“The Escape Artist”
Star Trek: Short Treks Episode 4 – Debuted Thursday, January 3rd
Written by Mike McMahan
Directed by Rainn Wilson
The fourth and final installment of the first season of Star Trek: Short Treks once again changes things up with a delightfully fun exploration of the classic character of Harry Mudd. Rainn Wilson returns to the role for the third time in his funniest take yet, helped along by Rick and Morty veteran writer Mike McMahan. Full of nods to both Discovery and Star Trek: The Original Series, “The Escape Artist” continues the Short Treks tradition of experimenting with different tones, this time by offering an escapist adventure that steps up to the line but doesn’t cross over entirely into satire.
Mudd, not I
“The Escape Artist” kicks off fast, with an indignant Harry Mudd being sold from one tall masked bounty hunter to a different Tellarite bounty hunter. Our lovable rogue has once again found himself on the wrong side of the law as he switches from indignant wronged man to smarmy negotiator, but nothing he can say will stop the transaction, leaving him literally brought down, and facing a very angry Tellarite. While his goal is to bring Harry to the Federation for a bounty, captain Krit is taking personal delight in having Mudd in his custody. Turns out Harry stole the Krit family ancestral cudgel–although having this Tellarite also angry at Mudd for running out on his sister was a bit of a tired trope.
Like the previous Short Trek, this one settles into a two-person short, this time with rapid-fire banter between Mudd and the Tellarite Tevrin Krit, ably played by Harry Judge. Wilson gets to really show off his skill here as he switches from tactic to tactic to try and talk his way out of yet another jam. But this Tellarite has his number, and his criminal record, and isn’t falling for any of Mudd’s tricks. We can see more of the classic Mudd here, as he gives his takes on the list of charges in his Federation file, scoffing over the various charges that made him deserving of a 100,000 credit bounty. Lines like “He was a duke, hardly counts as regicide, what are we attempting to murder now, accuracy?” bring some welcome levity to the usually serious Discovery, and is certainly a change of pace from the previous three Short Treks. The episode also establishes that it takes place sometime after the Discovery season one episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” as Mudd’s file also includes the crime of “penetrating a space whale.”
Mudd’s way with women
“The Escape Artist” surprises by finding the time within this short format to introduce a series of flashbacks, setting up how the situation Mudd finds himself is is actually quite familiar. We see snippets of Mudd trying to talk his way out of an Orion jail with a rather dimwitted guard and his more savvy superior. There is also a longer scene with Mudd and a rather angry diminutive female alien bounty hunter, who was unswayed by Harry’s invitation for a romantic date, even under the light of 27 moons. And there was even a very short glimpse of Mudd getting nowhere with an even angrier Klingon, possibly the one who captured him for L’Rell, before the events of “Choose Your Pain.” One has to wonder how Mudd ever charmed his way into marrying his wife Stella with hamfisted attempts at seduction like telling his Orion capturer, “Your skin is luxuriously green, like a delectable lime.”
This surprising variety of locations and minor characters showed an impressive level of production design in terms of sets, costumes, and props for this short form. While a lot of what was seen was recycled and repurposed from various episodes of Discovery, it all came together and felt new enough. The Tellarite merchant ship bridge was particularly well done and even though we had seen Tellarites before in the first season, this was the first time the new makeup was put to the test with a major character, with successful results. Jeff Russo’s music also impresses here, bringing in a new sound to fit the lighter tone of the episode, that still fit with his overall Discovery themes.
Choosing his pain
After trying every trick up his sleeve, including a hidden knife in his boot, Mudd and the Tellarite finally arrive at a rendezvous with a Federation ship, which seems to generate genuine fright for Mudd. Proud to have resisted Mudd’s various schemes to dissuade him, Captain Krit is ready for Starfleet to hand over his cash, but it turns out Mudd actually had a cunning plan the whole time.
In a fun twist that again harkens back to The Original Series, it is revealed that the Tellarite bounty hunter has been duped and his prisoner, which he paid that other tall female bounty hunter for, is just an android copy of Mudd. In fact, the USS De Milo appears to be running out of room to store all the Mudds piling up, one of whom is wearing a costume straight out of the TOS episode “I, Mudd.”
Things close out quickly with the real Harry Mudd, revealed to have been that female masked bounty hunter, who has been selling the Muddroids to hapless other bounty hunters. He has an impressive ship full of trophies and booty, narcissistically crewed by compliant copies of himself. He wraps thing up sipping his favorite drink – the jipper – and arranging yet another android deal, along with a callback to earlier in the episode, when he attempts to sell “a slightly used cudgel.”
Rogue with a cause
Like with the previous Short Treks, “The Escape Artist” brings an opportunity to explore a character, proving insight and backstory. Harry Mudd appeared in two episodes of TOS and an episode of The Animated Series, setting him up as a smuggler and career criminal with a bit of style and charm. Wilson previously played Mudd twice in the first season of Discovery, with a much darker take on the character, stepping in ably as a foil to the even darker Captain Lorca. In Short Treks Wilson’s Mudd maintained that dark tone, but brought a bit more of the TOS-era Mudd’s panache to the role.
