After Star Trek became a hit in syndication, Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana worked with Filmation’s Hal Sutherland in 1973-1974 to produce Star Trek: The Animated Series. Comprising two seasons, 22 episodes, featuring writers from The Original Series and almost the entire original cast providing their voices, TAS has enjoyed a deep popularity among fans, even as it has had a questionable relationship with canonicity. Perhaps that’s the best way to think of these two Short Treks—they are both quite enjoyable, but if you go into them with a close eye for canon, you will be disappointed.
“Ephraim and Dot” is a madcap, Looney Tunes-style romp through Star Trek history, with zany stunts and wacky sound effects, but at its core beats a Trekkian heart. “The Girl Who Made the Stars” tells a bedtime story between Mike Burnham and his frightened daughter, a story that would later form the intro to the Discovery season two opener, “Brother.” This is a heartwarming and forward-looking tale that gets at the center of what Trek is all about – curiosity and exploration, fueled by the stars. While “The Girl Who Made the Stars” has very little impact on Trek canon, “Ephraim and Dot” plays fast and loose with the stories Trek fans grew up on, and if taken seriously, will rankle most Trek purists.
I will get into spoilers in my episode-specific reviews below. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the episodes before reading ahead.
“The Girl Who Made the Stars”
Written by Brandon Schultz.
Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi.
This short, directed by Star Trek: Discovery executive producer and director Olatunde Osunsanmi (director of ST: “Calypso,” and five episodes of DIS), opens with a young Michael Burnham (voiced by Kyrie McAlpin) who is awakened by a lightning storm in space (shades of 2009’s Star Trek movie) and calls out for her Dad, Mike Burnham (voiced by Kenric Green, who played Mike Burnham in flashbacks during the episode “Perpetual Infinity” and is Sonequa Martin-Green’s husband). He dashes in to tell her a story to help her not be afraid of the dark, one that Michael recalled in the DIS episode “Brother.” It’s based on an actual folk tale told by the /Xam Abathwa tribe of ancient Africa, describing their tale of the origins of the Milky Way galaxy.
Clutching her plush tardigrade, little Michael listens to the story of a young girl, living among the First Peoples of the earth, a thousand centuries ago. The First People live in a world without any stars, who fear the darkness, personifying it as the dreaded, gigantic, serpentine Night Beast. Because they cannot travel by night, they always stay within a day’s walk of the center of their land, which is laid out in concentric circles of crops, centered like a bull’s eye around the elder of the First People. Farming the same land over and over, the land eventually becomes exhausted, but the elder rejects the young girl’s suggestion that they move on beyond the far mountains to find new land. Undaunted, the girl decides to explore on her own, taking along a friendly firefly for illumination.
Chased by the Night Beast, she runs in terror, until she is startled by a meteoric impact nearby. Pushing through her fear, she finds the crashed frame of an alien spacecraft in a cave, and a strange, glowing, tentacular alien–and she finds that she’s not afraid of it, nor it of her. In fact, discovering a new type of life, she responds with curiosity, and the alien in turn grants her the gift of a glimpse of the galaxy around her, waiting to be explored. More tangibly, it gives her a basket full of lights. Returning to her people at night, she opens the basket, releasing a flurry of stars into the night skies. With the darkness now illuminated, she leads her people in exploration of their world, navigating by the constellations. Growing into a warrior-queen, she is seen vanquishing the Night Beast with her bow and arrow. Young Michael sleeps and dreams of becoming that sort of explorer-queen.
It is a story about curiosity conquering fear, a very Trekkian concept. The animation is lush and detailed CGI, with rich use of darks and transparent materials. It looks as lovely as anything Disney is putting out, with the exception of the animation on Mike Burnham, who edges close to Polar Express levels of the uncanny valley. The other characters are cartoony enough to avoid that fate. Young Michael Burnham (and the story’s girl who is her twin) looks spot-on, as if she were a tiny Sonequa Martin-Green. Looking at the furnishings in young Michael’s room, I was puzzled by the fact that all of the photographs are of Mike and Michael, and there is no picture of her mother, Gabrielle.
Kyrie McAlpin’s voice performance is expressive and amazing, truly spot-on. Kenric Green exudes the fatherly love and concern that his character has for his daughter, as well as the wonder of curiosity and exploration. The music by Trek newcomer Kris Bowers is lavish and entrancing, with themes and rhythms that move the story forward without overpowering it. The tone of the piece is stirring and heartwarming.
