Star Trek Short Treks (SHO)

RunawayCalypsoThe Brightest StarThe Escape ArtistQ&AThe Trouble with EdwardAsk NotThe Girl Who Made the StarsEphraim and DotChildren of Mars

 

Runaway

Synopsis

"Runaway"

Ensign Sylvia Tilly talks to her mother about the upcoming command training program, but does not receive the desired moral support from her. She sits down to drink an espresso when the food synthesizers in the mess hall go crazy and eject random food. An alien stowaway appears, according to the tricorder readings a Xahean female of about 17 years. The alien introduces herself as Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po. Despite her young age, she has already developed a method to recrystallize dilithium, which is a crucial technology for her world that has just developed warp drive. Yet, Po has run away from her duties on the planet. Tilly finds out that Po is "strategically important" for Xahea, but as Po does not trust anyone else, she does not report the intruder to her superiors. When Tilly is about to beam her back to her planet, Po reveals that she is going to be the queen of her people and that she ran away from the coronation.

Commentary

Short Treks is a new series format that was conceived to bridge the time between the first and the second season of Discovery. The series consists of four concluded episodes of only 10 to 15 minutes, each of which focuses on one character. The series premiere, "Runaway", spotlights Sylvia Tilly. It is set some undefined time after her promotion to ensign in "Will You Take My Hand?".

Tilly has become a fan favorite in Discovery's first season. However, we never learned a lot about her, except that she possesses a quick apprehension but tends to be awkward in her daily routine. We also know that she doesn't get along well with her mother. "Runaway" ties in very well with these known facts, and further elaborates on Tilly's motivation.

The clear intent of the story is to show that, despite her alien nature, Po is in a somewhat similar situation. She too wants to take a different path than the one that is predetermined. But that's it for the similarities. Po is a teenage girl who runs away from her family and her family's expectations, without any kind of plan. In this regard she's not particularly alien anyway. The fact that she is a crown princess is just the icing on the cake. Tilly, on the other hand, is a young woman who has clear goals that she wants to pursue with determination. I may have expected too much, but there is not so much that would link Tilly and Po together, except the secret that they share. On the other hand, it is remarkable that, in the end, Po returns to her duty on Tilly's advice, while Tilly herself violates quite a few regulations despite her goal to take over more responsibilities.

The focus on the interaction of Tilly and Po is a requirement to tell the story in just 15 minutes. Any involvement of any other familiar character or any other place would have complicated the setting just too much. It is both a blessing and curse that no one else of the crew shows up, except for extras that are visible for just a couple of seconds altogether. In particular, there are many open questions. Why doesn't Tilly call any of her superiors, as it would be her duty? Why doesn't anyone or any sensors notice what's going on? Why isn't Tilly afraid that someone might discover her guest, which would get her into trouble and endanger her command training? It was symptomatic of Discovery's first season that characters would act on their own, often against orders. Additionally, the secrecy about Tilly's young friend unpleasantly reminds me of the kind of secrets that teenage girls and boys like to keep, and that (at least in pertinent genre movies) they would never reveal to their parents or teachers no matter how deep in trouble they are. Tilly may do a good job in listening to Po and giving her guidance, but covering her up seems immature and, as already mentioned, opposed to her intention to undergo the command training.

Despite the short run time "Runaway" does not feel rushed. However, by focusing on the character interaction it withholds information that would be necessary or useful to get across what is happening. Any story in which someone keeps a secret is usually not only more plausible but also more interesting if the perspective switches at least two times to those who could find out about it. Another example of an omission is that Po mentions something about her planet being her "twin sister" and thus having a special connection to it, which is the reason why she doesn't want dilithium to be mined there. This sounds a bit like Pahvo, but it could mean anything from a real symbiosis to esoteric nonsense.

It was clear that a Tilly-centered mini-episode would include a good dose of humor. Most of it is decent, but the messy mess hall and the joke about the "space rabbit" (I had to rewind because I thought I had misheard it) strike me as very silly.

One annoyance on the technical side is that Short Treks is shot in 2.39:1 aspect ratio, not in 2:1 like Discovery's first season, and not in 16:9 like usual TV series. The producers and many viewers will probably say it is still "wider" now, but that is only a euphemism for wasting an even larger portion of the 16:9 TV screen for black bars. I don't care at all for the "cinematic" experience, I just want the picture to be as large as possible, and 16:9 is a decent ratio. Actually, I preferred 4:3 but I can see how 16:9 is a good compromise to show movies on the small screen. Using movie proportions for TV series is a stupid fad. I'm afraid the Discovery people will carry it into the second season.

