James Osborne reviews the season finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds…
As its debut season commenced, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds felt like it might be a make-or-break moment for the long-running franchise. The trilogy of rebooted Star Trek films had failed to generate any genuine momentum or significant enthusiasm, spluttering out with a still unresolved future. Star Trek: Discovery had proved to be generally little more than lukewarm, while Star Trek: Picard seemed completely bereft of passion, committed to telling uninspired, convoluted stories. Surprisingly, it was the irreverent adult-comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks that looked to inject some life back into the franchise, but it could never wield the same influence as the flagship, live-action series that have defined Star Trek’s past.
And then Star Trek: Strange New Worlds came along, and it dared to do something almost inconceivable. At the outset, the team behind the series promised that it would mark a return to an, episodic, story-of-the-week formula, with an optimistic (though not unchallenging) outlook. To give the series its due, it has mostly succeeded. At times, it’s succeeded excellently. The show looks great, it has a steady but fun tone, and it boasts a cast which includes some truly stand-out characters. Yes, it’s had bumps. But those bumps have mostly been easy to forgive, in the face of its overall charm.
Impressively, the season finale, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ might be the best of the bunch. In the finale, an unexpected encounter leads to Captain Pike believing that he may have found a way to cheat his destiny. That is, until his future self comes back to tell him it’s a bad idea. Future Pike (now an Admiral clad in a Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan-esque uniform) is forced to show his younger self – the Pike that we know – what will happen if he changes history, and he casts him into the future.
The resulting story involves time-jumping, alternate timelines, and brings back characters old and new. It’s a story ripped straight out of Star Trek’s past, but despite moments where it might seem like it’s about to teeter over the edge of contrivance and get lost in its many threads, ‘A Quality of Mercy’ manages to juggle its various elements with precision. It also brings in the Romulans as the main threat in the episode, and has some intense and enjoyable action set pieces.
The finale takes itself more seriously than some of the previous episodes, and undoubtedly that’s to its benefit. Moments of humour and levity have generally been well-placed, but have sometimes been on edge of feeling forced. But here, the tone is balanced to perfection. This allows the episode to treat its central story with the emotional complexity that it deserves.
That story belongs to Captain Pike, and that’s a good thing. The series started with his story, and the finale is the culmination of one of the season’s more successful and emotionally convincing through lines: Captain Pike’s struggle with the foreknowledge of his future. It ties a nice bow on his inner conflict, and hopefully, we’ll start to see the character more unshackled from that as season two arrives on screens.
The ending, though a classic Star Trek cliffhanger, does leave something to be desired. Commander Chin-Riley has essentially been ignored since her big episode ‘Ghosts of Illyria‘, and since that episode we haven’t seen her worry – or even reflect on – the reveal of her identity at all. That failure to develop her character is especially egregious because it was so obvious that the consequences of her reveal in ‘Ghosts of Illyria’ were yet to play out. And, like clockwork, at the end of the episode the character is detained and removed from the Enterprise for the crime of hiding her true identity. Perhaps the limitation of shorter seasons left the show’s team with little chance to explore the character, or maybe it was just a case of casual sloppiness. Either way, it left her final moment in the season falling slightly below par.
A character who was better served by the episode was Captain Kirk, helming the USS Farragut. After a season of underwhelming cameos, this one was by far the biggest risk. But, luckily for the finale, it was also the biggest success. This is due party to the confidence of Paul Wesley’s performance, who managed to get to the essence of Captain Kirk without ever resorting to impersonation. However, it doesn’t just succeed because of a strong performance. The episode’s big cameo works because it actually gave the character something to do; a reason to be there. He was more than just a callback.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds did make mistakes over the course of its first season – just like it made mistakes in its final episode. However, with the benefit of time and perspective, those mistakes never truly threatened to derail the series. Sure, the show can be derivative, and yes, some of the humour doesn’t land. But those are minor grievances, and the series should be given the benefit of the doubt, and time to find what works and what doesn’t. With ‘A Quality of Mercy’, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds’ first season ended as it began: leaving you excitedly wanting more.