The latest episode of SNW takes memory from its characters to ask what defines the core of who we are. Is forgetting ever a good thing?
Ask and ye shall receive! Last week, when noting the structural approach taken in the first three episodes of Strange New Worlds Season 2, I expressed a hope for one focused on Erica Ortegas, while also noting that, as a foil character, she might best serve in an episode where she supports others. Lo and behold, we gained exactly that in “Among the Lotus Eaters”, an episode that wisely pairs a character who has always been confident in herself with a scenario in which everyone loses part of who they are.
In the first three episodes of this season, we worked through themes and plots that strongly reflected SNW‘s source material and context: Spock’s complex half-human, half-Vulcan self-acceptance (coupled with a growing love for Nurse Chapel); Una’s Illyrian identity (whether cultural or racialized) in relation to the Federation’s laws against permanent genetic augmentation; and La’an’s struggle with the shadow cast by her genocidal eugenicist ancestor, Khan Noonien-Singh (most famous from The Wrath of Khan, building on “Space Seed” [TOS S1E22]).
This fourth episode is no different: SNW rewards not only a newer audience, but also one familiar with the source material. Its core plot goes back to the very beginning of Star Trek, when in The Original Series pilot, “The Cage”, Captain Christopher Pike has an encounter with a species of mental illusionists in the wake of a deep loss of an Enterprise mission on Rigel VII.
The work done by SNW is again a repair job. That pilot episode reflected a very different kind of Trek than the one we thankfully got with The Original Series, when it finally aired in its more familiar form. Although TOS has always to some extent had a “woman” problem, with its Nurse Chapel two-dimensionally fawning over Spock and even made Lieutenant Uhura a communications officer who “comically” could not speak well in the many languages she knew, “The Cage” really took the cake in trying to make the show a boys’ club.
In the wake of losing crew to a failed mission on Rigel VII, a new Number One (Majel Barrett) takes up the role, and Captain Pike expresses his general discomfort with women on the bridge. She, of course, is an exception, but the rest of the episode involves Pike resisting the mental illusions crafted by the Talosians, a species with mating on the mind, and that scenario gives us his cage-mate recast as an Orion slave girl to try to win his complacency in captivity.
In other words, what a different Trek we might have had if this direction had been accepted by studios. Amusingly, though, one reason this pilot failed with NBC was that, even with the dancing slave girl, it was considered too “cerebral”. Yes, yes, a woman on the bridge discomfited viewers, and Spock looked too alien in early makeup… but also, centrally, it didn’t have a clear fight scene between good and bad. How were people supposed to realize they’d reached the climax of the episode without a grand old brawl where might made right?
NBC also didn’t like the focus on “overall eroticism”, and wasn’t satisfied with many of the actors. So, as much as Gene Roddenberry is given immense and justifiable credit for the subsequent vision of a more egalitarian future on Earth, it was NBC’s push for him to recast and try again that gave us “Where No Man Has Gone Before” (TOS S1E01). The rest is history.
And with that history in mind, what SNW does in “Among the Lotus Eaters” is quite clever. It allows us to revisit part of a potent story that flopped the first time through. Instead of hanging out with Talosians and appropriative Orion slave girl costuming, we return to Rigel VII, where Pike lost crew, and there we play out a mind game, too. Just… a different one, with a differently “cerebral” lesson for us now.
And far from an episode in which a woman on the bridge is questioned?
We have one with a woman who knows exactly where she belongs.
Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)
After a trial divided them in Episode 2, Pike and Captain Batel of the USS Cayuga have a chance to rekindle their relationship. She gifts him an alien talisman to help lost sailors get home, and they almost get to enjoy a meal in peace. Only, Batel is being punished in passive-aggressive ways for her support of Pike, so he suggests they hit pause for her career. Batel isn’t pleased with his own passive maneuver, to put distance between them while claiming it’s for her benefit, and leaves.