Annotations

Rating: 2

 

Calypso

Synopsis

"Calypso"

An escape pod is rescued from space by the USS Discovery. But when the passenger, a man who calls himself Craft, wakes up in sickbay, no one is there except for Zora, an artificial intelligence. Zora tells Craft that the crew has left the Discovery, and that the ship has been abandoned for as many as one thousand years. Craft is a soldier who has fought in war for ten years. He expresses his wish to return to his family on the planet Alcor IV. Zora, however, says there is only one shuttlecraft aboard, which had just been delivered when the crew left, and which is not spaceworthy. Craft and Zora build a relationship, which culminates in Zora creating a hologram of herself to re-enact her favorite movie, "Funny Face". Craft feels that this isn't right. Zora finally comes round and prepares the shuttle for him to leave. She names it "Funny Face".

Commentary

The first Short Treks episode, "Runaway", suffered from its unlikely circumstances, and particularly from the fact that Tilly and Po were seemingly alone on the Discovery. In "Calypso", it is even much more mysterious why the ship is empty. But the reasons are irrelevant here because "Calypso" works well as a standalone episode with an extremely narrow focus. And so the story does not even try to explain what happened a thousand years ago, why the ship was forgotten and how it could remain in almost perfect shape and powered up for such an incredibly long time.

"Calypso" leaves the era of Discovery, the narrative of Discovery and ultimately the whole Star Trek Universe we knew behind. It doesn't include any references to the series except for the set and prop design. Overall, it feels more like an episode of an anthology such as "Twilight Zone" or recently "Black Mirror" than like Star Trek. I appreciate this complete departure, just for a change. And considering that Discovery largely failed to recapture the spirit of Star Trek in its first season anyway, "Calypso" demonstrates how good science fiction can be created without the need to embed it into a larger story context.

Our common idea of an artificial intelligence was shaped as long as 50 years ago, in "2001: A Space Odyssey". Since then, AIs in science fiction keep evolving. They seem to become always more human and also more threatening. "Calypso" does not follow the trend and rather goes back to the roots. The story features an AI whose look and feel is very reminiscent of HAL 9000 (and once again on a ship named Discovery!), that tries to forge a bond with a human being and that ultimately fails. But unlike the classic movie, "Calypso" has a bittersweet ending when Zora recognizes that she can never replace Craft's family. Zora ultimately shows the kind of compassion that HAL lacked. While the story overall doesn't show new science fiction concepts (which definitely wasn't the intention anyway), "Calypso" is thought-provoking in the best sense of the word. And it is very emotional without being melodramatic and without turning the trope of a sentient machine into silliness.

It is clear that the standalone format of this Short Treks episode will remain, and probably has to remain, an absolute exception in Star Trek Discovery. But perhaps the series could profit from this demonstration of how to bring more of what fans love about science fiction into the series and perhaps drop some of the generic ongoing intrigues. Michael Chabon, who wrote the episode, will be an executive producer on the yet unnamed Picard show, which makes me hopeful at least for this new series.

Overall, "Calypso" has very little Star Trek in it. But it is an outstanding short film with strong performances by Aldis Hodge as Craft and by Annabelle Wallis as Zora. The flow of the episode is great and is quite a contrast to the mess that was "Runaway". I only don't mind the lightnings in space, as an attempt to let the empty ship appear even more scary. "Calypso" may be a simple story in many regards, but the way it is brought to screen is superb.

Annotations

Rating: 8

 

The Brightest Star

Synopsis

"The Brightest Star"

The Kelpien Saru lives on the planet Kaminar with his father and his sister. The Kelpiens are a pre-warp civilization. They believe in the "Great Balance" on their planet and accept that an advanced species, the Ba'ul, appear in regular intervals to "harvest" Kelpiens. One day, Saru's father finds a piece of technology from a Ba'ul ship and tells his son to dispose of it. Saru, however, keeps the device and learns how to use it as a transmitter. He receives a message to proceed to a meeting point where a Starfleet shuttle with Lt. Georgiou lands. Georgiou tells Saru that Starfleet makes an exception for a member of a pre-warp civilization and that he can join, but that he won't be able to return to Kaminar. Saru accepts the offer and leaves his homeworld.

Commentary

"The Brightest Star" turns out to be much like what I expected when I read that one of the Short Treks would be an origin story about Saru on his homeworld Kaminar. I anticipated that the episode would rather not show us snarling wild animals (or Hirogen-like humanoids) that hunt Kelpiens, but a somewhat different, less bloodthirsty interpretation of the predators and prey that Saru spoke of in "The Vulcan Hello".