Star Trek is more often about debunking folklore and mythology than embracing it (think of “Who Mourns for Adonais?” and “Who Watches the Watchers?” as examples), and so “The Girl Who Made the Stars” makes for an interesting change of pace. Canonically, the only thing this episode adds to Trek history is that Michael Burnham first heard a version of this story from her Dad while in their home on Doctari Alpha, which is not much of a stretch. It is a little bit of a challenge to avoid the thought that not long after telling this story to his daughter, Mike Burnham was slaughtered by Klingons, and Michael learned that there were, in fact, very good reasons to be afraid of the dark.
Fun fact: According to writer Brandon Schultz, this flashback to young Michael and her father was pitched as part of the Discovery season 2 finale (“Such Sweet Sorrow, Part 2”) as a bookend to Burnham’s telling of the story in the season 2 opener (“Brother”). Obviously the finale was packed to the brim, so it didn’t work out there, but Alex Kurtzman liked the idea so it was spun off into a Short Treks episode.
“Ephraim and Dot”
Written by Chris Silvestri & Anthony Maranville.
Directed by Michael Giacchino.
Opening with a scratchy, black-and-white, film reel-style intro said to be from “Starfleet Science,” this short may best be viewed as an in-universe semi-educational cartoon for kids in the Federation, titled: “The Tardigrade in Space.” The narrator opens: “Space, the final frontier… filled with a galaxy of flora and fauna, some deadly and some docile, like this tardigrade here…” The narrator continues to explain how space tardigrades travel the mycelial network, a sort of super-warp highway, trying to find a warm and safe place to lay their eggs. While the tardigrade digs into an asteroid, presumably trying to make a nest, her antennae signal an approaching threat. As the cartoon bursts into color, the USS Enterprise pops out of warp nearby, and the Star Trek fanfare plays. The ship looks a lot like a Filmation version of the Discovery-era retcon of the Original Series Enterprise. I love how the ship looks as an animated vessel.
But the ship is headed for the asteroid, and crashes into it with its deflector dish (what are deflector dishes for, if not deflecting asteroids?), sending the tardigrade spinning down the length of the moving ship. As she tries scratching her way into the hull, she comes across a porthole, through which she sees Kirk (voice of William Shatner) and McCoy talking with Khan (voice of Ricardo Montalban) in sickbay (“Space Seed”). It is fun to see our Original Series heroes (and villains) in animated form, recreating scenes from live-action TOS. As Ephraim (the tardigrade) observes all this, DOT, a DOT-7 repair droid (as seen in the Discovery episode “Such Sweet Sorrow, Part Two” and Short Treks “Ask Not”) emerges from a maintenance hatch to dislodge what it sees as an “intruder.” After a brief scuffle, Ephraim ducks into the hatch, crashing into DOT, as well as several carts of Starfleet laundry, briefly clothing DOT in a red shirt. Ephraim’s escape leads her to the ship’s (TOS-style) warp core, where she finally finds the “warm, safe” environment she wanted, and lays her eggs. But she is discovered by DOT, who continues his quest to eject Ephraim from the ship, in the process encountering a hatch full of tribbles and a “The Naked Time” Sulu (voiced by George Takei) brandishing a rapier at Kirk and McCoy (it was two random extras in the original episode). Finally flushing Ephraim out with the waste water, DOT seems to have the victory, and wishes Ephraim a hearty “live long and prosper,” doing the best imitation of a Vulcan salute that a robot with only three fingers can attempt. The ship then goes to warp, with Ephraim chasing behind.
In rapid succession, the ship (and Ephraim) blasts past a giant green space hand (“Who Mourns for Adonais?”), a stylized planet-killer (“The Doomsday Machine”), a Tholian web (“The Tholian Web”), and a gigantic seated Abraham Lincoln (“The Savage Curtain”). As the ship goes again to warp, it transitions into the refit Enterprise, with hull markings indicating it is now the 1701-A, fighting against the USS Reliant in space (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). Oddly, once the attack starts, the registry markings on the top of the saucer are canted 45 degrees counter-clockwise from where they ought to be on the hull, including the markings that belong behind the officers’ lounge. Ephraim now catches up with the ship, which then warps to the orbit of the Genesis Planet (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock). Ephraim scrambles along the hull to a porthole, confirming that her eggs are still safe in the (still TOS-style) warp core. Ephraim again detects a threat with her antennae, which turns out to be Kruge’s Bird of Prey, which decloaks and fires on the Enterprise, doing major damage, which DOT is now attempting to contain and repair.
