Star Trek: Short Treks Episode 2 – Debuted Thursday, November 8th
Teleplay by Michael Chabon; story by Sean Cochran and Michael Chabon
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
The second episode of Short Treks is an interesting departure from both Star Trek: Discovery and the short “Runaway.” It focuses on a new character played impressively by Aldis Hodge, who has the ship’s AI as his only companion. Michael Chabon’s Star Trek debut as a writer was delightfully thoughtful as he skillfully wove a tight and emotional two-character drama set on board the USS Discovery. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s tale inspired by literary mythology effectively uses the smaller scale of Short Treks to tell a poignant stand-alone story.
“Calypso” starts us off with a mystery, revealing an unknown dying man in an escape pod of unfamiliar design, binge-watching ancient cartoons. Drifting in what appears to be an unstable region complete with space lighting turns out to be lucky after all as the USS Discovery comes along to capture the pod.
Things remain ominous as this man awakens in a dark sickbay totally alone. He shows his resourcefulness by immediately seeking out the first medical instrument he can find to use as a weapon. But it turns out he isn’t alone; a voice identifying itself as Zora soon introduces herself, telling the man that she saved him but couldn’t save his pod. As a consolation, she makes him a custom set of threads and introduces him to the joys of synthesized food in the mess hall.
After the tension is broken with a good meal, Zora reveals that she isn’t a real person, but instead an artificial intelligence. She laughs while passing the Turing Test, saying, “Oh dear, you thought I was alive?” It has been said that the ships in Star Trek are characters themselves and “Calypso” takes this to a whole new level. And in the spirit of sharing, the man says that people call him Craft, although that isn’t his true name but is based on his nature, and the custom of his planet of Alcor IV. He describes himself as a “reluctant” soldier, who has been at war with a group called the V’draysh, from whom he stole a pod because he just wants to go home and see his wife and daughter.
Then Zora drops the big bomb that she has been alone on the Discovery for almost 1000 years, putting this mini-episode in the 33rd century, well beyond any moment in Star Trek future history (and a testament to the designers and builders of the Crossfield Class that that ship is still in pretty good shape after all that time). Explaining why she is more advanced than any Starfleet computer seen in the 23rd or 24th century, Zora says she has spent her time evolving herself. One thing is clear: she is a lot nicer than the feisty food replicator that harassed poor Tilly in last month’s Short Treks episode.
With Zora unable–or simply unwilling–to break with standing orders to hold position and take him home, Craft settles in, crashing in the transporter room in a hammock. The pair passes the time working their way through the food menu, celebrating “Taco Tuesday,” playing games, and getting to know each other. The ominous tone of the earlier scenes shifts into a lightness, helped along by Jeff Russo’s particularly effective score. Eventually, Zora introduces Craft to what she says is her favorite film in the archive, the 1957 musical Funny Face starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn.
Clearly happy for the company, Zora does everything she can for Craft, even recreating the sounds of home for him. Aldis Hodge impresses as scene by scene and moment by moment we can see his scarred veteran soften up and finally bond with his disembodied companion and host. Their story is so compelling that for now, the audience can completely set aside questions about what happened to the Discovery and its crew.
Eventually, Craft becomes so appreciative of Zora that he devises a way to give something back. With time on his hands, he teaches himself how to dance and uses the replicator to help with some Fred Astaire in Funny Face cosplay. And for the ultimate date, he invites Zora – and not an Audrey Hepburn, but Zora’s vision of herself – onto the bridge, turned Parisian dream dancefloor.
This is when things get a bit too real. Craft realizes he is falling in love with Zora, which he sees as a betrayal to the family that drove him to undergo a dangerous odyssey to return home. There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house as a heartbroken Zora actually tries to comfort Craft, pleading that she isn’t a real person. In just 13 minutes, Chabon and director Olatunde Osunsanmi have made us genuinely care about these two, helped along by strong performances by Aldis Hodge and Annabelle Wallis.
Things wrap up quickly as this is a short form episode, with Zora revealing that she has fixed her last shuttle for Craft to continue on his journey home. She even creates a fancy golden suit for him just for the occasion, providing what seems like Craft’s tenth wardrobe change …impressive for just fifteen minutes of runtime.
