Written by Kalinda Vazquez
Directed by Sanji Senaka
November’s Short Treks episode again features an exploration of Discovery-era Starfleet, but focuses on Cadet Thira Sidhu, a young woman whose dreams for her career seem to be going nowhere until her Starbase is attacked by Tholians and she is given charge of a prisoner who tempts her with seemingly impossible-to-resist possibilities. Will she follow her heart, or her training?
Before delving into spoilers in the rest of the review, “Ask Not” is a taut, spare drama pitting a fledgling cadet against a powerful influence. It is a clear product of the #MeToo era, a corrective to an emotion-driven brand of storytelling choices across current pop culture, and a great showcase for new talent. It’s not quite as satisfying as “Q&A,” but is more compact and economical. And I liked it better than “The Trouble with Edward,” an episode that I did, in the last analysis, also enjoy.
There are two famous quotations that the title of this episode may be alluding to: the first is John Donne’s well-known poem, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which begins, “No man is an island / Entire of itself…” and concludes, “…send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee.” That last line is commonly misquoted as, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…” If this is the episode’s reference, the title is a commentary on the interdependent nature of Starfleet, and how the regulations that govern an officer’s life help to keep everyone safer.
The second, more likely referent is probably the inaugural address given by John F. Kennedy, when he was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, in 1961. This address is widely considered among the greatest Presidential speeches in American history. In the address, Kennedy talked about how “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…” and issued the call to action, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” If this is the episode’s reference, the title underlines how Cadet Sidhu must choose to forsake the temptations of love or advancement of her career in favor of doing the right thing.
The episode opens with Cadet Sidhu on duty in Inventory 2 of Starbase 28, which is not the duty station that she had desired to fill. Cadet Sidhu had applied to work in the Engineering department of the USS Enterprise, as had her husband, and while he had been posted to the USS Bouman, she had been assigned to what Star Trek III’s “Mr. Adventure” might have referred to as, “the hind-end of space.” When Starbase 28 is attacked by Tholians, security officers deliver a hooded prisoner to Inventory 2 for Sidhu to guard, since the level that the brig was on had been damaged by the attack. The prisoner has been arrested for mutiny, and when his hood is removed, the prisoner is revealed to be Captain Christopher Pike, himself.
Once he is alone with Sidhu, Pike begins ordering her to release him and to give him access to communications. He applies personal pressure – playing on his status as one of Starfleet’s most decorated captains – emotional pressure – telling her that her husband’s ship is in danger – the pressure of ambition – he could make or break her Starfleet career, here before it’s even begun – and even moral pressure – reasoning with her that he was unfairly removed from his post, and that she has the power to right a wrong. He appeals to her sense of vengeance – she and her husband were the sole survivors of a Tholian attack a couple of years before. And the fact that he is the commander of the very ship she longed to serve on didn’t hurt either.
Sidhu starts out shaky and insecure, but as she counters each of his appeals, she becomes more and more steadfast. Like Christ beating back the temptations of Satan in the wilderness with appeals to Deuteronomy, Sidhu refers confidently to Starfleet regulations, standing her ground, and even leveling a phaser at the captain. In the end, this is all revealed to be a test – including her supposed rejection from service aboard the Enterprise – and her rock-steady response to a pressure-filled situation convinces Captain Pike that she is perfect for his Engineering department.
It’s no accident that this episode features a young, pretty female cadet facing enormous pressure from a male authority figure who starts out seeming very fatherly and benevolent, but soon turns quite threatening. While none of Pike’s inducements or threats are sexual in nature, it’s difficult not to think of the allegations made against Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Matt Lauer, and others, who have been accused of using relational and career pressure to get sexual favors for themselves.
