This discussion and review contains spoilers for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2, episode 4, “Among the Lotus Eaters,” on Paramount+.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” seems at odds with itself. It is an episode that functions as both a critique and a demonstration of the limits of the show’s episodic form.
Strange New Worlds is a throwback to the episodic format of older Star Trek shows, most obviously The Next Generation and Voyager. This is somewhat unusual. Even towards the end of the Rick Berman era, shows like Deep Space Nine and Enterprise had begun to move towards a more serialized approach to storytelling. As such, Strange New Worlds feels like a regression, a return to a format at odds with the show’s existence as a 10-episode-a-season streaming series.
This is most obvious with the character of Lieutenant Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia). Navia is one of the most charming performers in the ensemble, reliably charismatic and engaging whenever Strange New Worlds gives her material. However, two seasons into the show, there hasn’t been a single episode built around her character to allow the actor to showcase her range and her abilities. For most of Strange New Worlds, Ortegas is just kinda there.
This is frustrating. In older Star Trek shows, even underserviced leads like Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), Chakotay (Robert Beltran), Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), Hoshi Sato (Linda Park), and Travis Mayweather (Anthony Montgomery) could count on at least one character-centric episode a season. It wasn’t always good — although there were exceptions like “Face of the Enemy” or “Nemesis” — but it did give the actor something to do and gave the audience some sense of the character.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” is, in part, about how Ortegas hasn’t really been the focal point of an episode of Strange New Worlds. She gets the log entry after the opening credits, voicing her frustration with being the pilot. “Most of the time, I fly the ship,” she explains. “Which is cool, but kinda boring.” This week is different. “I’m with the landing party, something I never get to do,” she explains. It’s Ortegas’ time to shine. It took a season and a half, but it is here.
Then, of course, Ortegas finds her plans derailed. Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) and Lieutenant Spock (Ethan Peck) inform her that she is needed at the helm. “Maintaining stability will require piloting Enterprise by hand,” Pike explains. As the landing team leaves for the shuttle, Pike assures Ortegas, “We’ll get you next time, I promise.” Of course, the episodic structure of Strange New Worlds and the 10-episode seasons mean the character will likely have to wait another year.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” is an “anomaly of the week” episode, the bread and butter of the Star Trek franchise, particularly Voyager. This week, the crew find themselves affected by the mysterious radiation on Rigel VII, which erases their memories. It destroys any sense of continuity or memory for these characters. Tellingly, this effect is communicated through the language of television. La’an Noonien-Singh (Christina Chong) experiences her first loss of time through a cut, an edit.
Notably, the radiation doesn’t affect abilities or functions; it just removes any sense of context or continuity. Characters are reduced to archetypes that exist purely in the current moment, job descriptions rather than people. As Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) points out, the characters retain “information and facts.” As she explains, “I could treat a simple wound. I’ve done it a thousand times. But I wouldn’t remember it’s my job to do it.” As Spock summarizes, “We are forgetting who we are.”
Core to “Among the Lotus Eaters” is the idea that continuity of self is what makes a person who they are. This is why the episode is bookended by Pike’s attempts to navigate his relationship with Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano). That relationship is something that violates the rigid episodic confines of Strange New Worlds, because it plays out as a recurring thread in multiple episodes. Early in “Among the Lotus Eaters,” Pike voices frustration at having to steal “three minutes here, ten minutes there.”
These complex and evolving interpersonal dynamics can only really be explored through serialization. Indeed, part of Deep Space Nine’s embrace of serialization stems from relationships between characters over time: Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and Kasidy Yates (Penny Johnson Jerald), Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) and Worf (Michael Dorn), Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor) and Odo (René Auberjonois). It was part of the richness of the show.
In contrast, The Next Generation had to settle for will-they/won’t-they dynamics between Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) or William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Deanna Troi, with episodes exploring these couples resetting back to the status quo at the end. Even on Voyager, relationships between Chakotay and Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) or even Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) and B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson) seemed to come out of nowhere.
This constant resetting — what Luke (Reed Birney) terms “the forgetting” — limits characters. A season and a half into Strange New Worlds, Pike is still defined by what was established in “The Cage” and “The Menagerie” more than half a century ago. The first season’s arc is about Pike accepting he’s going to end up in the chair from “The Menagerie.” Even “Among the Lotus Eaters” picks up on the backstory established for “The Cage,” returning to Rigel VII.
