A refreshingly nuanced and multifaceted episode of SNW invites us to sit with the importance of showing up with empathy where words won't boldly go.
What defines a “Trek” story varies between Trekkies, but one abiding feature in many series is the role of trust among crew mates. In a 2019 essay for Uncanny Magazine, Nicasio Andres Reed explored what makes this trust extraordinary. Here’s the way the story often goes, in classic Trek like TNG, DS9, or Voyager:
First, a character has an experience that they can’t understand or explain. Maybe they saw an impossible creature moving with intention inside the usually-empty void of the transporter beam. Or they heard disembodied voices muttering when they were alone in their quarters. Or they simply woke up feeling absolutely, unshakably certain that the shape of reality was suddenly changed, and horribly wrong. All of these are common enough set-ups in genre fiction, and none of them are unique to Star Trek. It’s in the next step that these characters do something that can make them seem as alien as any Gorn in a loincloth. Because their next step, almost without fail, is to take their concerns directly to their boss.
… The reason it’s so strange that Lt. Barclay or Chief O’Brien or Kes take their inexplicable experiences to their respective captains is that it’s strange to realize they do this because they expect to be believed. And they expect to be believed because that’s Star Trek ‘s baseline assumption: these are people who will not deny each other’s subjective realities. They’ll try their damnedest to believe each other, even when it gets weird. In more than 750 episodes of Star Trek, it is vanishingly rare for a plot to hinge on a crew member being automatically disbelieved or shunned.
Reed and I are almost the same age, so his experience of Trek being background vocabulary in his media is akin to my own; I do not remember a time without Trek. I also don’t remember a time when Trek wasn’t central to the culture: Ontario’s CityTV was “Your Federation Station”, showing TNG and DS9 back-to-back on Saturday evening prime time. TOS reruns likewise factored into daytime broadcasts for years.
But the Trek universe is also decidedly humanist in a way that the real world often isn’t. A whole era of atheist/theist debate, from the late 1990s through early 2010s, focused on trying to argue people out of their subjective beliefs, in large part because of the destructive sway that many such beliefs had on the quality of public life. As much as many atheists thought it “rational” to try to compel people with scientific evidence to give up their spiritual convictions, they often did so in ways that ignored what the data also tells us about what actually changes minds, versus what causes extreme or fringe beliefs to linger.
The future imagined in Star Trek is different. It’s both strongly scientific in aesthetic (if not exactly in the hand-wavy “reverse the polarity” science itself) and keen on embracing the value of individual experience. Ethnology matters. Behavioralism does, too. This is because subjective interpretation isn’t a bug: it’s what makes sentience so precious. We are the witnesses to extraordinary happenstance in the universe. What point is there to exploring the cosmos if we’re not going to revel in how the experience sits within us?
The latest episode of Strange New Worlds is all about subjective experience, and the challenging necessity of honoring what we cannot always fully name. “Lost in Translation” also answers a gap I’ve been noting all season: the paucity of effective B- and C-plots, which can bring such richness to a core theme when done well.
Before we dive in, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this episode is also doing huge remediation work for the other half of a story we talked about two episodes ago. In “Among the Lotus Eaters”, we gained a reconfiguration of events from the failed TOS pilot “The Cage”, which dealt with crew mates lost on Rigel VII, and mental deceptions. I figured that episode would be the end of SNW‘s work with the original story, but no! If you’ve watched TOS, you might recall one of its most famous episodes, “The Menagerie” (S1E11-12), a two-parter with all sorts of pieces of SNW Season 2 in it: a trial with drastic Starfleet penalties on the line! Spock stealing the Enterprise! Pike and Kirk meeting (this episode)! And…
Mental messages that only one person seems able to hear, with the fate of a suffering sentient hanging on choices that seem tantamount to mutiny and madness.
