“What’s a Betty Boop?” — Star Trek’s “Calypso”

Apologies to all and sundry for the lateness of this review of the latest Short Treks, but I was in Italy when the episode went live, and it turns out you can’t watch these episodes in Europe—or if you can, I couldn’t figure out how to do it. CBS All Access wouldn’t work for me over there, and while Netflix had Star Trek Discovery, they didn’t have Short Treks. As we say on Earth, c’est la vie. I got home this past weekend and finally got a chance to watch “Calypso.”

It was worth the wait. This is Michael Chabon’s first Trek work—he’s one of the people involved in the upcoming return of Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard—and if this is an indication of what the author of The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay will bring to the table, we’re in for a treat.

“Calypso” starts much the same way that “Runaway” did, with a stranger coming on board Discovery, but the circumstances are wildly different. Discovery has been abandoned, holding station for the past one thousand years, the ship’s computer following the captain’s final orders to hold position until the crew returns.

Discovery‘s tractor beam pulls in an escape pod containing a badly injured human. His wounds are healed, and the human—who gives his name first as Quarrel, then as Craft—awakens. It takes him a while to realize that the disembodied voice talking to him isn’t a person, but rather the ship’s computer.

Over the past millennium, the Discovery computer has evolved into a sentient artificial intelligence, named herself Zora, and does everything she can to make Craft comfortable on the ship. The one thing she can’t do is change her position. She’s still a computer, and her last orders from her captain were to wait at those coordinates for the crew’s return. Garbage in, garbage out: that the orders came from a captain who is probably long dead (I was going to say “must be,” but this is Star Trek after all, so the captain showing up after ten centuries isn’t out of the realm of possibility) is irrelevant. She can’t move until she has new orders. The ship only has one shuttlecraft, which had just been delivered when the crew abandoned ship. It doesn’t even have a name yet.

As for Craft, he’s a refugee from a war involving his homeworld of Alcor IV. In Discovery‘s time, no humans lived there, but now a whole bunch do. He was fighting a war, and got out in an escape pod that actually belonged to his enemies. The war has been going on for a decade, and Craft left a wife and child behind, whom he misses.

Zora does the best she can to make Craft comfortable, and director Olatunde Osunsanmi does a nice job showing the passage of time with multiple Crafts in the mess hall. She re-creates his favorite memory using ship’s audio and environmental controls (him out on a boat), and she also introduces him to human food. (“It’s a waffle. You pour syrup on it.”)

Aldis Hodge does superlative work here, as he has to interact with a disembodied voice, and does so magnificently. Hodge has always been expert at inhabiting his characters perfectly, giving them distinctive speaking patterns and body language. You absolutely believe he is who he’s playing, whether it’s Craft, Jake Talley on Supernatural, or Alec Hardison on Leverage. (For that matter, he did that with the various roles Hardison took on during cons in Leverage.)

Annabelle Wallis is equally magnificent as Zora, managing the impressive trick of keeping the even, modulated tone that you would expect from an AI, while giving just enough hint of emotion to make you think she has them. (Brent Spiner was a past master of this on The Next Generation as Data.) Despite having no screen time with Hodge, she achieves letter-perfect chemistry with him.

The heart of the episode is the movie Funny Face. Zora has come to love the climactic dance between Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. After Zora has done so much for him, Craft returns the favor by learning Astaire’s part in the dance and creating a holographic interface of Zora for him to dance with.

Eventually, though, Zora realizes she has to let Craft go. The shuttle might not make it to Alcor IV—it’s untested, and the planet is at the extreme end of the shuttle’s range—but he has to give it a shot. The last shot is the shuttle flying out of Discovery, finally named: Funny Face.

This is a sweet, wonderful, tragic story. It has the Trek hallmark of bonding between people from wildly different backgrounds to make each other better, as well as the belief that just because intelligence is artificial, doesn’t make it not real. (A theme explored in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” and “Requiem for Methuselah” on the original series, and through the characters of Data and the EMH on TNG and Voyager, respectively.) And while no details are forthcoming about life in the 33rd century (the farthest ahead in the timeline any onscreen Trek has gone, supplanting Voyager‘s “Living Witness”), we do know that humanity continues to thrive.

I was worried that doing two two-person stories in a row would be repetitive, but these two episodes prove the maxim that it’s the execution that matters, not the idea. Both “Runaway” and “Calypso” have similar ideas as their foundations, but the execution couldn’t be more different. Both are excellent, worthy additions to the Trek oeuvre. In fact, my only significant complaint is the absurd notion of “Taco Tuesday” surviving into the 23rd century. Or, in fact, deeply into the 21st. Bleah. (Though I do adore that, after Zora’s lengthy explanation of what a taco is, Craft then wishes to know what a “Tuesday” is.)

I promise a more timely review of “The Brightest Star” in December…

Keith R.A. DeCandido first started writing about Star Trek for this site in 2011 (including rewatches of three of the TV series and reviews of most of the movies and each episode of Discovery and Short Treks), first started writing Trek fiction in 1999 (he’s written sixteen novels, thirteen novellas, seven short stories, six comic books, and one reference book, and also edited three anthologies), and been watching Star Trek since birth. His rewatch of live-action superhero movies appears every Friday here on Tor.com, and 2019 will see the publication of three new novels of his: Alien: Isolation (based on the videogame), Mermaid Precinct (latest in his fantasy/mystery series), and A Furnace Sealed (debuting a new urban fantasy series).

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