To say that the first season of Star Trek: Discovery was a success is to sell it short. Both its domestic run on CBS All Access (the network’s streaming service) and the international Netflix release proved to be incredibly lucrative. So much so that we’re on the cusp of an unprecedented Trek deluge, to include Star Trek: Lower Decks, an animated half-hour comedy from the creators of Rick and Morty, and the return of Patrick Stewart to his iconic role as Jean-Luc Picard in an as-yet-untitled new live-action drama.
The first step towards this new “All Trek all the time” scenario is Star Trek: Short Treks. Once per month for the four months leading up to the January 17, 2019 debut, All Access has released mini-episode character studies designed to expand the Disco world a bit (and tide us over ’til Season 2 begins) as well as give hints as to what we can expect in Season 2. The first of these minis, “Runaway,” dropped on October 4, and it very wisely focused on Starfleet Cadet Sylvia Tilly.
The heart of any Trek series is its characters. Discovery‘s first season introduced us to a rich and varied cast of regular characters, both Starfleet and Klingon. The star, and the show’s focus, was Sonequa Martin-Green’s Commander Michael Burnham, the Starfleet First Officer turned pariah. In addition, we were introduced to new aliens (like the Kelpiens, one of which—Saru—is the first to join Starfleet) and some fascinating new background characters that I hope find greater focus in Season 2 (like the technologically enhanced Airiam). Without any question, though, the breakout character of the season was Tilly. Optimistic, good-natured, awkward, insecure, enthusiastic, Medusa-haired Tilly.
In her final year of academy training, she’s also ambitious, with her sights set on nothing less than a captaincy. She got a taste of that in Season 1’s second half when, in the Mirror Universe, we learn that her alternate-universe counterpart is in fact captain of the Discovery (and has a reputation that has earned her the nickname “Captain Killy”) and our Tilly had to convincingly impersonate her. In “Runaway,” we learn that Tilly has now enrolled in command school. We also discover the source of her insecurity—a mother who kindly, well-meaningly and ever-so-sweetly discourages her. It’s heartbreaking to watch Tilly’s resolve crumble as her mother reminds her of past failures, compares her to her “always so smart” step-sister, and dismisses her in an “it’s for your own good” tone. But hey, at least she loves her, right? Mary Wiseman is a young but incredibly talented and instinctive actress, and she conveys so much pain in her words and mannerisms under the weight of her mother’s words. It’s a short scene, but it reveals so many layers about Tilly that she normally keeps buried.
The titular runaway encounters Tilly as she drowns her frustrations in yet-more caffeine (hey, could be worse) in the mess hall. It turns out to be a girl from the planet Xahea called Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po-or Po for short. She at first comes across wild and animalistic but is, in fact, a brilliant scientist. She’s even built an incubator to recrystallize dilithium, a feat which impresses the hell out of Tilly. As these two women make a connection and learn to communicate with and trust each other, they discover an understanding, a kinship. Po has run away from her responsibilities on Xahea—she’s about to be coronated queen—just as Tilly ran away from her challenges as a kid, a fact that her mother “protectively” reminds her of. Tilly takes on a sort of motherly role in this episode, but rather than criticize and tear down, she learns about Po, praises her accomplishments, encourages her, reinforces Po’s belief that she has the ability to be queen. It’s a bit cliched, granted, but at little more than 12 minutes (not counting opening and closing credits or “next time” trailer), the episode has to rely on well-worn tropes to get down to the business of giving the audience a new sense of Tilly and providing her with an opportunity for growth.
Not as successful, sadly, is the backstory for our new alien. Xaheans, we learn, are unique in the universe because according to Po they were born at the same time as their planet. Huh? Which makes Po and her home planet twin sisters. Huh?? And yet she has (or had, as they’re now dead) parents. HUH??? It makes no logical scientific sense, so we’re going to put it down to some kind of local mythology. It’s completely bonkers, but as we’re bound to see Po and Xahea in Season 2 (Xahea is rich in dilithium and Po has created a technology to sustain it, and at the end of the episode she tells Tilly to come visit her), we’ll gain a bit more insight into this. Yadira Guevara-Prip (Supernatural) brings heart and a great deal of understanding to her role as Po, and she commits fully to the role, whether she’s hissing defensively at Tilly, experiencing ice cream for the first time, or proclaiming her love for her twin sister planet.
Overall, “Runaway” is an enjoyable first entry in the Short Treks mini-season with a bit of wonky science but a great deal of promise for future character development. As a window into the soul of our favorite cadet, it’s invaluable; as a showcase for Mary Wiseman, it gives a very talented actress a chance shine. If you get the chance, check out Wiseman in the final episode of HBO’s Room 104 Season 2 finale, “Josie and Me.” It’s about a young woman who visits her younger self at a party on the night of her rape. But was it? The episode focuses on the character’s different perspectives on the incident brought on by time and a bit of age. It’s a powerful episode and Mary is absolutely extraordinary in it. And definitely be watching for more great things from her as Tilly in Star Trek: Discovery Season 2, premiering January 17th.
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