The Star Trek franchise is famously optimistic, set in a utopian future where anything is possible and no one is left behind. The aim of many Star Trek stories is to inspire us to do better, to be brave, compassionate, and curious. But it’s a compass, not a map, and it’s often better at pointing out when our culture is headed in the wrong direction than it is in pointing us towards the right one. As such, as sunny as Star Trek often is, not all of its stories have happy endings. In fact, sometimes it’s downright cruel. The latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach,” is the new show’s first attempt at a “tough love” message episode. It hits a level of mean that’s truly shocking, but in their attempt to make the story hit as hard as possible, writers Robin Wasserman and Bill Wolkoff may have inadvertently chipped away at their own moral.
Spoilers ahead for the episode.
You Know What They Say About Assumptions
While on a routine charting mission, the Enterprise stumbles across a space battle in progress and rescues an old flame of Captain Pike’s, Alora (Lindy Booth). Alora is a high-ranking government official from the planet Majalas, charged with escorting a prepubescent dignitary called the First Servant (Ian Ho) to his coronation. Along for the ride is Elder Gamal (Huse Madhavji), who is the First Servant’s father “purely in the biological sense,” since the First Servant is considered to be family to all Majalans. Their arrival aboard the Enterprise kicks off a few branching subplots. Cadet Uhura is on Security rotation this week, and joins chief La’an Noonian-Singh to investigate the abandoned wreckage of the ship that attacked the Majalan delegation. Dr. M’Benga learns that Majalan medicine is so advanced that it may have a cure for the terminal illness that threatens his young daughter Rukiya (Sage Arrindell). Pike beams down to the idyllic floating cities of Majalas to help Alora sniff out a potential traitor in the First Servant’s security detail, after which the pair falls into bed together.
To the viewer, it should be clear from the outset that something is off about this entire situation. Too much information is conveniently missing, and the characters are filling in the gaps with what they want to see. When the Enterprise finds a big warship firing on a small shuttle, Pike reflexively takes the side of the underdog, which is typically a good instinct. When he finds that the shuttle was carrying a pretty, familiar face, he’s too distracted by their unresolved sexual tension to notice that she never fully answers any of his questions. Alora tells Pike that their assailants were from an alien colony at the edge of their system, likely looking for a ransom, but won’t go into further details because the Majalans are “a private people.” Neither Alora nor Gamal really explains what the First Servant’s title means, and absent an explanation, Dr. M’Benga seems to assume that he’s some sort of young ascending monarch or other political leader. This offers him a glimmer of hope that the sweet kid might bend Majala’s rules against sharing medical technology and help him cure his daughter, who he’s had to preserve in a medical transporter buffer to keep her illness at bay. Pike and M’Benga are both top-shelf, brilliant and compassionate human beings, but they’re also so focused on making the benefits of this apparent utopia work for them that they barely consider that maybe it’s not as civilized and enlightened as it appears to be.
The only people who maintain their objectivity are La’an, who is suspicious of everyone, and Uhura, who is determined to impress her teacher by leaving no stone unturned in their investigation. It’s Uhura who, when asked to translate some files found on the crashed attack ship, goes one step further and breaks down the language itself, discovering that the First Servant’s would-be kidnappers were not aliens, but an offshoot of Majala’s own culture. This should blow the case wide open, except by now the crew is distracted by a second failed attempt to abduct the First Servant, this time by his own father, Gamal. Thanks to a string of contrivances, the crew doesn’t learn the truth until it’s too late: The First Servant is essentially a human sacrifice to an ancient machine that powers their entire planet, chosen to suffer and die so that the rest of the population can live in luxury, a narrative device clearly inspired by Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The attacking vessel from the beginning of the episode and their co-conspirators have been attempting to save the child from this fate. In an uncharacteristically dark twist, the crew does not figure this out in time, and Pike is forced to watch in horror as a precocious twelve-year-old is plugged into a machine that will slowly torture him to death. The kid can’t be removed from the machine and the Federation can’t intervene in the affairs of a sovereign planet to prevent this tradition from continuing, and the Enterprise is forced to simply pack up and move on.
