SP-SP-SP-SPOILERS…TURN AWAY OR FACE THE STRAIN!
This past Thursday, CBS All Access released (at least for viewers in the United States) the final two SHORT TREKS for 2019. You can read my reviews of the previous three episodes—“Q&A”, “The Trouble with Edward”, and “Ask Not”—to see that they’ve been a little uneven in quality (at least in my opinion) but generally worth the 8 to 15 minutes of time invested to watch them. Also, there’s one more Short Treks episode scheduled for release on January 9: a STAR TREK: PICARD prequel titled “Children of Mars.”
The final two Short Treks of this year marked Star Trek‘s first return to animation since the animated series aired its final episode 45 years ago on October 12, 1974. (Of course, I’m not counting animated Star Trek fan films, although if you’d like to see some really good ones, might I suggest Star Trek: Aurora, Stalled Trek, and Stone Trek.)
The two new Short Treks—“Ephraim and Dot” and “The Girl Who Made the Stars” were REALLY short—-just under nine minutes and just under eighth minutes respectively. This isn’t surprising, though, as animation is costly to produce both in terms of budget and time. Unlike live action, an extra four minutes for either episode could literally have increased the production budget by nearly 50%.
So what did I think?
Before I answer this question, let me tell you what my nine-year-old son Jayden—a lover of TOS and a current watcher of TNG—thought. This is actually a rather profound question. I have and continue to refuse to show STAR TREK: DISCOVERY to Jayden (with the F-bombs, the Klingon rape scenes, and generally not-for-a-9-year-old content) until he’s much older. In comparison, we LOVED watching the new Lost In Space together on Netflix (season two is just 10 days away!) and are currently enjoying The Mandalorian. As a Trekkie, it was frustrating not to be able to share the new series with my son.
But these two new Short Treks were 100% child-friendly. So having the opportunity to say to Jayden, “Hey, come over here and watch this and tell me what you think…” about the new Star Trek is a new and exciting experience for me.
So what did Jayden think…?
I should begin by mentioning that we watched the two episodes on Saturday night. But I didn’t “interview” Jayden until the following morning, and he begged me to play “Ephraim and Dot” again for him. He didn’t ask to see “The Girl Who Made the Stars” a second time.
While we were watching “Ephraim and Dot” a second time, Jayden pointed out two things that I hadn’t noticed the night before (because the episode goes at a ludicrous mycelial speed). The first was this scene…
Notice that Dot emerges from the pile of clothes wearing a red shirt! That was really funny, and if if weren’t for my eagle-eyed kid, I would have completely missed it.
The second thing Jayden pointed out made me so proud of him. He had me replay this one scene…
You might not notice unless you do a freeze frame, but Sulu is facing off against Dr. McCoy and what probably is Kirk (we just see a gold shirt). “That wasn’t the way it happened in the episode, Daddy,” Jayden said. “Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy weren’t in that scene the first time.” And Jayden is right…
I mention Jayden finding this discontinuity not just to brag but because, later on, I’m going to talk a little bit about canon. But first, let’s hear from Jayden…
[I am now typing as quickly as I can!]
DADDY – So, Jayden, let’s talk about “Ephraim and Dot” first. What did you think of it?
JAYDEN – It brought back a bunch of memories.
DADDY – [I chuckle silently at that.] So did you like it?
JAYDEN – I liked it a lot because it was funny.
DADDY – Was it only funny, or did you feel anything else, too?
JAYDEN – It was sad at the end part, but then it became happy.
DADDY – Happy is always a good thing. So, did it feel like Star Trek to you?
JAYDEN – Yes, it felt like Star Trek. It reminded me of the cartoon version. [Jayden has seen the animated series.]
DADDY – So on a scale of 1 to 10, how much did you like “Ephraim and Dot”?
JAYDEN – 9 out of 10.
DADDY – Anything else you’d like to say about it?
JAYDEN – They should make a whole other series about how Ephraim and Dot go on adventures just like the starship Enterprise.
DADDY – Okay, great job on that first review, Jayden. Let’s move on to “The Girl Who Made the Stars.” You sure you don’t want to watch it again?
JAYDEN – No thank you.
DADDY – Okay, so what did you think of that episode?
