‘Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ cements its first season with a strong finale

‘A Quality of Mercy’ takes us to tomorrow’s Enterprise.

Marni Grossman / Paramount+

The following article contains really significant spoilers for ‘A Quality of Mercy.’

We’re living in the age of the prequel, with studios exploiting every scrap of existing material where there’s an audience already in place to enjoy it. But the low-hanging fruit and easy cash a prequel promises severely limits the storytelling opportunities for those properties. Obi-Wan Kenobi can’t die (or do anything of consequence) during his own prestige miniseries since his fate was preordained in 1977. Ewan McGregor has to age into Sir Alec Guinness and die at Darth Vader’s hand, 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 the culture at large – are set in stone.

Ever since Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was announced, it was blighted by this same hard stop, one dictated back 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’ll provoke an argument between the folks who just about remember Jeffrey Hunter was there before William Shatner, while the folks who know Robert April was first sit smugly on the sidelines.) But Pike’s fate wasn’t necessarily immutable until the second season of Discovery reaffirmed that he was going to get his radiation dose. But that didn’t matter until the fans, production team and executives found that they liked Anson Mount, and could easily watch a whole series of pre-Kirk adventures with him on the Enterprise.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the creative team looked for a way to prolong the series beyond its narrative end point. The show has already dangled a few ways that Pike could survive the incident, and made it clear that there are still seven years left to go. Seven years being the old-fashioned point where a TV show could make it in syndication, and the duration that all three Silver Age Trek series reached. Strange New Worlds could just as easily slow its timeline down 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 show’s season finale “A Quality of Mercy” decides to take advantage of the limits imposed upon it, making it clear to both Pike, and us, that there are no get outs. We begin at a base on the edge of the Romulan neutral zone, where the son of Commander Hansen will, when he grows up, be one of the cadets who dies in the radiation leak. Pike decides that it’s only logical to dissuade the kid from joining Starfleet and, therefore, save his life, but as he’s writing a letter to the boy to warn him of his fate, an older Pike appears in his quarters. And we know he’s older, because he’s wearing one of Robert Fletcher’s gorgeous 2278-era Starfleet uniforms, albeit restyled to suit the nu-Trek era.

Sadly, Admiral Pike isn’t here to congratulate his younger self on a job well done, but warn him of the consequences of futzing with time. Thanks to a Klingon Time Crystal from Boreth, Pike gets All Good Things-ed into his own future, six months after the radiation leak. If your fan antennae started tingling at the date, it’s because Pike is running the Enterprise in 2266, during the first season of classic Star Trek. In fact, it’s worse than that, because he’s been thrust straight into the episode of “Balance of Terror”, except he has to win the way 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 to be one of the top three best episodes from the classic series. It’s the one where the Enterprise plays a tense game of cat-and-mouse with a new Romulan warbird equipped with a cloaking device and a powerful weapon capable of shredding starships in one shot.)

Now, if there’s one thing this episode does better than, well, most of nu-Trek, it’s the fact that all of the characters make smart choices. Pike, thrown into the future, instantly confides in Spock and when he’s met with resistance, immediately recommends a mind-meld. Caught up to speed, Spock becomes Pike’s co-confidant in the altered future, helping him to work out what exactly he needs to do here.

Pike’s survival has caused plenty of things to change in the timeline: James Kirk is the captain of the USS Farragut, which has survived in this version of the future. And, mercifully, the ship is in the vicinity, meaning that Kirk and Pike get to work together to solve the problem of the rogue Romulan Warbird with its devastating new weapon. Meanwhile, the beats from “Balance of Terror” get replayed – with Ortegas replacing Lt. Stiles as the on-bridge racist with angry eyes pointed at Spock.

Understandably, given the conflicts between Pike’s folksy diplomacy and Kirk’s more action-y approach, nobody wins. The Romulans get a signal out to the fleet, who realize that the Federation is weak enough to wage total war upon. In many ways, this episode serves up its own indictment of Pike, showing that his don’t-shoot-first approach has a limit. (And it also puts some clearer water between Pike and Kirk, since one was the replacement for the other back in the ‘60s.) Naturally, the episode ends with Pike opting to return to his own time and understand that he can’t simply back out of his preordained fate.

This is the second episode of Strange New Worlds co-written by the polarizing Akiva Goldsman, and many of his hallmarks are on full show here. There’s the misplaced reverence for franchise iconography, Great Man Of History mythologizing (this time with Spock) and a face off between two copy-and-paste CGI space fleets. Even so, given the risk of what this episode could have been, especially threading a new narrative through one of the sacred texts of the original series, this worked pretty well. (Given Goldsman’s previous Trek work, I’m giving all of the credit to showrunner and co-writer Henry Alonso Myers here.)

I can’t really give much comment on Paul Wesley’s performance as Kirk here, since he’s handed the most poisoned of chalices. William Shatner, even at his worst, never played Kirk as big as the stereotype has become, and Chris Pine’s performance dialed down Kirk’s bookish, warrior-poet side. Go too far on either side and it’ll become an impression, especially since he’s only got around 10 minutes of screentime in the whole episode. That’s why he essentially plays Kirk as someone who is both stalwart but also endlessly looking for a third option, emphasizing his inventiveness.

The episode ends with a twist – somehow, Number One’s past has been revealed (like when she just told everyone who would listen in "Ghosts of Illyria"), and she’s arrested by Starfleet. Pike nearly breaks a security guard’s hand preventing the arrest but is talked down by Una on the pad before he declares that things aren’t over. I’ll be very curious to see how this particular storyline gets resolved, especially considering my perpetual wondering about Rebecca Romijn’s absence from the show. The fact that Paul Wesley was tipped to recur in season two might suggest Kirk’s coming on board as her replacement, but that feels a bit too excessive in its fan service.

Fundamentally, however, Strange New Worlds wraps up its first season with something that’s better than it had any right to be. As I wrote back at the beginning, the first five episodes all have something good going on, but often trip over their own shoelaces. Ever since “Spock Amok”, however, the show has started to find its feet, with less awkward dialogue, a more relaxed groove and the courage to go for high camp and comedy just as regularly as it does high drama. Every episode in the back half of the first season has been better than its immediate predecessor, even if there’s some very obvious kinks that still need to be worked out. Whisper it, friends, but, Strange New Worlds might actually be good?