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Josh Reviews the Third New Star Trek Short: “The Brightest Star”

The third of four new Star Trek short films, dubbed Short Treks, has arrived: “The Brightest Star.”  This short story presents a concise version of the origin of Saru, the Discovery’s Kelpian science officer played by the phenomenally-talented Doug Jones.  The story is set before Saru left his planet to join Starfleet.  For the first time, we get to see Saru’s home planet Kaminar, and we meet Saru’s father and sister.  The short quickly sets up the sad life of the Kelpians, who wait to be harvested by an unseen alien race called the Ba’ul.  (We don’t see exactly what happens to the harvested Kelpians, who we see vanish in a flash of light, but we assume the worst.)  Saru questions why this is the way life must be, but his father, who appears to be some sort of religious figure who oversees these harvests, attempts to squash his questioning.  When Saru gets his hands on a piece of alien technology, he uses it to send a signal off-world.  But who will answer…?

With “The Brightest Star,” these Short Treks are now three for three.  This was a great short film.  It looked absolutely gorgeous, and it provided us with a wealth of fascinating information about Saru’s backstory.

I love how different all three of these Short Treks have been from one another.  The first, “Runaways,” was a great little character piece for Discovery’s Ensign Tilly.  It didn’t feel essential, but it was a great showcase for Mary Wiseman’s Tilly and a lovely chance for her character to step into the spotlight.  The second, “Calypso,” (written by Michael Chabon) was set 1,000 years after Discovery and felt like totally it’s own thing, a complete short-story set outside of current Trek continuity.  I hope this story will be followed up on someday, but if it never is, I’ll be OK with that.  This third short, though, feels like an essential piece of critical backstory for one of Discovery’s main characters, and it leaves so many questions hanging that it feels like a story that demands a follow-up.  (Rumor has it that there will indeed be a Saru-focused episode in Discovery’s second season that will pick up threads from this short.)

I hope that turns out to be the case, because this short film left me with a million questions.  Who are the Ba’ul?  What do they do to the harvested Kelpians?  Why do the Kelpians go along with this so docilely?  What is that obelisk-like device around which the Kelpians gather to be harvested?  What would we see if the camera had ever panned up — does that object connect to a ship, or is it the base of a much larger object like a tower, or what?  What is Saru’s father’s role in Kelpian society, and why does he go along with leading his people to what looks like the slaughter?  What does he know that Saru doesn’t?  How long has this been going on?

This short feels like the least complete of the three so far.  For now, I’m OK with that, presuming that Discovery does indeed follow up on these questions and give us satisfactory answers.  For now, I’m OK with these hanging questions because I enjoyed this tantalizing glimpse into Saru’s past so much.

The short was visually stunning.  Saru’s home planet was gorgeously realized, with some truly beautiful shots of the Kelpian’s primitive village and the surrounding nature and water.  It’s great to see Star Trek looking so beautiful and expansive, moving beyond the usual space-ship sets.  The make-up effects on all the Kelpians, specifically Saru’s father and sister, were great.

I was delighted by the surprise appearance of a guest-star character (whose reveal I won’t spoil) in the closing minutes of the short.  It raised my eyebrows a bit that this person and Saru knew each other so long before the events of Discovery season one (it makes the universe feel a bit too insular, almost as if you’d told me that Darth Vader built C-3PO… oh, wait…), but it was a fun surprise and a nice connection.  (I’m also a geek, so I looked carefully at the shuttlecraft designation, which appears to indicate that the shuttle came from the Shenzhou.  This too raised my eyebrows — does it make sense that this character was on the Shenzhou all this time?  How many years are we supposed to think passed between this short and the events of Discovery season one?  It has to be at least a decade, right?  Saru needed time to attend Starfleet academy and then rise through the ranks to become the chief science officer, and third-in-command, aboard the Shenzhou.)

If the short has a weakness, it’s that it’s affected by some of the storytelling laziness and ignorance to Trek continuity that plagued Discovery’s first season.  I’m OK with all of the unanswered questions I listed above.  But I needed more information on where and how exactly Saru got the piece of technology that turned out to be a communications device.  (It just fell off a Ba’ul ship?  And was fully-functional and capable of sending an interstellar signal?  Come on.)  And how was Saru, who lives in a primitive-looking village in an agrarian society, able to learn how to use that communications device and interpret an alien language (not just the Ba’ul language, whose device it was, but also English from the Federation!).  Modern Star Trek (I include the J.J. Abrams Trek reboot films as well as Discovery) often seem to treat Star Trek technology as magic, ignoring its established limitations.  The J.J. films, for example, have characters beaming vast distances, across planets, far beyond what transporters in Star Trek have ever been capable of before.  And here in this short we get the aforementioned communications device, a small box that was apparently able to transmit a signal vast distance, across planets.  Even in Star Trek, I feel like a small communicator shouldn’t be able to do that.  And I was really bugged by the last shot of the short, which showed a Starfleet shuttlecraft going to warp while still in the sky above the Kelpian village.  It’s been well-established in Trek that starships can’t go to warp within a planet’s gravity well.  Sigh.

One additional note: The end of the short implies that Starfleet cannot get involved in whatever is going on between the Kelpians and the Ba’ul because of the Prime Directive.  This appears to be a return to the rather rigid interpretation of the Prime Directive seen in some early Next Gen episodes, such as “Pen Pals,” in which Picard is apparently willing to let a pre-warp civilization perish because he feels cannot get involved and interfere in any way with their society.  If the Kelpians are indeed being regularly slaughtered by the Ba’ul, Kirk would have stepped in and ended that shit in two seconds.  Now, one could argue that Kirk’s flagrant disregard for the Prime Directive in multiple episodes of the Original Series is not much better than Picard’s rigidity, just on the opposite end of the spectrum.  I wrote in my review of the premiere of Discovery that I was delighted to see that episode strike a satisfying middle ground in its interpretation of the Prime Directive.  We see that Georgiou and Burnham DO get involved to save a pre-warp species, they just take pains to keep their involvement a secret so as not to affect this primitive society’s natural development.  This feels like a moral, humanistic interpretation of the Prime Directive that I liked a lot.  That the character-who-shall-not-be-named seems to say that Starfleet cannot do anything to stop the regular murder of Kelpians (assuming that’s what’s going on — and maybe it isn’t, in which case perhaps I’ll feel different when we know the full story) is troubling and unsatisfying to me.

But overall, I quite enjoyed this short film.  I’ve been delighted by all three Short Treks so far.  I hope this indicates a new level of quality in Discovery when it returns for season two in another month or so…!

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