At long last, we’re back among the stars and Captain Pike is back in the chair. (Anson Mount recently welcomed a new baby, which is why Pike has been largely absent from the season thus far.) His romance with Captain Batel seems to be no worse for wear after sitting on opposite sides of the courtroom in “Ad Aspera Per Astra,” or so it seems. She’s called away from dinner (have we had a Pike-centered episode where he didn’t cook for someone?) with the news that she’s been passed over for a promotion. She’s being punished for losing her case against Una. And their romance is, in fact, worse for wear. Pike’s worried he’s hurting her career, and a relationship made up of too-brief encounters between two Starfleet captains with busy schedules might not be worth that.
A disappointed Batel walks out, but Pike doesn’t have much time to contemplate the loneliness of command. He’s got an urgent call from Starfleet concerning Rigel VII. Enterprise discovered a Bronze Age society on the planet five years ago. The mission was brief — the crew were only on the planet for a few hours, during which three redshirts were killed and Spock was injured. During their escape, the crew must have left something behind, as photos of the planet reveal that the locals have built something in the shape of the Starfleet logo.
The Prime Directive forbids Starfleet from interfering with less-technologically-advanced species, so this kind of “cultural contamination” has to be very delicately handled. As Pike puts it, “Enterprise needs to clean up its own mess.”
Pike, M’Benga, and Noonien-Singh fly down to the planet disguised as locals (who, naturally, look exactly like humans — it’d be refreshing if just once they had to infiltrate a society of aliens who were actually, you know, alien.) To avoid risking any more cultural contamination, they can’t bring phasers, tricorders, and the like.
Pike has to do a tricky bit of flying to get a shuttle to the planet’s surface, but we don’t see it. La’an hears a ringing in her ears and spaces out for a second in orbit, and when she regains focus, she’s already on the planet’s surface, six hours into the mission. While she does tell the doctor she’s feeling light-headed and mentions the ringing, she doesn’t correct him when he puts it down to “momentary confusion.” Not telling everyone else what’s wrong when something is clearly wrong is such a lazy plot contrivance, and someone in the business of exploring strange new worlds should know better, but in this instance, it’s at least in character for La’an to insist that she’s fine.
They surveil a castle, only to discover the guards holding phaser rifles. In his hasty retreat five years earlier, keeping track of equipment was the last thing on Pike’s mind, so now there’s no telling how much advanced weaponry this primitive society holds. Before they can form a plan of action, they’re confronted by a group of Rigellians: “We know you’ve come from Starfleet.” They may have picked up a few phasers the Enterprise crew left behind, but there’s no way they should know what Starfleet even is. And before we have a chance to process this, M’Benga’s ears are ringing, and we’re inside the castle, with the away team as prisoners.
The Rigellians take them to their leader… Zac Nguyen, one of the redshirts presumed dead on the previous mission. He’s resentful that Pike left him behind, but in the intervening years, he’s fashioned himself as High Lord Zacarias. Pike tries to apologize and make amends, but Zac is having none of it. He’s not just resentful at being left behind, but at being left behind here. He also experiences the ringing in his ears, the lost time, the forgetfulness. Rigel VII changes people, he says, and he wants his former captain to suffer its effects just as he has.
He hasn’t even finished the threat when Pike’s ears are ringing, and he’s outside again, in an iron cage. He and M’Benga can’t keep their thoughts straight long enough to form a plan of action. And La’an doesn’t recognize Pike… or know her own name. Pike and M’Benga are concerned, but find they can’t remember why, or what they’re doing there.
Back on the Enterprise, Uhura hears a ringing in her ears. Two hours have gone by in an instant. At least she’s smart enough to say something. Ortegas brings her to sick bay, where Nurse Chapel diagnoses “synoptic degradation” in every part of her brain. Before she can theorize why, six more crew members have reported memory loss. Whatever’s affecting the planet is also spreading through the ship.
On the planet, an older man, Luq, lets the away team out of their cage. The cage isn’t usually a prison, it’s used for people’s own protection during “the forgetting,” which seems to be a nightly occurrence. Luq calmly advises them to “stay in the moment,” and explains how the forgetting works. The elite in the palace keep their memories, but for everyone else, ingrained things like walking and talking remain, as do things like instinct and emotional connections, but details get wiped away each night. Luq has Memento-like tattoos for things like his name and which house is his, and people’s clothes are color-coded to remind them of their jobs. Pike and La’an are put to work mining stone; M’Benga is a woodcutter (whose workstation is conveniently located five feet from the quarry).
Pike has enough of his senses left to know something isn’t right. His soft hands aren’t those of a miner; he has no tattoos. He knows the pendant around his neck is a gift, even if he doesn’t remember Batel giving it to him in the opening scene. Luq advises him not to drive himself mad trying to recover the past; live in the moment.
