Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Episode 10 “A Quality of Mercy” Review
After not addressing it for most of the season, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds leans on Star Trek legacy and returns to Captain Pike’s existential crisis in a big way, as the captain is shown a future where he never suffers a life-ending accident – but instead witnesses the far greater cost of trying to avoid his fate.
Remixing Classic Trek
The episode begins as Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) reunites briefly with Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano), his love interest from the series premiere, as the two captains and their respective ships orbit a mining colony, Outpost 4, on the edge of the Neutral Zone. The Federation is offering aid to the colony, including the use of automated mining ships, as they are located close to the mysterious Romulans, a race the Federation has not seen in person, but has fought a war with. During a meeting with the colony’s captain, Pike is introduced to the captain’s son, Maat Al-Salah (Chris River) and it’s a name the captain recognizes as one of the cadets who doesn’t survive Pike’s accident seven years in the future.
Arriving back at his quarters and seeing an opportunity to start changing the future, Pike begins writing a letter to Maat to tell the boy he should not join Starfleet, and therefore not be present on the day and location of Pike’s accident. Barely three sentences into the letter, Pike is visited by a familiar face: himself, only decades older. Old Pike explains to Young Pike that he is from a future where Pike does indeed avoid his accident, but there is a good reason why Pike needs to suffer. Instead of telling the younger man why he shouldn’t continue his efforts to avoid his fate, Old Pike produces a Klingon time crystal, the kind Pike (let’s just call him “Prime Pike”) used on Boreth to see his future, and this crystal serves as a window into a future Prime Pike would experience should he never experience his life-changing disaster.
Via the time crystal, Prime Pike is dropped into a familiar day; not a familiar day to him, mind you, but to Star Trek: The Original Series fans. Prime Pike is officiating a wedding, and which classic Star Trek episode do we see a captain officiate a wedding? TOS’ “Balance of Terror,” the episode that pitted Captain Kirk and the Enterprise against an agile Romulan Bird of Prey and her crafty captain. Indeed, this mission is playing out not as Kirk and company did it, but as Captain Pike and his Strange New Worlds-era crew are; it’s a remix, if you will, showing how this confrontation would have played had Pike never suffered his accident and thus remained in control of the Enterprise.
This is a neat twist on a classic Star Trek episode, and plays to a theme this show established right from its first episode: Strange New Worlds is not meant to be a copy or redo of The Original Series, but rather a unique entity that subverts our expectations and merely borrows elements here and there. This show made that statement when Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) walked onto the bridge at the end of the series premiere, and it’s a statement that’s reinforced when this episode introduces another familiar face: Captain James T. Kirk himself (Paul Wesley).
Reintroducing an old friend
Yes, Pike and the Enterprise face off with a Romulan Bird of Prey in this alternate reality, and joining them is the USS Farragut, which Star Trek fans will know was Kirk’s posting before the Enterprise. The two ships are soon engaging the Romulans based on a battle plan devised by Kirk himself, and boy is the confrontation between the three ships cool to watch.
Things don’t go well for the Farragut, however, as the Bird of Prey gets the better of the Federation ship, which forces Kirk to transfer his flag to the Enterprise. Now ever closer to all-out war, Kirk introduces an element of mischief and surprise to Pike’s more cautious strategy. But what exactly Kirk has planned as he takes a shuttle and warps off to who-knows-where while the Enterprise continues trailing the enemy will have to wait for the episode’s climax, in typical season finale fashion.
Pike, the diplomat, tries to negotiate with the Romulan commander, to which the war-weary commander is inclined to do, but officers within the Romulan ranks commit mutiny against their captain and call in the Romulan fleet to destroy the Enterprise and begin the invasion of the Federation. Things are looking bad for our heroes until Kirk returns from his shuttle trip with a fleet of automated mining rigs, the kind Pike mentioned at the beginning of the episode to the commander of Outpost 4. Kirk bets that the Romulans will be intimidated by the fleet because they don’t know what Federation ships look like nowadays, and he proves correct, but only for so long. The leader of the Romulan fleet opts for war and opens fire on the Enterprise, but Kirk distracts the Romulans with the mining ships long enough for the damaged Enterprise to escape.
While the Enterprise and her crew were able to make it out of the initial engagement in this new war, not all is fine. It turns out Spock was critically injured in the battle, and it’s when Pike sees his all-but-dead Vulcan friend on the sickbay table that he realizes the point of his sojourn into the alternate future. If Pike worms his way out of his accident, it’s Pike and Kirk, not just Kirk, who handle the confrontation with Romulans near the Neutral Zone in 2269, and things are just different enough from the Prime Timeline for Spock to suffer a life-altering accident. As Nurse Chapel says to Pike, even if Spock makes it out of his injuries alive, his life will forever be altered.
