For a couple with a supposed on-again, off-again relationship of convenience, Pike and Batel spend an awful lot of time together, don’t they? Or at least they try to: As “Among the Lotus Eaters” opens, the two captains have carved out some time for a nice romantic dinner, but one thing after another gets in the way. First, they’re both very much in demand and keep getting hailed with questions. Then, after Batel gives Pike the extremely thoughtful (and crucial to the plot) gift of an Opelian Mariner’s Keystone, Batel gets called away for a message that can’t wait and returns obviously on edge. As Pike correctly surmises, Batel’s been passed over for promotion to commodore. What’s worse, he’s kind of the reason why, thanks to the outcome of Una’s trial a few episodes back.
This is not what Pike had planned, and the turn of events makes him question whether their relationship is on the right course. If they thought they were keeping it casual, they were lying to themselves. They don’t see each other enough, and the fact they do see each other is hurting Batel’s career. They clearly want to be together but, for many reasons, can’t. She leaves unhappy (and unfed). It’s a bummer of a night.
It’s also about to take a turn for the dramatic. In the briefing room, Una refreshes the executive officers’ memory about a visit to a planet called Rigel VII five years back, one that ended in an emergency evacuation when they ran into a pre-warp society called the Kalar, which promptly attacked them, killing three crew members. Or so they thought. An aerial photo reveals a landscape reshaped in the form of a Starfleet delta. Now, having realized they contaminated a culture, they need to go correct their mistake. (They follow the Prime Directive for a reason.) After receiving some advice from Una about not pushing Batel away like he has others in his life, Pike focuses again on Rigel VII. He can only clean up one mess at a time.
It’s a big mess too, one that involves piloting a shuttle down through a rough atmosphere. It’s the perfect job for Ortegas, who is excited to join the landing party for once. “Most of the time, I fly the ship. Which is cool, but can get boring,” she tells her personal log, so it stings when Pike tells her she’s still needed up above, thanks to some unexpected obstacles.
Fortunately, Pike has more than a little piloting experience, and after they land safely, in full Kalar dress, Pike, M’Benga, and La’an start to make their way through hostile territory to the Kalar castle, sans the usual equipment in order to avoid even more cultural contamination. It would be a rough journey even without incidents of memory loss and confusion. La’an’s the first to experience it, but even though Pike and M’Benga are worried, they press on to the castle, where they discover two problems: The Kalar have some Starfleet weapons, and they use them to take the Enterprise landing party hostage.
It gets worse: Zac (David Huynh), the Enterprise crew member they thought had been killed in action during their last trip to Rigel VII, is still alive, but he’s turned into a jerk with delusions of grandeur, having used the weapons to turn himself into a king. This might not be entirely his fault. As Zac tells his former captain, “This isn’t a normal planet,” and La’an’s not the only one destined to suffer from memory loss. When Pike, M’Benga, and La’an come to in a cage, they realize they have no idea where, or even who, they are.
But it’s not just those on Rigel VII’s surface who suffer from its effects. On the Enterprise, Uhura’s the first to start to lose her memory, a development that earns her a trip to sick bay. Her condition baffles Chapel and unnerves Ortegas. Then it starts to spread.
Back on the surface, the Enterprise party picks up a Kalar mentor in the form of Luke (Reed Birney), who shows up to help them through their “forgetting” and share some tips on how to navigate life as one of the “Kalar from the field,” the class tasked with doing hard labor. That means focusing on the present, doing the work they’ve been assigned, and not pissing off the guards (whose helmets seem to guard them against the Forgetting, like the other Kalar from the palace). And above all, it means dealing with the Forgetting. “We don’t lose the deeply held things,” Luke tells them. Everything else has to be preserved through body art. (Shades of Memento.)
The question of what meets the definition of “deeply held things” gets explored the rest of the episode. Pike knows he’s not used to this kind of work, and he knows the keystone around his neck is a gift and that there are other feelings attached to that gift. But what do those feelings mean?
