In the season-one closer for Strange New Worlds, Pike learns that trying to change his future to avoid a terrible accident will ruin a classic Star Trek standoff, and throw the Federation into brutal war. But how?

Reading Time: 10 minutes

There are two ways of watching the first-season finale of Strange New Worlds: either aware of its source material, from possibly the best episode of The Original Series, or… not.

For those who know “Balance of Terror” (TOS, S1E8), you’ll probably find yourself marveling at how faithful “A Quality of Mercy” is to the former script. Unfortunately, the similarities might also remind you of the stark differences, too.

“Balance of Terror” first aired in 1966, as a brilliant hour of Cold War TV that drew upon the claustrophobic feel of a submarine battle in its depiction of a bitter, brink-of-war standoff between the U.S.S. Enterprise and a Romulan Bird of Prey. As I’ve noted here before, theatre training still informed the scripting, shooting, and acting of TV shows in that era, so with extreme close-ups, melodramatic lighting, and lots of make-up, TOS‘s actors gave deep, impassioned performances with a clear sense of stage presence. Mark Lenard was so exceptional that he was brought back to play Spock’s father, and the interplay between his Romulan Commander and Kirk would set the groundwork for another nemesis relationship in The Wrath of Khan.

Captain James Tiberius Kirk, played by William Shatner in “Balance of Terror”, TOS. Accept no substitutes.

It was good TV. But we don’t have that theatrical quality in many shows today, so SNW‘s lackluster James T. Kirk and adequate Romulan Commander might make memory a curse. (Or you might do as I did, and leap to a re-watch of “Balance of Terror” after the SNW finale. Worth it! The original absolutely holds up.)

And yet, if you don’t know TOS, and have never seen “Balance of Terror”, you’re still very much in luck, because there’s payoff in “A Quality of Mercy” for anyone who’s watched the whole SNW season. You see, SNW committed itself from the outset to episodic (not long-arc) storytelling, but that didn’t keep it from sowing thematic through-lines all along the way. And one really important warning, in “Memento Mori”, comes expressly to bear on the plot of Episode 10.

In Episode 4, Chief of Security La’an warned her fellow senior officers about limits to Federation optimism when dealing with the Gorn. As she noted,

They aren’t supernatural. But they are monsters. The Federation teaches that if we can find a way to empathize with an enemy, then they can one day become our friends. They’re wrong. Some things in this universe are just plain evil. … To them, humans are just walking feedbags of flesh and bone and jelly. They want to trigger ancient terror in warm-blooded species. We are prey. When they hunt, they are unrelenting.

The Gorn’s challenge to Federation ethos came to fruition in Episode 9, but a related argument lies squarely at the heart of Episode 10. Why? Because Captain Pike believes that there is always an alternative. In Episode 5, “Spock Amok”, empathy was the whole basis of his winning diplomacy. All throughout, he’s been the “Boy Scout” who thinks a good meal and a little charm can fix anything.

But is this belief-set enough, against an enemy that does not want peace as well?

Establishing the stakes (Spoiler-free zone)

We start at the fringes of Federation space, where the Enterprise is providing much-needed upgrades to an outpost near the neutral zone for a hundred-year-old standoff with a mysterious species that no one has ever seen. There, Captain Pike is spooked by a chance run-in with a child he knows will grow up to be one of the people in a horrible accident that will take away most of Pike’s bodily functionality. In his quarters, he debates writing a letter to this child, to warn him and all the others in his vision against the future disaster—until a Future Pike, wearing an admiral’s uniform with great world-weariness, appears to warn him against this action.

Pike is skeptical, which is why Future Pike has brought a time crystal, care of the Klingon monks who first gave Pike his terrible vision. When Pike touches it, he’s sent forward to see the consequences of avoiding his date with destiny.

It’s seven years in the future, and six months after the original accident never happened. Pike is officiating at a wedding aboard the Enterprise when a series of neutral-zone outposts go silent, springing the ship into red alert as they brace to meet whoever’s attacking the Federation.

A survivor notes the extent of the damage done by this mysterious ship, which appeared out of nowhere, destroyed the outposts, and disappeared again. Whatever tech allows them to be invisible cannot function while they’re attacking. Too big a power draw? An intercepted message also gives the crew their first glimpse of the Romulans: an absolute shock, when it turns out they look very much like Spock.

Now, there are strict rules around the neutral zone: no entering, and no engaging with the enemy, no matter what the enemy might do on the Federation side. But there’s only one Starfleet vessel in the vicinity, no time to get word from other authorities, and from what little the Federation knows about the Romulans, letting this one ship return victorious might now embolden future attacks.

