This Star Trek: Strange New Worlds article contains spoilers.
Early in Star Trek: The Original Series, it wasn’t exactly clear which nefarious alien species was truly the biggest threat to the Federation. While it’s easy to say the Klingon Empire was always the default antagonist of Starfleet in the Classic Trek era, sleeping on the Romulans would be a mistake. In fact, one of the most nuanced, thrilling episodes of TOS is the season 1 banger “Balance of Terror,” which first introduced this alien race.
In the Strange New Worlds finale, Captain Pike re-visits — or more accurately pre-visits — the events of “Balance of Terror,” but this time, in an alternate scenario in which he’s still the captain of the Enterprise in 2266, not James T. Kirk. As you can imagine, this poses a major problem for the Star Trek timeline, especially when a crucial decision Pike needs to make in the present will determine which future will actually come to pass.
Here’s how Strange New Worlds specifically altered the events of “Balance of Terror” and what it means for the canon going forward…
Seven Years Into “The Future”
So far, the vast majority of Strange New Worlds takes place in 2259, about 6 years before Captain Kirk’s earliest TOS adventure on the Enterprise in “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” which is set in 2265. “Balance of Terror” takes place a year later in 2266, meaning “the future” Pike is sent to by his older self is roughly in the middle of TOS season 1. This is why Uhura is a full lieutenant, why Spock is the first officer, and why, later in the episode, we hear (but don’t see) Scotty talking to Spock as they perform repairs on the ship.
Everything that happens in this episode is meant to parallel the events of “Balance of Terror,” only this time, it asks the question: what if Pike was still captain and not Kirk? For those who have watched “Balance of Terror” a billion times, this will be obvious, right down to moments in which the dialogue is identical.
If you’re still confused as to how Pike can be playing out the events of a TOS episode in which he was not originally a part of, Spock actually explains it pretty perfectly: “All that we can surmise is that in the Prime future, some other captain of the Enterprise must have commanded it differently.”
What Did Pike Do Differently Than Kirk With the Romulans?
Because Captain Kirk (Paul Wesley) does arrive in this episode, while in command of the USS Farragut, you might wonder what makes Pike’s approach to dealing with the Romulans significantly different from Kirk’s in “Balance of Terror.” Mostly it comes down to two things: timing and the fact that Pike tries to outright negotiate for peace.
After the Farragut is destroyed, Kirk gets into Pike’s face and says, “You flinched!” Pike is taken aback, and can’t believe that an entire terrible future could hinge on “a second’s delay.” But if you go back and watch “Balance of Terror,” what you’ll notice is just how quickly Kirk does everything relative to fighting and chasing the lone Romulan warship. In fact, early in the “Balance of Terror,” Kirk orders phasers to fire blindly in the hopes of hitting the Romulan ship. Because Pike is in charge in “A Quality of Mercy,” that obviously doesn’t happen. Which leads to the next big change.
After Pike and the crew discover the Romulans look like Vulcans (same as in TOS), Pike tries to appeal to the Romulan Commander’s good sense and calls for a ceasefire. This seems like progress, but, in the end, is what messes everything up. Although the Romulan Commander admires and respects Pike, just as he did Kirk in the Prime timeline, one of the underlings on the Romulan ship rats everyone out. After Pike and the Romulan Commander agree to the ceasefire, the rest of the Romulan fleet is alerted and determines the Federation is weak. So the Romulans decide to launch a full-scale war against the Federation.
In “Balance of Terror,” Kirk defeated the Romulan ship through quick thinking (and a lot of luck), which convinced the Romulans the Federation was a serious rival that shouldn’t be attacked outright. Essentially, in “Balance of Terror,” the Romulans tested Starfleet and Starfleet passed the test. In “A Quality of Mercy,” Starfleet fails the test and the result is war.
Future Pike’s World
It’s tough to say exactly what year Future Pike is from in this episode. But because he’s rocking a modified version of the “monster maroon,” movie-era uniforms, the 2280s is a good guess. If that Pike is from a Wrath of Khan future in which the Federation is in a perpetual war with the Romulans, then that timeline is likely much worse than even the “Yesterday’s Enterprise” timeline from The Next Generation. More to the point, Future Pike tells our Pike that the only hope for peace with the Romulans is Spock, which also references The Next Generation, specifically “Unification I and II.”
Before “A Quality of Mercy,” a lot of fans might not have considered just how pivotal “Balance of Terror” was in the larger political scheme of the Star Trek galaxy. But if you go back to the 1967 novelization of the episode, written by James Blish, in the first Star Trek book ever, you’ll find this is the last line: “The Second Romulan War was over. And never mind the dead; officially, it had never begun.”
The first Romulan War was fought from 2156 to 2160 after the majority of Star Trek: Enterprise. And as the Blish book makes clear, the “Second Romulan War” never happened. And that’s because Kirk prevented it. “A Quality of Mercy” presents the opposite of that outcome.
Pike Has Still Changed the TOS Timeline…Slightly
Even though Pike ultimately prevents this alternate future from happening, and decides not to write a letter to Maat Al-Salah, accepting the fate he glimpsed back in Discovery season 2, this episode still leaves us with a slightly altered “present” in 2259. Yes, everything has been reset, and Pike will (eventually) leave the Enterprise, making way for Kirk and the “correct” events of “Balance of Terror.” But now Pike knows all of that will happen.
Pike also knows that Romulans look like Vulcans, a fact he’ll seemingly have to keep to himself for the next seven years since no one in Starfleet is supposed to actually know what they look like until “Balance of Terror.” Still, fans have debated for years, did Spock really not know about the Romulans? Because if Pike and Spock do any more mind-melding before the entire run of Strange New Worlds, it feels possible, even likely, that Pike might let slip that one little pointy-eared detail about Spock’s Romulan cousins.