The untapped potential of Short Treks

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Seasons 1-3, Discovery Seasons 1-4, Short Treks Seasons 1-2, and minor spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.

At time of writing, the most recent episode of Short Treks aired two-and-a-half years ago in the run-up to Season 1 of Star Trek: Picard. Since then, Paramount has been content to put the format on ice, and although it’s been mentioned more than once in interviews and conversations, no new episodes or seasons have been forthcoming. I think that’s a shame, because in 2022 Short Treks has a lot of potential – arguably more than it did just a few years ago.

As a concept, Short Treks always felt nakedly commercial to me. At a time when many subscribers to what was then still called CBS All Access would watch their favourite show and then cancel their subscription, the corporation in charge hoped that dropping a handful of short episodes in between seasons would be enough to keep some of those folks paying their subscription fees. Promises that Short Treks stories would tie into the world of Star Trek: Discovery in a big way were part of this, too.

Cadet Sidhu in the Short Treks episode Ask Not.

However, as Short Treks rolled on, there seemed to be a bit more leeway given with the kind of projects that were greenlit. Short Treks became more experimental, producing an overtly comedic episode, two animated episodes that used wildly different storytelling and animation styles, as well as continuing to connect with ongoing or upcoming Star Trek projects. It’s this experimental aspect and the potential to create some truly different and interesting one-off stories where I feel Short Treks could excel in the years ahead.

Not every Star Trek character or concept can be spun out into a film or an entire season of television, and there’s scope to use Short Treks to tell one-off stories that wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Robert Duncan McNeill’s Captain Proton pitch, for example, could absolutely work as a one-off short story, and I think that could be a cute nod and wink to fans of Voyager.

Captain Proton might work well in this format.

There would be scope to bring back legacy characters in this format as well, particularly if actors are unable or unwilling to make a longer commitment. Fans have asked for a long time to see Captain Sulu aboard the USS Excelsior, for example, and a Short Treks story featuring George Takei could be a truly excellent way for the franchise to celebrate his decades-long association with Star Trek. Rather than trying to shoehorn legacy characters into ongoing shows – or writing out main characters to bring back legacy characters, as happened in the case of Picard Season 3 – giving some of them their own Short Treks stories could be an alternative option.

The Short Treks format could even operate as a kind of backdoor pilot to test the waters and see how fans respond to concepts that could go either way. Michael Dorn’s Captain Worf pitch, for example, could be converted into an episode or two of Short Treks, recycling sets built for Picard Season 2, as a way to see how interested fans would actually be and whether the character truly has spin-off potential.

Could a successful Short Treks story finally lead to the Captain Worf spin-off that has been pitched?

Star Trek has never shied away from being an experimental franchise, and that continues in its modern iterations. But given the serialised nature of shows like Picard and Discovery in particular, the scope to go completely off-topic and to different thematic and narrative places is more limited than it ever used to be. Short Treks could be the catalyst to bring more of that experimentation back to Star Trek.

The episodes The Girl Who Made The Stars and Ephraim and DOT showed off a very different style of animation and storytelling to anything we’ve seen so far in any iteration of Star Trek, and with advancements in animation happening all the time, there’s even the potential to use animation to bring some of these concepts to life. Where it might seem prohibitively expensive to tell a story set in an alternate reality where the Borg have conquered large swathes of the Alpha Quadrant, for instance, an animated Short Treks story could delve into that concept in a way live-action couldn’t.

Ephraim the tardigrade.

When we look at the production side of Star Trek, too, Short Treks has a lot more to work with than it did in the 2010s! New sets have been constructed in recent years for Picard, Strange New Worlds, and Discovery’s 32nd Century that could all be taken advantage of to tell stories set in different eras. With a few changes here and there and some clever set redresses, Short Treks stories could be set in basically any era of Star Trek without having to spend excessive amounts of money on design and construction.

Then there’s the AR wall – the massive video wall that’s been used to great effect in Discovery and Strange New Worlds to bring depth and scale to some of the sets. The AR wall opens up all kinds of possibilities for unique designs: starships, planets, and more could be brought to screen without having to construct new sets. It would even be possible to use the AR wall to reconstruct something like the bridge of the Enterprise-D and tell a new story set during the events of The Next Generation.

The AR wall first began to be used during Discovery’s fourth season.

If Star Trek chooses to settle on one primary era for its main shows – such as the 32nd Century or the 25th Century, for instance – then Short Treks could be the way to keep other eras and alternate timelines alive. Short Treks would be great to tell one-off Mirror Universe stories, for example, or stories set in the 22nd or 23rd Centuries if those aren’t going to be the franchise’s main focus in the years ahead.

