In Episode 6 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, "Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach", an idyllic civilization seems unjustly persecuted in the middle of a sacred cultural event. But does all this local pleasantness deceive?
There are many useful narrative structures for humanist stories, and all tend to get airtime in classic Star Trek series. Some involve a juxtaposition of multiple storylines, to hold different crises and outlooks in tension. Others present the full problem early on, allowing different perspectives and conflicts to emerge as characters struggle to find a workable solution.
But Episode 6 of Strange New Worlds, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach”, uses another structure. It holds us in suspense for the vast majority of its runtime, until the other shoe drops. This can work terrifically for humanist storytelling, because when done well, it allows you to inhabit a given subject-position completely, and then invites you at the last minute to challenge everything you first assumed to be true.
However, it also makes writing a spoiler-free prelude tricky business.
Especially when the episode is based on one of the most highly acclaimed philosophical tales in science fiction.
So let me frame our latest SNW adventure with another well-known sci-fi story. This other sci-fi story is “The Cold Equations”, written by Tom Godwin and published by Astounding Science Fiction in 1954. It’s notorious in sci-fi circles because it centers on a situation in which an adult male pilot has no choice but to space a young female stowaway. (Though, to be fair to Godwin, he tried to save the girl in multiple drafts. It was the editor, John W. Campbell, who wouldn’t rest until that kid was dead!)
Since its publication, many writers have “written back” against the piece, sometimes countering the wobbly science, but mostly repudiating the claim that “cold equations” ever stand outside their context. As with philosophy’s famous trolley problem, all the variables in Godwin’s story were constructed to give the impression of inevitability, when its issues really came down to poor systems design. The story moved toward its macabre end because the writer (or rather, the editor) wanted a given ending. Not because there was a true sense of inevitability, a greater “cold hard truth”, to any part of the plot.
Keep that in mind, then, if you don’t want to the episode spoiled for you, but still want to think about the humanist issues it raises (and how well it raises them). Because there’s certainly material here for conversation! But any narrative that hinges on a very late reveal of all the stakes involved is a risky play for deeper discourse.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
The moment an “officer’s log” promises a routine mission, you know you’re in for a major crisis. Captain Pike leads the Enterprise into the Majalan system for a routine cartographic survey, where they’re sidetracked by a distress call from a non-Federation shuttle under attack. Cadet Uhura, now on rotation to security, isn’t deft enough not to blow the attacker to smithereens, leaving just the shuttle’s occupants to tell the tale of what happened.
One of the survivors is a Majalan named Alora, who recognizes Pike from a past run-in. The two have clear chemistry, so much so that the other survivors, a boy and a man who insists he’s only genetically the father, go neglected until the man asks for medical aid.
Pike and Una (Number One) learn that the boy is the First Servant for Alora’s people, on his way to his Ascension ceremony to be adored for his utmost commitment to her people’s maxim: “Science, Service, Sacrifice”. She suspects the attackers were from a nearby alien colony seeking to gain ransom for the boy, precious as he is to their people. When Pike mentions that they’ll be investigating the crashed ship, she initially resists, but since the vessel also attacked the Enterprise, it’s out of her jurisdiction. She flirtatiously insists on being part of the effort after all.
Meanwhile, sickbay finds Dr. M’Benga just finishing storytime with his dying daughter, Rukiya, kept in a transporter buffer until he can find a cure. When Elder Gamal and the First Servant arrive, mysteries deepen. The First Servant is bright and inquisitive, and Gamal reveals that he too was a physician, before being called by his son’s selection to a different role. Perhaps this explains why he’s so distant and clinical with the boy? His career cut short by his son’s new title? Either way, Majalan science is leagues ahead of Starfleet, and M’Benga wonders if this doctor might know a cure for his daughter. Unfortunately, Gamal emphasizes that Majalan culture is private and outside the Federation, so a medical exchange isn’t feasible.
