Short Treks Recap: The Escape Artist

“If I had any money, I’d be sipping jippers on a beach somewhere.” -Harry Mudd

Previously, on Star Trek: Discovery: Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) and Lieutenant Ash Tyler (Shazad Latif) met smarmy conman Harcourt Fenton Mudd (Rainn Wilson) in Klingon Alcatraz. After Lorca left Mudd to rot we got to see his skills in bullshittery and vengeance up close and personal in Magic Makes the Sanest Man Go Mad, which has the distinction of being both my favorite episode of Discovery and the episode with the most inexplicable ending as our crew decides that the best place for this dude who gleefully “murdered” them all is not say, jail, but actually with his ex-wife. Because you know what’s worse than jail? Women. Amirite!?

Apparently Discovery’s incredibly good™ plan to deal with Harry Mudd has not worked out, as we find him being sold to bounty hunter eager to make some money ($$??) off the Federation. Somehow the wife jail did not do the job, I guess. (Maybe this is before that? Way after that? I am not invested enough to look up when this short is set and time is flat circle anyway.) 

As Mudd starts trying to lay game on his Tellarite captor (Harry Judge) we find out that Mudd banged this dude’s sister and then stole his sacred… family… cudgel? There’s something tremendously hilarious about picturing a family cudgel being passed down through generations of pig faced dudes with bad hygiene.

Apparently the only thing Mudd has inherited is the ability to make the same mistakes over and over again, perpetually broke, perpetually on the run, perpetually trying to talk various angry people out of beating the snot out of him and then spacing his corpse. I’ll say this for Mudd, he’s very committed to his #brand. Though he might want to upgrade his insults and threats because they don’t seem to be getting the job done anymore.

While Mudd is trying to convince his captor that it’s ACTUALLY better if they team up and resist the Federation together, he starts articulating a theme in Discovery I wish we’d seen more of, that the Federation couches its imperialist expansion as benign and for the common good but still continues to occupy more territory and bring more and more of the universe under its control. Kol (Kenneth Mitchell) expressed this disdain in general, but also specifically in regards to the universal translator. Starfleet thinks of the universal translator as an unmitigated good, a tool for communication, but Kol saw it as a way for the Federation exert more influence over Klingon culture.

It’s also something that Mudd spent some time pontificating about in Klingon Alcatraz, and it’s interesting. Is the Federation, for all its purported goodness, the Alliance? Does that make Mudd just a man on the raggedy edge? I think we saw this theme explored more effectively in Deep Space Nine, with Quark and Garak especially being the mouthpiece for the interpretation that the Federation was not as shiny as most people in Star Trek view it, as well as most of the audience. Here’s hoping this is something that Discovery tackles more in depth in season two.

On a sexier note, we can now say that spreader bars are canon on Star Trek. In a collection of scenes that have me convinced that at least one of the crew on Discovery spends a significant amount of time in their local dungeon being paddled by their mistress, we get Mudd in handcuffs, Mudd on a leash, Mudd in a spreader bar, Mudd suspended from the ceiling while being shocked… between this and all of the leather I feel like it’s only a matter of time before someone ends up in a latex bondage suit. 

After a montage of moments of Mudd that will probably be used in a power point presentation for bad kink practice, he finally gets on his knees and decided to start begging. He’ll crawl and polish tusks! (This episode is the opposite of subtle!) Save him Tellarite Kenobi, you’re his only hope! Tellarite Kenobi is unmoved and unbothered and is happy to turn Mudd over to the Federation for money. Vengeance AND a pay day? That’s a good day.

Unfortunately, the Starfleet dude doesn’t seem all that excited to capture notorious criminal and vagabond Harry Mudd. What gives?

Well, it turns out that this Mudd is not Mudd at all! He is a simulacrum! A space golem! A bit of clay smeared with eau de Mudd and turned into a convincing bit of decoy for bounty hunters. The part where the Tellarite accidentally tears off Mudd’s robot arm is pretty tremendous. The look on both of their faces is gold.

