The Terror of Balance — Star Trek: Strange New Worlds: “A Quality of Mercy”

The Anson Mount/Ethan Peck/Rebecca Romijn iterations of Pike, Spock, and Number One debuted in Discovery’s second season, with Spock missing, Pike put in temporary command of the U.S.S. Discovery, and everyone chasing the Red Angel. At one point, in the episode “Through the Valley of Shadows,” Pike takes possession of a time crystal, one of many housed in a monastery on the Klingon world of Boreth. By doing so, he committed himself to the vision of the future that he saw when he first touched it: his saving the life of many cadets, but in doing so, suffering from brutal radiation burns that would leave him immobile, mute, in constant pain, and only able to signal “yes” or “no” through an interpretive computer, as seen in the original series’ “The Menagerie” (the episode where Pike first appeared to audiences). “If you take the crystal, your fate will be sealed forever,” Tenavik, the Klingon monk, tells him. “There will be no escaping it.”

So, of course, Pike tries to escape it…

The Enterprise and the Cuyahoga are at the Romulan Neutral Zone, providing upgrades to the outposts that dot the Federation side of the border. These outposts were first seen in the original series’ “Balance of Terror,” and established as having been constructed following the end of the Earth-Romulan War a century previous. (Said war would’ve been the subject of Enterprise’s fifth season, had it not been cancelled.) This is far from the last reference to that episode we’ll see…

The Cuyahoga’s CO is Pike’s friend-with-benefits Captain Batel, last seen in “Strange New Worlds.” We see Pike cooking breakfast for her again, making use of leftover pasta and eggs to create a kind-of omelette and before she heads back to her ship, Pike offers to make her osso buco some time soon. Let me say again how much I love Pike the foodie…

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

Pike, Number One, and Spock meet with Commander Hansen al-Salah to discuss the upgrades. (As the episode progresses, it becomes clear that this is the same Hansen we met in “Balance,” re-cast from the very white Garry Walberg to Ali Hassan, a Canadian comedian/actor/chef of Middle Eastern descent, a casting move that will likely bring out the racists among Trek fans just as the casting of Adrian Holmes as Robert April did.)

The plot kicks in when we go from Number One outlining the upgrades—which Hansen has been requesting for five years—to Hansen’s son Maat entering the room. Pike goes ashen (as do Number One and Spock), because Maat al-Salah is one of the names of the cadets whose life was endangered when the baffle plate ruptured on the cadet ship. More specifically, Cadet al-Salah is one of two who didn’t make it. (That original mention in “The Menagerie” by Commodore Mendez, by the way, specifically said that Pike got out “all those kids who were still alive,” so we’ve known all along that he didn’t save everyone.)

Pike excuses himself, and goes to his quarters to compose a letter to Maat, telling him to not join Starfleet—this after Number One for the second time tells him that he should control his own fate, dagnabbit.

In the middle of composing that letter, an older Pike shows up in his quarters, wearing an admiral’s uniform from the movie era (seen in The Wrath of Khan forward, and established as being in use all the way until the mid-twenty-fourth century, as seen in TNG’s “Tapestry” and “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). Admiral Pike makes it clear to Captain Pike that writing that letter will be a disaster.

He proves that he’s really Pike by providing a traumatic childhood memory that he never told anyone about, mainly because it involved his first horse having to be put down, and the horse was named “Sir Neighs-a-Lot,” and tragic backstories and silly names are a bad combo. Then he opens up a time crystal. It was the very same Klingon monks who gave him the time crystal on Boreth in “Shadows” who sent Admiral Pike back to remind his younger self what “your fate is sealed” actually, y’know, means.

The bulk of the episode is Pike experiencing events seven years in the future as they would play out if he finishes that letter to Maat. Writers/executive producers Henry Alonso Myers and Akiva Goldsman and director Chris Fisher spend most of the rest of the hour re-creating “Balance of Terror,” but as it would’ve happened if Pike had written the letter, had not accepted the promotion to fleet captain, and had stayed as CO of the Enterprise.

Some things are the same: Spock is still both first and science officer, Uhura is now a lieutenant and in charge of communications, Chapel is now in Starfleet and is head nurse, and the chief engineer speaks with a heavy Scottish accent. However, instead of Sulu and Stiles at the forward console, we’ve got (still) Ortegas and Mitchell, and M’Benga is still the chief medical officer.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

As for Jim Kirk, well, he’s in charge of the U.S.S. Farragut instead of the Enterprise. And yes, we see him.

I gotta give the Secret Hideout folks credit. The announcement was that Paul Wesley would be playing Kirk is season two of SNW, and here he shows up as a special guest star at the end of the first. Did not see that coming.

Pike is dropped into the middle of a wedding ceremony—the same one between Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson that Kirk performed at the top of “Balance”—which is interrupted by a distress call from an outpost along the Neutral Zone. This is one of several scenes from “Balance” that are painstakingly re-created, in some cases with Nami Melumad matching the music from the original episode as well. (In particular, the bit where they get a look at the Romulan bridge and discover that the Romulans are a Vulcan offshoot is shot-for-shot, beat-for-beat, and note-for-note a virtual re-creation of the like scene from 1966.)

