“A Quality of Mercy” gets classic Star Trek philosophy wrong

Anson Mount as Pike of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 CBS Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Anson Mount as Pike of the Paramount+ original series STAR TREK: STRANGE NEW WORLDS. Photo Cr: Marni Grossman/Paramount+ ©2022 CBS Studios. All Rights Reserved. /

This post includes spoilers for “A Quality of Mercy,” the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds first season finale.

In what Spock would call a highly illogical move, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds ended its first season by making a case against its own importance. “A Quality of Mercy” is largely a remake of The Original Series episode “Balance of Terror.” It expressly—and convincingly—persuades viewers its source material is superior. Why? The Great Man, Captain James T. Kirk.

“A Quality of Mercy” begins with an intriguing time-travel twist. Captain Pike meets a future version of himself—rocking a nifty, Strange New Worlds variation on the “monster maroon” uniforms. Via time crystal, Future Pike sends Present Pike to a timeline in which no cadet died in and he himself avoided the reactor incident that, in established Trek continuity, left him horribly burned, non-verbal, and confined to a wheelchair.

Still captain of the Enterprise, Pike experiences an alternate version of the events of “Balance of Terror” (including much of its dialogue, but “Balance of Terror” writer Paul Schneider receives no screen credit). Pike and Captain Kirk of the U.S.S. Farragut work together, uneasily, to spare the Romulan Bird-of-Prey destroying Neutral Zone outposts and give peace its proverbial chance.

All the qualities that make Anson Mount’s Pike such a popular character—his thoughtfulness, his personal attention to his crew, his commitment to deliberation and dialogue, his idealism—are on abundant display. But these qualities, the episode argues, were not what was needed during “Balance of Terror.”

Indeed, Pike’s choice to risk a two-hour cease-fire with the Romulans results in a “terrible future.” Those two hours prove enough time for the Romulan subcommander (admittedly, against his commander’s orders) to call for an entire fleet. The result? Decades of devastating warfare that, in the “prime” timeline, Captain Kirk of the Enterprise avoided by destroying that lone Romulan ship.

Star Trek needs to stop stressing fate and destiny

It’s bad enough that, as Rachel Carrington argued, Paul Wesley’s Captain Kirk is a drab and uncharismatic version of William Shatner’s—or Chris Pine’s. Even more problematic, “A Quality of Mercy” continues Star Trek’s recent adherence to the “Great Man Theory” of history.

We could call it the Great Person Theory. But since dominant history has mostly been written by men, the sexist, exclusionary language seems fitting. The 19th-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle best articulated the Great Man Theory: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”

Arguably, James Kirk has long been regarded in-universe with admiration. But ever since Star Trek (2009), he has been treated as a Great Man upon whom the fate of the universe hangs. Prime Spock (Leonard Nimoy) feels compelled to get Kelvin-timeline Kirk (Chris Pine) aboard the Enterprise because Kirk is supposed to be its captain—apparently in all realities and timelines, infinite diversity and “always possibilities” be damned.

“A Quality of Mercy” reinforces the idea that Kirk is Trek’s Great Man. Pike can’t help but admire Kirk. He seems gobsmacked by the “brash young captain’s” tactical insight. By the episode’s end, he’s telling Kirk the Enterprise would be lucky to have Kirk as its captain.

What’s more, “A Quality of Mercy” also nominates Spock as a Great Man. Pike not wanting to exchange his fate for Spock’s because Spock is his friend is one thing. But arguing Spock must not die because Spock has fate-of-the-galaxy type things” to do is something else, and contrary to Star Trek’s overall philosophy.

Pike tells Spock, “I think the universe is telling me that some fates are inescapable.” When has Star Trek ever argued for inescapable fates? Yes, Spock tells Kirk in Star Trek II, “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny.” But Kirk has chosen that destiny for himself. He isn’t in the center seat because he was fated to be, but because he has discovered it is where he is most himself.

And as for Great Men? What was it no less an in-universe Trek luminary than Zefram Cochrane said, in Star Trek: First Contact? “Don’t try to be a great man—just be a man, and let history make its own judgments.”

“A Quality of Mercy” does exactly the reverse. Though not to the degree Star Trek (2009) did, this episode also reduces Pike—who is Strange New Worlds’ chief protagonist—to the status of prologue or prelude to Kirk, the “real captain” of the Enterprise.

What an unfathomable way in which to end the first season fo a show expressly designed to give fans adventures of Captain Pike and the Enterprise. “A Quality of Mercy” is an hour-long exercise in telling viewers, “Don’t forget: Jim Kirk is where this is all headed, and where it’s all really at.”

Inescapable fates are the stuff of Star Wars or the “fixed points in time” of Doctor Who. They’re not—or didn’t used to be—the stuff of Star Trek. Let’s hope the second season of Strange New Worlds doesn’t lose faith in its premise, and boldly stays away from longing, nostalgia-laden looks backward to its supposedly Great Man.

Next. Melissa Navia challenges the notion that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Lt. Erica Ortegas isn’t professional. dark