Star Trek: Strange New Worlds feels like the 60s series, for better & worse

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

A visit to a familiar planet, a peculiar case of memory loss, and a B-Teamer rising to the occasion make for a mixed bag in this franchise throwback.

Among the Lotus Eaters” plays like an episode of the original series. There’s nothing wrong with that. For longtime Trekkies, the charm of Strange New Worlds is how the show channels the franchise’s familiar tropes and adapts them for a new era. But this episode in particular takes that tack a step further. Sub in Captain Kirk for Captain Pike (Anson Mount), Ensign Sulu for Lt. Ortegas (Melissa Navia), and Mister Spock for…er…Mister Spock (Ethan Peck), and this could just as easily be an installment from 1966 rather than one from 2023.

That’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because there’s a reason the “Wagon Train to the stars” approach has remained so durable over the years. The episode invokes a venerable Star Trek setup, one that sees Pike, La’an (Christina Chong), and Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) stranded on the planet of the week where they encounter an intriguing, high concept problem. At the same time, Lt. Ortegas and the rest of the Enterprise faithful grapple with issues of their own in orbit that interfere with their ability to rescue the away team.

The balance of a few officers confronting a unique culture in unfamiliar terrain while the rest of the crew handles things on the ship allows Strange New Worlds to throw out plot obstacles that are distinct yet connected. Pike can unravel the mysteries of the rough-hewn planet below with limited tools and resources. The rest of his senior staff can struggle with the core of the same threat despite having scads of technology and teamwork at their disposal. It helps make a singular quandary more interesting.

But the throwback vibe is bad, in part, because “Among the Lotus Eaters” also comes with a familiar affliction for viewers of the original series: not enough incident to fill the runtime.

It’s worth noting that every episode of Strange New Worlds’ second season to date lasts nearly an hour, which is a blessing and a curse. You can make allowances for the first three installments. The season premiere served as a grand reintroduction to our heroes and made heart-pumping use of the extra room to run. The second episode was a legal epic that paid off a major cliffhanger from last year’s finale. And last week’s installment played like a mini-movie, one which, frankly, could have done with even more time to flesh things out.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (Paramount+)

“Among the Lotus Eaters,” however, is a fairly standard Star Trek outing. If you’re doing a traditional crisp adventure story, even an ambitious one with something to stay about memory and emotion, staying on the leaner side of the forty-five minute divide tends to be the better call. Case-in-point, this episode spends a lot of time establishing and reestablishing the effects of the radiation sickness du jour, and with characters telling one another they need to take action, rather than actually moving the narrative along. That approach leaves the episode feeling logy in places.

That’s especially true down on the planet, which commands most of the episode’s focus. “Among the Lotus Eaters” features the first actual appearance of Rigel VII. In 1966, “The Menagerie” noted the rough planet as the site of an unfortunate encounter between Captain Pike and the Kalar, the seemingly barbarous locals.

In another instance of Strange New Worlds mining what little fans knew about Pike before he popped back into the prime timeline via Discovery in 2019, the episode features a return engagement with the erstwhile brutes who killed three of his crew members and injured several more during that excursion. True to the episode’s original series influences, Trekkies first saw Jeffrey Hunter’s version of Pike fight a Kalar warrior when the Talosians used their mental abilities to create an illusion that thrust Pike back into that grim battle.

That said, as it’s wont to do, Strange New Worlds doesn’t merely slam Mount’s Pike into an established foe from canon and call it a day. Instead, the writers add wrinkles to the Kalar and their home world to keep things fresh.

“Among the Lotus Eaters” comes with a familiar affliction for viewers of the original series: not enough incident to fill the runtime.

It turns out the Kalar are not inherently barbarous, but rather affected by a peculiar consequence of local radiation that leaves most unable to remember much of anything for very long, explaining some of their orneriness. The other big twist is that Pike’s personal yeoman was left behind on the last mission, having unexpectedly survived and used Federation technology to become the ruler of the Kalar’s feudal society in the years since Pike abandoned him.

These new angles are all necessary and generally commendable. The cultural contamination angle with the young officer gives the USS Enterprise a legitimate reason to return to Rigel VII despite the past troubles. The show manages to find a clever (if slightly too cute) explanation for the Kalar’s goofy, ambiguously Genghis Khan-esque hats. And an unequal society of individuals plagued with memory loss is far more interesting than a collection of generic dumb brutes.

One wonders why the creative team chose to invoke this society in the first place if they planned to change its citizens this much. But the results make for much better storytelling than a rote recapitulation of what came before.

The thrust of the story built around those changes rests on the emotions that guide us and the details of our lives that make us who we are. The away team features three members of the crew who have good reason to want to forget. Pike has his past tragedies and a tough future ahead. M’Benga with his history at war that clearly still haunts him. And La’an has her own traumas both recent and longstanding.

A local named Luke (Reed Birney) plays the standard helpful alien, and his advice feeds into their natural urge to let go of what hurts them. He waxes rhapsodic about the benefits of the Kalar way of life, with the freedom from pain that comes with an inherent lack of attachment to anyone or anything.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Yet, of course, it’s the emotional connections to others that ultimately motivates our heroes to survive and overcome despite their personal and practical challenges. Regardless of their hasty break-up, even a mind-wiped Pike is driven to reunite with Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano) by his love for her, spurring a reconciliation once he returns home. Despite Pike’s nigh-pathological need to protect his crew, he recognizes that these sorts of bonds make his life richer, rather than make him weaker, and he shows grace and gratitude to the vengeful yeoman whom he inadvertently stranded all those years ago.

It’s all solid stuff. The material drags a bit. The audience is more than capable of comprehending the point without the need for Strange New Worlds to hammer it home over and over again in reams of purple prose. But the sentiment is a heartening one, and the show dramatizes what is lost and regained in the recesses of memory fairly well.

The best part of the episode, though, is the subplot featuring Lt. Ortegas. The denizens of the Enterprise suffer from the same memory malady their planet-bound counterparts do. But it’s Erica’s recollection of her identity, specifically the confidence and contentment that comes from being a pilot, that allows her to save the day and inspire in the process.

Her mantra, which affirms both her identity and the task ahead, is low key stirring. And the way that, even when she’s not sure of anything else, she trusts in her ability to rise to the occasion and her skills at the helm, makes for a great coming out party for Ortegas. This is, more or less, the first time the character’s stepped into the role of protagonist, and it pays real dividends here.

Frankly, it’s more than the Original Series B-teamers got to do for most of the show’s run. If there’s an advantage Strange New Worlds has over its strongest influence (besides boons like a legitimate budget, advances in cinematic technology, a lead who knows how to act), it’s the fact that SNW is more of a genuine ensemble show, ready to let multiple characters step into the spotlight when the time is right.

But it’s also subject to the same pitfalls Star Trek wandered into nearly sixty years ago, on Rigel VII and on our home screens. “Among the Lotus Eaters” is a sound rendition of the type of story that will be familiar to longtime fans of the franchise, with a nice chance for a secondary character to move to the front row to boot. But the episode stumbles in its efforts to reinvent the wheel, struggling with some of the same bloat and narrative vamping its hallowed forebear once labored under too. Following in the footsteps of an iconic series can lead you to share in its successes, but also to make the same kinds of mistakes.

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