Star Trek: Short Treks Episode 1 – Debuted Thursday, October 4th
Written by Jenny Lumet & Alex Kurtzman
Directed by Maja Vrvilo
The first installment of Short Treks delivers on its promise to bring us brief and small character studies that add some needed depth to Star Trek: Discovery. Mary Wiseman shines as Sylvia Tilly, who finds herself tested by her critical mother and an unusual alien who ends up having a lot of things in common with the newly-minted ensign. While the story feels rushed and overly reliant on familiar tropes, “Runaway” still satisfies as a tasty morsel as we await the return of Discovery in January.
Just another day on the Disco
After eight months away from the season one finale, we return to the USS Discovery in what seems to be a routine day in space, with the announcement of the 5th shift ending as the ship brings in some new cargo. It’s a nice glimpse into the everyday logistics of how the starship operates, starting Short Treks off with some of the very few effects shots to be seen during the mini-episode.
But of course, there is more than meets the eye, as one of these Starfleet cargo pods mysteriously opens after everyone has bolted out of the cargo bay, following what might as well have been called “budget alert.” “Runaway” then takes a more ominous and spooky tone, helped along by composer Jeff Russo’s score, as a translucent alien arm snakes its way out of the pod, only to get cut on a crack, resulting in some glowing alien blood…creepy.
We find Ensign Tilly in her quarters, without her roommate Michael Burnham. She is talking to her mother, a major figure in her life who was often referenced in the first season but never seen. Mrs. Tilly is as overbearing as you might imagine, and perhaps too much of the stereotypical berating mother, with no clear redeeming qualities. Her daughter just helped end a devastating war, graduated to ensign, won a Starfeet award and is set on a path to command…so maybe cut her some slack. Mimi Kuzyk does a fine job even though we never actually get a good look at her. This seems to be an interesting choice made by director Maja Vrvilo, who leans into the holographic nature of this conversation to almost make it appear like young Tilly is being haunted by this ghostly apparition of her mother, questioning her life choices, specifically about joining Starfleet Command’s Training Program, something we know from season one was important to her.
After signing off with mom and having a nice scream into a pillow, Tilly seeks solace in the mess hall, where she meets her eternal adversary, the USS Discovery food dispenser. Defying her mother’s concern about over-caffeination, Tilly wants a quadruple espresso, but the artificial intelligence in charge of producing nutrition sides with mom, calling the order “ill-advised.” Eventually, this electronic truculence is overcome, but you know Tilly’s food battle royale will continue and Discovery producers are missing an opportunity if we don’t see her do some creative reprogramming in the mess hall during season two.
Once again things get tense as the cloaked alien from the cargo hold breaks up Tilly’s little mantras to help center herself with a caffeine beverage –and then the food replicators start shooting food all over the mess hall, calling out each meal as it flies across the room. Everything about this scene borrows too much from Predator, from the sound design of the alien’s chitterings to the shimmerings of her personal cloak, but perhaps with only 15 minutes, using familiar elements saves time.
The alien is soon revealed as a scared, yet defiant teenager from the newly warp-capable planet of Xahea. She is skittish, injured, and hungry, and instead of playing it by the book, Tilly decides to quietly bring Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po – okay, let’s just call her Po – to her quarters. Earlier, Tilly’s mom had recalled a story of young Sylvia running away to break her spirit and so we can see why she now takes pity on Po, who probably would have been flushed out the closest airlock back in the Captain Lorca days.
Continuing what is essentially a two-woman show that seems designed to pass the Bechdel Test with an A+, Tilly starts to dig into Po’s story and we learn more about this interesting new Star Trek alien race. The Xaheans are nicely portrayed as truly alien, both physically and culturally, although actress Yadira Guevara-Prip transitions too quickly here to almost seeming too much like your average human rebellious teen. The big reveal is that Xahea is rich in dilithium, the often-cited rare mineral that literally keeps Star Trek warping, and Po has figured out a way to incubate and recrystallize it, as a “gift” to her planet, which she sees as her twin. Discovery is set decades before Scotty and Spock figure out how to recrystallize dilithium (in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home), so Tilly is suitably impressed.
Now, the mini-episode just starts jamming way too much too fast as we literally see Tilly grow up and learn lessons on empathy, leadership, and responsibility. She even comes to understand her mother a bit more as she has to emotionally wrestle with this kid who is literally fading in and out as she tries to reach her. On top of that, we get allegorical environmental messages and ethical dilemmas about the cost of progress. There is also the theme about following your heart and accepting how things have to grow, evolve and change. This is all very familiar and all very Star Trek, but all a bit too crammed into a three-minute scene.
With everyone a bit smarter, wiser, and confident, it’s time for Po to leave. Cadet Tilly continues to shepherd this alien – who is critically important to the Federation – around the ship all on her own, although when Po finally reveals that she is actually about to become Queen, Tilly does seem to realize how far out on a limb she has gone. It certainly seems unusual that Cadet-now-Ensign Tilly didn’t report an alien intruder to her current commanding officer, but at this point, she has gone too far to turn back. Po is leaving the old-fashioned way, via the transporter room. However, it isn’t clear where Tilly is sending her exactly or how she got control of a transporter room on her own, but we simply don’t have enough time to worry about these kinds of things.
