Science fiction is filled with kids in space. This makes sense; if the future has us in space, children will be there, too. But if there are children in a spaceship, a number of things can go very wrong, both for the characters and the audience.
The biggest pitfall is that putting children in space often makes our heroes look like they’re morons. Or like they’re selfish. Or like they’re selfish morons. For example, in the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, we’re informed that the Enterprise is a family ship, so crewmembers can have their children on board. Of course, the premiere also immediately forces the ship to separate in order to keep people safe from the dangers the Federation ship encounters. In theory, the fact that the flagship of the Federation accommodates children is meant to convey that the future is a utopia. “Everything is so wonderful and safe, you can take your children with you! Our flagship has schools and everything!” But a safe and wonderful ship makes for boring television. So, instead, we have a ship carrying children that is in constant danger.
So either Starfleet — which we’re supposed to side with -—could not fathom that a quasi-military spaceship is an unsafe place for a child or they weren’t willing to take children off the ship once that became clear. So they’re idiots.
As for the parents, it may not be ideal to leave your children behind for long stretches of time. But, seriously, seriously, is it better for them to be with you on this ship? After the first nearly-fatal disease outbreak, space battle, or giant amoeba trying to eat you, don’t you get them back to Earth as soon as you can? THERE ARE STILL CHILDREN ON THE ENTERPRISE IN GENERATIONS! BE BETTER PARENTS, LEAVE THE KIDS WITH SOMEONE NOT ON A SHIP THAT IS ALWAYS NEAR CATASTROPHE.
At what point are parents who take their children on these kinds of missions just selfish about wanting to keep their families together and not accurately evaluating the danger?
Related to this are the parents who take their children into space “for science!” Lost in Space is based entirely on this trope. In order to begin colonization of space, the United States decides to launch a single family into space for 5 1/2 years. So the Robinsons take their three children into space with them. The 19-year-old apparently had a choice; the 13-year-old and 9-year-old didn’t. And, as it wouldn’t be called “Lost in Space” if everything went smoothly, they are promptly sabotaged and, well, lost.
And the children had to go on this mission why? Was there really no way to test this on Earth? Shouldn’t the first people sent to colonize deep space be adults? And then, after it works, you send the families with young children? Lost in Space claims that the Robinsons were chosen from two million volunteers. Two million people were willing to pack their families into space while other nations were willing to sabotage a ship with kids on it. That has some very nasty implications for what was mostly a light-hearted adventure show.
Also making horrible spaceship-related childcare decisions FOR SCIENCE! are the Hansens, parents of Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager. At least these are a case of parents not being presented in a positive light for what they did. Although they do get called “eccentric” instead of “unfit parents.”
They petitioned the Federation for a research ship, got it, and packed their young child for their mission... their mission to study the Borg. Why, that seems like the safest possible trip for a parent to take with their child. Ignoring the rather horrible part where they broke a bunch of laws to chase a Borg Cube and ended up getting assimilated 70 years away from home, how did they get their daughter on that ship? Who in the Federation approved a ship for “two scientists and a small child to go Borg hunting”? And it is the Federation, since Starfleet had security concerns. Yes, this plan was so bad that the same Starfleet that fills the Enterprise with children noticed something was wrong. Are there no child services you can call in the future?
The same reason children are often included is often the same reason it doesn’t work. Of course it’s more tragic to when an innocent child is placed in danger. But then there better be a bulletproof reason that they ended up there. Otherwise, the audience has just been handed a constant reminder that someone we’re supposed to trust makes horrible decisions.
Or how about any time the Doctor in Doctor Who picks up a child as his companion? The writers may think they’re creating a character younger viewers can relate to, but they’re also sending the message that our main character doesn’t really care about childrens’ safety.
The second major set of problems is that the one that arises when a child character is a main or often-recurring character. In order to make a normal kid plot-relevant, they’re going to be in dangerous situations a lot. Which brings back up the question of “Why are our heroes letting this happen?” The original Battlestar Galactica had this problem with Boxey. Fleeing killer robots with the remains of humanity is actually one situation where kids on the ships makes total sense. But then one of the heroes has a kid who just happens to get endangered a lot, and we’re back to thinking that they’re stupid.
Another way that kids in space are made plot-relevant is to make them special. They’re child prodigies or oracles or have some other power. While this does give a reason for why a child is being included in the action, it also requires some great writing to pull off convincingly. It is rarely handled that well. Wesley in The Next Generation. Will Robinson in Lost in Space. River Tam in Firefly. Adric in Doctor Who. Christa in Ascension. Padme Amidala in Star Wars. Doctor Zee in Galactica 180. Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars. The young Jedi and Padawans in the Star Wars Expanded Universe — look, I get that they’re Jedi, but they’re still kids. I can’t believe more didn’t go evil just from the stress.
With these kids, the question of “why” may be solved but then you have to make them believable characters (Anakin) who don’t end up making the adults look useless (Wesley) and who aren’t just plot devices (Christa).
If science fiction is going to insist on putting children on spaceships, they’d better make sure it actually adds to the story and isn’t just a cheap way to appeal to kids or get sympathy from adults. It can work, we’ve seen it work, but it can also be a total disaster.
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