Star Trek: Strange New Worlds is a show both in love with, and unable to escape, its place in the Star Trek timeline. From the get-go it’s known that inherently—as a series following the captain of the Enterprise we know is going to be replaced by the captain of the Enterprise—Strange New Worlds would as much about destiny as it is legacy. But its debut season’s finale masterfully balanced those two threads together to create something magical.
“A Quality of Mercy” is arguably the episode of Strange New Worlds that is both the most fannish of all—which is saying something, given how much of this debut season has owed to the past of the original Trek already—in the sheer layers of connections and references going on, but also the episode of the series that is most unlike its usual episodic format. Centered around a lingering plotline that has sat on the fringes of the show since its premiere episode—the idea that Captain Pike is still struggling to accept his knowledge of the fate laid out for him in Discovery’s second season, a fate we know metatextually that he will inevitably have to accept regardless—the episode is also one that proves that Strange New Worlds is certain of its own confidence in its relationship with the past of Star Trek itself.
Because not only is this episode about finally dealing with, seemingly for good, the whole Pike-future-knowledge, it puts Strange New Worlds toe-to-toe with arguably the greatest episode of Star Trek of all time: “Balance of Terror.”
Few hours of television in Star Trek’s entire history come close to “Balance.” It is the gold standard to measure everything the original series could do, and its successors after the fact, against. A tight, thrilling starship game of cat and mouse, the threat of explosive war between the Federation and a long-simmering, forever-unseen enemy, “Balance” isn’t just a pitch-perfect introduction for one of Trek’s most fascinating species in the Romulans but an incredible piece of character work for Captain Kirk. It goes to great depths to display his skills and capacities as a captain beyond simply the act of conflict with his Romulan foil. For Strange New Worlds to even consider attempting its own version is a bold move, even for a show that has proved time and time again already that it’s extremely capable of riffing well enough over story formats and plots classic Star Trek has visited before. And so, it decides there’s perhaps only one way to even come close to doing its own “Balance of Terror”: taking Captain Pike’s time-traveled fate and using it to do its own literal, alternate timeline version of Star Trek’s finest hour.
After heading to the Neutral Zone (the area of space between the Federation and the Romulan Star Empire negotiated a century prior as a conflict-free ground between the two factions) to bring supplies to Starfleet outposts there, a chance encounter with the son of one of the outpost commanders—who Pike realizes will one day be a cadet who perishes in the accident that leaves him critically wounded, the captain decides to do the heroic thing and attempt to warn the boy to avoid either enlisting in Starfleet or avoiding that training cruise altogether. Pike does so out of nobility of course—not to possibly change his own fate, one that he has by and large already accepted for himself, but to save the live of an innocent child. Before he can do so however, he’s visited by a version of himself we know can’t exist: clad in the officer’s uniform of The Wrath of Khan, a Pike from a world where our own goes through with this radical act of defying fate. Future-Pike is there with a message from the Klingon monks of Boreth, and one of their almighty Time Crystals, to provide Present-Pike with a glimpse of what will be, should he follow through—plunging us seven years into the future, past Pike’s seemingly certain fate, and directly into the story of what would’ve been Star Trek’s “Balance of Terror.”
From here, “A Quality of Mercy” is firing on all cylinders. Its reverence for “Balance of Terror” is clear throughout, from its homages and direct lifts of the orginal episode’s tight, shadowed cinematography to its understanding of what made that episode work half a century ago in the first place, this is the first real time that Strange New Worlds, for all its homages, has directly transposed itself onto a past episode of Star Trek, and it’s handled incredibly. But there’s a tension there beyond the metatext of directly tackling an iconic piece of Star Trek layered in as well, as Pike finds himself in this version of the future where nothing’s quite right to him: La’an and Number One are gone, the Spock we meet is more like the strictly logical self of classic Trek. Uhura sits in her seat confident as the Enterprise’s comms officer, not quite the still-unsure woman we left in last week’s episode. It’s even in the little things that have changed: no Sulu and Chekov at the conn of course, but still Ortegas and Mitchell, their seats swapped in a way that is just different enough to perturb us and Pike alike. We know “Balance of Terror” by heart, but in throwing in all these little elements, and playing with our familiarity that’s grown with Strange New Worlds’ versions of these characters over the season, there’s a distinct sense of unease to the proceedings to throw us as off-balance as Pike himself is.
All this fantastic enough, but it’s stage setting for the true thematic heart of “A Quality of Mercy” as it begins to deliver its simple “what if?” question—what if we had a version of “Balance” where our hero is Christopher Pike, and not Jim Kirk? What should be a fannish Captain vs. Captain debate becomes a hugely important piece of character work for our hero, but to even do that in the first place... well, you need a Jim Kirk, don’t you?
