Heartbreak often implies a negative moment in anyone’s story, yet there are few stories where characters have a chance to explore the liberation that can come after heartbreak. Periods of heartache must end eventually, and when they do the character whose heart is broken will forever be changed. One of my favorite examples of this is in Star Trek: Strange New World‘s eighth episode, The Elysian Kingdom, which explores several elements of heartbreak that one can experience when dealing with the terminal illness of a loved one, which include desperation, failure, and loss.
Fans of Star Trek know that every crew has a chief medical officer that is not only extraordinary at their job, but contribute an essential piece of humanity to the narrative. They are usually passionate, empathetic, stubborn, and are always able to find a cure to any alien ailment. Doctor Joseph M’Benga, the chief medical officer that serves under Captain Pike’s command of the Enterprise is no exception. However, every good doctor encounters a patient that challenges their best judgement and jeopardizes their bias. In this case its Dr. M’Benga’s own daughter, Rukiya, who has been diagnosed with a rare, incurable disease and the only way he has been keeping her alive so far is to store her atomic pattern in the transporter buffer in the Enterprise’s sick bay until he can find a cure for her. For those aren’t so privy with Star Trek jargon, he basically uploaded her atoms to the ship’s Cloud.
This is both a selfless and selfish act of care, certainly not a conventional form of treatment a Starfleet doctor would resort to for any patient. M’Benga’s method fully displays what great lengths a parent would take to ensure the comfort and safety of their child, especially when that parent has access to all resources the chief medical officer of the Enterprise would have. Throughout the series we see the doctor re-materialize Rukiya from time to time to run tests, but more importantly share her company and read her stories, one of them being The Elysian Kingdom by Benny Russell (here’s a fun little easter egg for ya.) Unfortunately, she can’t be materialized for very long or else her disease will progress past the point of no return. Rukiya is at an age where she shouldn’t have to put her life on hold and certainly not have to face the reality of dying, yet she quietly accepts this and has faith that her father will help her. She’s at that exact age where she sees her father as her closest friend and companion, she has no reason not to trust that he will ensure her healing. This is just one element of heartbreak in this story, where Rukiya must sacrifice her childhood at the moment with full hope that her father will be able to restore it, yet her father’s faith in himself is dwindling as he continues to run out of time.
In this episode, the Enterprise is completing a survey of the Jonisian Nebula. The crew remarks this as a welcomed change of pace since they can simply focus on the science and exploration aspects of their mission instead of battles and chaos that they tend to encounter. M’Benga takes this time to read to Rukiya as well as dive deeper into his research for a cure. Unfortunately, his current experiment literally explodes in his face and he consequentially begins to contemplate that he may not be able to find a cure. Seeing M’Benga be at the mercy of his own medical white whale where his only child’s life is at stake is another element that really tears at my heartstrings.
After cleaning up his failed experiment M’Benga is called to the bridge after a medical emergency takes place due to complications leaving the Jonisian nebula, but what he finds are the bridge crew dressed as the characters from the fantasy tale he’s been reading to his daughter, himself included. The entire crew of the ship appears to be committed to a group L.A.R.P., addressing M’Benga as the main character ‘King Ridley’ and proceed with the plot of the Elysian Kingdom as expected. This tale involves procuring a powerful item called the ‘Mercury Stone’ to ensure that it is in safe hands instead of the hands of someone that would exploit the stone’s powers for evil. M’Benga plays along with the story trying to figure out what possessed the crew to follow the story faithfully, up until a certain point. He encounters two characters that never meet in the original tale that turn out to be old buddies in this role play, and recalls Rukiya’s complaints about the story and her solution of these same characters teaming up to save the day. It’s all starting to come together: Rukiya is somehow involved in this charade. Eventually the story wraps up in the doctor’s quarters, where he find his daughter also in fantasy accurate costuming exclaiming her excitement of how well her father played through this tale.
He examines her and finds that she has no trace of the disease in her body. She explains that the ship encountered a non-corporeal, sentient being in the nebula that found Rukiya’s pattern in the transporter buffer and decided to bring this girl’s fantasy to life and also cured her of her disease. This being means no harm and wants what’s best for Rukiya, but releasing the ship and its crew from this charade means that the girl’s disease would come back with a vengeance. Either the ship must stay trapped in this nebula so she can remain free of the disease, or release the ship and condemn the girl back to the transporter buffer. As much as M’Benga wants to find the cure for his daughter and return her back to the only life he has ever know, he must recognize his own failure to accept the solution that’s right in front of him. He has to let his daughter go, let her be adopted by this benevolent being and transformed into another non-corporeal form releasing her consciousness from her dying body. This solution means she can be a part of the galaxy in a way that no other human has, but this means M’Benga is effectively losing his daughter.
In this moment M’Benga kneels down to his daughter’s level and reminds her of ‘King Ridley’ when procured the ‘Mercury Stone’ and wanted to keep it because provided him safety and happiness, until he discovered that keeping the stone would would kill it, because the stone had its own soul. King Ridley had to let go of the stone to save its soul, just like M’Benga has to let go of Rukiya so she has a chance to live, even if it means she wouldn’t exist as a human anymore. Dr. M’Benga ultimately lets Rukiya decide her own fate: to stay on the ship or go with the entity into the nebula. She chooses to join the nebula and her body becomes engulfed by a cloud of cosmic dust. M’Benga stands alone, just for a moment. Then she re-materializes again, this time as an adult coming back to thank her father for releasing her into the nebula. Though she was gone for a few seconds in human time, she had spent years embarking on adventures with the entity she has named Debra. This is when we learn that Debra was the name of the doctor’s late wife and Rukiya’ s mother, a fact the audience hadn’t learned until this very moment. M’Benga remarks how much his now adult daughter resembles his late wife, making for the final and most poignant heartbreaking moment in the episode. Rukiya encourages her father that they we see one another again but he must focus on himself and his own life in the meantime. She kisses her father on the cheek and says goodbye as she dissolves again into the nebula.
This episode isn’t for everyone considering the ultra camp elements of the story create a tangent from the usual sci-fi adventure that’s expected. However, it has made me cry every time I watched it because of the way it concludes M’Benga’s journey of trying to save his daughter’s life. In the end he couldn’t save her, but where she ended up was far greater than anything the life he could give her would offer. It’s heartbreaking releasing one’s own child to live their life on their own, but the act proves to be so liberating for M’Benga since he is no longer tied down by dedicating any spare time he has to saving a lost cause. Though he doesn’t get the happy ending he worked so tirelessly to achieve, the outcome was not the profound failure that the narrative was pointing to. Rukiya gets to live and the good doctor doesn’t fall victim to the greatest fear a parent and health professional can have. M’Benga’s heart was certainly broken in this episode, but he was ultimately freed from the desperation, failure, and potential loss that was holding him down. Now he’s liberated from these restraints.
As someone that has gone through her own share of heartbreak and loss, this episode resonated so much with me because it serves as a reminder that a broken heart does not correlate with a broken person. No matter how awful we feel we are still capable of great things, as long as we recognize that heartbreak can be formative for our own character and liberate us from the things that weigh us down. This episode was also a friendly reminder to call my parents and tell them I love them and I hope whoever reads this is motivated to do the same.
Live long and prosper friends.