Friday, July 22, 2022

Strange New Worlds, Season 1: A Quality of Mercy

Strange New Worlds, Season 1
"A Quality of Mercy"
Airdate: July 7, 2022
10 of 10 produced
10 of 10 aired

Introduction

Pike receives a visit from someone very familiar, bearing a dire warning about his future...

And the visitor is just so darned handsome!



Writing

Matthew: I pretty thoroughly enjoyed this episode, and while there are many good things about it, I think it's mainly for one reason: it's about one thing. It did not get ceaselessly bogged down by M'Benga's daughter, La'An's PTSD, Uhura's.... whatever her issue is, and so on (until the very end, and I will get there). Instead, we had an extended meditation on Pike's choices, told through the lens of a pretty faithful remake of TOS "Balance of Terror." It's almost like the Star Trek of old, in which we were given episodes that focused on one character and one plot line.  I guess I'll start with the remake aspect of things first. They're finally retelling a story without ruining it. Guess what - people still actually have never seen a Romulan. They still actually created the Neutral Zone after a sub-light-speed war.  There are still Neutral Zone outposts sunk deep into asteroids. And the Romulans are still using a blob energy weapon. It's almost like.... you don't have to ignore or "update" past continuity in the service of a story. Anyone who enjoyed the original will be tickled by the alternate perspective on the story, but anyone who hasn't seen it still gets an exciting story. Why is this so hard for this creative staff?

Kevin: I think the set up of it already being an alternate time lets them have their cake and eat it too, since the changes appear conscious and don't implicitly change the original episode. The riff on Balance of Terror was also tonally well achieved, both in writing and production design. Having Ortegas stand in for Stiles, down to the 60s dramatic delivery seems to tip this more into 'fantasy' but everything pretty much worked. All the players still played the game based on their well established priors in both SNW and TOS, so it was actually enjoyable to turn off the subroutine checking for continuity flaws and just watch the damn episode.

Matthew: So the "hook" here is a time travel yarn. But it's more along the lines of "Tapestry" than it is "City on the Edge of Forever." Future Pike, not disabled, contacts present Pike to prevent him from changing the timeline in order to avoid his impending disaster. Apparently, Pike notified all the cadets involved, everyone avoided the disaster, and Pike remained captain of the Enterprise. But this led to very bad consequences which are rather undefined by the story. I guess the Federation went to war with the Romulans, Spock was injured, and thus bad things occurred. But Pike himself asks the obvious question - if you're here to warn me, how bad could it be? I think this aspect of the story could have stood more development. We get no moment like Crazy Beard Riker in the Borg War reality to really emotionally crystallize why things must change. Speaking of crystals, the Klingon Time Crystals from Discovery are back again, and they're just as dumb this time. I say this because their rules are ill defined, not because I prejudice prior magic story crutches over current ones. Is the crystal allowing Future Pike to literally travel back in time? Could present Pike actually die in his trip/vision.whatever it is? Does he replace another Pike? Who knows. 

Kevin: I think I basically took it on faith that Balance of Terror leading to a shooting war is BAD per se, but I take your point. Maybe the Federation forced into a war too soon meaningfully threatens the Federation's existence. And I split the baby between time travel and vision by declaring it an 'accurate vision.' Even if he's not there in some literal sense, we can take the sequence of events as a faithful narrative of his choices. To the extent it's unclear, I don't think it clouds or changes the core dramatic point, which is Pike's choices.

Matthew: I guess the overall theme of the story is that Pike's approach to situations does not lend itself to the optimal outcome, whereas Kirk's does. Pike tries to negotiate with the Romulans, whereas in the original Balance of Terror, Kirk engages in a deterrent strike. I don't quite know how to feel about this theme.  Are we to take this as an indictment of the series main character's command style? Is Pike always wrong to seek compromise, or is he just wrong in this case, and lacks the prudence to use restraint at the right times and for the right reasons? Then there's the "vision" aspect of things - Spock tells Pike that he should not do anything differently, and they should use this opportunity to discover what is so bad about the world that Future Pike came from. So is this a simulation? It kind of dragged me out of the story emotionally - I don't need to care about the characters who live here because it's a sort of dry run. An episode like Yesterday's Enterprtise did a better job of creating emotional stakes for the alternate reality crew, especially the Enterprise C crew and Alternate Tasha Yar.