When a guard starts giving Luq a hard time, Pike is still Pike — he stands up for him, and knocks the guard out cold. Another guard injures La’an before she can knock him out, and M’Benga’s instincts kick in — he doesn’t know he’s a doctor, but he knows enough to apply pressure to a wound. Likewise, La’an’s tactical instincts are still sound — they need to find a place to hide before more guards arrive.
Things aren’t going much better back on the ship, where a third of the crew are now affected, including Number One. Spock takes command, after handing out tablets with basic personal information as the crew begin forgetting who they are. The bridge is down to him and Ortegas, and they fly away from the planet, hoping an orbiting debris field will protect them from the planet’s radiation, which they believe is causing the memory loss. No one wants to abandon Pike and the away team, but logic dictates that the safety of the rest of the crew comes first.
Pike, meanwhile, questions Luq about why the palace elites can keep their memories. A totem in his house explains how society is set up, and explains that it’s the palace elites’ job to remember — they have some sort of “casket” in the castle itself that stops them forgetting. Pike doesn’t know why he feels an attachment to La’an, but he knows he wants to save her, and that that means getting into the palace and restoring M’Benga’s memories so he can practice medicine on more than just instinct.
Instinct is all that remains for Spock and Ortegas, who have now lost any sense of who or where they are. (Spock is especially at a loss, as emotion is all anyone has to go on after forgetting.) Ortegas has a vague notion that they had been trying to make things better, but instead made them worse (suggesting the debris field was the cause of memory loss, not a protection from it). The ship’s computer is able to guide Ortegas back to her quarters, but her feelings of comfort and safety are short-lived, as the debris field starts crashing up against the ship. The computer also reminds her that she’s the pilot. If they’re going to escape the debris, it’s up to her.
It’s also up to Pike to save the day, as M’Benga is hurt storming the castle. The captain confronts Zac one-on-one, with no memory of who he was, only that he’s in charge and has access to everyone’s memories. But there is no “casket.” The totem was a lie to keep the forgetful populace in line. It’s the castle itself that protects its inhabitant’s memories — it, and Zac’s guards’ helmets, is made of an ore that blocks the radiation. Enough time in the castle, and your memories come back.
On paper, that feels like a too-easy solution, but on screen, it works well. Because like the best Trek episodes, what’s important isn’t the plot, but the story. What’s important isn’t that Pike saves La’an and everyone gets their memories back — that’s a foregone conclusion. What’s important is the lesson learned. Without their memories, operating solely on instinct, everyone is whittled down to their core selves. Pike is righteous and brave, La’an is stoic, Ortegas is daring, M’Benga wants to help. Star Trek has always been built around iconic characters, so reducing these characters to icons is tremendously effective. As is Zac’s comeuppance, as he isn’t defeated by Pike’s fists, but by the realization that his true self took the form of a tyrant. The episode’s central metaphor holds for the whole franchise, as while we can’t build a narrative without the details, they’re less important than the emotional core of the story. Star Trek shows (and writers in general) forget that at their peril.
• We preface the mission with a personal log from Ortegas, getting excited for a rare away mission, before being told she has to stay on the ship. It’s an effective way of underscoring her disappointment, but it’s weird that she starts the log by introducing herself and explaining what her job is. Presumably she’s been keeping a personal log for years, and this isn’t new information. The moment gets an echo later when she’s re-affirming her role as a pilot (“I’m Erica Ortegas, I fly the ship.”), but in the moment it doesn’t make a ton of sense.
• One thing from the original series that Strange New Worlds does a terrific job of carrying on is injecting philosophy into each week’s adventure. Luq gets a nice moment to meditate on why he’s content to have no memories. He’s lost someone close to him — he still feels their absence emotionally, but at some point he covered over the tattoo that tells him who they might have been. He doesn’t want to remember, if remembering brings the pain of loss into sharper focus, and veteran character actor Reed Birney plays Luq’s unplaceable sense of sadness perfectly.
• While the away team spent a fair amount of time very clearly acting in front of a green screen, that green screen displays some gorgeous visuals. The massive sliver of crescent moon behind the castle is a particularly striking image. We’ve come a long way from the original series’ styrofoam rocks and monochrome skies.
• The show’s light serialization works especially well this week. We know about Pike’s ongoing relationship with Batel, that traumatized war veteran M’Benga is good in a fight but dislikes resorting to violence, and that La’an has things in her past she’d be happy to forget. But not knowing any of those things doesn’t affect one’s enjoyment of the episode at all. Strange New Worlds is equally adept at acknowledging the past and living in the moment.