“We all want to think our future is important. And ours – yours and mine – is. Just not the way you think. Time is complicated. But the monks showed me something simple. Every time we change the path, he dies. He’s got things to do. Fate-of-the-galaxy-type things.” – Old Pike to Prime Pike, about Spock’s need to survive.
Suddenly, Pike’s thoughts on his upcoming accident are clear. It’s him or Spock (and a war that leaves billions of people dead). Taking comfort that his sacrifice is for the better, and that, according to Old Pike, Spock will lead a full and impactful life (including making a lasting peace with the Romulans), the captain returns to his reality a changed man. Considering Pike started this show as a changed man from who he was when we first saw him in Discovery, this is quite the character arc. He has come to peace with his future, and his tour of the Enterprise bridge at the end of the episode asserts that he is in the right place, at the right time, and that he must live in the present. Thus, Strange New Worlds concludes Pike’s thought-provoking and dreary arc with an enlightening message: live in the moment and appreciate the memories you are making.
Alright, let’s forget about Pike and talk about this show’s introduction of Captain Kirk. It’s a big deal! Only once before has this franchise recast its (arguably) most popular character. Does Paul Wesley bring the goods to such an iconic role? Consider first that Wesley’s situation is exactly what Chris Pine faced when the latter was cast in Star Trek (2009). The Kirk of that movie was an alternate reality version of William Shatner’s iconic role, which meant Pine was able to merely be similar to Prime Kirk, not identical.
Wesley, too, is playing an alternate reality Kirk, but in our opinion, there are so few similarities between Wesley and Shatner’s performances that you might think they are two completely different people. Is this a big deal? Sure, for longtime fans who were expecting a bit more Kirk in Strange New Worlds’ Kirk. Wesley’s markedly different captain is even more evident when you consider this episode seems to go to some lengths to make other legacy characters, like Spock (Ethan Peck) and Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), act more like their TOS counterparts.
However, Wesley’s Kirk is like Shatner’s Kirk in a notable way: he remains as headstrong and driven by emotion as ever, characteristics that bring Pike and Kirk to odds as they fight the Romulans. However, this Kirk doesn’t have Spock and Doctor McCoy to balance out his aggressive tendencies. In fact, this episode asserts that Kirk’s famously aggressive attitude would partly be responsible for starting an entire war…quite the sobering assessment of the character, wouldn’t you say?
While the Kirk in this episode is from an alternate future, it was previously reported Kirk would make an appearance in season two of this show, so we’re super curious if Wesley’s alternate-reality Kirk and the Prime Kirk we’ll ostensibly see next year will differ. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Wesley’s Kirk is most notable for how he contrasts against Pike’s command style. But to be honest, we were more satisfied with Chris Pine’s Kirk after his inaugural Star Trek outing.
One Door Closes, Another Opens
Anyway, with Pike safe in the knowledge his sacrifice will have a huge meaning for both his friend and the galaxy, one might think this episode would end happily, but no such luck. After hinting at the possibility when Pike was told in an alternate reality that Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) had been taken into custody because Starfleet discovered she was Illyrian, that situation does indeed happen in the Prime Universe. In fact, it’s Captain Batel who ultimately arrests Pike’s first officer. So, this season ends with us wondering what is going to happen to Una, how Pike is going to save her from prison, and how did Starfleet discover her genetically modified nature, to begin with? Will Pike face repercussions because he knew back in “Ghosts of Illyria”?
Moreover, we are left with questions about a couple of other characters. Spock’s newfound rage following the conflict in “All Those Who Wander” does not get resolved in this episode, so clearly his emotions are going to spill over into season two. We also don’t know how La’an Noonien-Singh’s quest to help the wayward refugee from the aforementioned episode is playing out; perhaps this will be a major plotline for season two.
Taken together, “A Quality of Mercy” pays homage to a famous Star Trek episode, while clearly framing it within the intriguing personnel parameters Strange New Worlds has developed for itself. The result is a season finale with all the trappings of a modern-day finale – last-second saves, fan-favorite reveals, and bombastic action – but doesn’t shy away from letting one of its main characters cross the finish line in their own personal journey. Pike seems content with his fate now, no small success considering how dire it must be to live with the knowledge of your own death. Moreover, how strong in character must you be to accept your sacrifice in lieu of somebody else?