It was never firmly established, but this episode could actually take place after the events of “I, Mudd” if we assume Harry’s androids were based on tech he picked up from the planet he was stranded on in that episode. Another indication that this mini-episode takes place well beyond the last time we saw Mudd in season one of Discovery is how his rap sheet was notably longer than shown in the TOS episode “Mudd’s Women.” The counter-arguments that this episode jumped forward into the TOS era would be that the USS De Milo seemed to fit more with the Discovery timeframe, and Mudd was still sporting his full beard and not the classic mustache seen in TOS.
Exploring Mudd’s ability to get himself out of captivity was a clever choice for the team, as all previous interactions with Mudd indicate that he somehow continues to wriggle off various hooks. In “I, Mudd” Kirk says to Mudd, “I thought I left you in jail,” to which Harry replies cryptically, “And thereby hangs a tale.” The android twist in “The Escape Artist” was not only a nice nod to “I, Mudd,” but also showed us that what sometimes seems like bumbling is part of Mudd’s act. Harry Mudd is actually quite crafty, here using his status as a wanted fugitive to make a profit, a scheme devious enough to qualify him for a spot in the Ferengi Divine Treasury.
This Short Treks also dipped its toe a bit into Mudd’s psyche and perhaps gave us some insight into how he justifies his actions. While it was yet another dubious angle to talk himself out of captivity, there was a possible kernel of truth in his talk of a “Resistance” to the Federation. In the utopian future of Star Trek, it would take a certain kind of anti-social and anti-establishment personality to become a criminal like Mudd. They may have been B.S. lines, but Mudd’s critiques of the Federation’s “hegemonic supremacy” and talk of people forced to “fight for scraps” could be an insight into how he sees himself as fighting the system. Doesn’t every good villain see themselves as the hero?
All in, “The Escape Artist” felt in line with the character of Mudd, while at the same time giving us more insight into how he operates and making us want to see him again. With two appearances so far, it could be that Mudd can evolve into the Discovery’s Q, popping in periodically to harass the crew of the USS Discovery with dangerous and zany schemes. This mini could also have been a trial balloon for a Mudd-centric spin-off for Star Trek’s expanding universe of TV shows. Wilson has shown that he could carry such a thing, although a little bit of Mudd goes a long way.
Mike McMahan’s twisted Trek
“The Escape Artist” is also notable for being the Star Trek TV debut of writer Mike McMahan. Previously McMahan has shown his love of Trek through his popular parody Twitter account @tng_s8, which spawned the officially licensed humor book Warped: An Engaging Guide to the Never-Aired 8th Season. More recently, McMahan has been busy on the hit sci-fi animated comedy Rick and Morty, which earned him an Emmy in 2018. And in October it was announced that he has been tapped to develop Star Trek: Lower Decks, an upcoming Star Trek animated comedy.
The humor in “The Escape Artist” definitely showed some of that Rick and Morty sensibility. Fans of that show and other similar comedies may have been amused by this Short Treks, which laced a healthy dose of gags into this character study. But humor is very much subjective and McMahan makes some choices for Star Trek which didn’t always work in “The Escape Artist.” And while it may fit in with classic Mudd episodes and their 1960s approach to gender, some could see how this episode’s portrayal of the female characters exclusively as past or potential sexual partners of Mudd’s as disappointing to some viewers who welcome Discovery’s goal of a more “woke” Star Trek.
But in the end, McMahan showed he knows his Star Trek and he knows how to lace laughs into the format while still telling a story, which gives hope for the upcoming Lower Decks show.
A worthy experiment, now on to season two
In the end “The Escape Artist” was a nice little bit of entertainment to keep us going as we wait for the debut of the second season of Star Trek: Discovery, which is finally coming in two weeks. The four entries offered a variety of tones and styles, each feeling unique. While not always consistent, and with some comprises along the way, this bit of experimentation within Star Trek was a welcome diversion that also offered up some clues for what is to come for characters like Saru, as well as some of the creatives like McMahan with his upcoming animated show and Michael Chabon, who is working on the Picard series.
With just 15 minutes of new content a month, Short Treks was not worth it alone to subscribe to All Access. But if you are jumping back in for season two of Discovery, it is certainly worth the time as an added bonus. Indications are that there will be more Short Treks in the future, and hopefully, CBS and team continue to bring in new talent and try new things within this format, and maybe bring some of what works into the other bigger Star Trek shows, including Discovery.
Random thoughts and images
- The episode contained the first reference in Discovery to latinum
- The USS De Milo has a similar design to USS Discovery, but it is not the same as the Crossfield class, it appears to be a smaller mid-level starship akin to the Nebula class of the 24th century.
- A crewperson on the De Milo was seen with same kind of tactical helmet used on the USS Shenzhou in the Discovery pilot
- For those keeping track, Krit’s ship was the Tellarite merchant ship DR-756
- Mudd tries to seduce a bounty hunter by promising to take her to see the 27 moons of Tartus IV, not to be confused with Tarsus IV, location of the Governor Kodos’ massacre
- The loot on Mudd’s ship included the Mona Lisa, numerous bat’leths and his helmet from “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”
- The modulated voice used for Mudd’s female masked disguise was reminiscent of Leia’s Boushh disguise from Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi
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 is available in the USA on CBS All Access. It airs in Canada on Space and streams on CraveTV.