[This story contains spoilers for “Runaway,” the first episode of Star Trek: Short Treks.]
In its new series Short Treks, Star Trek is going where no version of the show has gone before: online-only content. But the first of four monthly installments, which dropped Thursday on CBS All Access, made sure to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
“Runaway,” written by Jenny Lumet and series creator and new showrunner Alex Kurtzman, highlights Star Trek: Discovery supporting character Sylvia Tilly (Mary Wiseman). The short takes place after her reception of the Starfleet Medal of Honor and subsequent fast-tracking of her enrollment in the Command Training Program. But though Tilly has taken many steps forward over the course of Discovery’s first season, she nearly backtracks during a frank conversation with her mother (Mimi Kuzyk).
“People don’t exist in a vacuum,” Wiseman tells The Hollywood Reporter about the introduction of Tilly’s oft-mentioned, previously unseen parent. “They’re a result of who raised them and who they love and who frustrates them.” Tilly experiences the latter in droves, as her mother voices her disapproval towards the Command Training Program. Through an anecdote, we find out more about the woman Tilly was before Discovery, someone who quite literally ran away from challenges in her youth.
Enter another runaway, as well as a new species for the Star Trek canon. Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po (Yadira Guevara-Prip), nicknamed “Po,” is a Xahian. Though the first glimpse of her is with a visual of flared spinal spikes and a cloaking mechanism that would make the Predator quake, Tilly’s attempt to connect with her brings in some of her more human characteristics. Po is an engineering genius, boastful of crafting the most complicated gadgets in her youth. But she’s only 17, and her adolescent attitude bristles against Tilly initially.
“Po has a lot of teenage impudence, and I think that is challenging to Tilly,” Wiseman explains. “To find a way to connect to her and find common ground between them, she learns how to be the older person in the room, a figure in authority, and has to help guide her in a gentler way. Po is both an alien and a bit alien in terms of the time of her life that she’s at right now. Learning how to connect with someone like that was definitely part of the journey for Tilly.”
This story displays a marked shift in Tilly’s character. Used to taking orders and functioning as part of a team, she’s left to make significant decisions on her own for the first time. It’s an unconventional initial test of the Command Training Program, the attempt to apply Starfleet’s philosophies to the constant shifting space of intergalactic relationships. And in typical Tilly fashion, she’s able to find her own way to make a connection: through a shared behavior of not being listened to and love of ice cream.
As Po reveals her background to Tilly, though, it’s clear the implications of her situation go deeper than the mines of her home planet. Her ingenuity helped her craft an incubator to recrystallize Xahia’s resource of dilithium, the mineral used to power warp drives in ships and arguably one of the most essential elements in the Star Trek canon. Though Po only created the incubator to help her “twin” planet, Starfleet has issued a warrant to find her and replicate the technology on their end. Though Tilly tells her, “You have the only key to a very big door,” Po initially refuses to disclose anything, wary that her invention would be used to more intensely mine Xahia and stymie its evolution. It’s a recurring theme in the Discovery universe, connecting back to the involvement of Ripper the tardigrade in the innovation of the spore drive, and the push and pull that comes between construction and compassion.
In spite of Po’s reservations, her new friend convinces her to give the information to Starfleet, changing the future of warp drive for Star Trek iterations to come. Before beaming out, the new queen of Xahia (a fact Po only revealed at the end of their time together) gives Tilly a glowing dilithium crystal to remember her by, which Tilly holds close to her heart.
“Po has found someone who’s got her back, who will listen to her, and try to support her on the journey she knows she needs to walk,” Wiseman says. “It’s very similar to Tilly’s situation. She has this relationship with her mother and she came on Discovery, and now she has all these people who look out for her and reach out their hands and have her back. She’s repeating that cycle of her love in giving that to someone else.”
Through only 15 minutes, the first installment of Star Trek: Short Treks gave new background on a main character, introduced a new race, created an origin story for one of the critical components of the entire franchise, and left Tilly with a renewed sense of community and the knowledge she’s not alone.
“I thought that conflict was beautiful and in line with the long line of Star Trek using metaphor to talk about issues we’re facing today,” Wiseman says. “Even if it feels like it violates canon a little bit, it doesn’t. It just shifts it. Here’s this moment, this wave that will affect the future of our universe. It’s a beautiful little insight into our current situation. That’s Star Trek to me.”