But things play differently. Enterprise gets help from the Farragut, and they try to talk to the Romulans. Pike is more cautious than Kirk is, and is also unwilling to cross the border into the Neutral Zone. In addition, the trick of using a comet’s tail to reveal the exact location of the Romulan ship goes much worse this time, with the Farragut destroyed, though most of the crew, including Kirk and his first officer La’An, survive and are rescued by Enterprise.

In the end, an entire Romulan fleet—summoned against orders by the ship’s sub-commander—shows up, something the Romulan commander anticipated would happen in “Balance.” Pike tries to bluff with a “fleet” of mining drones from the outposts, a very Kirk-like bluff conceived and executed by James Tiberius his own self.

I was frustrated by one particular bit in this episode, where Sam Kirk—who is still serving on Enterprise under Pike—tells his captain about his little brother, and Sam’s litany is the same dumbshit misinterpretation of Jim Kirk that has dogged the franchise since 1984. The Captain Kirk of the TV series that aired from 1966-1969 was not a devil-may-care maverick who went his own way and disobeyed orders at the drop of a hat, and all those other clichés that accreted around the character after he disobeyed orders to save his best friend in The Search for Spock.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

But after that, the Kirk that Myers and Goldsman wrote and Wesley portrayed was very much the Kirk of the original series—especially the bluff of using the mining drones as a “fleet,” on the logic that it’s been a hundred years, and the Romulans probably would no more know what a Starfleet fleet looks like now than the Federation knows what Romulan ships should look like…

It’s to Wesley’s credit that he doesn’t try to do a Shatner impersonation, especially given how caricatured Shatner’s deliveries have become over five-plus decades. He’s inspired by Shatner, but makes the role his own (in much the same way Mount, Peck, Romijn, Celia Rose Gooding, and others have done).

Other aspects of the re-creation of “Balance” are less successful. Ortegas taking on the hardline role of the racist Stiles in the original is a weak fit. While Ortegas generally seems to be way crankier in this alternate future than the one we’re familiar with, having her take on Stiles’ asshole role is just not convincing. Matthew Wolf’s Scotty impersonation over the intercom does wrong what Wesley and the others did right: it’s a caricatured impression of James Doohan, and is pretty groan-inducing. And while Matthew MacFadzean is perfectly fine as the Romulan commander, his performance is a pale imitation of Mark Lenard’s in the original. (Why is it that no one can do justice to Lenard? This is the third straight re-casting of one of his roles that hasn’t worked, following Ben Cross’ awful turn in the 2009 Star Trek and James Frain’s adequate-but-not-great performance in Discovery’s first two seasons.)

The endgame of all this is twofold: One is that Pike’s actions result in decades of war with the Romulans. The other is that Spock is among the many casualties, and he is very traumatically injured. (In a nice twist, it’s Martine who dies leaving Tomlinson without a fiancée, where it was the other way around in the original.) Admiral Pike later explains that Spock is the fulcrum. Every time Pike tries to alter the fate the time crystals showed him, the result is the loss of Spock, and Spock—as we’ve seen in so many TV shows and movies—has, as Admiral Pike puts it, “things to do.” Most relevant to the events of this episode, we know from Discovery’s third season that the mission that Spock undertook in TNG’s “Unificationtwo-parter to reunite Vulcan and Romulus will become successful by the thirty-second century. That doesn’t happen if he’s traumatically injured in 2266…

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

Image: CBS

What I like about this episode is that at no point does Admiral Pike refer to the “proper” timeline, because in a multiversal setup like Trek’s (as established in the original series’ “Mirror, Mirror” and codified in TNG’s “Parallels”), there is no “proper” timeline. But what the time crystal’s vision for Pike shows him here is that trying to alter the future he saw in “Shadows” will inevitably result in a much much worse timeline, one in which millions in general and one of the most important people in Federation history in particular don’t die too soon.

And so Pike erases the letter, thanks Spock for everything, even though Spock doesn’t really know why, and he starts looking at Jim Kirk’s service record…

In my review of last week’s episode, I complained about the marginalization of Number One. As it happens, Una Chin-Riley barely appears in this episode, too, but here I’m okay with it. The best-case scenario is that by 2266, Number One would be going instead by “Captain.” The worst-case scenario is hinted at by La’An’s comment about how Una can’t have visitors, and it’s played out at the very end of the episode when Batel is ordered to arrest Commander Chin-Riley for violating the Federation laws on genetic engineering.

While Number One is philosophical about the whole thing—she was ready to resign back in “Ghost of Illyria,” after all—Pike is livid, and the look of fury he gives Batel when she takes Una away makes it clear that a) he’s not giving up his first officer without a fight and b) Batel ain’t gettin’ any osso buco…

However, that’s our cliffhanger, as this is the season finale. We have to wait for whenever SNW season two drops to find out what happens next. (The season is still filming in Toronto as I type this.)

Stay tuned next week for my season one overview…

Keith R.A. DeCandido really loves osso buco, which is a veal shank slow-cooked in spices and vegetables, though he has never learned how to cook it.


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