Published Jul 11, 2023
WARP FIVE: Melissa Navia Takes the Helm of ‘Among the Lotus Eaters’
She is Erica Ortegas and she flies this ship. The Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ actress flies as well.
By Christine Dinh
SPOILER WARNING: Discussion for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2, Episode 4 "Among the Lotus Eaters" to follow!
Welcome to Warp Five, StarTrek.com's five question post-mortem with your favorite featured talent from the latest Star Trek episodes.
In the latest episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “Among the Lotus Eaters,” it’s safe to say fans got exactly what they’ve been clamoring for — more Lt. Erica Ortegas, the U.S.S. Enterprise’s helmsman, with her very own Pilot’s Personal Log to boot.
In the ship’s Ready Room, Captain Pike and Number One brief Ortegas, Dr. M’Benga, and security chief Lt. La’An Noonien-Singh on the situation at hand — a previous mission had gone awry on Rigel VII, and they need to discreetly correct the cultural contamination they caused. Ortegas finally has the opportunity to travel down to the planet’s surface with the Landing Party as the planet’s atmosphere requires an incredibly skilled pilot… that is, until Lt. Spock updates the small strike team that Rigel VII’s radiation, heavy debris field, and gravity shifts is impacting the Enterprise’s stability, which would require Ortegas to stay aboard and pilot the ship manually.
Unfortunately for the Landing Party, and the crew aboard the Enterprise, the planet’s radiation affects their brain with severe synaptic degradation, causing them to lose time and memories, be overcome with fear, and forget who they are. With the small team of Pike, La’An, and M’Benga, stranded and left to fend for themselves, it’s Ortegas’ fancy flying and belief in herself that pulls her back to the helm to lead the Enterprise out of danger.
StarTrek.com had the opportunity to Lt. Erica Ortegas herself — actress Melissa Navia — about having an Ortegas spotlight, pursuing her own pilot’s license, being part of an ensemble cast, and more!
The Love of the Crew
Ahead of this season’s premiere, Melissa Navia spoke about Captain Pike’s trust in Lt. Ortegas. However, it’s not just the captain who sees the helmsman’s highly skilled talent; but the entire crew. Despite a bare bones Bridge crew, with no prior memories to guide them, the Vulcan Spock trusts and believes Ortegas is the only person who can lead them out of danger. With the entire crew back to resuming their stations, they all stand by proudly to watch the lieutenant execute a sharp and forceful maneuver pulling an asteroid of the planet’s surface and hurling it toward the debris field.
This moment echoes this season’s pattern of the crew rallying around each other, as seen in the second season’s premiere “The Broken Circle” with the crew stealing the Enterprise to rescue their security chief, and the crew rallying around the transporter room awaiting the return of the ship’s first officer in “Ad Astra per Aspera.”
Commenting on the crew on-screen and the cast off-screen, Navia reflects, “We get to see so much of it, even in just the four episodes that have come out so far. When we came back to shoot Season 2, while Season 1 was coming out, everyone could tell on-screen that the cast really likes each other, and that plays into the fact that we also have these excellent characters where everybody’s really good at their jobs. You see that they’re all bonded by their past, by their actual highly skilled jobs as members of Starfleet.”
“You feel that they're family,” continues Navia, “and I think the fans really dig that you get to see them in all these different situations and these different pairings. We're definitely going to see a lot more of that. That family aspect, and especially at the end of episode 2, I still remember shooting it, where we are so happy to get our Number One back; she is a part of the family. This is more than a job; this is our life.”
Being Immersed in the Fandom
The love for Erica Ortegas is also credited to Melissa Navia’s active presence in the fandom and online community. What is like to see and hear the fan’s reactions episode-to-episode?
“This legion of just wonderful fans who, I joke that, they’re ravenous,” shares Navia while laughing. “They want more Ortegas, and if they don’t get it, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I keep telling everybody, ‘Patience is a virtue.’ We have 10 amazing episodes that we’re able to tell every season, and they really are mini movies. It just would be impossible to have seasons that stretch longer, as much as the fans want it, which is a great problem to have.”
“To know that they enjoyed everything they saw from Ortegas in Season 1, and especially because of it was surrounding her job as the helmsman, that, to me, is she’s doing her job well where they’re like, ‘We can totally see that there was nobody else who should be at the helm of the Enterprise right now in this specific timeframe,’” Navia adds, before regarding, “But what makes her tick? We see someone who’s very confident, who’s very capable, who’s highly skilled, who gets along seemingly with everybody, even with Spock, who she absolutely loves and is like a brother to her, even if they just have different ways of going about things. The fans are like, ‘What’s the backstory there?’ I love that they want to see the layers underneath.”
