The Pulitzer Prize winner dives into the world of Star Trek with his new short.
Full spoilers follow for the Star Trek: Short Treks episode “Calypso.”
CBS All Access just dropped the Short Treks episode “Calypso,” perhaps their best addition to the Star Trek universe since they started making new episodes last year. And no doubt much of the success of the short is the result of the script by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has made the jump to TV with “Calypso” and is also on the upcoming, untitled Picard show’s writing staff.
Watch the trailer for Calypso above.
In “Calypso” (read our review here), a lost solider named Craft (Aldis Hodge) finds himself onboard the USS Discovery, which somehow lost its crew a thousand years earlier. In the millennium that has passed, the ship’s computer has evolved into an AI named Zora (voiced by Annabelle Wallis), and it is she who nurses the injured Craft back to health. But of course, an unlikely bond forms between man and machine, even while the question of what it means to be a man, or a machine, or a woman arises… This is Star Trek, after all!
I spoke to Chabon recently about the creation of “Calypso,” the crazy time jump it establishes, what it’s like writing new adventures for Captain Picard, and whether or not Craft and Zora might return one day. Read on for the full chat below!
A Thousand Year Time Jump
One of the more surprising aspects of the new short is that it takes place in the far future of a thousand years after Discovery, essentially the furthest point in Star Trek’s timeline that we’ve seen yet onscreen. Chabon said it wasn’t a hard sell to get CBS to go with that setting, however.
“It wasn’t a big discussion,” he said. “I had more apprehension about it. I was worried there might be a big discussion, and I worried it would be a tough sell. I tried it, you know, I think initially in some form of an early draft I did it having been a thousand years. And then, without having got any flack or anything from anybody, just with my own sort of apprehensions [I thought], ‘O.K., this is crazy. I can’t… Can I do that? Maybe I can’t do that.’ And I tried to shorten it. But it just didn’t work, and it almost raised even more questions to shorten the time than having it be a whole millennium that’s passed.”
Besides, for the writer there was an even more important reason to set the story so far in the future.
“To me, it just felt so powerfully poignant just to say that [Zora’s] been alone for a thousand years,” he continued. “So much more powerful than to say I’ve been alone for 92 months, or I’ve been alone for even 10 years. I wanted it to be such an incredibly long period of time that obviously there’s absolutely no hope that the crew is ever coming back. That you would feel that.”
As the story plays out, we learn that Zora refuses to leave the area of space she was ordered to remain while waiting for the crew’s return. The crew who, of course, are long dead at this point. It’s clear to Craft they won’t be coming back, but Zora stays on message and acts, at least, like she’s just following orders.
“Yeah, she knows it deep down,” confirmed Chabon. “But I think, in a sense, she’s only human, right? She’s taking comfort in her orders, which allow her to sort of not have her have to really think about that or come to that conclusion. Although, maybe someday, who knows? Maybe someday she’ll get to a level where she’ll just be like, ‘You know, hell with it, I’m taking off.’”
Getting Star Trekky
The heart of “Calypso,” with its computer that is so very human and its human that has perhaps forgotten how to be human, is about as Star Trekky as it gets. Chabon thinks that, as a fan of the franchise, he couldn’t help but write in that direction.
“I’m a massive, lifelong Star Trek fan and started getting really, really into the show when I was about 11 years old or so,” he said. “So I’m really keyed into what I think of Star Trek. … I kind of know what a Star Trek story is, or how it ought to feel, or at least I have ideas about that. So I think it was just inevitable in one sense, once I started telling the story, it moved into that direction. … It’s always been one of the most compelling kinds of stories that get told in Star Trek, are just those stories that have to do with what is it that makes us human? Are Vulcans human, and are androids like Data human, and Seven of Nine? And then you have all of these characters and paradigms that present other ways of looking at that question. So I think I didn’t do it on purpose, but in some ways I don’t think I could have done otherwise.”
Can CBS All Access compete with Netflix? Watch the video for more!