As Ephraim finally regains contact with her eggs, DOT engages her in a Kirk/Khan-style Engineering department fight, complete with TOS-style fight music and the use of a wrench as a weapon. DOT triumphs, ejecting Ephraim from the ship, but also finally finding and identifying Ephraim’s eggs. As the ship’s self-destruct sequence engages, announced by the ship’s computer (voiced by Jenette Goldstein, who also provided the voice of the Enterprise computer in “Ask Not”), DOT realizes the eggs’ peril. From outside the ship, Ephraim watches as the wounded Enterprise blazes down into the Genesis Planet’s atmosphere, finally meeting its end. Ephraim slumps in dejection as fragments of ship and of tardigrade egg-shells float by her. But suddenly she sees the severely-damaged DOT floating by, and instead of attacking her, DOT opens a hatch on his midsection and reveals her now-hatched children, safe and preserved from destruction.
The narrator closes out the short, “At last, peace returns to the world of our mother tardigrade. We can’t help but wonder what new adventures await as our new family goes boldly where no one has gone before.”
It is fun to see all these animated references to classic Trek stories, even if they are presented out of order (“Space Seed” takes place chronologically after “The Naked Time”) and in a time-compressed format (Star Trek III takes place nineteen years after “The Naked Time,” although in fairness to the short, the narrator does tell us that tardigrade eggs can lie dormant for years). We know that tardigrades travel the mycelial network, which links every point in the universe, and even parallel universes, and even across timelines, so the shuffling of events in the short might make sense as a tardigrade’s-eye view of this slice of Trek history.
What’s harder to swallow is the registry of the refit Enterprise as the 1701-A, even though it’s the refit 1701 that battles the Reliant and Kruge’s Bird of Prey and meets its end over the Genesis Planet. The 1701-A was a different ship entirely, christened in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. If the tardigrade laid her eggs in the warp core of the TOS Enterprise, how could they wind up in the warp core of the 1701-A? How could the eggs have survived intact through the extensive refit process undergone in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, especially given that the warp core itself arguably underwent the most extreme refitting of any part of the ship? Perhaps its best again to view this short as a tardigrade’s-eye mish-mash of Star Trek, rather than a straightforward jaunt through canonical Trek history.
I hope there’s a good production-level explanation for why they chose to label the refit as 1701-A, because it’s difficult for me to accept it as a mistake. If it was a mistake, it’s an egregious one. Someone needs to ask director Michael Giacchino about it, I think.
[Editor’s Note: After we published the review Giacchino acknowledge the mistake on Twitter]
Yes – our mistake. We tried to catch everything but we were moving fast. Sorry about that! Pretend it’s not there for now! 😩
— Michael Giacchino (@m_giacchino) December 14, 2019
As might be expected from a short directed by Giacchino, the music is terrific, and the pacing of the piece is madcap and frantic. CBS is describing the short as a “cat-and-mouse chase,” so maybe the influence is more Tom and Jerry than Looney Tunes, but either way, it’s a new tone for the Star Trek franchise. Still, at its core, this episode celebrates the discovery and celebration of new life in the galaxy, a major driver of everything that Trek is and hopes to be.
Note: It is not at all clear if the “Ephraim” in this episode (the name is never used in dialogue) bears any relationship with the tardigrade whose DNA was infused into Lt. Paul Stamets aboard the USS Discovery, and who appears as a major character in the Discovery tie-in novel, Dead Endless (review forthcoming). In that novel, Ephraim is referred to as male, while in this short, Ephraim is referred to as female. In Bryan Fuller’s initial conception for Star Trek: Discovery, Ephraim the space tardigrade was a Starfleet officer and a bridge officer.
Fun fact: The narration is voiced by Kirk Thatcher, best known to Trek fans as “Punk on Bus” in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and the composer of the punk song (“I Hate You”) on the boom box in that scene. Thatcher was in fact an assistant to Leonard Nimoy and an associate producer on the movie; he’s also had a great career working in puppetry and miniatures at ILM and at The Muppets Studio and The Jim Henson Company.
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.