*****WARP CORE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!*****
CBS-All Access has dropped two more Short Treks to fill the void (and to slow subscriber cancellations) between the end of “Star Trek: Discovery”’s second season, and the debut of “Star Trek: Picard” (coming January 23, 2020). These 10-15 minute shorts are designed as brief experiments within the Star Trek universe. Some of them are brief comedy vignettes, others are more edgy. They’re less whole stories and more like random scenes from the Trek multiverse. Some tie in nicely to greater Star Trek continuity, others not so much (looking at you, “The Trouble With Edward”). For the latest Short Treks, CBS-AA has decided to release a pair of them on the same day (December 12th). Each of the new shorts are under 10 minutes, and both are animated instead of live-action. The animation format works on two levels; it is much more liberating for storytelling (imagination and time being the only production limits), and it also serves as proof-of-concept for the upcoming Star Trek animated series “Lower Decks”, which will be the first animated Star Trek series since the 22 episode “Star Trek: The Animated Series” (1973-1974). “Lower Decks is expected to stream on CBS-AA sometime next year.
The Girl Who Made The Stars.
The opening to Star Trek Discovery’s second season began with Michael recounting an old African legend told to her when she was a child. It told of a young girl who went into a starless night and met a being who helped her bring the gift of starlight to her people. For this Short Trek, that childhood story is realized in top-notch, feature film quality CG animation.
Written by Brandon Schultz and directed by Discovery producer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi, the story opens with young Michael (Kyrie Mcalpin) unable to sleep while her family is stationed at a far-off research facility on Doctari Alpha. Awakened by a storm, young Michael clutches her plush toy tardigrade (foreshadowing both her own future and the next animated short), as her father (Kenric Green) comforts her fear of the night by telling her an African legend of the young girl ‘who made the stars.’
During a celebration of the sun, the villagers realize they have farmed the same soil for too long and are in danger of famine. A young girl suggests they move elsewhere beyond the village to cultivate new land. Being a young girl, she is casually dismissed by the village elders, who are afraid of the Night Beast who wanders in the starless plains after sunset.
With a firefly as her guide, the curious girl wanders away from her village as darkness encroaches. The firefly lights her path to what appears to be a meteorite fallen to Earth. The meteorite turns out to be a crashed alien ship, whose luminous occupant appears before the girl. Instinctively led by her curiosity, the girl is not afraid.
With its ship repaired, the grateful alien gives the girl a ‘gift’ by which to illuminate the darkness of night with starlight. As the alien’s ship warps off into the sky, the girl realizes that the gift can be used to navigate by light of the constellations and move beyond the confines of a day’s travel.
Returning with the alien’s gift of starlight, the girl is met by the angry members of the village, who aren’t keen on the idea of her wandering into the realm of the Night Beast. She opens her ‘gift’, and the villagers are dazzled. Using the newfound stars to navigate beyond a day’s travel, they are able to migrate to new farmlands using the light of the constellations to travel at night (just as later sailing ships and eventual spacecraft would use constellations to explore the oceans and skies).
Later the Girl becomes queen of her village and bravely slays the metaphorical Night Beast with her bow and arrow. The villagers migrate to new farmland and live happily ever ever, thanks to ‘the girl who made the stars’; the lesson of which being that the light ‘given’ to her by the alien, whom she approached without fear, was the courage that resided within.
The lesson of her dad’s story reaches young Michael, and she doesn’t have to sleep with the lights on, realizing that the light is always inside of her.
“The Girl Who Made the Stars” is a lovely story, even if I have a few minor quibbles. For instance, how can an alien travel through a galaxy without stars? That’s like an ocean without water. I realize the ‘gift’ of starlight is meant to be metaphorical for knowledge, but hearing the word ‘galaxy’ used in the narration before there were stars if a teensy bit clumsy. The overall animation for the short is beautiful work, some of it approaching what you’d see in a Pixar short. However, while the young Michael and titular ‘Girl’ are utterly adorable, Michael’s father looks a bit “Polar Express”-ish (with the same vaguely creepy, lifeless eyes seen in Robert Zemeckis’ 2004 CG-animated film). Once again, these are minor quibbles to an otherwise magnificent piece of animation. This is the most elegantly-realized Short Trek since Michael Chabon’s “Calypso.”
“Ephraim and Dot.”
