"Among the Lotus Eaters" is an uneven but somewhat intriguing story about the role of memory in our lives and personalities. It features some interesting ideas that are packaged into a middlebrow adventure plot that must work its way from start to finish while meeting a certain action quota. I wish it could've evaluated those larger ideas a little more thoroughly in the process of solving its central storyline, but this episode does at least live up to the series' title of showing us a Strange New World.
Captain Pike, fresh off a breakup with Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano) — who was passed up for promotion because of her relationship with Pike in light of his role in the case of Una's falsified records — is assigned to revisit Rigel VII, a planet the Enterprise visited five years earlier on a botched mission that resulted in the deaths of three crew members at the hands of the local population, the Kalar. They now discover their visit resulted in cultural contamination: A large Starfleet logo in a garden within a palatial compound is clearly visible from orbital photos. They must determine the cause of the contamination and mitigate it.
Pike, M'Benga, and La'an take a shuttle to the surface to investigate. Upon landing, they each begin experiencing tinnitus, headaches, and memory lapses. When they reach the palace, they discover Yeoman Zac Nguyen (David Huynh), presumed dead on the earlier mission, has actually survived and set himself up as king of the Kalar. Armed with phaser rifles, he has split this particular piece of the world (assuming there's more to the society, which we don't see) into a bifurcated caste system of Rulers and Workers. The Rulers live in the palace, and the Workers break rocks out in the frozen wilderness. Zac promptly sends Pike and the landing party to be Workers as punishment for leaving him behind five years ago.
Complicating matters is the fact that the radiation on this planet inhibits the memories of anyone not inside the palace (although the reasons for this are not revealed until the end), such that before long, the landing party has no memory of who they are or how they arrived here. They wake up as confused, blank slates in the work camp and are expected to start breaking rocks with sledgehammers, because — as is explained by our guide through this world, a man named Luq (Reed Birney in an effective guest performance) — that is the Way of Things. Eventually, through the "daily forgetting," they will become accustomed to their new lives.
Not particularly enamored with the Way of the Things, Pike, La'an, and M'Benga pick a fight with the guards and escape the camp. In the process, La'an is seriously wounded. Luq reluctantly agrees to help them, and we learn more about how this society sort of functions, and we realize that the key to everything is, basically, muscle memory. People remember how to do things, but don't remember who they are or what they used to care about. Over time, this memory of habit takes a hold and people like Luq accept their roles for what they are. Luq knows that he once suffered a great loss, but doesn't know who he lost or why, and doesn't especially want to remember.
This memory erasure isn't limited to the landing party. Back aboard the Enterprise, the crew also begins to lose its memory. By the time Chapel and Spock figure out what's going on and realize they have to break orbit, it's too late. Ortegas attempts to fly the ship out of orbit but is inhibited by the planet's asteroid field, and before she can navigate through it, everyone has forgotten who they are and what they're trying to accomplish.
This leads to an overly lengthy sequence that doesn't really work, where we follow Ortegas as she leaves the bridge in confusion and attempts to find something that feels safe and familiar, navigates her way down the turbolift and through the corridors (filled with crew members who wander the hallways hopelessly) and to her quarters. She eventually regains enough of her bearings by talking things through with the computer to realize, "I fly the ship!" The sequence has a strange, confused quality to it that puts us in Ortegas' shoes, but it's too long and labored and becomes silly.
The story can't really decide if it belongs to Pike or Ortegas, but I suppose that's okay since this series works in part because it's an ensemble piece. Back on the planet, Pike's gift from Batel, a compass that he's wearing around his neck, provides the reminder of his true self that helps guide him to keep fighting for his individuality and desire to regain his memories. Luq speaks of a legend that the memories are stored in a casket inside the palace (a convenient piece of motivating information), which drives Pike and M'Benga forward in the goal to save La'an, who lies dying of her injuries.
There's an action sequence involving fistfights, phaser fire, and finally a big knock-down brawl where Pike beats on Zac in his single-minded quest to regain his memories. The story uses Pike's escalating violence to ponder whether his memories are what reins in a truer, darker human nature. This is the most interesting question posed by the episode — whether our personalities are simply a sum of our memories, or whether there's something simmering at a lower, default level that might govern us from beneath — as well as the question of whether a purgatory of ignorance by having no memories also means you don't have to experience the pain of a typical life. I wish there would've been more of this, and less of the type of mechanical plotting around the "totem" that Luq allows to govern his existence, and the slow on the uptake that seems to be happening on the Enterprise.
With its theme of cultural contamination at the hands of a former crew member, "Among the Lotus Eaters" is very much in the TOS mold. It's a solidly reasonable middle-of-the-road outing that has some ideas on the margins of a routine plot. The Ortegas centerpiece feels like a misfire. The ending that claims not to be a violation of the Prime Directive is a total coin flip, as the breakage of the Prime Directive always seems to be. On the personal front, Pike learns about himself and the importance of his relationship, and is willing to work to give it another try. This is not too shabby, but nothing to really get excited about.
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