The Enterprise is then tasked with a mission that Pike also sees as personal: a return to Rigel VII, where the ship lost three crew members in a mess of a first contact with a pre-warp civilization, to repair the damage done by that initial encounter. From a symbol in the gardens of a main stronghold, it’s clear that Starfleet tech and knowledge was left behind, in direct contravention of the Prime Directive against unduly interfering with the natural development of other civilizations.
We cut to Ortegas, who’s filing a cheerful personal log as she puts on a fetching hat, excited to be joining the away mission as part of a covert op to retrieve Starfleet tech. The planet’s atmosphere makes proper surface readings difficult, which is why they had originally chosen her for shuttle duty, but when she joins Doctor M’Benga, Chief of Security La’an, and Pike, she’s informed she’ll have to stay behind, because of a challenging debris field in orbit that will require careful navigation and constant recalibration to protect the ship.
Meanwhile, M’Benga is not thrilled to have been chosen for this mission, which requires them to go low-tech so as not to risk further cultural disruption, and as such needs seasoned fighters in case of on-the-ground conflict. In our opening episode, M’Benga made the reluctant decision to enter a fugue state of violence to save the day, and at that time referenced a difficult history of violence amid war.
(Dammit, Pike, he’s a doctor, not a fighter.)
On the surface, La’an is the first to experience tinnitus (and warning: this episode is painful to listen to, whenever that darned sound effect shows up), followed by time lapses, disorientation, and memory loss. When the away team is found and captured, it turns out this is a feature of the world. Some form of radiation disrupts higher functions and recall, such that people on the surface lose all sense of who they are. Their autonomic functions are fine, muscle memory kicks in for certain tasks, and emotional drivers preserve some sense of inner truth. But beyond that?
Well… that depends where one lives in this Bronze-age culture of Kalar, which has a caste of people that remember, and field workers who forget themselves every night. Unfortunately, not everyone died in the original mission, which explains Starfleet tech on the surface: Pike’s former yeoman, Zac Nguyen (David Huynh), made himself ruler of this blighted landscape, and in his bitterness at being abandoned expresses delight in throwing the away team to the field workers, to suffer and forget.
Which they do, waking the next day in a cage unfamiliar even to one another. A kind old man who uses totemic truths to offset memory loss helps them acclimate.
Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, in the middle of that dread debris field, Communications Officer Uhura starts to hear a ringing too…
Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)
From context cues, the confused away team quickly realizes that they’re not Kalar workers: they don’t have the calluses for it, or the tattoos for memory. Their answers must lie in the palace where other Kalar live, so when Pike and La’an see an opportunity to take down the labor guards, they seize it. La’an is injured, which is when M’Benga leaps forward with an instinctive sense of how to help. But he can only recall a few basics, so while Pike’s feelings tell him that La’an is a friend, M’Benga’s tell him that he needs more of his memories to heal her.
The kindly old man, though, has taken them back to his shelter, shown them the totem that holds field Kalar history, and encouraged them not to let her death be so frightening. She will die, the forgetting will come, and this terrible memory will pass. Isn’t that a kindness? Why fight it?
(La’an, mind you, is not pleased by any such talk.)
However, the old man is compelled by Pike’s insistence that this is important, and moved by the totem that Pike wears around his neck, as a reminder of someone important to him. Because emotional truth is pretty much the only inner guide the field Kalar have, he agrees to help Pike on his quest to retrieve their lost memories from a mythical stronghold in the palace hall. Only, he doesn’t want Pike to retrieve his own memories, too; he knows that something terrible happened to him, but he assumes it’s for the best that he doesn’t recall more.
Pike leaves the man be, and enters the palace. There, he fights Zac while demanding access to wherever his memories are being stored. Zac laughs at how much Pike has forgotten, and in his gloating reveals that there is no such stronghold. Certain metals (like those in the guards’ helmets) simply shield some of them from the radiation’s effects. Once he’s been inside long enough, Pike’s memories also return.
Zac tries to argue, though, that until they did Pike had been just as cruel as Zac, and just as ready to kill. Pike disagrees. He stopped fighting before he remembered who he was, because the radiation didn’t change who we really are; it only pares people down to their core essence. Zac will therefore have a serious reckoning awaiting him, upon their return to Starfleet, for choices he made after initially being abandoned on this world.
