WARNING! The reading of this blog WITHOUT first watching “Ask Not” WILL ruin an amazing experience for you!
It only took seven minutes and forty-five seconds.
Actually, it took even less time than that. Without the traditional SHORT TREKS opening title sequence, this latest offering of CBS’s series of mini-episodes dropped me immediately into the action. What followed was a whirlwind of masterfully delivered, impactful lines between two very strong characters. One was Captain Christopher Pike, and ANSON MOUNT could be taking a nap in a hammock and I’d still be mesmerized. So imagine what this amazing actor can do when the dialog is flying fast and furious…and lives are at stake.
The other is a brand new character, Cadet Thira Sidhu (played perfectly by Amrit Kaur), a young engineering cadet facing an impossible decision: does she follow Starfleet protocol or trust Pike? The answer is surprising, to say the least! It’s also the culmination of a tense, non-stop five-minute sequence that doesn’t leave the viewer any time or opportunity to ask “Hey, what’s really going on here?” And that was a very, very good thing!
This is where I start spoiling the episode, folks. Seriously, if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading now, subscribe to All Access for 10 minutes, and watch “Ask Not.” Or if you’re in a country that hasn’t gotten the second series of Short Treks yet, bookmark this blog and come back to it in January. It’s not time-sensitive.
Okay, I warned ya. If you read further, the irreparable damage is all on you…
The shortest of the Short Treks yet, “Ask Not” had a total run-time of only 9 minutes and 35 seconds…and that includes nearly 2 minutes of closing credits! So the duration of the actual story was less than 8 minutes.
The first 5 minutes of that went so fast that I had to actually pause and rewind a couple of times—eventually turning on subtitles—in order to understand everything that was being said. The Star Trek easter eggs were rocketing past like stars at warp, including a couple of Starfleet regulations from the Voyager episodes “In the Flesh” and “Equinox” plus the ol’ “reserve activation clause” from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Oh, and did I mention the Tholians?
But had things happened any less quickly, I might have had time to wonder more thoroughly: “Hey, is this some kind of test or simulation?” I mean, it obviously couldn’t have been a holodeck program…could it? And it seemed unlikely that Captain Pike would spend his valuable time participating in some kind of Kobayshi Maru test for a random Starfleet cadet. But it turns out that was exactly what he was doing!
Granted, the episode did address that very issue when Cadet Sidhu asks Pike why he bothered testing her in person when he’s probably really busy. And it turns out that Pike wants her on his crew, and war tests the mettle of everyone. He needed to be certain he could rely on this young engineer to keep her cool in a crisis…which she certainly did.
Now, the complainer in me wants to say, “If Pike needs to run this test every time someone transfers to the Enterprise, then 1) he’s gonna spend a lot of time traveling to various Starbases facing down loaded phasers, and 2) eventually word is gonna leak out about Pike’s sneak. Cadets will be lining up, eagerly anticipating the “emergency” that will get them assigned to the Enterprise. And eventually, some idiot cadet won’t take a real emergency seriously because he’ll be waiting for Captain Pike to pop out from behind a curtain.
But as I do with many fan films (and some—but not most!—episodes of Discovery), I decided to park my complaint and just enjoy this very well-crafted episode. The story worked, it was fun, and it was definitely 100% Star Trek!
“Wait,” you say, “Starfleet puts its cadets through emotional torture? I mean, it’s one thing to take the Kobayashi Maru test. But this is purposefully cruel, dangerous, and traumatic.” And then I say back to you: remember in Next Gen when Wesley was applying to Starfleet Academy and they put him the same kind of traumatic simulation for the “psych test”? In fact, Starfleet actually designed the emergency specifically to hit Wes where it would be most challenging for him emotionally: drawing on the death of his father under the command of Captain Picard.
And it’s not just cadets who get the cruel treatment. Remember in TNG‘s seventh season when Troi takes the bridge officer’s test for a promotion to the rank of full commander? She can’t figure out how to beat the final holodeck simulation until she finally, traumatically, has to give an order that will cost Geordi his life. So, yeah…precedent for this kind of thing was solidly set in Star Trek lore. Nobody ever said being in Starfleet was easy!