Exploring Strange New Worlds…
Overall, Strange New Worlds’ first season was simply fantastic – and we think it had the best series premiere in recent Star Trek memory. No one obviously weak link exists in the chain of 10 episodes, and this is thanks to the show’s penchant for diversifying its tone and having a cast with clear charisma and dedication to their roles. Seeing the Enterprise thrust into the spotlight again after all these years was a joy to see, as was the modern take on classic-era Starfleet technology. Bravo to the producers of this show for paying such measured homage to 1960s production design, while not straying into anachronism.
Even though it was largely an episodic season, as promised, key threads wove their way through each character in intriguing ways. While not all characters were treated equally (we’re looking forward to learning more about Ortegas in season two!), we think you’d be hard-pressed to find a reasonable fan who takes major issue in the way Anson Mount, Ethan Peck, Jess Bush, Babs Olusanmokun, Celina Rose Gooding, and Rebecca Romijn have breathed new life into their legacy characters, or how new characters, such as La’an Noonien-Singh or Hemmer (RIP), have integrated themselves into the cast.
While there’s plenty of Star Trek to look forward to between now and Strange New Worlds’ sophomore season, that wait will feel long, indeed.
- Super random observation: when the computer takes dictation from Pike as the captain writes his letter to Maat, the computer misses a word Pike says. Pike said, “…and I encourage you…” but the computer does not record the “I.”
- Old Pike is wearing the same maroon uniform (albeit with different material on the sleeves) as seen in the TOS movies, which would hint that he was from the 2280s at least since that’s when those movies take place. The Prime Timeline events of this episode take place in 2259.
- This episode makes liberal use of the splash of TOS-style lighting on characters’ faces.
- At long last, we see the Farragut, which has held fans’ fascination ever since we learned in 1967 that it was Kirk’s posting before the Enterprise. Granted, the Farragut seen in this episode isn’t the Prime Timeline version of the ship, but… close enough! The registry number for this ship is shown as NCC-1647.
- For those looking for more Farragut action, John Jackson Miller’s recent Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing deals substantially with the Farragut (and a certain creature that smells like honey).
- Much of the dialogue in this episode reflects dialogue from “Balance of Terror.” Notably, the Romulan commander in both episodes says the same thing to the Federation captains: “I regret that we meet in this way. You and I are of a kind. In a different reality, I could have called you friend.”
- Why does Pike immediately ask La’an when she last talked to Una? It’s an awkward question that serves only as a primer for the twist at the end of the episode.
- The Romulan commander references a conflict between Romulans and the Remans, the latter of which was introduced as close cousins of the Romulans in Star Trek: Nemesis.
- Who will be the Enterprise’s chief engineer in season two? We hear Spock talking to a Scottish engineer while the Enterprise is making repairs during the ceasefire. Is this a hint that Montgomery Scott will appear next season?
- Besides the element of viewer surprise, why wouldn’t Kirk tell Pike about his plan to bring numerous automated mining vessels to the edge of the Neutral Zone?
- Why didn’t the Enterprise’s warpengines work immediately when Pike initially wanted to leave the battle with the Romulans? They magically work just a minute later. Sure, the delay makes it so that Kirk can shield the Enterprise with the mining ships, and then the Enterprise takes a super-damaging hit and hurts Spock, but no explanation is given why such a delay happened.
- Does Nurse Chapel not have better things to do in the chaotic aftermath of the battle than stand over Spock’s bedside and dramatically explain to Pike how severe Spock’s injuries are?
- Near the end of the episode, we hear Kirk mention to Pike that Kirk’s father, George, was the first officer aboard the Kelvin. George, as played by Chris Hemsworth, was featured in the opening scene of Star Trek (2009).
- The picture Old Pike is holding near the end of the episode appears to be Pike and Robert April, both of whom are wearing uniforms reminiscent of “The Cage.”
- Kirk’s file, as viewed by Pike at the end of the episode, lists a few details about the captain, including that he served on the USS Republic, something we learned in TOS’ “The Court Martial.”
- Another detail on the file is that Kirk witnessed the massacre at Tarsus IV, as described in the TOS episode “The Conscience of the King” and the Star Trek: Discovery book Drastic Measures.
- How sweet is the scene between Pike and Spock at the end of the episode, where Spock infers rather accurately that Pike is knowingly trying to not avoid his fate because Spock’s life would otherwise be in jeopardy? This season has really done a great job forming a bond between these two characters. Dare we ask… will this bond ultimately overshadow Kirk and Spock’s relationship in the annals of Star Trek fandom?
- This is the second recent Star Trek show to end with a major character getting arrested, as Captain Freeman in the second season finale for Star Trek: Lower Decks was also arrested.
Strange New Worlds streams Thursdays on Paramount+.
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