Concurrently, though, the Enterprise was also in a battle for survival. Within hours, everyone aboard had forgotten who they were, while the ship itself remained in grave danger of being crushed by the debris field. A panicked Ortegas initially ran from the bridge because of a vague feeling of being angry with the only other officer on it (see: Easter eggs), but with the help of the ship’s computer she regained her name and ship’s title. Her intrinsic confidence provided the rest of her muscle memory, and she saved the ship from annihilation.
With everyone safe and sound, the team then discovers the radiation’s source: an ancient asteroid impact. Is that asteroid really part of the natural development of this species? Pike decides it isn’t, and the Enterprise tractor hauls it away. Ortegas ends the episode renewed in gratitude for her work, and Pike uses the excuse of a prison transfer to have another heart-to-heart with Batel, and to apologize for pushing her away. They pick up where they left off.
Humanist storytelling structure?
This is easily the most subtle episode of the season so far, with layers for newer arrivals to Trek and layers for seasoned hands.
On the surface, we have the stories of Zac and the old man. Zac believes in a kind of Hobbesian essentialism: without formal identities, we’ll revert to nastier, more brutish selves. This allows him to justify hurting the away team by casting them out.
Meanwhile, the old man has leaned into folk religion for comfort within this culture of imposed ignorance. When one has no control over one’s circumstances, what better kindness exists than to lean into the gift of forgetting? Except that when he does enter the palace and his memories return, he is grateful to Pike for this gift, too. He tells Pike that it is better to know even about a terrible past, because it’s part of what make us who we are.
Even though these two stories are only briefly told, the narrative contrast between them creates significant humanist tensions in this episode. What makes us who we are? Is it really some core essence that shouldn’t change even if we lose our sense of self and history? Or are we not also what we know that we’ve been through?
Then there’s another layer, which will hit differently depending on your knowledge of Trek. As I noted in the intro, a major reason the first pilot failed was because it was too “cerebral”. Roddenberry acknowledged that viewers at the time were expecting hand-to-hand combat between Good and Bad to help orient themselves. (Such was the level of normalized TV storytelling about right and wrong.)
Two characters wrestle with this problem of violence in “Among the Lotus Eaters”, with Pike expressly refusing brutal conflict in the end. This choice serves as deep restitution for a franchise that almost didn’t get off the ground because of its initial attempt (even amid Orion-slave-girl missteps) to foreground more thoughtful storytelling.
But even if you didn’t recognize the nod to earlier Trek, not to worry: M’Benga’s story uses today’s still-bloodthirsty viewer expectations to achieve the same ends. From the start of this season, we’ve known that M’Benga has a conflicted relationship with his past as a fighter. In this episode, that emotional weight is invoked anew: he doesn’t like having been chosen for this assignment on account of his combat skills.
And yet… the Chekhovian gun (no, not that Chekov; the other one) never goes off. M’Benga’s core self, after losing his memories of all formal identity, manifests in his work as a healer. Nothing else he’s been through will ever take that from him.
Were lazy choices made to sustain this narrative focus? Of course. The ship’s computer was staggeringly underused when the crew realizes it was losing its memories. By all rights, the Enterprise should absolutely have been crushed in the debris field, for the crew’s failure to program basic reminders and fail-safes (e.g., to keep Ortegas at her station), let alone to call for help.
This episode also could have seen the inclusion of clever tech fixes (maybe individual wrist monitors by our nurse, who’s supposed to be studying older forms of emergency medicine anyway?) to keep everyone from wandering uselessly in the halls. But because those wouldn’t serve the streamlined, Ortegas-forward story the writers wanted to tell, we’ve been trusted as viewers to “forget” the profound incompetence this whole crisis suggests about crew readiness for disaster. Alack.
‘Among the Lotus Eaters’: The thematic payoff
This episode offers a fascinating litmus test, thanks to how plainly it juxtaposes the moral espoused by Pike and the moral espoused by the old man after regaining his memories. It’s up to you to decide which resonates more: Pike’s conviction that losing our memories just clarifies who we “really” are under the surface, or the old man’s view that even memories of great hardship are essential to identity.
