Just a Quick Bit of Trek
Short Treks: Season 1
As I noted before, I wasn't a huge fan of the first season of Star Trek: Discovery. While the production values were great, and it was populated by game actors, the first season never really came together. There was an over-arching story the season wanted to tell, but it did it in such a rushed and half-assed fashion that I just never could really enjoy what I was watching. I assume a lot of that is due to complications behind the scenes, with original show-runner Bryan Fuller leaving part way into production due to creative differences. Whatever happened, Discovery's first season was hobbled from the word "go" and never quite recovered.
Still, it's Star Trek so I watched it all. By the end of the season I wasn't really impressed, but I was hopeful that Discovery could pull it together and maybe do better in future seasons. Well, now we have the first taste of the series to come, a set of four mini-sodes of Short Treks to tide us over until the new season starts. We're going to explore each episode to see if this is a indicator of a new direction for Discovery, or just more of the same.
Episode 1: "Runaway"
During a shift change, when all the crew are leaving a shuttle bay, a single storage pod opens, revealing a half-transparent alien inside. Elsewhere, newly-minted Ensign Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is having an internal debate about joining the Command Program in Starfleet. Her mother doesn't want Tilly to join the Command Program as she has her doubts that Tilly is up to the task. Tilly, naturally, feels like her mother is less than supportive. By chance, it's Tilly who discovers the alien in the Mess Hall, and once they get over their language barrier, Tilly and the alien, Po (Yadira Guevara-Prip), bond over the struggles they're feeling, without and within.
A mini-episode of Star Trek is never going to feel like a full-fledged adventure. They're produced on a budget, without a huge amount of fancy effects and a limited number of the cast showing up. In the cast of Discovery, though, I think the desire to shy away from the bombastic big stories, to scale back the cast and focus on a single member is the right choice. The whole first season of DSC was one long, planned "epic" (although, as we know from my review, I felt it was anything but epic). Most episodes focused on the main story (the Klingon War, which crossover with the Mirror Universe, and back). All but two episodes of the first season focused on the main plot, but for me the best episodes were the ones that ignored the main plot and just gave us one-off stories with the crew. You know, like a normal episode of Trek.
That's what I liked about this mini-episode. By allowing the episode to focus entirely on Tilly and Po, we got a close, intimate story of a crew member without all the overarching story and constant talk about "the mission" and what needed to happen next. Discovery hasn't yet proven it can do big epic stories but these smaller tales are it's bread and butter.
It's helps that Wiseman is great as Ensign Tilly. She was my favorite character in first season, the one character that wasn't so caught up in their own bull. She was bright, funny, and enjoyable. Plus, she was the kind of character I thought we would be getting from Discovery when it was originally pitched as a series about the lower decks (which, clearly, wasn't the show we actually got). Just seeing Starfleet from the perspective of a cadet was refreshing, and I wanted more of it.
I appreciated that Tilly is about the only crew member we really see. Everyone else is caught in glimpses and far away, leaving the focus entirely on Tilly and her adventure with Po. The episode allows her to work through her own issues while aiding Po, and the two bond in a way that feels natural. Plus, this episode is almost entirely Bechdel approved, without only a single mention of a dude at all (and even then in passing). I don't know if that was on purpose, but it was certainly a nice touch.
Of course, it's a mini-episode so it's doubtful this story will be of much consequence on Discovery as a whole. As it's own story, and to show the potential for what DSC/span> could be though? It's an absolute winner.
Episode 2: "Calypso"
Craft (Aldis Hodge) is a soldier, trapped in an escape pod and left floating out in space for a month. His ship eventually floats into range of the U.S.S. Discovery before it's pulled in. On board, Craft wakes up in sickbay only to discover that there's no one else on board. No one except Zora (Annabelle Wallis), the sentient voice of the computer. The ship was abandoned and left floating out in space for 1,000 years, ordered by the (now quite dead) captain to hold position. In that time she's grown self-aware, evolved emotions, and become a real person. And, during her time with Craft, she's become quite attached to him. However, Craft has to get home, so the two have to find a way to save him while saving her in the process.
This is, perhaps, one of the best episodes of Star Trek I've ever seen. The mystery of what's going on with Discovery gives way to an emotional, impactful episode about two people lost in space with no way home. A different version of this episode would focus not on the friendship (and romance) between the two characters but on trying to get Discovery back to her own time. It would be more focused on time travel, more willing to break rules and damn the consequences. In short, it would be the kind of episode you'd expect from Star Trek. "Calypso", though, is very different.
What I appreciate most is that the show never tries to make the story grander than it is. Sure, Discovery is lost, and we never find out why (and, I assume, never will). Sure, we want both of them to get a happy ending, to both go home (in time and in location). We want all this because the two characters are interesting, and funny, and have real chemistry between them, this despite the fact that one of the two is a voice from a computer. It's a tragic tale that sells itself on the small-scale relationship between the two.
