Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – Season 1 Episode 10
“A Quality of Mercy”
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds closes off its first season with an examination of how decisions impact the future and recognition of an individual’s place in history.
With Star Trek‘s return to episodic storytelling in Strange New Worlds a big lingering question is how the format would deliver a finale. There is no ongoing main plot to wrap up so is it just another episode with higher stakes than usual, that may impact future events or is it an episode that ties things that happened in the season together or is it both? This finale does both to an extent though it’s more of a conclusion of Pike’s conflicted feelings about his upcoming fate.
Early in the season, Pike started to question whether his fate was unavoidable and began to research the people that will be present on that day in order to explore the possibility of preventing both his fate and the fates of those involved. It becomes a more urgent consideration when he has a chance encounter with one of the kids who will lose his life on that day. This makes the prevention of that eventuality far more urgent to him and he prioritises finding a solution. His attempt is interrupted by a visit from his future self warning him against taking that action. The notable thing about his future self is that he isn’t confined to a life support chair so it immediately becomes clear that it’s possible to change the future which prompts the obvious question – should he change the future?
The episode is designed to explore that question and have Pike close the book on the knowledge of his fate one way or another. Narratively it’s very similar to A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life. The former is a story about a man being encouraged to examine who he is by getting a complete view of his life and a glimpse of the path his life will take if he continues as the person he is. The latter is a story about a man seeing how the world would be if he weren’t in it and recognising his value after losing faith in what worth he can bring to those around him. They are similar themes and have been used as the basis of stories in other properties countless times, including in Star Trek itself across the various shows. It works in a science-fiction context because the setup allows for that examination without directly impacting the flow of events.
Pike is thrown forward in time to the point where not accepting his fate creates an inarguably worse timeline for everyone involved. He is encouraged to live those events so that he can fully understand the impact his presence has and decide whether things would be better if he weren’t involved. The events in question are those depicted in the classic Original Series episode “Balance of Terror” where the Romulans test the strength and resolve of the Federation by attacking outposts along the Neutral Zone. In that episode, Captain Kirk and his crew were able to prevent the Romulan ship from returning to Romulan Space which deters a conflict by proving that the Federation aren’t as weak as the Romulan Empire thought they were. This episode plays with the idea that it was a historic moment that needed a show of force to provide the best outcome.
When thrown into the future, Pike is disoriented because he has no understanding of the surrounding context. He appears in the middle of conducting a marriage ceremony before red alert sounds and he has to deal with the threat in front of him. Even though he doesn’t have the details of his current surroundings he is still a captain and has all those skills. Fortunately, Spock is aware of his future knowledge which makes him an ideal confidante. He advises Pike to not second guess himself and behave as he normally would because the only way to understand how the future that spirals out of this event is worse is to experience it first-hand.
Pike has typically been characterised as the living embodiment of idealised Starfleet and Federation values. He was referred to as a “boy scout” in an earlier episode and always conducts himself with moral earnestness that shows full belief in what he stands for. As such he is a man who will always seek a non-violent solution and campaign for peace above all else. That approach has its place but it’s not what is/was needed at this pivotal point. The Romulans needed a show of force to dissuade them from declaring War and Pike wasn’t the type of Captain required at that time.
Acting as a counter to his command style is Captain James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley) who is in command of the Farragut in this timeline. Paul Wesley’s take on Kirk is immediately engaging. He’s sharp, confident and has the Shatner swagger but his performance is never an imitation of William Shatner. His introduction comes with the suggestion of an obstacle with Pike questioning whether the young, impulsive and seemingly trigger-happy Captain will be the cause of the darker timeline. As per Spock’s advice, he can only react to Kirk’s presence as he would in any other situation and looks for a collection of opinions before arriving at a decision.
The briefing scene stands out because it outlines the situation as it is understood at the time and allows for a range of opinions to be expressed. Pike and M’Benga are against attacking because of the potential for it to lead to an all-out War. Kirk and Spock are in favour of attacking because they believe that the Romulans don’t share their values and any petition for a peaceful solution would be seen as a sign of weakness. Their argument is to destroy the enemy before they destroy them.
Ortegas is against War but in favour of killing Romulans. It’s really jarring for her to be so vocally racist when it comes to Romulans as intolerance or bigotry has never been a trait associated with her. She is saying words said by the character Stiles in “Balance of Terror” but it doesn’t make sense for her to do so.
