Reimagining the Enterprise’s first encounter with the Romulans leads to meaningful moments for Pike, Kirk, and Spock.
The finale of Strange New Worlds’ first season is cheap, shameless fanservice. It’s also riveting, character-focused, and utterly glorious. Mucking about with time travel and alternate futures, let alone redoing an episode of The Original Series, could easily be a recipe for disaster. Instead, the show ends its inaugural season on an absolute high note.
This final installment, entitled “A Quality of Mercy,” is an alt-timeline remix of “Balance of Terror,” an early episode from the 1960s series which introduced the Romulans. Both feature the first encounter between humans and Romulans in a century, a cloaked assault on Federation Outpost 4, and a chess match between the war-weary commander of the enemy Bird-of-Prey and the steadfast captain of the Enterprise.
Only this time, that captain is Christopher Pike (Anson Mount). The new series reimagines what the famous confrontation would look like if Captain Pike had survived the incident that sidelined him and was still in command when the Romulans struck. The result is a fanfiction-y game of “What If?” Seeing Pike call the shots, while marking the similarities and differences from the Prime timeline version of these storied events, helps define the nature of the conflict and the leaders on both sides.
Thankfully, there’s more to it than a mere exercise in contrast and compare. Strange New Worlds isn’t content to measure Pike’s performance against Kirk’s. Instead, it’s here to close the loop on the idea the season started with — whether Pike should accept his grim fate or strive to change it. A chance run-in with one of the poor junior officers who will die in the same accident that will one day disable him prompts Pike to warn the young man. He wants to take action to avert that disaster before it starts and avoid the bleak visions he saw in the Klingon temple.
Digging into how Pike might seek to sidestep that future, for others’ sake if not his own, is a canny choice.
Digging into how Pike might seek to sidestep that future, for others’ sake if not his own, is a canny choice. It’s reasonable to wonder why the captain wouldn’t simply take whatever precautions are necessary to halt that infamous catastrophe in advance. “A Quality of Mercy” gives us a reason — because it could mean the end of the world.
An older version of Pike, one from an alternate timeline where things have gone much worse, is the one who sends current-day Pike to this momentous Romulan stand-off seven years in the future. This elder, chastened officer uses a time crystal to show his younger counterpart the event that dooms the future — not for him, but for billions of lives — to demonstrate why facing down his bleak destiny is the right thing to do.
It adds meaning and intrigue to the pandering cheesiness of essentially remaking a fifty-year-old episode of Star Trek. Granted, “A Quality of Mercy” still practically drips with fanservice. The Older Pike shows up wearing the “K-mart Navy” uniform the original cast donned in their cinematic adventures. The episode repurposes several famous lines, including the timeless, “In a different reality, I could have called you friend.” The voice of Scotty emanates from off-screen as he grouses about not being a miracle worker. The director even replicates the shot selection, lighting, and score from when the Prime Enterprise crew realized the Romulans looked remarkably similar to their own Spock.
Of course, there’s no bit of fanservice more obvious or potent than the arrival of one James. T. Kirk (Paul Wesley) to Strange New Worlds. It’s not enough for the season finale to ponder how Pike might have fared differently. Instead, the captain who started it all arrives to assist in a critical moment, providing for a Star Trek Generations-style team-up. Newcomer Wesley doesn’t capture the mannerisms or vibe of either William Shatner or Chris Pine out of the gate, which is good and bad. Like Ethan Peck’s Spock, hopefully, in time, he’ll settle into the role and make it his own.
For the time being, though, the writers are sharp enough to use the famous figure for a purpose beyond, “Hey, remember that dude?” He cuts a contrast with Pike. Jim Kirk is the wildcard risk-taker, spoiling for a fight and raring to take chances. Pike, on the other hand, is the seasoned commander, apt to lean into diplomacy, mutual understanding, and discretion. Even as “A Quality of Mercy” posits things would have gone differently in “Balance of Terror” with Pike in the captain’s chair, it uses Kirk’s presence to interrogate the merits of caution vs. action, connection vs. guile, and compassion vs. conviction in real-time.
