Rebalancing Balance of Terror.
The season one finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds (SNW) is now streaming, and while the prior two episodes of this 10-episode run (“The Elysian Kingdom” “All Those Who Wonder”) haven’t been quite as solid for me, the rest of the season has been terrific, so I had no idea what to expect for this final story. Directed by Chris Fisher, and written by Henry Alonso Myers & Akiva Goldsman, “A Quality of Mercy” is missing one other name from its writing credits–that of the late Paul Schneider, who wrote the classic Star Trek episode, “Balance of Terror,” from which this story generously helps itself for most of its middle act.
Having taken a recent, in-depth look at ”Balance of Terror”, I was dismayed to see this finale borrow from it, beat-for-beat, line-for-line, in a surprisingly lackluster retelling of “Balance of Terror” (with just a dash of “It’s a Wonderful Life”). “Quality of Mercy” features a future Chris Pike, (acting as his own guardian angel), going back in time to show his younger self just how much better off the galaxy will be if he simply accepts his fate…
“A Quality of Mercy.”
The episode opens with Pike making a pasta dinner for his ‘friend-with-benefits,’ Captain Batel (Melanie Scrofano), who is glad that he took her advice to return to shave his mountain man-beard, return to Starfleet, and get his act together. Before returning to the USS Cayuga, Batel notices that Chris is still struggling, but she’s curious to see where (and who) he will be in the days ahead…
Note: Batel romanced Pike during his recent seclusion, when he was reluctant to command the Enterprise again after seeing his fate in a starship engine room disaster, less than a decade away. Batel doesn’t realize that Pike has seen his own future (“it’s classified”), but she’s aware that something is still eating away at him.
Pike is conferring with Commander Hansen Al-Salah (Ali Hassan), who commands Outpost 4, one of the asteroid-based listening posts along the Federation/Romulan Neutral Zone–an area established by treaty (dictated by radio) over a century ago. The Cayuga and Enterprise are reinforcing the outpost’s systems, following rumors of Romulan weapon upgrades. Al-Salah is pleased, saying that the upgrades were everything he’d ever wished for.
Note: In “Balance of Terror,” the commander of Outpost 4 was named Commander Hansen, not Hanson Al-Salah, and was played by actor Garry Walberg, who would later play Jack Klugman’s boss on the popular 1980s pathology drama, “Quincy.” I assume the character was given the previously unmentioned surname of Al-Salah to justify recasting with Canadian-Pakistani actor/standup-comedian Ali Hassan. I certainly don’t mind characters changing ethnicities, but if you’re going to change their last name too, is it still the same character? Is Commander Hansen Al-Salah supposed to be the same Commander Hansen we saw before in “Balance of Terror”? This is one of the reasons I prefer to think of everything post-“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996) as part of a new universe–it explains all of it.
During the briefing, Commander Al-Salah’s son Maat (Chris River) rushes in unexpectedly. The boy idolizes Captain Pike, and even has a model of the USS Enterprise at home. Pike is taken aback when he recognizes the name Maat Al-Salah as one of the Starfleet cadets whom he will be unable to save in that fateful training exercise that will leave him mute and horribly disfigured, as well. Pike is visibly shaken upon hearing the boy’s name. He politely excuses himself by saying he’s feeling ‘under the weather’, leaving the briefing to First Officer Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) and Science Officer Spock (Ethan Peck). Pike is later met by Una and Spock, who both realize the captain’s sudden discomfort in the child’s presence came from recognition. The captain is thrown into a serious existential funk.
Note: While Pike has been seen obsessing over the names of the cadets involved in his future training exercise, he’s already been told by the Klingon time-crystal custodians at the Boreth monastery that his future is fixed, and that his fate is sealed (see: Star Trek Discovery, S2.12: “Through the Valley of Shadows”). Nevertheless, this episode decides to break that rule. Pike’s attempt to change the circumstances of the forthcoming accident violates the preset ‘terms’ of Klingon time crystal usage.