It's impressive, really, when you consider that Craft has a war to fight and the Discovery has a mission it can never finish. Both a referenced but neither are resolved by episode's end. That's not the point of "Calypso". Instead, we're supposed to enjoy the presence of the two characters, and maybe think a little on what it means to be a ship's computer. If Zora was able to evolve herself, doesn't that mean that any of the ships could do so? What does that say about all the ships that have come before her, or since?
Even now, after the fact, I'm still thinking on "Calypso", still struck by the emotional resonance of the story. Sure, it's unlikely to have any impact of the actual Discovery series -- this either takes place long after that show ends, or is just one of a number of "potential" future for the ship -- but that doesn't diminish how good this story really is. If only every episode of Discovery could be this good.
Episode 3: "The Brightest Star"
In this third episode, we get an origin story for Saru (Doug Jones), the Kelpian commander of the U.S.S. Discovery. Years before Discovery, Saru was just another Kelpian on his home planet, a pre-warp (probably Bronze Age) society who farmed and fished the land. They were also cattle for the Ba'ul, a space-faring species who would, regularly, demand sacrifices from the Kelpians for feed their own society. When others of his species looked to the skies, they saw only predators, a balance of predator and prey that had to be maintained (like a religion). Saru, though, looked to the stars and saw hope. When a piece of Ba'ul technology dropped one day, Saru used it to build a beacon and contact the outside universe... and then he got a response.
Let's face it, "Calypso" is a hard act to follow. Any episode would have a hard time hitting anywhere near the emotional resonance of that episode, no mater how good it is in its own right. "The Brightest Star" isn't a bad episode by any stretch, but it's also a very basic, much more normal episode of Star Trek. An explorer yearns for adventure and then adventure comes for him; this is a tale that's been told many times before, and while Saru is a great character, that doesn't change the beats of the story at all. It's done well, but doesn't change the fact that it's been done many times before.
Thus, the weight of the episode falls entirely on Doug Jones. Jones is a great actor, make no mistake, but I feel like this episode lets him down. There's not enough meat here for him to really give a solid performance, no much for Saru to do beyond look at the starts and yearn. That's one emotion, and due to the docile nature of the Kelpians, it's the only one we get from him. Saru is much more interesting on Discovery where he's far later into his development, much more capable of having a full range of emotions, of wants and needs and desires. Doug Jones does what he can here, but it's just not enough.
"The Brightest Star" isn't bad, but even in a normal seasons of Discovery, where this plot was told as as a flashback B-plot during a bigger episode, this whole sequence would still be pretty boring. It's nice to spend time with Saru, I just wish he'd been given a more interesting origin than this.
Episode 4: "The Escape Artist"
Harcourt "Harry" Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson) has been captured, sold to a Tellarite (Harry Judge) for a large sum of money. The Tellarite is upset because Harry stole his ancestral cudgel (after sleeping with the Tellarite's sister, no less) and now he's turning Mudd over to the Federation for a cool 100,000 credits, the reward on Mudd's head. Through the journey back to Federation space, we see Mudd's various attempts at escape (along with his previous attempts at escape the other times he's been captured by bounty hunters). And through it all, Mudd remains Mudd.
I will admit that the thought of a full episode all about Harry Mudd did not sound like a great time. Mudd is a character best experienced in small doses -- I know he's a fan favorite, but he's never really been my cup of tea. That said, fifteen minutes with the guy did sound doable, and "The Escape Artist" certainly does put the many facets of Mudd to good use.
Of course, that's all due to Rainn Wilson (taking over the role from original actor Roger C. Carmel in The Original Series). Wilson has an absolute blast playing the sniveling, conniving, scheming Mudd. He plays Mudd with charisma, turning what could be a one-note character (in the wrong hands) into a fun and funny charmer. I'm sure if I had to spend an entire 45 minutes with Mudd he'd quickly overstay his welcome, but here, in a small burst such as this, he's a treat.
Plus, the episode has a good hook along with plenty of laughs. There's also a great ending to the episode (which I don't want to spoil) that really adds a nice bow to the whole proceeding. All in all, "The Escape Artist" is a solid little episode and a fun way to end this mini-season of Discovery.
I feel like these are the kinds of stories Discovery should be telling. Sure, "The Brightest Star" wasn't the best of the set, but the rest of the run was solid, and at times amazing. While these aren't indicative of how the new season will tell big stories (these are all B-plots at best in a larger episode), it does indicate that the writers are at least getting a better feel for the universe of Discovery. Maybe the next season will suck, just like the last one did, but right now I'm feeling hopeful.
Now I'm going to go back and watch "Calypso" again. Damn it, that episode is so good.