CBS has some key lessons that Disney should pay attention to.
Star Trek: Discovery is back in action, its second season promising a serious jump in confidence and quality. But CBS did something interesting with the series in the months leading up to that premiere. Rather than going completely dark until its mid-January launch, the network launched Short Treks, a series of 15-minute one-off specials that would keep fans’ anticipation at bay as the new season approached. Those Short Treks are solid in and of themselves (read our reviews here), but they also present a strong model for other major franchises’ streaming programming. Disney, which has its own streaming service, Disney+, in the works, should take note…
The four Short Treks produced for this season are as varied as any four Star Trek episodes you could care to mention, all given the full production value of the main show. “Runaway” stars series regular Sylvia Tilly in a story about meeting a stowaway, making decisions, and learning that power and personality aren’t necessarily connected. “The Brightest Star” is a prequel, centering on alien character Saru as he dreams of escaping a deadly fate and exploring the universe. “The Escape Artist,” directed by and starring Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd, plays off a clever, tight script that juggles multiple locations and time periods – before paying them all off in an immensely satisfying way. And “Calypso,” written by acclaimed author Michael Chabon, takes place aboard a USS Discovery that’s been adrift for a thousand years, and whose computer, now sentient and lonely, picks up an escape pod and tries to connect with its passenger.
Importantly, these shorts follow the neat setup/payoff structure of short stories and short films – individually-wrapped packages of story, character, and style that, while small, are perfectly formed. “Runaway” and “The Brightest Star” obviously feed directly into regular characters on the show, feeling somewhat like deleted scenes, but “The Escape Artist” and “Calypso” do something different: tell unusual and self-contained stories that wouldn’t fit into the show’s regular structure.
“Calypso” in particular is the kind of sci-fi thought-experiment that defined Star Trek’s original series. Back then, the show’s writers essentially used the USS Enterprise and its crew to smuggle onto television original sci-fi stories that wouldn’t get produced otherwise. It’s remarkably transparent at times. This is what Star Trek is best at, but you can’t do it as easily in today’s long-form model, where months of storytelling follows on from and ties into everything else. This is what shorts are made for.
The current obsession with long-form storytelling has its upsides. Audiences get more invested in long-running arcs, which has benefits for both their entertainment and for networks’ viewership numbers. Needing to follow every development in order to keep up with the story, though, can get exhausting – look at the praise heaped upon those Marvel movies that function as standalone stories, for example, or the “Fly” episode of Breaking Bad, itself structured like a self-contained short.
With one-off shorts interspersed through arc-driven seasons, you get the best of both worlds (Star Trek reference only subconsciously intended). You can tell a large-scale story through the main show, and also tell single-serving tales built around concepts and characters that use Star Trek as the ideas machine it’s best at being. And this approach needn’t be limited to Star Trek.
When Disney launches its own streaming service Disney+ later this year, numerous streaming-exclusive TV shows and original features will be included. But the intellectual properties owned by Disney are prime fodder for the kind of short-form storytelling seen in Short Treks. If treated as primary content – i.e. not shrugged off as web series – Disney could tell some great stories it otherwise wouldn’t get to tell. Pixar and Disney Animation Studios are obviously celebrated for their short films, but live-action franchises should get in on the action too.
Marvel, of course, has already tried this, in a different venue. Marvel One-Shots used to be semi-regular bonus features on Marvel Cinematic Universe home video releases. These functioned as spin-offs from the features they were attached to: For example, “Hail to the King” centred around Ben Kingsley’s character from Iron Man 3. Shorts featuring Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, government organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., and Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter got spun back out into full-fledged television shows. Taika Waititi’s wildly popular Team Thor mockumentary spawned two short sequels of its own (although those weren’t technically Marvel One-Shots, which ended in 2014). But they don’t necessarily have to be backdoor pilots – that’s just a bonus. Most of these were likely relatively inexpensive productions, and there’s definitely room for more as the MCU expands. Korg and Miek demand it.
Star Wars would benefit from this treatment the most. Its films are busy telling huge, galaxy-spanning epics. Its TV shows tell multi-year story arcs. But the Star Wars universe is full of little stories to be told outside that large-scale mold. Ever since the very first Star Wars in 1977, fans have clamoured for more information about the series’ fascinating background characters. While that has emerged in visual guides, comics, short story collections, and, to an extent, in shows like The Clone Wars, short form stories could offer a unique outlet to narrow in on such tales.
Imagine a series of shorts based around characters from the Mos Eisley Cantina, or Jabba’s Palace, or the Canto Bight casino, giving those great character designs life beyond their brief film appearances. Given the relatively lower stakes of such productions, these could be as weird as the creators wanted. Lucasfilm could make a “Salacious Crumb at Home” pratfall comedy; a solemn drama about a young Chirrut Imwe finding the Force; a day-in-the-life short about a cantina bartender. Hell, take some shelved “A Star Wars Story” ideas, strip them down to the barest, cleanest representation of their characters, and you’ve got some shorts right there. Obviously, they’ll be most cost-effective if they piggyback personnel and assets from larger productions, but isn’t that what gets fans going? Who watched Solo’s sabacc game scene and didn’t wonder about the bizarre aliens at the table? Surely, the multiple Star Wars series in the works right now will have similar effects.
Obviously, we don’t know how well Short Treks have worked out for CBS – how many streams they’ve seen, or how many subscribers either stayed or signed up for the content in advance of Discovery’s return. I can only speak as to the creative value of the shorts, and to my mind that value is high. Short Treks represent something rare and out-of-fashion in television these days, but something uniquely suited to a streaming environment. Nobody’s going to tune in to television to watch a 15-minute short, but when they’re streaming on demand, people wouldn’t think twice about it.
More studios should consider doing this kind of thing – they could even assemble them into post-hoc anthologies if they’re scared by the short runtimes. As for Short Treks themselves, two more will stream on CBS following the end of Discovery’s second season. They’ll be animated, which will alter the visual formula, but one hopes the writing will be as tight as in the four aired thus far. It’s an exciting time to be a fan; here’s hoping creators pick up on that.