiliation with Alora (Lindy Booth); whom he rescued some years prior when he was a lieutenant. The Federation have already made contact with the Magellans so there’s nothing preventing the Enterprise crew from having at least passive involvement in the situation.
Where it gets far more problematic is in the conclusion where Pike is forced to accept the outcome even though he vehemently disagrees with it. Most people would consider sacrificing a child to be immoral even when that sacrifice benefits the lives of many others. A common Star Trek mantra is “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”. It’s a simple utilitarian debate that allows for the suffering of a smaller number of people to satisfy the needs of a larger one. On the surface, it seems like a no brainer but when considering it from a practical standpoint it’s far less palatable to knowingly allow suffering even when there is a benefit to a larger number of people. Emotionally disconnecting from that suffering is far more difficult than the simple mathematical foundation of the idea. It’s a thought experiment that doesn’t account for emotion and it makes morally repugnant decisions quantifiably right when reducing them down to the numbers.
The Magellans operate on that basis when offering up a child to be plugged into machines that allow the cities to continue floating above the lava. Why this is required isn’t covered in enough detail to fully explore the idea though Alora mentions that it was something the ancestors deemed necessary, and no better solution has been found since. She is willingly complicit in enabling the suffering of children to support the status quo of her own society. The most striking thing is that she’s fully aware of what she’s doing and it’s heavily implied that everyone else is. She asks Pike if he can truly back up his own righteousness by questioning whether the Federation turn a blind eye to the suffering of others in order to prop up the organisation and the society it represents. A better episode would spend time debating this but here the question is posed and left dangling. Pike doesn’t answer which perhaps points to him having trouble considering the answer. That’s interesting in itself but he never reflects on it and confirms whether the Federation is built on any contradictions or whether it truly is the Utopia it presents itself to be.
Alora’s argument is that the Magellans accept the cost of their privilege being maintained and take some solace in the fact that they don’t turn a blind eye to it. As if everyone -we assume, it’s never actually confirmed- being aware of it makes it more justifiable than if it was a shameful secret being hidden from the masses. If this debate had been more central and time was spent fleshing out Magellan culture then this could have been a fascinating interrogation of the Federation as well as a biting commentary on our own society turning a blind eye to widespread suffering in order to maintain the first world comforts. As such the bones of the idea exist but the episode doesn’t do the work so it comes across as flimsy with lots of unfulfilled potential.
Notably, Pike’s initial reaction is to try to save the sacrificed child. He attacks the guards and does everything he can to stop First Servant (Ian Ho) from being plugged into the machine, but he’s overpowered before being faced with the rationale. The episode ends on a bittersweet note as he considers the uncomfortable reality of his hands being tied by the rules preventing interference in another culture. Since the Magellans aren’t part of the Federation there’s nothing that can be done to prevent this injustice. Regrettably, unplugging First Servant from the machine would mean his death, so the choice is between letting him continue to suffer in order to maintain the systems that allow for the continued safety of the society he is a part of or mercy killing him and possibly dooming everyone else in the process. Of course, there is no actual choice because Alora has already opted to maintain the status quo and the Federation has no influence over Magellan affairs. It’s not an easy pill for Pike to swallow and a frustrating problem that has no solution if he wants to uphold his commitment to Starfleet and the Federation.
Pike and Alora’s personal connection isn’t as central as it needs to be. The actors have strong chemistry but only a basic account of their prior encounter is provided and their interactions in this episode are either geared towards the situation at hand or Pike’s inevitable future. The abundance of coverage of Pike’s destiny is becoming tiresome as very little is being done other than reminding the audience of an eventuality that can’t be changed. Pike is given hope that Magellan medical technology may be able to help him when the time comes but all this does from a narrative point of view is create more future exposition around why their medical technology isn’t an option.
The lack of exploration of Magellan culture really lets this plot down as there is no sense of how the society works. Those who didn’t agree with the status quo splintered off into their own colony and did everything they could to prevent First Servant from being plugged into the machine. Outside of Gamal (Huse Madhavji) to a limited degree, the rebels have no presence beyond ships that attack the Enterprise on two occasions. There is the suggestion of a class system in Magellan society with the privileged literally living about the clouds but there’s no coverage of those less fortunate so no clear sense of any kind of divide. The fact that Aloraappears regal in stature and has authority over others supports the idea of there being an elite caste that enjoy higher privilege than others. Otherwise, there would be no need for guards. The suggested message is that the cost of paradise is the life of an innocent and there is an implied moral debate over whether that cost is too high. Full coverage of that debate requires at least a basic understanding of the structure of Magellan society but that information is never provided.