With his confidence shaken after meeting young Maat, Pike begins composing letters to all the cadets of the future training accident, warning them to stay away from the scene of the accident on the date in question–hoping to change their fate, and perhaps even his own. Pike is stopped from composing his letter by an unannounced guest … a visibly older version of himself from decades into the future, wearing an admiral’s uniform (a subtly updated version of the Starfleet uniform seen in 1982’s “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”). The future-Pike has gone back in time to advise his younger self not to change the future in any way. Admiral Pike has brought some Klingon time crystals, which he hopes will allow present-day Pike to see that critical point where the future diverged…
Note: If Pike’s future can be changed with letters written to a few kids, what other time crystal ‘prophecies’ are similarly alterable? Furthermore, why haven’t the Klingons–an instinctively warlike race–ever use these time crystals to their own advantage during their war with the Federation? These deux ex machina ‘time crystals’ present more problems than solutions.
With no warning, Pike suddenly finds himself in the USS Enterprise’s chapel, officiating at the wedding of two officers whom he doesn’t recognize (named Angelina Martine and Robert Tomlinson in the original “Balance of Terror”). Pike awkwardly attempts to marry these two unfamiliar faces when he’s (mercifully) interrupted by the red alert klaxon. Spock reports that the Federation outposts along the Romulan Neutral Zone are under attack by an unknown space vessel. Arriving on the bridge, Pike is grateful to see some familiar faces; First Officer Spock, Lieutenant Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding), as well as Navigator Ortegas (Melissa Navia) and Helm Officer Mitchell (Rong Fu), who’ve inexplicably switched stations. The bridge is dark and tense, as the ship warps to the scene of the crime…
Note: The dark, shadowy lighting scheme on the bridge throughout “A Quality of Mercy” is a deliberate homage to the work of TOS Star Trek cinematographer Gerald Finnerman, a magician with light, who made impressive use of shadow and extreme colors, as well as soft-focus, and occasional spot-lighting on actor eye-lines, for dramatic effect.
A distress call is received from Outpost 4, from Commander Hansen Al-Salah. The spotty transmission shows the shattered command post, buried a mile deep in an asteroid through solid iron. The weapon that did this is significantly more powerful than anything the Federation has dealt with to date. Pike reflexively asks Hansen if his son Maat was with him; fortunately, he wasn’t. Hansen then transfers his outpost’s main viewer feed to the Enterprise, just in time to see a de-cloaking Romulan vessel fire a fatal plasma-bolt that obliterates the outpost and the asteroid. A headstrong Ortegas immediately wants to go after the Romulans in retaliation. Pike reminds her that any vessel crossing the Neutral Zone would be committing an act of war, and would be considered expendable. Ortegas says the Romulans drew first blood when they destroyed the outposts…
Note: The back-and-forth between Pike and the typically more easygoing Ortegas is meant to parallel the heated exchanges between the more levelheaded Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his own hot-blooded navigator, Mr. Stiles (Paul Comi) in the original “Balance of Terror.”
Much of this episode mirrors “Balance of Terror” almost by rote, as the next scene involves Mr. Spock locking onto a coded signal sent from the Romulan vessel. Spock traces the signal to its source and is able to get a visual from its point of origin–the bridge of the Romulan ship. This is the crew’s first look at their Romulan enemies, and of course, they look decidedly Vulcan.
Aboard the Romulan vessel, we see a tense exchange between the Romulan Commander (Matthew MacFadzean) and his own Subcommander, echoing the testy exchanges seen between the two from the original episode. Sadly, no sign of the Romulan Commander’s centurion friend…
Note: The actor playing the Romulan Commander, Matthew MacFadzean, gives a much less expressive performance than his predecessor, Mark Lenard; who gave one of the most memorable guest performances ever seen on Star Trek, past or present. It’s as if MacFadzaen wasn’t clued in as to how Romulans operate, playing more of an emotionally-controlled Vulcan, instead. I don’t know if it was an acting or directing choice, but the decision to underplay the role so drastically drains this version of dramatic life blood. Actor Mark Lenard (1924-1996) also originated the role of Spock’s father, Sarek in TOS “Journey to Babel”, a role he returned to in TNG’s “Unification Part 1” and several of the “Star Trek” movies.
