Warning: This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1, episode 10 review contains major spoilers – many of them set to stun. Boldly go further at your own risk…
After last week’s Alien homage, Strange New Worlds’ first season finale is an even more blatant journey into sci-fi past. This time the destination is original series classic ‘Balance of Terror’ – aka the one with the Romulans – and, like legendary The Next Generation episode ‘Yesterday’s Enterprise’, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ serves up an ingenious alternative timeline adventure.
This Star Trek-flavoured take on It’s a Wonderful Life is essentially Marvel’s ‘What if…?’ on the final frontier, imagining a reality where Christopher Pike – rather than his successor, James Tiberius Kirk – is in the captain’s chair for a mission that could plunge the Federation into all-out war. It also suggests that, just like Trek fans, the residents of Strange New Worlds’ writers’ room like to debate who the best captain is – the difference being that they have massive TV budgets and a cast of professional actors to test out their theories for ‘real’.
Even if you’re not familiar with ‘Balance of Terror’, however – expect the TOS story (which ranks among our best Star Trek episodes ever) to surge on streaming services in the coming days – ‘A Quality of Mercy’ brings this (mostly) brilliant season to an exciting close. Prior knowledge is a bonus but far from essential.
When Pike delivers his scene-setting log, the Enterprise is on a routine mission retro-fitting the outposts that patrol the Neutral Zone between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire. Things get weird when he recognizes a boy who’ll die in the fateful radiation leak that’s destined to leave the captain paralyzed and scarred. Determined that the future is not set, for him or his cadets, Pike starts drafting a warning letter to the unfortunate kid. Then he’s interrupted by a visit from his future self…
With a few more miles on the clock and dressed in the burgundy uniform of a movie era admiral, the very-much-in-one-piece Pike Sr has traveled back with a message. Courtesy of a time crystal taken from the Klingon holy world of Boreth – similar to the one that revealed Pike’s tragic fate in Discovery’s second season – he has a plausible, canon-friendly tool to show his younger self the path not taken, clearly a hot topic in Trek HQ after similar themes were explored in Picard season 2.
We’re transported seven years into a future where Pike did send the letter, and he’s commanding the Enterprise on the five-year mission originally overseen by Kirk. For anyone who’s seen ‘Balance of Terror’, Pike’s flashforward plays out like a sophisticated cover version of the original material. As in the earlier episode, the ship’s captain finds himself officiating a wedding that’s quickly interrupted by the ship losing contact with a string of starbases. And even though the timelines quickly diverge, there are plenty of signposts to remind you exactly what happened during the first run-through. There’s a lone Romulan Bird-of-Prey (complete with the overly literal hawk-ish motif on its belly) using a powerful plasma weapon to blow up Federation outposts; a sequence where the Enterprise mirrors the enemy weapon’s moves to avoid detection; a close encounter with a nearby comet; and the Federation’s first-ever sighting of an actual Romulan.
While Spock and Uhura occupy the roles they did first time out, the bridge crew looks slightly different to Kirk’s Enterprise line-up. Ortegas, for example, is sitting in the navigator’s chair occupied by one-off crewman Lt Stiles in ‘Balance of Terror’ and, in her strange, new, wisecrack-free guise, has inherited her predecessor’s shoot first/ask questions later attitude to Romulans.
It’s one of many clever allusions to the plot of the original, including recycled lines of dialogue – whether spoken by the same character or given to someone else – and an almost shot-for-shot redo of the moment the crew realize that Romulans look a lot like Vulcans. Ethan Peck presumably dials down Spock’s response because Leonard Nimoy’s original eyebrow raise is so over-the-top that people might have assumed Peck was shooting for parody.
That the episode never feels like a spoof, however – this definitely isn’t a comedy episode in the vein of Deep Space Nine’s ‘Trials and Tribble-ations’ – is testament to a script that celebrates Trek history while riffing on accepted canon with the relish of JJ Abrams’ first Star Trek movie. ‘A Quality of Mercy’ manages to be simultaneously faithful and subversive, and when it does wilfully change the setting with updated uniforms, visuals and more diverse crews (on both Starfleet and Romulan vessels), the changes all feel welcome. This is a retelling that reflects 2022 much more than 1966.
The key point of difference, however, is the guy sitting in the Enterprise hotseat. Fifty-six years after ‘Balance of Terror’ aired, we know that James T Kirk’s tense game of cat-and-mouse with a Romulan commander didn’t ignite a decades-long skirmish with the Romulans. Even so, Pike’s softly-softly negotiating tactics – exactly what you’d expect from Starfleet’s most famous boy scout – seem entirely sensible. In fact, it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we realize an attack was always the best form of defense against the Romulans. Does the failure of the Pike manoeuvre make him a bad captain? No, but it shows how taking a different decision in the moment can alter history, that the big, Sliding Doors moments can hinge on luck as much as judgment.
And for the benefit of anyone who can’t recall the finer points of the original series, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ makes the Pike/Kirk contrast explicit by beaming James T onto the Enterprise. It was no secret that The Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley would be braving the iconic role, but Paramount Plus played a blinder when they fooled us into thinking we’d have to wait for season 2 for his debut. (That said, after going to all that effort, it’s baffling they let the surprise be ruined by Wesley’s name appearing in the credits.)
This Kirk is commanding officer of the USS Farragut – in the original timeline, he served there as a lieutenant before getting the keys to the Enterprise – and he’s an ideal foil to Pike. On a character level, the way the two captains overcome their differences to develop a mutual respect is incredibly satisfying. “You tried for something better,” Kirk nobly admits.
Alas, the jury’s still out on Wesley. It’s early days, of course, but you have to keep on reminding yourself that he’s James Tiberius Kirk, rather than a random guy cosplaying in a gold sweater. The decision not to ape William Shatner’s performance is a wise one, but Wesley doesn’t bring nearly as much charisma to the role as Chris Pine did in the movies – not yet, anyway.
As anyone who’s seen Back to the Future, Primer, or Star Trek: Voyager episode ‘Year Of Hell’ will recall, tinkering around with the space-time continuum has a habit of backfiring. Pike’s pacifistic approach ultimately brings the entire Romulan armada into Federation space, and the Enterprise consequently takes a hell of a pounding. Where the original ’Balance of Terror’’s sole fatality was the groom from the wedding the Romulans rudely interrupted, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ ends with Spock in Sickbay, having suffered numerous critical injuries. “I’m not sure that he will recover from this,” says a tearful Nurse Chapel, looking at a body scarred by green radiation burns. “But if he does, he will not be the same.”
And that’s the whole point of the episode. For Pike to live, his Vulcan science officer has to die, and as old Pike points out, “[Spock]’s got things to do. Fate of the galaxy-type things.” In this emotionally powerful conclusion, Pike’s penchant for doing the right thing appears to seal his fate, and presumably wraps up one of the few ongoing arcs in this series of standalone stories.
But there is a parting shot. In a fleeting exchange with the surprisingly warm future La’an –apparently just as changed by the intervening seven years as Ortegas – Pike learns that Number One is in prison as punishment for “deception”. It’s therefore something more than déjà vu when Pike’s girlfriend, Captain Batel, arrives to arrest her for being a genetically engineered Illyrian. Una’s fate promises to be a major arc in a second season that’s already wrapped shooting – and after the breath of fresh air of this wonderful first year on Pike’s bridge, the continuing voyages of Strange New Worlds can’t come soon enough.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1 has come to an end. For more, check out our guide to the Star Trek timeline.