Time and circumstances mean that before the wonders of Strange New Worlds, the thought of seeing Star Trek Captains Pike and Kirk together was an unlikely thing. Pike, after all, only existed in the realm of Trek’s original pilot, itself then re-engineered for an episode that forever closed the door on his future on the show. But Strange New Worlds relished its opportunity to thrust these two legends together.
Ask a Star Trek fan about their favorite captain and sure, they might give you a few noble reasons, but they’re probably just as likely to elevate their choice by disparaging the other captains that have led generation after generation of Star Trek shows. We can’t help sometimes but imagine that, for our pick to be as genuinely good as we think they are—the ideal of Starfleet—the other captains we’ve met have to be flawed in some way.
So when Strange New Worlds’ delightful first season finale, “A Quality of Mercy,” made the shock move of introducing Paul Wesley’s Captain Kirk a little earlier than we’d anticipated, I mentally braced myself in a way that surprised me. Was Strange New Worlds about to do its own hero a little dirty, now that it could get its hands on the most iconic Star Trek character ever? How would the series, already doing so much in its finale, engage with the specter of Kirk’s legacy while putting him up against the captain we’ve come to know and love over this first season?
And for just a moment, it almost looked like “A Quality of Mercy” was going to go there. As the episode’s run-through of the plot of Trek icon “Balance of Terror” reaches a climax from the classic episode—the Enterprise chasing down its Romulan foe by using the wake of a comet to see through its cloaking technology—things take a turn for the worse with Pike in Kirk’s original role, the latter in this alt-retelling of the scenario aboard his own command on the U.S.S. Farragut. Hoodwinked when the Bird of Prey is nowhere to be seen once the two ships navigate around the comet, Pike hesitates where Kirk reacted on instinct in the original episode—and is duly rewarded for his pause with a surprise attack from the Romulans, one that cripples the Farragut and leaves the Enterprise badly compromised in the process. After the necessary decision to evacuate the Farragut crew to the Enterprise is made and Kirk thanks Pike for his assistance, the two share a private talk in Pike’s quarters... and Kirk goes in on Pike for his hesitation.
It’s the frankest we’ve seen a Strange New Worlds hero go against one of their own. But crucially, “A Quality of Mercy” doesn’t treat this like a failure for Pike, or perhaps just as crucially, that Kirk is in the wrong for wanting to have been more tactically aggressive against the Romulans, as he ultimately is in “Balance.” A lesser episode would’ve either painted Pike’s overriding willingness to find compromise and bring a peaceful end to conflict as a naive flaw, or Kirk’s aggressiveness as a base, impulsive streak that Starfleet officers should rise against. A lesser episode would’ve indeed made Kirk and Pike’s foil in this regard a wedge of conflict between them, but thankfully, it’s not what we got. Instead, Kirk and Pike’s respective weaknesses are played not as such, but as strengths, and the two captains never argue over who has the right idea. They’re just both good men with two different approaches, and that they’re allowed to co-exist instead of the episode presenting one way or the other as the perfect path to success emphasizes that bond of respect we see grow between them.
Because really, we ultimately see in this new timeline that neither captain’s approach worked out. Pike’s desire to bring the Romulans to the table and negotiate a peace not seen for a hundred years is noble, but it stops him from being as tactically minded as Kirk in working out the Romulan ship’s goals. And even though he comes so close to finding common ground for the Federation and the Star Empire to build on, his plan could never account for the fact that there’s a whole bunch of other Romulans aboard that ship ready and willing to start a fight. Even Kirk, who plays up his aggressive tactics by marshaling a fleet of remote mining vessels to act as Federation backup when Romulan reinforcements arrive, can’t find an opening against the overwhelming aggression of the Praetor and her forces. Both men’s belief in the way out of their situation hits up against a wall in that sometimes, things just aren’t going to go the way you planned, and sometimes failure is going to be the only option. The Enterprise and Kirk escape badly wounded, but the Romulans are victorious, and emboldened to start a war with the Federation that, should this timeline persist, claim the lives of billions.
And yet despite that, Pike and Kirk part ways at the end of “A Quality of Mercy” with a sober respect for each other. As brash and as sore a loser as we might characterize Jim Kirk in our heads as sometimes, he never gloats to Pike in their demure farewell that his way would’ve worked. Pike alike never lambasts Kirk over the fact that his aggressive tactical acumen provided too little, too late, or escalated the situation to the point it broke as bad as it did. They accept that the other simply had different ideas with merit, and share a regret that they didn’t get a chance to get to know each other sooner beyond an almost no-win scenario like the one they found themselves in.
In doing so, Strange New Worlds navigated one of its biggest proverbial elephants in the room with aplomb. Who needs Pike vs. Kirk when you could simply just have the both of them?
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