Kevin: I was initially also bothered by the apparent ding on choosing the peaceful solution, but a friend pointed out you can chalk it more up to Picard's lesson to Wesley in Coming of Age. You can do everything right and still lose. That is not a failing. That is life. I pointed out that could have made that point more clearly, and he responded he was happy for once for nuTrek not to shovel the moral down his throat. Upon reflect, I largely, if not entirely agree with that. I think they do tag Kirk's success as a matter of luck as much as skill, and I think even Shatner's Kirk would admit he was the right guy in the right place at the right time as much as anything. I think they could have shaded that Pike was simply unlucky in this iteration of the timeline a little more clearly without making the moral too painfully blunt, but I will say that this episode did improve upon reflection. When I looked past the enjoyable canon-y bits with the Romulans, there was a solid story that actually bore this kind of analysis in an enjoyable way. I think what basically works for me is that it resolves the fate vs. free will problem of Pike knowing his fate. He can change his fate; it just comes at a cost. Matt said this wasn't like City on the Edge of Forever, but I think I can build case for it being an interesting inversion of it. Imagine in that episode if Edith Keeler had been the one to discover the future. What choices would she make? I said before that revealing Pike's fate to him in Discovery was at least an interesting way of dealing with the audience knowing the end. It makes the drama of Pike's journey how he processes the information he has, and that is something we haven't seen yet. Season 1 of SNW managed to mine some solid and relatable character drama out of Pike wrestling with that reality. He could change it if he really wanted to, but will he, knowing the cost to others? And I cared about watching him wrestle with that to the point that there's a part of me that wants him to pull a rabbit out of the hat and somehow both preserve the timeline and dodge the accident. And that means they basically succeeded in their goal of dramatizing Pike's time on the Enterprise.

Matthew: With all of my criticisms spoken (save one), the nuts and bolts of this plot were very enjoyable - as they should be, since they're cribbing from one of the all time great TOS episodes. But this episode has its own merits beyond pure repetition - they surprisingly got the James T. Kirk characterization down pretty well. This is not the Dumbass Kirk caricature from the Abrams movies. He's not a womanizer, he is a canny strategist, he is bold but not foolish.

Kevin: I was surprised as well at how well they landed TOS-era Kirk. The character walked a fine line between bold and brash then and did so here. The solution of assuming the Romulans couldn't know the difference between a mining robot and weapons platform is a very Kirk-style solution.

Matthew: My last criticism is saved for the final scene of the episode - Pike's main squeeze beaming over to apprehend Una for... being born Illyrian? I think this scene distracted from the main story, serving only as a teaser for the next season. Not really a cliffhanger per se, in the tradition of season ending two-parters, but a story beat divorced from everything else. And it's not a story beat I like. didn't the New United Nations declare in 2036 that "no Earth citizen can be made to answer for the crimes of their race or forebearers?" Isn't the constitution of the Federation littered with these sorts of guarantees of human rights? I just don't like the story idea much at all of punishing someone for decisions made by their parents.

Kevin: I think it's more that she lied about it, like Simon Tarses in Drumhead, but I agree, it's a weak tag to end the season on. We know she'll eventually get back to her post, even if we hadn't seen The Cage/Menagerie. But who knows, maybe they're alternate universe Measure of a Man trial will be really fun too.

Acting

Matthew: So this is actually (finally) a single character focus show, and Anson Mount certainly does what he needs to do to anchor it. Whether or not I understood the rules of the scenario (I did not), I certainly understood his emotional journey through it.  His conflict with Kirk was also well done. Paul Wesley did a good job of making his Kirk a character, and not a mere impression of William Shatner. I understood his motives and his personality. Do I like his tightly knitted brow? Not really, because I have studied Shatner's face so intently over hundreds of hours of viewing. But I actually wanted to see more of him, and that's an achievement. 

Kevin: Anson Mount is really good. He has really given Pike a depth and heart that make me care about him. And all of his charm is funneled into caring for his crew in a way that easily reads as strongly as Picard or Janeway. It's really a stellar performance anchoring the entire season. I enjoyed Wesley as Kirk as well and I think there were actually good notes of Kirk's TOS style in this episode. I wonder if they will tamp down the knitted brow when is presumably back next season as a Lieutenant on the Faragut rather than its captain.

Matthew: I thought the Romulan Commander was well played by Matthew McFadzean. I mean, he's no Mark Lenard, and he wasn't given the same depth of scenes, but I had a fair idea what was motivating him. The Praetor, however, did not do it for me. The Moe haircut didn't help, but I didn't buy her as wily and complex in the way I did the Commander.