After receiving word that a fellow Federation vessel is headed to the Neutral Zone to help the Enterprise deal with the reported attacks from a mystery cloaked Romulan Warbird that kick off “Balance of Terror” Christopher Pike and we alike are shocked to be confronted with the future: Paul Wesley’s Captain James Tiberius Kirk, leading the USS Farragut in this sideways tale, and coming to us a little earlier than his previously announced season two debut. Wesley’s Kirk is Jim through and through, enough of an homage to Shatner’s iconic performance without being imitative, but alike in what matter’s most—this is the risk-taker, the gung-ho charming leader we knew from Star Trek, just not where we know he’s meant to be. He is, as his brother Sam explains to Pike, a great captain, but kind of a little bit of a jerk, the bright young thing confident enough himself to also know that he’s never one to believe in those infamous no-win scenarios.
As “A Quality of Mercy” winds its way through the path of “Balance of Terror”—although a path askew with Pike at the helm of it, rather than Kirk—it puts placing these two iconic men together into a place of parallels, rather than competition. Though the episode is, as previously noted, fannish, it never gives into the base pleasure of turning the existence of Pike and Kirk in one place into a competition, but an avenue for us to learn something about both men. They’re not opposites, they’re both good captains and better people, but they are indeed different, and the ways “A Quality of Mercy” highlights those differences leaves us with fuller pictures of Kirk and Pike as characters—both their strengths and flaws in equal measure, although never inherently presented as such—as well as the melancholy that we’ll rarely get to know what life would’ve been like should they have gotten to know each other more.
That melancholy is brought about as “A Quality of Mercy” unfolds its real secret: from the get-go, our Pike and we as an audience are trained to suspect that this is a lesson in destiny for the captain from Boreth’s monks, to learn that should he avoid his fate the universe will be thrown into absolute chaos, a lynchpin that cosmic stakes are hung upon. As “Mercy” and its version of “Balance” slowly tip into Pike’s favor, his willingness to always take a second to step back and think over a decision, for better or worse, leading to a push towards potential peace between the Enterprise and the Romulan Warbird they’re chasing, much to the chagrin of Kirk and his instinct. The latter is proved right when Pike’s hesitance leads to the Romulan ship crippling the Farragut and leaving Enterprise badly damaged... and in an even worse place when this alternate version of “Balance” escalates. Pike’s path to peace may on the surface seem like a nobler way out of things than the road we know Kirk took in the original episode, but his indecisiveness opens up the chance for Romulan duplicity from within, when one of the Warbird Commander’s subordinates contacts the Star Empire for backup. Things immediately go bad, and instead of “Balance” ending as we know it, it thrusts Enterprise and the Federation into the first opening salvo of an open war with the Romulans.
It’s there that we learn the destiny that matters most in “A Quality of Mercy” is not James Kirk or Christopher Pike, but the man that ties them both together across the Enterprise’s history: Spock. In this new timeline of events, Spock is the one forever physically changed, mortally wounded in the escape from the Romulan fleet that arrives to back up its Warbird and left in a manner not unlike the one we know our Pike will one day find himself in. As Pike leaves the timeline to return to his own and the Future Pike that came from its future—a future where the Federation/Romulan War kills billions of people—he is told of Spock’s importance, not just to the galaxy as the future unifier of his separated peoples, but to the very lives and characters of people like Pike and Kirk. It’s a perfect inversion of what we should expect from some sort of fated “chosen one” narrative like the prophecy hanging around Pike’s neck since Discovery could’ve played out to be. It’s not about Pike realizing that his own path is already decided for him and accepting that, but realizing that his attempts to change it, no matter how noble, could irrevocably alter the lives of the people he loves most. And the sort of person that we have come to know him to be, over the course of this debut season of Strange New Worlds, could never possibly want that.
So, as “A Quality of Mercy” ends, Pike inverts his decision from the opening of the episode—just as he sought to save a life by warning someone from their tragic, he now seeks to save Spocks by sealing his own. Although Strange New Worlds truly ends its season on a little tease for what’s to come a bit after this moment (the arrest of Number One for her Illyrian heritage acting as a little cliffhanger to chew on) it’s really here that the journey of the show so far ends. In addressing the biggest elephant of the room left standing in both Kirk and Pike’s future, it provides a wonderful climax to Pike’s arc across the season. It also proves to us, even in the ways he’s different to the man we know will one day replace him, what a good man he is—and while our time left with him is forever limited, there’s still plenty of places to push his character.
Which is for the best, because if Strange New Worlds wants to keep showing us just how well it can hang next to the shadows of some of Star Trek’s finest television, we’re more than happy for it to only keep going more boldly from here.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.