However, other than fulfilling my expectations, the episode is rather disappointing. "The Brightest Star" delves deep into Star Trek's stock of pre-warp civilization and "false god" clichés. It shows the Kelpiens as a society much like the natives in TOS: "The Return of the Archons", "The Apple" or many other well-known stories. It features all the usual stereotypes of the advanced aliens who impress the natives with cultic artifacts and impose taboos on them, of the priest who accepts his being inferior and passes on his humility and finally of the skeptic who is not content with simple answers along the lines of "That's the way it is."

"The Brightest Star" would have needed more time to establish more than the stereotypical setting, to flesh out a real story and character relationships and to build up at least a small arc of suspense. In particular, I think Saru would have deserved to be more than just another reissue of a stock character, and that his family should have played more of a role in his decision process to leave his homeworld. And while I like how Doug Jones guides us through the story in the form of a voice-over, the few dialogues are rather insipid and mostly consist of hackneyed phrases. I almost couldn't believe that Saru's father said, "If the Great Balance had meant for us to fly, we would have been given wings." Come on, writers! I know you can do better.

On the positive side, this Short Treks episode, like already "Calypso", has more Trek feel to it than anything in Discovery's dismal first season. We may argue that Georgiou's course of action is reckless and that the exception to the Prime Directive made for Saru is unwarranted. At least, Picard would never have condoned it. But Starfleet is about seeking out new life, and both Georgiou and Saru meet in pursuit of this very goal. So despite my reservations regarding the clichéd depiction of the Kelpiens, "The Brightest Star" leaves me content. It is an adequate origin story for one of the few likable characters of Discovery.

Annotations

Rating: 4

 

The Escape Artist

Synopsis

"The Escape Artist"

The Tellarite Tevrin Krit purchases the prisoner Harry Mudd from a masked female bounty hunter. Harry Mudd slept with Krit's sister and stole his cudgel, a traditional hand weapon that he wanted to pass on to his son. Mudd initially denies his identity, then laments that he has been wrongly accused, later proposes a deal to Krit and finally begs that the Tellarite should let him go for humanitarian reasons. But Krit does not change his mind and turns over his prisoner to Starfleet. Aboard the Starfleet vessel De Milo, the two are welcomed by an officer who seems to be annoyed, rather than delighted to see them. He tells Krit that this is not the real Harry Mudd and leads him to a storage compartment full of android Mudd duplicates that were delivered by other bounty hunters. Meanwhile on Mudd's ship, the con man, in the disguise of the female bounty hunter, initiates the next sale of an android created in his image.

Commentary

Although I wouldn't rate the classic Harry Mudd as the fan favorite the makers of Discovery imagined he was, the attempt to revive the character in the reboot series was largely successful. The two previous Mudd episodes, "Choose Your Pain" and "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad", were among the better ones of the first season. In the context of the dark universe of Discovery it may have seemed logical that Mudd too would have to undergo a transformation and would not be the mostly harmless swindler we know from TOS. Yet, as entertaining as it otherwise was, the latter episode clearly crossed a line when it depicted the character as a mad mass murderer. But the even worse failing was the absurd ending in which, instead of being punished, Harry Mudd was released into the custody of his "beloved" Stella and her father. This contrived reset button was clearly meant to preserve the character for the future, rather than to make any sense.

"The Escape Artist" is set after the events of "Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad". For me it still has a bad aftertaste that the mad Mudd was simply erased from history and that he is suddenly the old charming con man again in the Short Treks episode.

Reservations regarding Mudd's history in Discovery aside, I really enjoyed "The Escape Artist". It is the perhaps most entertaining installment of all of Discovery so far, and one of the more intelligent ones no less. The story shows Mudd as a prisoner, who tries everything to get his captor to release him, with growing desperation. It is just what Tevrin Krit would expect, and just what we would expect from a man like Mudd. As Mudd's continuing lamentation falls on deaf ears, the story approaches its foreseeable ending. Just as Mudd would deserve it, Krit is going to hand him over to Starfleet. But Mudd wouldn't be a con man if he didn't still have something up his sleeve. I was prepared for some kind of twist, but the revelation that Krit actually captured an android duplicate of the man he really wanted surprised me.