Things wrap up with a nice little bit of bonding between Po and Tilly. They talk about keeping in touch, so maybe this isn’t the last we have heard of this new alien. Po also gives Tilly a dilithium crystal as a nice souvenir. It all feels rushed but the clock is ticking as she has a coronation to go to and this is, after all, Short Treks.
Wisman carries the day
It was nice to finally get a bit of new Star Trek after the long hiatus, even if it was in this shortened form. However, once you get past the excitement of seeing new content in your CBS All Access app, which may not be easy, as many versions of the app hide Short Treks inexplicably under “Clips,” we are left with a story that feels overly rushed and too reliant on tropes. That being said, the introduction of a well-defined new alien species is always good Star Trek and sadly a rarity on Discovery, at least in season one.
The highlight for “Runaway” is by far the performance of Mary Wiseman. She is able to take what she is given and really work it, allowing her to show a bit more range, both dramatically and comedically. The mini-episode feels right for her character and gives us a deeper understanding of her, bridging the gap as Tilly goes from cadet to officer, and gets a little older and wiser along the way. Even the now obligatory Tilly cursing feels organic and Wiseman makes it sort of delightful.
For such a short episode, it is full of fun only-Tilly moments and memorable lines, from giving the food dispenser an epic evil eye, to Tilly’s improvised explanation to her fellow crew members that a hormonal rabbit is on the loose as the reason the mess hall is, well… a mess. Wiseman’s Julliard training shows as she makes these beats her own as they even feel improvised.
One noticeable thing about “Runaway” is that while using the sets and production design of Star Trek: Discovery, these mini-episodes are clearly set for a more modest budget. Visual effects are very limited, and the casting cost is also kept at a minimum. What’s good is that the episode doesn’t try to push itself, and overly expose these budgetary limitations.
This all makes for an odd sensation, with Tilly seemingly working on a mostly-abandoned USS Discovery. There is some handwaving dialog about shift changes, but in the end, it doesn’t matter because “Runaway” works with what they have and the almost ghost-ship atmosphere even weaves into a theme of isolation and feeling invisible that both Tilly and Po are facing.
Fitting it all together
These Short Treks are part of canon continuity, but each of the four episodes stands on its own, and based on the descriptions, have no connections to each other and take place in various time frames. In the case of “Runaway,” it actually isn’t exactly clear when it is set. We do know that it is after Tilly has been promoted from Cadet to Ensign and has been awarded the Starfleet Medal of Honor, which happened close to the end of the season one finale.
As the second season premiere apparently picks up immediately after the season one cliffhanger with the arrival of the USS Enterprise, “Runaway” is likely set sometime later during the second season. The only other possibility is for it to be set during the season one finale after the medal ceremony scene but before the Discovery warped away from Earth, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
As this is a character story, it would be good to know when this occurred, in order to keep it in context for Tilly’s arc during season two. Speaking to TrekMovie at San Diego Comic-Con, Wiseman said Tilly’s ambition for command is “going to be a huge part of her arc in season two,” and in this episode we see her fight through the seeds of doubt about her path planted by her mother.
There is also the possibility that elements of this episode may be referenced during the second season, including Po and/or Xahea popping up. And it would not be surprising if that dilithium crystal given to Tilly may play some role in a do-or-die situation in the upcoming season.
Bigger and wider
“Runaways” also gives us an advance look at some of the visual changes we can expect for the second season. One new element was the larger mess hall set. This was one of a few changes production designer Tamara Deverell told us were made for the second season. She also noted there were changes in sickbay, which will be featured in next month’s Short Treks episode “Calypso.”
The biggest new esthetic change in Short Treks is a different aspect ratio. The first season of Discovery was presented in a 2:1 ratio, which is used by a number of premium television shows, particularly favored for Netflix originals. However, “Runaway” is presented in the widescreen 2:39:1 ratio (often called CinemaScope) traditionally used for feature films. This wider ratio was also seen in the season two First Look trailer released at San Diego Comic-Con, indicating it is the new normal for Discovery. This certainly leans into the show’s avowed cinematic ambition, although for Short Treks it is a bit of a disconnect, as these are smaller and more personal stories.
Hungry for the next bite
While the story was a mixed bag and the episode had some issues with pacing and odd tonal shifts, the strong performances, nice character development and a bit of Trek world-building makes “Runaway” worth watching and proves Short Treks as a concept.
Short Treks was touted by executive producer Alex Kurtzman as something to tide fans over while we wait for the second season. In that sense, “Runaway” certainly satisfied the craving for more Trek as it was a solid snack. However, it is still not a full meal and having to wait a whole month for the next morsel may be too much to justify a monthly subscription to All Access if you are not watching other content on the streaming service.
Star Trek: Discovery is available in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV. It is available on Netflix everywhere else.
Star Trek: Short Treks will be available in the USA on CBS All Access. It will air in Canada on Space and stream on CraveTV.
Keep up with all the Star Trek: Discovery news at TrekMovie.