Anson Mount has played Pike across one full season of Discovery and one-and-a-half seasons of Strange New Worlds, but the character’s stories all derive from the versions played by Jeffrey Hunter and Sean Kenney, because the character hasn’t been allowed to grow or evolve in a meaningful way. The episodic structure of Strange New Worlds means that Pike can never get past the archetype established by two actors who played the role much more briefly in the 1960s.
Of course, there is also a none-too-subtle political commentary woven into “Among the Lotus Eaters.” While the second season of Strange New Worlds is still too beholden to fan service and continuity minutiae, it does at least engage with the world outside the show. “Among the Lotus Eaters” also belongs to the tradition of high-concept allegories for the current cultural moment, evoking classic Star Trek episodes like “The Apple” or “A Taste of Armageddon.”
On classic Star Trek, these tended to be allegories for issues simmering in the American unconscious: youth culture (“Miri,” “Charlie X,” “The Way to Eden,” “And the Children Shall Lead”), the Vietnam War (“Errand of Mercy,” “A Private Little War,” “The Omega Glory”), or even fears that the United States was a modern Roman Empire (“Balance of Terror,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “Bread and Circuses”). They were heightened and often unsubtle, but they were engaged with the larger world.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” even borrows some of its cues from these episodes. Yeoman Zak Nguyen (David Huynh) setting himself up as “High Lord Zakarius” of a primitive culture recalls the actions of Captain Ronald Tracey (Morgan Woodward) on Omega IV in “The Omega Glory.” The worship of “the totem” by the Field Kelar recalls the treatment of various primitive cultures in classic episodes like “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” and “The Paradise Syndrome.”
“Among the Lotus Eaters” is a story about how a society that seeks to forget its own history is doomed to repeat it. The Kelar live a life without any past, and so their social system has become barbaric and tyrannical, never progressing past feudalism. This idea of a workforce kept in a state of ignorance is framed as bliss. “The Palace Kelar remember so the rest of us can be free,” Luke explains. Pike sees through this, “It’s convenient that some do all the work while others don’t.” If people can’t remember, then they can’t progress.
There is a debate in American culture about the challenge of dealing with a complicated history, one that involves the horrors of slavery and the genocide of an indigenous population. There has been a strong pushback against acknowledging these historical realities, by people who would agree with Luke’s assertion that “the forgetting is a blessing.” Books are removed from libraries and schools. Laws are passed making history impossible to teach. If these subjects can’t be taught, they won’t be remembered, and they can’t be addressed.
Much like the original Star Trek was rooted in the chaos of the late 1960s, the second season of Strange New Worlds seems to be finally acknowledging what was suggested at the climax of its premiere: This is a show about the chaos of the early 2020s. The first season suffered from clumsily trying to write around it. With “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” and the subtext of both “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow” and “Among the Lotus Eaters,” the show finally acknowledges this.
Unfortunately, “Among the Lotus Eaters” lacks the courage of its convictions. The show’s nostalgia for 1990s broadcast television wins out over the episode’s understanding of the limitations of that form. “Among the Lotus Eaters” is an episode about how the show’s format fundamentally limits characters like Ortegas, denying them room to grow. Like the Field Kelar, Ortegas is a job description rather than a character, less a person and more the walking muscle memory of how to fly the ship.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” presents this as a heroic moment. The episode opens with Ortegas talking about how flying the ship is “kinda boring,” but it ends with her triumphantly asserting, “I’m Erica Ortegas; I fly the ship.” The episode is about Luke learning that he is more than his function as a Field Kelar, but also about how Ortegas should accept that she will never be more than Enterprise Pilot. It’s frustrating, particularly in an episode about how being a person is more than just being their job.
Then again, this is the nostalgia of Strange New Worlds, at odds with its core themes. It will always choose the familiar over the strange and the old over the new. The show’s biggest recurring theme is that everybody needs to learn to be happy where they are. La’an Noonien-Singh might leave the ship, but she is back soon enough. Commander Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) might be arrested, but she is back soon enough. Nurse Chapel is considering a fellowship on Vulcan, but it seems inevitable that — even if she leaves — she’ll be back soon enough. Strange New Worlds recognizes its problems, but it can’t fix them.
Erica Ortegas flies the ship. That’s probably all she’ll ever do. All she can hope to do is to come to see it as “a blessing.”