This week, Star Trek: Short Treks made its triumphant return for another round of short-form fun, boldly going with not one, but two new episodes. They’re bite-sized tales that are packed with heart — an ode to the sometimes camp, often sincere humanity that has driven Star Trek’s core of moral sci-fi since its earliest days.
The four minisodes released between Discovery’s first two seasons all examined different facts of what Star Trek can be as a franchise. It covered the wanderlust of exploration, the human beauty of the far future, the importance of finding common ground for a greater good, and even something as simple as the fact that, yes, this far-flung future of hypercompetent scientists doing cool science shit can indeed occasionally lighten the hell up.
The two Short Treks that kicked off this latest batch this week — “Q&A,” which received a surprise drop at New York Comic Con last weekend, and “The Trouble with Edward,” which debuted on CBS All Access last night — are united in that they’re both set in that slightly-pre-original Trek era of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike that Discovery left behind coming into its third season. They’re also united in a similar theme: a Star Trek that shows a lighter side to its often austere heroes. But they both go about making a similar point in some very different ways.
Of the two, “Q&A” is the one most directly rooted within the world of Discovery as we knew it before that whole “so you got flung nearly a thousand years into the future to save the timeline” scenario at the end of season two. Focusing on Ethan Peck and Rebecca Romijn’s return as Spock and the Enterprise’s Number One, it’s actually a flashback, covering ensign Spock’s first day as an officer aboard the Enterprise. Fresh from Starbase and eager to begin work, Spock initially brushes up a playfully harsh edge from Number One, who demands that, as a new officer aboard one of Starfleet’s finest — part Vulcan and a science officer, no less — he shouldn’t be dawdling with the frivolity of greetings and instead should be peppering her with questions about his new assignment.
And so, Spock — a man we saw torn apart and put back together again through the course of Discovery’s second season over his inability to fit in and reconcile his Human and Vulcan sides — is more than happy to oblige. Question after question tumbles out of his mouth, ones of science, of order on the ship, even what system upgrade patch the ship is running on. There are no questions of who Spock is to work with, what Number One herself is like, of what the feeling of being on a ship like the Enterprise is going to be. They’re mechanical. Abstract. Intellectual. Questions a good little ensign on their first day should be asking.
But then, mid-inquisition, the two get stuck in a Turbolift on the way to the bridge, and Number One quickly begins to regret telling her new ensign to never stop asking questions. It’s funny, of course — the longer the two are stuck, the more audibly and visibly frustrated Number One is at being trapped in a box with an Ensign who just won’t shut up. And yet something kind of beautiful also starts to happen as the two: the austere, distant front between ensign and first officer starts to break down and these characters start properly talking to each other.
Perhaps most intriguingly, this opening up is not driven by Number One, softening her emotionally-reserved new subordinate. It comes from Spock himself, slowly but surely attempting to reveal the man behind his rank badge to a potential new friend. It comes in fits and starts — Spock starts, rather sneakily, by framing the slow sea change of his inquisition through the lens of other people, by asking Number One what she thinks the three most salient facts to know about Captain Pike are.
That her response is two facts about his work ethic and Starfleet career and one about his sentiment for horses — two facts sterile, one fact personal — shows the tiniest vulnerability in her businesslike persona someone as quietly intuitive as Spock can pounce on. Another question about the operating system of the Enterprise’s replicators allows him to learn that Number One’s actual name is Una (previously confirmed, but a lovely throwback to Greg Cox’s coining of the name for her in the pocket novel Captain to Captain). Then, they become more open: he pivots from replicators to food itself, asking if she likes eggplant.
As they work together to try and fix the Turbolift, and the questions keep flowing, Number One’s opening up is not just existential but literal, slowly unbuttoning her jacket to deal with the tightening atmosphere in the tiny space. But it climaxes in something that is both incredibly goofy yet also sweetly earnest. After harshly reminding Spock that if he wants to be in command one day as she is, he has to “keep his freaky” to himself — and he counters that his entire life has as an outcast of two species has already been chasing that endeavour — Number One suddenly breaks out into Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.”
And Spock joins her.
