“Sipping jippers on a beach somewhere”: I, Mudd (Original Series) vs. The Escape Artist (Short Treks)

*This post contains spoiler for both episodes, as well as mild spoilers for Season 1 of Star Trek: Discovery.

Star Trek: The Original Series – “I, Mudd” (season 2, episode 12)

mudd 1Written by Stephen Kandel; directed by Marc Daniels; first aired in 1967

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

Norman, the newest member of the Enterprise crew, turns out to be an android bent on commandeering the ship; so much for those Starfleet background checks, I guess. After easily taking control of the Enterprise, Norman flies it to his home planet, where the android population serves at the pleasure of their human ruler, Mudd the First, better known to Captain Kirk and his crew as space-scoundrel and occasional human-trafficker Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd. According to Mudd, he crash-landed on the planet while running from the space-authorities, and found that the androids were eager to serve organic beings again, what with their original “Makers” having long since died out. Mudd immediately had the androids design a small army of sex-robots for him, as well as a replica of his wife, Stella, purely so he could tell her to shut up. (Charming.) But as much as he appreciated these chances to literally objectify women – because he’s nothing if not consistent – Mudd eventually became bored in paradise, and had Norman capture the Enterprise crew, hoping the androids would let him leave if they had new humans to serve. But the androids want to serve all humans, and based on how tempted his own crew is by the life of luxury they offer, Kirk fears humankind will become addicted to all that comfort and contentment (which would be bad, apparently). Noticing that Norman controls the other androids, and that their programming can’t cope with illogical behavior, the Enterprise crew works together with Mudd to stage some avant-garde performance art which blows Norman’s mind. That done, Kirk leaves Mudd on the planet as punishment … but not before mass-producing the Stella Mudd model to keep him company.   

VS.

Star Trek: Short Treks – “The Escape Artist” (season 1, episode 4)

escape 4Written by Michael McMahan; directed by Rainn Wilson; first aired in 2019

(IMDb|Memory Alpha)

We open on a Tellarite ship, as its captain, Tevrin Krit, takes possession of a prisoner from a mysterious, helmeted bounty hunter. That prisoner appears to be Harry Mudd, still some ten years or so away from meeting Captain Kirk, presumably, but just as much of a space-scoundrel. He pleads with Krit for his freedom, veering wildly between claiming innocence, threatening Krit, and trying to enlist him in a resistance group fighting against the Federation. Krit is having none of it, though, and plots a course to the nearest Starfleet ship to turn Mudd in for the bounty the Federation has placed on his head. On their way, Mudd’s pleading continues non-stop, and is intercut with near-identical exchanges between Mudd and his various other captors at various other times, including a Klingon warrior, Orion torturers, and a small bounty hunter who is so distracted by Mudd’s blathering that she can’t find her own ship. And distraction, it turns out, is very much the point, as Krit learns when he beams aboard the Federation starship De Milo to collect his bounty. An exasperated Starfleet officer adds Krit’s prisoner to a collection of Harry Mudds, rudimentary androids programmed with enough banter to keep their captors from noticing they’d been scammed by the mysterious bounty hunter from the beginning of the episode. We end on a ship crewed by Harry Mudd androids and captained by the very same bounty hunter, who removes that helmet to enjoy a tasty beverage, revealing the real Harry Mudd (probably) underneath.

mudd 7 Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I’ve never really understood why the character of Harry Mudd has had such a lasting legacy among Trek fans.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I can see the appeal of the character, in his own right. The charmingly amoral space pirate, eking out his crooked living on the rough edges of the United Federation of Planets, makes an obvious foil for a cast of Starfleet officers, the squeaky-clean best of future humanity. Mudd’s existence hints at a wider, grimier, more complex universe than Star Trek often shows us, and the appeal of this must have been obvious to the creators of Deep Space Nine, who would set their show on those grimy fringes of the Federation, and would make a similar character, the Ferengi bartender Quark, a part of its regular cast. The costume design for Mudd’s original two appearances in The Original Series, “Mudd’s Women” and “I, Mudd” – along with that signature handlebar mustache – evoke images not just of old-timey pirates, but of corners of the future which don’t look like the future, and this contrasts nicely with the crisp technicolor of a TOS Starfleet uniform. And there’s no faulting the performance of original Mudd actor Roger C. Carmel, who never looks for a second like he isn’t having the time of his life on screen. It’s a big, broad performance – particularly in “I, Mudd” – but again, that works well towards establishing Mudd as the opposite end from Starfleet on the spectrum of humanity’s future. He’s playing Mudd as a representative from those remaining pockets of future humankind where you can still get by on empty, charismatic bluster – much as some of our most successful humans do today – as opposed to the competence and professionalism we might expect from Starfleet officers.

