The following article discusses spoilers for Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach, and topics of a sensitive nature.
Last week, Strange New Worlds hit something of a groove with a lightweight comedy episode that showed how well this show can work. This week, it takes a hard turn toward the weighty, with an episode that tries to cover a whole host of stuff in its 50-minute runtime. In some ways, this feels like the most The Next Generation thing Star Trek has put out since 1994. In others, it feels like the show tripped backwards and landed on something deeply profound by accident.
We open on Pike in pensive mode as the USS Enterprise heads to the Majalan System to run a stellar survey. He’s been this way before, on an unseen rough-and-tumble adventure back when he was a lieutenant, and he’s hoping for an easier ride this time around. No such luck, as just as the ship arrives, it’s thrust into a low-stakes battle between two small vessels, one of which starts firing on the Enterprise itself. That forces Pike to intervene, rescuing three people from one of the ships: A child with the title The First Servant, a prickly doctor who is also the First Servant’s father and Alora, a noblewoman Pike met on his last visit.
The ship came under attack because it was carrying the First Servant, who is about to “ascend” and achieve some great destiny for his people. He’s sufficiently special that he’s been implanted with a special perpetual-healing device to protect him from injury. But what’s obvious, from a few minutes into the episode, is that neither of the adults want to talk about why the kid is special, or what his grand ascension ceremony is going to entail, beyond the fact that the entire civilization will collapse unless it takes place, pronto. In my notes, I wrote “I bet they’re planning on eating the Dalai Lama kid,” because this whole plot felt like a throwback to a less TV-literate age.
Unfortunately, Pike seems to have left his brain in his other pants as soon as he realizes that there was mutual affection between him and Alora. In fact, as soon as Pike realizes that he’s on track to Get Some, he becomes quite petulant when his subordinates try to drag him away to try to further the episode’s narrative. And that’s despite the fact that Alora is the most Character With Something Dark To Hide character you’ll see on television this year. All the while, La’an and Uhura, this week on the security portion of her apprenticeship, try to work out what exactly is going on.
Of course, that perpetual-healing machine piques the interest of Dr. M’Benga, who wonders if such technology could be used to heal his own daughter. Sadly, the doctor brushes off the request for help, saying that it would be impossible for the Majalans to share their technology. The kid’s also something of a child prodigy, and based on nothing more than a half-overhead conversation about a sick child, he’s managed to bust Rukiya out of the transporter buffer. At this point, I can’t work out if her presence onboard is meant to be a secret or not, since it seems like a random child from an alien culture can figure out she’s there in about thirty seconds. (Pike, too, later in the episode, is tempted with an offer to get his own future fixed with their magical medical technology.)
Unfortunately, the next section of the plot is mostly throat-clearing and runarounds as Pike uncovers some sort of conspiracy. The hows and whys of the conspiracy aren’t really clear, and the only real point is to have a laser stick fight/chase scene through what looks like the grounds of Toronto’s Casa Loma museum. You can feel the show spinning its wheels while we get to the inevitable conclusion. Pike rescues the kid and hands him over to the Majalans, who promptly plug him into a supercomputer that “kills” him. This, somehow, is the key to keeping their society, which floats on suspended islands above the clouds, much like Columbia from Bioshock Infinite, from falling into the lava below. (Why? Don’t ask questions, it just does.)
Pike does try to stop it happening, but gets enough of a beatdown to watch as the kid gets wired up. It’s a pretty disturbing scene and as close to horror as Star Trek has gotten for a while, since the child realizes too late that it’s going to lead to his untimely end. Alora, in response to Pike’s objection, then goes on a rant about having the courage to sacrifice one child for the greater good. I’ll quote her response in full: “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 enjoy abundance look away? The only difference is that we don’t look away.”
Now, it was these lines that threw me, only because it’s clearly meant to be a say-the-quiet-part-out-loud statement about the US. But while the Federation is meant to be some allegorical mash-up of the Western World at large, it’s also meant to represent a utopian version of that. In the 23rd century, the Federation had the ability to synthesize food, clothing and other materials pretty darn easily. In Discovery’s first season, Burnham uses food and clothing synthesizers to produce a delicious meal and new uniform pretty much on demand. Which means that, while the Star Trek of Pike’s day wasn’t the post-scarcity economy of The Next Generation, the idea that people would go hungry and live in squalor feels… off. I don’t want to be that guy, but did any of the show’s nine thousand producers read Trekonomics?
Here’s the thing, while the meat of the episode isn’t particularly meaty, the topics it covers are fairly profound. One of Star Trek’s most famous philosophical tenets is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This form of Utilitarianism is upheld as a noble goal within the spirit of the Federation (except, of course, when Leonard Nimoy fancies a shot at directing and so decides / agrees to resurrect Spock, but let’s not talk about that now). Then again, it’s hard to see how a kid, even a bright one, can be emotionally and mentally mature enough to consent to such a grisly demise.
Then there’s the fact that Pike loses, and is essentially powerless to do much of anything to “correct” what went on here. He can file a report to the Federation and lodge his objection to what went on, but there’s little anyone can actually do. And that raises another interesting point, since Star Trek can be read as an essentially colonialist text, one in which a group of people with Western values venture out to “civilize” the “wilderness.” If Pike had stormed back, phasers blasting, to rescue the First Servant, it might have made for good TV, but is it morally and ethically right for one group to impose its will upon others under force of arms?
(Longtime Trek fans will probably have spotted the handful of nods to the early TNG episode “Symbiosis” which covered similar ground. I won’t spoil it for you, but that too posed the question of how much you can, or should, interfere when you find one group of people taking advantage of another. Late ‘80s Just Say No moralizing aside, it does manage to reach a satisfying conclusion and keep within the rules of how the Prime Directive prevents the Federation from simply imposing its order upon the rest of the universe.)
But no matter how hamfistedly the show might be gesturing toward these sorts of problems, it is at least gesturing toward them. The thing that is working about Strange New Worlds is that it’s working to provoke you to think, and dwell upon your own moral and intellectual values. And it’s worth asking yourself, too, what you would be prepared to do to prevent this form of moral injustice in the world we live in today. And that, my friends, is the power of good sci-fi.