With a range of opinions at his disposal, Pike comes to something of a compromise and chooses to accept Kirk’s suggestion of using the comet as an ambush to reveal the Romulan ship’s position and disable them so that they can open a dialogue. This fails because the two Captains aren’t joined up in their tactics which gives the Romulans the opportunity to sucker punch and destroy the Farragut. Just like in “Balance of Terror”, Kirk underestimated his opponent and the comet plan doesn’t work but this time the cost was his ship because he wasn’t in charge and able to react accordingly.
Using “Balance of Terror” as the template for this story creates an interesting conundrum that I find difficult to resolve. As a fan of The Original Series who numbers “Balance of Terror” among my favourite episodes I am very familiar with the original story so recognise the repeated dialogue and where the alterations to the major beats come into play. It’s therefore impossible for me to determine how this will play to viewers who haven’t seen the original episode. It would certainly have less impact because part of the intent, based on how the episode is structured is for the audience to be aware of what is supposed to happen next and then react to how Pike decides to proceed. The episode sets up the notion that Pike will make the wrong decision so any member of the audience is watching him be set up to fair but fans of the original episode will recognise exactly how he is failing. Fanservice is best deployed in the background but this risks crossing the line into making homework necessary to fully understand what the episode sets out to achieve.
A relevant comparison is Star Trek Into Darkness; a film that derails its third act by clumsily repeating iconic beats from fan favourite material. “A Quality of Mercy” has a more thoughtful approach and is upfront about the intent to draw comparisons but the problem is that it’s unclear to me if this episode works on its own merits because of how overtly it is referencing what came before. It does radically depart from “Balance of Terror” but has it as part of its DNA and may use the assumption of prior knowledge as shorthand to tell its story.
Another problem is that this episode is a reset button. The events themselves are disposable because they will only be contained within this one episode. This means that there is no limit on how bad the situation can get because the consequences won’t carry into future stories. Pike is the focus and the whole thing is intended to be a lesson for him but it creates a disconnect between the audience and everything that happens because nobody except Pike will remember. The familiar characters aren’t important because they are functions within this “What If…?” story and are seven years ahead of what viewers know at this point. This allows for easy shifts like Ortegas suddenly being racist/bigoted and Spock being more emotionally closed off than he is now. Everyone else exists simply to give Pike information. Kirk is the exception but even he isn’t the Kirk that will eventually be introduced as he belongs to a different timeline. Pike retaining knowledge and learning a lesson justifies this to some degree but once the excitement of watching an altered version of a classic Original Series episode wears off there is an awareness of how disposable most of this is. The actual plot mechanics are killing time until Pike learns his lesson.
One thing that definitely works on its own merits is Pike’s perspective. He has no idea what decisions will be right or wrong or what the dark timeline looks like. In effect, he hasn’t seen “Balance of Terror” and is tasked with writing the script on the fly. Spock’s advice for him not to second guess itself is impossible to fully adhere to because knowing that his decisions will result in a catastrophic outcome will automatically make him question those decisions. A better approach may have been for Pike to be a passive observer of the events watching himself unwittingly create a dark timeline rather than simply being told to behave no differently to how he normally would. The outcome is changed by the measurement of it so there’s a lack of authenticity to his approach. This is referenced here and there such as him wondering whether Kirk is someone to worry about. The conflict can be boiled down to “listen to Kirk” or “don’t listen to Kirk”. He chooses not to because that’s more in line with his command style and that turns out to be the wrong approach.
Pike’s relationship with the Romulan Commander (Matthew MacDadzaen) differs significantly to the one depicted between Kirk and the Romulan Commander in “Balance of Terror”. In that episode, they only directly interact once with the episode focusing more on how they react to the tactics of the other. There’s a mutual respect that forms with that paying off in their single interaction. Pike directly interacts with him when he reaches out to explore the possibility of putting an end to hostilities. His reasoning around the War being no longer relevant as it was fought over 100 years prior under different sensibilities by people who are no longer alive -at least on the Human side- so there’s no clear idea of what the conflict is even about any more. The Romulan Commander’s mission was launched under an outdated mindset with the intent of testing the might of an enemy they fought in a conflict long ago. It doesn’t make sense as a motivation so questioning it is ample opportunity to find common ground.
