The assignment was a distinctly Star Trek one: Once again having doubts about his tragic fate, Captain Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) is visited by his future self and forced to live out a crucial moment in the ship’s existence to see why not avoiding the accident that leaves him scarred and paralyzed is better than what happens in that timeline. Also, it’s just “Balance of Terror” again, which Star Trek loves to revisit.
The result is “A Quality of Mercy,” the season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 1. And it’s informative: In this timeline, with Pike at the helm of the Enterprise instead of Kirk, what would be a one-off episode becomes an all-out war. Pike is left with the consolation (if not fully comforting thought) of knowing that his death not only saves some ensigns, but keeps Spock alive and the universe from being torn apart in conflict. He can now go forward into the dire fate he witnessed in Star Trek: Discovery knowing that it’s the right thing to do.
Apologies to Strange New Worlds, but that’s a little bit bullshit. In the show’s attempt to tie up a loose narrative end and give Pike a season arc, it robs him of the great challenge to his character — one all his cleverness, charm, and ingenuity couldn’t free him from.
His grim destiny of delta ray exposure (which leaves him unable to move or speak) is an unenviable position, one Pike was doomed to in the Original Series’ two-parter “The Menagerie.” While the 2009 Star Trek tried to soften his post-accident outcome, modern Star Trek TV plays Pike’s fate as more a body horror nightmare he is staring down every single day.
And predictably — wonderfully — we see Pike struggle with it. For a character this virtuous, this proficient, this optimistic, his fate is agony. Every day he has to reconcile the fact that he knows when and where and why he will be incapacitated, and every day he also lives with the knowledge that he’ll probably still make the decision to risk himself and save the crew members anyway. And so he studies up on the handful of cadets his accident will save, learns their names and their lives. He seeks to give their existence meaning in a way that he worries his own accident will rob him of.
“A Quality of Mercy” is, true to its name, a merciful attempt to give him some peace of mind on that front. But it undercuts one of the things that made this Pike so compelling. How does a man retain his unending optimism in the face of certain doom? If Pike’s central flaw is that his hopefulness would have him believe every problem has a solution if only he could just find it, it’s poetic that he’s confronted with a future that totally robs him of that conviction. The fact that it wasn’t an outright death might even have made it harder for someone like Pike to swallow than your standard Kobayashi Maru.
There’s hardly room in Mount’s characterization for the answer to that question to be anything other than “yes.” To Star Trek’s credit, until now, it kept the stakes of Pike’s accident low, allowing his heroism to define the devastation. In letting this loom over Pike — openly or not — Strange New Worlds set up a fascinating character dynamic, constantly forcing this golden retriever of a captain to confront that not all suffering is noble or deserved, and leaves him to parse whether he could live with his future either way.
By expanding the stakes beyond what Pike could have imagined, “A Quality of Mercy” implodes the personal stake for his character. He can now have the (near) complete peace of mind that his sacrifice is history-making in the grand scheme of things, a digestible way to measure the worth of his immolation. But for a show that has done such a magnificent job returning to the things that define Star Trek, “A Quality of Mercy” is the rare misstep that does little to advance a Trek trope or the character it’s focused on.
There may be room in season 2 (which, to be clear, I will absolutely be watching) for this shadow to continue coloring everything Pike does. But I’ll miss the iteration of Pike that had very little to hold on to as he processed his vision. He had to face a future he couldn’t avoid where things just sucked, and constantly square it with his value system that told him the pain was worth it anyway.