There can be spoilers…just for one blog!
I just finished watching the sixth and final SHORT TREKS of the second round of mini-episodes (do we call them “seasons”?). The shortest of all of the Short Treks thus far, the episode runs only 6 minutes and 47 seconds before the closing credits roll. But it’s time well-utilized!
It’s hard to know what to say first. In these editorial review blogs, I try not to just parrot what all of the other reviewers are saying because…what’s the point? Most reviewers are offering a summary of the episode. If you want that (and don’t mind the spoilers), then check out this review for a short summary or this review for a much more detailed recounting.
Many reviewers are concentrating on the kick-in-the-gut feel of the attack on Mars, and that was very obvious. This incident is going to be a paradigm shift for the Federation …just as the December 7, 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 were for the United States and the world. Nothing would ever be the same again. After “Children of Mars,” the date that will live in infamy will be April 5—First Contact Day—and the culprits won’t be a foreign Pacific power or Middle Eastern extremists but these mysterious “Synths” (whatever they are).
A few folks are complaining that the starships at Utopia Planitia look more like movie-era or even Discovery-era designs rather than 24th century vessels. And yeah, the VFX guys probably kept things cheap and used the models they had on hand. Others complained that it was never really explained why these two girls initially hated each other (was it all just over a shoulder bump?), although I don’t think that was important for us to know. The impact of the story wasn’t why they were fighting so much as what made them stop.
So no, I’m not going to rehash any of that. Instead I am going to say something totally provocative and controversial:
I think GENE RODDENBERRY would have hated “Children of Mars” being presented as Star Trek.
And even more controversial:
I also think he would have been dead wrong!
Okay, let’s begin…
I only ever met and spoke with Gene Roddenberry once in my life, and that was in a side conference room full of people at a con in 1984 waiting for Gene to go on stage. And while I know and have worked with Gene’s son ROD RODDENBERRY on occasion, I can’t claim to be a “Gene expert.” Therefore, when I say that Gene would have hated “Children of Mars,” I made sure to include “I think” because I obviously can’t be certain.
But I do know that it was widely accepted that Gene saw the world of the 23rd and 24th centuries as a social and economic “utopia” for Earth and the Federation. We had (somehow) conquered challenges like poverty, sickness, hunger, inequality, and yes, prejudice. Most of us have heard the stories about how, during the first few seasons of Next Gen, Gene angered and confounded the writers by not allowing for dramatic frictions between the crew members of the Enterprise-D. In the future, he’d say, everybody gets along with everybody else (except for the “bad guys” like the Romulans and Ferengi) because we’ve matured as a species. We explore space and celebrate science. We’re not bullies.
Ironically, one of Star Trek‘s most famous bullies was not only introduced under Gene’s watch but actually went to Starfleet Academy with Kirk. I refer, of course, to Sean Finnegan, the Irish jokester who made “Jimmy-boy”‘s life as a cadet a living hell. But Finnegan was necessary for the story of the episode “Shore Leave,” and while we all loved to hate Finnegan, he seemed to be having some good-natured fun and laughing (annoying so) while doing it.
In “Children of Mars,” these two lasses hate-hate-HATE each other, and their mutual animosity and wordless vitriol are palpable and visceral. And worse yet, it seemed to come out of nowhere. Maybe Lil (the girl with the freckles) is pissed off at her dad, having a bad day, and takes it out on poor Kima by bumping her hard, knocking her down, and making her miss a shuttle bus to school…or maybe it’s just an accident. Hard to know, but does it really matter? The seeds of hatred have been planted.
Meanwhile, instead of turning the other cheek as Gene would have wanted wanted from a “mature” citizen of the United Federation of Planets, Kima escalates the frictions, Lil retaliates, and before you know it, Iranian generals are getting assassinated and missiles are being fired at military bases in the middle of the night. Oh, wait…that’s a different channel on the TV.
Anyway, I think Gene would be running into the writers room waving his arms and shouting, “No, no, no! That’s not what it’s like in the future! Children wouldn’t be this cruel to each other. In the future, parents wouldn’t abandon their kids for years just to work longer hours building starships! Schools wouldn’t allow this kind of fighting. It almost seems like some kind of racial hatred between humans and aliens, and we don’t have that either! You can’t do this episode.”