After just coming out of a millennium of isolation, Zora makes what seems like the ultimate sacrifice, giving up a piece of herself to again face the void of space alone. Craft returns the affection, offering Zora the gift of giving him a name, which she does: “Funny Face.”
It’s all Greek to me
It should come as no surprise that Michael Chabon’s Star Trek debut displays writing at a whole different level and style than we are used to on Discovery. It may be set in the 33rd century, but “Calypso” is steeped in literary tradition going back millennia and most specifically to Homer’s Odyssey, the tale of the Greek hero Odysseus journeying home after a war, just as Craft is doing.
The first clue to this Greek influence is in the title itself. Calypso is the name of an immortal nymph cursed to live forever on the island of Ogygia, where every 1,000 years, a mortal she was fated to fall in love with would wash up on shore, stay with her for a time, and then leave her behind. Most famously, she fell in love with Odysseus and held him on her island for seven years. Craft’s name is also a reference to Odysseus, who was described as “crafty” for his cunning: Odysseus outwitted the Cyclops Polyphemus by refusing to give his name, saying instead, “My name is Nobody.” There are many more parallels between this Short Treks episode and Greek mythology, even down to Craft’s final golden flight suit as a stand-in for the Golden Fleece sought by Jason and the Argonauts.
Even with all this Greek mythology, Chabon found time to include references to Betty Boop and the 1950s musical romance Funny Face, both of which weren’t just cultural namedropping, but actually important plot points. Pretty impressive for a short form episode.
Is it Star Trek?
“Calypso” makes good on the promise of the producers to use Short Treks as a way to experiment with format, style, and tone within Star Trek. The 1,000 years-ahead timeline completely removed this mini-episode from the goings-on of the crew of the USS Discovery, clearly by design. Chabon told CNET that he saw this episode as “isolated from the vast tapestry of Star Trek.”
“Calypso” raises many questions. What happened to the crew? When did the crew abandon the ship? Is this really the USS Discovery and does that mean that the ship is assured to survive during the run of Star Trek: Discovery? How did the computer evolve itself? Did Zora invent the technology that allowed her to move chess pieces, fix scars, and repair a shuttlecraft? Does the Federation exist in the 33rd century? How did human society lose the knowledge of both tacos and Tuesdays?
This episode clearly had no intention of answering any of these questions; instead, it used the format of Short Treks and the standing Discovery sets to tell a compelling sci-fi tale. “Calypso” is essentially what they call in the theater a “two-hander” — a play with just two characters. It was also reminiscent of some classic two-hander-style episodes of The Twilight Zone, such as “Two” and “Nothing in the Dark.”
“Calypso” is a short story that could fit into any sci-fi anthology; one could argue it really isn’t Star Trek at all, as it adds little or nothing to the overall story of Discovery or Star Trek in general. But at its core, this episode explores a fundamental question of what it means to be human, and what could be more Star Trek than that?
The future looks bright
Yes, “Calypso” doesn’t offer new insights into Star Trek: Discovery or any particular character, but it seems clear that was never the intention. The other three episodes for this spin-off series will deliver on that, but this entry was instead an experiment in sci-fi storytelling in a Star Trek setting and with Star Trek themes. On that account, this mini succeeded well beyond expectations.
This episode also bodes well for the future of the upcoming Jean-Luc Picard series set to begin production in April 2019, as Michael Chabon is an executive producer and writer on the show. His thoughtful and literary style is a welcome addition to Star Trek.
Star Trek: Short Treks continues to bring us nice little monthly morsels as we await the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, which debuts on January 17th. The preview for December’s entry “The Brightest Star” gives us an intriguing glimpse into what looks like a Saru origin story. The hardest part? Waiting a month for the next snack.
- Starfleet branding has now extended to popcorn boxes, already coveted by fans on social media.
- Looks like the famous “Disco” t-shirts have been redesigned with a different font.
- Question: Could Craft’s red owl tattoo be a reference to Discovery season two’s mysterious “red angel”?
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.