*This post contains full spoilers for both episodes discussed, but contains no spoilers for Star Trek: Picard.
Star Trek: Short Treks – “Ephraim and Dot” (season 2, episode 5)
Written by Chris Silvestri & Anthony Maranville; directed by Michael Giacchino; first aired in 2019
We open on a 1950s-style film reel, bearing the logo of the 23rd-century Federation and titled, The Tardigrade in Space. This film introduces Ephraim, a pregnant tardigrade who plans to lay her eggs on an asteroid which collides with Captain Kirk’s Enterprise. Desperate to get aboard the Enterprise and find a suitable spot for her eggs, Ephraim ends up in a Tom and Jerry-style battle of wits with Dot, a worker robot determined to keep intruders off the ship. Against the backdrop of memorable moments from The Original Series and the films based on it – including glimpses of Khan Noonien Singh, shirtless sword-fighting Sulu, and giant space-faring Abraham Lincoln – their slapstick hijinks continue until Ephraim finally lays her eggs near the Enterprise’s engines, right before getting kicked off the ship by Dot. Dot finally realizes what Ephraim was doing on the ship, though, and rescues the eggs as the Enterprise self-destructs in the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Amidst the wreckage of the ship, Ephraim is reunited with her babies as they hatch, and along with Dot, they “go boldly,” in the words of the returning film-strip narrator, “where no one has gone before.”
Star Trek: Short Treks – “Children of Mars” (season 2, episode 6)
Written by Kirsten Beyer & Jenny Lumet & Alex Kurtzman; directed by Mark Pellington; first aired in 2020
We open on voice-over introductions from alien Kima and human Lil, school girls on Earth in the late 24th century. Kima’s mother and Lil’s father both work off-planet, in the orbital facilities and shipyards of Mars. We see Kima and her mother joking around in subspace communication, while Lil’s own subspace conversation with her father goes very differently; he apologizes for not being able to get away from work for First Contact Day, and she angrily hangs up on him. As the two girls are on their way to school in the morning, Lil tries to take out her frustrations by knocking Kima’s bag out of her hands and making her miss the school-shuttle. Arriving late to school, Kima retaliates against Lil, and Lil retaliates back, in a largely dialogue-free montage of increasingly hostile moments between the two which culminates in a full-on hallway brawl, and is set to the sounds of Peter Gabriel’s haunting cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Later, the girls have been separated, and sit facing away from each other in the school’s atrium as the Vulcan principle gets ready to give them a talking-to. He suddenly has more pressing matters on his mind, though, as does everyone else, as first his hand-held PADD, and then the overhead holo-screens, begin to show disturbing news footage of an attack on Mars, which has seemingly destroyed the very facilities where both Kima’s mother and Lil’s father were working. As staff and students gather to watch the footage in shocked silence, Kima and Lil flash back to the last conversations they had with their respective parents, and wordlessly take each other’s hand.
For someone with the strange habit of writing essays comparing episodes from different series of Star Trek, the way this franchise chose to end off its 2019, and then kick off its 2020, was fascinating. That ending and beginning both came from the same series, if “series” is the right word for the short-fiction anthology that is Short Treks. But the tone, the setting, the subject matter, even the medium of these episodes almost literally could not have been more different from each other, even if they had come from different series. Short Treks ended 2019 by simultaneously unveiling the first two animated episodes set in this fictional universe since The Animated Series ended in the mid-1970s, each with its own distinct tone and animation style; “The Girl Who Made the Stars” depicts a bedtime story from the childhood of Discovery’s Michael Burnham in the style of a kid-friendly Pixar short, while “Ephraim and Dot” emulates the slapstick cartoon hijinks of Tom and Jerry, or of old Warner Brothers characters like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, even as it makes use of the same 23rd-century setting as the aforementioned Animated Series. But once the new year had started, Short Treks followed that light-hearted animated double feature with “Children of Mars,” a prelude to the debut of Picard, set near the end of the 24th century and featuring a grounded, serious, emotionally complex story presented very much in the style of a contemporary prestige drama (presumably giving us a taste not just of Picard’s subject matter, but of its tone and narrative approach as well).
