Star Trek: Discovery – Short Treks 02: “Calypso”

The second of the Short Treks has been released.  If you’ll recall, I wasn’t over the moon about the first installment, but I enjoyed it for what it was.  But since then, I’ve discovered Michael Chabon.  Expectations were raised considerably.  Even so, Pulitzer winner or not, short stories are far harder to pull off in any medium than long form presentations.  But the man impressed me already, and being involved with the upcoming and untitled Jean-Luc Picard series, I had to know how he’d fit for Star Trek.

Here’s the thing.  “Calypso” doesn’t have much to offer in terms of Star Trek‘s core philosophies or, really, any of the story cohesive to the rest of the series.  With this taking place 1000 years after Discovery, it’s pretty well disconnected from anything we understand, apart from the ship itself.  And even that has undergone some changes.

That said, “Calypso” ranks as one of the very best Star Trek stories I’ve ever seen on screen.  There are more questions asked than answered, there is not enough time to explore virtually anything, and there are only two characters.  But it is deep, and it’s about as literary as Trek can get.

How literary?  As the name suggests, “Calypso” is a reference to the nymph character from The Odyssey.  That is by far not the only thing borrowed from Homer.  The entire tale is lifted from the Calypso and Odysseus story, with a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to the cyclops.  In the original story, Calypso falls in love with a mortal that she ensnares every thousand years, forced to part after only a short time and to live the rest of the time in loneliness and misery.  Here, our protagonist “Craft” (a reference to Odysseus and his craftiness, played by Aldis Hodge) is rescued from an enemy ship he stole in a desperate attempt to find his way home after a long war.  Dying, he is brought aboard Discovery, healed, and offered every amenity possible… from the ship’s AI, “Zora” (voiced by Annabelle Wallis, later realized in hologram form by Sash Striga).

Let’s unpack this a bit.  Zora is a new addition.  Discovery, being a thousand years old at this point, has no crew, and has been ordered to hold position for unknown reasons.  Over time, Zora has enhanced her abilities, so she has the ability to move chess pieces (but not dust the bridge), and she has both real feelings and mastery over them.  Data would be jealous if he could feel that emotion.  And that brings up another point.  Data was considered sentient, and thus alive.  Zora doesn’t think she is alive, but her sentience isn’t really in question either.  It’s pretty clear.  It’s an interesting character study.  The AI being in control of a Starfleet vessel is a sharp little nod back to another of Gene Roddenberry’s ideas that eventually went to series years after his passing: Andromeda.  That was a fun show.  I should revisit it sometime in the near future.

Craft spends a long time aboard Discovery, to the point where he develops feelings for Zora as well.  If you’ve seen the movie Her with Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as the voice of the AI, you know where I’m going with this at the basic level, and as much as I enjoyed that film, for my money… this little Short Trek did it better.  The two connect through a Nightingale effect and the contents of the ship’s library, which includes Betty Boop cartoons and Fred Astaire films.  Believe it or not, these little references are important to the story, not merely fluff.

This, my friends, is short form storytelling at its very best.  There’s a power, a richness, even a vibrancy to how things unfold on screen, with a little humor and a dash of heartbreak.  The story is by Michael Chabon and Sean Cochran, with the teleplay by Chabon.  The same kind of cultural relevance that made Kavalier & Clay work for me is what’s here, though in a completely different format with a different style of story.  It is, in a word, beautiful.  I’m torn between wanting to explore more of Craft, Zora, and the 33rd century and simply saying, “Leave well enough alone; this is perfect.”

Bravo.

We’ll see the third Short Trek in December, a potential origin story for Saru.  Really looking forward to it, but I don’t envy having to follow in the footsteps of this one.

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