The bones of “Calypso” are of course in the myth of the same name from Homer’s Odyssey, where the nymph kept the lost hero Odysseus as hostage and lover for seven years on her island. But in The Odyssey, it could be said that Calypso was a kind of villainous force, keeping the hero against his will, even if she does eventually free him. For Chabon, Zora is not acting from a bad place, however, not even when she first finds Craft.
“I think she struggles with her… you know, [she’s] motivated by her loneliness, and she’s been alone for such a long time,” he said. “I think we can presume that there’s a struggle that goes on for her when she comes to understand just how meaningful the life that Craft has been trying to get back to is to him. And she changes her mind, she comes to the right decision. I think she’s a moral creature. … There may well be part of her that sort of clearly considered the possibility of just, in a sense, never letting him go. But I don’t think it’s everything. I mean, it’s interesting. I only have 15 minutes, essentially, to work in. And even if I had had more time, it would be an interesting challenge of how you show it. An AI has no body, you know, how do you show that entity sort of wrestling with a moral question? Although, I think that is sort of what actually went on in between when she first knew she can’t let him have a shuttle and then when she decides to let him take the shuttle.”
Craft and Zora’s collective story seemingly ends here, but “Calypso” also raises so many questions. What did happen to the Discovery crew? Will the show ever visit this seeming endpoint for them? How did the computer become Zora? And what happens to Zora and Craft from here? For Chabon, it’s the continuing story of Craft, and perhaps even Zora, that seems to interest him the most, and he hopes he gets to tell those tales at some point.
“I would love it, I would love it,” he said. “I tell you, I would love to tell the whole Odyssey. I would like to just take Craft and just retell the story of Odysseus’ wanderings and the war that he fought in, and everything that befell Odysseus, and try to find what he would do in a very Trek kind of context. I think that would be really fun. But whether that’s actually going to ever happen, I kind of doubt it. It could be fun to go out from there. What if someday Zora does decide to, you know, abandon her orders, and go out, go forth into the universe on her own as a ship? I could imagine someday, if she sort of spreads her gospel of ships being people, then you could have an entire race of sentient starships who have their own culture and their own rights. That could be really fun, too. But, I don’t know. This is just me spitballing.”
A Grounded Picard Series That’s New and Different
Chabon is also one of the architects of the recently announced Picard show, which will bring back Patrick Stewart as the iconic captain 20 years after we last saw him. It’s still early days on that untitled show, so story specifics are top secret, but I asked the writer if there were any touchstone episodes or moments from Picard’s past that were inspirations for the show. Perhaps not surprisingly, Chabon hedged even when answering that vague question, though he made it a point to say that the creators of the show are also fans — and that the series will be “very grounded.”
Watch the video above for some ideas on where the Picard show should go.
“I can’t think of a way to answer that question that somebody wouldn’t be able to interpret as me having given away hints or secrets!” laughed the author. “And, you know, anything I say, they’re like, ‘Oh! So it’s that!’ I guess what I would say is that the people who are working on the series are fans. And we started developing it initially with a core group of me and [Discovery writer] Kirsten Beyer and [Discovery executive producers] Akiva Goldsman and Alex Kurtzman. And, that four, that got the ball rolling initially. … We all have our beloved episodes, and we all had important moments. We knew the material, we knew the character, and we talked a lot about a lot of different episodes that were… the kind of storytelling type things that might be possible ways, that might be clues for us going forward. It’s very grounded.”
Chabon also spoke about how important Patrick Stewart himself has been to the development of the show.
“We brought in Sir Patrick himself, and he has the kind of master grasp of the character,” he said. “He has been really influential in both helping us understand the character, and also pushing us and challenging us. And I think more than anything — and I don’t think it’s revealing anything for me to say this — he’s really pushing us to try to do something new and different with the character. And that’s why he wants to play it, so that he can play something that honors the character, that’s true to the character. And like I said, he’s a very fierce protector of the character, but at the same time, he wants to see Jean-Luc Picard having experiences, having adventures, and be put in situations we haven’t seen before.”
Short Treks: “Calypso” is available on CBS All Access now!
Talk to Executive Editor Scott Collura on Twitter at @ScottCollura, or listen to his Star Trek podcast, Transporter Room 3. Or do both!