As with most of the Short Treks, this was a “small” episode…requiring only three sets and a green screen. Most of the episode takes place in just a single room at the starbase. Then we get a few satisfying seconds in the previously-seen Enterprise transporter room (which looks refreshingly similar to the TOS version…just snazzier). And finally, there’s a corridor and wide doorway—which was undoubtedly the easiest and cheapest of the three sets to build. They also created a CGI version of engineering which I and many other fans did not like. While the transporter was at least somewhat similar to TOS, engineering felt more like the inside of the beer factory that we saw in JJ Trek…just without all of those crazy pipes. But again, I parked that particular gripe.
But why did I choose not to complain? Because this FELT like Star Trek. When Discovery feels like Star Trek, I’ll often overlook things that bother me. The problem is that, all too often, Discovery has NOT feel like Star Trek….and this was particularly true in the first season. In fact, this one super-brief episode of Short Treks felt more like Star Trek than Discovery has managed to do in two full seasons. And “Ask Not” made me realize why.
Over the decades, Star Trek has established certain “core bricks” in its foundation:
- Space is a place of wonder and exploration.
- Starfleet exists, first and foremost, as an organization of peace, of science, and of compassion. Fighting and destruction of life, while sometimes necessary, are always the final resort.
- The people who serve on starships, while often flawed in some way(s), are at heart the best humanity (and alienity) have to offer. Crews are comrades, teammates, friends, and most of all, good people of duty and honor with strong moral compasses and a respect for each other and for the diversity of life.
Granted, there were always exceptions to these “core bricks,” but they were exceptions that helped to “prove the rule” or else make us question those rules in very intriguing ways…for example, Captain Sisko’s decision to trick the Romulans into joining the alliance in “In the Pale Moonlight.”
And we also were given glimpses of the “There but for the grace of transfers go I…” scenarios showing starships and/or captains who were not worthy of their own TV series like:
- Captain Ron Tracy of the USS Exeter in TOS’s “The Omega Glory”
- Captain Edward Jellico, who temporarily takes command of the Enterprise-D in “Chain of Command”
- Arrogant and/or insecure officers like Captain Stiles of the USS Excelsior and Captain JT Esteban of the USS Grissom in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock who showed how lucky we all were to have Kirk
- The crew of the USS Equinox.
In each of these cases, the fans were shown why our favorite TV show(s) told the stories of certain crews and not other crews. Whether you think Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, or Archer is the “best” captain, you’d likely be fine following any of their orders. You’d be proud to be a member of each of those crews, and you’d probably even want to be friends with most or even all of them.
“Ask Not” pretty much checked off every one of these boxes. Sidhu’s sense of honor, her ability to hold it together through a crisis, and her unbridled joy at being able to join the crew of the Enterprise carried on the best traditions of Star Trek. Would I watch a series focusing on Cadet Sidhu the same way the Discovery focuses on Michael Burnham. In…a…nanosecond! And of course, we all already love Pike, Number One, and Spock.
Where is that new Star Trek: Pike series again, CBS?
Star Trek: Discovery usually checked almost none of those boxes…at least through most of season one and a fair amount of season two (thanks to all of that Section 31/Skynet nonsense and the whole Mushroom May plot line). The crew members of Discovery started off dysfunctional and didn’t improve much until the very end of the first season. Although Star Trek sometimes shows emotionally flawed people, it usually avoids emotionally damaged people who have no place serving on a starship (you hear me, Edward?). Even Deep Space Nine didn’t go that far.
Look, I know what CBS was TRYING to do with Discovery when they first launched it. “This is not your parents’ Star Trek. This one is darker, grittier, and harder to watch. The people are like real people you might know, with real problems and real demons that aren’t so easily conquered and overcome. This is a NEW kind of Star Trek.”