The sudden revelation that Spock resembles their Romulan enemies sends a quick wave of suspicion through the bridge crew, ignoring the fact that it was Spock who enabled the crew to see how the Romulans appeared–hardly the act of a ‘spy.’ Most of the bridge crew soon shake it off, save for Ortegas, who–like her TOS predecessor Stiles–finds herself unable to shake her mistrust of Spock, whom she’s served with for a very long time at this point (7-8 years from SNW’s present).
Note: Once again, much of this part of the story is extracted line-for-line, beat-for-beat from “Balance of Terror.” There’s homage, and then there’s cut-and-paste–unfortunately, this kind of unimaginative scripting feels more like the latter.
The timeline diverges from the events of “Balance of Terror” just a bit, when the Enterprise is joined by the USS Farragut, under command of a headstrong young captain named James T. Kirk (Paul Wesley). Kirk’s brother, Sam Kirk (Dan Jeannotte) serves as an astro-biologist on Pike’s Enterprise, so Pike consults with Sam in his ready room to get a sense of the Farragut’s captain. Sam describes his kid brother as a “pain in the ass” who “doesn’t like to lose.” He also adds that his kid brother is an impressive captain, as well.
Note: It’s safe to say that in this timeline, Sam never got that fateful transfer to Deneva, where he and his wife Aurelan are killed, leaving their son Peter orphaned in TOS’ “Operation: Annihilate!” Perhaps when Kirk eventually got command of the Enterprise (c. 2265), Sam didn’t exactly relish the prospect of serving under his ‘pain in the ass’ kid brother and left. Too bad; he and his wife might’ve lived longer…
As the two crews combine to strategize, we then get the obligatory briefing room scene we saw in the original “Balance of Terror,” with Ortegas playing the role of bigoted Mr. Stiles, while Dr. M’Benga (Babs Olusanmokun) mirrors the anti-war sentiments of his successor, Dr. Leonard McCoy. This makes sense, as no doctor in their right mind would want to see untold numbers of wartime casualties headed their way. Capt. Kirk suggests setting a parallel course, instead of an intercept course–just as he ordered in the original–with the aim of learning more about their mutual enemy before engagement. Navigator Ortegas wants to destroy the Romulan vessel outright, but is overruled.
Note: I normally love Melissa Navia’s Erica Ortegas, but recasting her in the quick-tempered, bigoted Stiles role is not a good look for her character. The unflappable Ortegas struck me as much cooler headed than she’s portrayed here. I realize someone had to play the reactionary role in this quasi-remake, but since they’re borrowing so heavily from “Balance of Terror,” why not simply have a recast Mr. Stiles show up as navigator on Kirk’s Farragut as well?
Soon, Kirk and Pike are working together on tactics for hunting down the cloaked Romulan ship using a nearby comet as a means of sighting their invisible enemy as it exits through the comet’s coma–which should leave a visible trail. As we saw before in “Balance of Terror,” the Romulan Commander anticipates that very move and exits the comet prematurely, avoiding the ‘trap’ set by the Starfleet vessels.
Note: As with Matthew MacFadzean’s Romulan Commander, I don’t know whether it was the actor’s or director Fisher’s choice, but Paul Wesley’s interpretation of Captain James T. Kirk is thoroughly bland–lacking any traces of William Shatner’s, or even Chris Pine’s quirks/neuroses that made those two actors so compelling and memorable in that role. Paul Wesley plays Kirk very generically. He could’ve just as easily had been a new character, and no one would’ve been the wiser. There is simply nothing about his performance that says “James T. Kirk.”
This time, the still-invisible Romulan vessel lies in ambush as the two Starfleet vessels reemerge, with the Farragut caught off guard by the Romulan plasma weapon. The weapon fatally damages the Farragut, and its surviving crew are forced to beam aboard the Enterprise en masse. Luckily, the Enterprise manages to fire its phasers at the Romulan vessel, temporarily disabling the ship’s main plasma weapon, with the Enterprise taking damage as well. Pike then rushes to the transporter room to meet the Farragut survivors, as Kirk admonishes himself for underestimating the Romulan commander, just as he did in the original.