The outcome surprised me in a positive sense because everything appeared as perfectly plausible in hindsight. Mudd gave Krit exactly what he wanted to have, preying on his greed and on his desire for revenge. He kept up the illusion by programming the android to behave exactly like one would expect, thereby distracting Krit so much that he wouldn't recognize that anything was wrong. On the downside, if another purpose of the story was to relate Mudd to androids as a sort of homage to TOS: "I, Mudd", it utterly failed. In the TOS episode, Mudd will run into the androids by mere chance. There is nothing that would justify his affinity to androids, and his knowledge to build them all by himself roughly a decade earlier.

I have nothing but praise for the directing and acting in "The Escape Artist". Considering that the episode is only some 14 minutes long and includes several flashbacks, the flow of the story is not bumpy at all. I love the interaction of Krit and the Mudd android, even though or just because much of it turns out to be part of Mudd's con. The way that Wilson delivers his various punchlines is priceless.

Other than the previous Short Treks episodes, "The Escape Artist" does not feel like a bottle show. It features a number of guest characters and other places. It is amazing that distinctive sets were built for the Tellarite bridge, the warehouse and the Orion prison.

It is ironical that among the four Short Treks episodes the two that were well-received were the ones not set in the continuity of Discovery and not involving any principal characters of the show. Maybe the people at the helm, and particularly Alex Kurtzman, have learned a bit from Short Treks and have recognized that fans may not want serialized Star Trek with endless intrigues and without a real resolution, and that they may not share the sentiment that gaps in the biographies of various characters need to be filled. Star Trek is and was always about stories. Of the four Short Treks stories two were awesome, one was satisfactory and one was mediocre. Overall, the side show has a better balance than the regular first season of the series.

Annotations

Rating: 7

 

Q&A

Synopsis

"Q&A"

Ensign Spock reports for duty on the USS Enterprise for the first time. Number One does not feel like answering the many questions of the young science officer. But then their turbolift gets stuck on the way to the bridge, and much to Number One's displeasure the engineering staff doesn't get it working again. The two begin to talk to overcome the awkward situation, and Number One gradually lightens up. She eventually intones the Major-General's song by Gilbert and Sullivan to lift their spirits, and Spock joins in. When the two are about to be rescued, Spock has to promise to forget the episode in the turbolift.

Commentary

The second round of the Short Treks begins with one of a total of three episodes about the crew of the Enterprise. Most likely the positive fan reaction to Pike, his crew and his ship was the incentive to focus as many as three Short Treks on them. They were arguably more popular in Discovery's second season than almost anyone and anything on the eponymous ship. Whether or not there will be a fully fledged Pike series is just speculation at this time. The Short Treks episode may or may not foreshadow things to come. But looking back at the four previous episodes of this format, it is remarkable that so far three of them set up a bigger Discovery story.

Notwithstanding its possible purpose in a still larger context, "Q&A" is meant to be an origin story in the first place. It shows Spock's very first day on the Enterprise. Considering how beloved Spock is among the fans and how Ethan Peck gets the portrayal of the character right, it seems like a no-brainer to go back to this pivotal moment of his career and indulge in nostalgia. At least in the mindset of the current producers.

But honestly, who would really have wanted to know what Spock's first time on the Enterprise was like? And irrespective of the Discoveryverse being a reboot where Spock feels right but everything else is wildly different, do we long for such in-your-face nostalgia at all? Nostalgia, for me, is watching "The Cage" and leaving everything that may have happened before this very first Star Trek to my imagination. There's no point in trying to better something that is so engrained in the fandom and in popular culture on the whole.

Well, "Q&A" is certainly a smaller mistake in this regard than "If Memory Serves" (that I liked in spite of everything, just for the record), or than the concept of Pike, Number One and Spock as crowd-pullers enlisted to save Star Trek Discovery. The Short Treks episode is a no-brainer for several more reasons, including the availability of the sets and actors. However, the story feels just as cheap as its production costs probably were, and falls short of the previous Short Treks, perhaps with the exception of "Runaway". It is too easy to dissect the story and to find the stereotypes it is based on.

Spock is a young half-Vulcan ensign, who doesn't manage to suppress his emotions as much as he probably wants to. This is consistent with his smiling in "The Cage" but it's nothing in any way noteworthy, nothing that would have called for further elaboration. Number One is a somewhat similar character (obviously, because Gene Roddenberry more or less replaced the emotionless Number One with Spock, who stopped smiling, after her character had been dropped). Being human, yet restrained and very short-spoken, she epitomizes a popular German idiom, for which I found no English equivalent: She goes down to the basement to laugh. So far, so good. But that alone doesn't make a good story.

