Michael Chabon’s Short Trek is a Thing of Optimistic Beauty

Titled "Calypso," the mini-episode is set 1,000 years in the future and casts the eponymous starship itself as a main character.

While three of the four Short Treks follow characters we’ve already met on Star Trek: Discovery, “Calypso,” the mini-episode written by novelist Michael Chabon (and writer on the upcoming Picard-centric Star Trek series) is a story entirely its own.

If you’re looking for a connection between the ongoing series and these supplementary stories, look no further than the eponymous Discovery, the setting and one of two main characters in the 18-minute story about the blossoming of a friendship between the ship’s AI and one man lost in space.

Further reading: Mary Wiseman on Short Treks, Tilly, and Food Fights

Aldis Hodge (Underground) stars as Craft, a castaway rescued by Discovery—or more accurately, by Zora, the AI of the starship, played by Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy). Far from home and his family, and used to a life of war, Craft is reluctant to trust the mysterious AI, but learns to over the course of their time together. 

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It’s a mystery, a romance, and a classic Star Trek story all wrapped into one. In this age of Black Mirror, Ex Machina, and Prometheus, it’s nice to get an AI character that doesn’t have at least minor Skynet aspirations.

And isn’t that the most Star Trek way of all? A story set in our future that doesn’t fear technology, but rather revels, optimistically, in its potential. When we talked to Chabon about crafting this story, he immediately pointed out that benevolent AI characters are already part of Star Trek canon, from Data on The Next Generation tothe Doctor on Voyager.

“You need to have artificial human characters who are lovable or who are heroic, or noble or whatever it would be,” said Chabon. “So, you know, I think it became fairly easy for me then to imagine this ship. And then I just thought about what she’s been doing all this time when she’s alone and then I decided that she had spent the past thousand years upgrading herself and improving herself and rewriting her code.”

In “Calypso,” Zora uses the Discovery’s expansive media library to update herself, to learn. Chabon noted: “She’s becoming a student of literature and a student of arts and culture and a student of all kinds of human expression, human emotion and impression of human intelligence and she’s been able to use that time that she’s had to herself.”

In the Short Trek, we see Zora using media to communicate and connect with Craft. They watch Funny Face and, at one point, Zora manifests in holographic form as a character inspired by the film in order to dance with Craft. Chabon said, in choosing a classic Hollywood film to use for the sequence, they wanted to find something that wasn’t just about singing, but also dancing.

“We had a wide range of movie candidates and B-list, and C-list and D-list of candidates, in case we weren’t able to get the rights to Funny Face,” said Chabon. “But it was Funny Face from the beginning. I think just because there’s just something so hauntingly beautiful about her and about maybe the setting of that number. You know, it just felt like the right sequence and you know, like I said, we had some back-ups and possibilities and we were sort of ready to go with other things, but we stuck to the battle and we were able to get the Funny Face rights that we needed. So, it was always there from the beginning.”

The pairing of a movie from our nostalgic past with the setting of a far future starship creates a fascinating, effective juxtapostion in “Calypso,” one that Chabon was very much aware of, saying: “As beautiful as that sequence is in its own terms, then when it’s sort of projected onto the grid of the Starship Discovery it takes it on an extra level for me of incongruity.”

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Ultimately, what that’s saying is, in this future—and this future is even farther in the future than the future that we’ve been accustomed to seeing on Star Trek, it’s a thousand years beyond anything we’ve seen on the show, it’s way, way in the future—even so, they have Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn and Betty Boop and do you know what that means? That means that is our future. To me, it is an incredibly hopeful and optimistic gesture.

It’s a comforting sentiment from a man who will be taking a more active role in the Star Trek universe as a writer on the upcoming Picard series. Chabon told us that he got the Short Treks gig first after working with producer Akiva Goldsman on a film project before being asked to come aboard on the Picard series.

“We had shared our Trek fandom in the past, so he knew I was a big Star Trek fan, so he said, ‘Hey, we’re doing these short films. Would you like to write one?’ Of course. So that was the start of it, and it was almost, while I was working on the series, that this Picard thing started to come together. Or, it seemed like it might be coming together, and then, Alex Kurtzman, he asked me if I would want to be involved with that. I said, ‘Of course!’ a bit louder than I had said ‘Of course!’ the first time.”

It was an easy choice for a man who loves the franchise as a fan. When asked what kinds of guidelines he got for “Calypso” when coming on board, he said the only guidelines he got were length-related. The story treatment was already written by Sean Cochran, but, from there, the story belonged to him.

“I got the story. I get the world. I know Star Trek really well. I had an intuitive sense of the kind of storytelling that Star Trek does best.”

Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 premieres in January, but you can watch Short Treks episode “Calypso” on CBS All-Access now.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of GeekRead more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.