Welcome to ‘Final Frontier Friday’! This week, the day we’ve all been waiting for finally came! Yes, ‘Star Trek: Picard’ has arrived on CBS All Access after what feels like years of teasing. And if I’d had a bit more lead time, I might have actually covered the debut episode! But some times in this line of work, you have to meet the universe halfway. And so this week we’re turning an eye to ‘Children of Mars’, the latest installment of ‘Star Trek: Short Treks’.
This season of ‘Short Treks’ has largely been self-contained, presenting shorts that are either done in one experiment (the animated duo, for example) or similarly standalone affairs designed to give those fans clamoring for a Pike series a bit more of the recast Enterprise crew seen on ‘Discovery’. ‘Children of Mars,’ by contrast, places itself more in the tradition of earlier ‘Short Treks’ like ‘Runaway’ and ‘The Brightest Star‘, which tied directly into the second season of ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (though – as in the case of ‘Runaway’ – this wasn’t necessarily obvious at the time). In this case, though, “Children of Mars” is a tie-in (or teaser, if you prefer) to ‘Star Trek: Picard’.
With a twenty year story gap between ‘Star Trek: Nemesis‘ (until now the last story – both in-story and in production terms set in the twenty-fourth century) and the first season of ‘Picard’, there were always going to be a lot of questions to be answered and gaps to be filled. One of the biggest, at least as it pertains to the new show, has been that of Picard’s retirement from Starfleet. While the powers that be obviously weren’t about to tip their hand, they did intimate in the runup to the series’ premiere that Picard’s retirement was prompted at least in part by some unspecified tragedy that would connect in some way to the story that will unfold over the course of the first season. Now, those of us who weren’t living in complete denial of the Kelvin trilogy‘s existence mostly assumed the tragedy in question would be something to do with the destruction of Romulus. It would certainly fit the bill, especially given the relatively hopeful note on which ‘Nemesis’ left the typically chilly relationship between the Federation and the Romulan Empire. As it turns out, we were a little off-base.
“It’s X, but in space,” can often be a handy way of summing up a sci-fi story in ten words or less. You know, “‘Firefly’ is a western, but in space,” “‘Star Wars’ is three different Kurasawa films, but in space,” “‘Battlestar Galactica’ is the Book of Mormon, but in space.” You get the idea. Well, ‘Children Of Mars’ is 9/11, but in space.
Which, of course, brings us to the short…
The story begins by introducing us (separately) to Kima and Lil, two children who are talking to their parents (both of whom work on Mars) on subspace as they start their day. Lil’s father apologizing for being unable to see her for First Contact Day while Kima and her mother share a lighter moment. We next see the girls in red blazers amid a group of similarly uniformed children. The kids all board a shuttle and are taken to school. Or at least, most of them are. Kima misses the shuttle due to the time she spent picking up her books after Lil, wrapped up in thoughts of her father, inadvertently bumped into her.
Kima arrives late, much to her principal’s consternation, and joins her class, bumping into Lil on the way to her seat. What follows is a montage of petty antagonism between the two. Kima gets in trouble for something Lil did and later trips her in retaliation. Later still, Lil shoves Kima and a fight breaks out. Teachers break up the fight and leave the two in the atrium await disciplinary action. As the principal approaches, his PADD lights up and a distraught faculty member approaches. An emergency alert is heard as more devices light up and viewscreens switch to the Federation News Network. On the screens, we see footage of a massive attack on Mars. The news chyrons inform us that thousands are estimated to have been killed in an carried out by “rogue synths” and that Starfleet has dispatched a task force at high warp to respond. We also see an image of Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, who describes the attack as “devastating.”
United in fear and grief, the girls join hands.
Okay, let’s start with the elephant in the room. I mentioned the 9/11 parallels earlier, and I’d like to get a little deeper into that here. This isn’t the first time ‘Star Trek’ has invoked 9/11 in some way. The Xindi attack in the second season finale of ‘Enterprise’ (otherwise known as the inciting incident for the entire third season) was similarly analogous to the real life attacks, which of course were an almost inescapable part of the zeitgeist at the time. But to me at least, ‘Children Of Mars’ echoes real-life tragedy in a far more visceral way. That, I suspect, is because it more closely mirrors my own experience of the event. On ‘Enterprise, the emotional hit of the Xindi attack was twofold, predicated on the abstract (the scope of life lost and what the attack signaled) and the personal (Trip’s sister was among those killed).
Thankfully, my experience of that day didn’t have much in common with Trip’s. However, I was in school that day, and not too much older than Kima and Lil appear to be. And what stands out the most in my memory was how surreal it all was. Once the news broke, the school effectively shut down for the day. The doors didn’t close, but for all the actual coursework that got done, they may as well have. In fact, not unlike Kima and Lil, we mostly watched the news (I still remember rigging a makeshift antenna for the classroom TV out of paper clips) and tried to process everything. With its initial focus of Kima and Lil’s mundane antagonism and sudden shift to the Synth attack, making everything that came before feel even more petty, ‘Children of Mars’ does an unusually effective job – moreso perhaps that any piece of media I can remember seeing over the last twenty years – of capturing the strange dissonance of such a large-scale tragedy coming so completely out of nowhere on such a beautiful September morning. Maybe that’s because we’re now far enough out from the attacks to see art informed by the perspective of people who were closer to my age than my parents’ at the time.
Beyond the 9/11 stuff, though, ‘Children Of Mars’ is a very unusual piece of ‘Star Trek’ in its own right. Aside from the scenes introducing the girls at the very beginning, there’s virtually no dialogue. That works in its favor, though, as this is a story that is more interested in emotional resonance than plot in the strictest sense. As a result, it works more as a teaser for ‘Picard’ than a prequel or prologue per se, as it overall raised far more questions than it answered. But that’s not really a problem, as this short is honestly one that you can’t think too hard about. And for once I don’t mean that as a complaint. I may be a compulsive overthinker, but at the end of the day ‘Children of Mars’ is a story you’re meant to feel.
More unusual still is the fact that the bulk of the short is underscored with a piece of contemporary popular music (Peter Gabriel’s cover of ‘Heroes’). Any use of twentieth/twenty-first century music is a rarity in ‘Star Trek’, and when it is used, it’s most likely to be used diegetically (see the use of songs by Wyclef Jean and Al Green in ‘Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad’, basically any ‘Deep Space Nine’ episode that features Vic Fontaine, and of course, the Kelvin trilogy’s bizarre fascination with the Beastie Boys). By contrast, the most prominent uses of licensed music as part of the underscore have been Bing Crosby’s rendition of ‘Johnny Appleseed’ in ‘The Trouble With Edward’ and the (in)famous selection of ‘Where My Heart Will Take Me’ as the main theme on ‘Enterprise’. And frankly, neither of those were as prominent, as crucial to the end product as ‘Heroes’ is here.
And that about does it for this ‘Final Frontier Friday’. Let me know what you thought of ‘Children of Mars’ in the comments and be sure to check back in two weeks for, well, for what I would have liked to do this week…