More to the point, this redo comes with an essential question that helps give the proceedings intrigue, even for those stalwart fans who can recall the episode from half a century ago — what precisely goes wrong here that creates such a grim future in this timeline?
The episode drops plenty of red herrings and feints. True to form, Kirk nearly perishes not once but twice, leading viewers to wonder if the darkest timeline erupts from the franchise’s original Great Man™, dying before he can perform all his heroic deeds. Likewise, by the end, the sympathetic Romulan Commander — who seemed poised to countenance Pike’s plea for peace, much as he related to Kirk in the other timeline — is executed by his own countrymen. Maybe, the episode suggests, the divergence comes when this moderate voice in the Romulan Empire never makes it home to seed a different view of their Federation foes.
The mystery helps add extra juice to a gussied-up reimagining of a familiar story. The 2022 update makes room for things the miracle-working TOS production and effects teams could hardly imagine in the sixties. The space battles come with more firepower and maneuvering to bring the attacks and evasions to life. A trademark Kirk ploy sees him passing off a passel of mining ships as a Federation fleet while their enemies bring a Romulan armada into view for an epic stand-off. The chess match between the Enterprise and a Bird-of-Prey comes with the extra thrills modern effects and studio gloss can achieve with a bigger budget and current technology.
At the end of the day, though, the consequence of those skirmishes, not Pike’s strategy versus Kirk’s, irrevocably shifts the course of the future. While some clever gamesmanship from both captains leads them to safety in the shadow of renewed war, it comes with a cost. Spock is grievously injured while trying to repair the ship’s systems in time for the battle. The damage leaves him maimed. His burns and maladies are not unlike the ones Pike himself faces down in the future he’s desperate to avoid. The tragedy that makes this timeline so bleak isn’t the absence of the Romulan Commander or even Captain Kirk; it’s the loss of Spock as we know him.
[T]his glimpse of an alternate future helps the captain be at peace with his destiny because he knows his loss will help make a better world and spare those he cares about.
It’s a clever turn. The elder Pike explains that the son of Sarek is the key to securing a better future because he’s the one who paves the way for peace between the Federation and Romulus possible. Sure, it’s a bit of a cheat since, apparently, in every alternate timeline Pike’s choices could create, Spock will die, per the Klingon time monks. Yet, from his presence in the original encounter to his plans for reunification with Captain Picard, to his efforts to save Romulus in Star Trek ‘09, there’s a plausibility to the brightest star in the galaxy being the one whose presence helps avert the eternal war with the Romulans the alternate Pike warns of.
More to the point, it moves Pike himself, who refuses to trade his suffering for that of the science officer he supports and cares for. It is, remarkably, a decision that adds extra harmony to Spock’s own extraordinary choices to aid Pike in “The Menagerie” from the 1960s series. And this glimpse of an alternate future helps the captain be at peace with his destiny because he knows his loss will help make a better world and spare those he cares about. For now, anyway, despite the late tease of Number One’s (Rebecca Romijn) exposure and apprehension.
With that, this finale is a microcosm of Strange New Worlds’ first season. It is a sop for the fans. The episode is riddled with even more familiar faces and homages. It outright remakes one of the signature installments of the series that started it all. It deploys tropes — from the Kirkian bluff to the glimpse of a dark future to the older doppelganger with a grave warning — that will be familiar to any Trekkie worth their mail-order combadge.
Yet, the episode and the season find a deeper resonance amid all these familiar scenarios and well-worn beats. The creative team applies old concepts to new situations. They use the chance to revisit this era and these characters to comment on them, develop them, and show viewers sides of each we’ve never seen before. In its superb finale and outstanding first year, Strange New Worlds remembers the past, looks to the future, and finds a way to make both meaningful in the here and now.
Great finale to an absolutely fantastic 1st season…Mount and Peck really make Pike and Spock ‘come to life’ on the screen, and the small intricacies of their personalities that the writers include (Pike’s hair, his cooking, his humor, Spock’s struggle with his dual heritage, his super-hot fiance, the sexual tension between him and Nurse Chapel, ) present them as more than two dimensional TV characters.
Looking forward to season 2, I can’t come fast enough!!