“I live the greatest adventure one could ever desire”: Captive Pursuit (DS9) vs. Runaway (Short Treks)

*This post contains spoilers for both episodes, and for season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – “Captive Pursuit” (season 1, episode 6)

captive 5Teleplay by Jill Sherman Donner & Michael Piller; story by Jill Sherman Donner; directed by Corey Allen; first aired in 1993

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

The station gets its first visitor from the Gamma Quadrant in the form of the skittish, mysterious Tosk, who reluctantly agrees to stay aboard the station while Chief O’Brien fixes his badly-damaged ship. Tosk appears to have natural cloaking abilities, needs almost no food or sleep, and has a way of speaking that somehow seems both cryptic and naïve. But as unusual as he is, O’Brien finds that the alien is growing on him, and is baffled when Constable Odo apprehends Tosk trying to break into a weapons locker. Tosk’s motivations become a lot clearer, though, when more Gamma Quadrant aliens, armed to the teeth, invade the station and fight their way to the brig, where they claim Tosk as the spoils of their “hunt” – something his kind is born, bred, and revered for in their society. Being caught alive – behind a force field in the brig, no less – is a great disgrace for Tosk, and since he won’t ask for asylum, the Prime Directive leaves Commander Sisko with no choice but to let the hunters take Tosk with them, to live out the rest of his life in humiliating captivity. O’Brien can’t accept that, though, and takes matters into his own hands, sabotaging the hunters so Task can leave the station in his own ship and continue the hunt, as he wishes. Afterwards, Sisko reprimands O’Brien for aiding Tosk’s escape … an escape Odo could easily have stopped once it started, if a straight-faced Sisko hadn’t advised him that there was “no hurry”.

VS.

Star Trek: Short Treks – “Runaway” (season 1, episode 1)

runaway 4Written by Jenny Lumet and Alex Kurtzman; directed by Maja Vrvilo; first aired in 2018

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Sylvia Tilly, now an Ensign, is excited to join Starfleet’s Command Training Program. Or at least she was, until that excitement was squashed in a frustrating subspace conversation with her condescending, passive-aggressive mother. Tilly heads to the deserted mess hall to drown her sorrows in quadruple espresso, no matter what the judgmental replicator has to say about it … and discovers a skittish, mysterious stowaway with natural cloaking abilities. The teenage alien, Me Hani Ika Hali Ka Po – or “Po” for short – is injured, and defends herself by causing the replicator to go haywire, leaving the mess hall in quite the *ahem* mess. Tilly slowly wins Po’s trust, and keeps her presence on board Discovery a secret from the rest of the crew … something Tilly becomes a lot less comfortable with after learning that Po is: a) a genius inventor who has discovered a way to incubate precious dilithium; and b) the literal queen of her homeworld, Xahea. The two bond over the experience of being unheard and underappreciated, and Tilly finally convinces Po to return to Xahea and lead her people through the transition to warp technology … casting off her own doubts about the command training program in the process.  

captive 7If “To boldly go where no one has gone before” is the obvious first choice for a Star Trek tagline, then “To seek out new life” comes in as a close second. Ever since early Trek fans first fell in love with a certain pointy-eared half-human, alien species have been a huge part of Star Trek’s appeal. But while Spock and his fellow Vulcans were, and have continued to be, fascinating (sorry) in their own right, it’s Spock’s relationship with Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy that really stands out to me when I revisit The Original Series now. For all that we geeks might obsess over every detail of every “new civilization” the franchise shows us, Star Trek has always been less about those civilizations than it is about us, and how we get along (or don’t, or might some day) with each other. Trek is about aliens and “strange new worlds” and cool futuristic technology, sure, but it’s also (and, for me, first and foremost) about relationships – about the potential for very different people to find common ground, and work together, and even become friends. The aliens of Trek can serve as episodic antagonists, season-long threats, or excuses for cool space battles, but I’d argue that Trek is at its most distinctive – at it’s Trek-iest – when the aliens we meet end up as potential friends to the Federation, and to our main characters. The Original Series set this standard early on, giving us not just Spock, but Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver” – one of the series’ earliest episodes, originally intended as a pilot episode – who first appears as a threat, but ultimately turns out to be friendly, and about as non-threatening as an alien could get.