No Ethical Consumption
The reveal of the First Servant’s purpose comes so late in the episode that there’s barely even time to process the horror of it. The explicit takeaway from the story is in Alora’s defense of the practice, that all civilizations profit from the suffering of others, even of children, and Majalas simply refuses to deny it. It’s a challenge to viewers to acknowledge that conveniences like smartphones and fast fashion are produced via the suffering and exploitation of others, including children. However much you may try to consume ethically, or whether you want to think about it or not, if you’re reading this, you have almost certainly benefited from labor that’s indistinguishable from slavery, if not slavery outright. Most consumers have little or no choice in the matter, and powerful capitalists would have you believe that it has to be this way. If we want to enjoy the relative splendor of modern life in the Global North, they tell us, it has to be at someone’s expense. The story reinforces this idea by telling us that the rebel faction who has refused to reap the benefits of the First Servant system is living at a subsistence level, presenting a binary choice between living comfortably and living ethically. Alora insists that Majalans have spent centuries looking for an alternative to plugging a child’s brain into their ancient computer in order to keep their high-tech cities floating above their otherwise uninhabitable planet, and nothing else has worked. So, they simply honor the sacrifice of the First Servant every day of their (presumably, short) lives until the machine burns them to a crisp and it’s time to honor the next one. Their only other choice would be to let their civilization sink into the lava and acid below.
This is, of course, bullshit. These motherfuckers have spaceships, they could just pack up and live somewhere else if they wanted. Some of them, in fact, have done this very thing, and chosen to live in relative poverty on another planet in the system rather than participate in this monstrous tradition. Their efforts to kidnap the First Servant and save him from torment might even have succeeded, if not for the Enterprise’s intervention. But, instead, most of the people of Majalas simply accept the price of their luxurious lifestyle and the idea that there’s nothing they can do about it. Likewise, while most of us lack the financial or political resources to dismantle systems of exploitation ourselves, the Aloras of our world — our elected officials and economic leaders who do have the necessary muscle — are disinclined to do so. They’d rather tell us that it’s impossible, because they like the way things are. It’s not impossible, it just requires sacrifice from the people with the most rather than the people with the least. It’s the sort of change that’s necessary if we’re ever going to reach the future that’s promised by Star Trek.
This is what makes the ending of “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” somewhat irksome. When facing Pike’s judgment for her support of the First Servant’s sacrifice, Alora challenges him to say that his society doesn’t also depend on the suffering of innocents. In this scene, Pike is standing in for the audience, so can’t give her an answer — he merely sits and stews in his rage. However, as a representative of the United Federation of Planets, it truly sucks that Pike doesn’t shoot back “Of course we don’t profit off exploitation, and we haven’t for centuries!” It’s vital to the fantasy of Star Trek that we believe that the better world it depicts is for everyone, that there isn’t some terrible hidden cost behind it all. Yes, scolding the viewers for our society’s present-day failures is part of the Star Trek formula, but this only works if it’s paired with the promise that our counterparts in the future can and have put those failures behind them. If the message of this episode is that the Federation is, in fact, no better than Majalas, it implies that we, the viewers, never will be, even in our wildest imaginings. That’s Star Trek working against Star Trek.
I don’t think that ending on such a dark note is entirely a bad idea — in fact I think it’s necessary to do from time to time. It’s certainly an effective surprise, and establishes a precedent that not every episode of Strange New Worlds is going to give us a neat, satisfying conclusion, implicitly raising the stakes of all future stories. I always want Star Trek to confront social issues and I’m impressed with the daring extremes to which the writers are willing to go to do it. But, in an effort to make the ending hit as hard as possible, they’ve also accidentally changed the message. Instead of “You don’t have to build your utopia on human suffering,” they’ve essentially said “Yes, you do, so stop pretending you don’t.” I doubt that’s what they intended to say, but that’s sort of what we’re left with. Wittingly or not, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” reinforces capitalist realism, the philosophy that, as cruel as our present economic system is, no better way exists. And if there’s one message a Star Trek episode should not have, it’s “You can’t do better.”