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

The following article contains really major spoilers for “A Quality of Mercy”.

We live in the prequel age, where studios exploit every scrap of existing material, where there’s already an audience to enjoy. But the low-hanging fruit and easy money a prequel promises severely limit the storytelling opportunities for these properties. Obi-Wan Kenobi cannot die (or do anything important) during his own prestige miniseries since his fate was predetermined in 1977. Ewan McGregor must age to Sir Alec Guinness and die at the hands of Darth Vader, and This is the. Sure, there are some things that creative teams can play with fast and loose, but the big things — the ones that permeate culture in general — are written in stone.

Since Star Trek: Strange New Worlds announced, it was nullified by the same harsh halt dictated 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 will provoke a quarrel between those who almost remember that Jeffrey Hunter preceded William Shatner was there, while people who know Robert April sat smugly on the sidelines at first.) But Pike’s fate wasn’t necessarily immutable until season two discovery reiterated that he would get his radiation dose. But that didn’t matter until the fans, production team, and executives realized that they liked Anson Mount and could easily see a whole host of pre-Kirk adventures with him on the Enterprise.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if the creative team looked for a way to extend the series beyond its narrative endpoint. The show has already outlined some ways Pike could survive the incident and made it clear that there are still seven years to go. Seven years is the old-fashioned point at which a TV show might make it into syndication, and the length that all three Silver Age Trek series achieved. Strange New Worlds might as well slow down his timeline and spend five, seven, ten, or seventeen seasons filling in 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 limitations it’s placed upon it, making both Pike and us realize there’s no escaping it. We begin at a base on the edge of the Romulan Neutral Zone where Commander Hansen’s son, when he grows up, will be one of the cadets to die in the radiation leak. Pike decides that it is only logical to discourage the boy from joining Starfleet in order to save his life, but as he writes 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 beautiful 2278-era Starfleet uniforms, albeit redesigned to match the Nu-Trek era.

Unfortunately, Admiral Pike isn’t here to congratulate his younger self on a job well done, but to warn him of the consequences of fumbling with the times. 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 the date got your fan antennae prickling, that’s because Pike is in charge of the Enterprise in 2266 during the first season of Classic star trek. In fact, it’s even worse because he was thrust right into the episode of Balance of Terror, except he has to win his way instead of Kirk’s. As Pike says, the only way to find out why this future sucks is to live it.

(“Balance of Terror”) is widely regarded as one of the top three episodes of the classic series. Here, the Enterprise plays an exciting game of cat-and-mouse with a new Romulan warbird, equipped with a cloaking device and a powerful weapon capable of destroying starships in one shot.)

Well, if there’s one thing that makes this episode better than, well, most of nu-Trek, it’s the fact that all of the characters make smart choices. Pike, being hurled into the future, immediately confides in Spock, and if he meets resistance, he immediately recommends a mind meld. Kept in the loop, Spock becomes Pike’s confidant in the altered future, helping him figure out exactly what he needs to do here.

Pike’s survival changed many things in the timeline: James Kirk is the captain of the USS Farragut, which survived in this version of the future. And mercifully, the ship is nearby, which means Kirk and Pike are working together to solve the rogue Romulan warbird’s problem with his devastating new weapon. Meanwhile, the beats of “Balance of Terror” are repeated – with Ortega’s Lt. Stiles replaced while the racist on the bridge points at Spock with angry eyes.

Given the conflicts between Pike’s folksy diplomacy and Kirk’s more action-oriented approach, understandably no one wins. The Romulans receive a signal to the fleet, which realizes that the Federation is weak enough to wage all-out war. In many ways, this episode serves as her own charge against Pike and shows that his non-shoot-first approach has a limit. (And it also brings some clearer water between Pike and Kirk, since one was the other’s stand-in in the ’60s.) Of course, the episode ends with Pike deciding to go back to his own time and understanding that he wasn’t simply can return from his preordained destiny.

This is the second episode of Strange New Worlds co-written by the polarizing Akiva Goldsman, and many of his trademarks are on full display here. There’s the misplaced reverence for the franchise’s iconography, the mythologization of the Great Man Of History (this time starring Spock), and a duel between two copy-and-paste CGI space fleets. However, given the risk of what this episode could have been, specifically threading a new narrative through one of the original series’ sacred texts, it worked out pretty well. (Given Goldsman’s previous Trek work, I give full credit to showrunner and co-writer Henry Alonso Myers.)

I can’t really comment on Paul Wesley’s performance as Kirk here as he passed the most poisoned cups. William Shatner never played Kirk as big as cliche has become, even at his worst, and Chris Pine’s performance tapped into Kirk’s literal, martial and poetic side. If you go too far on either side, it becomes an impression, especially since he only gets around 10 minutes of screen time throughout the episode. So he essentially plays Kirk as someone who is both unflappable and endlessly searching for a third option, which underscores his inventiveness.

The episode ends with a twist – somehow Number One’s past was revealed (like when she was just telling everyone who would listen in Ghosts of Illyria) and she was arrested by Starfleet. Pike almost breaks the hand of a guard preventing the arrest, but is slammed down by Una on the block before declaring that things aren’t over yet. I’m very excited to see how this particular story will be resolved, especially considering I constantly wonder about Rebecca Romijn’s absence from the show. The fact that Paul Wesley was tipped to appear again in season two might indicate that Kirk is coming on board as her replacement, but that feels a bit overdone in his fanservice.

Basically though Strange New Worlds wraps up its first season with something better than it should be. As I wrote back in the beginning, the first five episodes all have some good things to offer, but often trip over their own shoelaces. Since “Spock Amok,” however, the show has started to take off, with less awkward dialogue, a more relaxed groove, and the courage to opt for high camp and comedy as regularly as high drama. Every episode in the latter half of the first season was better than its immediate predecessor, although there are some very obvious kinks that still need to be worked out. Whispers it, friends, but, Strange New Worlds could actually be good?

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Russell Falcon

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