When Star Trek: Strange New Worlds was first announced, my biggest fear was that it would feel like fan fiction. Fan fiction, of course, comes in myriad stripes and at all levels of craft, but by definition fan fiction is created by and for a pre-sold audience who is looking for twists and mash-ups on the familiar rather than original characters and concepts. (Of course fan fiction includes original characters, but they’re not why you’re reading.) In a very real sense, Strange New Worlds is fan fiction — it’s a series centered around a cast of mostly recycled characters from the 1960s in a new context, run by a pair of lifelong Trekkies, Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso Myers.
That’s hardly an anomaly in our current media landscape; You could very well call the past decade the Fan Fiction Era of film and television, a period in which media conglomerates hire storytellers to adapt or continue the same stories they grew up watching for an audience who has seen it before. Just like in the world of unpaid derivative works, these professionals produce results of wildly varying quality and originality, but to me, a story feels specifically like fan fiction if you can tell it using only toys that are already in the box.
To my delight, Strange New Worlds has rarely given me this impression. Rather than preaching to the choir with prequels and sequels to established episodes or an overabundance of cameos and references, the producers of this new Star Trek series have treated us to stories we’d have never thought to ask for. With the season finale, however, Myers and Goldsman venture deep into fan service territory by time traveling directly into an episode of Star Trek: The Original Series and posing a very nerdy “What if…?” While it’s sure to please some Trekkies for its references and reverence towards classic Trek, “A Quality of Mercy” is the season’s weakest episode, largely due to the tragic miscasting of one of the franchise’s most iconic roles.
Spoilers ahead for the entire episode.
This Optimistic Space Opera Features a Surprising Number of Dead Children
Some time ago, during his temporary command of the USS Discovery, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) was granted a glimpse at his own grisly demise, sacrificing his body to save several Starfleet cadets from a reactor leak. Pike has accepted that he cannot alter this outcome, and that any attempt to do so would endanger the lives he’s destined to save. Today, however, he encounters a ghost from his future, a preteen starship enthusiast who’s destined to die in the accident. Pike plans to warn the kid about what’s ahead, but instead receives a warning of his own from another surprise visitor: Admiral Christopher Pike. Admiral Pike has come back from an alternate future in which he saved all of the cadets and himself, but somehow doomed the Federation as a result. In order to convince Captain Pike to stay the course, the Admiral sends him forward to a pivotal point in history that he was never meant to experience and where his participation will have deadly consequences. Captain Pike finds himself seven years in his future, commanding the Enterprise during an attack by the Federation’s oldest enemy, the Romulan Empire.
Old Trek heads will recognize this immediately as the events of the beloved Original Series episode “Balance of Terror,” only with Pike in the center seat in place of James T. Kirk, allowing fans a one-to-one comparison of their attitudes and command styles. “A Quality of Mercy” revisits certain elements of “Balance of Terror” beat-for-beat, including similar dialogue, camera angles, and music cues. Speaking for myself, modern mass media’s constant reliance on recycling the familiar has soured my response to nostalgic references, but these touches did not always annoy me. (Uhura’s uniform has the asymmetrical scoop neckline of the TOS era but they have not put Celia Rose Gooding in a wig, and that’s the right balance, to me.) Thankfully, the episode doesn’t require familiarity with the 1966 original; If you haven’t seen it, you’ll almost certainly twig that this is a remake of sorts, but you’ll receive all the critical information to follow the story and some of the context with which you’re supposed to appreciate it.
While “Balance of Terror” is unquestionably the better episode (and we’ll get to why that is in a bit), the best parts of “A Quality of Mercy” have nothing to do with The Original Series. Pike getting a chance to change his fate and see a future beyond his accident is an interesting (if obvious) way to wrap up the first season, and there’s pathos in seeing Chris make the selfless choice to accept his destiny in order to protect others. (If you’ve watched Discovery, you’ve already seen him do this once, but it should also happen on his own show.)
The episode also provides a tease at what’s ahead for the rest of the Strange New Worlds crew. Una Chin-Riley (Rebecca Romijn) is serving a prison sentence, foreshadowing her arrest at the close of this episode for hiding her genetic augmentation. La’an Noonian-Singh (Christina Chong) has let her hair down both literally and metaphorically, while Erica Ortegas (Melissa Navia) has become hard and hot-tempered, especially towards Spock. Growth has occurred offscreen, but we don’t learn the impetus behind it or even know for certain that it’ll happen in the prime timeline, which is always a cool wrinkle for a time travel story. Most of all, I enjoy the way this episode acts as a counterpoint to the series premiere, putting Pike in a scenario where his customary civility and diplomacy can’t save the day. This time, he’s the wrong man for the job.
As for who the right man is, well, that’s where we run into a problem…
He’s Dead On Arrival, Jim
Back in March, Paramount announced that James T. Kirk would be a recurring character on the second season of Strange New Worlds, portrayed by Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley. Due to my anti-nostalgia reflex (better defined by a contrarianism against a broad idea of “what the fans want”), my gut response to this news was to roll my eyes. The series had not yet debuted, and already I had evidence that Strange New Worlds would be a lazy prequel series that relied on legacy characters rather than creating new legends.
