Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Strange New Worlds, Season 2: Among the Lotus Eaters

Strange New Worlds, Season 2
"Among the Lotus Eaters"
Airdate: July 6, 2023
14 of 20 produced
14 of 20 aired


Pike and crew are called back to Rigel VII, a planet upon which they have experienced violence before, because of apparent cultural contamination.


Why are the mountains always the same distance away from us?




Matthew: I'm going to start with praise, and not faint praise, either. This episode succeeded in a way that much of Season One of this show manifestly failed - it balanced continuing character stories and an alien of the week story really well in terms of screen time. Setting aside whether Rigel VII makes a lick of sense (we'll get there), we spent enough time there to get a feel for the place and to understand the conflicts of the native characters. We did get a character B story with Pike and Batel, but it was actually reflected thematically in the A narrative, as opposed to just being Mad-Libbed into the script.  The whole episode was relatively brisk and entertaining, with the possible exception of Ortegas' extended freakout in her quarters, which probably could have been cut in half. So, long story short: in composition, this actually felt like a Star Trek episode from the golden age of the franchise. This is not praise I hand out lightly.

Kevin: The feeling of 'classic TOS' was my initial and strongest takeaway as well. This just felt like a standard TOS episode. The captain and two officers beam down and run into trouble on the planet, with the Captain eventually awesome-ing his way out of it. Everyone is ultimately a nice, professional person, and displays the practice of Federation values, here the Prime Directive generally, and prioritizing personal autonomy and authenticity specifically. Kirk has rescued countless civilizations that sand the edges off of people in the name of their safety, so this really does fit. The only thing missing was a computer at the center of it being foiled by a verbal paradox. I liked the stuff with Batel, too. I like how it unfolded, and I liked where it ends up. I think other series would chicken out of having them work through this problem, resting on the "a captain's life is a lonely one" trope, al a Janeway, and I'm actually invested enough to see how these two work out, or don't.

Matthew: OK, now to execution. Rigel VII makes not a whole lot of sense. Losing memories is a perfectly cromulent sci-fi trope, of course. But if everyone besides those in a particular castle or wearing particular helmets keeps losing their memories, and this has been going on for thousands of years, how could this society possible function? The old man eventually remembers having a family and a son. But how could he have had the family and son in the first place? How would they ever have been a family unit? Maaaybe you could imagine a society in which all children are raised in common, and no one knows who they've impregnated. Which is actually a fascinating sci-fi idea. But that's not what's on the page. Really, no one would realize the helmet thing and people wouldn't all just be wearing these helmets? No one with a helmet would give one to a lover or friend among the field slaves? And this is of course setting aside the fact that no one mentioned the whole losing memories and crashing the ship thing in "The Cage." I enjoyed the idea of a leftover away team member changing society, but this was really not well explored (and also ill fits the memory loss society). Basically, they should have cut a theme and more fully explored one or the other.

Kevin: Yeah, I think they should have clarified the memory thing was only a smaller number of years old, maybe the asteroid impact could have been the catalyst for the first trip, or the ruling class could have been using tech to capitalize on it. I also have the same reservations I had waaay back in Conundrum about how you forget your name and relationships, but not how to do your job. I understand there is some biological basis for how we store habits and instincts etc. but it was still too neat. But then, it always is, because this is a TV show, not a neurology seminar. I liked the manifestation of it on the Enterprise. They probably spent a little too much time up there at the cost of the Rigel story, but it built well, and, like in Conundrum, it was nice to see some durable parts of characters we like manifest themselves to save the day.

Matthew: The B story of Pike and Batel was enjoyable. I do sort of wonder what the command structure is here, such that a first officer can't deal with minor crap. Does no one have an away message in the 23rd century? Anyway, I cared about their breakup and their resolution, and thought it was effectively mirrored in the A plot. The Ortegas C plot.... meh. There wasn't enough there to really dig into her desire to do more than fly the ship. And did she end up being happy with flying the ship? It was just kind of muddy, an opportunity for a funny actress to say snarky things.

Kevin: I agree it didn't get quite the development it needed, since it's a weird message to say "actually, it's fine you're only one trait as long as you are awesome enough at it" but no one did or said anything wildly out of character, so it was pleasant enough to watch, if not a revelation.


Matthew: Can we just have a show about Melani Scorfano's Captain Batel on a different ship? Because she's got acting ability to spare, and having a different crew would make continuity sooooo much easier.Anyway, her chemistry with Anson Mount worked well and I believed their relationship scenes.

Kevin: For having so few scenes, she really has given the character a lot of internal life. I will register a small objection that starship captain and JAG prosecutor seem like wholly exclusive career tracks, but I've handwaved worse ones over the years. If nothing else, she really succeeds in making her character more than a receptacle for Pike's feelings. 

Matthew: None of the Rigellians looked like the hulking troglodyte of The Cage. Reed Birney was really good as Luq, and I wish we had learned more about him. Less effective for me was David Hyunh as Zac. He just read really whiny, and not someone who would be respected by a society of warrior badasses.

Kevin: Agreed on all counts here. I will say, I think La'an, M'Benga and Pike collectively did not some really nice work on the planet. They did a good job of acting like professionals who know and trust each other making difficult calls under the circumstances, and to a large extent, helps the admittedly underwritten plot move well enough to keep my interest.

Production Values

Matthew: This is the first episode in which location shots are very clearly being done in a "Volume" projected space, a la Obi-Wan or Mandalorian. And while the projected environment looked pretty good, the integration with the foreground did not. Everything was very clearly on one plane, in a soundstage. Which of course is not dissimilar from old Trek episodes, but it was notable for a show like this which has heretofore worn its budget on its sleeve.

Kevin: I kind of think that effect was intentional. A snowy foreground with a few rocks plus a distant violet backdrop is bog standard TOS set dressing. There was something about the way it felt like a bunch of actors on an empty foreground space that felt like it was consciously riffing TOS in a way that pretty much worked for me.


Matthew: This is a solid 3 for me. Its inconsistencies hold it back from going higher, but "not hating this" is a huge step up for me. It was a self contained hour of Star Trek in which a problem was introduced, the problem affected likable characters in a concrete way, and then the problem was resolved. Did the problem make perfect sense? Nah. But I was entertained, and engaged enough to (ironically) actually remember the episode after its conclusion. Two episodes in a row! If they keep this up, I'm going to have to revisit my default curmudgeonly stance.

Kevin: I think you could recast the away team with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and this episode would fit pretty seamlessly into the original TOS run, and since I like TOS, that's a compliment. I will always enjoy good character work more than anything, and I will accept narrative shortcuts if it facilitates the good character work, which it does here. I like giving episodes like this a 3 because this is what I want average television to feel like. It's characters I care about doing stuff for an hour and then it's done. Having a run of these will make more ambitious episodes land because there's a backbone of a bunch of other episodes for me to care about when the characters do face bigger stakes. So this is a hearty 3 from me for a total of 6.

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