So Pike makes do with the resources on hand, and the crew figures out how to pace the Bird of Prey’s movements even while it’s cloaked, while deciding whether or not to destroy the ship before it returns to the neutral zone. When the other Starfleet ship arrives, it’s captained by James T. Kirk, who joins in the strategy session. There, it becomes clear that, although everyone else is in favor of destroying the Bird of Prey, Pike is the lone holdout, convinced that there has to be some other way to turn this massacre into a chance for lasting peace.

And he’s not entirely wrong. After a failed attempt to pin the Bird of Prey as it passes through a comet’s tail, which also ends in the loss of Kirk’s ship, Pike successfully negotiates a two-hour ceasefire with a Romulan Commander weary of war. The question is… will the Romulans keep their word, or see this ceasefire as just another human weakness, and reason to destroy their age-old foe?

Challenging expectations (Spoiler zone)

As with the original “Balance of Terror”, we flip perspectives to see what’s going on in the Romulan vessel, where our Commander (in both episodes) is a seasoned officer open to the possibility of something other than endless war. But in both episodes, he is not alone, so one changed conscience cannot be enough to bring a hundred-year war to an end. In this version of the story, his sub-commander sends for the fleet behind his back, and it shows up just as he’s trying to broker a deeper understanding with Pike. All hope of peace is there lost.

Luckily Kirk, who’d had some pointed words about Pike’s hesitancy to fire, had asked for a shuttle during the ceasefire. He returns in time with an “armada” of mining ships to try to fake the appearance of backup. It doesn’t change the Romulans’ demand, though. They will accept nothing but the Enterprise‘s surrender, after “culling” the Romulan Commander’s ship for being caught in the act of destroying the outposts.

When the Enterprise will not surrender, the Romulan fleet opens fire and our crew is forced to warp to safety—but not all at once. The ship takes heavy damages. Spock is among the severely wounded: if not dead, then in a severely diminished state for the rest of his natural life.

Future Pike explains that this is just one of many timelines the Klingon monks foresee as fallout from Pike evading his destiny, but in all of them Spock dies instead of fulfilling his key role (from “Balance of Terror”) in halting an all-out war where millions die, by destroying the Bird of Prey before it reaches the neutral zone. Pike now understands the full gravity of the situation, and deletes his drafted letter to the child.

Returned to his own era, he’s just in time to see another story conclude: His number one, Una, was missing in the future—on a penal colony, disallowed contact with outsiders for seven years—and sure enough, she’s soon arrested by outpost staff for being in violation of Federation gene-alteration laws. Pike promises that this isn’t over, but… he’s just been to a future where she’d been in prison for that whole time.

Is he really going to risk tampering with the future again, after seeing how much damage he’d inadvertently done the last time? I guess we’ll see, in Season 2.

Humanist narrative structure?

You know, I really shouldn’t have doubted SNW after their smart play with Uhura’s plotline last week. The challenge in that episode was explaining how Uhura overcame her doubts about Starfleet, to start on her path to becoming the Lieutenant Uhura of TOS canon. To this end, “All Those Who Wander” teased us with a possible xeno-linguistic challenge as a quick “win” to make her feel useful, before presenting viewers with a much more nuanced and mature growth arc.

A similar challenge presented itself here: How on Earth were writers going to present a future where Pike is convincingly not the right person to be captain of the Enterprise during that standoff with the Romulans? Without making him look incompetent? And without reducing the issue to a single goof-up?

But the writers of SNW, building on a whole season’s worth of “Boy Scout” characterization for our dear do-gooder of a waffle-breakfast-hosting captain, pulled it off. They presented a person who had an utterly coherent, competent, and (in the right circumstances) tremendously constructive worldview… that was still utterly ill-suited to the challenge at hand. There are times for diplomats and there are times for people ready to press the big red button.

And Pike, we now know, is the former through and through.

‘A Quality of Mercy’: the thematic payoff

So here’s where it gets chewy, from a humanist perspective. As with Episode 6, “Lift Us Where Suffering Cannot Reach”, SNW presented us with a no-win scenario from the outset: a crisis designed by the universe of this world to be unsolvable without misery in some form. And good grief, does an episode like this ever resonate with U.S. current events, especially with respect to how one should respond to the extreme uptick in white-Evangelical nationalism and associated white-supremacist militant groups.

Is there ever a diplomatic solution to neo-Nazism?

The episode is also fairly kind to Pike while leading him to realize his inadequacy for a very specific Starfleet task. The plot doesn’t suggest that he was wrong to be diplomatic. Only, that his well-intentioned outlook wasn’t what the world needed at that moment. His skills mattered—but not there. Not then.