Note: In this version of events, we see Pike leaving the bridge several times during the Enterprise’s high-pitched pursuit of the Romulan vessel. This saps some of the dramatic tension felt in the original story, which saw Kirk doggedly standing watch on the bridge without a break, save for a brief respite in his quarters during a nine hour-long silent “waiting game” as both ships played dead.
Pike goes to the transporter room, where he meets one of the Farragut survivors, Commander (formerly Lieutenant) La’an Noonien Singh (Christina Chong), who is now, apparently, a ‘hugger’ as she warmly greets her former captain. Still trying to get his bearings in this new timeline, Pike asks her if she’s seen Una lately, and La’an appears confused by the question, saying that no one can see Una, since her incarceration at a Federation penal colony.
Note: When La’an mentions Una’s arrest and incarceration, my attention immediately piqued. Why are we wasting time with this “Balance of Terror” quasi-remake when we could and should be telling Una’s story, instead? I really enjoyed the reveal of the mysterious Una’s Illyrian heritage in “Ghosts of Illyria”, as well as her illicit entry into Starfleet, which expressly forbids the genetically-modified beings from the service. I would’ve preferred a season one finale of SNW telling the story of Una’s discovery and arrest in part one, with next season’s first episode showing us her court-martial (and hopeful exoneration). That story would’ve made a more compelling season one cliffhanger, in my opinion.
With the Farragut survivors aboard the Enterprise, Pike and Kirk are in Pike’s quarters trying to decide their next move. Pike wants to ‘give peace a chance,’ while Kirk would prefer to destroy the Romulan ship before it can return to base. Reaching a compromise, Kirk asks Pike if he can “borrow” one of the Enterprise’s shuttlecraft. Meanwhile, the Enterprise’s phasers are still off-line from the last attack, and Spock is working feverishly to repair them in the Jeffries tube…
Note: There’s no phaser control room on Pike’s Enterprise, nor do we see Spock making repairs to the phaser transfer coils from his bridge station, as he did in the original episode. This might be the only improvement to “Balance of Terror” in this version, as I always thought the “phaser control room” seen in the original episode was a redundant complication to the Enterprise’s weapons systems. No wonder it was never used, let alone seen, ever again.
With Kirk off the ship, Pike’s options are limited. He decides to hail the Romulan Commander and offer a two-hour ceasefire, which the Commander, following reasonable persuasion by Pike, eventually agrees to–over the objection of his subcommander. The ceasefire provides both sides with a chance to heal their wounds and assess the weight of a new hot war after a century of relative peace. The dialogue once again repeats lines from the original, as the Romulan Commander says to Pike, “In a different reality, I could’ve called you ‘friend.'” The two-hour ceasefire also allows time for the Commander’s devious subordinate to quietly call for reinforcements, as an entire fleet of Romulan warships suddenly drop out of warp at the border.
Fortunately, the absentee Captain Kirk anticipated such treachery, and he returns to the border with a fleet of drones and automated vessels posing as a formidable new Federation attack armada. Kirk reasons that since neither side has seen each other for the past century, the Romulans couldn’t tell a drone ship from a new class of starship.
Note: It’s never explained exactly how Kirk, in one small shuttlecraft, managed to repurpose so many mining ships and drones in under two hours. It’s also never explained why the Romulans don’t simply scan the new ‘armada’ for life-signs. Sorry, but I cry foul on that one, too.
With the forces seemingly stalemated at the border, Pike is hailed by the Romulan Praetor herself (Carolyn Scott). Despite Pike’s calls for peace, the Praetor has no interest to negotiate a truce, instead welcoming a war between her people and the Federation. She opens fire on the Enterprise, critically damaging some of her systems, including the Jeffries’ maintenance tube where Spock was trying desperately to bring the phasers back online. Kirk uses the drone fleet as cover, while the Enterprise warps away to safety. Despite living to see another day, Uhura receives an ominous message… the Romulan Praetor has officially declared war on the Federation.