But if Gene had nixed “Children of Mars,” that would have been a sad thing indeed because this was a beautifully crafted episode. More on that in a moment. But first, let’s talk about the “darkening” of Star Trek in the years since Gene’s death in 1991.
The first example of Star Trek‘s “evolution” from Gene’s utopian view of the future was the emergence of Deep Space Nine in 1993, which was billed to the public as a “darker” Star Trek. Of course, compared to Discovery, DS9 now feels like a Disney princess movie, but back then, it was a huge departure from everything being bright and colorful and everyone getting along.
Voyager was even darker, initially putting together two crews that were enemies and then navigating home through a quadrant that was more like the galactic equivalent of South Central Los Angeles with gangs and guns and hostile intentions. Forget exploring strange, new worlds—everywhere Voyager went in the Delta Quadrant, someone was trying to use them for target practice!
But it wasn’t until Enterprise reached its post-9/11 third season in 2003 that Star Trek truly took a leap into the darkness. The Xindi attack on Florida and the PTSD reaction of the NX-01 crew was something that I truly believe would have had Gene whirling like a Dervish in his grave. And honestly, that season was hard for me to watch, as well, as Archer’s less kind, less gentle “tough guy” personage was hard to reconcile with what Star Trek had meant to me. Star Trek was always a “safe” place I could go to escape the darkness of the real world…and now it seemed to be just as dark.
Granted, if you think back, Star Trek always did provide a reflection of the ills of the real world, whether it was racism in the 1960s, the war in Vietnam, overpopulation, homophobia in the 1990s, homelessness, or any number of other hot-button issues. But somehow, the stories kept a bit of a distance from it. The characters were affected by the issues during the episode(s) themselves, but they’d get past it all somehow. Even continuing storylines like Nog’s own PTSD during the Dominion War and Bashir’s interactions with the nefarious Sloan from Section 31 were eventually resolved with satisfying endings. I suppose Archer and his crew eventually got past trauma of the Xindi attack, as well, but it took most of the third season for it to happen.
Then everything went out the window with Discovery, as that darkness was built into the very DNA of the first season, and by the second, Starfleet was building Skynet and sowing the seeds of its own demise while Section 31 did whatever the heck Section 31 does these days.
And that brings us back to “Children of Mars.” While I mourn the loss of innocence and “safety” that Star Trek has represented to me for the last five decades, I have to admit and acknowledge that the world itself has changed, television has changed, and maybe Star Trek needs to change, too.
Man, I can’t believe I just said that!
I mean, it’s still an uphill battle for me with Discovery, but it looks like, from what we just saw with “Children of Mars” (which likely takes place about 13-15 years before the time of the upcoming STAR TREK: PICARD) that the new Picard series will be “dark.” Gone are the days of a perfectly-imagined future utopia where everyone loves and respects everyone else (except Finnegan). There is hate in this future world, pain, suffering, loneliness, anger. Yes, it saddens me, but I also know that, without the darkness, the light—and the hope for that light—loses its impact and significance.
Star Trek should ALWAYS have significance. That was true in the 1960’s, and it is true today. But can Star Trek retain its significance in a world like the one that exists in 2020? I realize that many fans of The Orville will say that, yes, you can have a “light” show that is still successful—in many ways even more so than Discovery. I don’t disagree. But I don’t think the secret to the Orville‘s success is its inherent lightness. There are been some VERY dark episodes of that show in the second season. I think the reason many fans prefer The Orville to Discovery (and I realize that there’s also a vice-versa to that statement) is that Orville, in general, has better writers and more engaging stories—not that one is dark and the other is light.
But back to Picard…
There’s one thing we all know in our hearts: this new show can’t be just another TNG. There’s no reason for SIR PATRICK STEWART to simply return to that same well because he’s long since drained it. So this new series WILL be different from what we’ve known before. But does that necessarily mean it has to be dark? Well, it doesn’t have to be anything, but yes, I think the darkness and the pain and the suffering is necessary because it gives the new series a purpose. Picard’s “goal”—as he nears the end of his life—is to bring back the ideals and values of the Federation of his youth. Dare I say that he wants to “Make the Federation Great Again”???