But for all that is so obviously, viscerally different about these installments of Short Treks, there are also some striking similarities between “Children of Mars” and, most specifically, “Ephraim and Dot” (“The Girl Who Made the Stars” is certainly worth looking at in its own right, but for now I’ll leave it to talk about in a later piece, as I think it’s doing something quite different than the other two shorts). “Ephraim and Dot” and “Children of Mars” each clock in at about eight minutes long, which seems very brief even for a series with the word “short” in its title, and continues a trend of shortening run-times throughout its second season (with only “The Girl Who Made the Stars” being shorter than these two episodes). And getting into the unglamorous realities of Star Trek as a real-world business, there is, of course, the fact that these Short Treks are clearly meant to prime viewers for new series of Star Trek to come in 2020. With the animated comedy Lower Decks currently set to debut later this year, “Ephraim and Dot” can be seen as something of an audience warm-up for what will be Trek’s first full-on animated series in almost half a century, and its first series ever to be primarily structured as, and explicitly billed as, a comedy. And “Children of Mars,” debuting mere weeks before Picard’s first episode, could cynically, but pretty accurately, be described as more of an extended trailer for that much-anticipated series than a Short Trek unto itself. As emotionally effective as I found “Children of Mars” to be (and we’ll get into that below), my only real reservation about the episode, so soon after its release, is also kind of a significant one: it’s hard to say if “Children” will hold up, going forward, as its own story, or if it will end up feeling more like “bonus content” from season one of Picard.
Turning back to the brighter topic of story-telling, though, these episodes, for all their differences, might be seen as taking on the same challenge: what is the smallest unit of story that can, or should, be told in the Star Trek universe? If an episode is going to be as short as these are, and is going to tell its story in a way that Star Trek never has before – as “Ephraim and Dot” and “Children of Mars” each do, in their own way – what is it about that story that will make it a Star Trek story? I don’t ask these questions with an intention to gate-keep; I’m not talking about judging whether or not these episodes are Star Trek (spoiler: they are). I’m talking, instead, about what makes Star Trek Star Trek? What can Star Trek be? What is the simplest, most bare-bones idea that can be taken away from a story as representing “what Trek is,” no matter how short that story may be, how different it may seem from nearly all the other stories Trek has ever told? Both “Ephraim and Dot” and “Children of Mars” settle on the same answer to that question: a Star Trek story is the story of people overcoming their differences, finding they have more in common than they thought, and ultimately working together. That isn’t the only possible answer, of course, but it’s one that works for me.
And “Ephraim and Dot” cleverly chooses to tell that familiar story in a format which is both new to Star Trek, and is typically used to tell the opposite sort of story. Whether it’s Tom and Jerry, Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, or that old timecard-punching sheepdog and wolf, these sorts of cartoon rivalries were deliberately designed to be endless and intractable. Cats want to eat mice, but mice don’t want to be eaten by cats; no middle ground there. As disturbing as a coyote being blown up with ACME-brand dynamite might be if we stopped to think about it – something The Simpsons points out when it critiques and/or revels in the over-the-top violence of its own meta-cartoon, Itchy and Scratchy – that criticism is at least superficially deflected by the fact that, you know, not wanting to be eaten is a pretty relatable motivation; the predator-prey relationship gives the prey license to do what it has to, and gives the audience license to laugh at whatever happens to the predator, however, uh, disproportionate it might be. Sounds like a terrible premise for a story set in the famously humane Star Trek universe, you might say … which is exactly why “Ephraim and Dot” adopts the trappings of those cartoons but makes one simple, but fundamental change to their character dynamics. Unlike the Coyote and the Road Runner, Ephraim and Dot aren’t playing a zero-sum game – they just think they are, until late in the episode. Ephraim wants to lay her eggs in a safe place, and protect them; Dot wants to keep the Enterprise and its crew – characters already beloved by, presumably, most of this episode’s viewers – safe. Dot chases Ephraim off because it sees her as a threat and/or nuisance to that crew, but as soon as it discovers Ephraim’s eggs, its mission parameters change to reflect one of the fundamental mission statements of both Starfleet and Star Trek – to respect and value life, whatever form it may come in. And in a weird, weird way, what could be truer to the ideals of Trek than metaphorically reaching a peaceful resolution to the differences between a psychotically violent cartoon cat and mouse?
