Fan Collective Unimatrix 47: SNW’s “Lift Us Up Where Suffering Cannot Reach” Episode

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

Lift Us Up Where Suffering Cannot Reach” is the first real misstep for Strange New Worlds, and it is a pretty big one. As a result, this review comes with its own trigger warning for societally condoned torture of a child. Be safe, folks. If this could trigger you, give this review and the episode on which it is based a pass.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

“Suffering” very much wants to say something about how American society fails its children, and I’m certainly the last person to argue that the message is either inaccurate or unnecessary. However, the way in which the episode tries to make this point results in an exploration of this message muddled with other complicating factors. Certainly, life is replete with complicating factors, and Star Trek certainly should consider those in its storytelling. However, here, when the message becomes confused, the episode loses its impact. While the performances given by our regular cast members try and elevate the story, ultimately, not even they can save the story from collapsing underneath its own weight.

Plot Ahoy!

Starfleet has assigned the Enterprise a cartographic mission around a system that holds bad memories for Captain Pike, and entering into the system only to receive a distress call from a shuttle under attack seems to bear out that sense of forboding. The Enterprise moves to intervene, and in the ensuing struggle, the attacking ship crashes to the planet below while the distressed shuttle requests emergency beam-out.

Pike goes to meet the beleaguered crew and discovers Alora, a woman he rescued from another shuttle some years before. Also aboard the shuttle are a young boy whom Alora terms the First Servant and Gamal, a doctor. Alora contends that the attackers were after a ransom, considering that she and Gamal had been taking the First Servant to his ascension ceremony, which she describes as being sacred to the Majalans. Gamal seems somehow less enthused about the entire process and immediately drags the boy to Sick Bay, of which Gamal disapproves very strongly, deeming it rudimentary and barbaric. As it happens, the Majalans are far more scientifically advanced than the Federation, and their medical technology presents a potential for a treatment for Rukiya. Gamal declines to share his technology with M’Benga.

What follows is mostly Pike discovering a conspiracy to kidnap the First Servant, which he thwarts, and he returns the First Servant to the Majalans. Alora invites Pike to be the first non-Majalan to witness the ceremony. Alora expresses how important the ceremony is to her people, and Pike gets a front-row seat to watching the Majalans plug the boy into some sort of machine. Pike fights to free the boy, but the guards subdue him.

He awakens in Alora’s private chamber, and she explains that their society’s founders constructed the system that keeps their civilization floating in the clouds to require the use of a child’s neural function. No one knows exactly what happens to the First Servant, but they do know that the First Servant will suffer. Pike expresses his disgust, and Alora points out that her people never shy away from the cost of their peace and abundance. They know and accept that their entire civilization depends on the suffering of a single child, and she questions whether the Federation has the moral high ground here. She asks Pike if the Federation has children who suffer for its benefit. Pike is silent on that issue and asserts that he’ll contact Starfleet. Alora reminds him that Majalis is not a Federation world and that Starfleet therefore has no jurisdiction over them or their practices.

Analysis

Now, I firmly believe that Trek can and should present challenging stories, and “Suffering” is very much a difficult story. Let’s start with what I think went right in the episode. I think the performances given really did everything they could to elevate this particular story. Pike’s frustration and helplessness is palpable. Gamal’s quiet grief at the loss of his son to this madness ripped at me. Celia Rose Gooding continues to bring a delightful sparkle to Uhura, and both La’an and Una maintain their badassery.

I also like the idea that Pike loses here. Pike’s loss demonstrates that sometimes, things just don’t work out the way you hope, and that’s a very, very real thing for Star Trek to portray. The Federation is powerful, yes, but it isn’t all-powerful. Strange New Worlds flirted with that idea a bit in “Spock Amok” last week. Pike’s winning speech to the Rogovians acknowledges that the Federation can be a problematic ally. Noting that there are limits to the Federation’s power and influence is important because it creates space to tell interesting, difficult stories about power dynamics that don’t quite work the way we hope. Placing limits on Federation power makes for an interesting universe.

I even like the idea that the conspiracy was one that had Pike had all of the information, he would have allowed to go forward. The twist wasn’t that shocking, but it does fit into a long Trek tradition of reminding us to consider all of the information before we make a decision. The “not everything is as it seems” is an old trope, but despite that age, it behooves us to remember it well. Trek often reminds us of the necessity of asking the right questions and getting the right answers. Some of that needed to have happened here.