runaway 6Deep Space Nine and Discovery both start off, as series, with alien threats looming large. DS9’s first episode both shows and tells us, early and often, what damage the Cardassians have done to the station, to Bajor, and to the Bajoran people, and it’s not long before Cardassian ships are straight-up firing on the station and its new Starfleet and Bajoran crew. And while the enigmatic aliens Sisko meets inside the wormhole turn out to be benign enough, that first episode clearly sets up the wormhole, and the Gamma Quadrant on the other side of it, as a source of potential alien antagonists for future episodes (a promise the series would later deliver on, and then some, by making the Gamma Quadrant-based Dominion an existential threat to the Federation). Discovery, too, devotes the opening episodes of its opening season to establishing a fragmented Klingon Empire as an ongoing adversary for Starfleet. In fact, a scary monologue from a charismatic Klingon demagogue – delivered in thick, subtitled, deliberately alienating Klingon – is literally the first scene of the series, the first minute or two of original Star Trek to air on TV since Enterprise ended in 2005. It’s understandable that these series would start this way, especially given that they both embrace a far more serialized storytelling approach than earlier Trek; conflict drives story, which means that establishing an ongoing source of conflict is a necessary part of getting any new TV series off to a good start. But since Star Trek is, at its core, a story of individuals and species working together in spite of their differences, another necessary step in establishing these series as Star Trek is to show us that violent conflict isn’t the only way an alien encounter can go.

captive 6Deep Space Nine does this in “Captive Pursuit”, an episode that comes quite early in its first season – and, notably, the first episode featuring an encounter with aliens from the Gamma Quadrant. Yes, this episode gives us antagonists from beyond the Wormhole, in the form of the hunters who come searching for Tosk, and who shoot up the promenade in the process. But Tosk himself is officially the station’s – and the series’ – first visitor from the Gamma Quadrant, something the episode is careful to explicitly acknowledge. He brings conflict with him, but he himself isn’t a threat, and he ultimately proves that even aliens from as far away as Tosk are potential friends, not just potential enemies. And it’s significant, I think, that he does this while still being decidedly, well, alien. Even before we learn about the disturbing practices of the culture that produced him, the episode emphasizes how different Tosk is, from his cloaking ability and his need for only “seventeen minutes of sleep per rotation” to his unaffected, almost childlike way of speaking, which contrasts sharply with his seemingly paranoid nervousness. And as we learn later in the episode, Tosk has probably never had a friend in his life; he has been bred, quite literally, for a life devoid of personal relationships, a life that doesn’t allow for anything except surviving long enough to make for a challenging hunt. Tosk and Chief O’Brien become friends not because of how similar they are to each other, but in spite of how different they are from each other.

captive 3One similarity between them, though, might be that Chief O’Brien doesn’t necessarily seem like the most likely person to befriend a new species, either. In this episode, he’s only put in the position of making first contact with Tosk because he’s headed to Tosk’s ship for repairs, anyway, and Commander Sisko doesn’t want to overwhelm the clearly nervous newcomer with the full diplomatic treatment. Otherwise, we wouldn’t expect to see O’Brien assigned to a situation like this, both as chief of operations for the station, and as an enlisted man in Starfleet, rather than a commissioned officer (something that’s always stood out to me about the character since he first appeared in The Next Generation, and which raises some of those interesting but rarely-answered questions about how, exactly, Starfleet is structured). Besides those technical details, O’Brien has also always been the gruff-but-affable workhorse type of character, something the actor, Colm Meaney, was playing with a sort of surly everyman charm even when he was mainly standing around in the transporter rooms of the Enterprise D. A more professionally curious character, like Dax or Bashir, might be stereotypically suited to a story like this, and it’s easy to imagine “Captive Pursuit” being written for one of those characters instead.