A perfect point of view character to facilitate that exploration exists in the form of Uhura. Her area of interest is languages and, by extension, cultural understanding. This could have supported La’an coaching her in the ways of security by highlighting how important it is to have as full an understanding of what is being dealt with in order to best prepare for what might be encountered. It would allow for natural explanations of how Magellan culture functions in the form of Uhura briefing La’an on her findings. She does this in a very targeted way that is in service of a specific problem rather than a wide view of what the Enterprise has encountered. The ingredients were there to provide the detail and they weren’t utilised.
Uhura and La’an’s dynamic worked really well and Uhura embodying the audience perspective as she gains experience of different departments is the perfect set-up to develop the Enterprise as a setting as well as the characters on board. Uhura’s inquisitive nature and desire to find common ground with everyone she meets provides a natural avenue for questions to be asked around what they stand for. She previously managed to gain insight into how Hemmer thinks so now she tries to do the same with La’an. Uhura being paired with La’an could be considered unnecessary as La’an has already received a great deal of coverage over the season so far whereas other characters like Ortegas remain underdeveloped. Like Hemmer, La’an is less than receptive to engaging with Uhura on a personal level, but their dynamic is engaging because of how La’an manages their interactions. She is a very cautious and methodical person which contrasts with Uhura being less careful. The difference comes down to experience as La’an knows not to rush into unfamiliar environments that Uhura hasn’t experienced it before. She is also depicted as a tough but fair teacher and provides encouragement where relevant. A great example of this is when Uhura does work at La’an’s request and is told to present her findings because she is the one who did the work. This comes with a caveat around the confidence Uhura has in her findings. The lesson being that if she is confident in what she has learned then she should take credit for it. Uhura clearly learns a lot about how Security works on the Enterprise as well as navigating difficult situations where protocol would slow things down.
From a structural point of view the La’an/Uhura dynamic feeds nicely into the episode as their subplot feeds into the main narrative and allows it to move forward due to the work Uhura does. This helps make the episode feel like a complete piece that contains different elements complementing one another. Pushing aside the issues in the main plot there is at least a strong structure that enables the story to be told in ways that offer different character perspectives.
M’Benga’s contribution provides the main emotional grounding for the episode. Scenes in sickbay are instrumental in making First Servant a sympathetic character. A child being sacrificed is self-evident as a tragedy, but greater pathos is created through characterising him. He is shown to have a sharp and keen mind as well as a boundless sense of curiosity. He is able to observe what M’Benga is hiding and free his daughter, Rukiya (Sage Arrindell) from the pattern buffer. The scene where they have fun together is really endearing and further highlights the innocence that will eventually be lost where both are concerned. In Rukiya’s case, her terminal diagnosis means that she’s living on borrowed time and missing so much of life by being paused when being stored in the pattern buffer. This is shown in subtle ways such as M’Benga forgetting the last passage he read her from a storybook and her general frustration at having to go back in after only a short time living life. Her interaction with First Servant is a moving sight for M’Benga with his delighted yet sombre reaction as he gets to see his daughter actually having fun. The happiness he experiences in that moment is coloured by the sadness of knowing that she has used up valuable minutes of her life and the painful reminder that she isn’t really living. One thing that isn’t addressed is the potential for this to drag on to the point where M’Benga is an old man with a daughter who has barely aged thanks to the pattern buffer and the notion that he may have to accept that he won’t find a cure meaning he will have to let her go. That point hasn’t been reached yet but it sits underneath every scene that deals with their relationship.
This episode is more about hope as M’Benga is presented with a cure for his daughter’s condition but there is an immediate roadblock as the Magellans don’t share technology or knowledge. M’Benga tries to convince Gamal by highlighting that the Federation always openly share medical knowledge, but it makes no difference. This acts as a subversion of Berman era Star Trek storytelling as problems like this would typically be resolved by an understanding being reached that solves the problem entirely. There is some hope as Gamal agrees to work M’Benga through the basics so that he may be able to work towards a cure. It’s a compromise and an important one but it’s far from what M’Benga would have wanted which makes for a refreshingly complex ending to a story like this. M’Benga’s desire to not waste the opportunity is brilliantly conveyed as is the frustration with the bureaucracy preventing the life-saving information from being shared.
