WHY WE LIKE IT: Uhura working under La'an.
WHY WE DON'T: Torchwood Children of Earth Lite.
REVIEW: This episode offers something we haven't really had yet on SNW - a bog-standard Trek episode. A utopia that's shown to have a dark side. A massive coincidence where Pike meets an old flame (though they don't seem to have sealed the deal ten years ago) - they even comment on the contrivance - to make it more personal. Pike wanting to break the Prime Directive... It's the kind of thing TOS and TNG did all the time, and that feels like Orville territory now. I'm only showing disappointment because the first half of the season seemed much more like appointment television, while this one is the first that could easily be skipped with little-to-no loss.
Through mutual attraction and coincidence, Pike is drawn into the affairs of Majalis, an unaffiliated world who randomly designate a child as First Servant, a role that, as it turns out, is pretty damn dark. The kid "ascends" by being put in mysterious machinery (created by "Founders" who didn't leave any notes behind) that keeps the cities floating in the clouds over dangerous rivers of lava. Sacrifice one child (it only works with children) so that no one else in the society ever suffers. Like more utopias, don't think too hard about how such a society could have evolved, that's not the point. The point is that, hey, don't WE let children suffer while half the planet lives in relative luxury? One child or many, are we any better than the people of Majalis. The blunt messaging rings a little hollow when Minister Alora throws it in Pike's face, given that the Federation is a utopia too where poverty has mostly been eliminated. While we're distracted with that though (how many children actually do live in squalor in the Federation?), we're kind of missing the point. Another quibble I have with the script is that the First Servant is portrayed as a precocious science whiz who could definitely offer more to his society if he lived a full life, and I wonder if that doesn't undermine the point. His life shouldn't be worth MORE, if the point is that every child's life is worth something equally.
Making the kid engaging, helpful, and brilliant is one way to unnecessarily raise the stakes. The other is making the Majalans medical geniuses who have eradicated disease through quantum mechanics and could, if they wanted to, cure Dr. M'Benga's daughter and fix Pike after his fateful, future accident. Like anyone in Starfleet would allow a child to be painfully burned out in a machine (and how often?) without showing outrage for POSSIBLY getting their hands on medical tech SOME day. In fact, no one does. They just act sad and that's that. Since the boy's father was in league with Majalan rebels to save his own son, he does walk M'Benga through a treatment at the end, but given what happens in a later episode, it doesn't really matter. As for Pike, we KNOW how his story ends, so dangling solutions means absolutely nothing, shades of Voyager's Gilligan's Island Syndrome. The stakes are meaningless because we know the rug will always be yanked out from under us.
So we're left with character moments. Pike being tongue-tied and not at all a ladies' man provides a nice touch early on. It's important to differentiate him from Kirk. M'Benga is certainly effective and emotional, while Chapel is great with kids. But the heart of the episode in terms of character development is Uhura being assigned to La'an in security. La'an is, unsurprisingly, a known slave driver. Uhura was unphased by Hemmer's gruff attitude, but La'an is a much harsher mentor. George Kirk puts in a too-rare appearance trying to give Uhura advice and runs as soon as La'an is in earshot. But Uhura once again manages to impress and discovers that not only does La'an insist the cadet get all the credit she deserves, but also has her back when Minister Alora attacks her findings. It's all done with reactions and I do love that SNW so often lets things play out on actors' faces rather than use dialog to explain what people are feeling. Through Uhura, we gain more respect for La'an and her brand of leadership.
SECONDARY WATCHING: More a repeated meme than a continuity link, The Cloud Minders also feature utopian cloud cities whose inhabitants live in the lap of luxury thanks to its exploitation of, in its case, the labor class.
LESSON: You don't really want to win the lottery.
REWATCHABILITY - Medium: Hinges on a mystery that, once revealed, makes later watches less interesting. Fine for what it is.