At the crash site, Uhura, Security Chief La’an, Science Officer Spock, and Alora discover odd bits and pieces in the wreckage. Spock will take a mysterious headset to Gamal, and speculate that it was going to be used by the kidnappers to dampen the First Servant’s brainwaves. La’an will take data cards for Uhura to translate. And Alora, finding an oath coin in the rubble, realizes on the spot that one of the First Servant’s protective guard must have been involved in the attempted kidnapping.
The Enterprise makes its way next to Majalis, to return the First Servant in time for his ceremony, and to help flush out conspirators. Here, all the little hints of something more complex will also come together, to reveal the secrets of this idyllic world.
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
Oh my goodness, yes, I know, fellow sci-fi lovers were probably reading this and shouting “It’s Omelas! It’s Omelas!” You’re darned skippy it’s Omelas. Thanks for your patience!
In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin published “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a philosophical meditation inspired by The Brothers Karamazov. In Dostoevsky’s sweeping treatise on human nature, Ivan, who doesn’t believe in god, lectures his sweet-hearted and spiritual brother Alyosha about the injustice of the concept of Heaven, because any celestial paradise that first allows even a single tear to be shed by a frightened, tortured child here on Earth is simply not worth the price.
Le Guin’s version first tries to get us to believe in the possibility of utopia, as depicted through a fantastical city of joy and celebration. But at every turn the piece recognizes that the reader needs more to make this paradise realistic, so she eventually pulls back the veil and admits that all the happiness in Omelas is only possible because one child suffers horribly, without comprehension, in the deepest dark. All who live in Omelas are at one point invited to see the child, to understand the sacrifice required that the rest might rejoice. And some who see the child? Who learn the cost of Omelas? Well, those folks simply walk away.
Now, if Strange New Worlds were anything like The Next Generation, you can bet your bippy that Jean-Luc Picard would have recognized the seminal text and referenced it in an anecdote lecturing the Majalans for being morally on par with twentieth-century humans, even if their science is well ahead of the Federation. But Pike’s not exactly the reading type, is he? And so he falls into bed with Alora before Uhura can translate the data cards and discover that the attackers aren’t aliens, but a remote breakaway colony of distant Majalans.
A few more bait-and-switches pad out the runtime. Gamal tries to take the First Servant off the Enterprise, but an external transporter beams the First Servant to a nearby vessel. Oh no! Kidnapped again? The Enterprise tries to hold the ship, but it conveniently blows up. Alora is devastated, insisting that her civilization is ruined if the First Servant is dead. Pike still doesn’t understand. How could one child be holding her civilization together? He tries to get answers out of Gamal, but Spock interrupts over comms to report a signal that leads them to the boy, never transported off the ship at all. Huzzah! Alora will be so happy, right?
The boy insists on getting to the Ascension ceremony as soon as possible. Only when he’s off the ship does Una have a talk with Gamal that reveals he was trying to act like a father after all, and to spare his child from a terrible fate. But wouldn’t you know it? There’s too much interference, so Una can’t relay this key information to Pike, already planetside with Alora.
Not to worry, though. Invited to the sacred chamber, Pike gets to watch firsthand as the last First Servant is carried out: a gaunt, drained corpse of a brutalized child. (An incredibly excessive act. Did the locals really have to frighten the new child?) Then and only then does Pike realize that this world hooks children into a giant machine that powers their hovering island. He tries to stop the process, but it’s too late. He’s knocked out, and the new First Servant is locked into a death sentence by slow, excruciating torture to serve his people.
When Pike comes to in Alora’s quarters, she explains that the reason Majalans are such an advanced civilization is that they’ve been trying to find a workaround for this situation for centuries, to no avail. They have no idea why their world was designed such that one child at a time had to suffer that everyone else might thrive, but she points out that the Federation surely lets plenty of children suffer, too, and without anywhere near the same collective gratitude. She still offers a life on this world to Pike, who’s been brooding over his coming disfigurement (revealed in a vision of his future), but he’s having none of it, and beams out.