I have to hand it to the writers of SNW: I have no idea how much they intend to hold to TOS canon at the end of this series, since they keep playing around with earlier stories and references… but they sure are showing long term Trekkies that they know darned well the canon they’re messing with, whenever they do.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
We’re out in a distant stellar nursery, home to deuterium that could fuel a whole new era of Starfleet exploration and shore up its position as the Gorn continue to encroach. The problem is, Bavali Station isn’t up and running, so Captain Christopher Pike is granted temporary fleet captain status to oversee its completion and the work of the USS Farragut, where we’ll eventually learn that James T. Kirk is also set to become the fleet’s youngest first officer.
Ensign Nyota Uhura is usually thrilled by new adventures, but she’s falling asleep at her console from overwork. Then, a little after Science Officer Spock suggests that the Enterprise collect deuterium for its own fuel supplies, she hears a noise that doesn’t register in the system. It could be exhaustion, or it could be something wrong with comms, so she runs a thorough diagnostics check, which takes her into engineering with the help of the future’s version of YouTube How-To videos: a personalized recording (captured by drone?) of the late Chief Engineer Hemmer, teaching her how to calibrate systems herself.
Our current chief engineer, Pelia, finds her and notes that this is the first time the two have spoken. Uhura apologizes evasively and goes about her business. Pike will soon assign Una, his Number One, to oversee the rest of the station’s construction with Pelia at her side, and Una will prove a lot more hostile to our dear engineer… but first, Uhura hears the noise again, and this time it’s accompanied by a zombified vision of Hemmer attacking her in the lift.
Is it all in her head? A trip to sickbay has Doctor M’Benga note that she’s showing signs of deuterium poisoning, which can lead to hallucinations. He’s also concerned about signs that she’s not sleeping, and orders her off-duty until she’s fully rested. Unfortunately, sleeping doesn’t make things any easier; Uhura dreams of disaster, while on the station Una and Pelia have a disastrous clash of opinions, with Una dismissive of the Lanthanite’s “feelings” and “smells”, which underpin Pelia’s suggestion that they look for the core cause of construction delays.
Meanwhile, Kirk has come aboard the Enterprise, where he and his brother Sam catch up as much as their fraught relationship under the shadow of their father, George, will allow. This Starfleet giant has left the elder brother with a chip on his shoulder, because Sam feels like his science career isn’t enough to live up to the reputation, and accuses his younger brother is upstaging him with such speedy advancement in the command path. Kirk’s ribbing about George’s work doesn’t help.
Spock and Nurse Chapel are also having a difficult time communicating, over a game of 3D chess. Spock wants to know if they have a relationship they should be reporting for professional reasons; Chapel uses Schrödinger’s oft-abused cat as a metaphor for her fears that opening the box (labeling their relationship) could ruin it before it’s had a chance to develop.
After Sam stalks off, Kirk’s alone at the bar… until Uhura, haggard with nightmares, pops in for Saurian brandy. Unlike in the alt-universe a few episodes ago, Kirk’s really not trying to hit on her when he strikes up a conversation, but she snaps at him and emphasizes that she’s not in the market for new friends, either. She leaves, only to be hit by a vision: another Uhura, attacking her in the corridor. She strikes back, only to realize she’s actually clocked Kirk.
Oops! Except that Kirk, for all his affable teasing, recognizes that this is not normal for deuterium poisoning. Uhura wants to take him to sickbay, but he doesn’t want her written up for the incident. They go to her quarters, where she administers aid and he offers to help by contacting the Farragut. They’ve been in the region longer, so maybe the medical officer has seen similar cases among the crew?
It’s even worse, though: Pelia reports to Una that she’s found evidence of sabotage in the refinery. When they investigate, they come across Lieutenant Saul Ramon (Michael Reventar), who’s done damage to the station while insisting to himself that it’s not real. Medical emergency? You’re darned skippy. Meanwhile, Uhura hears a red alert klaxon and steps into a vision of the bridge with the view screen shattering, spilling crew into space. It’s not real, but Pike is concerned, especially when Kirk’s research finds that Ramon had initially reported similar symptoms.
Uhura recognizes the irony of a communications officer being unable to communicate effectively what’s happening to her, but she knows it’s not just hallucinations from exhaustion or deuterium poisoning. But if not these causes, then what?
