We all love Star Trek for its moral core, the way it presents heroes that champion utopian ideals and diplomacy and a love of scientific curiosity over hostility and division (although the bits where spaceships phaser-and-torpedo the shit out of everything are also good). But every once in a while we need a reminder that it’s equally good when it’s just having a bit of a laugh.
“The Escape Artist” focuses on another character we became familiar with during Discovery’s first season—although instead of it being a member of the titular ship’s crew, it’s Rainn Wilson’s take on the assholish rapscallion that is Harcourt Fenton Mudd (or Harry to his friends/enemies/potential rubes).
The Mudd we met across two episodes of Discovery’s first season was, like a lot of Discovery’s early thematic ideas, a darker twist on something that’s long been a part of Star Trek history. Or, in this scenario, a someone.
The Mudd in the episode “Choose Your Pain” is a crafty, duplicitous man who cares far more for his survival in a hellish scenario than he does having the scruples that appeal to Starfleet’s best and brightest. In the follow up, “Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad,” we get a bit more of a fun side of Mudd, but he’s still portrayed as a crafty, effective villain for the Discovery crew to overcome in his attempt to...well murder the whole damn lot of them in vengeance. The Mudd we get in “The Escape Artist” still has the darker streak on display in those past appearances, but first and foremost it gives us the Mudd of our original Trek memories—the charming, funny con man fans know and love.
We all remember Roger Carmel’s original take on Mudd as an ineffective foil to the crew of the Enterprise, an ostensible “villain” that was more of a charmingly bumbling roadblock—and we love him for his camp. But he still had all those nastier traits Wilson’s Mudd brought to the fore in his Discovery appearances: he might have been a bit of a mischief-maker, but he still tried to murder Kirk and the crew multiple times. “The Escape Artist,” then, is almost an inverse-reminder for the Discovery iteration of Harry Mudd. Yes, he’s a conniving, dastardly individual, but a Mudd at his best is a Mudd that’s just having a total whale of a time in a galaxy populated by Starfleet-insignia-wearing sticks in the mud.
This zany glee of a Mudd at his peak is what drives the minisode. We dip in and out of little vignettes of Mudd’s escapades on the fringes of the galaxy—being chased by bounty hunters, or strung up in Orion prisons, or apparently on the run from romantic escapades with Tellarites—in which, regardless of whether he’s literally in chains or desperately trying to weasel himself out of a bad lot, Mudd is never not having some fun. Whether it’s the joy in his face when he thinks he’s on to a winning deception or a potential new alliance, or the grand reveal in the climax—that Mudd has been shilling out his own Federation-imposed bounty to rival hunters, offering them android duplicates of himself to both make a quick buck and staff his own ship with the vainest crew around—it’s clear that Wilson (who also directed) and Mudd as a character are both having a blast. Even when everything looks like it’s up for Harry, he’s always got one more fun trick up his sleeve (or, as it’s noted at one point, a dagger in his boot).
And really, that’s a point Star Trek itself has been making pretty much from the get-go, with Mudd or countless other scrupulous homages to him like Voyager’s Neelix or DS9's Quark in series since. The fringe elements of the Star Trek universe beyond the heroes of the Federation has always been an avenue to explore some of the less idealistic ventures of Star Trek’s future, but it’s also been an avenue for the show to explore its lighter, funnier side, time and time again.
That’s not to say the Federation itself can’t be home to a bit of fun—we all love the banter between our favorite crews—but we remember Mudd and his ilk for the opportunity they gave Trek to blend its usually straight-laced self with a bit of lightheartedness. Humor has always been a fundamental aspect of Trek’s enduring charm, and as Discovery has tackled some of the franchise’s darker themes, moments like “The Escape Artist” are a crucial, loving reminder of that.
These four minisodes have been a perfect encapsulation of everything Star Trek: Discovery can champion alongside its own heady explorations of what Star Trek’s greatest establishments really stand for. From more time with supporting characters we desperately want to get to know, to touching meditations on how humanity’s past still has lessons to teach in the centuries to come, and now with “The Escape Artist” providing some charming fun, Short Treks has provided a template that we not only want to see more of, but something its parent show should look to as it continues to boldly go.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it one last time: Although the Short Treks episodes are presented as ancillary material to Discovery, they’re absolutely vital for what they add to its world. Discovery fans (including the ones outside the U.S. and Canada who still can’t watch these legally!) shouldn’t miss out just because they’re not part of the main show.
Star Trek: Discovery returns to CBS All Access for its sophomore season on January 17.
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