Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 1 Ending Explained: Fight The Future

This post contains major spoilers for the season finale of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds."

The first season of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" came to a close this week with "A Quality of Mercy, an emotional episode that saw Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) face his future. The captain's cautionary tale began when the Enterprise crew and the crew of the U.S.S. Cayuga head to the Neutral Zone, a strip of space that's been a peaceful (albeit contested) area between Federation territory and the Romulan Star Empire for a century. There, he meets up with Commander Al-Salah, but their meeting goes sideways when the commander's eager young son stops by to pay his respects to Pike.

The boy's name strikes a chord with the captain, and just as he starts gushing about wanting to join Starfleet, Pike realizes this is one of the kids who will be on the training mission that leaves the Enterprise captain disfigured and several young trainees dead in seven years. If that doesn't ring an immediate bell to "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" viewers, that's because it's a plot that actually began unfolding in "Star Trek: Discovery" and was re-introduced in the pilot of episode of this show. When this series begins, Pike is crushed by the weight of this knowledge, having seen a glimpse of his future, but is unable to do anything about it.

This time around, he decides to try. He's in the middle of penning a message to the boy warning him not to join Starfleet when he's visited by a ghost of Starfleet future: himself. This version of Pike is older and more austere, and he also seems haunted by some terrible knowledge. He tells Pike to take time crystals, a relic he got from the Klingon monks of Boreth, and use them to see what the world will look like if the tragic incident Pike foresaw never comes to pass. "This is serious. This is end of the world stuff," older Pike tells younger, and it's clear this isn't going to be another fun dress-up episode.

Let's do the time warp again

Pike grabs the time crystal and is instantly pushed forward seven years, where he's officiating a wedding on the Enterprise (the episode is a clever alternate universe retelling of the Original Series episode "Balance of Terror," but the beauty of the writing is that you don't need to know that to follow and enjoy the story). Spock (Ethan Peck) is his number one in this version of the future, and he cleverly confides in him immediately. Spock, quite clever himself, lets Pike know the accident in question was six months ago, but neither the cadets nor Pike were there so no one got hurt. Thus, he reasons, whatever future Pike wants to show him involves a leadership decision Pike will make imminently, one he wouldn't have been able to make if he were out of commission after the accident.

It turns out, that leadership decision involves starting a galaxy-wide war. The Enterprise receives a distress signal from Commander Al-Salah, and he says several outposts in the Neutral Zone have been destroyed by an invisible ship. But the Enterprise isn't the only Federation vessel there to help: a young Captain James Kirk (Paul Wesley) and his ship the USS Farragut are there too, and he's ready to help despite instantly getting a bit of a side-eye from Pike. (In the original 1966 version of "Balance of Terror," Kirk commands the Enterprise and faces the Romulan vessel alone.)

This first glimpse at Wesley's Kirk is surprisingly no-nonsense. He's not nearly as hammy as William Shatner's take on the character could sometimes be, nor as rebellious as Chris Pine's modern take, but as his brother Sam (Dan Jeannotte) puts it, he "doesn't like to take the path everyone else does, and he doesn't like to lose." So far, he seems like an intelligent leader, albeit one who's a little less likely to bend to the wills of potential enemies than Pike is. I wonder how much this Kirk will line up with the one we see in the real timeline.

A grave miscalculation

The group discovers a stray Romulan warbird is responsible for the attack on the outpost. Both Kirk and Spock — and as a Spirk fan, I'm legally obligated to note that they barely even say a word to each other in this episode — think the Federation vessels should attack the Romulans to prevent an all-out war. Pike, however, thinks they should proceed more cautiously. After they attempt to de-cloak and neutralize the warbird, they end up taking hits to their own vessels, leaving the Farragut damaged beyond repair and the other two ships stuck in space.

In the end, Pike makes his decision, and he's wrong. He offers a two-hour truce during which all ships involved can get up and running again and treat their wounded. "In our culture, your words are a show of weakness," the Romulan commander explains. Both sides call in reinforcements for backup, although the Federation's back-up are actually a bunch of unmanned mining vessels meant to bluff a show strength (a quick-thinking trick from Kirk). A Romulan higher-up "culls" the vessel that was responsible for the initial attack, but Pike's attempts to keep peace only set her off. "What do Romulans care of peace?" she says, initiating an attack that will put an end to the 100 years of tentative calm and reignite a massive war.

This is where things really get tragic. The Enterprise is rocked with a blast that sends the world off its axis. Pike makes his way to the sick bay in the aftermath, amidst dust and flickering lights, and sees Nurse Chapel (Jess Bush) standing over a prone body. It's Spock, who had been trying to fix some of the vessel's machinery when the blast hit. He's lost a leg, fractured his spine, suffered cerebral trauma, and has severe radiation burns. This may just be an alternate reality here, but it's hard not to feel the real emotion when Chapel tells Pike he may not make it, and if he does, he will never fully recover. 

The chance for peace is a person, not a decision

This, then, is what Pike's future self wanted him to know. It's not that avoiding the training mission disaster meant he'd have to stop Kirk from acting rash, or talk the Romulans into peace: quite the opposite. It meant Spock would suffer instead of him, and that Pike would set off a chain reaction of seemingly endless slaughter and be left without his right-hand man to help pick up the pieces. Pike is still quietly reeling from this knowledge when he transports back to the present-day Enterprise via the time crystals. Frankly, viewers at home probably are too.

The captain seems to have learned the lesson he was meant to. He erases the message to the young cadet just as Spock comes in to talk to him. "I'm very glad to see you," Pike says, and Spock immediately knows something is up. The captain explains that the universe is telling him that fate can't be escaped, and that "even if I could get out of mine, it might just fall to someone else." Spock, who future Pike just called "The best chance at a lasting peace between the Federation and the Romulans," instantly catches on once again. "I believe I may owe you a debt of gratitude, captain. Although for precisely what, I do not know," he says. Pike starts to say something else, then stops himself and instead tells Spock he's very important to him. "As are you to me, Captain," Spock answers, before correcting himself to call the man by his first name. 

Aww. I say this with the utmost respect for all involved: Spirk is dead, long live Spike.

We're makin' memories

The first season of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" ends on a cliffhanger, with Una (Rebecca Romijn) arrested for hiding her Ilyrian heritage from the Federation. This is something that's been foreshadowed, both by Pike's future in which now-Commander La'an (Christina Chong) told him Una is in isolation, and by a plot earlier in the season when Pike decides not to report her according to outdated and xenophobic Federation policy.

Pike vows to help Una just before the credits roll. It's a good moment, but it's the one just before it that will stick with me during the off season. Pike heads to the bridge, where he shares a small but significant smile with each of his crew members in turn. You can tell they're a little bit baffled at his sudden sentimental mood, but still, it's an indelible, bittersweet moment. Melissa Carper's "Makin' Memories" plays over the scene as Pike takes the captain's chair, realizing, perhaps for the first time in his career, what it truly means to be willing to make a sacrifice for the betterment of all. "I'm makin' memories I'd like to remember/I'm meetin' new people I'd like to recall" Carper croons as Pike soaks it all in.

When it comes to making memories — as a crew, sure, but also with the Trek-loving audiences watching at home — the first season of "Star Trek: Strange New Worlds" did it with the best of them.