Warning: Spoilers for "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" season 1, episode 10
Whoosh! Wait, what the blazes was that?! Oh, that? That was the last 10 weeks. Yup, it's finally here, 10 seemingly super-short weeks after the very first episode of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" and already we've arrived at the season finale. And holy smokes, it does not disappoint.
Like most of this season, you're enjoyment of each episode is 100 percent guaranteed, but you'll take it up several notches if you happen to know the "Star Trek" history that's being referenced. And this installment, entitled "A Quality of Mercy" is no exception; if you haven't already seen the episode "Balance of Terror" (S01, E14) from "The Original Series" then you should go and do so immediately. Not only is it one of the best episodes of "TOS" but probably of any "Star Trek" television series to date. And it plays an integral part of the Season 1 finale of "Strange New Worlds."
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In that episode, first aired in December 1966, the USS Enterprise investigates the destruction of a number of Earth outposts that were established over a century ago bordering the Romulan Neutral Zone. No one has ever seen a Romulan at this point and the mysterious vessel seems to have a cloaking device to make the ship invisible. Captain James Kirk (William Shatner) engages in a deadly game of cat and mouse by pretending to be a "shadow" on the Romulan's scanners and waiting until the enemy ship passes through a the tail of comet before engaging it.
Weary from battle and keen to head home, back into the Neutral Zone, the Romulan Commander (Mark Lenard) launches some debris into the torpedo tubes including a nuclear device, which is destroyed by Enterprise phaser fire, damaging both ships and both captain's decide to "play dead" for a while. However, despite his reservations, and the crippled status of his ship, the Romulan commander is reminded by his first officer that it is his duty to crush the enemy, so he then reluctantly gives the order to attack.
The Romulan Bird of Prey receives more damage and Kirk offers to transport every member of his crew to the Enterprise, but choosing death over capture, the Commander sets the self-destruct and destroys his ship.
This first season finale of "Strange New Worlds" puts an entirely different spin on that story and is a throwback to classic "Star Trek" worthy of comparison to "The Wrath of Khan" and "Space Seed" (S01, E22).
The USS Enterprise, together with the USS Cayuga, are delivering much needed supplies to the Federation outposts that guard the Neutral Zone. During a routine mission briefing, Captain Pike (Anson Mount) unexpectedly comes face to face with a young child, who Pike recognizes as one of the cadets who dies during his unfortunate accident in 10 year's time. Understandably freaked out, Pike excuses himself from the meeting and we see him later that evening dictating a letter to the young boy to dissuade him from joining Starfleet.
Suddenly, Pike notices another person in the room — and it's Pike from the future! Dressed in a…er, refreshed uniform from the "Wrath of Khan" era — affectionately referred to as "monster maroons" by those of us who are fans of that particular period — Future Pike tells Present Pike that the accident is inevitable and in fact, essential in the Grand Scheme of Things. And things are so bad that Future Pike had little option but to visit the Klingon monastery on Boreth where the followers of Kahless keep the Time Stone that we first saw in the "Star Trek Discovery" Season 2 episode "Through the Valley of Shadows" (S02, E12). The letter is just the first domino to fall in a chain reaction of events that leads to catastrophic results.
The choice to use the Time Stone is particularly clever. Pike has been pondering his potential fate ever since his first experience showed him the accident that nearly kills him, so to bring it back to this point to conclude the inaugural season of "Strange New Worlds" is fitting. Present Pike touches the stone and is given the chance to see how events unfold, should he continue in his present course of action.
What follows is an incredible recreation of the "TOS" episode "Balance of Terror" — except — James Kirk is not the captain of the Enterprise, Chris Pike is, because in this timeline, the accident was prevented. Every single member of the production crew, from the showrunner to the cast to the writers and directors of photography to the cast themselves, have produced what is so clearly a labor of love. The trademark "TOS" lighting across the eyes and face, along with even the postures and standing positions of key characters in scenes, have been faithfully recreated.
The Federation outposts are once again attacked and the Enterprise, under the command of Capt. Pike, once again gives chase to an unknown Romulan vessel. And then comes the extra twist — the USS Farragut arrives at the scene after received the outpost's distress call and having pushed warp 9 for as long as possible. That starship is under the command of Capt James T. Kirk (played by Paul Wesley).
Events play out in a similar manner, even down to Lt Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) recreating tension on the bridge just like Lt Stiles (Paul Comi) does in the original episode. However, despite the unprovoked attacks on the Neutral Zone outposts, Pike prefers to attempt a peaceful resolution. Following the counter attack as all three ships now pass through the comet's tail, he decides not to play dead and wait for another chance to strike, favoring instead to open a dialogue with the Romulan Commander (Matthew MacFadzean) to arrange a temporary ceasefire.
