What a pleasure to see Star Trek move into contemporary animation styles. In both the new Short Treks, “The Girl Who Made The Stars” & “Ephraim & Dot, the animation style is unique, self-contained & highly metafictional, referencing a multitude of popular movies & cartoons outside the Star Trek Universe. These shorts give us backstories to Discovery characters, specifically Michael Burnham & Ripper the Tardigrade, whose pasts we know in a limited way.
In the beginning
In the first episode of Discovery, a brash Number One, Commander Michael Burnham, tells Lieutenant Saru: “if you fear everything, you learn nothing.” After two seasons, viewers are accustomed to seeing Burnham as a fearless scientist, explorer & advocate for compassion, peace & tolerance. The Starfleet Way.
With “The Girl who Made the Stars,” we see Burnham as a young child, frightened in the night by lightning storms, seeing shadows, hearing booms. Not coincidentally, she bearhugs a soon-to-be-familiar stuffie to her little body, calling for her Dad. She fears they are alone in “all this nothing and it’s gonna eat us! And no one would know!”
“I hate being scared,” she says.
Her father suggests she may be more afraid of the thought of fear than the fear itself. Young Burnham reacts in a fashion familiar to all who know her adult self: “Dad. I’m too little to know what that means;” she is a direct child, outspoken some years before she arrived on Vulcan. Dad, to soothe her, applies the age-old parental strategy–a story, an old tale about a girl about her age, “who with a single tiny piece of light changed the universe, forever.”
Story within a story
It starts with the First People 1000 centuries ago in Africa, who celebrated the sun but had no stars. When night fell, it made the people afraid & they gave it a name, The Dark, The Night Beast, a fire-eyed serpent of cavernous black cloud twisting around the village before launching at the viewer with gaping fangs.
Tribal law decrees no First Person can travel at night. One young girl, a la Disney’s Moana, suggests going past the far mountain to find new land to cultivate. She meets an all too usual dismissal, with the added dig: “Girl… go play.” Burnham bolts upright in bed with indignation at the unfairness of it all.
The girl decides to go & find out what lies beyond. She encounters a friendly lightning bug & a suitable translucent container to put it in, to lighting her way. The Darkness finds her, chases her, & she falls, shattering the container, losing her glowing friend. Hiding in the long grass, too frightened to face what’s coming, she spies a glimmer of light & runs to it as fast as she can! And keeps running until she finds a Being like no other she has ever seen. Fear transmuted to curiosity & wonder.
Lessons from far away
To the Being, she is no child full of fear, but warrior, “full of more light than she could ever imagine.” A girl who can bring knowledge to her people. She is shown the world around her, the universe beyond that, & given the most important knowledge of all: to learn & explore you must first conquer your fear.
The girl becomes a queen, “a great explorer navigating by the constellations. “It was the light inside that guided her!” interrupts an excited Michael. “Exactly,” says Dad, & once she knew that, the girl knew never to be afraid.
With her newfound confidence & understanding, Michael has the night lights turned off, & slides into dreams of becoming that queen, that celestial explorer, slaying that demon of the dark with moves straight out of Avatar, or echoing even further back, Artemis, the great huntress.
This animated & modern fairy tale deftly entwines many themes in the Star Trek Universe in addition to providing insight into the missing part of this main character’s life. The little viewers know about Burnham’s childhood centers around the trauma of losing her parents, her memories of Vulcan childhood, & the traumas of the same.
We haven’t seen much of Burnham as a happy child, doing regular kid stuff. This animated short provides a good look into that time by focusing on a thing we have all feared at one time, the dark. Through the medium of storytelling, the very medium of the STU, this short is a tale showing how to turn fear into fearlessness in the face of the unknown. We see where Burnham gets the grit she possesses as an adult.
In doing so,”The Girl wh Made the Stars” reinforces many traits desired in Starfleet: embracing the unknown, conquering one’s personal demons, acting for the greater good, embracing diversity & advocating for curiosity, not fear, as humanity moves forward. We need to embrace our child selves to understand our adult selves.
This writer can’t help but feel there is a message here for us all, now, about shining a light on the darkness currently abounding in the world. Burnham’s lesson is ours: react with curiosity & the desire to learn, not fear & aggression.
