Star Trek: Short Treks “Children of Mars”
The run-up to Star Trek: Picard officially kicks into high gear with “Children of Mars”, a new Short Trek directly tying in to the events of the series I just mentioned. The verdict: less than promising.
We start off with a little alien girl addressing the camera, stating her name (Kima) and her mother’s occupation (anti-grav ringer at the Utopia Planitia shipyard on Mars).
Both she and her mother have facial bumps, V-shaped forehead crests (this is Star Trek, after all), and tongues that would put Gene Simmons to shame, which they waggle to amuse one another.
Scenes of Kima’s interview are intercut with scenes video-phoning with her mom. It’s never made clear why she’s talking to the camera in this way. Is she in a documentary? A reality show? Is she being interviewed by somebody in the aftermath of the… oh right, we’ll get to that.
Next up, we have a little human girl named Lil…
…whose dad is a quality systems supervisor at a Mars orbital facility. Her relationship with her dad is a lot rockier. We see her father sheepishly apologize for not being able to make it back to Earth for another year. She huffily closes the chat window on the wall.
With all that frustration bottled up inside, Lil starts acting out. She knock’s Kima’s bag out of her hand while kids are rushing to a shuttle platform, making her miss the shuttle to go to school. Kima somehow gets to school anyway. School is an opulent, airy building, all glass and brushed steel, that looks like a tech firm’s corporate headquarters and probably is. Big floating banners are celebrating First Contact Day (April 5, if you were wondering).
Kima shoves Lil with her shoulder on her way to her seat. In retaliation, Kima draws a hilariously tame caricature of her teacher on her plexiglas notepad, and holo-tosses it over to Kima’s notepad. The teacher sees it, throws it up on the holo-blackboard for the class to see, and gives Kima a demerit.
In revenge, Kima waits till Lil is in the library reading antique paper books and trips her while she passes by.
The song that started at the very beginning of the short builds in volume and intensity. If you’re curious, it’s Peter Gabriel’s glacially-paced orchestral cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”from a poorly-received 2010 covers album he did. I’m not sure what the song’s even supposed to be doing here. Bowie’s original recording has a steady tempo that promotes a feeling of buoyant, easy optimism; Peter’s belabored groaning sounds more suited to the trailer for Disney’s freakin’ epic remake of Harry and the Hendersons or some shit. (The song sucks enough to have already been featured in Stranger Things twice.)
The tension between the two girls have officially boiled over to a full-blown fistfight, which they do in the lockers outside their classroom. Lil punches Kima in the face, just as Peter Gabriel belts out the inspiring bit about beating them and being heroes just for one day. Kima wipes bright sapphire-blue blood out of her nostril (because she’s alien, duh!) and tackles Lil as the students cheer them on.
Lil and Kima are eventually dragged away and plopped in the
visitor’s lobby principal’s office, right underneath holo-banners reading “ACHIEVE” and “GROW” for a little sledgehammer-subtle bit of visual irony. Peter Gabriel whispers “just for one day,” and the song fades out as the girls look at each other side-eyed.
The girls’ principal, a middle-aged Vulcan in a three-piece-suit-of-the-future, strolls over to have a very logical disciplinary chat when his plexiglas smartphone lights up in red with a breaking news alert. A teacher rushes over with the same image on her phone. Soon all the floating holo-banners switch to a live broadcast of the emergency alert.
The live feed shows Mars—where, remember, Kima’s mom and Lil’s dad both work—and mysterious “rogue synths” are bombing and lasering everything all to shit. What does “synths” mean in this context? Androids? Clones? Holograms? Wesley’s stupid accidentally-sentient science project? Who knows?
A pianist plinks out plaintive arpeggios over some shaky-cam footage of panicked people rushing through a stairwell. The scary-looking ships blow up the orbital platform, and soon huge explosions are erupting all over Mars. And because there are three people left who haven’t gotten the 9/11 comparison yet, the chyron reads “3000 estimated dead”.
And here comes the tie-in! Picard’s picture is shown on a still screen. The chyron reads “‘Devastating’ – Admiral Picard reacts to Mars Attack”. Okay, cool, but why would anybody need a statement from him? Isn’t he supposed to be retired and slowly going batty in his vineyard by now? Is he just offering the opinion, in his professional capacity as a space-type man, that the space attack was devastating? It seems like a flimsy way to put him in, if you ask me.
The two girls, tears streaming down their faces, make up and join hands. Cut to the title card, saying “Children of Mars”.
As an introduction to Star Trek: Picard, this Short Trek is not wow-ing me. Here’s what bugs me most. As I mentioned, the attack by the “synths” on Mars was an obvious 9/11 metaphor. Here’s the thing, though: Star Trek: Picard takes place in the alternate universe of Star Trek (2009), which you will remember kicked off with the destruction of the planet Vulcan and attempted destruction of Earth. That timeline continued on with Star Trek Into Darkness (no colon! take that, oppressive movie titling conventions!), which featured a lot of War on Terror subtext that Battlestar Galactica already did better, a dash of InfoWars-esque conspiracy, and literal spaceships flying into skyscrapers. “Children of Mars” is a 9/11 metaphor set in a timeline largely defined by 9/11 metaphors. It’s not that it’s tacky, so much—although it’s definitely that—it’s that it’s hacky. Like, you literally already did this, Star Trek. Do something else.
And let’s circle back to the use of “Heroes” for one second. That song was about the Berlin Wall, featuring the hopeful image of two people reaching across a cultural divide and finding love in a time of cold war. But if there was anything similarly hopeful to be found in “Children of Mars”, it was the suggestion that living through the trauma of terrorism stimulates our collective compassion, inspiring us to reach out to others for support and find common ground with our fellow citizens, even those different than us. I hate to be the one to say it, but based on recent history, no. No, it does not.
But I don’t want to draw too much from “Children of Mars”, which after all is barely longer than your average trailer. I could be way off base. See you on the 23rd for the Picard premiere!