Between season one of Star Trek: Discovery and season two, the production crew behind Discovery made four Short Treks, each clocking in at about 10-15 minutes. The idea behind Short Treks is both to keep the appetite for Star Trek strong between seasons, and to let them do some focused, lighter character pieces for a show that can be awfully serious.
The same philosophy animates the latest batch of Short Treks, aimed at bridging the gap between Discovery season two and the launch of Star Trek: Picard in January 2020. The first two Short Treks are now live on CBS All Access, with more set to drop about one a month until Picard debuts.
After the enormous popularity of Discovery’s take on Captain Pike, Spock, Number One, and the USS Enterprise, it’s perhaps no surprise that the first two shorts make use of characters and sets from those episodes.
Written by Michael Chabon
Directed by Mark Pellington
The first episode of the new season of shorts is written by Picard showrunner Michael Chabon and directed by Mark Pellington, best known for directing 1999’s Arlington Road and 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies, but whose only other Star Trek credit was providing the voice-over for the Ba’ul in the Discovery episode, “The Sound of Thunder.” Pellington directs his actors with a sure hand and maintains visual interest in a short that is largely made up of scenes of two people stuck in an elevator. That those two people have interesting things to say to each other is credit to writer Chabon. That we never get bored watching them say those things is mostly Pellington’s doing, though the fact that those two people are Ethan Peck’s Spock and Rebecca Romijn’s Number One doesn’t hurt, either.
Star Trek has had its share of “two people stuck in a situation they didn’t choose, giving them a chance to bond” episodes. From Enterprise’s “Shuttlepod One” to DS9’s “Armageddon Game” and “The Forsaken,” these “two-handers” can offer a great opportunity to explore characters in depth, and generate sparks between dissimilar people. They can also spectacularly misfire, as was the case in ENT: “Precious Cargo,” one of the worst episodes of Star Trek, ever. Thankfully, “Q&A” works on almost all counts.
The plot is simple: We witness Spock’s first moments aboard the Enterprise, as he beams over from Starbase 40 (which features a truly strange transporter facility) to begin his assignment under Captain Pike. Number One, whose name is here firmly established as “Una” in print and in dialogue, meets Spock in the Enterprise’s transporter room and begins to introduce him to his new ship. But the turbolift malfunctions on their way to the bridge, and while they are stuck there together, they learn about each other through an extensive question-and-answer session in which Spock asks the questions, and Una (mostly) gives the answers.
A lot of the joy of this episode is found in those exchanges, and I won’t spoil them here. Suffice it to say that I found the conversation delightful, well-paced, and very much in keeping with where these two characters are in their timeline—before the events of TOS: “The Cage” and Discovery season 2. We get to experience a Spock who has not yet fully learned to conceal his emotions, an Una who is burying her feelings for her Captain, and a relationship that we can see will have tremendous impact on both people.
In addition to a great script and strong direction, this episode boasts a fun score overseen by Michael Giacchino and composed by Israeli/Dutch composer Nami Melumad, the first woman to score an episode in the Star Trek franchise. The score features callbacks to Giacchino’s Kelvinverse Star Trek scores and to Alexander Courage’s famous fanfare.
What didn’t I like? Two things: first, the scenes showing the turbolift racing along roller coaster-like tracks criss-crossing in a large, dark space, make no sense in the interior geography of a starship. This was also an issue for me in the second season of Discovery. For all its goofiness, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier at least gave us a reasonably plausible (if mis-numbered) view of the interior of a turboshaft, as did TNG’s “Disaster.” Interestingly, “Disaster” gave us scenes of characters stuck in a turbolift who had to exit through the turboshaft, and a character (Geordi) rather reluctantly singing “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” two things that feature heavily in “Q&A,” as well.
The second thing that really bugged me were the uniforms. I don’t hate the DSC versions of the TOS uniforms, but in DSC: “Brother,” Pike clearly calls these uniforms “the new uniforms,” and Michael Burnham comments appreciatively about them—apparently the first time she had seen them. But “Q&A” takes place about three years prior to “Brother,” and the entire Enterprise crew already wears the 2257-style uniforms, as does Spock, who is coming from Starbase 40. This makes no canonical sense, even though it’s obvious why the choice was made—to clearly indicate that we are not on the USS Discovery, but on the USS Enterprise. But Trek fans love continuity, and this violates continuity in a big way. You could argue that they didn’t want to make new uniforms just for a 15-minute short, but the very next Short Treks features a brand-new style of uniform, so that doesn’t make sense. It’s a continuity error, plain and simple. Otherwise, I loved the short.
- Okay, what was with Starbase 40’s transporter -room? -strip? -hallway? That was bizarre!
- Rebecca Romijn really nails not only her singing but her character in this episode.
- Romijn’s face when answering Spock’s question about the triple-mode high-amplitude Delta Scuti star was worth ten thousand words. One thing that the Discovery-era Treks have done exceptionally well is to convey the joy of space exploration, and this is a parade example.