Gamal’s change of heart is the result of an arc of sorts. He is revealed to be working with the rebels as he wants to save First Servant’s life. Early in the episode, he is very clear on the boundaries established in his relationship with First Servant. He points out that First Servant is his son in a purely biological sense with it later becoming clear why he needs to keep that emotional distance. The reveal is clumsily handled and Gamal is something of an afterthought in the overall context of the episode but his motivation is clear and his decision to do what he can so that M’Benga doesn’t suffer the same kind of loss makes sense. It’s likely the development of a cure will be a series of trials for M’Benga leading to the point of either success or acceptance of the inevitable.
An uneven episode that commits to a problem with no easy solution but struggles to provide appropriate development and context. Pike being forced to accept an outcome he vehemently disagrees with because the Federation have no influence in how the Magellans conduct their affairs is a really interesting ending that, in theory, holds the Federation to task on their values and their approach. Ultimately the Magellans run their society under the utilitarian concept of the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few; something that Star Trek as a franchise has covered in detail in the past. This doesn’t account for the emotion and it makes morally repugnant decisions quantifiably right when reducing them down to the numbers. The most striking thing is that there seems to be full awareness of what is being done and justification comes from not turning a blind eye to it. The question is asked around whether Pike can say the same about the Federation and it is never actually answered nor does Pike reflect on it in any way. There’s a clear avenue for social commentary within this narrative that doesn’t quite come to fruition. Magellan culture isn’t fleshed out enough for the debate to be as central as it needs to be so there are far too many unknowns for it to be effective. The episode ending with Pike having no choice but to accept it makes for a frustrating problem if he wants to uphold his commitment to Starfleet and the Federation. Pike and Alora’s personal connection also isn’t as central as it needs to be. The actors have great chemistry but only a basic account of their prior encounter is provided and their interactions are very targeted. It’s another example of Pike’s destiny being mentioned which only invites later exposition as to why the suggested solution isn’t possible.
The lack of exploration of Magellan culture lets the plot down because there’s no sense of how society works. Those who splintered off because they don’t agree with how things work are barely featured and there’s no coverage of those less fortunate or any clear sense of a divide. Uhura would have been the perfect point of view character to facilitate that exploration and this could have supported La’an coaching her easily. Uhura and La’an’s dynamic worked really well though the time could perhaps have been spent on less developed characters. La’an is less than receptive to engaging with Uhura on a personal level but proves herself to be a firm yet fair teacher who provides encouragement where relevant and teaches Uhura an important lesson about when protocol slows things down. M’Benga’s contribution provides the emotional grounding for the episode. The sickbay scenes make First Servant a sympathetic character and develop him beyond the self-evident tragedy of a child being sacrificed. He is shown to have a sharp and keen mind as well as a boundless sense of curiosity. The scene he shares with Rukiya is really endearing and further highlights the innocence that will eventually be lost for both of them. M’Benga’s delighted yet sombre reaction as he sees his daughter having fun is a perfect encapsulation of his feelings. This episode is about hope as the possibility of a cure is presented to him with the cultural barrier around the Magellan policy on sharing technology and expertise. The resolution is far from ideal as he is given the beginnings of the knowledge that may lead to a cure rather than the cure itself. It makes sense as a development for Gamal who goes through a clumsy yet clear arc over the course of the episode. It’s likely the development of a cure will be a series of trials for M’Benga leading to the point of either success or acceptance of the inevitable.
- strong chemistry between Pike and Alora
- fully committing to the bittersweet ending
- posing interesting moral questions
- Uhura and La’an’s dynamic
- La’an as a firm yet fair teacher providing encouragement to Uhura
- M’Benga forming the emotional grounding of the episode
- his delighted yet sombre reaction to seeing his daughter having fun
- characterising First Servant and enhancing the tragedy of his loss
- M’Benga being given hope but not neatly solving the problem
- minor coverage of the complex moral debate
- no exploration of Magellan culture
- a general lack of detail
- clumsy characterisation
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