Children of Mars – a review

Spoiler Warning: There will be spoilers for the Short Treks episode Children of Mars.

For those of you lucky enough to live in the United States, the latest episode of Short Treks – and the final episode of the current “season” – premiered yesterday. Before we jump into the full review, I want to address again the stupidity of keeping these episodes away from the majority of the Star Trek audience and fan community.

ViacomCBS needs to get as many people invested in the Star Trek franchise as possible. It’s one of their main properties, it’s one they’ve invested a lot of money in, and in order to ever see a return on that investment – which in the days of the “streaming wars” is no longer guaranteed – they need as many people on board as possible. As Star Trek: Picard premieres in two weeks, now is the time to start a huge push to bring in as many people as possible – both returning fans and curious newcomers.

Children of Mars serves as a “prequel” to Picard. Its story is inherently tied to the upcoming series, and Admiral Picard himself even features – albeit very briefly and only on a screen. So why is this episode, of all the Short Treks episodes, not available outside the United States? Here in the UK, and I believe in other countries and territories too, Amazon Prime will be broadcasting Picard. Why are they not also showing this episode of Short Treks? Children of Mars wasn’t the best Short Treks has had to offer this season – spoiler alert for the review below, I guess – but it is a part of the Picard story, and one which at the very least would remind people that the show is coming and get people paying attention. With only a short time left until Picard premieres, now is the time for ViacomCBS to pull out all the stops and get the word out about this series.

Short Treks as a concept was designed for this very reason – to keep the Star Trek brand alive in the public mind while the main shows were in between seasons. And Children of Mars is literally made to be a teaser to get people excited for Picard.

With CBS All Access in a difficult market, and running an in-house streaming platform being an incredibly expensive endeavour at the best of times, Star Trek since 2017 has only been financially stable thanks to outside investment – first from Netflix, who essentially paid for all of Discovery‘s first season, and later from Amazon Prime, who snapped up the rights to Picard. Star Trek’s international audience is big – at the very least equal in number to the audience in the United States, and quite possibly bigger. Yet despite all of these factors, Short Treks hasn’t been made available to us, and despite the fact that the sale of international broadcast rights has been essential to Star Trek’s continued production in the wake of CBS All Access’ shaky market hold at home, ViacomCBS treats its international audience like second-class citizens. They don’t care about us, yet without our viewership, the money they’ve been getting from companies like Netflix, Amazon, and other broadcasters like Channel 4 would dry up, leaving not only the Star Trek brand but CBS All Access itself in a very perilous position.

This remains a source of considerable disappointment.

But that’s enough about that for now. When I tracked down a copy, I sat down to watch Children of Mars, and finally, for the first time since Nemesis in 2002 and brief scenes in Star Trek in 2009, we were back in the 24th Century.

Utopia Planitia as seen in Children of Mars.

Not that that was immediately obvious. Short Treks has worked very well in the past by reusing Discovery‘s sets, but obviously for a short-format show there’s a limited budget and not much scope to build whole new sets. And in this case, that was painfully apparent. The building representing the school had a definite modern-day feel throughout, despite the CGI trappings of the 24th Century, and unfortunately that was noticeable to me. Star Trek has always had a distinctively futuristic aesthetic, and even though the look has changed and evolved significantly between its 1960s origins and its more recent iterations, there were not many moments where as the audience we were knocked out of the future because what we were looking at looked like something from today. Children of Mars absolutely has this issue, and it runs through the entire episode.

Indeed many of the aesthetic choices are strange by Star Trek standards. The school uniforms would be just as at home in the modern day, and had no Star Trek elements at all. We’ve seen countless civilian and non-Starfleet outfits in Star Trek, but none looked like this. Again, it was a modern day school uniform with a white polo shirt and red blazer. And maybe this is a minor point and up for debate, but would 24th Century schoolkids need big school bags like those depicted in the short episode? On its own I wouldn’t have noticed, but as an accessory to a bland, modern day school uniform on kids running around a perfectly nice but definitely contemporary building, it just added to the impression that this wasn’t the 24th Century after all.

There’s also the fact that a significant portion of the first half of the episode has its soundtrack taken over by a modern pop song, which again adds to the feeling that we’re watching something from our own time with a few bits of CGI tacked on.

Transport shuttle from Children of Mars.

It’s difficult to tell a compelling story in less than eight minutes, and I understand that for budget reasons we aren’t going to be running around a brand new, never-before-seen starship and interacting with dozens of characters. My expectations for an episode like this are kept in check. But even so, I couldn’t help but feel a little underwhelmed.

