First of all, a note to the fine folks at CBS All Access: If you want people to actually, y’know, watch your Short Treks mini-episodes, it might perhaps behoove y’all to put the episodes on the main Star Trek Discovery page, not just on the page you go to when you click “full episodes.” I’m a fairly intelligent, college-educated individual who’s been using the world wide web for the entirety of its existence, and it took me the better part of ten minutes to find the fershlugginer episode on the web site.
So anyhow, CBS is doing four short 10-15-minute episodes to whet our appetites for season two of Discovery, and they’re putting their best foot forward by leading with the ever-delightful Mary Wiseman as Ensign Sylvia Tilly.
The story opens with Discovery taking on some cargo and then evacuating the bay for decontamination. At that, it fails rather spectacularly, as one of the cargo containers has a person in it.
That person seems to be a scary monster. Yadira Guevara-Prip does an excellent job with the physicality of the intruder, moving in a manner that hits all the clichés of the animalistic alien: she moves around on all fours, she sniffs things, she’s confused by human food, spikes extrude from her back when she’s angry, and she makes funny noises.
Eventually, we learn that most of this is an act. (Though she still sniffs things, including figuring out how the transporter works by smelling it, one of many nice touches that I adored.) The intruder, whose name is Po, is running away from a responsibility she’s not ready for.
The episode starts, however, by focusing on Tilly, who has been jockeying with Saru for the position of My Absolute Favoritest Character On Discovery. It opens with her talking to her mother, whom we knew Tilly had issues with, and now we see them front and center. On the one hand, the conversation with the elder Tilly hits every cliché of the emotionally manipulative mother, but it also resonates and is convincing. Wiseman in particular sells it, from her obviously talking through gritted teeth to her into-her-pillow scream after the call ends.
It’s a bit odd that we never actually see Mimi Kuzyk’s face during the holographic call, especially since Kuzyk actually looks like she could be Wiseman’s mother. But Kuzyk nails the role, always sounding so reasonable and sensible as she puts her daughter down and brings up her more-successful step-sister.
Po is able to cloak herself (it seems similar to the shrouding done by the Jem’Hadar on Deep Space Nine), which keeps her off Discovery‘s sensors and allows Tilly to hide her while she works things out. After Tilly scans her to reveal her species, and uses her communicator’s universal translator to talk to her (and also hisses back at her to shut her up), they discover that they both are brilliant. Po, we eventually learn, built an incubator that can recrystallize dilithium. This is a major thing in a world where warp drives are powered by dilithium crystals.
Eventually we learn that Po is the heir to the throne on her homeworld, and she ran away to avoid the responsibility of taking that on. Prior to that, Tilly panics a lot because she finds a sector-wide bulletin asking for her return as a high-priority person, and Tilly’s first instinct is that she’s a fugitive.
Once the truth comes out, Po stops being crouched over and hissing and stuff, and walks upright and talks to Tilly as a friend rather than an antagonist. At first I was disappointed, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked the inversion of the cliché. Po was acting like that because she was trying to avoid a responsibility she wasn’t ready for, and the best way to do that was to try to be something else.
Po is also afraid of what will happen to her world because of her invention. They’ve only just achieved warp drive and are just finding their place in the galaxy, and her invention will draw even more attention. Her people have a very close relationship to their world—Po insists that her species and her world came into existence at the same time, and while that may be more of a mythological belief than a scientific fact, it doesn’t make the connection any less intense when Po refers to the homeworld as her “twin.”
She’s scared—as scared as Tilly probably was when she couldn’t climb the same wall as her fellows and ran away in shame when she was a child. Tilly’s mother brings that up as a reason why she shouldn’t attempt Command School. Initially, Tilly is wavering. One of the best bits in the episode is when Tilly orders her espresso. First she mouths off to the computer when it tries to caution her against so much caffeine, describing the beverage as her best friend. (One hopes that Michael Burnham doesn’t take that personally…) Then she sits with the drink and discourses on how she expects nothing, not even from the caffeine. “Espresso—I release you.” She’s so wound up in the possibility of disappointment that she refuses to have expectations.
Tilly and Po are able to encourage each other to put their fears aside and do what needs doing. Po returns to her people and will take her throne and accept the responsibility. She may not be able to protect her planet from the rest of the galaxy’s desire for their dilithium, but she will try her best. And Tilly may not have been able to climb the wall, and she may not succeed at Command School, but she will try her best.
The episode is not flawless. It makes very little sense that Discovery’s internal sensors can tell (as Tilly says) that Po isn’t dangerous to the ship from a biological perspective, but can’t pick her up enough to be detected generally by someone on the bridge doing a standard internal scan. It makes even less sense that an ensign would be able to sneak someone into the transporter room and beam her down without anyone knowing. Also if they’re close enough to Po’s world to transport her, then they would have to be in orbit, so wouldn’t Tilly know the species on the world they’re in orbit of and not describe her as “far from home” as she does in the mess hall?
Still, the episode works as a spotlight for Tilly, using Po as a counterpart to her: both brilliant young women trying to navigate through a difficult life and confront both challenges and fears that they may not be able to overcome.
These little mini-episodes are a damn brilliant notion. The Star Trek universe is sufficiently sprawling and complex that CBS/Paramount was always, in my opinion, missing a bet by not embracing its variety in more depth. Seeing that they’re doing so now—not just with these mini episodes, but also the upcoming Picard-focused 24th-century series in development—heartens me greatly. The streaming service allows a greater flexibility with format, and gives the opportunity to do spotlights and side stories and such. Besides, there are three distinct eras of Trek on screen: the 22nd century (Enterprise), the 23rd (the original series, Discovery), and the 24th (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager), and there’s no reason not to play in all of them.
And, as I said, leading with Tilly, one of Discovery’s breakout characters, was a masterstroke. Wiseman gives us the type of character Wes Crusher was supposed to be on TNG but failed at, and also the type of character that Nog evolved into over the course of DS9: a young, eager, brilliant mind trying to find their way in a complex universe to become the best person they can.
Keith R.A. DeCandido gets along way better with his mother than Tilly does. He has been writing about Star Trek for this site since 2011, with detailed rewatches of the original series, The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, as well as reviews of each episode of Discovery as they came out (which will continue in January with season two, as well as the rest of the Short Treks episodes). He also has written a mess of Star Trek fiction in prose and comics form, and has written a crapton of fiction and nonfiction over the past two decades, including a weekly rewatch of live-action superhero movies here on Tor.com and the forthcoming novels Alien: Isolation (based on the videogame), Mermaid Precinct (latest in his fantasy/mystery series), and A Furnace Sealed (debuting a new urban fantasy series).