captive 4But of course, an unlikely-alien-friendship story like this isn’t only meant to reassure us that maybe we can all just get along. It also serves to tell us something about the characters involved, and especially about our main, recurring cast members. While O’Brien wasn’t a new character at the beginning of Deep Space Nine, he still needed to be fleshed out as a main character in his own right, and to find his place in the cast of this new show. In later seasons, the character would perhaps be best known for his friendship (or epic bromance, if you prefer) with Dr. Bashir … a friendship which clearly hasn’t been established yet in “Captive Pursuit”, as O’Brien hilariously cuts off Bashir’s only line of the episode, mid-sentence:

Kira: Sounds like you’ve changed your mind about him, Chief.
O’Brien: Not exactly. I mean, he’s running from something, that’s for sure, and he’s in danger. And he can’t or won’t talk about it.
Bashir: People tell doctors things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. If you could talk him into having a routine medical examination, maybe I could —
O’Brien: The thing is, I kind of like the guy. I’m not even sure why.

captive 1But even here, before that friendship begins, O’Brien’s role in the series as an unlikely, but ultimately reliable, friend is predicted by his budding friendship with Tosk. Again, Dax, or Bashir himself, might have been the more obvious choice to meet and befriend Tosk, but this would have made for a very different episode, because we’d expect either of them to be curious about Tosk: to approach him as an alien to be studied, first contact to be established. O’Brien, on the other hand, is really just there to fix Tosk’s ship. As in most real-life friendships, O’Brien doesn’t deliberately set out to become friends with Tosk; it just happens, however unexpectedly, as they spend time together … which makes his decision to risk his life and career for this new friend all the more affecting. That willingness to go against Starfleet policy and direct orders, too, is something I’m not sure I’d buy from Dax or Bashir at this point in the series, but it seems logical coming from O’Brien … as does Sisko’s willingness to let him get away with it, verbal reprimand aside. We had already seen Sisko’s more pragmatic realism contrasted with Captain Picard’s principled idealism in DS9’s first episode, and “Captive Pursuit” reinforces his willingness to walk a thin line between doing what he has to, as a Starfleet commander, and doing what he feels he ought to, as the person responsible for the safety and well-being of whomever happens through his station. Both his and O’Brien’s actions in this episode show that this series, going forward, won’t back down from that ambiguity, or from the idea that doing the right thing isn’t just about following principles; it’s also about forming relationships with people, and learning what those people need.

captive 2When I look back to the beginning of Deep Space Nine, it’s with the benefit of having seen the rest of the series. I can comment on what early episodes have to say about where the series is headed, but only because I have the luxury of knowing where it’s headed. I don’t have that luxury with Discovery, at least not at the time I’m writing this, while the second season is currently airing. All I know is what I’ve seen so far, which includes a first-season finale which emphasized the value of life – both of whole species, and of individuals – as a fundamental principle of Starfleet, in contrast with the Terran Empire’s willingness to exterminate entire cultures out of fear for the safety of their own. But given the fast-paced, plot-heavy, highly-serialized approach to storytelling we’ve gotten from Discovery so far, we haven’t had as many opportunities as I’d like to see how that’s reflected in Starfleet’s occasional encounters with “new life” and “strange new worlds”. These are the sorts of moments that the short film format of Short Treks is well-suited for, and we get to see such a moment in “Runaway”.

