With the season one finale of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, “A Quality of Mercy,” we’ve not only met our new young James T. Kirk for the first time, played by Paul Wesley, but we’ve revisited one of the most beloved episodes of the original series, season one’s “ Balance of Terror.” And that entire episode’s importance to the overall Star Trek canon has now been reframed for all time. But the Strange New Worlds season finale also dealt with Captain Pike’s knowledge of his grisly future fate.
The Heavy Burden of Captain Christopher Pike
Ever since he appeared on Star Trek: Discovery, Pike has been aware of his future fate, thanks to Klingon time crystals. As seen on Star Trek: The Original Series, Pike will one day save several Starfleet cadets from a reactor accident. We saw this backstory detailed in the The Original Series episode “ The Menagerie.” But although he saves some of the cadets, others don’t make it. And Pike suffers terrible radiation injuries that leave his body useless.
In “A Quality of Mercy,” Pike tried to change that fate, not for himself, but for two young cadets who he knows don’t survive. But an older version of himself (in a Star Trek movie era uniform) arrived from the future (again, using time crystals). He showed him why changing his timeline would be disastrous, and takes him seven years into the future. This brings us straight to “Balance of Terror.”
A WWII Submarine Movie in Space
“Balance of Terror” was the ninth episode produced for the original series, although it was the fourteenth aired. Its main influences were the World War II submarine films The Enemy Below and Run Silent, Run Deep. Like the submarine movies it was based on, “Balance of Terror” focused on two commanders of opposing vessels, Captain Kirk and an unnamed Romulan commander (Mark Lenard, who later played Spock’s father Sarek). Each was in a battle to outthink the other and survive. Both commanders were strategic geniuses, who admitted they might be friends in another reality.
Most importantly however, this episode introduced the Romulan Star Empire to Star Trek canon. It also established the century-long cold war that existed between them and the Federation. Not only did it introduce the Romulans, but it introduced the idea that Vulcans and Romulans were genetically related. And that the Romulans were the result of an early Vulcan colonization period. (Later Star Trek series fleshed this out more). In the episode, Kirk’s actions prevented a new sustained conflict between the Federation and the Romulans. But Kirk prevented it due to his daring move to attack them before they could return home to Romulus.
“Balance of Terror,” The Remix
In “A Quality of Mercy,” Pike took a different approach to deal with the same problem. In 2266, he’s still in command of the Enterprise, six months after he was meant to have departed as her Captain. Because the accident now never happened. It means he remained the Captain when the Romulans returned. And he decided to take a far more measured response to their aggression, which left several Earth outposts destroyed.
Although many of the “future” scenes play out just as in in “Balance of Terror,” there were some changes. Lt. Ortegas was still on the Enterprise, which she was not in Kirk’s time. She filled the role of the very anti-Romulan Lt. Stiles in the original series. Also, there was no Lt. Sulu at the helm. Perhaps he was someone Kirk brought on board or promoted.
But certain scenes played out exactly the same. The dialogue of Starfleet Outpost 4’s Commander Hanson was word-for-word the same as it was on the original Star Trek episode. When we saw the Romulan’s true appearance, Strange New Worlds used the same music as “Balance of Terror.” They also recreate the zoom-in on Spock’s raised eyebrow—some of you may only know this as an often overused meme.
But after this scene, things began to play out differently from the history we knew. Pike, a man of peace, wanted to maintain diplomacy at all costs. He believed he could reason with any enemy. So he tried extending an olive branch to the Romulans, despite their aggressive acts. The Romulan Captain was like-minded and receptive to this, But that did not hold true for the rest of his crew.
The Right Captain for the Wrong Time
When Captain Kirk arrived, in command of the U.S.S. Farragut, (a ship he served on as a junior officer), he suggested to Pike that he should make bolder, more aggressive stances with the Romulans. Although the Romulans destroy the Farragut, Kirk and his crew survive. And many of Kirk’s “out of the box” ideas ended up benefiting Pike. But as Pike had the final word, his original plans remained. This was ultimately a mistake. It results in Spock sustaining grave injuries, and it plunges the Federation into war with Romulus. The war took millions of lives on both sides.
When Pike returned to his present, he realizes he must fulfill his destiny. Even if it means that some people will die. The cost is much greater than if he chose to stay alive. Christopher Pike is a great Captain. Only one season of Strange New Worlds has shown us that already. But he’s clearly older than Kirk, and a little less aggressive. This can be a good thing. But not when faced with a deadly and intractable enemy. Pike now has to live with the fact that a younger, brasher man will not only save the Enterprise, but save the Federation from a costly war.
How this all plays out over the course of Strange New Worlds is still a mystery. But what is not a mystery is that fans now know that one classic stand-alone episode from 1966 is the turning point for all of Star Trek’s future history.