Another way that the source material for “Ephraim and Dot” makes its violence acceptable to audiences is by making it cartoonish, in every sense of that word; however strong your convictions against violent media might be, it’s kind of tough not to feel at least a little silly (fairly or not) for taking seriously an animated universe where sheep dogs and wolves punch timecards, and where you only fall if you look down. This playful warping of reality is another convention of the genre that “Ephraim and Dot” adopts, making it an unusual episode of Trek in yet another way, and maybe in the most significant way out of all the tweaks to Trek that we’re looking at here. Most obviously, if I’m not mistaken, “Ephraim and Dot” is only the second episode, in more than half a century of Star Trek, to explicitly break the fourth wall. Trek has certainly given a knowing meta-wink to its viewers here and there over the years, with my personal favorite coming from Voyager’s “The Haunting of Deck Twelve,” in which Neelix’s ghost story is peppered with typical Trek-style technobabble which he admits is meaningless, and insists is not worth thinking about too much. But there is a world of difference, narratively speaking, between something like that and the faux-50s-style film reel which begins “Ephraim and Dot,” or the already infamous faux-90s-style cereal commercial which closes another recent Short Trek, “The Trouble with Edward” (the latter being seemingly the first ever example of this in all of Trek, and debuting only a couple months before “Ephraim”). Neelix’s lines in “Haunting” are plausible, in-universe, as something the character might actually say, even if we know full well that’s not the only reason they were written. But the film strip and the commercial seem deliberately designed to be things that couldn’t plausibly exist in-universe, and by including them, “Ephraim” and “Edward” are explicitly acknowledging that what we’re watching is, ultimately, just a bunch of stuff some people made up (as all fiction is, of course, but rarely outright acknowledges).
Breaking the fourth wall in fiction is always a risky move. It’s very much the sort of narrative choice that either works for you or doesn’t, with not a lot of middle ground. And while I personally enjoy “Edward” for what it is (seemingly more so than many other long-time Trek viewers), I can see how its choice to end with a reality-bending faux-commercial might leave some viewers feeling that the episode they just watched wasn’t playing fair with them (especially since “Edward” isn’t animated, and therefore appears, at least initially, to be an episode of Star Trek like any other). “Ephraim,” then, makes maybe the smarter choice by opening with the faux-film strip, immediately telegraphing the playful, Wile E. Coyote-style heightened reality we’ll get from the rest of the episode. Yes, this episode plays pretty fast and loose with the timeline of Original Series events it references in the background of its robot-and-tardigrade chase, and with the length of time over which that chase takes place. But since the episode has already established, from its first seconds of screen time, that it’s emulating the reality-warping hijinks of its classic cartoon forebears, I would hope that even the most continuity-conscious Trek fan could at least sit back and enjoy the in-jokes (my personal favorite – as much as I appreciate seeing Khan again – being the return of Space-Lincoln).
“Children of Mars” depicts a different sort of cat-and-mouse chase, but as in “Ephraim and Dot,” this conflict is fueled by misunderstandings, and ultimately leads to a greater understanding between its two protagonists. Also like “Ephraim,” “Children” tells this story against the backdrop of a side of the Star Trek universe we’re not used to seeing; not just an unfamiliar setting within that universe, but an unfamiliar perspective on it. And again like “Ephraim,” “Children” does this through the use of TV-making techniques we wouldn’t normally associate with Star Trek, some of which we’ve never seen in Trek, like the use of a split-screen effect to depict Kima and Lil each leaving their respective quarters on their way to school in the morning; the use of Peter Gabriel’s cover of “Heroes” as background music, as well, is only the second time (after, again, “The Trouble with Edward”) that a pre-existing piece of music has appeared in an episode of Star Trek purely for the audience’s benefit, without being heard by the characters themselves; and even the fact that “Children” is almost free of dialogue really stands out as a stylistic choice, given that most of Trek’s TV incarnations are known for … well, for being a bit on the talky side, let’s say. “Ephraim” and “Children” are both highly stylized, each in their own way – especially by the standards of Star Trek, which has tended to embrace a pretty straightforward, unaffected style, at least until the era of Discovery and Picard. But where “Ephraim” makes stylistic choices to remove itself somewhat from the in-universe “reality” of the Trek universe, “Children” does so to ground itself deeper in that reality, by showing us the more mundane, everyday side of future life on Earth, and outside of Starfleet generally, that we’ve so seldom seen from other series of Star Trek (with Deep Space Nine remaining the single, unique exception to that, so far at least).
