"A Quality of Mercy" uses visions of the future to tell Strange New Worlds' first quasi-time-travel story, which is the vehicle for a parable about one man coming to terms with his personally awful fate, which he must willingly choose to accept. It cleverly frames its events from a possible alternate future based on a classic TOS episode and asks the question: What if the fact of our mere presence in a situation were destined to have catastrophic consequences, almost regardless of our actions?
The result is perhaps the best SNW episode of the season, which uses callbacks and nostalgia effectively but without compromising the straightforward effectiveness of the story at hand, which is about Pike learning that his attempt to outsmart his fate may have even more dire consequences for the Federation and those closest to him.
The events are set in motion when the young son of a space station commander (Ali Hassan) asks for a letter of recommendation for Starfleet consideration. Pike recognizes the name as one of the cadets who will die in the accident in seven years which is also destined to debilitate Pike himself. He starts to write a letter alerting the boy of this dangerous possible outcome, but he's interrupted by an older Pike from a few decades in the future, who tells him that his attempts to stop the tragedy will end only in greater disaster.
Old Pike brings a Klingon time crystal to allow his younger version to see what will actually unfold (where he can experience and take actions as if he were there, but without it actually affecting the timeline), and we're taken to a future where Pike remained captain of the Enterprise rather than being incapacitated. We're thrust into the events of a pivotal crisis, and the story becomes an alternate "what if" take on "Balance of Terror," in which Pike is captain of the Enterprise rather than Kirk, just as the ambush on the space station is carried out on the edge of the Neutral Zone by the cloaked Romulan vessel with its plasma superweapon.
As a tactical battle episode, "Quality of Mercy" finds the right balance of effective nautical action and modern special effects, using those qualities to tell the story at hand rather than overpowering everything the way one of Discovery's more excessive episodes might've. In this way, it's very true to the classic structure of one of the action-oriented Trek outings. (If there's one thing SNW has proven this season, it's its ability to tell stories in a way very much in the traditional Trekkian mold.)
Like many alternate "what if" premises, this entertainingly sprinkles in details from the original story with little twists, like the marriage ceremony at the beginning, which ultimately ends with the death of one spouse (this time the woman rather than the man). And the use of Ortegas in the hawkish role of the bigoted hot-headed Lt. Stiles. Also, the business with the comet in a tactical maneuver, which here ends in the destruction of the USS Farragut and an argument over whether Pike made a crucial hesitation. Or the dove-versus-hawk conference room discussion about how far to go in answering the Romulan ship's war-baiting attack, with M'Benga playing the McCoy role arguing restraint. And, of course, the discovery that the Romulans look like the Vulcans, much to everyone's surprise.
As with "Balance of Terror," the episode also takes us onto the Romulan ship to see some of its inner-workings and their attitudes during this encounter. While this episode doesn't have Mark Lenard, it does have a solid performer in Matthew MacFadzean as the Romulan commander, who is given more dialogue, more written depth, and a more complete story. There's a debate between him and his sub-commander (Mathieu Bourassa) that highlights the differing philosophies in how to serve the empire. The story goes even further; by having the Romulans escape back to the Neutral Zone, we see how this emboldens the praetor (Carolyn Scott) into launching a full-scale attack, while the Romulan commander becomes expendable as a result of her estimation of his failures. All of this is compellingly executed.
After watching this, I went back and watched "Balance of Terror" again. While my review of that episode — written hastily amid a TOS binge-and-review period in 1998 — may have been a bit harsh, I still don't consider it to be the masterpiece many do because of its limitations in execution — some in the writing/directing, and others (obviously) production-related. "A Quality of Mercy" benefits by using most of the good stuff from "Balance" and layering additional effective material on top. And, of course, first-rate production values.
Kirk also has a crucial presence in this version of the story, as captain of the Farragut, which lends a helping hand to the Enterprise. Kirk has a bolder, riskier approach to his command. As Sam briefs Pike on his younger brother: "He doesn't like to take the path everyone else does. And he doesn't like to lose." Kirk calls out Pike's tendency to be risk-averse in the initial engagements, and he has a clever plan later to try to bluff the Romulan fleet.
If there's a problem with "A Quality of Mercy," it's that Paul Wesley is miscast as Kirk. Wesley's performance is actually perfectly fine and good as a standalone Starfleet captain. But he just doesn't evoke Jim Kirk much at all. Trying to find someone to fill William Shatner's shoes is of course incredibly hard. Chris Pine wasn't especially Shatner-esque either, but he benefited from playing a younger alternate version of the character, and there was still something about him that just "felt" Kirk-like. Paul Wesley — what can I say? — he just doesn't exude it, really, at all. It's not his fault, but this feels like a casting misfire, especially if they are going to be using the actor again in upcoming episodes of this show. I dunno; maybe he'll grow on me.
With the way events play out, is the episode saying that a devastating war with the Romulans started because Pike wasn't aggressive enough in stopping the ship before it returned to the Neutral Zone? Not exactly. In this particular iteration of the possible future, perhaps that's how it happens to go down, but the story is more interested in Pike's fate itself, and the fact that escaping it has somehow unbalanced the cosmic scales, which demand something in return ... in particular, Spock.
Spock is the one who ends up gravely injured in this timeline. Old Pike informs the younger Pike that he has looked at multiple versions of the timeline, and every version where Pike avoided his own accident resulted in a future where Spock faced devastation instead. And Spock is the one whose future must be assured. Beyond averting a Romulan war, Spock has "galaxy-saving stuff" to do. Of course, this we know. Indeed, knowing is why it resonates. But watching Pike learn the lesson is worthwhile.
Ultimately, Pike realizes the future cannot be fixed simply by moving events around. Paying the price is his duty to set the future right. From a story perspective, this is probably the best way to deal with the fact that the character is in the unique position of knowing his future, and without having the idea that he can change it necessarily hanging over the entire series.
By the end, Pike can live with it. It's not easy, but he can accept it as the way it must be. Which means he must do the same for the fate of the others who were present at the accident, and not interfere with their destinies either. "A Quality of Mercy" commits to the time-travel idea Trek often hints at — about not altering what the future "should" be — and puts its central character in the position where he must have the courage of his convictions because doing what "should" be done means he will be among those paying the price.
Some stray closing thoughts:
- In this version of the future, La'an serves aboard the Farragut (until it's destroyed, that is).
- Scotty is heard on the comm system but not seen, such that the producers don't have to commit to casting him yet.
- In the future, we learn Una was sentenced to a penal colony for her illegal genetic enhancements. This sets up a final scene that feels especially tacked onto the end of the episode merely to set up a hook for next season regarding Una's fate: She's arrested for violation of genetic enhancement laws — by Pike's previous friend-with-benefits, no less. This episode definitely didn't need this, but, hey, whatever.
- Strange New Worlds did not have a perfect first season by any means (the middle stretch with all the lightweight shows didn't really do a ton for me), but by going episodic, the series was able to do more things and suffer far less from the excessive bloat and stalling that the serialized Discovery and Picard seasons have. At the same time, SNW has used continuity to tell stories that are not in complete isolation. I think that's the right balance.
- Crucially, SNW focused on the crew mostly as Starfleet professionals, without having to venture so far into schmaltz and the constant analysis of everyone's feelings like Discovery (and to a lesser degree, Picard) has. Those aspects aren't completely separated from the characters, but nor are they typically made paramount.
- I'll see you over in Lower Decks next week, if you're joining me. Strangely, the last episode of that show also ended with someone being hauled away in handcuffs in a development unrelated to the rest of the episode.
Previous episode: All Those Who Wander
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