“Live long and prosper,” Tardigrades
The second Short Trek, “Ephraim and Dot,” explores much of the same territory as “The Girl Who Made the Stars,” but shifts the framework of curiousity to a non-humanoid species. It provides backstory for an unusual character, Ripper the Tardigrade, but this version is a tardigrade devoid of killing abilities & not so very large. Ephraim is Ripper turned stuffie, hugged tightly by young Michael in the previous short.
Ripper is the name given to the very large tardigrade encountered by Discovery, a powerful creature capable of ripping bulkheads & Klingons apart. It is also the guardian of the Mycelial Network, essentially non-aggressive, capable of interdimensional travel, & the animal exploited by Discovery’s captain in season one. Ephraim is a unicornized version of Ripper, stripping away the fearful aspects of the animal, only known in microscopic form on Earth.
Documentaries in space
Opening in black & white, in a pseudo-documentary style reminiscent of Fido, this short purports to be a “Starfleet Science” reel on “The Tardigrade in Space.” A pseudo-Spock voice introduces the “humble” tardigrade, who travels the mycelial network looking for a safe place to lay her eggs.
How to show the soft, nurturing side of a formidable being? Animate it. Make it a mother to give it visible motivation. Something that round & gentle can’t possibly pose a threat. To seal the deal, you have it looking for a safe & warm place to place its eggs, which, like the Terran genus, can stay dormant for years. This permits Ephraim to react strongly in an acceptable way: mother defending her young: shades of Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Demon in the Dark” and the mother Horta.
The first human thing Ephraim encounters is the USS Enterprise, which plows into the little asteroid she was considering as a nest site. She’s never encountered such a thing, much like Ripper. So much mass!
This is Ripper’s backstory, of a kind. It is set in the future relative to Discovery, but in the past relative to us. She does not know what to make of this beast, peering into its large “openings.” And what should she see but strange beings doing strange things. Quite a surprise, but moreso for us. She’s looking in on an animated version of “Space Seed,” but one not seen before. The animation style is reminiscent of the Animated Series without duplicating it, & never had an episode like this.
Through the woods to grandma’s house
Zooming about the monster, searching for a way in, a la Wall-E, she looks hither & yon, encountering Dot. Now Dot is a new addition to the Star Trek Universe, but looks like something from Star Wars. A small autonomous robot, it considers Ephraim an intruder & proceeds to zap her.
Then follows a truly Looney Tunes chase through corridors, through the laundry, & Ephraim finds the warp core, & cooing at the warmth, lays her eggs. Dot catches her soon after & manages to push her off the ship, resulting in a merry rollercoaster ride through versions of the Enterprise & its first crew; for example, a warp core that looks like TOS’s, but tubes that come directly from the Kelvin timeline.
Like the Roadrunner & Coyote, these two chase each other through alternate universes created of TOS episodes, like “The Doomsday Machine,” “The Naked Time,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” & “The Savage Curtain. There are TOS films, too, like The Wrath of Kahn, even a trip through water reclamation systems from Star Trek 2009.
They fight, they bash, Ephraim’s fierce desire to protect & recover her eggs combined with her ability to teleport between places leads poor Dot a merry chase, but Dot is equally determined to do its job & eliminate the intruder. With the destruction of the Enterprise by Kruge’s Klingon Bird of Prey from “The Search for Spock”, however, the game changes.
Dot is busy trying to put out fires, while Ephraim is desperately trying to reach her eggs. Fighting again, Dot tosses Ephraim out once more, but then realizes there’s a life form, tardigrade eggs in terrible danger. The ship explodes, sending both Ephraim & the now one-armed Dot spiraling through a debris-filled screen.
Ephraim, despairing for her offspring, spies Dot floating by, & gives chase, furious at this thing who separated her from her eggs & is now responsible for their death. She looks murderous. In a typical Star Trek denouement, Dot has saved the eggs, now hatched into roly-poly baby tardigrades, cute enough to give Baby Shark a run for the money, & “peace returns to the mother tardigrade.”
Ephraim, now snuggling her new friend Dot like young Michael cuddled her stuffie counterpart, & surrounded by her young, proceeds to “go where no one has gone before,” while the music swells into the original theme to bring us through the credits.
“Ephraim and Dot” takes viewers on a multi-dimensional trip through Star Trek history, using the tardigrade’s abilities as set out in Discovery to tell a story of inter-species misunderstanding, much like the one suffered by Ripper. This time, however, humans are not involved, just a little robot trying to protect its charges.
This short makes the point, once again, to look with curiosity & wonder at the unknown, from both sides of the fence. And to wonder.