A particularly fun idea could see Short Treks expand on our knowledge of the events of individual episodes. We could see one of the battles of the Dominion War from the perspective of another Federation ship, for example, with its crew coming to the aid of the USS Defiant. Or how about the same battle from the Cardassian side? A Short Treks episode could absolutely do that.

How cool would it be to get a story from the Cardassians’ perspective?

There are many Star Trek stories that, while not exactly incomplete, are definitely able to be built upon to show us more. The Lower Decks Season 2 episode wej Duj took a unique format showing us the crews of several different ships who were all part of one larger story, and Short Treks could do something similar. By picking up story threads that we only caught glimpses of in classic episodes, there’s scope to expand our understanding of some of these stories.

There’s also huge potential to dip into the wider lore of Star Trek. What happened in the years in between The Undiscovered Country and The Next Generation Season 1, for example? This massive eighty-year span of Star Trek’s history contains many interesting events that have been mentioned or referenced but never explored on screen, and Short Treks could change all that. We could see, for instance, the “Tomed incident” that led to the Romulans entering a prolonged period of isolation and find out what happened to cause the Federation to give up cloaking technology.

Why did the Romulans isolate themselves prior to the events of The Next Generation?

With sets already built for the USS Stargazer that we saw in Picard Season 2, Pike’s Enterprise, and more, as well as the AR wall, there’s a heck of a lot that Short Treks could do with existing sets that it couldn’t a few years ago. That has greatly expanded the number of potential stories that episodes could tell, and right now it really does feel as though Short Treks is a concept that Paramount is not taking advantage of.

Not only would some of these ideas be interesting and fun for longstanding fans, they could serve as soft landings for newcomers to Star Trek too, providing fans of shows like Prodigy with new experiences that build on their burgeoning fandom. Fans who’ve only just begun to fall in love with Star Trek could find one-off episodes that serve as easy ways into what can be a complicated and convoluted franchise, and that’s another massive benefit to creating stories like these.

Short Treks episodes could ease new fans into the wider Star Trek franchise.

From Paramount’s perspective, the original idea behind Short Treks is still valid. While 2022 may yet see five different Star Trek productions, in years ahead there will still be downtime; gaps in between seasons of the franchise’s main shows. Short Treks stories could fill those gaps, keeping Star Trek alive in the minds of fans and casual viewers alike, providing one more reason to sign up for and remain subscribed to Paramount+.

The experimental nature of some of these stories could see Paramount test out pitches that may be able to be expanded into full series of their own – just like Short Treks episodes featuring Pike, Spock, and Una helped prove that a Captain Pike series would be viable! Stories that draw significant reactions from fans, or that bring back elements from past iterations of Star Trek that prove popular, could be spun off into their own miniseries, show, or even films, setting the stage for Star Trek’s continued expansion.

In short, there are a lot of ways that brand-new episodes of Short Treks could be utilised to not only tell fun, entertaining, and fan-servicey stories, but to give a boost to Paramount+ and provide a way for the creative teams to experiment with completely different ideas that would be difficult or impossible to fit into any of the existing shows. Short Treks has a vast amount of untapped potential.

The first two seasons of Short Treks are available to stream now on Paramount+ (in areas where the service is available). Short Treks is also available to purchase on DVD and Blu-ray. The Star Trek franchise – including Short Treks and all other properties mentioned above – is the copyright of Paramount Global. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Captain Proton? No thanks…

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard Season 1, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, and Star Trek: Voyager.

There have been a number of interesting-sounding pitches and concepts over the years for potential Star Trek series and feature films, and we recently looked at the possibility of a Starfleet Academy series. That sounds like something with potential, and you can check out my thoughts by clicking or tapping here.

But not all Star Trek pitches are created equal, and another potential series has been touted in the last few months by former Star Trek: Voyager actor and director Robert Duncan McNeill. He recently confirmed on social media that he’s pitched a Captain Proton show to ViacomCBS, though details about what the potential project would entail are light. Having touched on this idea on a couple of occasions in other contexts, I wanted to give the pitch more of an airing and put my thoughts in order.

A Captain Proton show has been proposed.

You’ve probably already figured out from the title of this piece where I come down on a Captain Proton show: I’m not in favour of it and I can’t really see a way to bring it to screen successfully. I’d even go so far as to say that I highly doubt ViacomCBS will consider this pitch for very long, despite the known name attached to it, and though there are a few reasons why – which we’ll go into detail about – it boils down to one simple question for Trekkies. And here it is:

Out of everything in Star Trek, is Captain Proton the one thing you want more of?

There are many characters, locations, starships, and themes that the franchise could return to one day. Off the top of my head here are five: a visit to the Enterprise era to see more of the Federation’s early years, the return of Benjamin Sisko from the realm of the Prophets, Neelix’s adventures at the Talaxian colony, Pavel Chekov’s days as an admiral or elder statesman, and John Harriman’s missions as captain of the Enterprise-B.

