The following article contains: really important spoilers for ‘A quality of mercy.’
We live in the era of the prequel, with studios exploiting every bit of existing material where an audience is already there to enjoy it. But the low-hanging fruit and easy money a prequel promises severely limits the storytelling options for those properties. Obi-Wan Kenobi can’t die (or do anything meaningful) on his own prestigious miniseries since his fate was decided in 1977. Ewan McGregor must grow up to Sir Alec Guinness and die at the hand of Darth Vader, and that’s that† Sure, there are some things creative teams can play fast and loose with, but the big things — the ones that permeate culture in general — are set in stone.
Since Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was announced, it was destroyed by the same hard stop, one dictated in November 1966. Movies aside, until 2018, Christopher Pike was little more than a pub trivia answer to the question “Who was the first captain of the Enterprise?” (It will provoke an argument between the people who almost remember Jeffrey Hunter being there for William Shatner, while the people who know Robert April sat smugly on the sidelines at first.) But Pike’s fate wasn’t necessarily immutable until season two. from Discovery confirmed that he would receive his radiation dose. But it didn’t matter until the fans, production team, and executives discovered they loved Anson Mount and could easily watch a slew of pre-Kirk adventures with him on the Enterprise.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the creative team had looked for a way to extend the series beyond the narrative ending point. The show has already dangled a few ways that Pike could survive the incident, making it clear that there are still seven years to go. Seven years was the old-fashioned point at which a TV show could make it into syndication, and the length of time all three Silver Age Trek series reached. Strange New Worlds could just as easily slow down the timeline and spend five, seven, ten or seventeen seasons filling the next six years of Pike’s life or find a way to remove such an arbitrary deadline.
And yet the season finale of the show “A Quality of Mercy” decides to take advantage of the restrictions imposed on it, making it clear to both Pike and us that there is no way out. We start at a base on the edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone, where Commander Hansen’s son, when he grows up, will be one of the cadets who die in the radiation leak. Pike decides it only makes sense to stop the boy from joining Starfleet and therefore save his life, but while writing a letter to the boy warning him of his fate, an older Pike appears in are leaving. And we know he’s older, because he’s wearing one of Robert Fletcher’s gorgeous 2278-era Starfleet uniforms, albeit redesigned to suit the now-Trek era.
Unfortunately, Admiral Pike is not here to congratulate his younger self on a job well done, but to warn him of the consequences of futs over time. Thanks to a Klingon Time Crystal from Boreth, Pike . gets All good things-ed in his own future, six months after the radiation leak. If your fan antennas started tingling on that date, it’s because Pike is using the Enterprise 2266during the first season of classic Star Trek† In fact, it’s worse than that because he’s directly in the episode of “Balance of terror”, except that he has to win his way instead of Kirk’s. As Pike says, the only way to discover why this future is terrible is to live it.
(“Balance of Terror”” is widely regarded as one of the top three best episodes of the classic series. It’s the one where the Enterprise plays an exciting cat-and-mouse game with a new Romulan warbird equipped with a cloaking device and a powerful weapon capable of destroying starships in one go.)
If there’s one thing this episode does better than, well, most of now-Trek, it’s the fact that all the characters make smart choices. Pike, thrown into the future, immediately confides in Spock, and when he encounters resistance, immediately orders a mind-meld. Quick to catch up, Spock becomes Pike’s fellow confidant in the altered future, helping him figure out exactly what to do here.
The survival of Pike has meant that many things have changed in the timeline: James Kirk is the captain of the USS Farragut, which survived in this version of the future. And luckily, the ship is nearby, meaning Kirk and Pike team up to solve the villain Romulan Warbird’s problem with his devastating new weapon. Meanwhile, the beats of “Balance of Terror” are replayed – with Ortegas Lt. Stiles replaces as the racist on the bridge with angry eyes on Spock.
Understandably, no one wins, given the conflicts between Pike’s popular diplomacy and Kirk’s more action-oriented approach. The Romulans receive a signal to the fleet, which realizes that the Federation is weak enough to wage all-out war. In many ways, this episode serves up its own indictment against Pike, showing that his no-shoot-first approach has a limit. (And it also makes for some clearer water between Pike and Kirk, since one replaced the other in the ’60s.) Of course, the episode ends with Pike choosing to return to his own time and understand that he doesn’t just back out of his destined fate.
This is the second episode of Strange New Worlds co-written by the polarizing Akiva Goldsman, and many of his features can be seen in full here. There’s the misplaced reverence for franchise iconography, Great Man Of History mythologization (this time with Spock), and a showdown between two copy-and-paste CGI space fleets. Still, this worked out pretty well given the risk of what this episode could have been, especially by threading a new story through one of the original series’ sacred texts. (Given Goldsman’s previous Trek work, I give full credit to showrunner and co-writer Henry Alonso Myers here.)
I can’t really comment much on it Paul Wesley’s performance as Kirk here, as he has handed over the most poisoned chalice. William Shatner, even at his worst, never played Kirk as big as the stereotype has become, and Chris Pine’s performance chose Kirk’s bookish, warrior-poet side. Go too far on either side and it will start to impress, especially since he only has about 10 minutes of screen time throughout the episode. Therefore, he essentially plays Kirk as someone who is both steadfast, but also endlessly looking for a third option, highlighting his inventiveness.
The episode ends with a twist – somehow Number One’s past is revealed (like when she just told everyone who would listen in “Ghosts of Illyria”), and she’s arrested by Starfleet. Pike nearly breaks the hand of a guard who prevents the arrest, but is talked out of the toad by Una before declaring that things aren’t over yet. I’ll be very curious to see how this particular storyline resolves, especially given my continued wonderment at Rebecca Romijn’s absence from the show. The fact that Paul Wesley was tipped to return in season two might suggest Kirk’s coming on board as her replacement, but that feels a little too over the top in his fan service.
Fundamentally, however, Strange New Worlds concludes its first season with something better than it deserved to be. As I wrote at the beginning, the first five episodes all have something good going on, but often trip over their own shoelaces. However, since “Spock Amok” the show has started to settle in, with less awkward dialogue, a more relaxed groove and the courage to go for high camp and comedy as regularly as it is for high drama. Every episode in the back half of the first season was better than its direct predecessor, even if there are some very obvious kinky points that have yet to be resolved. Whisper it, friends, but, Strange New Worlds maybe actually good?
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