Saturday, June 11, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach

Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach"
Airdate: June 9, 2022
6 of 10 produced
6 of 10 aired

Introduction

The Enterprise comes to the aid of a reclusive society with a dark secret.

Why yes, I do work out 3 hours a day!



Writing

Matthew: I have been complaining for several episodes now that the way the episodes of this season have been structured has prevented us from learning about the society at issue. This episode does a bit better job, since we meet many characters from this culture over successive scenes. A reclusive world, Majalis receives the Enterprise's assistance when an apparent kidnapper attacks a ship transporting a notable person - in this case, a child known as the First Servant. This race apparently possesses stupendous medical technology (which interests Dr. M'Benga keenly, as the show at long last returns to his Deep Dark Secret) but not advanced ships or weapons. OK. Now let me say, this episode was not being subtle as to what the First Servant represented. I was waiting for about half an hour for the "twist" to be revealed, and was not surprised when my hunch turned out to be correct. Suffice it to say **SPOILER ALERT** the child was going to be sacrificed in order to keep the levitating dwellings of the planet Majalis from sinking down into its lava-ridden planetary sphere. So look - although the former philosophy professor in me is overjoyed to have a dramatization of the utilitarian thought experiment "is it morally acceptable to inflict suffering on one person in order to benefit millions," I expect the conceit to be a bit better developed. Here, we are told that "the founders" created this child-sacrifice system, and that the current Majalans have no idea how it works (despite having mastered "quantum" transmutation which cures all diseases), and that somehow this one being's sacrifice powers or maintains an entire civilization's luxury and floating buildings. This is, in a word, unsatisfying. We also have the leader of the Majalans, who is romantically involved with Pike, spring it on him with no preface whatsoever - and she is surprised when he reacts negatively. Although I liked the Pike romance in this episode, I am mystified as to why she kept this central tenet of her world's ideology from him until after they screwed. If she knew how he would react, why would she let him into the room where it happens? If she didn't know, how lacking in observational powers is she? We also don't really get the philosophical discussion I want, you know, the Picard speech in which he states that no life may be sacrificed for another, and no one blinks at the notion of a child consenting to this sacrifice. So I guess I would only like to say that this aspect of the story could have stood a bit more development. But I'm glad the question is at least broached.

Kevin: So, I think the real lesson of this episode is just don't trust floating cities. Between this and TOS' The Cloud Minders, you apparently can't make floating cities without horrible tradeoffs. And yes, you saw the child sacrifice coming a mile away, but honestly, the cumulative effect was that it was familiar in a rather enjoyable way. This is practically a modern writers' pass at an unproduced TOS script, from the dilemma to the captain getting some. 

Matthew: The child himself is portrayed as being a super genius who is extremely nice, which lays it on a bit thick as far as the episode is concerned. The Majalans also apparently have an underground of people who reject this sacrificial ideology, including members of the special soldiers who safeguard this procedure. But, as one might expect, they're very bad at their job - when one of them rebels, no one seems to be able to land a phaser blast or a punch on him, and of course Pike ends up tussling with him. When they were investigating the kidnappers, no one was able to scan the ship to see what sorts of beings were aboard, a simple forensic matter. I guess this is all my way of saying that the "mystery" was artificially preserved for 40 minutes of run time, and it felt a little hokey as a result. It also ended up having no story consequences, beyond just sucking.

Kevin: I agree it wasn't the most sizzling mystery, but I enjoyed the work La'an and Uhura got to do this episode. It was another round of professionals acting professional in the bounds of their character traits and that leading to the solution. Uhura's Work Study program has been consistently a delight both for the character and the implicit world building.

Matthew: We finally return to, but do not resolve the M'Benga story. He is desperate (after two episodes of no mention of his daughter) to learn whether the Majalans' medical technology can cure his daughter's... space leukemia or whatever. Nonetheless, he still leaves the transporter unlocked, which allows the First Servant kid to beam her into Sickbay and play hopscotch with her - which I guess did not last long enough to lead to any health repercussions. Ultimately, we only get a single "drip" in this story, which was something I was concerned about. The Majalan doctor "consults" with M'Benga, and no resolution is offered, which means we will almost certainly have to keep asking "WHAT ABOUT HIS DAUGHTER?" when M'Benga does anything in future episodes.

Kevin: I actually thought the scene of them playing would be a trigger for an interesting conversation for M'Benga. In keeping her alive, he's denying her a childhood. What if this process takes years? She'll be 11 years old and find her father an old man. How will she have friends and form relationships? By extending her life, he is, in a way, robbing her of having a meaningful one. I assume/hope that will be more fully explored later, but would have liked to have seen it here.

