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Star Trek | Prodigy Boldly Goes for the Clone Wars Crown

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Star Trek is no stranger to animation — there’s the 1970s Animated Series, of course, and Lower Decks just wrapped up its second season of loving irreverence for the long-running franchise. But for all the series’ family-friendly inclinations, there hasn’t been a Trek adventure designed primarily for kids. With Paramount+’s (and Nickelodeon’s) new series, Star Trek: Prodigy, we’ve finally got something explicitly geared for younger audiences. But it delights me to report that, for all its changes and its distinct shift in tone to prior adventures, Prodigy still has the beating core of adventure for which Star Trek is known.

The core cast, from left to right: Zero, Jankom Pog, Gwyn, Dal, Murf, and Rok-Tahk. | Nickelodeon/©2021 Paramount+

Prodigy throws us back to the Delta Quadrant, the setting of Star Trek: Voyager — a far-flung corner of the galaxy that’s never met the Federation or even heard of the civilizing principles of Starfleet. Amidst this rowdy frontier lies a penal asteroid on which the mysterious Diviner (John Noble) and his robotic henchman Drednok (Jimmi Simpson) have brought captured and orphaned children, tasking them with mining a mysterious substance called Chimerium for an equally unknown purpose. To keep the population docile and unable to rebel, they keep them working dawn till dusk, and deny them universal translators so they can’t organize or even talk to one another.

It’s here that we meet Dal (Brett Gray), a quick-witted, rebellious teenager whose species remains a mystery even to himself; he’s the only one like him he knows. He dreams of escaping the colony, but can only get so far before he’s captured and brought in front of the Diviner’s daughter Gwyn (Ella Purnell), who herself yearns to leave but remains loyal to her father. She clearly doesn’t like her father’s evil deeds — early in the pilot, she turns away a Kazon who sells them a little catlike alien girl who’s far too young for the mines — but sees no other way to live than her father’s shadow.

Gwyn (voiced by Ella Purnell), the group’s Vau N’Akat antagonist-turned-ally. | Nickelodeon/©2021 Paramount+

But hope for their escape comes in the form of two things: First, a mysterious fugitive named Zero (Angus Imrie), a gaseous being encased in a robotic suit, whose telepathic abilities kickstart Dal’s escape plan. Second, there’s the mysterious, gleaming Starfleet ship Dal accidentally unearths in the mines. Soon enough, Dal’s got a plan, and he assembles a ragtag team of misfits to get the ship running and make their escape to the stars… with the Diviner hot on their tail to retrieve his daughter and the ship he’s spent years trying to find.

[See also: Star Trek | Bringing Benzites to Life with TNG’s John Putch by Michael Simpson]

Star Trek: Rebels?

If the premise already sounds a lot more like Star Wars than Trek, you’re not far off. From its misfit crew of plucky aliens on a small, nimble ship to the wild-west nature of its setting, Prodigy definitely echoes the mold of recent shows like Clone Wars and (particularly) Rebels. Dal, for his part, is just as much Ezra Bridger as he is Captain Kirk; he’s young and headstrong, as likely to bumble his way through a situation as he is to inspire his crew through leadership. The ship they steal — USS Protostar — is a suspiciously Millennium Falcon-sized vessel with its own secrets they’ll likely discover as the series progresses. And the Diviner and Drednok have real Palpatine/Vader vibes, right down to the former being voiced by the gravelly John Noble (Fringe, Sleepy Hollow, Return of the King) and the latter being a black-clad killing machine with a cape and an angular helmet. (He’s basically Vader mixed with General Grievous and Maximillian from The Black Hole

But series creators Kevin and Dan Hageman (Trollhunters, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) use that brief to their advantage, turning Prodigy’s gang of misfits into a perfect case study for the Federation’s values. These aren’t the squeaky-clean officers of The Next Generation or Voyager: they don’t have any formal training and are very much just desperate kids thrown together by fate, scrambling to stay alive on a ship they don’t know how to fly. If anything, the show invites strong comparisons to Farscape, with its quirky team of escaped prisoners on a runaway spaceship.

Drednok (voiced by Jimmi Simpson), the Diviner’s robotic enforcer. | Nickelodeon/©2021 Paramount+

A Motley Crew

Even if they’re not Starfleet’s finest, Prodigy’s vibrant cast of characters is easily the show’s greatest asset, immediately clicking in ways even various Enterprise crews took seasons to accomplish. Dal’s smooth-talking personality and big ego make him an unconventional choice for a leader; it’s clear that he’ll have to stop taking advantage of his crew and stop thinking only for himself. Gwyn mostly exists as a foil, a prisoner who’ll undoubtedly grow fond of the crew and eventually join them once she realizes her daddy doesn’t have the best of intentions. And Zero is the brains of the operation, offering dry doomsaying right alongside genuine bouts of genius.

But the rest of the cast are the clear standouts from the get-go and are sure to be Prodigy’s most appealing draws for kids. Jason Mantzoukas’ Tellarite engineer Jankom Pog is the talkative fix-it man; Renee Alazraqui’s Brikar Rok-Tahk hides a childlike innocence beneath her hulking, rocky exterior; and Murf (voiced by Dee Bradley Baker) is mostly there to be an adorable blob of Lisa Frank-colored goo, not to mention the show’s mascot. 