But, as Fanfyte Editor Colette Arrand reminded me, introducing a recast Spock into Discovery turned out quite nicely. Indeed, the entire existence of Strange New Worlds is owed to the great impression made by Ethan Peck, Anson Mount, and Rebecca Romijn as Spock, Pike, and Number One on Discovery. Who’s to say a new Kirk couldn’t also be a breath of fresh air? I also had no experience with Paul Wesley, but a CW heartthrob certainly seemed like a natural fit for a character famous for his easy charm and faraway stare. Strange New Worlds has been eroding my skepticism all season, so when Wesley’s name appeared unexpectedly as a Special Guest Star in the opening credits of the finale, I was ready to be won over.
I don’t like to get hyperbolic in my reviews, especially when it comes to “geek culture” properties that fuel an entire industry of angry or gushing YouTube videos. People are bound to go apeshit in one direction or the other when you bring back a character as famous as James T. Kirk, regardless of the quality of his portrayal, and my usual advice would be to ignore such reactions and to accept the unsexy truth that most things are medium and there’s simply more money in Hot Takes.
That being said, here’s my Hot Take: Paul Wesley’s Kirk is a disaster. I don’t mean that the character of James T. Kirk as depicted here doesn’t match what’s familiar or expected. That might be interesting, as evidenced week after week by Ethan Peck’s Spock. I mean that Wesley’s performance of Kirk doesn’t match the character as he’s described by others in this very episode. On paper, it seems that writers and showrunners Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman have a clear point of view on the character. When Kirk — here, the commander of the USS Farragut — arrives on the scene of the Romulan attack to assist the Enterprise, his brother Sam (Dan Jeanotte) warns Pike that he’s a brash, impulsive pain in the ass who relies too often on his charm to get out of tough situations. This is more or less a description of the young Kirk portrayed by Chris Pine in the rebooted film trilogy, itself a somewhat cartoonish distillation of the original William Shatner version.
What Wesley delivers is the opposite of that. He is a null space, a charmless square jaw with absolutely zero star power. He has successfully reproduced Shatner’s unusual cadence of speech without doing an impression or caricature, but he has captured absolutely none of Kirk’s soul. “A Quality of Mercy” doesn’t demand anywhere near the full spectrum of Kirk’s personality — he doesn’t have to be wistful, or lonely, or romantic, or playful — what’s demanded of him this episode is that he be charismatic and dangerous, and Wesley doesn’t even give us that. He’s simply boring, a character I cannot imagine caring about had he not been named Jim Kirk. The episode hinges on establishing Kirk as someone to be taken seriously, first as an obstacle and then as an ally, but he reads as just another guest star. A spectacular debut for Kirk might have distracted from the weaker parts of this episode, but a weak one condemns it. I can only hope that his forthcoming appearances in Season Two are less disappointing.
Balance of Error
Unfavorable comparisons like the above are what happens when you come for a stone cold classic and miss. The closer “A Quality of Mercy” echoes “Balance of Terror,” the less it holds up. The Romulan Commander, originated with poise and Shakespearean gravitas by Mark Lenard in 1966, is portrayed here as a bland middle manager type in an entirely forgettable turn by Matthew MacFadzean. There’s nothing wrong with his performance by itself, but when he’s made to repeat his character’s final speech from “Balance of Terror,” MacFadzean’s rendition is missing all of the tragedy and despair that made Lenard’s an all-timer. “A Quality of Mercy” also suffers from the impulse to mirror the structure of “Balance of Terror,” which hops between the perspectives of the Enterprise and the Romulan ship.
It makes sense to do this in “Balance of Terror,” because the point of that entire episode is to show how the political enemies that we’re trained to hate and fear are just like us, tools of massive political machines over which they have limited influence. “A Quality of Mercy” tries to use this device in a similar way, but it’s jarring because the episode has previously been closely attached exclusively to Pike’s point of view rather than multiple subplots around the Enterprise. It still serves a purpose, but it’s only done here because it was done in “Balance of Terror” and that sense of obligation hurts the episode.
While I tend to think that any effort to revisit a classic story this directly is doomed from the start, I do have to applaud the care with which Myers and Goldsman selected which episode to revisit, as it allows them to fold in a lot of ideas that each serve Strange New Worlds very well. “A Quality of Mercy” works as a sort of rebuttal to the first episode: The season opens with a proclamation that any problem can be solved through civil dialogue, and now it ends with an admission that sometimes it can’t, at least not right away.
Pike’s failed attempt to negotiate with the Romulans results in Spock suffering a catastrophic set of injuries akin to the ones Pike has just avoided via time travel, and this not only pains Pike personally but erases the important role Spock will play in peace with the Romulans during his golden years. Pike learns that he’s just a footnote in Spock’s story as a critical historical figure, but even if he wasn’t, he would never let Spock suffer his fate in his place. Not only is this touching as a chapter in this series, but it also functions as a prologue to their reunion in 1967’s “The Menagerie.” (Though I will call “bullshit” on the total contrivance that changing anything about the accident, including saving that doomed cadet, will explicitly lead to Spock’s suffering.) As uneven as I may find the execution of the episode itself, it is a well-designed piece of lore.
I think that goes a ways to explain my lukewarm reaction to this episode — I’m getting pretty tired of lore. In the age of industrialized myth making, there are just too many stories about filling the gaps between other stories or setting up meetings between characters from different corners or eras of their shared multiverse. What used to be the domain of fan speculation is now commonplace, such that it’s the smaller stories — the self-contained chapters that would be discarded as “filler” in longer narratives — that feel special. That’s the Strange New Worlds I’ve come to love, and hope to continue to see next season.