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[This story contains spoilers for “The Escape Artist,” the fourth episode of Star Trek: Short Treks.]
With Star Trek: Discovery placed before the timeline of the original series, the door has been open for viewers to see earlier adaptations of some noteworthy characters. But before Discovery analogs of Captain Pike and Spock, there was Harry Mudd. Though he only appeared in two episodes of the original series, his level of deception, coupled with Roger C. Carmel’s bombastic performance, made him an instant favorite, a representation of the human quality that can still exist among multiple planets and species.
More than 50 years since his last appearance, a similar fate has befallen Mudd’s newest incarnation, played by Rainn Wilson. The Office star earned high marks for his two Mudd episodes in Discovery’s first season, which inspired Rick and Morty writer Mike McMahan (who will also be the head writer on the upcoming animated series Star Trek: Lower Decks) to pen an entire Mudd-based standalone for Short Treks.
“The fascinating thing to me is that there are so many different tonal shifts to Harry Mudd,” Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He’s pathetic and lovable and villainous and dastardly, all at the same time. This one accentuates more of the comedic Harry Mudd, whereas the last episode on Discovery was a little more of the villainous Mudd getting his revenge.”
Indeed, the comedy of “The Escape Artist” makes it the most unconventional of the four Short Treks episodes, given the dramatic nature of the other three. True to Mudd’s iconoclast nature, the 15-minute installment opens with a complete overhaul of the opening titles. The familiar beige background and line drawings of the Discovery fall away to reveal a black backdrop as chipper disco music plays. As oppositional as it may be to Star Trek, it does hew close to another piece of galactic-based pop culture: Guardians of the Galaxy.
“It definitely has a little bit of that feel,” Wilson says. “There’s a market for outlandish but grounded space comedy.”
Wilson’s role in “The Escape Artist” expanded behind the screen as well. In addition to starring, he was asked to direct the episode, which he relished as a significant challenge and opportunity in one. His dual roles had him collaborating heavily with McMahan, especially on these opening moments, which introduced the all-too-important tone of the piece.
“Mike wanted that first image of this fun disco music,” Wilson explains. “Then you see Harry Mudd with a bloody face fall into frame. You know right from the get-go this is going to be something really wild that you haven’t seen before. And that’s the guide we followed all the way through production.”
That “wild” aspect moves past the first few seconds into the episode’s structure. The main action centers around Mudd’s various tactics to escape the capture of a Tellarite (Harry Judge) looking for revenge and cash to boot. But “The Escape Artist” frequently cuts between the Tellarite ship and apparent flashbacks to similar hairy situations for Harry. This narrative device gives the audience a supposed look into Mudd’s various exploits and the tried-and-true tactics he uses to charm everyone from Orion jailers to diminutive and forgetful bounty hunters.
However, the ending of the short reveals that, in true con man fashion, everything is not as it seems. It turns out the Mudd begging for his life en route to the Federation starship DeMilo is not the real Mudd, but rather an android duplicate sold to scam the Tellarite out of his money and retribution. But he’s only one of many victims, as Mudd himself has been selling the androids off to various parties the entire week, disguised as an armored female bounty hunter. True to his nature, he used his notoriety to turn a profit.
That means that, upon further review, the scenes initially perceived as flashbacks are moments that do not involve the real McCoy (not to be confused with another original series character) but rather different groups’ dynamics with their own respective Mudd bots. Wilson says the method of portraying the “flashbacks” was the most complicated and challenging part of the entire filming process.
“The audience assumes they’re flashbacks, but they’re actually alternate realities,” he says. “There’s a different Mudd in every different situation, and all the different Mudds we’re meeting throughout the episode are not the real Harry Mudd. When you see the real Harry Mudd at the end, he’s a little bit more of the dastardly Harry Mudd who set this all up. The android Mudds are more comedic and lighter versions.”
The twist ending also sets up a double meaning behind the cuts to these alternate realities in McMahan’s script. Many of the segues into these scenes involve Mudd repeating the same line in different locations. On first watch, the audience can assume it’s merely a comic device, used to show his charlatan nature and the stock of sales pitches he has in his Rolodex. But these lines are more comparable to lines of code, as Mudd seems to have programmed his metallic counterparts with the same phrases. Rather than highlight the derivative nature of his work, it shows the originality in the plan to grift not only the galaxy but an entire audience watching as well.
“They were programmed to respond in certain ways,” says Wilson. “Something you think you’re hearing done for comedic effect is actually done for scientific effect.”
Perhaps most important, “The Escape Artist” ending provides a major connection between Wilson and Carmel’s respective takes on Harcourt Fenton Mudd. “I, Mudd,” the second and final original series Mudd-centric episode, centers on the eponymous character becoming ruler and master of a planet full of androids. It seems that his fascination with artificial intelligence began before the days of planet Mudd, his dominion displayed here as he constructs an army of androids in his image.
“Mudd is obsessed with androids and what can be,” Wilson says. “He’s always playing with what can he get out of playing on people’s hopes and fears and their limited visuals. How can he con people? Androids are a very useful way to do that. Part of the Mudd lore is the use of illusion. The truth is far more complex than what he’s presenting. There’s always that mischievous aspect of Mudd; he’s playing with your illusions and expectations.”
The connection of illusion has helped Wilson thread the difficult needle of connecting his depiction to Carmel’s, the latter of which contains more levity than the former. “The Escape Artist” sets up chronologically that Mudd has escaped the Discovery crew sending him off begrudgingly with his wife Stella; one of the counts against him of “penetrating a space whale” that the Tellarite reads off in the short refers to the unorthodox way he infiltrated the titular ship previously. With Mudd now on the lam and a brigade of bots at his disposal, he’s become even more of a threat to Starfleet, something that Wilson is relishing.
“It comes back to tone. Creating a character that could be laughable, larger than life, and yet deadly serious and playing with human lives. For him to fit in with the Discovery world, he needed to take the dial a bit more to the villainous, dastardly Mudd. It’s always nudging those dials. How do you keep him fun, lovable and enjoyable, and a little bit Shakespearean, while at the same time grounded, deadly and earnest? You could never be in a situation with Mudd that you wouldn’t take seriously. At the end of the day, he does need to be taken seriously.”
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