But as I said, if we the fans want Picard’s mission to have meaning, then he can’t just be fighting for the status quo anymore. The Federation needs to have stumbled, to have fallen off its perch, in order for Picard and his new crew to help pick it back up again.
For this reason, “Children of Mars” succeeds in introducing us to this new 24th century. And unlike Discovery, it doesn’t have to contradict what we’ve already come to know and love. The TNG “era” still exists. But this is after the Dominion War and the destruction of Romulus. This is after the attack on San Francisco by the Breen. This is after the Borg offensives against Earth on multiple occasions. In other words, the worlds of the Federation now realize that they are living in dangerous times!
And so do we in 2020. That’s why the 9/11 “moment” at the end of “Children of Time” felt so real to me. I remember where I was when the twin towers came down, when Challenger blew up, when John Lennon was shot. I’ve had my life-changing “moments,” and I knew on some level what the characters in this Short Treks episode must have been feeling as they watched FNN. I don’t think Gene would have wanted such “moments” to threaten he peace and perfection of his utopian future, but I think the world is no longer content to see aliens painted half black and half white or primitive villagers shooting flintlocks at hill people. I think, in today’s world, we need to ground ourselves a little closer to our “reality” in our science fiction.
Before I end this editorial review, and because it is a review, I want to say a few words about what a visual and auditory masterpiece this episode was. Screw the 15-minute fan film limit! What these people did, they did in six minutes (just like Genesis in Star Trek II). And they did it without almost any dialog. Kima and Lil introduce themselves with once sentence each, we hear enough of Lil’s dad to know that he’s a jerk, and nearly everything else is either wordless or muffled words. What was communicated in the episode required visual cues, physical and facial acting, and superb post-production editing.
I also have to give a nod to the production design and directing because, if you watch the episode (or watch it again), you’ll notice that things are very monochromatic. Most of the settings are bland colors like whites, grays, tans, beiges, an the such. The adults all wear black. The only saturated “color” we see—with very few exceptions like the green trees—is the bright burgundy red of the uniform jackets. This calls attention to the two girls in particular.
The other color that is meant to get our attention is the glowing blue of the monitors. This conveys information that we need to read, like the fact that it’s First Contact Day and, later, that the various monitor screens are each being switched, one by one, to the news footage of the attack on Mars. Because no other colors compete for our attention, we know quickly and easily to focus on the girls first and then on the monitors. And once the attacks begin, it’s a limited palette again, although this time, it’s all the rust-red of Mars, the bright red of the weapons, the bright orange of the explosions, and the cool blue glow and cold gray metal of the attacking synths. In other words, the attackers are “cool” and emotionless while the damage is “hot” and devastating. And finally we see Picard, and he is both red (“hot” but also the familiar command color) and also blue (“cool”).
In terms of music, I know that some fans, when they heard the Beastie Boys in Star Trek Beyond, felt that the 23rd or 24th century wasn’t the right time to hear music from the 1980s and 1990s (although The Orville does it all the time!). While I generally subscribe to that opinion, here I need to make the notable exception. First of all, I love David Bowie’s 1977 song Heroes, and I love Peter Gabriel’s 2010 cover of it even more. The later changes tone and intensity midway, and “Children of Mars” exploited that musical shift masterfully when the cold war between Lil and Kima suddenly turned very, very hot. (There’s those words again!) But the use of this “ancient” song helped convey the emotions of the story perfectly, from the anticipation of the early verses to the dramatic intensity of the later crescendoes.
One thing is clear about these past six Short Treks: the franchise has entered a period of unprecedented experimentation in tone, format, and even artistic approach. We might not like everything they throw at us (you hear me, Edward???), but we can’t fault them for not trying new things. In the meantime, I’m still very excited and intrigued to see what CBS All Access (and Prime Video for those outside the U.S.) serves up for us a week from this Thursday.
When it comes to Star Trek, my friends, we are truly living in fascinating times!