The first half of this installment comes across as somewhat tedious because it is just what the title says, a Q&A session in which a sulky Number One gives only reluctant answers to nerdy Spock's nagging questions full of technobabble - although she encouraged him to be curious. That, plus the situation of being in an elevator, at least lets it appear appropriately embarrassing. When she talks about Pike and then about the star she visited on her first deep-space mission, Number One lightens up. I like this middle part of the episode. I appreciate her comment on the diversity of the crew, of whom no one should suppress or conceal their nature.

But then she apparently decides to put it to practice and begins to sing all of sudden. In some way, the turbolift car is her basement. It would have been great for a person of her standing to let it out and scream "Rock 'n' Roll!!!", but she intones Gilbert and Sullivan. I almost couldn't believe my ears. Gilbert and Sullivan?! Come on! I mean no offense to those who like listening to it, and for some reason Starfleet people are fond of it in the 23rd and 24th centuries (rather than of rock 'n' roll). But for me Gilbert and Sullivan is close to the low end of classical music and has not aged well at all since it was popular some time in the 19th century. Rebecca Romijn's performance isn't all that bad, but that's not the problem. Perhaps the song has a significance that escapes me, perhaps it is meant to be a parody of elevator music. But I don't care because it is just so out of place. It comes as an even bigger shock that Spock joins her and laughs. So was this the whole purpose of the story? To show us an emotional Spock again? Whether or not it's in character, we would deserve better than that, even in a Short Treks episode. But the worst is still to come. Number One suddenly remembers that bad singing and not keeping her distance to a junior officer undermines her authority. Spock has to swear to forget about the episode, which rings a bell as big as Big Ben. Spock, the laughing Vulcan and the man of lies and denial. No thanks. I've had enough of it.

It is hard to please me with a story about something I just never wanted to know, in a reboot universe that I don't care for. Perhaps it is a disservice to the character of Spock to hark back to something that happened at a time when his nature was not yet well enough established, but I can accept that much because I still like Ethan Peck in his role. It seems that every time the writing is on the verge of destroying Spock, he saves the character for me. Regarding Number One, I understand the intention to add a new facet to a character who appeared to be unapproachable so far, but this happens at the expense of her attitude towards Spock being inconsistent and ultimately unprofessional. "Q&A" has its moments (for two or three minutes) and I appreciate the performances of the two actors, but aside from that it is just miscarried nostalgia and clichés, plus awful singing.

Annotations

Rating: 2

 

The Trouble with Edward

Synopsis

"The Trouble with Edward"

Stardate 1429.9: Science officer Lynne Lucero leaves the Enterprise to take command of the research vessel Cabot. Her mission is to offer aid to Pragine 63, a world at the edge of Klingon space in an ecological crisis. In a meeting with the departments of the ship, she declines the proposal by biologist Edward Larkin to breed a species nicknamed as Tribbles as food for the starving population. Larkin keeps working on his pet project nonetheless, and genetically speeds up the reproduction of Tribbles, using his own DNA. Lucero calls Larkin to his office because Starfleet Command received anonymous messages demanding to relieve her of her command because of incompetence, messages that were probably sent by Larkin. She arranges for his transfer off the ship. In the meantime, the Tribbles have started breeding rapidly, up to the point where the crew has to abandon the Cabot. Larkin refuses to leave and dies when the ship suffers structural failure. The Tribbles infest the planet Pragine 63 that has to be evacuated, and also head for Klingon space...

Commentary

It should have been obvious in advance that the last thing we need in any Trek series is yet another anachronistic appearance of Tribbles, after ENT: "The Breach", "Star Trek (2009)", "Star Trek Into Darkness" and Lorca's Tribble first seen in DIS: "Context is for Kings". It is beyond me why modern-day Trek writers are so obsessed with Tribbles as a hallmark of Star Trek that they include them anywhere and any time, no matter how little sense it makes. I sometimes wonder what's going on in their minds. It must be something like "Star Trek = Kirk + Spock + Tribbles + Khan + Tribbles + Spock + Tribbles + Spock + Khan + Tribbles + Mudd + Tribbles + Spock + anything we forgot?" But polemics aside, and considering that Tribble canon was messed up already before Discovery, I was ready to give this Short Treks episode a chance because it might have been fun after all.