runaway 9Like “Captive Pursuit”, “Runaway” structures its alien encounter as a meeting of two individuals, rather than a species-to-species diplomatic situation. Throughout this Short Trek, the starship Discovery is conspicuously quiet and empty, and feels like an uncharacteristically lonely place. This is explained with some quick dialogue about a shift change, and while I’m not sure how much sense that makes – I’d think a ship as big and complex as Discovery would pretty much always be bustling – I don’t really care, since it suits the emotional tone of this episode, and short fiction like this tends to be at its best, I think, when it prioritizes emotional tone over plot details. The emotional tone of “Runaway” requires, first, that Tilly appear to be completely alone, as that’s how she’s left feeling by her cringe-inducingly relatable talk with her mother. Thus, she’s literally alone in the mess hall – however logistically unlikely that might be – when she meets the Xahean stowaway, Po. The emotional tone of the episode requires this, too, because, again, this isn’t a story about relations between the Federation and the Xahean people; it’s the story of an unlikely friendship between two young women who might seem very different from each other, but find they can relate to each other nonetheless.

runaway 10Here, “Runaway” differs a bit from “Captive Pursuit” in that Tilly and Po bond because of what they have in common, where O’Brien and Tosk bond in spite of having little in common. But, again, the short format of “Runaway” requires it to be more tightly focused on Tilly as its emotional center, having very little time to unfold a complex plot. While Po is an interesting character in her own right, “Runaway” can’t really be her story. It doesn’t have time to be both her story and Tilly’s, in the way that “Captive Pursuit” is both Tosk’s story and O’Brien’s. “Captive Pursuit” can allow Tosk to be tight-lipped and difficult to relate to, because we get to watch his situation unfold over a longer span of time; the episode can gradually show us who Tosk is, instead of just telling us. “Runaway” has a lot less time in which to show us who Po is, and where the episode struggles most with this new format, I think, is in its attempts to tell us too much about Po. She is an engaging character, and the fact that she’s a genius inventor is interesting … as is her invention’s strategic importance … as is her status as a teenage queen … as is the fact that the rest of the royal family died, presumably under suspicious circumstances … as is the odd, cryptic way she refers to her species and her planet as “twins”. But taken all together, it’s far too much brand new backstory for a 15-minute episode, and would arguably be too much even for a full-length episode, given that most of it has little bearing on the story of her encounter with Tilly. “Runaway” is at its strongest when it encourages us to feel what Tilly’s feeling (not to catalogue information for Memory Alpha entries on Po and Xahea), and so the most important thing for us to know about Po is that Tilly relates to her experiences as a brilliant young woman who has been through some hard stuff, and needs people to listen to her more than they do.

runaway 2Like “Captive Pursuit” did for O’Brien, “Runaway” is a chance for us to learn a bit more about Tilly, and to get a better sense of her place in this fictional universe. And for all the issues I might raise about its execution – some of which are to be expected from Trek’s first attempt at a shorter format – I find this Short Trek immensely enjoyable as a chance to simply spend some time with Tilly. It’s probably pretty uncontroversial, at this point, to say that the comedic timing and emotional depth of Mary Wiseman’s performance is one of the best, and most pleasantly surprising, elements of Discovery so far, bringing the character to life in a way that feels like something fresh and new for Trek – not an easy task in a franchise that’s produced several hundred episodes across half a dozen different TV series. “Runaway” shines a spotlight on that depth and comic timing, outside of the relentless plotting of Discovery, and allows her to build on elements of the character which were only briefly touched upon in its first season: her difficult relationship with her mother, and her desire to be unapologetic about her ambition to become a captain. Even in this episode’s short running time, Wiseman really sells these aspects of Tilly, making her call-home-gone-wrong one of the most relatable things I’ve maybe ever seen in an episode of Star Trek. Like O’Brien, Tilly has spent a lot of her screen time so far as one half of a friendship, in this case with Discovery’s lead character, Michael Burnham. This could, of course, threaten to make Tilly just a sidekick, but I hope “Runaway” is an indication that Tilly’s ambition, and her place as a vital and compelling character in her own right, can coexist with, and benefit from, her friendship with other smart, ambitious, interesting characters.

q who 1Next week, it’s Trek vs. Trek’s first encounter with the Borg, as we examine Starfleet’s own first encounter with the Borg in The Next Generation‘s “Q Who” … and their other first encounter with the Borg, sort of, in Enterprise‘s “Regeneration”!

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