The unfamiliar setting we see in “Children of Mars” is that of a school on Earth – something I don’t believe we’ve ever seen before in Star Trek, outside of Starfleet Academy. And the unfamiliar perspective “Children” takes is that of two students at that school, children living what we might assume to be normal lives adjacent to, but outside of, the bubble of Starfleet within which most of Star Trek has taken place to this point; Kima’s mom and Lil’s dad may be involved in the building of Starfleet ships, but don’t seem to be in Starfleet. I’ve half-complained before that, by so often focusing on humanity’s best and brightest solving the galaxy’s problems, Star Trek can inadvertently make its hopeful vision of a future utopia harder for me to buy into, as I so rarely get to see what actually makes daily life for regular people so utopian. “Children,” though, devotes nearly all of its admittedly very, very short running time to the very, very relatable daily drama of early-teen life; even at the episode’s end, when the more galactic sort of drama intrudes on their lives, it does so in a way that’s more reminiscent of the real-world horror of regular people watching bad news scroll across their screens than, say, the in-universe horror of Commander Riker surveying the wreckage of the Battle of Wolf 359. The end of “Children of Mars” is a very rare moment (again, outside of DS9) when Star Trek depicts the feelings of people who know something has just happened to change the world at large – and for Kima and Lil, their own personal worlds as well – for the worse, but don’t have the power of Starfleet to do anything about it, and can only go on living in that changed world, waiting for whatever happens next.
(It captures this feeling so specifically, in fact, that after first watching “Children,” I considered comparing it to the Enterprise episode “The Expanse” – not to be confused with the excellent non-Trek TV series of the same name – which kicked off Enterprise’s own season-long allegory for the real-world September 11th attacks and their aftermath. But while that larger storyline does ultimately lead Enterprise to some of its most interesting ideas, “The Expanse” itself, which depicts the allegorical attack on Earth that sets this story in motion, is so bogged down in the fate-of-the-galaxy side of Star Trek storytelling – from normally interesting Klingon politics to the largely incoherent “Temporal Cold War” storyline – that it doesn’t have anywhere near the visceral resonance for me that “Children” manages in a fraction of the running time.)
The double-edged sword of this slice-of-real-life approach, of course, is that “Children of Mars” makes the supposedly utopian 24th century feel more grounded … by making it feel a lot like our own 21st century. But that’s one element of this episode which is far from new to the franchise. Star Trek can tell us all it wants about how utopian and “evolved” 24th-century Earth is, but almost every time we’ve actually seen Earth-dwelling humans in Trek, it’s been another story; from Captain Picard’s cantankerous, luddite brother in “Family,” to Wesley Crusher’s cocky, privileged Starfleet Academy classmates in “The First Duty,” to Captain Sisko’s workaholic father and xenophobic former commanding officer in “Homefront” and “Paradise Lost,” whenever 24th-century humanity isn’t boldly going to strange new worlds, but is just routinely going about its own business, it invariably looks a lot like 20th– or 21st-century humanity. “Children of Mars” continues this long Trek tradition, showing us a future Earth where the technology has changed, but the people fundamentally haven’t. Parents still struggle to balance work and family (even in a world where work is, presumably, optional); teens still find some form of technology to hang up on their parents; and young friendships are still turbulent, as kids still need time, while growing up, to learn how to cope with frustration without taking it out on others (a lesson many adults today could stand to brush up on).
Where “Children of Mars” differs most from previous Trek, then, is in how slickly it presents this recognizably human story, how willing it is to foreground its stylistic choices for emotional effect. While I can’t really counter the argument that the girls’ conflict is staged more as a music video than an episode of television, I think that staging serves a deliberate narrative purpose, making it clear that what happens here is a lot less important than how it feels, to the girls and to us. This is an especially understandable approach from a work of dramatic fiction this short; having time only to sketch out the barest bones of a plot, “Children” opts to make the most of that time by aiming directly for the feels. The result is, again, more visceral than we might often expect from Star Trek. On my first viewing, I was legitimately surprised by how brutally physical the show allows Kima and Lil’s hallway fight to be, something I’ve rarely (if ever?) seen depicted on screen between girls their age. And with almost no dialogue, and in a very short time, Ilamaria Ebrahim and Sadie Munroe do an impressive job, as Kima and Lil respectively, of taking us through a range of emotions which are both elevated – in appropriate, early-teen fashion – and believable, for anyone who remembers being an early teen; the depth and emotional realism of their performances is in another league entirely, I’d say, from what we would typically get from guest child actors in earlier eras of Trek. What “Ephraim and Dot” does with the techniques of vintage violent cartoons, “Children of Mars” accomplishes through filmmaking choices which are strikingly contemporary (by Star Trek’s standards at least), with both telling that fundamentally Star Trek-y story of finding common ground in a way that largely foregoes sci-fi metaphor to focus, instead, on the visceral feeling of finding common ground.
Not that Trek had never been viscerally emotional before this, of course, as we’ll see next week when we look at two of Star Trek’s most emotional episodes, and two of its best of all time: The Next Generation’s “The Inner Light,” and Deep Space Nine’s “Far Beyond the Stars.”