The Romulan Commander talks about being alive during those days and that insight has contributed to a more pragmatic attitude. He lived through the War and states that he’s tired of endless War because by definition it means that nobody wins or ever actually gains anything. The others on his ship are younger and are more dialled into the idea of the Federation being an enemy that needs to be extinguished where the Commander wants Romulan society to progress; something they can’t do with the spectre of War with the Federation hanging over them. It’s briefly shown but Pike and the Commander being united in their thinking is an effective riff on the respectful combatant dynamic that existed between Kirk and the Commander in “Balance of Terror”.
Ultimately that thinking proves to be unique as evidenced by the attitude of the Romulan Praetor (Carolyn Scott) who appears to show the strength of the Romulan fleet and punish the Commander for getting caught conducting their clandestine test. The punishment is destruction which is symbolic of a rejection of new thinking. Even though he disagrees with the decision, the Romulan Commander is loyal to his duty right until the end. He recognises the decision has been made, his actions are a failure in the context of that decision so his final duty is to give his life in service of that decision. It’s limited thinking and shows that his loyalty is absolute even if he holds his own views on the handling of a situation. It’s a tragic end for him because under different circumstances he could have been an agent of change along with Pike. Instead, he is the first shot in a long and costly War.
The lesson that needs to be learned is plainly stated by Kirk. He says “sometimes you can’t avoid a fight”. There’s a time for diplomacy and upholding Federation values but that approach won’t work on every hostile species so sometimes a show of strength is required. In the better timeline, Kirk recognises that and handles the situation on that basis which means that the Romulans don’t escalate hostilities in the same way. This is recognition of the complexities of relations with other races that see the universe differently and also recognition of the need to have the right people handling historical events.
This situation is eerily similar to the one presented in “Vulcan Hello“; the first episode of Discovery. In that episode, Michael Burnham was advised by Sarek to attack the Klingons because violence is the only thing they understand and respect. She believed this so passionately that she staged a mutiny in order to fire the first shot. It’s a different setup but the messaging around a show of force being required sometimes is very similar and the end result of not demonstrating the willingness to fight was War.
For Pike, the personal lesson is to accept his fate because saving himself and a small number of cadets ends up having larger consequences. It boils down to a utilitarian equation of millions or billions of lives against the handful unlucky enough to be involved in that accident. To hammer the point home is the massive injuries sustained by Spock. Pike sees him in a similar state to how he will end up and is able to equate saving himself to swapping places with Spock. It’s a clever example because it makes the choice a far more personal one rather than the incalculable loss of life in the midst of a War. Pike’s decision to accept his fate boils down to his selfish desire to save himself or his selfless desire to save Spock.
His future self points out that Spock is the best hope for peace with the Romulans in the long term but the short term is that Pike will not trade himself for another person and preventing his fate means that Spock suffers it instead. To Pike that is unacceptable and he makes the choice to let the timeline play out as it should. It’s a good decision because it means that Pike has control of the future and can change things but just chooses not to. The warning that Spock will always end up like that no matter what choices are made rings in his ears and Pike makes the heroic sacrifice to benefit someone he cares about.
This leads to a powerful moment between Spock and Pike when he returns to the present. Spock understands that the shift in mindset was motivated by protecting him and sincerely thanks him for it. Those aware of canon will know the action Spock takes in the aftermath of Pike’s accident and this exchange clearly marks the beginning of him thinking about how to repay Pike for the sacrifice he will make. Their exchange admitting they mean a lot to each other with Spock calling him Chris as a sign of sincere friendship is heartwarming.
There are things about the future that Pike potentially can prevent. The episode ends with Una being taken into custody after the truth about her becomes known. This was mentioned in the alternate future though the implication there is that Pike gave up on clearing Una’s name at some point over the seven years. Why that happened isn’t stated but the next season may depict a losing battle as he fights to get the Federation to change its policy on genetic engineering so that she can still serve in Starfleet. This follows on from the third episode where Pike stated that he welcomes the discussion and would fight for her if Starfleet were to come for her. Now they have and he’s true to his word but is there a limit where it becomes hopeless? The alternate future would suggest the answer is yes but perhaps knowledge of that future has given Pike a different sort of determination to never give up. All will be revealed next season.