And the theme of this story is a refreshing counterpoint to the many examples in today’s pop culture of characters willing to sacrifice the greater good in order to save the life of that one person that they love the most. Cadet Sidhu acknowledges that her husband knew the risks when he signed on to Starfleet. So often in popular culture, the message is that following your heart is more important than following the rules. The mutiny of Michael Burnham in Star Trek: Discovery‘s pilot episode also seems to follow the now-conventional approach, though the entire first season of Discovery works to underline how much of a mistake that was for her. This story swims against the conventional tide, affirming that the rules are there for a reason.
A valid complaint that I’ve read online about this episode is that the “test” seems unusually cruel. Commander Una (aka “Number One”) indicates that she is the one who designed the test, and Mr. Spock mentions that no one can expect mercy from Number One. All this combines to make Una look a bit like a sadist. It also seems somewhat farfetched and inefficient to run a test like this on every cadet seeking placement aboard a starship. At the very least, this test required the active participation of five Starfleet officers (Una, Pike, the two security guards, and Sidhu) and a fairly extensive simulation.
On the other hand, we have seen Starfleet utilizing extensive and elaborate simulations for the testing of cadets before – most famously with the Kobayashi Maru scenario seen in both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and in 2009’s Star Trek movie, but also in TNG’s “Coming of Age,” in which Wesley Crusher and a number of other applicants for Starfleet Academy have to undergo a number of examinations, including the dreaded “psych test,” which in Wesley’s case meant choosing which of two trapped crewmen to rescue from an imminent explosion.
It is possible that it was Cadet Sidhu’s particular history – her surviving the Tholian attack on Berellium – which not only suggested the particular scenario for this test, but also necessitated its use. Perhaps the test was necessary for Sidhu’s sake, and not just for Starfleet’s.
- This is the shortest Trek ever, at just under 10 minutes in length (which includes end credits and the preview for next month’s shorts).
- “Ask Not” is ably directed by Sanji Senaka, whose IMDB directorial filmography lists a number of music videos over the last 25 years, including a Grammy nomination for best music video and a VMA nomination for Best Direction in a video, both for Lauryn Hill’s 1999 song, “Everything is Everything.” In “Ask Not,” Senaka stages a number of great shots, including an upside-down shot that emphasizes Sidhu’s disorientation, and the rotating pan that introduces Captain Pike.
- Amrit Kaur does an excellent job playing Cadet Sidhu, opposite Anson Mount’s Captain Pike. Her character needs to go toe-to-toe with him in a stressful situation, and she rises to the occasion.
- Writer Kalinda Vazquez has written for a number of high-profile TV shows, including Prison Break, Nikita, Once Upon a Time, and Fear the Walking Dead. This is her first Trek script.
- Short Treks seems to be a great proving ground for introducing new talent into the Trek universe.
- Composer Andrea Datzman worked with Michael Giacchino on all of his Star Trek movie scores, and is the second woman to ever score a Star Trek episode.
- With the rapid-fire back-and-forth of Starfleet Regulations between Pike and Sidhu, this episode is a Memory Alpha fan’s dream. My favorite line in the episode is a reference to Starfleet’s reserve activation clause, which Leonard McCoy in Star Trek: The Motion Picture called “little-known” and “seldom-used.”
- A graphic on the display screen in Inventory 2 shows two Constitution-class starships docked at Starbase 28.
- For a show that loves math and science, I cannot understand the use of CGI portrayals of physically-impossible constructs. In this episode, it’s Pike’s hood, which disassembles and levitates in pieces into a container that’s too small to fit the parts. In Discovery, we saw a huge graviton “catcher’s mitt” deployed out of a tiny container to snag the dark matter asteroid in season two’s “Brother,” as well as lengthy evacuation corridors deployed from a small spot on the USS Discovery to the Enterprise in “Such Sweet Sorrow.” In all of these cases, nanotechnology builds structures seemingly out of nothing. To me, this breaks verisimilitude every time. I have the same problem with Iron Man’s nanotech armor in the Marvel movies, by the way.
- We have another “impossibly huge” interior, like the turbolifts, what we see of the USS Enterprise’s main engineering is utterly massive.
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.