"The Trouble with Edward", however, would not have deserved that chance. Not only does the episode add insult to injury regarding the history of Tribbles. It also spotlights the very worst conduct of Starfleet officers ever seen: immoral, reckless, insubordinate, intransigent, antisocial, malicious, indecent and dumb. Edward Larkin is all of the aforementioned. A total dick. And a discriminatory mad scientist/nerd/fanboy stereotype. There is not the slightest likable aspect about his personality, except perhaps his dedication to his work. And even Larkin's sacrifice at the end of the episode, usually an opportunity to rehabilitate a character, remains pathetic and pointless. We are just supposed to hate Edward Larkin. Because, as Captain Lucero (who is perhaps just as annoying although not intentionally in her case) says in the closing remark, "he was an idiot."

I concede that the way the episode was written and directed, the people in charge at least attempted to recapture some of the spirit of TOS. It is not unheard of that in TOS some crew members were real jerks, and the Tribble infestation is not unlike the one in the original episode, "The Trouble with Tribbles", only with more dramatic visuals here. But "The Trouble with Edward" is neither interesting, nor does it relay a message. This episode is not about a problem with the chain of command, not about a tragic character who longs for acceptance and not about scientific ethics. It is about Edward being a dick. And quite unlike the original TOS episode, it is not in any way funny either. The writing attempts to incorporate black humor and situational comedy, but after the awkward staff meeting that still makes me smirk a bit, the rest remains totally humorless. Everything that may have been intended to be comical rather comes across as out of place. The theme of showing the insufferable Edward and then everyone's dumbfounded reactions to him remains a constant annoyance until the bitter end. Watching this sequence of WTF moments is appalling, rather than entertaining.

In the outcome, the story celebrates itself for doing something for Trek's continuity, by explaining when and why the Klingons would wage war against the Tribbles. But it only causes even bigger errors on the way and further damages Starfleet's reputation, which, in the Discovery-style re-imagination, has become an organization of cover-ups and lies. We already learned in "Such Sweet Sorrow II" that nothing is anti-canon in the new Star Trek any more, and that it's just a matter of sweeping all the galactic disasters caused by Starfleet under the rug to maintain continuity. Which is apparently the excuse for Spock and McCoy having never heard of Tribbles a few years after the Edward Disaster.

On a final note, regular readers of my reviews know that I don't make judgments based on the gender or race of a character. I leave that to the people who are very biased in this regard (in either way). But just imagine the complete idiot in this episode had not been a white man. Just imagine the outrage...

The only half-way enjoyable thing about this irritating and insulting episode is the non-canon post-credit scene with the "Edward's Tribbles" commercial. But this isn't in line with the tone of the otherwise unfunny story and feels inappropriate.

Annotations

Rating: 0

 

Ask Not

Synopsis

"Ask Not"

While Starbase 28 is under attack, Cadet Thira Sidhu is put in charge of a prisoner, who turns out to be Captain Pike. Pike says that he disobeyed his orders to stand down, while another Starfleet vessel was being attacked by the Tholians. This other ship happens to be the one that Sidhu's husband serves on. Pike demands to be released, and cites Starfleet regulations to that end, which Sidhu counters with other orders that require her to keep him confined. It turns out that the whole scenario is a simulation and that no one was actually in danger. Sidhu has been accepted to the Enterprise and beams over with Captain Pike.

Commentary

Although I successfully avoided the spoilers, I knew almost from the very first second that the whole scenario of the attack on the starbase and of a cadet put in charge of a prisoner named Captain Pike was just a simulation, much like the Kobayashi Maru or Wesley's test of character in TNG: "Coming of Age". It was obvious that a Short Treks episode of only eight minutes would not involve something as big as an actual fight against the Tholians, or Pike being guilty of insubordination in Michael Burnham's footsteps. The coincidences that Thira Sidhu's husband was on the very ship attacked by the Tholians, the USS Bowman, and that additionally the two were the only survivors of a Tholian raid a couple of years ago were further dead giveaways that this all couldn't be real. Either that, or the episode, which is essentially just a sequence of Trek clichés and regulation citing, would have become a second "Edward".

The way it turns out, "Ask Not" is a nice little episode that apparently was not made with high ambitions and that successfully gets across its story in barely eight minutes. Nothing more and nothing less. I couldn't think of anything that might have been added or that should have been done differently. It is just not very exciting watching because everything is too obviously a simulation and nothing really noteworthy happens. Additionally, the dialogue is very hard to understand. I had to pause and rewind several times to get what Sidhu and Pike were talking, which pretty much defies the purpose of an only eight minutes long episode.