It’s camp. It’s almost saccharine in its sweetness. It’s not even the first time Trek’s done it, let alone with Gilbert and Sullivan! But it’s human. It’s this wonderful shared little moment between the two, one that forges the earliest bonds of a true friendship — and a reminder that, beneath the moral high grounds, the boldly going, the logic and the science, these people are, well, people. And that even when the moment passes, and Spock and Number One are liberated from their faulty Turbolift and get to work on the bridge, it becomes something that true self, beneath the layers of Starfleet officer, will always be there.
If “Q&A” is a touching insight into the humanity of our Trek heroes, “The Trouble With Edward” is an insight into that humanity through a much zanier lens. Like Spock and Number One’s little sing-song moment of bonding, it serves as a reminder that these Starfleet officers we meet are real, relatable people, yes. But it also means that for all their intelligence and hypercompetence they can still be hilariously human — weird, petty, egotistical, heart-dumb (if not exactly head-dumb) fuckups like the rest of us.
This “hidden truth” behind the typical competence porn Star Trek rejoices in (it is, after all, a series about Smart People solving problems with Science and only the occasional phaser blast or double-fisted-punch) comes about the U.S.S. Cabot, a Starfleet research vessel that is seemingly populated almost entirely by the nerdiest the organisation has to offer: Science division officers. The bridge crew is entirely blue-clad and even their new Captain, Lynne Lucero — played to perfection by Rosa Salazar, who gets to be straight up gleefully funny — is a science officer herself, transferring from the Enterprise to take command.
It is a ship of the geekiest geeks to have ever geeked, where no geek had geeked before. Should be perfect for some of that austere Star Trek science-solving, right?
Nope. Because “The Trouble With Edward” is the secret origin of how Tribbles came to be rapid-fire breeding space-rabbits with a penchant for mass multiplication and annoying Klingons. And an origin as patently absurd as that needs a protagonist who is as humanly dumb as the rest of us: enter hapless Lieutenant Edward Larkin (Archer’s H. Jon Benjamin, and yes, it’s a performance as good as uttering those three words and an initial in the context of Star Trek sounds), scion of the Tribbles’ transformation into the furry, constantly pregnant nightmares we know and love.
That transformation takes place over “Trouble with Edward”’s rapid descent into total farce, after Larkin’s suggestion as a protein specialist is to take the docile Tribble species and ramp up its reproductive rate to be used as a sustainable food source (moral quandaries about sentience be damned, there’s science to be done!) is rejected immediately by Lucero. He takes matters into his own hubristic hands — because, after all, as a scientist, he thinks he has it all worked out. Instead, what follows is borderline parody, perhaps the closest thing to an officially licensed Star Trek comedy we’ve had since that time the cast of Fraiser teamed up with Kate Mulgrew. Except this time, it’s brilliant. Side note: for it to get even more absurd, you’ll want to wait through to the end of the credits for what might be one of the weirdly zaniest things I’ve seen in an official Star Trek capacity.
Larkin injects the Tribbles with his own DNA, leading to an outbreak of constant breeding that leads to the Tribbles slowly but surely overwhelming the ship. First they’re just popping a new Tribble out every once in a while. Then, they’re taking over desks. Then, they’re starting to be born already pregnant. It’s hilarious, but also a complete disaster, the dark comedy that a ship staffed almost entirely by nerds is completely undone by the dumb arrogance of one man and an undulating, furry sea of randy hairballs.
And undone it is, with a surprisingly grim cost for a story that is on the surface so incredibly, audaciously comedic for Star Trek — the Cabot has to have all hands evacuated before the Tribbles tear it apart at the seams, but Larkin refuses to evacuate until his genius is recognised, meaning he dies when the ship crash lands into a nearby planet (or perhaps suffocated by his own experiment gone wrong before that happens). The Tribbles get out, breed their way to Klingon space, and start a diplomatic incident that ends up with Captain Lucero in front of a baffled council of Starfleet Admirals. After all, how could a ship of such smart officers fail so spectacularly, at the hands of a single man?
Lucero’s answer is as frank as it is comical: Larkin was an idiot. Beneath all the smarts, all the science, he was a dumbass done in by his own ego. And that goofy explanation is just as much as a testament to the very relatable, human heart of Star Trek as the bond of friendship forged by Spock and Number One in that Turbolift. Because, let’s be honest. If it were us boldly going? We’re way more likely to be Edwards Larkin than we are Misters Spock.
To err, after all, is deeply human. With sincerity or silliness, that is something Star Trek has always been about.