Even the visual designs for Majalis are lovely. The renderings remind me so much of old-school TNG conceptualizations of foreign planets and architecture. I find it entertaining that the Majalans apparently favor the use of vaguely neoclassical columns and tasteful textured wallpaper, but I’m willing to go along with it.

There’s a lot to like about “Suffering,” which may be the strangest sentence I’ve ever typed. However, where the story doesn’t work, it really, really, really doesn’t work. First, I have real questions about the First Servant. I have long experience hand-waving problematic Star Trek technology, but here, a society literally tortures a child to keep itself aloft. You’d think that they would at least offer some sort of rationale for it. Instead, all we get is Alora’s shrug and a lack of information. It’s not a good look for a society whose advancement outstrips the Federation’s, nor is Alora’s willingness just to drop her research when it got hard. Her disinterest in pursuing a better solution comes off as a studied acceptance of tradition. Tradition is all well and good, folks, but for a society to build itself, literally, upon the knowing sacrifice of the weakest of its members, that’s a huge problem. Why would any founding member find such a sacrifice acceptable? I really needed more than, “We don’t know.”

Moreover, I take issue with the idea that society requires suffering, and frankly, Trek does as well. The Federation exists because Gene Roddenberry dreamt of a society in which such things have been eradicated. Alora’s argument that the Federation has children who live in poverty doesn’t hold water precisely because the Federation itself is meant to represent a utopia. In-universe, the Federation literally exists as a refutation of the Majalans’ assumption. Pike’s refusal to answer Alora works as an indictment of the real world, which happens to be one in which children suffer and die due to societal failures. However, it doesn’t work here, in the story.

Pike and Alora attempt to deepen their relationship, and the entire romantic subplot serves both as a means to fill the episode’s run time and as a way to justify Pike’s complete acceptance of everything Alora tells him. I found it odd for a character the show has spent several episodes demonstrating to be a calm, competent officer didn’t investigate Prospect 7 immediately, especially considering that he’d already argued that Starfleet’s own regulations required an investigation a touch more in depth than just going to the wreckage. I appreciate that once Uhura begins finding all of the evidence, he listens to her, but Pike spends the first half of this episode getting led around by the, well, wrong head as it were. That’s not a humanizing weakness; that’s just incompetence.

Alora similarly doesn’t manage to sell her belief in the necessity of the boy’s sacrifice either. While I’m certain she’s as cagey as she is in order to protect the episode’s twist at the end, it really just comes off as her knowing that her people are wrong. One of the themes underpinning this particular episode is whether the Federation has the right to impose its values on the Majalans. The answer, ultimately, is that it doesn’t, but even though the Majalan characters keep telling us that they truly believe in the system, their actions do little to indicate that they actually do. Gamal not only betrays his people to save his son but then leaves with the Enterprise to go to Prospect 7 in order to prevent another child from being sacrificed. On top of that, Gamal tries to teach the concept behind secret Majalan tech to M’Benga. Therefore, the episode’s ending loses the impact it should have had.

The episode’s other question—does society require suffering—doesn’t get an answer per se because the show is busy with a boomstick fight sequence and a romance that still feels shoehorned into the episode, despite the chemistry between the two actors. As much as I love that Trek tried to go there, I don’t think this episode holds together nearly well enough to support such major questions. Plus, I’m not wild about dead kids in my Star Trek.

Rating:

Two and a half time crystals

Stray Thoughts From the Couch

  1. You can very much hear Anson Mount’s native Tennessee accent in this episode, and I’m here for it.
  2. I love the dedication to the use of the same sound effects from TOS.
  3. When you refer to a child as First Servant or “the boy” and foreswear your family, yeah, you’re going nowhere good. I sort of low key think someone should have pointed that out.
  4. I really do wish we’d met the Prospect 7 colonists. That would have added a range of depth to the episode.
  5. I love the Rules of Security and Uhura is amazing as always.
  6. I will say that the costumes in this episode are beautiful. It’s lovely to see that we are no longer in the era of upholstery fabric outfits.
  7. I love that Gamal offers healing tech to M’Benga. There are worse ways to give the finger to the society that murdered your son, I suppose.
  8. I also low-key love that Gamal unleashes his inner McCoy all over the Sickbay. I have no doubt that Gamal’s attitude is a call back to Bones from Star Trek IV.
  9. I appreciated that the challenge coins make another appearance.

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