For the season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I was not expecting a time travel episode. But, given that this is Star Trek, a time travel episode was bound to appear sooner or later. When done correctly, such as “Trials and Tribble-ations” from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, time travel can be an excellent way to shake things up and throw the cast in a completely alien environment to their own. In the finale episode, “A Quality of Mercy”, Captain Christopher Pike is given a glimpse of a future that could happen if he manages to avert his fated incapacitation and debilitating injuries.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched “A Quality of Mercy”, the Season One finale for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
I have to admit that I didn’t catch the correlation in this episode with the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Balance of Terror” until nearly the end. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched The Original Series but now that I recognize the parallels, it’s astounding how much the writers pulled from “Balance of Terror” into “A Quality of Mercy”. The set up for the episode is remarkably mundane: the USS Enterprise arrives at Outpost 4 near the Federation/Romulan Neutral Zone. Captain Pike is visited by Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano), returning from the pilot episode. The two officers/lovers part on good terms, which plays a big factor in how bitter the ending of the finale feels. Since Strange New Worlds is set during the TOS era, the Federation/Romulan War is a hundred years in the past and neither side has had any contact with the other in that time, to the point no one in the Federation knows what the Romulans look like or what their ships look like.
During a visit with the commander of Outpost 4, Hansen Al-Salah, Captain Pike is introduced to the Commander’s son, Maat. Pike is suddenly thrown for a loop. Maat Al-Salah is one of the young cadets from his vision of the reactor accident that will leave him a disfigured shell of his current shelf. To make matters worse, Maat is one of the two cadets who perish in the accident. Pike retreats to his quarters and begins dictating a message to Maat and he gets to the point where he’s about to reveal Maat’s future when a stranger appears in the room.
A much older Pike appears, wearing the iconic red and white uniform first shown in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and wearing the rank insignia of a Rear Admiral. Rear Admiral Pike reveals that he was allowed to come back thanks to the assistance of the Klingons on Boreth (the Klingon monastery planet where Captain Pike first learned of his future when grasping a Time Crystal). The Klingons were apparently not happy about Pike subverting his predestined fate but allowed the Rear Admiral to go back to talk some sense into his younger self. The scene plays out like a Star Trek version of A Christmas Carol, with the Ghost of Future Self providing a Time Crystal to Captain Pike to show him what changing his future could cause.
Captain Pike is flung forward in time, where he finds himself officiating a wedding ceremony between two crew members on the Enterprise. It’s here that the writers hit upon the ingenious idea of an alternate version of “Balance of Terror”. Instead of James T. Kirk being the Captain of the Enterprise, Pike is still in command. Other major changes are found throughout the episode. Spock is now Number One on the ship instead of Una-Chin Riley. Uhura has reached the rank of Lieutenant and mans the communications station on the bridge. As we soon discover, La’an has rejoined Starfleet and serves on the USS Farragut, which is captained by none other than James T. Kirk. We also learn from La’an that Una-Chin Riley has been in prison for the last several years, most likely due to the discovery of her Illyrian genetic modifications.
Paul Wesley steps into the admittedly massive shoes of William Shatner to portray this young, brash version of James Kirk. There are moments in the episode, particularly between Pike and Kirk, where we see the swagger and arrogance that would typify James Kirk but this is also a person who has not had the time and luxury of the tempering influences of Leonard McCoy, Spock, and the rest of the crew of the familiar Enterprise.
What follows is a re-imagining of “Balance of Terror”, with Pike making the absolute opposite decisions Kirk did in The Original Series episode. Whereas “Balance of Terror” was more akin to a submarine thriller (similar to Strange New Worlds episode “Memento Mori”), “A Quality of Mercy” sees Pike do everything within his power to reach a peaceful resolution, despite the Romulans in question destroying a number of Federation outposts. Much of the dialogue, scene blocking, and lighting are directly pulled from “Balance of Terror”, with several key differences. The biggest one is the ending of the flash-forward, where the Romulan subcommander is able to call in a massive Romulan fleet. Seeing Pike’s overtures of peace as weakness (which tracks with the Romulans mode of thinking), they attack the Enterprise, which results in Spock suffering severe and debilitating wounds (not unlike what Pike would suffer in his predestined future), leaving him crippled beyond any hope of recovery.
It’s at this point Rear Admiral Pike reappears in Captain Pike’s quarters and reveals the truth of the situation: in every potential timeline where Captain Pike avoids his fate in the reactor accident, Spock dies or is crippled beyond recovery. Considering the notable and literally galaxy-saving endeavors that Spock is a part of in the standard timeline, this is the worst possible outcome for the galaxy at large and for Spock personally. When Captain Pike is returned to his original point in time, he has a brief encounter with Spock, where Pike tells him without telling him that if he doesn’t go through with his predestined fate, it is Spock who will pay the price. It’s this small scene that really seals the episode for me. It’s clear from this interaction that there is a deep love and admiration between Pike and Spock, which goes a long way to understanding why Spock would risk everything in the episode “The Menagerie” to help the crippled Pike find some semblance of hope.
And then the ending happens. Captain Batel returns to the Enterprise, with two Starfleet security officers in tow. They arrest Una-Chin Riley for her genetic modifications, which is exactly what happened to her in the alternate timeline Pike visited. It’s clear that Batel is not happy about this assignment but she follows her orders (not the best tack to take with Pike, particularly where Number One is concerned). We’re left with Pike vowing to fight this injustice as the season draws to a close.
Overall, this is one of the better Star Trek season finales I’ve watched over the years. Emotionally raw and honest to a fault, Pike now gets that no matter what he attempts to do, he must accept what will happen to him or the ramifications for the people he cares about will be substantially worse (not to mention a full-blown war between the Romulans and the Federation taking place). While I’m sure the writers will mine this thread a bit more in the upcoming second season (which is currently filming), I feel that this finale puts an end cap on Pike attempting to override his destiny. I definitely recommend giving this episode a watch.
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