Coming into this season of Short Treks, “Children of Mars” was teased as one of two precursors to the events of Star Trek: Picard. It is not a factual indicator of what’s to come, or some grand, necessary setup for the plot Jean-Luc and his friends will tackle. But it does give us a tonal insight into the dark times ahead—and the light that must endure it.
Not a lot actually happens in “Children of Mars.” It’s a simple tale of two young schoolchildren, Kima (Ilamaria Ebrahim) and Lil (Sadie Munro)—and we only learn the absolute minimum about them. We know their names. We know that they attend school together. We know that their parents both work at Federation outlets on Mars. Kima’s mother, who she shares a tender relationship with, works at Utopia Planitia, a major construction drydock for Starfleet vessels, while Lil’s father, who she is distant with, is a systems advisor on the planet’s orbital facilities. We know that, because of this, they both live relatively independent lives.
We also learn over the course of the short’s runtime (it may be one of the shortest, if not the shortest, of the Short Treks so far) that they basically hate each other.
Lil (never outright stated as to why, but presumably acting out a lingering discomfort over her relationship with her father) repeatedly and cruelly bullies Kima. She makes her late for school, pushes her around, and gets her in trouble in classes. Kima retaliates, in turn, more aggressively as the short progresses—almost in the style of a music video, dialogue almost entirely replaced by Peter Gabriel’s haunting cover of David Bowie/Brian Eno’s “Heroes”—until eventually, the two duke it out in a brutal hallway fight, egged on by their schoolmates. Turns out, even in an idealised utopia, kids can still be nasty little jerks to each other! The more things change, the more they stay the same.
There’s something fascinating in the presentation of this stark repudiation of Star Trek’s utopian society. Bowie and Eno’s lyrics strained over scenes of these two young children just tearing into each other isn’t just unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Trek from an aesthetic point of view—maybe Star Trek Beyond’s Beastie Boys-tracked heroic climax is the closest comparison—but in its visceral nature. We’ve always been told that the galaxy of Star Trek is one of higher ideals, of loftier values: values we assume would be instilled in children from a young age, just as we’ve seen in adorably mature kids across a spectrum of ages from tykes like Voyager’s Naomi Wildman, to teens like TNG’s Will Crusher and Deep Space Nine’s Jake Sisko. And yet here we are, these two young girls, one human, one alien, biting and choking and bloodying each other as a raucous crowd of their fellows cheer.
What pulls Kima and Lil out of this bitter conflict—aside from, literally, two school staff members wrenching them apart—is where the short becomes a more informationally-direct prequel to Picard. As the two children, separated by their principal and awaiting punishment, glare at each other across the school lobby, a news report blares out. Mars has been attacked by a fleet of rogue ships. The red planet burns even redder, as bombs and phaser fire tear its surface apart. Thousands are dead, Kima and Lil’s parents likely among them. As the Federation races to respond to an attack basically right on its doorstep, at the heart of one of Starfleet’s most vital industries, a familiar face is included in the reports: Admiral Jean-Luc Picard, who can only express his dismay at a “devastating” horror.
And in witnessing that face, in witnessing that horror themselves, as their minds race back to what is likely now their final conversations with their parents, a tearful Kima and Lil reach out their hands to each other, all the hate between them fading away as they’re unified by grief and tragedy.
So yes, we do learn things that are likely important to the set up of Star Trek: Picard here—the Mars attack is conducted by “rogue synths,” suggesting some interesting debates and conflicts about androids and perhaps even liberated Borg in this late 24th century Federation. This nightmare is also likely one of several, including the impending destruction of Romulus, that pushes Picard to retire from duty. But it’s in Kima and Lil’s bittersweet unity that we perhaps learn the most about what we should expect coming into Star Trek: Picard.
This is not the ideal utopia we last saw Picard and his crew boldly going about in during The Next Generation and its movie sequels. It’s not even the one bruised by horrifying conflicts like the Dominion War in Deep Space Nine. It is a tired world, a dismayed one, buffeted by repeated attacks on its loftiest values—one that, as Patrick Stewart has made clear repeatedly going into Picard, perhaps more realistically portrays a reflection of our own likewise buffeted present. And yet in that darker, harsher world, there is still hope. Hope that differences can be put aside, that the darkness that threatens to lay those mightiest of ideals low can be confronted by the simple act of reaching out, of standing together on a united front.
If you come to “Children of Mars” looking for an infodump precursor to Star Trek: Picard, you may find yourself left cold. But in its esoteric, haunting approach and its simple moments of emotion, it tells us everything we really need to know about the state of the Federation—of the state of Picard himself—to prepare us for a dark time, and the idealism needed to combat it.