Nov 20, 2019
Star Trek: Short Treks "Runaway"
To build up hype for January’s second season premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access will be posting a series of “Short Treks” over the next few months. These are basically the service’s latest attempt to drag the Star Trek franchise into the new millennium, and follow the template of shows like The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and The Flash by presenting short webisodes that fill in gaps between episodes.
Of course, befitting their status as content only seen by a small fraction of the regular audience, webisodes tend to be rather lightweight and disposable, and judging by this first entry “Runaway”, the Short Treks webisodes will be no exception to rule. It’s a bad sign when I’m looking at the clock wondering when a 15-minute short is going to end already.
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We open on a shot of Discovery in space which zooms in on a shuttle bay, where the computer informs us (and the crew) that it’s quittin’ time, and a bunch of faceless crewmen walk out. Then a cargo container opens up and out pops a semi-translucent hand, accompanied by animalistic noises and hisses. The unseen creature inside cuts itself on the door of the container, and drips bright, glowing blood on the floor.
Cut to Tilly (Mary Wiseman), the star of this particular Short Trek, who’s in her quarters on a long-distance holographic call to her mom. And in case you’re wondering when this is taking place in the Discovery timeline, Tilly has the Medal of Honor on her desk, and she’s also an ensign here, so this is taking place somewhere during the season one finale, after the big medal ceremony and before the Discovery heads out to pick up its new captain (and get intercepted by Pike’s Enterprise).
The holographic image of Tilly’s mom (who according to the closed captions is named Siobhan) saunters around Tilly’s quarters in an evening gown. Very conspicuously, we only see the woman in long shots and never get a clear look at her face. Some viewers have speculated that this is because Siobhan Tilly will appear again in the upcoming season and they haven’t officially cast the role yet, but it’s still a very odd, awkward choice.
The two are discussing Tilly’s longstanding interest in joining the Starfleet Command Training Program, but her mom is worried that Tilly might not be able to hack it in the program and discourages her from trying. A frustrated Tilly ends the call and screams into her pillow.
She then goes to the mess hall and asks for coffee so strong that the computer warns against it. When Tilly insists, the computer makes the coffee and then chirps, “Have a glorious day!” Thus continuing the first season’s motif of making me wonder if Discovery’s computer is constantly drunk.
Also, the mess hall is completely empty except for Tilly, which immediately becomes relevant when she hears those same hissing and animalistic noises. She sees a Predator-style transparent figure run past her and spots some of that glowing blood on the floor, whereupon a creature leaps down from the ceiling and does… something… that causes all the replicators to start spewing out random food all over the place. Like I said, the computer’s drunk.
(Either that, or this is an unexpected homage to that animated episode where the replicator blasted out three tons of fruit and hit Scotty in the face with a cream pie. It’s virtually the same scene.)
At last, the creature decloaks, and it’s a young girl (Yadira Guevara-Prip) with dark hair and a nose ring and fangs and crocodile-like inner eyelids and some sort of retractable back spikes that come out when she feels threatened. Tilly is able to scan her with a tricorder and learn that she’s a “Xahean”, and expositionizes that this is a race that just recently achieved warp drive.
One would assume standard Starfleet protocol at this point would be to alert security that there’s an intruder onboard. Instead, Tilly tries to make friends with the girl, and even picks up a bowl of ice cream off the floor and offers it to her. Tilly tries to get close to the Xahean, who hisses at her, so Tilly hisses back, which is funny, but about as amusing/entertaining as things get here.
The alien is speaking in a click-based language, so Tilly whips out a communicator and sets it to “universal translator” mode and they’re finally able to converse. In fact, the Xahean scoffs that she could have built a translator just like this one when she was nine. Yes, despite the hissing and growling and crawling on all fours, she’s an engineer just like Tilly, which is about to provide a cheap, lazy way for the characters to bond.
The Xahean introduces herself as “Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po” (you may remember her from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), but she says to call her “Po” for short. It’s only now that it occurs to Tilly that she might need to report her as an intruder, but Po begs her not to, because she’s a runaway, and her parents and brother are all dead. So Tilly agrees to keep Po’s presence a secret for now, which surely must be an egregious violation of at least a regulation or two. And this is someone who wants to be a captain someday?
Just then, the crewmen who were working in the shuttle bay all walk into the mess hall, so Po cloaks herself, leaving Tilly alone to explain the huge mess, which she blames on a “hormonal space rabbit” with “mood swings”. Yeah.