They’ve all got their appeal, but Rok-Tahk already has her stubby claws wrapped around my heart and has my vote for Prodigy’s breakout character. Alazraqui’s cheerful ten-year-old performance is absolutely adorable, which makes the character’s moments of subtle pathos even more heartbreaking. (When enticed with the infinite promise of food replicators for the first time, she can only think to make the slop she was fed in the mines: “It’s… the only food I’ve ever had.”) The rest of the cast laugh and quip their way through their adventures, but it’s Rok-Tahk that reminds us that these kids have experienced unimaginable horrors even before we meet them. More than finding a home, we hope the crew can also find healing. 

[See also: Star Trek | Enterprise Stumbled So Discovery Could Soar by Chris Hallam]

Janeway? Yes Way

But the show’s strongest tie to the grander Star Trek universe, and its indisputable ace in the hole, is Kate Mulgrew’s return as Captain Kathryn Janeway. Not in the flesh, mind you; she’s a training hologram installed on Protostar to aid its crew in their return to Federation space. (Already, questions abound: How did the Protostar get to the Delta Quadrant? Was it meant to be crewed by cadets who needed a training hologram? And why does the Diviner want the ship so badly?)

Mulgrew steps right back into Janeway’s shoes as if she never left the bridge — we only see her in the final seconds of the double-length pilot. But the third episode, “Starstruck,” gives us plenty of the Janeway we know and love. She’s maternalistic but acerbic, cup of holographic coffee always at hand. She guesses that the young, untrained group who’ve awakened her from slumber are actually Starfleet cadets, a misperception Dal is happy to entertain in exchange for her help. 

That central lie is sure to be Prodigy’s most interesting shakeups in tone and premise. We’re following a Starfleet ship essentially hijacked by kids who’ve never heard of Starfleet, and who have to lie to the ship to stay in its good graces. For them, the concept of a lovey-dovey alliance of planets and species is far-fetched; they’ve grown up around too much chaos and heartache. Dal thinks he sees right through Janeway’s sales pitch, telling the others, “The Federation is just another name for someone else in charge.” 

But Protostar is the perfect environment to slowly but surely show these lost boys (and girls, and genderless balls of gas) that the values of the Federation — teamwork, harmony, curiosity — are alive and well. Their greatest successes come when they put aside their differences, humble themselves, and work as a team, whether they’re staging a dazzling escape from their penal colony or navigating a dying star they’re about to be pulled into. 

Dal, especially, looks like he’s got a lot of growing up to do: Prodigy will very likely follow his development from self-centered scrapper to command material. And like with Tom Paris and Seven of Nine before him, Dal will probably benefit greatly from Janeway’s wise tutelage.

An Engaging Presentation

Like the Hageman brothers’ previous project, Trollhunters, before it, Prodigy comes to us as a highly-stylized CG-animated series that looks gorgeous, even as its design takes some getting used to. Characters are abstracted in ways that highlight their differences, but often read as ‘busy.’ Motion is shuddery and oddly clipped; when it works, it feels like stop-motion animation. When it doesn’t, it can make action sequences a bit hard to follow, especially on the dimly-lit prison asteroid. 

[See also: Free Enterprise | William Shatner Paved the Way for Geek’s New Cool by Ben Falk]

But when the crew of Protostar gets out into the stars, that’s when the show’s distinct visual style really takes off. The ship itself is absolutely gorgeous, a sleek blend of the NX and Prometheus class vessels, with some of Equinox’s angles and the rounded shapes of Kelvin-timeline ships. As the dazzling title sequence shows us, the ship even has a transforming element similar to Voyager’s swinging warp engines but even more complicated — a third engine exits the back as the warp pylons swing downward for a new type of propulsion the show has yet to reveal. What might it be? Is it what the Diviner is looking for? Either way, I can’t wait to find out. 

The interiors ain’t too shabby either, though it can be a bit drab outside of the bridge. But what a bridge! It’s the kind of design that works best for the wilder milieu of animation, with a fully transparent bridge dome that gives us a full view of their surroundings and a dual-level design with rounded staircases that feels right out of Star Trek Online. The cluttered, disparately-sized characters sometimes don’t look like they fit in the chairs, but that’s neither here nor there. I could stare at this bridge for days. 

It’s a real pleasure to watch Protostar sail through the nebulas and purple-tinted starways of the Delta Quadrant, aided by Nami Melumad’s beautiful score (who makes brilliant use of an exciting, propulsive theme courtesy of Oscar-winning Kelvin-verse composer Michael Giacchino). 

Where To, Captain?

The first three episodes of Star Trek: Prodigy have their ups and downs, to be sure. The initial premise seems derivative of Star Wars (heck, the mining planet prologue feels ripped right out of Jedi: Fallen Order), Dal’s whining can get a bit irksome at first, and some of the jokes don’t exactly get a solid transporter lock. Add to that the animation style, whose wild expressiveness and cluttered designs can take some getting used to, and Prodigy can be jarring for old-school Trekkers who are used to their Starfleet ships looking and operating a certain way. 

Gwyn and Dal (Brett Gray). | Nickelodeon/©2021 Paramount+

But we Star Trek fans have (mostly) learned to be patient with a new show until it finds its groove, and Prodigy is well on its way to doing just that. Like the bumbling kids on Protostar, the series has heaps of potential, as long as they recognize their strengths and learn to grow. Right out of the gate, it’s already on extremely strong footing, with plenty of storytelling threads to explore, both out in the galaxy and within our multifaceted characters. 

The appeal of the show is more than just throwing Janeway back on our screens, though that certainly helps. With its more kids’ adventure-oriented tone, and the endearing cast of side characters occupying Protostar, this could very well be the gateway show for a whole new generation of Trek fans. 

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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.

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