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
The crisis escalates because of very poor patient management, and the fact that this Enterprise can’t as efficiently pop up internal force fields as the NCC-1701-D. Ramon, in other words, escapes in a burst of violent paranoia, killing a crew mate, with Pike and La’an, our chief of security, in pursuit. Uhura tries to join in with Kirk, but the noise she keeps hearing is too intense, so she withdraws instead.
This turns out to be the right call to follow Ramon’s trail to engineering, where Uhura gives him plenty of warnings and tries to coax him back to seeing what is real. But the sabotage he’s wrought on the Enterprise is too far gone; Kirk arrives in the nick of time to beam Uhura out, while Ramon is flung into the nebula.
Uhura calls for self-confinement in quarters until this mystery can be solved. Kirk’s on the case, with only a slight side-beat where La’an chats with him for the first time in this universe: the pain of the complex situation very clear for her, although the offer of a drink is still open between them. Kirk has been grappling with a different legacy from his father: the pain of leaving loved ones behind to help others. La’an listens, and assures him that the work he does is important.
In quarters, Uhura’s grief over Hemmer comes to the fore in another conversation with Kirk. It’s not just Hemmer, though: it’s her whole family, tragically lost, and with it a fear that she doesn’t know how to live with death in the way that Starfleet requires. Now it’s Kirk’s turn to offered insight and assurance. Soon after, while replaying a video of Hemmer’s instructions, Uhura finally gains a clue as to what’s happening: someone is communicating through her, just as they tried to through Ramon. Only, they weren’t calibrating their message well enough at first, so they burned through his “system” before figuring out how to do better with hers.
It’s off to Sam, then, our xeno-anthropologist, to figure out who’s calling. Together, they come up with a decent conjecture: theoretically, alt-universe beings could bind themselves to the atoms of this one, so maybe they’re in the deuterium, but with no more effective means of communicating with this realm? If so, they’d have to use a local receiver’s innate vocabulary (image, memory) to construct a message. From this, Uhura further guesses that the images are telling her that Starfleet’s refinery is torturing these beings.
It’s a huge guess, all hinging on her senses with a little support from Ramon’s similar experience. But Kirk believes her, and Sam does, and Pike, when presented with the scenario, chooses to believe her, too. They can’t shut down the refinery because of further malfunctions, so they void the deuterium they gathered on the Enterprise, evacuate the facility, and blow it up. The aliens then send Uhura a message that all is well. Pike promises to take full responsibility for his decision to trust Uhura, obliterating a key Starfleet project but maybe also having made first contact. However, he also expects her to get some rest.
Pelia and Una, on their way back, finally have a heart-to-heart about Una’s hostility. Una can think she’s pissed off at her old Starfleet professor for a low grade, but Pelia knows Una’s still grieving Hemmer’s death, and lets her know this is okay.
In the ship’s bar, Kirk and Sam try to reconcile, with Sam pleased by his alien discovery, but Sam’s congrats for Kirk’s promotion come with an expectation of an apology from Kirk, so the brothers have another falling out while Uhura is caught, baffled, between them. Spock shows up after Sam stalks off, and Uhura introduces the half-Vulcan to Kirk. A fateful handshake cuts to three members of our iconic TOS crew having their very first drink together.
Humanist storytelling structure?
As noted above, this episode has many stories on the go, and also a few meta-narratives on the periphery. The closing image, for instance, doesn’t just have two famous characters meeting for the first time in canon, and sitting down to a chat with a third who will make up part of an iconic crew. It also, in that same staging, teases viewers as to whether or not SNW will stick with or veer from TOS where it counts. The same is true for other aspects of the episode: Chapel’s hesitation to put a label on what she and Spock are exploring, and La’an’s painful carry-over of feelings for an alt-universe Kirk to this one.
Will they or won’t they? SNW‘s writers seem very keen on writing this season in ways that keep all possibilities open: as befits, I suppose, life in a well-known multiverse, in an episode pinned squarely on the idea of two universes being superimposed.
But outside that meta-tease, the construction of this story’s character beats across plots also reinforces the episode’s thematic throughline. In our main plot, Uhura has to figure out what’s happening to her, and try to communicate it in time. What that experience brings up is a body of grief over Hemmer’s death, and other traumas that never quite found a place in her role with Starfleet.