JAYDEN – The part where the alien gives her that ball, but when it’s floating, do you know what I said? “That’s no moon…”
[To explain that, I need to show you all the following screen capture…]
DADDY – Yep, it did kinda look like the Death Star. But did you like the episode? Did it feel like Star Trek?
JAYDEN – Yes and no. The first part felt like Star Trek, and the second part didn’t. The second part was too crazy to actually be a Star Trek episode.
DADDY – What does that mean that it was too crazy to be a Star Trek episode? What makes something feel like Star Trek to you?
JAYDEN – Star Trek is futuristic, although sometimes they go back in time. There was nothing in the second part that was futuristic except the “That’s no moon…” part.
DADDY – Fair enough. So did you like the episode?
JAYDEN – Yes.
DADDY – What number rating would you give it 1 to 10?
JAYDEN – 6 out of 10.
DADDY – Anything else?
JAYDEN – No, not really.
[And that, as they say, is that. Daddy’s turn.]
I’m going to proceed in the opposite order, as I have almost nothing to say about “The Girl Who Made the Stars.” Personally, I thought it was “meh,” and I’d have given it 5 out of 10 (maybe less). Visually, it was beautifully rendered, and the music was quite well done. But beyond that, I think Jayden was right in that the story didn’t feel like Star Trek. It was very generic. We didn’t see Starfleet or members of the Federation trying to help another race. We saw an alien give a ball full of stars to a little girl on Earth in Africa. And we don’t even know if the story was true or not.
Without spending too much time on this (’cause I really want to get to the other episode), I think the weakness of this short is that the viewer has to first care about Michael Burnham as a character. Jayden had no idea who she was (as a child or as an adult), and I never cared about the character myself either. I wonder, had the bedtime story been told to a young James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard or even Kathryn Janeway, would I have taken more of an interest in the episode? To be honest…probably. But even so, I still didn’t find the fable/myth/whatever all that compelling. It just sorta was what it was.
“Ephraim and Dot,” on the other hand…
I loved it. I totally agree with Jayden on the 9 out of 10, although the 1 that’s missing is a big one (or a set of big ones). More on that shortly.
The episode immediately brought to mind countless “Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner” cartoons from my childhood, where wordless (or mostly wordless) stories were told through interconnected skits brought to life using a combination of brilliant animations, whimsical music, and a parade of fun sound effects. My mind also recalled elements of the Disney/Pixar movie WALL-E, although the stronger connection was certainly more to the old Looney Tunes shorts…especially with the music and sound effects.
Speaking of music, MICHAEL GIACCHINO’s score (he also directed this episode…along with doing the music for the Star Trek JJ-verse movies and about a million other blockbusters) was as important a “character” in this episode as Ephraim and Dot! Weaving the “Road Runner”-like composition in with a series of familiar TOS and movie-era musical stings helped immerse the viewer in a continuous, engaging walk down memory lane while always letting us know exactly what was happening and how to feel about it.
As for the imagery, as I was going frame-by-frame looking for the “perfect” stills to include with this blog, I began to realize that virtually any screen capture would be worthy of printing out and putting up on my wall. Just take a look at some of these (plus the other freeze-frames on this page), and feel free to click to enlarge any of them…
Simply put, this is a BEAUTIFUL work of art in every way. The quality of the intricate animation from PIXOMONDO (the company that also did the animation for “The Girl Who Made the Stars”) is stupendous. The two main characters are beautifully designed and amazingly emotive. If you get the chance to frame-by-frame through some of the more manic scenes, take a few minutes to do so. Each drawing is filled with an accomplished craft to convey the very human-like essences of both the alien tardigrade mother and the “mechanical” DOT-7 worker robot.
The vivid color palette brings to mind the very core of the visual impact of TOS and movie-era Star Trek—with the exception of the muted colors of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Trek of the eras covered by “Ephraim and Dot” was all about light and color…much more so than the dark and monochromatic production design of Star Trek: Discovery. Heck, even the “new” old Enterprise is beginning to grow on me thanks to this animation showing the starship bight and vibrant rather than gloomy and shadowed.