Pike barely has time to contemplate that before a fight breaks out between the new arrivals and the guards, badly wounding La’an in the process. Guided by Luke, they seek shelter in Luke’s quarters, though their host isn’t all that focused on saving La’an. He’s a true believer. The Palace Kalar remember so the Field Kalar can have the luxury of forgetting, remaining unburdened by the past so they can focus on the present. Still, he agrees to help them head to the palace where, in theory, M’Benga will be able to remember how to save La’an.
Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, things have gotten really bad. Memory loss is starting to claim more crew members. Before it affects Spock and Ortegas, Spock orders the pilot to navigate an asteroid field that might create some interference and spare them the effects of Rigel VII. But, just to be safe, Spock hands Ortegas a pad with her vital information on it, including, most important of all, the information that she flies the ship. It’s little help. When the Forgetting comes for Spock and Ortegas, both lose the ability to read, prompting Ortegas to flee in terror and, in the process, wander corridors filled with similarly afflicted cremates. It’s like a scene from a zombie movie where the zombies try to restore their brains rather than eat others. The outlook is grim!
Back on Kalar outside the palace, Pike again reflects on the keystone, which he connects to a feeling Luke defines as love, an emotion that even the Forgetting can’t erase. Luke ought to know. Something in his past was so painful that he inked over the markings on his arm that contain the story of his past. And, frankly, he’s fine with it, at least for now. That might not be the right choice, but on the Enterprise the Field Kalars’ approach to life is being proven out, at least in part. Huddling in fear in her quarters, Ortegas strikes up a conversation with the ship’s computer, who fills her in on her name and, more important, what she does. “I am Erica Ortegas. I fly the ship,” she repeats to herself as she makes her way to the bridge and discovers that, yes, she does know how to fly the ship. And knowing how to do that saves their lives. Everything else is inessential.
Pike breaches the palace and, in short order, takes out Zac, who informs him that, no, their memories aren’t in a casket hidden inside the palace, as the Field Kalar believe. The problem is the planet itself, which causes those without protection to forget. But those effects dissipate with protection, as Pike discovers while in the process of beating Zac senseless. And with that, the day is saved. Zack is captured. M’Benga heals La’an. And Luke’s past comes flooding back to him, and as painful as it is, he’s grateful to remember. “The story of your life, the details: They matter” he tells Pike, who considers those words while holding the keystone. Realizing he has to apologize to Batel, Pike makes some creative choices in transferring Zack back to Starfleet. “You brought me home,” he tells her before asking forgiveness. And who could say no to that? As the episode ends, what was off again is now clearly on again.
“Among the Lotus Eaters” at times plays less like an installment with an A plot and a B plot than two episodes smooshed into one. There’s the Ortegas story, in which she grows bored with doing the same thing over and over again only to realize what a crucial role she plays, and the surface story, which is in the tradition of Star Trek episodes about encountering less advanced civilizations that look a lot like remnants of our own past that dates back to the original series.
They complement each other, however, even if they sometimes come to different conclusions. While Ortegas’s arc illustrates a kind of Existentialism for Beginners as she realizes her actions define her life, Pike’s adventures illustrate the limits of that way of thinking. The emotion he can’t let go of and the memories he fights to retrieve are wrapped up in his feelings for Batel, which are as much a part of his identity as his captain’s duties. It’s not until his memories return that he’s fully himself again and can restrain himself from killing Zack. His time on Kalar might have taught him something about himself by stripping so much away, but these are the things that make Pike who he is.
• The notion of a culture that’s built traditions and philosophy around memory lapses is pretty fascinating, but does it stand up to close scrutiny? Where did Luke form those memories in the first place? In the palace? Are all Field Kalar palace castoffs? How do those without memories fall in love and start families? There’s probably not enough room in the episode to explore every aspect of Field Kalar culture. Maybe that totem holds all the answers.
• Reed Birney’s performance as Luke makes it easy not to worry about these matters too much, though. A well-traveled character actor, he’s been showing up in prominent roles more frequently lately, most recently in a memorable episode of Poker Face.
• “Emotions are not facts,” Spock asserts a couple of times. But this episode doesn’t entirely bear out that way of thinking.
• It’s hard to disagree with Una. Pike and Batel do make for a good match. But can two captains destined to be flung to opposite edges of the quadrant really make plans for the future? Either way, the series now has three potential romances playing out, and it’s not clear where any of them are going.