Concurrently, Una and Pelia are at odds over far more than how to carry out their assignment on the refinery. Una’s also struggling with grief, and doesn’t have the words for it. Nor does Sam quite know what to do with the envy and shame he feels in relation to his brother, James, who is rising so splendidly through Starfleet ranks. And as Spock rightly notes, Chapel’s employment of the uncertainty principle to explain her aversion to labels comes from a fear that naming their relationship will make it disappear.
Even M’Benga hints at his own trauma, when Uhura asks how she’s supposed to rest after what she’s witnessed. And of course, La’an is complexly navigating her own grief while figuring out how, if, and when to court Kirk in this world.
And yes, having so many moving parts could have made for a messy episode. But because they all reflect different experiences of a similar body of struggle, they build on one another instead. To what end? Well, that’s where the episode really shines.
‘Lost in Translation’: The thematic pay-off
In this episode, the crew of the Enterprise, Kirk, and beings from beyond are all struggling with discomfort they cannot fully articulate. Sometimes the pain is from grief, and other past trauma. Sometimes the pain is from direct injury. Sometimes the pain is from the wounds that only family can really heap upon family. And sometimes the pain is a complex part of pursuing love at all.
All of it, though, speaks to a key component of our world: the reality that each of us contains an internal experience of the cosmos we can never fully share with others.
This can be maddening for those of us who rely on phenomenology as much as we can to build our cosmology, and generally to decide what is and isn’t true. Those of us who struggle with mental health crises also know that we can’t always trust our own feelings: sometimes our deepest gut instincts are reacting to different truths than the ones that accurately reflect the world here and now. But also, sometimes our convictions are correct, even when all around us people hold different views.
So how do we remedy the schism? How do we bridge the gap that estranges us from one another, eight billion microcosms trying to be heard by all the rest?
That’s where the courage to empathize comes in: to recognize, and hold in balance, empirically verifiable facts and also the lived experience of fellow human beings.
Their noumenological truths might differ from what we see around them. They might be in communion with invisible forces (not aliens, exactly, but memories, and habits built from past experience) that deeply inform how they move through the world. But because those invisible forces hold sway in their lives, just as our inner lights do in ours, we work best as a species when we make space for such knowledge gaps.
We don’t have to believe another inner truth to the extent that Pike believed Uhura, but we do have to accept experiential schism as part of the human condition.
Four happy humans, then, to an episode that shows off one of Star Trek‘s better approaches to humanity: as a species capable of great empirical curiosity, and also of great empathy—especially for how cosmic discovery sits differently in each of us, for better and for worse, wherever we might boldly go.
Quotes of note, and other Easter Eggs
- If you noticed the significant screentime that Uhura and Kirk had together, despite La’an’s romance with alt-Kirk in another timeline, you might be split between two multiverses of hope yourself. That’s fair. On November 22, 1968, Uhura and Kirk had a “woke” moment in “Plato’s Stepchildren” (S3E10), when they gave US network television its first interracial kiss. Does this canon guarantee one SNW outcome over the other? Or is a third option, Kirk’s slightly misremembered free-spirited adventures among lady-loves of the cosmos, the more likely outcome? Does everyone need to shack up for today’s viewers to be happy?
- Apparently there are still letter grades for assignments in the future, where Una gets a C in Pelia’s Starship Maintenance 307? I’m not sure how happy I am to hear that. #UpdateYourPedagogyStarfleet
- I’m also not entirely happy that “space hippie” gets used as a pejorative:
- Pelia: “I have been called more names than there are stars in the sky, but ‘space hippie’ is a new one on me!“
- Although we don’t get acknowledgement of it here, the Farragut isn’t just the canonical ship for Kirk’s first assignment (“Obsession”, TOS S2E18); it’s also Chapel’s previous assignment, and the ship whose losses she honored in “Memento Mori” (S1E4). This works really well for an episode that continues SNW‘s tradition of taking death seriously.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Season 2, Episode 6: “Lost in Translation”
Season 2, Episode 5 | Season 2, Episode 7