This story, directed by Oscar-winning musician Michael Giacchino (“Up,” the Bad Robot “Star Trek” films), begins as a dated, black & white educational film for Starfleet students (who would probably be as unfamiliar with black & white film as today’s students would be with smoke signals). We see a pregnant tardigrade named Ephraim, bravely traversing the super-warp conduits of the mycelium network, searching for a warm place to lay its eggs. While its true that real-life tardigrades can live in the vacuum of space for decades, they do so in a dormant state. But never mind that for now; science takes a backseat to whimsy throughout this particular Short Trek (and most of Star Trek, for that matter), so bear with me.
Ephraim comes across the starship USS Enterprise, during the time of Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Pressing against a window of the ship, the tardigrade sees a tense exchange in sickbay between Kirk and a revived Khan (Ricardo Montalban) during the events of TOS’ “Space Seed” (actual audio from the original episode is used).
Ephraim is met by “Dot”, a hovering “Wall-E” type maintenance bot responsible for keeping outside contaminants from entering the ship. I don’t recall ever hearing of these devices at any time during TOS, but then again, they are never not mentioned, so I suppose creative license is allowed…
Eventually slipping into the ship through a series of vents, Ephraim deals with a few rampant tribbles (too soon!) and overhears swashbuckler-wannabe Mr. Sulu (George Takei) during the events of TOS’ “The Naked Time” (which preceded “Space Seed”) before settling in near the warmth of the ship’s warp core.
The tardigrade then lays its eggs, but is nabbed by the fastidious Dot, who grabs the intruder and kicks it back into the harsh vacuum of space…
Out in the void, Ephraim stays close to the Enterprise during the ship’s many adventures and eventual refit evolution, trying to get back into the ship and her eggs. Just how the eggs remained settled in near the warp core when the entire ship was redesigned and refitted is never explained. As I recall, the warp core of the Enterprise saw one of the greatest single changes to the ship, and didn’t look anything like its TOS predecessor. Once again, extreme whimsical license is liberally taken…
During one harrowing encounter, Ephraim hovers outside the Enterprise as it is damaged during the events of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock,” right before the ship is set to self-destruct to prevent the Klingons from commandeering the vessel.
As Dot does a final survey of the ship’s innards right before self-destruction, the drone sees a cache of tardigrade eggs nesting in the curiously non-upgraded TOS-style warp core. Recognizing them as innocent life forms, Dot stores the eggs aboard a handy-dandy incubator/sample collection unit in its midsection, and flies out of there right before the USS Enterprise is blown up section by section…
Outside the ship, a saddened Ephraim watches the exploded husk of the ship enter the atmosphere of the Genesis planet and vaporize. Dot then approaches the tardigrade, showing the eggs safely stored (and now hatching) within its incubator/sample collector. An overjoyed Ephraim is reunited with her young, which are released to the universe with their mother.
“Ephraim and Dot” is directed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino with the same kind of alternating lyrical/staccato rhythms as his music. The animation itself feels like a hybrid between 1970s Filmation Studios work combined with the sleeker stylings of modern Japanese anime. It is in keeping with the whimsical nature of the story told, and works well enough.
While some fans may enjoy the story’s many nods to past Trek adventures (“Space Seed” “Naked Time” “Who Mourns For Adonais?” and the TOS feature films), it also plays very fast and loose with the timeline of those adventures. However, it’s all done in very tongue-in-cheek, with no real harm or offense intended. The USS Enterprise exterior is much closer to the version seen in Discovery’s second season, while its interior is modeled after what we saw in TOS (with an added window or two...)
The refit exterior design of the USS Enterprise as seen in the TOS films I-VI, is meticulously recreated, yet puzzlingly retains the old-style engine room seen in the TV series. Any fan of the Trek movies knows that the Enterprise’s warp core got the biggest upgrade of all during the refit. Not to beat a long-dead horse, but I’ve always felt that the Discovery universe’s interpretation of TOS would be better served by waving away its continuity mishaps as yet another alternate timeline within the infinity of the greater Star Trek multiverse. At any rate, “Ephraim and Dot” is a cute, enjoyable cartoon adventure (“Star Trek” meets “Wall-E”) as long as more observant fans don’t look too closely at the seams.
Beaming ‘em up.
All in all, these latest two Short Treks are an improvement to what we’ve seen in the Short Treks this year (with “Q&A” being the sole worthwhile exception for me). Using two separate and distinctly different styles of animation to great effect, “The Girl Who Made The Stars” & “Ephraim and Dot” prove that the 1973 series wasn’t too farfetched in its idea of reviving Star Trek within an animated format. As proofs-of-concept for “Lower Decks”, the two stories illustrate just how animation could be smartly used to cultivate yet another branch (or branches) of Star Trek fandom.