Once out of the the Neutral Zone, Pike goes to sickbay, where he sees many casualties, including the young bride he gave away that morning, as well as the burned, mutilated form of Mr. Spock. Spock has lost a leg, and has suffered severe brain damage. A devastated Nurse Chapel (Jess Stone) tells Pike that he’ll never be the same.
Note: Much like the Kirk/Spock death scene switch from “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013) we now see Spock has traded places with Captain Pike, with the half-Vulcan a badly-burned shell of his former self. While I appreciate the dramatic symmetry of Pike and Spock trading fates, it also makes me wonder how a galaxy-full of options can be so easily reduced to a few.
It’s at this point that Pike is returned to the present by the Klingon time-crystals, and we see him in his quarters with the version of himself from the future. His decision to write that warning letter to the cadets rewrites an entire timeline, resulting in ongoing war with the Romulans which continues well into the future. The loss of Spock also has consequences that will span centuries, including Spock’s nascent peace movement with Romulus in the 24th century, which will eventually lead to the reunion of both cultures sometime in the 25th century (Star Trek: Discovery, S3.7: “Unification III”). Pike realizes that his own sacrifice, and even the lives of those few cadets, are well worth galactic peace.
With Pike safely returned to 2259, another crisis soon hits, one that was foretold to him in the near-future when La’an reported that Una was incarcerated. Captain Batel returns to the Enterprise with a warrant for Una’s arrest. News of her genetically-modified Illyrian heritage (see: “Ghosts of Illyria”) has finally reached the authorities at Starfleet Command, which instantly disqualifies her from serving in Starfleet, and she is taken into custody. The arrest is for the crime of falsifying her application to Starfleet. Pike, acting on her behalf, lunges for one of the redshirts taking Una to the transporter room, but he is warned by Una not to act on her behalf… she always knew this day would come. “This is not over,” seethes Pike.
Note: Once again, I would’ve much preferred to see this story instead of a quasi-remake of “Balance of Terror,” which didn’t require one.
Summing It Up.
What was meant to put an end to Pike’s lingering doubts about his fate now serves to undermine certain aspects of the character, by introducing his brash, headstrong, ‘shoot-first, ask-questions-later’ replacement, James T. Kirk. What should’ve given Pike’s future sacrifice’s greater meaning now undermines his character a bit, by suggesting that Kirk will handle the “Balance of Terror” scenario much better than Pike. Captain Pike is like the business manager assigned to work with the new guy at the office, just before that new guy comes around and takes his job.
This implication that Kirk is a better combat strategist rings false to me, since nothing in SNW to date has suggested that Pike is any less a decisive combat leader than James T. Kirk. Yes, Pike was disoriented by time-travel, but who wouldn’t be? We’ve seen Pike handle the Gorn in combat with an easy leadership poise and confidence that the occasionally moody and erratic Kirk sometimes lacks (even “Balance of Terror” saw a weary Kirk confessing to “Bones” that he may not be up to the job). And despite the conflicted guilt with himself over the cadets he fails to save in the future, it was clear from early episodes of SNW that Pike understood the training accident cannot be avoided. That makes this exercise in handwringing and second-guessing unnecessary.
The cliffhanger of the episode sees Pike’s Number One, Una Chin-Riley, being arrested for the ‘crime’ of being a genetically-modified Illyrian, in violation of Starfleet entrance qualifications. This offered a far more compelling central story for the season finale than a retread of “Balance of Terror.” While “A Quality of Mercy” is strained (apologies to the Bard), my overall enjoyment for his exemplary Star Trek series hasn’t dimmed much. If anything, this season finale has reinforced the notion that even the best shows are capable of taking missteps every now and then.
I firmly believe that this otherwise fine series can (and will) rebound from this creative misfire, and I look forward to the continuation of Una’s story in the season ahead.
Where to Watch.
“Star Trek: Strange New Worlds” is streaming exclusively on Paramount+ in the United States, and can be streamed on Crave in Canada (also airing on CTV’s Sci-Fi Channel). Paramount+ streaming service is now in the UK and other European markets, so all of Paramount+’s Star Trek content, including “Strange New Worlds”, can now be accessed to more international fans as well. Live long and prosper!