It’s no criticism of the two young actresses, who gave fine performances, but they didn’t really have much to say, and all we really got for more than half the total runtime was a kind of overly-artistic, soundtrack-heavy sequence of two girls making their way to school. During which I just remember thinking to myself that “this doesn’t feel like Star Trek.”

So the basic premise is that there are these two girls who each have at least one parent who works at Utopia Planitia. If you don’t remember from previous iterations of Star Trek, Utopia Planitia is one of Starfleet’s biggest shipyards, and it’s on/orbiting Mars. It’s never fully shown on screen, but it has been referenced a number of times across several different series. Anyway, one of the girls is an alien – maybe from the same species as Tilly’s friend Po from the Short Treks episode Runaway, which fed into Discovery‘s second season. The other at least appears to be human.

I think we were meant to get the impression from the girls’ conversations with their parents that there’s some kind of class difference. One of the parents is an “anti-grav rigger”, and the other is a “quality systems supervisor”. It’s not clear, especially because both parents seemed to be dressed in engineering gear – complete with helmets – but I think we’re supposed to infer that Lil’s family is perhaps the Star Trek equivalent of the middle class, and Kima’s is working class. It seems like they were going for that, at least.

The majority of the episode doesn’t take place on Mars itself, as the girls seem to be living and/or going to school on another planet. I want to say on Earth, but this isn’t clear at all and realistically it could be any one of a number of Federation worlds. Lil’s dad tells her he’s too busy with work to come home, and she heads to school in a sulk, deliberately pushing Kima on her way to the shuttle, causing the latter girl to miss the shuttle. Kima eventually gets to school and the two girls continue their rivalry, silently bickering with each other until eventually a fight breaks out for which they’re both in trouble.

The way this was done was fine, it paints Lil as more of the aggressor than Kima, but ultimately they’re both responsible for continuing the feud and escalating it. As a work of characterisation it’s okay given the short timeframe and by the episode’s climax we know the girls greatly dislike one another.

As they sit a few metres apart in the school’s lobby area, either in detention or waiting for punishment, a couple of the teachers receive a message on handheld communicators. The message is soon broadcast all over the school, and shows a significant attack on Mars.

The stingray ships of the “rogue synths” attacking Mars in Children of Mars.

The vessels engaged in the attack aren’t any we’ve seen before, and it would be pure speculation to try to identify them. But hey, that sounds like fun so let’s do that. They’re described on-screen as “rogue synths”, but that doesn’t tell us anything of their origins. Purely from the design of the vessels, which had a kind of stingray-esque shape, my first thought was Klingons. I could see that shape of vessel being a natural progression from the Klingon ships of the 24th Century. But then we know Picard is going to deal with the Romulans, and that Utopia Planitia is building a fleet to help Romulans, so maybe it was a faction in the Empire opposed to Federation help. I could see vessels of that design being Romulan – again as a natural evolution from their 24th Century ships that we’ve already seen. I don’t think it was the Borg, as I can’t see them using ships of that type, nor carrying out an attack of this type. Their style has always been to assimilate instead of exterminate, so this wouldn’t fit. The other possibility is that these are Federation ships – or ex-Federation ships commandeered by a new breakaway faction like the Maquis.

The stingray ships, as I’m calling them for now, are by far the most interesting ship designs from Children of Mars. The Federation ships being built at Utopia Planitia – as glimpsed briefly at the beginning of the episode – looked decidedly 23rd Century to my eyes. They looked like ships better suited to the Discovery era than the Picard era, and considering it was all CGI I don’t really see why that had to be the case. For nostalgia’s sake they could’ve easily dropped a Galaxy-class or Excelsior-class ship in there instead of the Discovery-esque ships that we ultimately saw, as that would’ve avoided revealing too much about Picard-era ships if that was a concern for whatever reason.

Admiral Picard’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Children of Mars.

The CGI work for the shipyard and later for the attack on Mars was decent. Not cinema-level, perhaps, but good enough not to be immersion-breaking. At the end of the day, that’s its basic job and it accomplished it successfully, so credit to the animators involved for that. The way that the stingray ships seemed to glide while in flight was great, their motion was clearly unlike any heavier-than-air craft we have in the modern day, so that was a high point of the animation for me.

