Star Trek: Short Treks “Children of Mars”
Writen by Kirsten Beyer & Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet
Directed by Mark Pellington
Every generation has that moment, at least once: that moment when everyone remembers where they were when it happened. The first such moment in my life was when the space shuttle Challenger exploded on takeoff. I remember the father of one of my classmates coming quietly into our classroom, his face pale, whispering to the teacher, who suddenly stood up from her desk and commanded me, “Something’s happened. Turn on the television!” I remember where I was when President Reagan was shot. (I was in the dentist’s chair.) Of course for a more recent generation, it was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. These were moments when everything you thought you knew about the world underwent a shift. Especially when you’re young, these are moments when what you thought of as safety was shattered, and life suddenly became unpredictable and frightening.
“Children of Mars,” the January 2020 episode of Short Treks, is a brief look at just such a moment in the lives of two Federation schoolgirls. It is a glimpse at how that can suddenly reorient the priorities of life, and can turn enemies into allies, at least briefly.
It is an episode that, unlike most of the Short Treks we’ve seen so far, adds a considerable amount of information to Star Trek canon. It is sensitively written, stylistically interesting, and competently created. And it provides a fascinating twist to what we’ve guessed so far about the upcoming Star Trek: Picard series, which debuts in just under two weeks. That’s about all I can say without resorting to spoilers, so if you haven’t yet seen the episode, go watch it now before continuing on. You have been warned!
In a change from most of the Short Treks that we have seen so far, this episode begins cold, with no Short Treks title screen (the words “Short Treks” do not appear anywhere in the episode) and no opening title screen. Instead, we jump right into following the lives of two teenage girls, one human and one not.
We meet Kima, a non-human girl whose mother works as an “anti-grav ringer” at the Utopia Planitia Shipyard on Mars. We see Kima goofing around in a video call with her Mom, revealing that their species has unusually (for us) long and flexible tongues. We also see an orbital spacedock facility above Mars, with four Starfleet ships being assembled there.
We then meet Lil, a human girl whose father is a quality systems supervisor at the Mars Orbital Facility. She is watching what looks like a prerecorded video message from her father, who is apologizing to her for not being able to come and see her this year due to work pressures. Lil is deeply disappointed and sad, and cuts off the message early.
Both girls are in identical small, single-occupant rooms, and are dressed in identical prep school uniforms with white blouses, khaki slacks, and maroon jackets with blue striping on the shoulder, sleeve, and lower front. Both girls sadly gather their school supplies, and walk from their rooms, on their way to school.
They make their way to an outdoor school shuttle boarding area, where a yellow school shuttle lands. A final boarding call for WSA shuttles is heard, as many teenage students hurry to the embarkation point. Lil hurries to pass Kima, accidentally hitting her with her shoulder, knocking Kima’s pack to the ground. Lil proceeds onward as if nothing happened, while Kima disgustedly tries to recover her spilled things. The slight delay makes Kima miss the shuttle entirely.
In another rare stylistic choice for a Star Trek episode, a non-orchestral piece of incidental music begins to play, a cover of David Bowie’s song “Heroes” by Peter Gabriel. This song plays over much of the rest of the short. As Kima watches the shuttle depart, she hurries to try to get to school in some other way.
The school atrium is a wide-open space, with large holographic screens at either end proclaiming, “GROW” and “ACHIEVE.” A revolving overhead holographic info station in the center of the atrium features the WSA logo, what looks like a class schedule, and a slogan reading, “Happy First Contact Day,” meaning that whatever year this is set in, the day is April 5. We see that Lil is alone and sad, while other kids gather in groups, socialize, and play holo-games. While kids make their way to class, Kima hurries in, late, under the disapproving eye of WSA’s balding Vulcan principal.
Kima arrives at stellar cartography class while it is already in session, and hurries past yawning students to her seat, hitting Lil forcefully with her shoulder as she passes. Students write with styluses on holographic displays. Lil draws a mean caricature of their teacher, Mrs. K, on her display, and waves it across to Kima’s screen. Before Kima can delete it, Mrs. K spots it, and gives Kima two demerits of some sort. Kima shoots Lil a nasty look, and later, in the library, hides in wait and trips Lil as she passes. Lil then angrily confronts Kima at her locker, and the two get into a fistfight while their classmates cheer, only to be pulled apart by adults and sent to detention.
As the Vulcan principal walks over to talk to the two girls, his PDA bleeps an alert, and a holographic screen pops up, giving him news. A worried and sad member of the support staff hurries over to him, her PDA displaying a similar screen. The two confer and agree, and the secretary puts the Federation News Network (FNN) feed up on all three holographic displays in the atrium. As Kima and Lil watch in horror and kids rush into the atrium, released from class, we see flat, trapezoidal starships firing red phaser beams at Mars-based targets, close-ups of frightened Martian residents running up staircases, and many massive explosions. Many of the planetary bombardment shots are reminiscent of scenes we saw in the recent Star Trek: Picard trailer outside the windows of what looked like Ten Forward from the Enterprise-D. The bottom of the screen reads, “Attack on Mars” with the scroll beneath it: “Rogue Synths attack Mars – 3000 estimated dead.” We see the Mars Orbital Facility blown to bits by these synth raiders, and see Jean-Luc Picard’s face on the screen, with a UFP logo and the text, “’Devastating’: Admiral Picard reacts.” Kima and Lil turn toward one another, tears streaming down their cheeks, as they remember their parents. Their hands reach for each other, and clasp in friendship.