And yet, any episode that deals in multiverses and destinies gets pretty murky around the question of inevitability. Future Pike exists because the timelines where Pike doesn’t endure his accident also exist. All this episode has really done is create another universe where Pike decides not to interfere with his date with destiny because he had a time-vision, as opposed to timelines where he just didn’t interfere at all, without any visits from Future Selves.

Or is there a “prime timeline” that takes precedent over all the other timelines?

More interesting, from a humanist perspective, is that very last note in the episode, when a man who has just seen the future and agreed not to change his fate in it… then dives right into vowing to change another fate in that timeline.

Is this not foolishness on Pike’s part? A refusal to learn his lesson?

Or does it speak to the impossibility of humans truly ever believing in immutable futures, no matter how many times they might experience Klingon time-crystal technology firsthand? (Boy, if I had a nickel…)

That whole scene gives us an ugly glimpse into the Federation, too, because the level of criminalization depicted in Pike’s future-vision seems to go far beyond what is appropriate for a supposedly open-minded and peace-seeking culture. It’s certainly canonical! But if there’s no hope for redemption and reintegration for a full seven years, that bodes very poorly for Starfleet having the moral upper hand in future encounters. How will that play out in Season 2, I wonder?

Three happy humans, then, to an episode that pulls off a deft, compassionate depiction of a human whose skills matter, but just aren’t right for a given encounter—even if the multiverse doesn’t quite uphold the urgency of this lesson, and even though the Federation that Pike is fighting for has at least one huge moral failing that doesn’t go adequately addressed.

It’s been a wonderfully consistent first season, though, of high-quality adventures with strong humanist ideas. SNW is truly the best of the recent Treks, and a return to form that I hope its excellent cast, so immediately comfortable in their own characters and character relationships, can build upon in Season 2.

Thanks for sharing in the journey!

Quotes of note, and Easter eggs

  • I really can’t emphasize enough how flat Paul Wesley’s James T. Kirk is. I was trying to figure out what vibe he was going for, what facet of the original character he wanted to play up, but I really just saw an actor slumped in his captain’s chair, barely affecting any charm or animation in his facial movements or gestures. He and his brother are such dull additions to the crew that I can’t help but wonder if it’s on purpose, a kind of inside joke to make the most important character in initial Trek now the most tedious.
  • Conversely, it was fun to see how the original script holds up after 50 years. The delivery of those lines differed, but their precision and suspense did not.
  • There weren’t too many opportunities for humor here, but when Pike is skeptical of Future Pike, Future Pike tells him the story of his first pony, “Sir Neighs-a-lot”, who broke his leg and died and whose death left Pike crying for a week. “You tell anybody that?” says Future Pike, to which Pike replies, “It’s hard when your tragic backstory starts with a silly name.”
  • Lieutenant Ortegas took up the role and scripting beats of Lieutenant Stiles in “Balance of Terror”, which completely changed the tenor of her performance and the relationship between her and Pike. Stiles suspected Romulan activity before others, disagreed openly with Kirk, and was hostile to Spock (though to an extreme that Ortegas doesn’t replicate).
  • Another messy note, with respect to “inevitability”, comes from Spock’s importance to the original “Balance of Terror”. In “A Quality of Mercy” it’s made clear that Spock needs to live to play a crucial function, but that function in “Balance of Terror” is only necessary because Stiles gives in to prejudice, angry that the Romulans look so much like the Vulcans and sending Spock away just before a gas leak damages the weapons station. Spock hurries back in time to fire on the Bird of Prey and save his prejudiced crewmate’s life… but is that really such a rigid causal chain that Pike needs to let his brutal accident happen to see this better future carried out? Couldn’t the Klingon monks just send a Future Stiles to tell his equivalent to stop being such a xenophobic jerk instead? Pike’s failings as a commander, I can understand. Spock’s inextricable importance to the mission? Eh. Less rock solid. [NB: A commenter rightfully noted that I’m reading this too narrowly. Future Pike proclaims that Spock is of singular importance to future peace with the Romulans, along with other galaxy-saving adventures. This didn’t clock for me because we’re dealing with an episode of tight causalities, and Spock’s irreplaceability is only vaguely gestured at without evidence, but hey! Who are we to argue with bat’leth-wielding time monks? Thanks, DB from Twitter!]
  • Plenty of groundwork has been laid for Season 2: Spock’s impending encounter with his half-brother, Una’s last-minute turn of a storyline, La’an’s pursuit of the Gorn. We’re also apparently going to learn more about Ortegas and Pike’s friendship (though hopefully not at cost to Ortegas’s fantastic role in the show’s existing structure). But it also sounds as though we’re going to get a new (canonical?) engineer, at the very least. This crew’s stint has been made finite, so we should expect many more changes as we go.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Season 1, Episode 10: “A Quality of Mercy”

Episode 9 | —

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.