This twist is brilliant. During much of the episode I was thinking to myself that the biggest problem with Mudd’s character is not that he’s an unmitigated trash bag of a person (he is), or that he’s constantly walking over the line from lovable rascal to straight up sociopathic murderer (that’s true), it’s that he seems so empty. Nothing he says has any weight to it because he doesn’t mean anything he says. When he’s funny, it’s for a con. When he’s sobbing, it’s for a con. His love? Is a con. He is not a person so much as a collection of pirate rings and one liners. We can’t take him seriously because we’ve never seen a moment of true emotion from him.

And then this short takes that, and makes it LITERAL. A room full of Mudds saying the same lines over each other is just such a good metaphor of who he is as both a person and a character it’s actually kind of mindblowing. This twist saved the episode for me. Subverting my very issues with Mudd by not only addressing them but turning them into the theme of the episode? *slow claps*

The final, final twist? Is that Mudd is the awesome Lady Boba Fett that sold himself to Tellarite Kenobi. Y’all. This episode rules. A denouement in which a man who doesn’t view people as people, just pawns to manipulate, marks to con, or objects to be owned, doesn’t even treat HIMSELF like a person. He is perfectly happy sipping a cocktail surrounded by cloned servants of HIMSELF. It is the ultimate condemnation of who he is, but also a fascinating insight into the type of character that could treat other people the way that Mudd does. It is also a great homage to some of the TOS episodes in which he surrounded himself with sexbots, or was punished by being surrounded by nagging clones of his wife. 

Most of this episode had me thinking 1) that Discovery must have a large budget for leather and kinky sex gear and 2) that Mudd is as shallow a person as its possible to be. To have that fact become the commentary of the episode? Now that’s a twist I can get behind!

So, this is the last of the Short Treks. Next up will be the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery season two, and I’m ready y’all. I hope you are too!

  2 comments for “Short Treks Recap: The Escape Artist

  1. “the interpretation that the Federation was not as shiny as most people in Star Trek view it, as well as most of the audience. Here’s hoping this is something that Discovery tackles more in depth in season two.”

    It’s not an interpretation, it’s a starting premise. Allow me to go off-topic for a few dozen paragraphs.

    An analogy on a much smaller scale was Roddenberry’s insistence to the TNG writers that the Enterprise-D crew wouldn’t have any serious interpersonal conflicts, because they were good at sorting that stuff out, and everyone was basically doing well, and had the support to generally stay well through most hardships. It was the writers’ job to work out how to tell stories from that premise, and apparently many writers balked at this, and yet… TNG’s crew is probably the most interesting, most loveable, most rounded set of personalities in all Trek series. It just wasn’t a writing convention people were used to. Starting from the assumption of conflict and hostility is just easier, and maybe lazier, but it isn’t necessarily more realistic or more enjoyable. (Andy Weir has suggested similar things about fictional portrayals of modern astronaut crews, pointing out that real astronauts are chosen for their good social skills and agreeable personalities. It makes no sense to stick only antisocial assholes in a little ship together for months on end.)

    A similar rule applies to writing about the Federation. Start from the premise that it is good, generally, and figure out where to write from there. It’s very, very easy to be cynical about this in the 20th and 21st centuries, but Star Trek has optimism at its core. And it’s hard enough for real political and economic theorists to work out how to make a state like that function, so it’s no surprise that scifi TV writers never quite figured it out themselves. But I don’t think that invalidates the premise completely.

    So then the interesting question is, how can the UFP constantly expand and also be ethical and non-imperial? A good science fiction writer will look for interesting and smart ways to make it so.

  2. “A denouement in which a man who doesn’t view people as people, just pawns to manipulate, marks to con, or objects to be owned, doesn’t even treat HIMSELF like a person. He is perfectly happy sipping a cocktail surrounded by cloned servants of HIMSELF.” Gee. Kinda like Trump. If he was smart that is. (Also I believe we need to take any view Mudd has of the Federation with a long look through a side lens and then think twice. Though by dint of BEING a federation, yeah there is, I am sure, a faction of citizens and those go-between citizens who deal between Fed worlds and non-fed worlds who see them rather like T’kuvma did.)

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