‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ finds empathy in memory

‘Lost in Translation’ is smart, effective and subtle.

Michael Gibson/Paramount+

The following article contains spoilers for “Lost in Translation”

Late last month, I came off my bicycle and smashed the side of my head on the curb in a fairly dramatic accident. It gave me one hell of a concussion, a smashed-up face and a fair amount of memory loss, including everything about the incident itself. Four weeks later, I’m still struggling, and while I’m feeling a little better every day, it’s a slow process to recovery.

It’s appropriate, then, that this week’s Strange New Worlds touches on that relationship with our memories. The episode asks if memory is tied to empathy and if we can only sympathize with others if their pain calls to our own. I might not be entirely lucid all of the time right now but it certainly does feel like the smartest episode of Star Trek I’ve seen in a while.

Enterprise and the Farragut are headed to a new facility that’s behind schedule, a deuterium extraction base. Starfleet has built the enormous “gas station” inside a nebula on the edge of Gorn space to help fuel a new age of space exploration. And, you know, be a nice strategic location for the already well-telegraphed war with the Gorn that’s coming at some point soon.

Uhura, who has been more involved with this mission than others, is feeling the strain of all the work. She’s having difficulty sleeping, and has been watching videos that Hemmer recorded for her to teach her how to do basic engineering work. At the nebula, she starts hearing the Transformers noise, and experiences flashbacks to the accident that killed her family.

Rather than keep these problems to herself, Uhura wisely goes to Dr. M’Benga for help, but he prescribes rest. The crew believes she’s suffering from deuterium exposure as hallucinations are a common side-effect. But the visions get worse, and she starts seeing Zombie Hemmer – a welcome, if brief return for the much-missed Bruce Horak.

The gas station should have been active a while ago, so Pike sends over Una to crack the whip and Pelia to lend her expertise. There’s tension between the pair, Una acting like the sort of hard charging CEO who ignores Pelia’s soon-proved-right opinion. One of the station’s crew has been sabotaging things, and is seeing the same traumatic visions as Uhura.

As much as the crew is sympathetic to the pair’s plight, they still feel the cause is deuterium poisoning. The only person willing to explore another option is “and special guest star Paul Wesley as James T. Kirk.” He’s over from the Farragut for, uh, reasons, but quickly forms a bond with Uhura, trusting her instincts that something strange is going on.

ASIDE: Those reasons being that Anson Mount was on paternity leave for a chunk of Strange New Worlds’ second season. The crew gave him a greatly-reduced workload, and you’ll notice how little Pike has been present in many episodes. Much as Mount is the show’s star, and a wonderful presence, his reduced visibility here has been a boon for the series overall. More of the ensemble has been given more time in the spotlight, and while the limited episode order hampers some of this broadening out, it’s great to see a more democratic vision of the show.

There’s a touching scene, too, where La’an and Kirk talk about their divergent childhoods, and the absence of parents. George Kirk (still alive in this universe) was missing from much of Jim’s childhood, roaming the universe to save others; La’an, meanwhile, was one of those people saved. It’s a little, elegant reminder of why Starfleet exists, and why so many people in Trek’s fictional world sign up to its mission.

The rogue station crewmember breaks out of sickbay, shuts off the lights and looks to sabotage the Enterprise in the only underwhelming moment in the whole episode. It almost felt like a studio note to break up the pace of the episode with an “action” sequence, albeit one that can be shot on standing sets. The team stumbles around in the darkness of the Enterprise corridors for a bit, before Kirk saves Uhura from an explosion.

After much unraveling, it transpires that the gas station is built on the home of extra-dimensional aliens lurking within the deuterium. Their only way to communicate is to find sympathetic brains and provoke memories of grief, of loss, to try and explain their predicament. Both the station and the starships are pulling in deuterium for fuel, mincing up countless alien lifeforms for power.

Uhura and Kirk go to Pike, who wastes no time in torching the station rather than allowing any more pointless deaths. Uhura can sleep well again, and even Zombie Hemmer has been turned back into Regular Hemmer, smiling in approval. There’s just time for Jim to meet Spock for the first time before we pan out to the credits.

At the risk of sounding like Bill Hader’s impression of Alan Alda, “Lost in Translation” is full of great writing. The screenplay, credited to Onitra Johnson and David Reed, is smarter and subtler than some recent Trek episodes I could mention. While some Strange New Worlds’ episodes can sometimes leap to unintended conclusions while exploring a Big Idea, it works perfectly here. And I must say that it’s a wonderful sight to see Pike choose to torch the station because it’s very clearly the right thing to do. Much as we may miss the debating-hall sequences of golden-age Trek, isn’t it nice to just see people do the thing that aligns with their values rather than spending 35 minutes talking about it beforehand?

This is an exploration of empathy, and how some people get it, and the help that comes with it, while others are left to suffer in ignomy. It speaks to a sense that we’re missing a general sense of empathy in public life, as a number of figures strive to out-do each other in their brutality. Is memory, then, the key to mercy? Are those who were brought up in perpetual comfort less able to feel pity? If it’s the former, it’s a deliciously subtle comment about those with short memories – often emboldened by a political and media culture that values forgetfulness – are forever doomed to make the same mistakes.

ANOTHER ASIDE: A recurring theme in Strange New Worlds’ second season is the function of memory, and not in the way you might expect from a prequel. Rather than amping up the nostalgia bait, the show is instead exploring how memory informs and shapes our society. The one downside of “Among The Lotus Eaters” was that one episode simply couldn’t contain a deeper exploration of its perpetually-amnesiac society.

So, yeah, I’m a fan.