Or you can go the third way, which is where I land myself.
That’s because Ortegas, back on the ship, offers a blend of both: she has the muscle-memory to do the work she needs to do to save the Enterprise, but she also needs the ship’s computer to remind her who she is, so that she can get back to reminding herself of the same.
For me, this complementary plot offers the most nuanced sense. There is no one true answer to the question of “who we really are”: only the ongoing work of meaning creation, which we perform not only through self-recognition but also through the application of ourselves to the worlds in which we live.
Zac, consumed by anger and feelings of abandonment by Starfleet, lost sight of his ability to make better choices irrespective of his past.
M’Benga, meanwhile, gained a much needed reminder that the worst of his past isn’t as deeply encoded in him as he might have feared.
And Pike? Although it’s not expressly noted here, we know that his upcoming date with destiny probably informed his attempt to push away a romantic partner.
He had to learn that he can still make choices irrespective of his dreaded future, too.
I rank these episodes not on plot cohesion, cinematography, or acting, so much as how well they construct opportunities for humanist thinking through their execution of thematic priorities. As such, although I maintain that the Enterprise should have gone SPLAT for the crew’s very poor crisis planning when everyone started to lose their memories, I give “Among the Lotus Eaters” three happy humans for representing a wide range of approaches to the chewy problem of what makes us who we are.
(And it might have gotten four, if the writers hadn’t hand-waved removing an ancient asteroid as somehow not a breach of the Prime Directive!)
Quotes of note, and Easter eggs:
- NB: I wasn’t kidding about that sound effect for tinnitus being intense. Viewers with hearing aids reported pain, and I certainly had issues even without one.
- In keeping with the lofty literary origins of many episode titles, we have a nod to Tennyson in “Among the Lotus Eaters”. Yes, the concept of people who pass all their days away wasted on a narcotic plant comes from ancient Greek mythology, but it’s in “The Lotos-eaters” (1832) that we find the approach to memory loss that best echoes the beliefs of the enslaved field workers here. It’s a melancholic joining of suffering and escape from suffering into an altered state, and one that considers the choice to linger there, for:
Let us swear an oath, and keep it with an equal mind, In the hollow Lotos-land to live and lie reclined On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind. For they lie beside their nectar, and the bolts are hurl'd Far below them in the valleys, and the clouds are lightly curl'd Round their golden houses, girdled with the gleaming world: Where they smile in secret, looking over wasted lands, Blight and famine, plague and earthquake, roaring deeps and fiery sands, Clanging fights, and flaming towns, and sinking ships, and praying hands. But they smile, they find a music centred in a doleful song Steaming up, a lamentation and an ancient tale of wrong, Like a tale of little meaning tho' the words are strong; Chanted from an ill-used race of men that cleave the soil, Sow the seed, and reap the harvest with enduring toil, Storing yearly little dues of wheat, and wine and oil; Till they perish and they suffer—some, 'tis whisper'd—down in hell Suffer endless anguish, others in Elysian valleys dwell, Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel.
- As noted above, Ortegas felt vaguely angry with Spock when her memories disappeared. This might be because of Nurse Chapel. When she sees the memory-wiped Chapel in a corridor, the two have a moment of recognition that, in less deft hands, might have led to some kind of romantic tension. And yet, this series has threaded the needle beautifully on queer people also having actual friends (please, future episodes, don’t make me eat my words). As a bisexual/queer person myself, I cannot fully express how exhausting it is when queer characters are over-sexualized and not allowed a much richer landscape of relationships. Here, I get the feeling that Ortegas was vaguely angry with Spock out of deep platonic care for Nurse Chapel, and attendant feelings of “Dude, do right by my friend already” that she’s been keeping to herself for some time. We shall see!
- For more on the weird and wacky world of Star Trek‘s genesis, see if you can track down a copy of The Making of Star Trek. I summarized a few key components for better understanding the history behind this episode of SNW, but the politics around initial attempts to pitch the show are much messier and more nuanced.