“But those layers have always been there,” confirms Navia. “The showrunners and the writers, many of them were disclosed to me when we were first talking in Season 1; it’s just a matter of timing. Her presence is made known, and that’s a testament to the writers and team. She’s a vital member, as we kind of delve into her full arc, her backstory.”
She is Melissa Navia and She Flies the Ship
Erica Ortegas isn’t the only role the Strange New Worlds actress has had that has taken to the skies, galaxies, and/or fields. A couple of Navia’s roles include astronauts, pilots, and soldiers, and now, she herself, is pursuing her pilot’s license. It’s a chicken and egg scenario of which came first.
“If I’ve been typecast as anything, as pilots, and soldiers, and people going into space, I’m like, ‘Awesome!’” notes Navia. “Those are great. That’s me. I remember years ago, I did an industrial for the military, and we used to shoot on an actual military base. People thought I was a soldier because there were soldiers walking around. And I was, ‘No, I just play one on this army DVD that’s coming out.’ There’s something about me that’s just always got me these roles. It’s a huge responsibility because I want to make sure that I’m playing these characters with the truth they require, that they demand. Hearing from service members and people who’ve been to war, who’ve flown planes, been on ships, and experienced death in battle, and things I could not even imagine, they tell me, ‘Ortegas is real. She is the embodiment of a solider and of a pilot.’ That, to me, is the highest compliment. That it’s a trustful representation of what they do for a living or handle [themselves in] stressful situations.”
“Now, getting all these roles and hearing from fans at conventions who are like, ‘I’m getting my pilot’s license because of Erica Ortegas,’ that’s awesome,” states Navia. “Then, I was thinking about it. I can’t tomorrow go and start training to become a captain or a doctor or a security officer necessarily, but I could get my pilot’s license. For me, if the fans are doing it and if my character is encouraging people to take flight, I can do it as well.”
The Significance of Strong Emotions in Times of Crisis
In “Among the Lotus Eaters,” we discover that emotions can guide us where memories can’t, and it’s those deep feelings that help you survive. And in Ortegas’ memory loss, she snaps at Spock, despite not recalling the reason why.
Speaking on that scene, Navia explains, “For me, I looked at it like anger is a catalyst, especially when you feel like nothing is in your control. Happiness, it just kind of sits there. Sadness doesn’t let you do anything. But when you’re angry, you’re like ‘Something is wrong; I need to do something.’ You can either do something productive or you can do something disruptive. In that moment, you see someone who is regularly very confident and very aware of what she’s capable of doing and seemingly calm under pressure because she has the skills to back it up. Suddenly, she has forgotten those skills. She’s forgotten what on earth she’s supposed to be doing. She goes to that hyper-emotional state, which takes her ‘home’ to try to find some normalcy. You see her really undergo what could be described as a panic attack. It’s this area of absolute desperation. She goes through all the emotions. It’s absolutely the most terrifying thing when you no longer know who you are and what you do and what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“For me as an actor, I loved it,” Navia reveals. “Because it was an opportunity for me to show a different side of Ortegas, and it was a moment for me also to dig within myself and be like, ‘How do I bring that out? How do I then go from the absolute pit of despair to, okay, you know what, we have to do this, and I'm the only one who can do it.’ You see that confidence is almost innate because it's "okay, I fly the ship.’ I had a blast doing all that. It felt like I ran a really long race after some of those scenes, but it was absolutely worth it.”
Finding the Joy in the Routine
In “Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” we see how La’An’s role as security chief exacerbates her feelings of otherness and loneliness. Despite Ortegas disappointed she couldn’t be in the landing party and getting off the Enterprise, she’s one of the crew members who genuinely loves her job. It radiates off her when she gets to do what she does best.
Navia sees that joy and love as not only innate in Ortegas, but in herself as well. “It reminds me of me as an actor,” says Navia. “I love what I do. I love being a storyteller. And if I wasn’t a storyteller and I couldn’t tell stories, I don’t know what I’d be doing. This is intrinsic to who I am. So when I think about Erica Ortegas as a pilot, it’s part of who she is.”
“In Season 1, I knew she was a soldier and she had this back story in the Klingon War,” Navia calls back. “She has seen a lot. She has seen death and she has seen trauma, but she has come out of it. She’s obviously experienced a lot and is going through it, but she has come out of it, and we see someone who almost loves life more, and loves her job as much as maybe she did then. How has she processed all those things she has gone through? That’s something we’re going to be able to dig into layers of more. It’s an absolutely valid way of seeing somebody go through a traumatic situation, and then they come out of it and they’re able to reinvigorate themselves. You almost have to find yourself again. I feel, in her backstory, that it has happened. In Episode 4, it’s a whole new thing that happens where this is the first time she’s lost all her memories. And again, she gets to discover, ‘This is a thing that I love doing.’ How awesome is that!”