Cut to Po in Tilly’s quarters, as Po explains her planet is unique, because Xahea the planet and the Xahean race formed at the same time. Tilly says this would have been impossible, but Po insists that it’s true, and this means her planet is her “twin”, a fact which she’ll repeat roughly 800 times before the end of this mini-episode.
Tilly searches a Starfleet database and finds out Po is some sort of strategically important asset. Eventually, it comes out that Po built an “incubator to recrystallize dilithium”. This is evidently a big deal, judging by how Ensign Potty Mouth blurts out, “Holy shit!” So I guess that’s our sign that season two of Discovery will be full of even more damn hell ass cursing.
(Also, this is a reference to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where Spock figures out a way to recrystallize dilithium using a 20th century nuclear reactor. Though according to Scotty in that movie, this couldn’t even be done with 23rd century technology, so I guess Po never shares her incubator invention with the Federation. Either that, or this is a pointless “Easter egg” that shouldn’t be examined too closely.)
The two women proceed to have a conversation that’s completely mystifying. The best I can gather is that Xahea is rich in dilithium mines, and Po invented this incubator because the mining was hurting her “twin”, AKA the planet, but no one listened to her, and that’s why she ran away. Or something. I’ve watched this scene three times and I’m still having to fill in a lot of blanks here.
Regardless, Tilly can relate, because oftentimes people don’t listen to her either, and she randomly drops the fact that her mom isn’t very supportive of her desire to enter the Command Training Program.
Tilly tries to convince Po that she needs to share her incubator invention with others, but Po doesn’t want to, because some unspecified group of people are “vultures” who got “greedy”. She’s worried that “they” are “killing our planet” just to have warp. She yells a few more things about her “twin sister”, and frankly, there’s so much talking in this scene it’s making my head spin.
Finally, Tilly puts her hand on Po’s knee and says, “I think you have your answer, kid.” What? She does? What’s the answer? What was the question? I’m so lost.
Cut to them in the transporter room as Tilly enters in coordinates. Po sniffs the controls, and then asks technobabble questions about how it all works, which ultimately reveal that she understands the general concept of a Heisenberg compensator.
Tilly wonders where she learned all this stuff, and Po says she picked it up from her brother, who (brace yourself for the big twist) was “the king”. In response, Tilly does some shtick where she coughs a lot, as it sinks in that if Po’s brother was king and he died, and her parents are dead too, that means Po is now her planet’s queen. So, the planet’s queen is a teenager who’s also its most brilliant scientist? Who is she, Shuri?
Po says she ran away because she wasn’t ready for her coronation, but she’s ready now, apparently. She hands Tilly a souvenir dilithium crystal from her planet, and Tilly says she’ll be a great queen, and then Po encourages Tilly not to give up on her dream of being in the Command Training Program. More tedious lines follow about Po’s “twin”, and then she beams away to… well, who knows where. Is she beaming back to her planet? Because according to the initial establishing shot, the ship isn’t anywhere near a planet. Also, wouldn’t somebody on the bridge have just detected an unauthorized transport of an unknown individual? Apparently not.
And that’s the end. Even for a throwaway webisode, this was a pretty weak, jumbled mess of an story. I realize they only had 15 minutes to work with and had to leave it up to the viewers to connect some of the dots, but somebody should have realized early on that this story was too complicated to tell in such a limited timeframe.
There are so many unanswered questions. What happened to Po’s brother and parents? The episode seems to suggest that they were killed by counterrevolutionaries or something, but that turns out to not be the case, because Po certainly doesn’t seem very concerned about possibly being executed when she returns to her planet. I guess we’re to assume her parents and her brother all died of natural causes?
And what inspired Po to return to her people, exactly? I get what they were going for here; after a meaningful encounter, both women have epiphanies and Po decides to face her destiny as queen while Tilly decides to stick with her dreams of one day being in command, but none of that comes across in their rapid-fire dialogue. All we saw was two characters yelling at each other for a few minutes about dilithium and then one of them went home.
Overall, this mini-episode had a decent premise and was well-acted, but the writers (Jenny Lumet and showrunner Alex Kurtzman) really needed to give this script a lot more thought and at least a couple more drafts before cameras started rolling. So, just like a typical episode of Discovery, basically.
Next month, we get the next Short Trek, titled “Calypso”, which is apparently about a brand new character who suddenly awakens on a deserted ship that’s not Discovery. I’m not optimistic.