Star Trek is an action adventure story set on an advanced starship in a future in which a Federation of allied worlds fights to uphold an ideal in the face of opposition from its enemies. It’s space battles; it’s morality play; it’s high-tech derring-do. In other words, it’s space opera. But the beauty of the Star Trek formula is that it isn’t constrained to a narrow definition of what space opera is. Because Star Trek has also been Western (“Spectre of the Gun” [TOS]; “A Fistful of Datas” [TNG]), gangster (“A Piece of the Action” [TOS], high-camp comedy (“The Bride of Chaotica” [VOY]), Sherlock Holmes thriller (“Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle” [TNG]), Robin Hood caper (“QPid” [TNG]), zombie horror (“Impulse” [ENT])—and of course, it’s been Moby Dick on numerous occasions, amongst many other genre appropriations. In “Calypso,” the second installation of Star Trek: Short Trips—the series of monthly mini-episodes preceding the debut of Star Trek: Discovery Season 2—we find one of the purest cross-genre stories in Trek history.In Homer’s The Odyssey, Calypso is a nymph on the island of Ogygia, who detains Odysseus for seven years in an attempt to make him hers. Odysseus is enchanted by her at first, but eventually misses his wife and longs to be reunited with her. Scriptwriter and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon draws inspiration from Homeric tradition to fashion a tale of a soldier, Craft, adrift in space and rescued by Discovery. Craft finds himself completely alone on an abandoned ship, with only the ship’s advanced AI to keep him company. Over time, he develops a relationship with the AI (pointing up another painfully obvious influence, the 2013 Spike Jones film Her). The two essentially fall in love with each other, but guilt and longing draw Craft back to his wife. Zora, the AI, relents and allows Craft to take Discovery‘s final remaining shuttlecraft to return to his home.
By stripping away nearly every element that makes a Star Trek show—the only link we have to anything we recognize as Trek is that the story takes place aboard Discovery—Chabon draws our attention exclusively to the episode’s two characters: an AI lonely for its crew, and a stranded soldier pining for his wife and home. The two at first find need fulfillment in one another, each filling a void that the other is experiencing. At one point, Zora even recreates the conditions of Craft’s planet in a Siren-like (though completely unmalicious) attempt to help him forget thoughts of home. But like Odysseus, the fantasy does not satiate Craft’s longing, and the gravitational pull of home grows stronger. It’s not the usual Trek fare, but it’s delivered in a touching and enjoyable way.
But what’s really going on here is a bit of deflection. By drawing our attention to these two characters, Chabon is drawing our attention away from something else. What’s most intriguing about this installment is not what’s being told to us, but what’s not being told. The backdrop of this story, the stage upon which the play is taking place, is where the real intrigue lies. Craft learns that Discovery has been abandoned for 1,000 years, and was ordered to hold position until the crew returned. So, why did the crew leave? Where did they go? Under whose orders? What’s their mission? And most importantly, why did they never return?
As the Short Treks are designed to expand our knowledge of the Discovery universe and give us clues as to what’s coming in the show’s second season, it is answers to these questions that we find most intriguing. How will this play out in the coming episodes? The first season ended on the cliffhanger of Discovery encountering the Enterprise under the command of Captain Christopher Pike (to be played in Season 2 by Anson Mount); is the crew abandoning ship destined to be the cliffhanger of the second season? Will we, in fact, meet Craft again, as unlikely as that seems?
We’ll find out how “Calypso” plays into the larger Discovery storyline (or doesn’t, as the case may be) when the show returns for its second season on January 17, 2019 on CBS All Access.