Maybe one day…

You can probably think of dozens more; characters and concepts that the Star Trek franchise could happily revisit. I would bet actual money that, for 99% of Trekkies, Captain Proton wouldn’t even enter the top fifty on their lists of things that they’d be interested in returning to. And I’m in that same boat. The ten Voyager episodes which either featured or made reference to Captain Proton were fun – but the concept is simply not strong enough nor memorable enough to carry an entire series on its own.

I like retro sci-fi – the likes of Flash Gordon, Forbidden Planet, and other older shows and films from long before Star Trek: The Original Series was even conceived are what Captain Proton paid homage to and gently parodied so well in Voyager. As one element of a larger series, a series with a much bigger picture and broader scope, Captain Proton worked. It slotted in well and gave the cast something different to do – and a chance to really ham it up and over-act.

Captain Proton was a pastiche of classic sci-fi films and serials like Flash Gordon.

But that’s the nicest thing I can say about the Captain Proton stories and sequences that we saw in Voyager. Out of that show’s 170 episodes, Captain Proton is far from being the most memorable aspect even among stories set on the holodeck; I’d go so far as to suggest that the Irish village featured in Fair Haven and Spirit Folk left more of a lasting impression. Those episodes certainly had far more depth than any Captain Proton story.

There’s a lot that we aren’t privy to when it comes to the recent Captain Proton pitch. Is it intended to be a 1930s-inspired black-and-white series, featuring the cardboard sets and overacting we’d expect from such a sci-fi serial? If the show wants to be purely about Captain Proton, either treating him as if he were real or showing us as the audience a kind of “show-within-a-show” look at Captain Proton through the eyes of a holodeck audience, then it has to be considered dead on arrival. A retro-inspired sci-fi aesthetic might be cool, but every other aspect of such a show would feel so terribly out-of-date that it would become a laughing stock.

A laughing stock indeed…

On the other hand, if the Captain Proton series is actually intended to be a look at Tom Paris as he writes new Captain Proton holo-novels years after the USS Voyager returned to Earth, then perhaps there’s a bit more meat there; more of an actual concept with the potential for characterisation and drama.

I’m still not sure that it would work, but at least the latter concept has a bit more going for it. Firstly, it could be developed as a tie-in or crossover with Star Trek: Picard – or any other show or film set in that era. With Seven of Nine now a regular member of the Picard cast, the potential for a reunion with Tom Paris and perhaps B’Elanna Torres as well would be of some interest. Paris and Seven didn’t have a lot to do together during Voyager’s run, but Seven clashed frequently with B’Elanna, especially during her first year or so aboard the ship. There’s potential, perhaps, to revisit that relationship and see how things have evolved over the years – we know from Picard Season 1 that Seven of Nine has changed and become far more human in that time.

Seven of Nine has returned in Star Trek: Picard.

But I think that’s about as far as a Captain Proton show could go, and I don’t think we necessarily need a standalone project in order to bring back characters like Tom and B’Elanna. Perhaps they wouldn’t be the best fit for Picard, but they could certainly make an appearance in a future episode or film. Tom Paris has already had a cameo in Lower Decks, and while that was a bit of a nothing-burger from my perspective, I’m not totally against the idea of the character making future appearances in Lower Decks or any other Star Trek project.

When Michael Dorn revealed he’d pitched a Captain Worf series a while ago, I felt that the character might not be strong and well-rounded enough to carry an entire series on his own. And unfortunately Tom Paris is in that same category. Paris was an excellent character, don’t get me wrong, and I enjoyed what he brought to Voyager. But he was frequently used as comic relief – making a joke to lighten the mood in a tense situation. The spotlight episodes he got showed off the altruistic side of his personality, his love of retro things, and his piloting skills. And we also got to see his relationship with B’Elanna develop over the show’s run.

B’Elanna Torres and Tom Paris eventually got married.

Tom Paris is far from one-dimensional. But he’s also not the kind of character who could easily play the main role – and if the intention behind this pitch is to create a Tom Paris series I fear it would end up meeting the same fate as Joey, the short-lived spin-off from popular sitcom Friends.

Tom Paris has a satisfying character arc already. Voyager began with him at rock bottom – a prisoner and an abject failure. He failed as a Starfleet officer, then failed on his first mission as a member of the Maquis. Out of everyone on Captain Janeway’s crew, Paris had the least to lose and the most to gain after getting stranded in the Delta Quadrant, but even so he rose to the occasion to become a dependable and honourable member of the crew, quite literally guiding the ship home.

Tom Paris has had a truly satisfying character arc already.

