While initially sceptical about the value of quarter-hour Star Trek “shorts”, Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman’s “Runaway” gradually put me at ease. They’re ways to experiment in the Trek universe, but also provide backstory and information it may be difficult to crowbar into an ordinary episode. And sometimes you have a fun idea that doesn’t warrant more than 10–15 minutes. Or, if we’re being cynical, it also helps CBS All Access to have “bonus content” to lure back all subscribers who cancelled their subscription when Star Trek: Discovery wrapped its first season!
“Runaway” finds Tilly (Mary Wiseman) encountering a young alien named Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po (Supernatural’s Yadira Guevara-Prip) in the mess hall after the stranger sneaked aboard on a shuttlecraft. Simplifying her name to “Po”, Tilly strikes up a friendship with this initially skittish young interloper, who can turn invisible, and they bond over the similarities in their family lives before Tilly helps Po get back to her homeworld.
There isn’t much more to this short, directed by Maja Vrvilo, but seeing as Tilly was one of the shallowest characters on Discovery last season it’s nice to have insight into her background. We even meet her pushy mother, played by Mimi Kuzyk in hologram form. It’s a cute enough story with enough story to fill the runtime, although it’s difficult to feel a deep connection between Tilly and Po because of the shortened runtime — ironically. I also enjoyed one particularly cool moment involving the universal translator kicking in and transforming Po’s foreign clicks into human speech.
An outlier of these four shorts is “Calypso”, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) from a story he and Sean Cochran cooked up. Unlike the other three instalments, this one doesn’t feature any of Discovery’s regular characters and makes the bold decision to set its story a thousand years in the future, for a tale inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey.
These shorts are canonical in Trek, so it’s brave of them to tell a story where the USS Discovery has been parked somewhere in deep space for the past millennium. Maybe the producers will come to regret this short’s existence (which may not even be seen by very many people) because now they can’t ever destroy the Discovery, and the series itself must somehow end with Discovery mothballed close to Alcor IV? Or will they maybe have to deliver a later episode that provides the backstory to this short?
Arriving aboard the derelict USS Discovery is Craft (Straight Outta Compton’s Aldis Hodge), a survivor of a war who escaped in a pod. Investigating this abandoned ghost ship, Craft comes to realise that the only other “occupant” is Zora (Annabelle Wallis) — the ship’s artificially intelligent computer, which I assume has evolved to become sentient over the centuries (but it’s not made clear). And so begins a touching and fascinating love story between this battle-scarred man and a kindhearted machine, as Craft is nursed back to health by a disembodied female voice that can cater to his every need — and even project an image of “herself” to be his dance partner in one delightful sequence on the Bridge.
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi (Falling Skies), “Calypso” is an episode that will provoke a lot of nerdgasms (this is the further into Trek’s imaginary timeline than we’ve ever been), while also making you wish the excellent Aldis Hodge could somehow return by playing his own ancestor. I’m also even more excited for the upcoming miniseries focusing on Captain Picard because Chabon is part of the writing staff.
“The Brightest Star” ✭✭✭✩✩
The only Short Trek that provides useful information about a regular character is “The Brightest Star”, which concerns how Saru (Doug Jones) came to join Starfleet. The short spends time on his homeworld of Kaminar and reveals how his faint-hearted species — the Kelpians — live in the knowledge they’ll one day be harvested as food for a predatory race called the Ba’ul.
It’s a little like Logan’s Run (1976), with Saru going against his upbringing to send a distress call out into deep space seeking rescue from his grisly fate. I wish it had dug into the horror of an intelligent species that’s been bred for food, brainwashed to accept whatever awaits, but there just wasn’t time.
Written by Bo Yeon Kim and Erika Lippoldt, this could and perhaps should have been extended into a more effective flashback episode. It seems strange that Saru, one of Discovery’s most popular characters, has such an important piece of his personal history explained in a short so few people will see — not helped by the fact Netflix can’t stream these shorts overseas because they’re a CBS All Access exclusive. The story itself isn’t anything special, feels quite inert, and avoids a more interesting tale in the subtext, but I appreciated the information it provided about Saru’s species and how he avoided winding up on a Ba’ul dinner plate — some of which was very unexpected.
I hope Discovery picks up on this short for a “sequel”, perhaps with a story where Saru meets the Ba’ul race and decides to liberate the rest of his species?
“The Escape Artist” ✭✭✩✩✩
Easily the most tedious instalment of Short Treks is “The Escape Artist”, which sees the return of conman Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson) in an episode directed by the former star of The Office himself.
I don’t like the braggadocious Mudd character (as played by Roger C. Carmel) in The Original Series, and Discovery turning him into a slightly younger and thinner “Han Solo”-type still doesn’t interest me. The story here is a knockabout comedy about Mudd being captured for bounty by a Tellarite called Tevrin Krit (Harry Judge) for stealing his family’s “sacred cudgel”, with flashbacks to the other times this happened before he escaped. It’s paced well and has a few moments to raise a smile, but it was ultimately a bit disposable.
There’s a weird twist in the tale, too, which might’ve worked better if I’d been interested in what was happening until that rug-pull. But it was slightly irritating how the twist ending tramples over Trek canon about The Next Generation’s Data being the galaxy’s first android, without spoiling things too much. I can forgive Discovery wanting to do snazzier things with the designs and aesthetic of their show (which is set only slightly before the primary-coloured ’60s futurism of The Original Series), but that seems to be taking things a step too far, no?
All images © CBS Television Studios.