But that leads me to the inevitable “kvetching.” Yep, that 10% “miss” represented a lot of things that my canon-worshipping self has been screaming at me to complain about in this blog. But before I indulge my “inner obsessive geek,” let me first provide a public service announcement (with the help of another animated character) to myself and anyone else wanting to eviscerate “Ephraim and Dot” for violating sacred Star Trek canon…
In other words, don’t be too harsh. Indeed, I feel that some of these issues were “features,” not “bugs.” For example, while I realize that tribbles weren’t on the Enterprise at the same time as Sulu was running through the corridors half-naked holding a rapier, or that there’s not a window looking into sickbay from this spot…
…sometimes you just have to let the story have a little leeway to tell itself (especially when it’s done in such an artful and reverent way). Similarly, when I saw Ephraim and Dot plummeting through a Jeffries Tube that seemed to go on forever (certainly longer than the nine decks of the secondary hull) and bashing into laundry carts filled with uniform tunics…
…I just couldn’t fault them the same way I faulted William Shatner in Star Trek V when he gave the Enterprise 78 decks in the wrong direction! A double-standard? Perhaps. But for me, I just wanted to forgive the Short Treks guys more than I ever wanted to forgive Shatner.
That said, I am kinda sad that we’re not ever going to see this again…
…except in our dreams (and reruns of TOS and DS9, of course). Alas, those of us hoping that there might be some way that Pike’s “new” old Enterprise from Discovery might somehow get refit into the original version we all know and love must now accept defeat. The “new” old Enterprise is here to stay and seems to be in the new canon for Kirk and crew, as well…
Now, I get it. CBS has committed to their new continuity (and refuses to call it a different universe). So fan “purists” like me are just going to have to find a way to live with it or else wind up shaking our fists as Star Trek warps away from us into the future. And in this case, I’m willing to “let it go, let it gooooo….”
That said, at least the refit Enterprise is still canon, and beautifully drawn, too. However!!! Here is where I found a bug that was NOT a feature; it was an unforced error, put and simple. Take a close look at this adapted clip from The Wrath of Khan. Notice anything wrong…?
NCC-1701-A??? A????? When Kirk went up against Khan in the Reliant, there was no bloody “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, or “E” on the Enterprise hull! C’mon, guys. This goof was totally avoidable! As was this…
A beautiful shot of the Enterprise getting blasted by Commander Kruge in his Klingon bird-of-prey, but not only does it say “A” again, but the words on the primary hull are all shifted 45 degrees counter-clockwise. There’s no artistic reason for the rotation of the letters and numbers, so I’m just going to chock this up to another “oops.”
Okay, just a few final words…
First, as some of you might know, the Tardigrade on Star Trek: Discovery that was ultimately nicknamed “Ripper” (and was a terrifying killer…albeit cuddly-looking) was initially supposed to become a member of the Discovery crew! (That would have eaten a lot budget, to be sure!) And the character’s name was going to have been—wait for it!—Ephraim. Now, the name “Ephraim” is actually intended for a male and is a version of the Hebrew name אֶפְרָיִם (‘Efrayim) meaning “fruitful.” Obviously, a pregnant mother tardigrade is “fruitful”…and who knows? Maybe tardigrades don’t have genders. Anyway, just wanted to mention that.
I also wanted to mention that, for anyone who didn’t notice in the credits, the narrator for “Ephraim and Dot” was none other than KIRK THATCHER. If you’re unfamiliar with this fellow’s Star Trek legacy, he played the punk on the bus in this memorable scene from Star Trek IV (and Thatcher also wrote and sang the song I Hate You that’s playing)…
And as long as we’re on the subject, Thatcher reprised his role of the “punk on the bus” in Spider-Man: Homecoming, playing a “punk on the street” while holding the same boom box…
Pretty cool, huh?
And finally, I just want to say that, there are folks out there who still have some trepidation about the upcoming STAR TREK: LOWER DECKS, the new tongue-in-cheek animated Star Trek series due out on CBS All Access sometime in 2020. And I admit to being a little unsure myself.
But after seeing the quality of animation on “Ephraim and Dot,” I’m actually looking very much forward to see if the same quality will hold for Lower Decks. If so, and if the new series is more kid-friendly in terms of content than Discovery, then Star Trek just might have a chance of attracting the “next generation” of Trekkies. My son Jayden is ready; CBS just needs to give him something he can watch and become a fan of.