Children of Mars will feed into the events of Star Trek: Picard, though exactly how is unclear. Short Treks has had a strange relationship with the main Star Trek shows thus far, with some episodes like Calypso and The Escape Artist being true one-shots that didn’t tie into anything else in Discovery, and others like Runaway where a main character crossed over. It isn’t clear yet how this story will affect Picard, and whether the two girls featured, or their parents, will make an appearance. If I had to guess I’d say probably not, and that this episode was just a vehicle to communicate the attack on Mars, but we’ll see in a couple of weeks I suppose!

Unfortunately, Children of Mars didn’t tell the kind of story that I personally find very interesting. The attack on Mars itself will be significant for Star Trek: Picard, and in that sense I’m glad to have seen it and been aware of it. However, the majority of the episode wasn’t about that. Indeed the attack sequence takes up little more than one minute in total. The bulk of the story is the tension between the two girls, which immediately evaporates when they realise what’s going on.

And as a story concept, that’s fine. It’s nice to see two people who weren’t friends come together in the face of a crisis. As they hold hands at the end of the episode, it marks the end of their childish fighting, and because of the severity of what’s happened, arguably the end of their childhoods too.

Perhaps a short format wasn’t right for this story, or perhaps the episode spent too long building up the enmity and fighting before getting to the resolution, because the girls coming together at the end and just letting go of all their anger toward one another didn’t feel like it was earned or that it was plausible. And I know what some people would say, that looking for plausible outcomes in a Short Treks episode is too much. But Children of Mars presented itself this way, as an artistic-inspired, character-centred story. So how the only two characters involved in that story go from enemies to friends in a single moment is the absolute crux of the story, and it’s the part we should rightly be focused on.

I get what the director was going for. This was a story that wanted to say “people can put their petty arguments and rivalries aside in the face of catastrophe, and come together.” It’s an inspiring message of the kind Star Trek has always been good at delivering. But something about the overly-artistic way it was presented, with practically no dialogue, a heavy soundtrack, and stylised camera work just didn’t work for me. And the ultimate pay-off when the girls realise that they have to come together didn’t work either as a plausible outcome. As an artistic outcome, and as a philosophical outcome, sure, it makes perfect sense. But if we’re to treat the girls as real characters inhabiting this fictional galaxy, I just didn’t feel that they had gotten to a place by the end of the episode that the attack on Mars would bring them together in that way. Did they even know each other had a parent stationed there? That detail would’ve built up the emotional bond between them, but because it wasn’t made clear on screen how well they knew each other or if they knew about each other’s family, that moment was robbed of some of its dramatic effect.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical of a short episode. But this is the way ViacomCBS chose to present the “prequel” to Picard. They didn’t have to do it this way, they could’ve told literally any story they wanted if all it had to do was be a vehicle for showing off that Mars was attacked in the years prior to Picard. That they chose this story about fighting schoolgirls was an artistic one, and I respect that. It just didn’t come across as a strong story on its own, at least in my opinion. The sequence where Mars comes under attack is worth watching for anyone intent on tuning in for Star Trek: Picard, but as I said it’s barely a minute long, and the rest of the episode, while interesting in concept, ends up being little more than fluff.

Maybe we’ll see these characters again, if they crop up later in Picard. At this point that’s not confirmed, but if they do then maybe the episode will get some more context and will be worth a rewatch at that point. I kind of hope that turns out to be the case, because I feel Children of Mars is quite a weak story when taken as a standalone piece.

The aesthetic and design issues certainly hampered it too, and it would have been better to redress a Discovery set for the schoolroom than use whatever contemporary building they ended up going with.

Both the starships being constructed and the transport shuttle to take the children to school were both very much in the same style as Discovery. While I like that look overall, it’s a 23rd Century look, is it not? We should surely have seen some kind of change between Discovery and the era of Picard, and if they didn’t want to go to the trouble of making all new models and designs, it would have been better in my opinion to reuse some of the TNG-era designs than fall back on those from the Discovery era. I think seeing a familiar starship or shuttle design would’ve also been a nice little wink to returning fans.

Unless Children of Mars has a more significant relationship with Star Trek: Picard than I’m assuming at present, I’m in no hurry to watch it again. It was okay, but it wasn’t Short Treks‘ finest offering by any means, and as both a tie-in to Picard and a first look at the 24th Century really since 2002, it was a bit of a let-down.

The Star Trek franchise – including Short Treks and Star Trek: Picard – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. Children of Mars is available to stream in the United States on CBS All Access – but not anywhere else at time of writing. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.