Greetings, fellow Trekkies. A lot has happened since we wrapped season 1 of Discovery. S.J. Clarkson was announced as the director of Star Trek 4 II, which was then put on hold indefinitely while the actors’ contracts are in dispute. Quentin Tarantino’s script for Inglourious Betazeds is apparently in production. Patrick Stewart will be brewing up some tea, earl grey, hot, in his new Captain Picard series. Michelle Yeoh may get a Disco spinoff. And to tide us over until that series’ Spocktacular season two, CBS All Access has been dishing up Short Treks, a series of 15-20 minute webisodes each focusing on one character.
It’s a terrific idea, giving us smaller stories that Disco‘s breakneck pace doesn’t leave room for. (A Data’s Day-type episode would be pretty jarring sandwiched in between “Choose Your Pain” and “The Butcher’s Knife Cares Not For the Lamb’s Cry.” And as someone who’s enjoyed and defended Discovery through the first season’s ups and downs, I found these quieter episodes… kind of meh. Let’s take a look:
I feel like a lot of criticism of Disco‘s first season came from fans and critics who expected it to be Star Trek: The Next Next Generation. But that’s exactly what we get here, with an earnest, occasionally playful episode that wouldn’t be at all out of place in a late season of that show, with Tilly standing in for Geordi or Crusher or whoever would end up solving the mystery of the week. Tilly, inexplicably alone on the ship, discovers an invisible intruder, who turns out to be a runaway alien who’s skittish and dangerous, but in the end just needs a friend. It’s a sweet, simple story that clashes utterly with the fast-moving, morally complex world Discovery‘s shown us so far, but it’s very in keeping with Star Trek past.
There are two remarkable things about this episode, neither of which has to do with the plot. That involves a man waking up on an abandoned starship, with a disembodied voice as his only companion. The voice turns out to be the ship’s lonely A.I., who constructs a relationship with the man. It helps him shake off the trauma of whatever accident led him to the ship… until he realizes he’s forming an emotional bond with the A.I. at the expense of the wife and child he left behind. It’s an interesting idea, but not nearly as interesting as this: the ship is Discovery, and the story is set a thousand years in the future. We get no explanation as to how the empty ship survived that long, or whether this is foreshadowing for the series’ end, or an idea that will be ignored by the larger continuity, but was used her to indulge the whims of the writer, Michael Chabon. Yes, the Pulitzer-winning novelist contributed the story here, and bringing in high-profile outsiders like Chabon and Tarantino is a welcome return to the days when luminaries like Harlon Ellison and Richard Matheson contributed scripts to the original series.
“The Brightest Star”
This is the short that has the most relevance to the regular series, as it gives us a backstory for Saru. We see him living among his fellow Kelpians, who appear to have a pre-warp society that’s bedeviled by a more advanced species referred to as the Watchful Eye. Periodically, Kelpian priests lead a group to be sacrificed to the Eye (they’re vaporized, and it’s not clear whether they’re killed or transported; I was expected the reveal that this was the mirror universe, where Kelpians are eaten). The Kelpians accept this, as part of “maintaining balance.”
But one Kelpian doesn’t. Saru questions the order of things, and when a piece of the Eye’s equipment falls to earth, he studies it instead of disposing of it as he’s warned to do. He manages to turn it into a beacon and send a message. He eventually gets a response (in English, and it’s not clear whether he understands or not), and a familiar face appears to give him a difficult choice — the Kelpians are a pre-warp society and only Saru is aware of the larger world. So he can leave, but at the cost of never returning.
Spoiler alert: he leaves. But the crux of the episode isn’t the choices that lead Saru to Starfleet, it’s in seeing our timid first officer being the bravest of his people.
We have one more short to go, “The Escape Artist,” which involves Klingons and our old friend Harvey Mudd. That debuts January 3; I’ll try to be back here with a review and a place to talk about the upcoming season, which starts two weeks after. I hope to carve out time to resume weekly reviews of Discovery, but failing that, I’ll at least post a discussion thread when each episode starts. Live long, and may the Force be with you!