A few posts back, I said episode 4 of this show, "Memento Mori," was "the direct descendant of the original series' 'Balance of Terror.' " That sentiment was accurate at the time--but this episode stepped up and said, "Hold my beer."
This episode is a retelling of "Balance of Terror" in an alternate timeline, where Christopher Pike is the captain that fateful day the Romulans attacked Federation outposts bordering the Neutral Zone instead of James T. Kirk. Pike is shown this alternate future from his own future-Admiral self (dressed in the red admiral's outfit from The Wrath of Khan) to prevent past-Pike from taking a step that will wreck the timelines as we know them: to attempt to save one of the cadets who dies in the accident that disables Pike seven years in the future. Admiral Pike plunks Captain Pike in the alternate scenario and forces him to see it play out, and he (and we) see what the consequences of him attempting to evade his fate are.
Parts of this are very fan-servicey (including a voiceover in the alt-timeline from an unseen Scottish engineer who protests, when Spock growls at him, "I'm an engineer, not a miracle worker") but most of it holds together well, mainly due to Anson Mount's performance. He really has been the MVP of this entire first season. He approaches the crisis true to the character we have been shown all along--a cautious captain who always tries diplomacy first, and falls back to violence as a last result. This is who he is, and it's not really his fault that his nature is so ill-suited to this situation. But unfortunately it is, and we see the grim results of that--when it's Spock who's catastrophically injured during the Romulan attack, not Pike, and that removal of Spock from all the things we know he will subsequently do results in the horrific future that Admiral Pike has been sent back to prevent.
And, of course, we get a surprise visit from a young alternate James T. Kirk, who took a different route to the captain's chair in command of the Farragut, which came to assist Enterprise during the crisis. The Farragut is destroyed and the survivors beamed aboard Enterprise, and Kirk comes up with a magnificent bluff that nearly saves the day, were it not for the Romulans deciding the Federation is weak and declaring war on them. In thinking over this appearance by the new Kirk, Paul Wesley, I am....underwhelmed, shall we say. The actor didn't try to imitate William Shatner, which is a good and necessary thing, but his interpretation of the character didn't make much of an impression on me either. He certainly didn't do as fine a job with a legacy character as Ethan Peck and Celia Rose Gooding are doing with Spock and Uhura respectively. Still, since Kirk is supposed to be in Strange New Worlds' second season, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt to see if he can develop further.
(And the new actor hired to play the Romulan commander paled before the magnificence of Mark Lenard's portrayal. I almost wish they could've done some Uncanny Valley stuff and CGI'd Lenard into those scenes, since they were line-for-line recreations of the original.)
The season also ends on a cliffhanger, as Una Chin-Riley is arrested for hiding the fact that she is Illyrian. This is hinted at by the alternate La'an (who was aboard Farragut) when Pike asks if she's talked to Una and is told "she's not allowed visitors." In the middle of the crisis, Pike doesn't have time to unravel what's going on, but we can see from the look on his face as Una is taken away that he's going to raise all sorts of hell over this.
Altogether, I think this was a successful first season, if a bit uneven. It's certainly been better than most Star Trek series are right out of the gate--The Next Generation's first season was famously crappy, Patrick Stewart notwithstanding (we shall not talk about the second season of Picard, which I dislike so much I haven't been able to write about its finale). Hopefully if what happened with Una is what starts off the second season, we will a) be able to explore her character more, which was shamefully lacking this season; and b) move in a bit more of an original direction.