An engaging finale that definitively closes the book on Pike’s internal conflict around his place in history and delivers a fully earned personal decision. The question of whether Pike’s fate can be prevented has been present throughout the season and becomes more urgent when he meets one of the kids that will lose their life on that fateful day. A visit from his future self offers him the opportunity to see why preventing his fate would be catastrophic for the timeline. He is thrown forward in time to a crucial event to live the event and fully understand the impact his presence has. The events in question are those depicted in The Original Series episode “Balance of Terror”. Pike is disoriented because he has no knowledge of the intervening seven years. Fortunately, Spock can give him some context and acts as the ideal confidante while advising him not to second guess himself and behave as he normally would in order to fully understand the point being made. The recommendation isn’t possible to actually follow because knowing that he will make a decision that spirals the timeline down a dark path means that he will second-guess himself. Acting as the counter to Pike’s command style is James T. Kirk. Paul Wesley’s take on Kirk is immediately engaging and him acting as something of an obstacle works really well in context. The briefing scene stands out because it outlines the situation as it is understood at the time and allows for a range of opinions to be expressed. There’s a clear divide on how to proceed with the situation with Pike accepting both sides and making his decision a compromise between the two. It fails because the two Captains aren’t joined up in their tactics. Using “Balance of Terror” as a template creates an interesting conundrum. Knowing the episode as well as I do means I have no perspective on whether this episode works on its own merits. Pike is approaching from the point of view of not knowing how events are supposed to unfold so it works on that level but much of it relies on the plot progression from the original episode with a great deal of directly lifted dialogue that becomes distracting. Another issue is that the episode is a reset button that contains no actual stakes. The events are disposable because they will only ever be contained within this one episode. Pike is the focus and the whole thing is intended to be a lesson for him but it creates a disconnect between the audience and everything that happens because nobody except Pike will remember. The familiar characters aren’t important as they are functions within the scenario with some of them altering under confusing lines. Once the excitement of watching an altered version of a classic Original Series episode wears off there is an awareness of how disposable most of this is. The actual plot mechanics are killing time until Pike learns his lesson.
Pike’s relationship with the Romulan Commander is engaging. The Romulan Commmander talks about being aliver during the War and that insight has contributed to a pragmatic attitude. Pike and the Commander are united in their thinking forms a bond between them that works both by itself and as a riff on what “Balance of Terror” did. Ultimately that thinking proves to be unique as evidenced by the attitude of the Romulan Praetor. The punishment for failure for the Romulan Commander is destruction which is symbolic of a rejection of new thinking. The Commander is loyal to his duty right until the end and recognises that the decision has been made. It’s a tragic end for him because under different circumstances he could have been an agent of change along with Pike. Instead, he is the first shot in a long and costly War. The lesson that needs to be learned is plainly stated by Kirk. He says “sometimes you can’t avoid a fight”. There’s a time for diplomacy and upholding Federation values but that approach won’t work on every hostile species so sometimes a show of strength is required. For Pike, the personal lesson is to accept his fate because saving himself and a small number of cadets ends up having larger consequences. To hammer the point home is the massive injuries sustained by Spock. Pike sees him in a similar state to how he will end up and is able to equate saving himself to swapping places with Spock. It’s a clever example because it makes the choice a far more personal one rather than the incalculable loss of life in the midst of a War. Pike’s decision to accept his fate boils down to his selfish desire to save himself or his selfless desire to save Spock. Pike will not trade himself for another person and preventing his fate means that Spock suffers it instead. To Pike that is unacceptable and he makes the choice to let the timeline play out as it should. This leads to a powerful moment between Spock and Pike when he returns to the present. Spock understands that the shift in mindset was motivated by protecting him and sincerely thanks him for it. Their exchange admitting they mean a lot to each other with Spock calling him Chris as a sign of sincere friendship is heartwarming. The episode ends with Una being taken into custody after the truth about her becomes known. He demonstrates his loyalty to her by promising to fight for her ending the season on a note of concentrating on things he can prevent.
- challenging Pike to understand his place in history
- Paul Wesley’s engaging take on Kirk
- Kirk acting as something of an obstacle with his clashing command style
- the briefing scene highlighting the variation of opinion
- the Pike/Romulan Commander relationship
- the lesson about fighting sometimes being unavoidable
- personalising Pike’s decision to accept his fate through boiling it down to choosing not to trade his fate with Spock
- the powerful moment between Pike and Spock following that decision
- Pike’s pledge to fight for Una
- the recycled “Balance of Terror” dialogue becoming distracting
- the assumption of knowledge of “Balance of Terror” being used as storytelling shorthand
- reset button storytelling witn no real stakes
- the characters being functions of the scenario
- Ortegas baffling characterisation as a bigot
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