Strange New Worlds’ “A Quality of Mercy” in Review
While delivering upgrades to the Federation outposts that guard the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone, Pike meets Maat Al-Salah – a child who will be one of the cadets involved in his accident.
In his quarters, Pike starts to write a letter to Maat, detailing what will happen, in the hope of changing the future. It does, as evidenced by the sudden appearance of his future self (as an admiral, wearing a Starfleet uniforms virtually identical to the ones in the TOS movies).
It’s nice to be reminded that the accident won’t take place for another seven years. That implies we could get seven seasons out of this series.
Admiral Pike has brought a time crystal from Boreth – the thing that originally gave him the foreknowledge of his future, back in Discovery Season 2 – to give him a vision of what changing his future would cause. It’s vital that Captain Pike understands what changing his own future would mean for the rest of the galaxy.
Actually, that’s basically it for the SNW-era part of the episode. The rest of the story, until its final moments, takes place within that time-crystal vision of the future.
Captain Pike is performing a wedding that is interrupted by a red alert. The Enterprise, seven years hence, is patrolling the border of the Romulan Neutral Zone, where there has been a spate of activity. Outposts are being destroyed by a mysterious attacker using a plasma weapon.
Wait a minute… Doesn’t this sound exactly like the beginning of the TOS episode “Balance of Terror”? It should, because that’s exactly what it is: a demonstration of what would happen if the events of that episode unfolded with Pike, instead of James T. Kirk, in command during that encounter. Additionally, it’s a chance to see how TOS would look if made with today’s technology and skills. In terms of the franchise, it’s also a necessary comparison of Pike’s versus Kirk’s skills, abilities, styles, and attitudes to duty…
For we do indeed have the debut of Paul Wesley as James T. Kirk. Unfortunately, and to be utterly blunt, we have Paul Wesley as some random bloke in command of the USS Farragut (until it gets spectacularly trashed) who everybody calls “Jim Kirk”. He appears more like a teenage Bruce Campbell or, at best, a shadow of Jim Carrey playing Kirk like he did in a In Living Color sketch back in the 90s. It’s not Wesley’s acting that’s at fault; it’s just the sheer level of miscasting that drags this down. It might have worked if we were seeing a much younger Kirk in the same timeframe as the rest of the series, one who’s not our Kirk yet… but he isn’t, and nothing about him says “James T. Kirk”.
The story is effectively all a dream, but it needs to be effective, and totally works. It’s so affecting to see both how the modern skills and sets work in TOS, and how the timeline changes effect the ship’s crew – and indeed the mix of the crew: there’s still M’Benga; Uhura has a proper TOS-looking uniform (if only they’d given her the beehive, though!); Ortegas is much harsher a character; and Una has been imprisoned for seven years. There’s no Sulu yet, but there is a (dubiously-accented-but-unnamed) Scottish chief engineer.
The plot largely follows the original episode but with better effects and more dynamism. There are so many moments of cleverness in both Pike’s and Kirk’s stratagems to deal with the Romulan threat. Visually it’s a treat too, with beautiful space shots, astonishing destruction, and some fantastic new Romulan ship designs. What we can make out of the updated Romulan costumes, in the darkness of their ships, looks gorgeous. One trick the producers sadly missed, though, was having James Frain (who portrayed Sarek in Discovery) play the Romulan Commander.
As you might expect from the fact that Admiral Pike came from Boreth to warn Captain Pike not to change his future, the outcome is far different than in “Balance of Terror”. Instead of self-destructing, the Romulan Praetor turns up with a gigantic battlefleet, destroys the Bird-of-Prey for incompetence, and declares war on the Federation. Meanwhile, Spock gets brutally mangled: burned, missing an arm and a leg, with Vader suit handy to put him in… The war with the Romulans is still being waged in Admiral Pike’s time.
It’s not surprising that Captain Pike deletes the letter, accepting his fate. Part of his reasoning, though, is because of Spock’s condition in the alternate timeline. Pike seems to have at least as close a relationship with Spock as Kirk will.
As a season finale, “A Quality of Mercy” is fairly predictable. It doesn’t help that Future Pike pretty much tells us how it will go from the beginning, but it’s awesome in so many other ways. The story nicely wraps up Pike’s arc of whether his future is or should be written.
The regular cast are all on top form. Ethan Peck is superb, and Melissa Navia creates a much more angry and hurt Ortegas. Even Dan Jeannotte’s Sam Kirk isn’t annoying this week. Ultimately though, this is Anson Mount’s showcase, and he is perfect in every scene. You can feel his every emotion, and he has a vast range to cover in this one. His performance is award-worthy, deserving at least a Hugo, but preferably an Emmy or Golden Globe.
So, once he deletes his letter, we sail off into the sunset with everybody happy, right? Well, no. In a surprise cliffhanger, Una is arrested by Starfleet for lying about being genetically modified, as per “Ghosts of Illyria”. And her arrest also took place at this point in the alternate timeline…
Overall, it’s an awesome episode, fantastically directed and scored, with a fabulous alt-take on a classic episode. I’ve never seen that sort of thing done so well in any series. It’s just encumbered by Paul Wesley being so miscast as James T. Kirk that it drags the entire episode down.
David A McIntee is a writer and historian who has written for properties such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, Final Destination, and Stargate, as well as having written several adventures in the Star Trek franchise for Pocket Books. He has contributed many pieces to the magazines Star Trek Explorer (née Star Trek Magazine) and Star Trek Communicator, as well as having written nonfiction books about Star Trek: Voyager.