Matthew: Here's an idea for a dilemma that would have made for a better episode with higher stakes - the alien Doctor should have offered M'Benga the technology for a cure in exchange for the First Servant's safe passage to the rebels. Or for that matter, have the offer of curing technology be contingent upon Pike and crew accepting them into the Federation, making that the dilemma. Or, have a pro-sacrifice alien offer him the tech in exchange for the child's return to the planet, making M'Benga trade a life for a life. You know, it took me all of ten minutes of thinking about this story while writing this review to come up with these alternatives. Why didn't people whose jobs it is to write these episodes come up with them? They're really pretty obvious. Instead, the "dilemma" they chose to focus on is whether Pike will stop liking the woman he just boned because of her culture - a toothless choice if ever there was one, since we know he can't stay with her anyway due to the show being a prequel. This tells you pretty much all you need to know about this creative staff and what they're actually interested in writing about. 

Kevin: So I get what you're saying and I certainly thought that was where the episode was going, but I'm not actually that mad they didn't go that route. I agree the most fertile dramatic resolution for M'Benga is one that raises the prospect of trading one child for another. And I also wanted a little more engagement with the moral choice here, but I don't think that needed to play out as the Federation crew deciding whether or not to intervene, since they have done it before. I think they hinted at it when she asked if the Federation has no poor, ignored people. Of course, we know the answer is no because Gene Roddenberry said so. But still, I think there is a fertile philosophical debate to be had about one society sermonizing to another and whether greater unintentional but ignored suffering is worse than less, but intentional suffering. It's essentially the trolley problem. I also think you are unreasonably extrapolating about the writing staff here. This is episode 6 and there haven't been any real clunkers or episodes where the crew acted in non-Starfleet or even non-professional ways, so I think they get the balance of the ten episodes at least before I synthesize an inventory of their interests.

Acting

Matthew: I have heaped oodles of scorn upon the M'Benga story line. None of this is reserved for Babs Olusanmokun. He almost sells me on the story and all of M'Benga's poor choices, and I totally believe his suffering - when it's on screen that is. This is why I think it's nigh on criminal to relegate him to the B, C or D story of an episode instead of really giving him a chance to dig in to the story and shine (in any of the scenarios listed above).

Kevin: Yeah, he crushed it. I really want this story to get a resolution this season since I think he will knock it out of the park, and it will free up the actor to do other things in the show.

Matthew: Anson Mount has "Hollywood leading man" written all over him, and it's easy to see why. His chemistry with his crew is great, his chemistry with Lindy Booth's Alora was enough to maintain my interest in a rather rote story, and he has clearly been hitting the gym like a fiend. Ian Ho was also a standout as the First Servant. He had "genius kid" energy but not in an annoying way, and seeing him suffer was genuinely sad.

Kevin: I literally thought to myself "So it's not just the cut of the uniform giving him that shape." Take that, Shatner. And yeah, Ho was really good at that thin line of "precocious but not exhausting." Another shout out to Celia Rose Gooding just turning in great work week after week with Uhura even in smaller parts.

Production Values

Matthew: Another stipulation for movie quality effects. The standout this episode was the planet animation, which was visually splendid and fit the story well. I wanted to see more of it, which is why it's a shame that so little of the planet was explained or explored in the story. Would it kill the writers to take the crew on a tour and show them how the buildings are levitated?

Kevin: I think it would have served the story well to see more of the world. What we got felt like mostly the royal palace type stuff, and seeing the other parts of the world would have bolstered the notion that the world was worth saving at any price.

Conclusion

Matthew: At the end of the day, despite my easily coming up with several edits to more effectively break this story, at least the setup has me thinking of such things, and at least it raised an interesting ethical question. That's not nothing. Compared to Discovery and Picard, this is several orders of magnitude closer to Star Trek than it used to be. It's sort of a Cliff's Notes version, still, but it's no longer an outright rejection of the principles or the tone of the classic shows. They're trying, and I see it. I can't really go above a 3 here, but this episode probably gets my most charitable 3 yet. I like the characters, I want them to succeed, I just miss my deep ethical discussions and JLP speeches.

Kevin: If they had focused on giving M'Benga an impossible choice, I would easily give this a four or more. But even with the episode we got, I just felt like I was watching Star Trek. Not just the substance of the show, but the quality of the viewing experience. There was a dilemma that sparked some back and forth what if thinking and I watch a crew of nice people do their jobs. And yeah, the reveals were all telegraphed a mile away, but knowing Hercule Poirot is always going to assemble everyone to reveal the murderer doesn't make it less fun when he does. The best way I can put it is that this episode, and the season overall so far, to me, feel like its taking advantage of rather than fighting my nostalgia for how it feels to watch and episode of Star Trek. I agree with the 3 for a total of 6.

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