Then again, "Ask Not" shows how a Short Treks episode can build upon the existing continuity, without carelessly redefining characters or rewriting history. "Ask Not" is something like an "anti-Edward", not only formally because a new crew member joins the Enterprise in the end as opposed to one leaving at the beginning, but also because this character is strengthened and not destroyed. Well, Sidhu may be a bit too credulous but perhaps we should watch her through the eyes of a 23rd century cadet and not of a Trek geek.

Annotations

Rating: 3

 

The Girl Who Made the Stars

Synopsis

"The Girl Who Made the Stars"

Young Michael Burnham has a nightmare, and she only wants to go to sleep again with the lights turned on. Her father tells Michael the story of a tribe in Africa, millennia ago, that urgently needed new farming grounds but was afraid of moving away from their village because of the "Night Beast". Only one girl ventured out into the night and encountered an alien being. She came back with a ball full of small lights, the stars, that she released into the sky. She eventually became the queen of her people. After listening to the story, young Michael agrees to sleep with the lights off.

Commentary

This Short Treks episode is special because it is the first official Star Trek animation in 45 years and the first 3D animation in the franchise. It was clear in advance that "The Girl Who Made the Stars" would refer to the teaser of DIS: "Brother", in which some sort of dream sequence insinuated a significance of an old African creation myth for Michael Burnham's life. The Short Treks episode gives a quite satisfying answer to this dangling question, and proves that there is a bigger plan for Discovery that the people in charge are willing to keep track of.

However, aside from the frame story with young Michael and her father, "The Girl Who Made the Stars" has little to do with Star Trek. In fact, it tells a story that couldn't possibly have happened the way it is shown (unless we believe that prior to the young girl in Africa that looked just like Michael, no stars existed in the sky). The idea of basing a whole episode on something illusive or imaginary is nothing new, thinking of the awesome VOY: "Living Witness" and the less successful VOY: "The Haunting of Deck Twelve". But "The Girl Who Made the Stars" takes a new direction and leaves behind the familiar setting as well as the live-action format, which is bold and deserves praise. Perhaps most notably, this Short Treks episode, a bit like "Calypso" before and quite unlike "Ephraim and Dot", does not bother us with facts and characterizations that are forcibly squeezed into the canon, and this is one more reason why I like it.

The objectionable aspect about the story is that, once again, Michael Burnham is smarter than everyone else, acts on her own and thereby saves the world. Although this time it is only a tale and the little girl in ancient Africa technically isn't her, the proposition is clear. Young Michael is destined to become bold but also reckless, to defy orders and to take unnecessary risks. This is in line with the adult Michael Burnham, but it also adds to her increasingly one-dimensional character. A lesson of humbleness for her may have been more desirable.

Overall, "The Girl Who Made the Stars" presents itself as a surprisingly mature story despite the cutesy animation of young Michael and despite the continuing Burnham worshiping. The ties to Star Trek are weak, but the writing addresses the issue of being afraid of the unknown from a childlike perspective, and skillfully leads over to Star Trek's very motto of boldly going where no one has gone before without making the analogy too blatant. It is not a particularly "big" or "relevant" installment, even among the Short Treks, but exactly this makes it pleasant to watch. Last but not least, it comes with beautiful imagery.

Annotations

Rating: 4

 

Ephraim and Dot

Synopsis

"Ephraim and Dot"

A tardigrade needs a safe place for her eggs to mature. She runs into the USS Enterprise where she is identified as an intruder by a repair robot. Despite being chased by the robot, the tardigrade manages to deposit her eggs in the engine room. But then the Enterprise warps away. The tardigrade follows the ship for many years, until the battle with Kruge's Bird-of-Prey, just before the self-destruct of the Enterprise. The repair robot once again attacks her and throws her out of the airlock, but then recognizes that the eggs are a lifeform that must be protected. The robot survives the explosion of the Enterprise, with little tardigrades just hatching from their eggs stored inside.

Commentary

I expected this second new Star Trek animation to be inspired by "WALL-E", but for most of the time it is more like "Tom and Jerry in Space". It is obvious that "Ephraim and Dot", in contrast to "The Girl Who Made the Stars", is not meant to be taken seriously. And so it brims over with slapstick that defies the laws of real-world and of Trek physics alike. But most notably the anthropomorphized squeaking and giggling tardigrade is so much unlike the beast that killed Landry in "The Butcher's Knife Cares Not for the Lamb's Cry" that they couldn't possibly be the same species.

