Sunday 15 December 2019

TREK REVIEW: Short Treks 2-4 & 2-5



After three live action vignettes, the second set of Short Treks presents a double bill of animated shorts, the first animated Star Trek episodes for forty-five years. It's surprising that the franchise hasn't explored the animated medium more often. After all, it's much easier to create alien life forms, spectacular ships and strange new worlds in cartoon form than live action. However, while Star Trek: The Animated Series has experienced a reassessment in recent years, it's long had a poor reputation, and this has likely put the blocks on animated Trek for years.

Now, however, Alex Kurtzman and his team are pushing the franchise back into the world of animation, with two new cartoon series planned: the comedy Star Trek: Lower Decks and an as-yet untitled Nickelodeon series. To whet our appetites are these two sweet mini-episodes, which show us how kid-friendly animated Trek can be done in the twenty-first century. Both rendered using computer-generated animation, “The Girl Who Made the Stars” and “Ephraim and Dot” are cute, straightforward little tales that, while clearly aimed at children, have something for grown-up fans of the Star Trek universe. Like the other Short Treks so far, they tie into elements of parent series Star Trek: Discovery.

The Girl Who Made the Stars” gives us a glimpse of Michael Burnham's childhood, before the awful events that would tear apart her family. We see a very young Michael, here voiced by Kyrie McAlpin, scared of the dark and unable to sleep. She is consoled by her father Mike, portrayed by Kenric Green as he was in Discovery's flashbacks. He tells her the story of a little girl, living in Africa before even the stars were born, and how her bravery brought the stars the sky and saved her tribe and all of humanity from darkness. This is based on a real myth of the /Xam Abathwa, a San people of southern Africa, and was mentioned by Michael in Discovery's season two opener, “Brothers.”

It's good to see Star Trek exploring what will be lesser known cultures for much of its audience. The creation myth is embraced and retold in a visually striking and powerful way. It gives it a Star Trek twist, with an alien visitor giving the young pioneer the gift of the stars before returning to space in his ship (although where he's from if there aren't any stars yet is an intriguing question). The themes of courage, curiosity and the desire to explore and advance are core Trek values and it's good to see them illustrated in another way here. It's also nice to see some positive backstory for Michael, as well as an exploration of her ancestry (although the strong African influence on the episode is somewhat damaged by the visible lightening of the principle characters' skin compared to the live action actors).

Directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, who has worked as exec producer on much of Discovery and Short Treks so far, and written by Brandon Schultz, it's a rather beautiful episode, and the animation is stunning.

“Ephraim and Dot” is equally family-friendly but takes a very different route. It's a silly, slapstick sketch starring an alien tardigrade of the species seen in Discovery's first season, although made significantly cuter, and a DOT-7 maintenance robot of the type that's been glimpses affecting repairs on the series. It ties into Discovery by exploring more of the tardigrade's life cycle and its swimming through the mycelial network – the fungus-based hyperspace system that the USS Discovery uses. However, for the most part this episode riffs on classic Star Trek, to delightful effect.

The tardigrade doesn't get a name in the episode itself, but she is apparently called Ephraim. This was, reportedly, the name of the tardigrade character that at one point was considered for the bridge crew on Discovery, which would have been bizarre and wonderful. Both Ephraim and Dot have tons of character in spite of having no dialogue at all. Ephraim fins her way onto the Enterprise – rather beautifully rendered in animated style – and lays her eggs in its workings. Dot kicks Ephraim off the ship, leading her to pursue it, and her eggs, through years of Star Trek adventures.

We get glimpses of familiar and memorable Trek episodes and movies, or versions of them, even using original sound clips to accompany the new animation. For those following, the adventures we see are “Space Seed,” “The Naked Time,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “Who Mourns For Adonais?” “The Doomsday Machine,” “The Tholian Web,” “The Savage Curtain,” The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock. How the eggs manage to stay undiscovered for twenty years, through a ship-wide refit, is anyone's guess, but it's a wonderfully nostalgic run through of favourite moments from the early years of the franchise. There are some stylistic choices that mean the shots don't quite fit with the established events, but that's not really here nor there, although the error of the Enterprise's registration is a glaring one.

Watching Ephraim and Dot chase each other and scuffle is simple, silly entertainment, hardly the most taxing thing Trek has presented. Yet there's still some room for a message, with Dot coming to value the tardigrade's right to life. It's bookended by an information film presented in retro style, narrated by Kirk Thatcher, sounding at times a lot like Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Michael Giacchino, stepping beyond his role as composer, this is a slight but thoroughly enjoyable little story. Does this cutesified version of Star Trek count as canon? I honestly don't care. Sit the kids down and introduce them to Star Trek.

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