Strange New Worlds has made a name for itself over the course of its first season, and now the first half of its sophomore, in taking the vibes of the original Star Trek—and sometimes literal episodes—and translating them to a modern television show, and the expectations that come with them. But what happens when the vibes can’t quite make it?
You get “Among the Lotus Eaters,” this week’s episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which feels like it has a lot in common with one of the rare bold swings that didn’t quite work out in the show’s debut season, the similarly wordily titled “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach.” Like that episode, “Lotus Eaters” is equal parts heady and challenging in its ideas, presenting a nuanced, darker tone than Strange New Worlds is usually accustomed to taking. But also like that episode, it’s one where the potential of those challenging ideas falls apart when you think about it just a bit more than the runtime of the episode—except more so that unfortunate line of thinking also means facing a disappointing ponderance for what could’ve been, when it comes to the series exploring the potential of its entirely new characters.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” revolves around perhaps the most specifically weird hook between Strange New Worlds and the original Star Trek the show could possibly imagine, which is saying something for a series that’s already set an episode during an alternate retelling of “Balance of Terror,” or even done its own riffs on episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever.” After a mission alongside the USS Cayuga—the ship of Pike’s paramour, Captain Batel, whose relationship has become strained in the wake of Batel’s involvement in prosecuting Number One a few weeks ago—the Enterprise finds itself returning to the planet Rigel VII, six years after a disastrous away mission there first mentioned in the original Star Trek pilot, “The Cage.” Then, several members of the Enterprise’s landing party were killed in a skirmish with local natives, including Pike’s own yeoman. Now, Starfleet has discovered evidence of a violation of the Prime Directive—in a literal Starfleet emblem carved into the gardens of a palace on the surface of the world, and Pike has to confront that past failure, while navigating his present frustrations and regrets in his relationship with Captain Batel.
It is, as we said, a fascinating premise, and a spotlight on Anson Mount’s captain that he’s yet to really get this season. But as things on Rigel VII get more and more peculiar—the new landing party of Pike, La’an, and Dr. M’Benga find themselves facing debilitating memory loss the longer they spend time on the world, an affliction that begins to plague the Enterprise crew in orbit—the episode dwells more and more on the mystery box of the memory loss and its affects than some of its most important characters. Pike at least gets a good deal of focus, as he is confronted with the revelation that his Yeoman, Zac, actually survived the last mission and is now a bitter, vengeful leader of a tribe of locals, and the one behind outfitting them with Federation technology. As he, La’an, and M’Benga struggle with the loss of their memories and their identities as Starfleet officers, Mount plays the trauma and determination to remember who he is and what he stands for with aplomb, and there’s good cathartic release in his arc here when the episode culminates with a touching reunion between himself and Batel. The experience on Rigel of losing who he was, even for a moment, forces him to confront the mistake of pushing the people he loves away from him—an especially touching epilogue to Pike’s own acceptance of his future fate last season.
But the problem is that Captain Pike has already had a lot of the focus of Strange New Worlds’ character work so far. Yes, he’s the captain, and therefore the series’ main character. But when so much of this episode feels like an epilogue to an arc already well explored for him, combining it with the layers of mystery on Rigel being drawn out across the episode, it feels like “Among the Lotus Eaters” is playing for time that could’ve been used more effectively—even if the vibes are immaculately classically Trek, right down to location sets that give off ‘60s budget alien world vibes.
This especially feels like the case with one part of the episode in particular: Lieutenant Erica Ortegas’ subplot. Melissa Navia’s helmsman is arguably one of the last remaining members of Strange New Worlds’ ensemble cast to recieve a moment in the spotlight, an exploration left all the more tempting even as several characters around her have gotten multiple episodes of focus. “Among the Lotus Eaters” almost begins playing with this metatextual acknowledgement when Erica, eager to be a part of Pike’s landing party to investigate Rigel VII, suddenly finds herself pulled out of field duty in order to keep her at the Enterprise helm. When Rigel VII’s mystery memory loss affliction comes for the Enterprise—caused in part by radiation from an orbiting asteroid, hence its affect on the ship as well as the crew below—Ortegas and Spock are left as some of the last crew unaffected, until they too succumb to it. And while below on the planet Pike’s grappling with losing his identity comes with a moment of emotional catharsis, Ortegas’ comes with her… remembering that she pilots the Enterprise. And that’s it. Not who she is or what she stands for, but what her job is, the job that in part was frustrating her earlier in the episode when it restricted her from being part of the away team. Yes, it means she remembers what she does in time to save the day and save the crew, but it’s not exactly a profoundly emotional character exploration, especially for a character who has yet to receive much of a spotlight on the show so far.
That’s what arguably stings the most about “Among the Lotus Eaters” and its potential—it’s not a bad episode of Strange New Worlds, but it could’ve been a much better one than it was. In trying to be a bit more fascinated with a few too many ideas, the series stalled instead of soared when it came to the chance to explore one of its more intriguing new characters. But just like “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” that’s not necessarily a fatal misstep for a show like this. There’s always next week, and the week after that, and the week after that, when the show will try again with a new idea—and maybe one that will, eventually, do some justice to some of its most underserved characters.
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