There was this party at Comic-Con one year where I got absolutely hammered and I cornered JJ Abrams. This was when it had been announced that Star Trek Into Darkness was happening, but we knew nothing else about the movie. I had enjoyed the first Abrams Trek, although I thought it was a mess; one of my least favorite things about it was Nero. I thought the character was hollow and empty and violated one of the main tenets of good Trek.
Good Trek, I slurred to poor JJ that night, doesn’t have a villain. It may have an antagonist, but it doesn’t have a villain. This is hard to argue because everybody’s favorite Trek thing is Wrath of Khan, a movie featuring one of the great screen villains. But I would argue that movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, neither of which has a villain, are the most Trek-y movies of them all.
In the end JJ went with a bad reboot of Wrath of Khan, so my alcohol-soaked pleas fell on deaf ears. But I have heard from very reliable sources that Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman made the same argument in the writer’s room, and that they wanted the sequel to be a reboot of Where No Man Has Gone Before, making Kirk’s buddy Gary Mitchell into the antagonist – but not a clearcut villain.
Kurtzman has gone on to run Star Trek: Discovery, and I think he has split the villain difference nicely there. The Klingons in Disco’s first half season were big antagonists, but the show spent a lot of time establishing them and their motivations. They weren’t just bad guys, they were warriors trying to save their culture. The second half of the season is less successful at this, as it spends all its episodes in the cartoonishly evil Mirror Universe, but even there the characters are results of their environment.
With the launch of the new Star Trek: Short Treks, Kurtzman finally has the opportunity to tell a truly villain-free Trek story, and he (along with co-writer Jenny Lumet) finally gives us the first modern era Trek story that feels absolutely, 100%, caveat-free like Star Trek. And it’s a joy.
In the short Cadet Tilly, fresh off a frustrating holocall with her controlling and negative mother, runs into a stowaway on the ship. The stowaway is an alien that can turn invisible, has spikes that pop out of her back and is covered in tribal-looking face paint and has a braided hairdo that cries ‘primitive people.’ This, it seems, is about to be problematic af, especially as the native-looking alien keeps hissing at Tilly. But once the universal translator gets in on the action we realize that this creature is a character; she’s from a planet that just achieved warp drive AND she’s an absolute engineering genius.
I liked that a lot – it takes assumptions we’re making (and fears we have) and turns them on their heads. It’s a nice surprise. Everything that follows is a nice surprise, as the short turns into a two-hander where Tilly and her guest, Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po, sit in Tilly’s cabin and talk about life and overbearing responsibilities and expectations.
Runaway does two interesting things. First, it gives us real insight into who Tilly is as a person. I’ve loved Mary Wiseman’s character from the first second she was introduced, and I’ve always felt that this difficult, weird, quirky but capable Starfleet cadet had some interesting stuff in her past. This episode gives us a hint of it, of a difficult family life and a mother who is both driving and unsupportive (I know this pain all too well), and so it gives us a look at why Tilly is both so awkward and so competent, why so driven and yet so unsure of herself. I love this, and I love the depth that Tilly has gotten in one short season and one short film. Wiseman is a big part of that – her performance is always surprising and heartwarming – but the writing on this character has been next level, and continues to be so in Runaway.
The other interesting thing it does is it upends Trek canon in a really subtle way. The alien that Tilly meets is a runaway from the planet Xahea, and she took off because she had – at age 17 – invented a process to recrystalize dilithium. This is a Big Deal – it could offer unlimited fuel for starships – but more than that it’s a Big Deal that goes unreported to the rest of the universe. We know this because Spock and Mr. Scott have to invent this process in The Voyage Home. This fits into Discovery’s weird interest in fucking with Trek travel canon, as it already introduced the mycelial network, which is never mentioned again in the future.
But could Po return to the show in some way? The handoff at the end – Po gifting Tilly a small piece of dilithium – plays out in a fashion that makes me think this will come back at some point. And I hope she does, because Yadira Guevara-Prip creates a really memorable and fun character who weirdly bridges Star Trek and the modern Disney princess. Po is an angry teenager, but not a rebel without a cause – she has a big cause, and it’s the wellbeing of her homeworld. The planet itself, not her people, and that makes her feel all the more ‘human’ in a very tech and politics-centric storyline.
Under the tech and politics, though, is the basic humanity of Tilly, who we learn once ran away, counseling this young woman. This is the Command Training Program she needs – the opportunity to step into a position of authority and do it right, not like Lorca or her mother. Tilly brings a mixture of understanding and tough love, and the way she deals with Po shows us a true leader in the making. This is a character I want to see go on for ten years, to advance to her own command, because she for sure has it in her.
This short also shows the possibilities of the format. Using existing sets, minimal actors and good writing, director Maja Vrvilo creates a small episode that feels complete and not hemmed in. What’s more, most of this episode takes place in a cabin, with Tilly and Po talking, and Vrvilo never makes it feel claustrophobic or small. She focuses on these people and brings us in close to them, and that has all the impact of a major FX set piece.
There’s a version of this story that’s blown out to a full episode, that includes a Xahean warship coming to take Po back, but this stripped down version gets to the heart of the situation and allows Tilly more room to be a fully developed person and not be forced to run around serving plot needs. The plot is the conversation, and TREK has shown us again and again that the best captains shine in conversation, not just battle.
Runaway launches the Short Treks program with the exact right tone and feel, and I loved it. I’m excited for the rest of these smaller adventures, and I’m excited about the opportunities to broaden the universe a little bit and introduce new characters. And I hope that Po, who really popped in just a few short minutes, gets to come back to the Discovery – I need to know what happens to Xahea next!