It is at this point that the divergence in the time line becomes abundantly clear. Pike, in his defense is simply doing what he would do. The writers have really put the time and effort in to ensure every potential plot hole or outcome is covered. Pike shares with Spock what is going on and to prove it, he suggests a mind meld. Brilliant. So now armed with the knowledge that at some point a decision will be made with disastrous consequences, they conclude he cannot second-guess himself and must proceed as normal. It is, in essence, Pike's more reasonable approach (as influenced by TV show writing in the year 2022) versus Kirk's more aggressive approach (as influenced by TV show writing in 1966). The nuances of this will no doubt be discussed for years to come on the convention circuit. Makes you wonder though: How many times did Pike take the Kobayashi Maru test?
Now we're in uncharted territory. The USS Farragut is destroyed in the counter attack and most of the crew are beamed aboard the Enterprise, interestingly all except Lt Cmdr Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) who is incarcerated as a result of being an Illyrian, as we learned in episode 3 "Ghosts of Illyria." Kirk is livid with Pike for not having seized the opportunity to destroy the Bird of Prey.
Meanwhile aboard that ship, the Romulan Sub-Commander has disobeyed his orders and contacted the High Command, just like the "TOS" episode, but in that installment the coded transmission is to "inform our home base of our glorious mission." In this alternate timeline the Sub-Commander sends a secret transmission informing the Romulan Preator (Carolyn Scott) of the Commander's ill-advised (in his strong opinion) temporary ceasefire with Pike. And as such, she arrives with the fleet.
While we're still not 100 percent sure about Wesley's Kirk, this episode does go out of its way to show what a resourceful young starship captain he was, even if wasn't in command of the Enterprise. Kirk comes up with a contingency plan worthy of comparison to the Corbomite Maneuver. He takes a shuttle and returns with a fleet of his own…only these are freight ships, remote controlled cargo carriers and just about anything he could find from other nearby outposts. Since the Romulan's have never seen an armada of any Federation starships, how are they to know that these aren't Starfleet Delta Class attack ships?
The Romulan Praetor deliberately destroys the Bird of Prey as punishment for allowing themselves to have got into this position, which nicely allows for the "goodbye" conversation that was so memorable between mark Leonard and William Shatner to be replicated. And then she opens fire on the Federation "fleet" of trawlers, haulers, derelicts and jalopies. The Enterprise barely makes it out alive and manages to pick up Kirk along the way. However, Spock (Ethan Peck), who has been assisting with repairs in engineering, is fatally injured, and a declaration of war against the Federation has been issued by the Romulans.
Pike returns to the present and Future Pike explains that in every outcome, except the one where Kirk is in command of the Enterprise during this incident, Spock dies. "Every time we change the path, he dies," Future Pike explains. "And he's got things to do. Fate-of-the-galaxy type things." How true he is. The Pike PTSD story arc has been very nicely handled in this first season. It would seem he has accepted his fate and this episode also very nicely shows the relationship between Spock and Pike developing, which goes a very long way to justifying why Spock goes to such great lengths to get Pike back to Talos IV after the accident in "The Menagerie" (S01, E15 & E16).
We end on an interesting and unexpected note. Now everything is as it should be and Pike should now stop agonizing over what is to come, Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano) beams aboard the Enterprise with a security detail and arrests Lt Cmdr Chin-Riley, setting up a continuing story arc for the hotly anticipated second season.
This episode is a masterstroke. The attention to every conceivable detail is meticulous. The dialogue and story writing is flawless and the decision to use this particular episode from "TOS" to demonstrate the importance of key events, is also very clever. The choice of lighting perfectly mimics "Balance of Terror" even down to the flames in front of the camera during the outpost attack. Plus, we got to see Pike in a monster maroon, although we don't like the upgrade. Let's hope we get to see more from that period of "Star Trek" going forward, but let's also hope they return to a simpler version of that iconic uniform.
Going forward into Season 2, we hope there is at least an equal amount of original ideas as there are throwbacks. "Strange New Worlds" has made an impact, there's no question about that — it's currently the best live-action "Star Trek" spin-off show on television — but it needs to firmly prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that it has the ability to stand up on its own as well as beautifully utilizing the opportunities that "TOS" references can offer.
We've deemed this episode worthy of a coveted 10 because of the attention to detail in recreating the look and feel of the original episode — and — because from a writing perspective, to effectively insert a new story into an existing one is not an easy thing to do, plus the dialogue and plot are respectably watertight. But, "Strange New Worlds" should be careful going forward. It would be a wasted opportunity if this show simply became a rehash of "The Original Series."
The first season of "Strange New Worlds" is now available to watch on Paramount Plus as is the entire second season of "Star Trek: Picard." Season 4 of "Star Trek: Discovery" is also available on the Paramount streaming service in the US and on CTV Sci-Fi or Crave TV in Canada. Countries outside of North America can watch on the Pluto TV Sci-Fi channel. Paramount is available in the UK and Ireland both as a standalone service and as part of the Sky Cinema subscription for the UK cable provider.