Episode 6 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds takes audiences on a surprisingly haunting moral journey through a society that seems too good to be true, and the little boy on which it depends. The beginning of “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” gives no indication of the darkness that lies ahead. A distress signal from a ship under fire reunites Captain Pike (Anson Mount) with an old flame, a high ranking officer from the planet Majalis named Alora (Lindy Booth). Accompanying her is a man and his young son (Ian Ho), who has been injured in the fight. Alora says that the ship that was pursuing them was from a nearby alien colony. They must have been trying to kidnap the boy, a sacred child known to their culture as the First Servant. They were on their way back to Majalis for his “ascension” ceremony. The Enterprise soon finds itself investigating a plot by a faction that wants to keep the First Servant from ascending.
During the entire episode, the Majalans treat the First Servant as a holy being whose life is precious, and all signs point to the ascension being a type of coronation ceremony. Members of the fringe group trying to stop the ceremony are the antagonists. However, the ultimate reveal of the episode comes with the truth of what ascension really entails. The First Servant is not going to be coronated. Rather, he’s going to be taken to a ritualistic chamber and locked into a machine that will suck out his life force to power the utopian lifestyle of the rest of the population. The process will be torture to him, and the mauled, skeletal corpse of the last child in the chamber shows us that he is the latest of a long line of First Servants who have received the same fate.
This story has its roots in classic science fiction, specifically in Ursula K. LeGuin‘s short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. The story is about a utopian paradise called Omelas, where the summer solstice is celebrated with a beautiful festival. The delight of the festival is a microcosm for citizens’ joyful everyday lives: though they do not have much in the way of technology, they are cultured, sophisticated, and intelligent. Though not every detail is revealed, the society seems thoroughly egalitarian. But, much like on Majalis, this happiness comes at a price. In order for the city to remain as it is, one child must be kept in constant isolation, filth, darkness, and misery, in a room deep beneath the surface. Just like on Majalis, everyone knows that the child is there, and has to be there in order for them to maintain their lifestyle. Most overcome their horror, accepting the exchange of one child’s torment for a city’s worth of happiness.
But some, after seeing the child, abandon their blissful world, and never return. This is reminiscent of the inhabitants of Prospect VII, the supposedly hostile colony trying to kidnap the First Servant. They are later revealed to be former citizens of Majalis who left. However, the citizens of Prospect VII go the extra step from the characters in Le Guin’s story by actively trying to rescue the new First Servant from his fate. Le Guin’s story was inspired by moral philosopher William James and his essay The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life. In it, he posits a hypothetical scenario: a utopia in which “millions are kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture.” He then asks about the “hideous” moral implications of accepting such a bargain. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky describes a similar dilemma in The Brothers Karamazov when speaking about the doctrine of salvation through the crucifixion of Jesus. Le Guin has also cited Dostoevsky as an inspiration for the short story.
Though incredibly grim, Star Trek’s vision of Omelas still provides more hope than the original story. In this version, the ones who walk away do not simply stay away; they continuously fight back against the society whose moral actions they revile, trying to save the child from a tragic fate. Though they were unsuccessful in saving this First Servant, maybe they will be able to save the next one. However, with this change, a new moral quandary arises. Alora describes how the surface of Majalis is totally inhospitable, covered in rivers of lava. If the child does not ascend, the civilization will literally cease to be. Alora additionally challenges Pike’s condemnation of her and her civilization. She responds that children suffer in the Federation too, but that people look away. Meanwhile, on her planet, only one child suffers, and the citizens do not look away – instead, they live constantly in gratitude.
Pike’s interference in the ascension ceremony and his insistence on removing the First Servant from the machine until he finds out it will kill the child is also an interesting turn for Starfleet, which so prizes its Prime Directive of noninterference in other planets’ cultures. In Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1, Episode 8, Wesley Crusher gets sentenced to death for unintentionally violating an alien planet’s unusual laws. Captain Picard faces a difficult moral quandary in trying to save him without violating the Prime Directive – despite the fact that Wesley is part of his crew. Pike, on the other hand, instinctively rushes to help the First Servant, even though he’s a boy he’s just met. There is no question in his mind that this is the right thing to do. And indeed, where do we draw the line when it comes to not saying anything, even if it is not technically not our place to do so? In the end of the episode, the Enterprise realizes there is nothing more it can do. The Majalis plot is over. But in some small way, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach” challenges the philosophy of the Prime Directive which is such an integral part of the Star Trek universe. In this way, it feels like a return to the original series, whose intriguing moral lessons, wildly creative plots, willingness to probe the darkness and tragedy of human nature are the reasons it has spawned so many new adventures in the first place.