But is that what fans (and even non-fans) really wanted? Television these days is filled with characters who have real demons whom they struggle with episode after deeply emotional episode. But Star Trek was always a break from all of that. Our heroes were, well, heroes.
Now, before folks think I’m just trying to bash Discovery for the 47th time, that’s not the case…at least, not today. What the producers of Discovery tried to do was a valid experiment: a darker, grittier Star Trek hadn’t been tried before (Deep Space Nine was a Saturday morning cartoon in comparison). But the result of CBS’s “great experiment” was, ultimately, not the success they’d hoped for. And don’t just take my word for it. They course-corrected in a major way going into season two and have course corrected again heading into season three.
In my opinion, CBS should have tried to make sure the ship held together at impulse before jumping to Warp 9.9. What I mean by this is that Discovery was the first TV-based Star Trek ever to be produced by a studio other than Paramount (other than Filmation). Was that really the best moment to try to do Star Trek in a way it’s never been done before?
Imagine if, instead of the arrogant, angst-ridden Michael Burnham, our main character was newly-minted cadet engineer Sidhu (still a strong female character…and still ethnic, too!). If instead of the intense, creepy Captain Lorca, we had the amiable and heroic Captain Christopher Pike. If instead of the ever-fearful Kelpien first officer Saru, we’d had the confident and alluring Number One. And instead of the manic zaniness of Tilly or the inconsistent moodiness of Stamets, we’d had the intriguing young Vulcan Lt. Mr. Spock. And instead of the mushroom-powered, hull-spinning Discovery, we had the noble and well-established USS Enterprise. And if instead of the monochromatic Starfleet uniforms with the metallic highlights, we started with the more familiar gold-blue-red tunics with the black collars.
In other words, what if the first new Star Trek television series from CBS had featured Captain Pike and his crew? Would as many fans have kvetched about the technology not matching the first Star Trek pilot from 1965? Would there have been as much griping about the redesigned Klingons? (Well, yes, probably. Even CBS ultimately realized that was a huge mistake.) Or would fans have been more willing to accept a “kinder, gentler” (or at least less dark and dysfunctional) Star Trek more in line with the kind of series that had won over hearts and minds for the past five decades?
This is not to say that a show like Discovery couldn’t have been considered as a second or third series. After all, Lower Decks will be rewriting the formula quite a bit (animated comedy), and who knows where Section 31 will go? But it just seems to me that starting off with a show like Pike might have been a better initial strategy than going for broke with Discovery…only to discover later on how much fans REALLY wanted the kind of Star Trek that CBS was trying so hard to distance itself from.
Of course, we’ll never know for certain whether starting with a Pike series would have worked better in the end. What I do know is that I’ve yet to read a single bad review of “Ask Not” (although some people are complaining about the cruelty and impracticality of the test just to bring on a new cadet). Likewise, I have yet to hear any fan who has watched Anson Mount’s portrayal of Captain Pike say that they do NOT want to see more of him and his crew. In other words…
ARE YOU LISTENING, CBS??? GIVE US A CAPTAIN PIKE SERIES ALREADY!
Actually, I’m kind of surprised it hasn’t already been announced. In fact, one reviewer was expecting to see the words “Captain Pike Will Return!” at the end of the credits for “Ask Not.” It almost seems impossible to imagine that CBS isn’t at least seriously considering the possibility, if not outright planning it (and just not telling us until next year’s San Diego Comic Con or something).
After all, they already have a bridge set, a transporter room set, turbolift, corridors, and now a massive engineering set (albeit virtual). They have three main characters—Pike, Number One, and Spock—plus a chief engineer (seen briefly in “Q&A”) and a brand new starry-eyed engineering cadet. Their adventures could take place at any time, either just after Spock arrives as an ensign, around the time of Talos IV mission, during the war when Cadet Sidhu arrives, or after the time-shift departure of the “starship-that-must-not-be-named.”
Oh, well. Seven minutes and forty-five seconds of “Ask Not” was enough to convince me that a new Pike series is already long overdue. Now we just have to wait to see how long it takes for CBS to get the same subspace transmission that we all received months ago!