mudd 11Carmel’s performance is easily the best thing about either of those original two Harry Mudd episodes, which are, otherwise, pretty poor examples of what The Original Series has to offer. And this is what I find surprising about Mudd’s enduring popularity. Khan is another character who went on from a relatively humble origin – one single episode of The Original Series – to become an important, beloved character, deemed worthy of appearing in Star Trek’s most pivotal film, The Wrath of Khan. But in Khan’s case, that origin episode, “Space Seed,” is good, solid Star Trek; it’s not entirely without its own problems, but as a piece of storytelling, and as the introduction of an iconic Trek villain, it holds up surprisingly well (even if its predictions of a World War III in the 1990s were slightly premature). Harry Mudd, meanwhile, appeared in two episodes of The Original Series (along with one episode of the semi-canonical Animated Series), but both “Mudd’s Women” and “I, Mudd” are disappointing at best.

mudd 3It’s often said that this or that piece of pop culture “hasn’t aged well,” a phrase which at least implies that the things we find problematic today would have gone over perfectly well with audiences at the time. But I suspect that the “nagging wife” trope embodied by the Stella Mudd androids in “I, Mudd” might already have been tired and hackneyed by 1967, and that some viewers, even back then, would have been troubled by the casual (and literal) objectification of women in these episodes. Yes, you could argue that Harry Mudd is the bad guy, and that his behavior is, therefore, supposed to trouble us. But that’s just it: sure, Mudd’s a villain, but he’s presented, in these episodes of The Original Series, as a charming villain, a lovable space-rogue – someone we’re meant to both shake our heads and smile at. That light-hearted approach to the character simply doesn’t mesh with the darkness of his actions, as he traffics in drug-addicted human “cargo” in “Mudd’s Women,” and plans to leave the entire Enterprise crew – literally hundreds of people – stranded for life on the androids’ planet in “I, Mudd.”

mudd 5And unlike “Space Seed,” even if you ignore the most problematic elements of “I, Mudd,” the story still doesn’t hold up. I like seeing Captain Kirk outsmart a super-computer as much as the next person, but the way it’s accomplished here is pretty darn silly: Kirk says, “Everything Harry tells you is a lie,” Mudd says, “I am lying,” and a complex artificial intelligence, capable of controlling hundreds of androids simultaneously, is left with literal smoke coming out its ears. Granted, I’d probably forgive this silliness (I mean, let’s face it, being a Trek fan inevitably means forgiving some silliness here and there), if the build-up to it were more enjoyable. But frankly, the middle school talent show the cast puts on to distract the androids is so amateurish and embarrassing – not to mention pointless and disconnected from the rest of the story – that I’m kind of amazed it made it into the final cut of an episode of network television. I find much of “I, Mudd” painful to watch (as is “Mudd’s Women,” if for somewhat different reasons), and I wonder if the legacy of Harry Mudd, as a character, has benefitted from the fact that he is, as mentioned above, so clearly the most entertaining part of his otherwise disappointing Original Series episodes.

escape 5But whatever the reason, that legacy is still going strong, as shown by the fact that Mudd was one of the earliest Original Series characters to reappear, roughly half a century later, in Discovery, the prequel series set a decade or so before TOS. Mudd makes his first Discovery appearance only five episodes into its first season as a prisoner aboard a Klingon ship in “Choose Your Pain,” and a second appearance two episodes later in the time-loop episode “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad.” While the first of those episodes is maybe more notable for introducing the original character Ash Tyler to Discovery, it still devotes a significant amount of its screen time – in the midst of ongoing, intersecting plotlines – to reintroducing and developing Mudd as a part of Discovery’s take on the Trek universe. He then goes on to become the main antagonist, and a serious (though still very funny) threat, in his second episode, in which we also briefly meet the actual Stella Mudd, who certainly seems more complex than the walking sexist stereotype suggested by the android version of her in “I, Mudd.” These first-season Discovery episodes continue to use Mudd as a window into corners of the Trek universe we don’t always get to see, as when he offers a relatively rare criticism of Starfleet in “Choose Your Pain,” accusing them of starting an unnecessary war with the Klingons which has made life tougher for the little guy. These episodes also take a kernel of Mudd’s character from The Original Series and expand on it, in a way I think really works: where Mudd was always a con artist who told whichever lies served his purpose, Discovery casts him as lying constantly, reflexively, to the point where it’s often impossible to tell what he is and isn’t lying about. After the first season of Discovery, Mudd would go on to get one of the first four Short Treks all to himself, and his episode, “The Escape Artist,” would double down on both of those important elements from his Discovery episodes: Mudd as a glimpse of life outside the Federation, and Mudd as a compulsive liar.

escape 8

As is so often the case with the Discovery discourse, this take on Mudd is typically described, and sometimes criticized, as being much darker than his previous incarnation. But I don’t think that’s right, exactly. I think that Mudd’s actions were always pretty dark, and that the lighter tone of his earlier episodes was simply out of sync with those actions. In Discovery, and in the Short Trek “The Escape Artist,” the tone of the episodes has simply caught up to Mudd’s actions, in a way that I think better serves the character – especially today, when the Harry Mudds of the world are spreading conspiracy theories to their millions of YouTube subscribers, all so they can get rich advertising herbal testosterone supplements. Amoral con artists and compulsive liars can be fun to watch on TV, sure, but they are, as we speak, doing real, serious, lasting damage to our democracies and our societies, and to play Harry Mudd, today, as the lovable scoundrel from The Original Series would border on irresponsible. But Discovery’s Mudd, as played by Rainn Wilson, walks that line perfectly. Wilson is hilarious, of course – anyone who’s ever seen him as Dwight Schrute on The Office would expect nothing less – while still giving the character an edge, a menace, that reminds us what he’s capable of, highlighting an ugliness in Mudd that Roger C. Carmel’s portrayal of the character, as great as it is, glosses over. The writing and directing of these episodes (including Rainn Wilson directing himself in “The Escape Artist”) also serve the character well, and while “Mudd’s Women” and “I, Mudd” are among the weaker episodes of The Original Series, I’d argue that “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” remains the best episode of Discovery so far, and that “The Escape Artist” is second only to Michael Chabon’s short-story-on-film “Calypso” as the most well-told of the first four Short Treks.