Kevin: Yeah..."be Mark Lenard" is a tall order and even if he didn't quite get there, he was a good character in his own right. I think was a little done with the homage by the time we got to the "in another life we could be friends" line, but overall he was really good, especially with his insubordinate subordinate. The Praetor was a miss if only because there was no cat and mouse like with Tomalak or the Commander. It went right to a sneering ten, and it didn't land.

Production Values

Matthew:
Shakycam during dialogue scenes was evident, and it was clearly a choice made to inject tension into scenes - it was used during arguments between characters. I found it lazy, unnecessary, and distracting. I'm so sick of it. This episode also featured flashing strobes in the Sickbay scene, another lazy crutch I'm well and truly tired of.

Kevin: I will say there were a number of production choices from framing and zooming in that were 1:1 copies of their TOS counterparts that made me smile like an idiot. In terms of recreating the feel of a TOS episode, this is right up there with Trial and Tribbleations.

Matthew: Space battles in Kurtzman Trek are dumb, and they remain dumb here. They all involve a hundred or more ships zipping  into position immediately, as if they were emerging from hyperspace, and then arranging themselves into two huge blobs of ships that face each other. Then they use pew pew laser beams instead of long-lasting phasers, because it's more cool (read: like Star Wars), I guess. How do all the ships know where they're going to end up? Predictably, when the battle began, it became impossible to tell what was where.

Kevin: The space battle bothered me more because of the dialogue. Maybe I missed something, but the Praetor seemed to think the Enterprise was in a position to surrender to her fleet but also that they had not crossed the neutral zone, and unless the Neutral Zone is an inch wide, I didn't get that. I agree that making these Star Wars fighters instead of submarines chasing each other is a choice I do not respond to.

Matthew: They got Uhura's green earrings right. The Jeffries tube looked great. But why avoid showing Scotty, instead using a silly voice actor to approximate him? The ship designs were pretty good, at least until they all crowded the screen in an unintelligible morass.

Kevin: The earrings and riff on the uniform collar were great. I liked but didn't love the take on the TOS movie uniform. I LOVED seeing it in such high def, but I think they were going for leather panels instead of all fabric, and don't get me wrong, Mount looked really great in it, but with a chest like that, what doesn't he look great in? But it was a little too much texture on texture for me. Still, it was a better adaptation than Disco's asymmetrical TOS uniforms in season 2.

Conclusion

Matthew: This is far and away the best episode of this short season. The fan service was on point, and the overall story was thoroughly entertaining.  It was also well acted and cast, and they got Kirk's character right. They didn't answer the sorts of operational "rules" questions that I expect Classic Trek to, and the proceedings suffered slightly for it.  I was also unclear what the takeaway lesson is, outside of "don't change the time line." Is Pike bad at his job? So overall, I'm at a 4. Imperfect but quite good. I kind of wish the series would end on this note - since it neatly completes the Pike story line introduced in the pilot - whether he should accept his fate or try to alter it. Oh, well. I guess we'll get the Una racism story we've all been hankering for next season.

 Kevin: Even when the show does well, it can't just be a credit to the show or evidence they can, in fact, make a good show, can it, Matthew? :P 

I am, obviously much more upbeat on this season. Even when other episodes were not plumbing the depths I think they could, just about every episode of the season was enjoyable to watch, populated by characters who were, even if they were being sketched quickly by the story and relying on the strength of the actor, still well realized in a way that naturally evoked an emotional response in me. It is not a fun time right now, and this show was fun. Do I think they could marry the fun with a little more depth? Sure, and happily this episode bears that out. Still, with the exception of Hemmer's death, there's not really an episode I'm mad at, just ones that weren't as great as they could be, but I do see the potential consistently. And honestly, even if the show doesn't improve in these spots, I still enjoyed watching these characters and actors so much, I would keep coming back. As I said to Matthew in one of our many conversations about this show, I would watch Captain Daddy make waffles for his friends every day for the rest of my life. 

Coming back to this episode specifically, it is a good character story, acted well, and set in a pretty thoroughly achieved love letter to a classic TOS episode that never once made me wonder how it fit into this series or any other. I agree that there are flabby points, but if they gave me this every week, I would be a happy camper. I give this a four as well for a total of 8.

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