Although it may have been (once again) the intention "to celebrate the original Star Trek", the casual references to the missions of the Enterprise (which are not quite in the correct order anyway) should not be overrated as giving the whimsical story a greater significance. They merely establish a timescale for the hatching period of tardigrade eggs. As couldn't be expected otherwise, Khan and the Tribbles are two of these events. But unlike on previous occasions when Khan and Tribbles were conscripted by clueless modern Trek authors to give their stories more apparent relevance, I simply don't care this time. It doesn't bother me that they appear in this little episode, unless we reverse the perspective and rewatch TOS and the TOS movies, claiming that a tardigrade was present during all pivotal moments. There are very good reasons for "Ephraim and Dot" to be non-canon despite all the canon references. Ultimately, the strange 1950s-style educational film in the intro pretty much decanonizes the whole story because after DIS: "Such Sweet Sorrow II" the existence of the spore network is denied by Starfleet.

After all the mindless action and throwaway Trek references, the final minute reconciles me a bit with "Ephraim and Dot". At last, the episode gets across the message that life must be preserved, although the idea of a tardigrade and a robot forming a family is absurd.

In light of the aforementioned issues, the chief problem of "Ephraim and Dot" is that viewers are expected to further lower the bar for what they accept as Star Trek. Even though I concede that "Ephraim and Dot" (as opposed to Trek's new all-time low "Edward") is light-hearted entertainment and even though it can hardly be canon anyway, I would have expected more from it. As "The Girl Who Made the Stars" demonstrates, telling a meaningful and respectful story is possible in the form of an animation, but this wasn't even attempted with "Ephraim and Dot". Whether this episode is just a trial balloon or is supposed to prepare us for two possibly silly animated series, cutesy Trek can and should never be more than a by-product of the real Star Trek.

Annotations

Rating: 1

 

Children of Mars

Synopsis

"Children of Mars"

An alien girl named Kima and a human girl named Lil, who go to school on Earth, have in common that their parents work at the Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards on Mars. Without any apparent reason, the two begin to vent their anger on each other. After some mutual teasing the two girls get into a fight. A bit later, alarming news arrives from Mars. The planet has suffered a devastating attack that no one seems to have survived. The two girls unite in their sorrow.

Commentary

"Children of Mars" gives some rare insight into the everyday life of normal kids, for which it has to be commended although this aspect isn't really interesting. I just don't care for a story about two hysterical teen girls who get into a fight (neither on a present-day school nor in the otherwise so enlightened society of the late 24th century). Yet, the little bit of action with very sparse talking successfully creates tension, a feeling that there must be more about this story than two girls who don't get along with each other and who will likely become friends in the end.

I'm a bit sorry that it was impossible to avoid the big spoilers about this little episode because otherwise the shock would have been even bigger. Well, this wouldn't be a Short Treks episode if it didn't have relevance on a larger scale, and "Children of Mars" was explicitly announced as nothing less than a prequel to Star Trek: Picard. Yet, the attack on Mars, in the heart of the Federation, is an additional life-changing event that I wouldn't have expected, since the evacuation of Romulus was previously cited as setting up the new series. I'm confused now about what Picard is about, but the speculation will end in less than two weeks.

Thinking further about it, however, I am annoyed how routinely modern Trek resorts to the theme of planetary disasters. We've already lost Romulus, Vulcan and almost Qo'noS, in the far future "Control" even blows up all planets of the galaxy. Now Mars is gone or uninhabitable. Can't the people in charge just put an end to this hyperbole? Perhaps the destruction of the Mars colonies will remain more than only a side note in Picard, which will perhaps justify the stunt. On a related note, the attack was carried about by "rogue Synths" according to the news screen. We will likely learn in Picard what "Synths" are, but I have the impression they are artificial lifeforms that are denied their rights and that now strike back against the Federation, just like every single villain in every recent Star Trek movie.

Speculation about what all this really means aside, it is a bit sad to note that at the end of "Children of Mars" the animosity-turned-friendship of the two girls doesn't matter any longer. It is nothing more than a nice touch how they stretch out their hands. The story isn't about them any longer. It's just about the attack on Mars and about re-introducing Picard (who only appears as a still on a screen) to the franchise.

The visual style of the episode is another turn-off I need to address. Besides the anachronistic crossovers with Discovery that naturally bother me, I just don't think that brutalist architecture, sterile classrooms, school uniforms and obtrusive motivational messages belong to Star Trek. It all has the semblance of North Korea.

Overall, this Short Treks is captivating just because of the anticipation but it doesn't tell anything but that there has been a planetary disaster (yet again) that has some influence on Picard's life.

Annotations

Rating: 4

 


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