So we’ve already seen Tom Paris’ character arc. By getting lost in the Delta Quadrant he found meaning and purpose in his life, he found the love of his life, and he gained redemption for his past misdeeds against Starfleet, against the Maquis, and even against his father. If his career path glimpsed in Endgame is any guide, his future is one of artistry and leisure, putting his adventures behind him to focus on doing the things he loves.

In short, we know Tom Paris quite well, and any addendum to the story that we’ve already seen play out would risk feeling tacked-on. At worst it could upset and even undermine aspects of his character arc across Voyager’s run depending on what direction the story was taken. Having spent seven years with Tom Paris – albeit in a supporting role – I’m quite content to say that his time in Starfleet ended with Voyager’s return to Earth and he’ll spend the rest of his days happily married, working on holo-novels and playing with classic cars. I don’t think we need to see any of that to believe that it happened – and it’s deeply satisfying after the long and arduous journey that the USS Voyager took to know that at least some of the characters we came to know and love did in fact get their “happily ever after.”

Promotional photo of Tom Paris.

Unlike Seven of Nine, who had so much to gain personality-wise as she spent more time away from the Borg Collective, Tom Paris’ characterisation feels settled. As we saw in scenes set in the future in Endgame, he didn’t change much in the years after his return from the Delta Quadrant – and we wouldn’t have expected him to.

All of this assumes that Tom Paris was supposed to play a role in this pitched series at all, and that may not be the case. But regardless I think it’s worth considering that what makes for an enjoyable and lovable character – which Tom Paris certainly was – doesn’t necessarily translate to a character being suited to take a lead role. This is true of Worf and it’s true of Tom Paris – both played outstanding supporting roles, but neither should be tapped to lead their own spin-off.

Worf is another character about whom a series has been proposed.

After having spent years playing the same characters, I can fully understand why Robert Duncan McNeill and the rest of the Voyager cast enjoyed their sojourns to the world of Captain Proton. It was a chance to take on a different acting challenge, and to revel in a style of cinematography, acting, and storytelling that just doesn’t get produced anymore.

But there’s a reason why the likes of Forbidden Planet and Flash Gordon were superseded: technology, acting skills, and storytelling improved. Some of those improvements in the world of sci-fi actually came from Star Trek: The Original Series blended different genres and styles together, kept a tight focus on its main characters, told stories with real-world parallels and morals that audiences could relate and respond to, and depicted a vision of the future and outer space that was far more positive and hopeful than negative and fearful.

These kinds of serials were outdated by the middle of the 20th Century.

Retro can be fun. But to make a straight-laced Captain Proton television series wouldn’t just feel retro – it would feel regressive. Such a show would be a massive backwards step, trying to ignore multiple generations’ worth of improvements in everything from narrative and world-building to acting skills and cinematography.

More than that, a Captain Proton series would have incredibly limited appeal. Many fans of Voyager would be hard-pushed to remember Captain Proton, and even those that do and have fond memories of the episodes would be surprised at the very least to hear talk of a Captain Proton spin-off show. Beyond that minuscule niche, a Captain Proton series might appeal to fans of classic, retro sci-fi. But such folks are few and far between, and when Captain Proton already felt incredibly dated in the 1990s, the number of viewers who would genuinely appreciate the parodies and references is positively microscopic.

It almost certainly is for Captain Proton.

Even if Captain Proton were less about the retro sci-fi and more about Tom Paris, I don’t think that would work well either. There must be a queue of characters from past iterations of Star Trek lining up for their prospective returns to the franchise, and while Paris was a fun character during Voyager’s run, he simply isn’t strong enough or deep enough to carry a whole series. His recent cameo in Lower Decks kind of embodies that – the character could have been swapped out for any other, or a generic stand-in, and the episode would have been functionally the same.

At the end of the day, this concept comes down to the simple question I posed at the beginning of this article: out of everything in Star Trek, is Captain Proton the one thing you want more of? Or to put it another way: if you could choose only one thing from a past iteration of Star Trek to bring back, is Captain Proton what you’d choose? For the vast, vast majority of Trekkies, the answer would be a resounding “no.”

I don’t believe ViacomCBS will do more than give this pitch a cursory glance out of respect to its creator. Both possible formulations have major drawbacks, and from a corporate point of view neither seems to hold much appeal even to Star Trek’s fanbase – let alone a wider television audience. At the end of the day that’s what sells companies on making a new film or television series: how much money would it make? An incredibly niche project focusing on either a single character or one tiny aspect of a show from the 1990s (that ViacomCBS hasn’t even been bothered to upscale to full HD) doesn’t fit the bill. Captain Proton is dead on arrival – and I’m sorry to say that it’s for the best.

The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Voyager and all other titles and properties mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.