Are there any bright spots in this episode? Just one! Gamal, having thrown off his allegiance to Majalis and headed for the other colony, is now free to review M’Benga’s daughter’s case file. He can’t offer a cure, but he can point M’Benga in a useful research direction, which is good enough progress for the here and now. (It has to be, I suppose!)
Humanist narrative structure?
The problem with a suspenseful build to a last-minute reveal is that it leaves precious little room to tease out all the nuances of a given problem, and that was definitely a failing for this episode. I also have a sneaking suspicion that, even for viewers who didn’t recognize the source material, all the clues dropped along the way had to have suggested something sinister long before the ending. Were those viewers impatient to get to the big secret, too?
This episode also relied on a lot of narrative padding and convenient timing to flesh out its plot. Crewmates routinely had to be unable to pass on information, and two ships of nameless crew blowing up in one episode is… a little J.J. Abrams-y, no? But also necessary to ensure that no critical intel from the “other side” reaches Pike until it’s too late.
I recognize that the writers probably wanted to emulate the source text, which also holds its big reveal until the end. However, there’s a huge difference between a short story and a TV show, and it’s often better to play to the medium’s strengths. Here, for instance? We could have done with a lot more time learning about Majalis, instead of the rush-job we get near the end where it’s explained that things are the way they are “just because”.
‘Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach’: the thematic payoff
So whether you read the spoilers or are thinking about this episode with “The Cold Equations” in mind, the main humanist point is the same. This episode, while carrying potent thematic material, was put together in a way that felt contrived to serve a specific end.
And that framing unfortunately detracts from its core moral dilemma, because by the time we’re explicitly told what happens on Majalis, we’ve barely been able to consider all of the factors that might make it seem an inevitable for their people, and hypocritical of others to judge without some serious introspection about similar tradeoffs on their own worlds.
(To put it generously. There are a lot of technical flaws with the explanations Alora finally provides as to why her society is what it is.)
A good, constructive contrast might be TNG‘s “Half a Life” (S4E22), where Lwaxana Troi learns that her beloved belongs to a culture where euthanasia is par for the course at age 60. Because the stakes are established early on, the show gets to explore a wide range of perspectives and reactions to the cultural practice, and settle on a nuanced closer.
I can easily imagine a script for this episode where the full stakes were outlined earlier, and where a whole whack of moral complications via intercultural give-and-take took the place of this story’s all-too-convenient discoveries, timings, and explosions. That’s not the one we have, though, and that’s fine. “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” still raised an important moral quandary, for which it gets two happy humans. I just wish it had given us the time and coherent context to evaluate that quandary well.
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs
- Oh, hey! Sam Kirk’s still on the crew. He makes the briefest of appearances in the mess hall, as if to say “Not dead! Still here! Just grooming my mustache off screen a lot.” Not sure if he’s going to get much play in this season, because we haven’t really gotten to know him. Maybe he’ll come to the fore in Season Two?
- Cadet Uhura’s arc, meanwhile, is brilliant. As she rotates work details, we get a glimpse into different facets of ship’s life, while she gets to figure out which officer path best suits her through trial and error. Rather than the usual “I’m brilliant at everything right away!” character that often emerges in contemporary TV, she’s given opportunities to grow, and situations that reveal where she’s still a novice, to complement her truly exemplary talents when it comes to linguistics.
- The Majalans are a new species in Star Trek canon, which marks the first time we’ve significantly broken from preceding worldbuilding. It added more of a TNG feel to the whole episode. (Pike brooding in his quarters at the end also had a serious Picard vibe.)
- [Spoiler] Alora’s counterpoint to Pike’s outrage deserved more time to be considered and addressed. When he was upset to learn what Majalans do with one child, she argued, “Can you honestly say that no child suffers for the benefit of your Federation? That no child lives in poverty, or squalor, while those who live in abundance look away? The only difference is, we don’t look away, and because of that the suffering is borne on the back of only one.” How would we answer that? How would you?