- Lieutenant Amin, played by Samora Smallwood, also appeared on the Enterprise in the Discovery season 2 finale, “Such Sweet Sorrow,” where she wore Command gold. In this episode, set three years earlier, she wears Operations red. The character also appears in the Discovery tie-in novel, “The Enterprise War,” by John Jackson Miller, where her first name is given as “Jamila.”
- Fascinatingly, Spock toys with the idea of the intelligent design of the universe in one of his questions.
“The Trouble with Edward”
Written by Graham Wagner
Directed by Daniel Gray Longino
The title of the second Short Treks episode of season two intentionally hearkens back to the classic TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” In this new short, we discover that the menace that is the tribble only became menacing when a human scientist started messing with them.
The story follows the first (and only) two weeks of former Enterprise science officer and newly-minted Captain Lynne Lucero’s command of the USS Cabot, a small science vessel assigned to clandestinely solve a starvation crisis on Pragine 63, a world on the edge of Klingon space. Lucero’s “troubles” center around Lt. Edward Larkin, a socially awkward protein specialist who has made the study of tribbles the center of his work. Larkin sees tribbles as exactly the solution to the crisis that the native Calations need. Underneath that fur, Larkin argues, tribbles are “all meat.” When Captain Lucero decides to pursue other solutions and reassigns him, Larkin becomes hurt and angry, and experiments on the fur-balls against her direct orders. In the process, Larkin genetically modifies the tribbles to have an astonishing birth rate, and their explosive population growth quickly threatens the Cabot’s very existence.
Lt. Larkin, portrayed by H. Jon Benjamin of Bob’s Burgers fame, presents an unusual thing in the Star Trek universe: a maladjusted Starfleet officer. Fans online have likened him to TNG’s Reginald Barclay, but Larkin out-weirds Barclay at every turn. Captain Lucero (Rosa Salazar) marvels that someone with Larkin’s amorality and character deficiencies has made it as far in his career as he has, though she notes that he is known to be a brilliant scientist. Later, of course, she remembers him as an “idiot.” Because this episode is designed to be pure comedy, I think that whether or not you like “The Trouble with Edward” will probably boil down to whether you find the title character amusing or not. Beyond the laughs, there is very little “there” there.
If this episode has a theme, it may be that the first casualty for a new Captain is usually their optimistic view of humanity. Before Lucero beams to the Cabot, her mentor Captain Pike praises Lucero for her undaunted optimism. But he warns her that though she is a brilliant scientist, not everyone in her crew will match her high standard. By the end of the short, Pike’s warning has been amply justified. And while this may be a realistic theme, it seems uncharacteristic for Star Trek, which has traditionally been as utopian in its view of humanity as Lucero is at the beginning of the episode. Is this show intended as a critique of Star Trek’s naive view of human beings? More likely, it’s just an excuse to have some fun.
Graham Wagner’s script has some strong moments, including Pike’s sendoff of Lucero, the initial staff briefing aboard the Cabot, and the final exchange between Larkin and Lucero. Some scenes are too extended, stretching humorous into awkward and uncomfortable, like the scene in which Lucero confronts Larkin about his behavior. It is not clear if this is due to the script or to director Daniel Gray Longino’s handling of these scenes.
Rosa Salazar puts in a good performance here, holding her own in scenes with Benjamin, who is also quite strong. If the episode has a weakness, it is thematic, and the fact that comedy is difficult to do well. I rate the comedy in “The Trouble with Edward” as hit-and-miss, but just enough more “hit” than “miss” to give the show a passing grade.
- Larkin complains that the unmodified tribbles breed very slowly, but it is questionable whether his assessment is accurate. In ENT: “The Breach,” set before these events, Dr. Phlox comments that tribbles “breed quite prodigiously.” This episode seems to argue that it is Larkin’s genetic modifications which cause the tribbles to breed quickly, but it is possible that Larkin’s complaint is due to his impatience, not due to a true picture of the tribbles’ fecundity.
- In any event, the tribbles in this episode breed far, far quicker than any previous Trek episode has depicted. One also wonders where the tribbles obtain sufficient mass to accomplish the sort of fertility that they display here.
- I like the mandarin collars on the uniforms aboard the Cabot. Why didn’t Lucero change into a Cabot-style uniform once she boarded?
- Episode scribe Graham Wagner is primarily a comedy writer, having written for The Office, Portlandia, and Silicon Valley, among others.
- Perhaps most controversially, this episode features a post-credits sequence that is a tongue-in-cheek commercial for a Tribbles breakfast cereal. The commercial is the oddest thing I’ve ever seen in an official Trek production, but I liked it a lot better than many fans did, judging by the comments I’ve read about it online.
Star Trek: Short Treks are available in the USA on CBS All Access. Season 2 is available in Canada via CTV Sci-Fi Channel (formerly known as Space) and Crave. Availability for the second season in other regions has not be announced.
Keep up with all the Short Treks news and reviews at TrekMovie.