escape 10One of the strengths of both “Choose Your Pain” and “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad” is the way we learn more about Mudd from his constant flow of semi-contradictory lies than we probably could from the truth, and “The Escape Artist” is built almost entirely on that premise. Nearly every line of dialogue we hear from Mudd in “Escape,” as near as I can tell, is actually spoken by his androids, and these lines repeat, at times, as when he tries to recruit a couple of his captors to the cause of rebelling against the Federation; other lines blatantly contradict each other, as when he tells the Tellarite, Krit, that he has no money, and then tries to tempt his Orion torturers with riches. But I think we can safely assume that nothing Mudd says, literally nothing, can ever be trusted, even when he isn’t contradicting himself. His populist anti-Federation rhetoric has been consistent since he first reappeared on Discovery, and I was initially fascinated by the idea that there might actually be an organized resistance movement against the Federation, but I think “The Escape Artist” makes it pretty clear that Mudd is only ever out for himself. Like so many so-called populists in the real world, he’s mastered this sort of rhetoric, and he knows how to push people’s buttons with it, but he’s not pushing those buttons in service of any cause higher than simply getting what he wants. And the last scene of “The Escape Artist” seems to more or less sum up what he wants, as we see him sitting in a captain’s chair, being waited on hand and foot by indentured servants (and surrounded by likenesses of himself, to boot). It suggests that the most honest thing he’s programmed any of his androids to say is, as one of them tells Tevrin Krit, “If I had any money, I’d be sipping jippers on a beach somewhere!”

escape 2We tend to assume that the point of a lie is to convince us that a specific thing is true when it isn’t, but this incarnation of Harry Mudd lies in a very different way; much like so many rage-baiting YouTubers and populist con artists, he lies not to convince, so much as to create doubt and confusion, which he can then take advantage of. And as that poor, exasperated officer aboard the USS De Milo points out, this is exactly the purpose for which Mudd has programmed his androids. As we see throughout the episode, some of the androids’ captors are convinced, at times, by their lies, like the small bounty hunter who’s tempted by the notion of a resistance movement, or the Orion doofus who’s tempted by talk of riches; and some of them see right through all those lies, like Tevrin Krit, or the other, smarter Orion. But what even they don’t see through is the fact that none of what the androids say actually matters, as long as it creates a diversion from Mudd’s true goal of getting paid, and getting away with the money.

escape 9Beyond that – and beyond giving us an on-the-nose Easter egg reference to “I, Mudd” – I’m not sure that “The Escape Artist” has much to say, philosophically, about androids, or about artificial intelligence, which Mudd’s androids apparently don’t possess, if the De Milo officer’s assessment of them is accurate. And that link between the androids of “The Escape Artist” and those of “I, Mudd” (which do possess artificial intelligence, through their connection to the more sophisticated Norman) may, again, be more of an Easter egg than an actual point of continuity. Personally, I’m okay with that; I have no interest in policing continuity across five decades, over a dozen films, and over half a dozen TV series of Trek, and anyway, Mudd’s misuse of androids here adds a layer of irony to his eventual imprisonment by them in “I, Mudd.” “I, Mudd” does have more to say about automation and artificial intelligence than “The Escape Artist,” but what it’s saying – “machines doing everything for us is bad, challenge and hardship are good” – is pretty simplistic, and also something of an odd argument coming from The Original Series, a show built largely on the hope that technological progress and social progress will go hand in hand.

escape 11At any rate, that message gets a bit lost in the narrative and thematic confusion of “I, Mudd,” seeming to suggest that well-meaning artificial intelligence is a greater threat to humanity than amoral con men like Mudd, which, again, simply doesn’t ring true to me; I’m a lot less scared of what an AI might do in the future than I am of what the Harry Mudds of the world are doing, right now. And where the overall poor production of the “distract the androids with our illogical behavior” scene makes it difficult to take anything “I, Mudd” is doing seriously, “The Escape Artist” benefits greatly from an attention to detail (and probably an impressive budget) in every element of the episode. Where parts of “I, Mudd” feel like amateur hour, the performances by all the players in “The Escape Artist” – including actors with only a few lines, like those playing the Orions and the De Milo officer – are pitch perfect. Between these performances and the ever-impressive visual design consistent throughout the first four Short Treks, “The Escape Artist” does a good job, in a short time, of giving us our best glimpse yet of the grimy underbelly of the Federation that Harry Mudd has always hinted at.

 

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