This short is more of a meditative piece than any of the other Short Treks. There is very little “live” dialogue – almost all the words we hear are voice-overs, pre-recorded messages, or come over loudspeakers. When we hear the teacher teaching, or a few words from the girls as they fight near the lockers, the dialogue is muted or distorted. Most of the story is told through images, screens, music, and silent acting. The piece is very much told from the perspective of the children. Adults in this short are distant, disconnected, and disappointing. It very much captures the bewildering experience of a child whose world is shattered by events beyond her control.
Both Kima and Lil are lonely, at boarding school, separated from their families. They are longing for a connection with someone else, and at first they find it through conflict. For a child without emotional connection, conflict and anger can be a way of at least puncturing the isolation and getting someone else’s attention; anger is at least better than nonexistence. This short embodies that truth remarkably well.
The short builds relentlessly from the quiet beginning to the almost oppressively loud middle, with the Bowie song increasing in volume and intensity as the hostility between the girls grows. But the song disappears once they are in detention – it is a moment of seething, angry quiet… and into that moment, disaster falls.
We see more children in “Children of Mars” than possibly all the children ever depicted in the rest of Star Trek combined, which is delightful. This is our first real look at an Earth-based primary or high school, and the short spends all its time on 24th-Century Earth, which is rare in Trek canon. Aside from Joseph Sisko’s restaurant, Voyager’s “Non Sequitur,” and a bunch of holoprograms, these may be the only scenes in Star Trek that show a civilian look at 24th-Century Earth. (Star Trek II and Star Trek III both showed brief glimpses of 23rd Century civilian life.)
The short is well directed by Mark Pellington, who previously directed the Short Treks episode, “Q&A.” In this short, Pellington displays a number of creative and unusual choices that are rare in Star Trek. As we’ve mentioned before on TrekMovie many times, Short Treks serve as a fertile test bed for cinematic experimentation in Star Trek. This episode’s focus on teenage girls may also be an aspect of CBS’ desire for Star Trek to reach out to a younger demographic. If so, mission accomplished: My thirteen-year-old daughter was transfixed. Writing credits are given to Kirsten Beyer, Alex Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet, all of whom are key production personnel on Star Trek: Discovery.
First Contact Day is a symbol of the way classic Star Trek believed that unity would be achieved between the various strands of humanity. Contact with extraterrestrial life would be the galvanizing event that caused us to put aside our relatively-petty differences, and embrace one another as equally human as we faced the stars together. The third season of Star Trek: Enterprise posited that shared loss and disaster could be another galvanizing force, with the Xindi attack on Earth as the inciting incident, a post-9/11 approach to human unity. We could be brought together by the joy of shared discovery, or by the sadness of mutual loss. This short is an emotional exploration of the latter approach, and as a hint of what’s to come in Star Trek: Picard, it’s fascinatingly evocative.
Jean-Luc Picard is still in Starfleet and is an admiral during the events of this short. We know that Star Trek: Picard is set in 2399, and that Picard left Starfleet about 13 years before the show begins, meaning that this short is set some time before 2386, and the attack on Mars is somehow connected to Picard’s decision to leave Starfleet. The trailers for Picard have indicated that a Soong-type android (likely B4) is currently in pieces in a drawer in a lab somewhere. Could the “rogue synth” attacks depicted here have triggered an anti-artificial life-form backlash that led to the Soong-type android being deactivated? Is it possible that Starfleet took the measure of the man, and decided that, people or not, sentient artificial life was too dangerous to allow to remain active? Could that have been the disappointment with the way Starfleet was headed that led Picard to resign? Is that part of the “isolationism” that Sir Patrick Stewart and other showrunners have said in interviews that Star Trek: Picard addresses?
We shall see when Star Trek: Picard debuts on January 23…
- I dearly, dearly hope that WSA stands for “William Shatner Academy.” What a great name for a prestigious boarding school!
- The Vulcan principal is played by Robert Verlaque, who also played Aradar (Saru and Siranna’s father) in “The Brightest Star” in the first season of Short Treks.
- The “ACHIEVE” holo-banner appears to have the famous Paramount Pictures “Majestic Mountain” as a background behind it.
- The FNN (Federation News Network) was first seen in Star Trek Generations.
- In the Voyager episode, “Homestead,” Kathryn Janeway remarks that First Contact Day was typically a school holiday—why the students at WSA didn’t have the day off is unknown.
- Kima’s species has pale blue eyes and blue blood.
- Detention is held in the school’s atrium for some reason.
- I loved the shot of the Vulcan principal watching Kima and Lil sulking in detention, with his silhouetted head, ears, and shoulders splitting the screen, one girl above his left shoulder, and the other above his right. It’s an interesting echo of the split screen effect seen near the beginning of the short.
- Is it too much to ask that the “Rogue Synths” alluded to in this episode will include Mudd-type androids and Korby-type androids, as well as Soong-type androids?
- For some reason the Utopia Planitia Shipyard is seen building mid-23rd-century ships, yet this episode takes place in the late 24th century. Two are from the same class as the USS Cabot (the Magee Class, Memory Alpha informs me) from “The Trouble With Edward,” and two are Starfleet tugs, like the ones seen towing the USS Enterprise in DSC: “Brother.”
- This is the first Short Treks episode with the credit “Based upon Star Trek: The Next Generation, created by Gene Roddenberry,” rather than the standard, “Based upon Star Trek, created by Gene Roddenberry.” In addition, the “Children of Mars” title that appears at the end of the episode is in a red TNG-style font, rather than the DSC-style font that all the other episodes have featured.