With a whopping five concurrently-running shows to its name, the Star Trek franchise has never been at its most prolific, almost to the point of oversaturation. And of these shows, Star Trek: Prodigy is the easiest to ignore for the average Trek fan: It’s not the franchise’s flagship show (Star Trek: Discovery), nor its fan favorite (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds). It doesn’t carry the weight of legacy (Star Trek: Picard), and it’s not even the only animated adventure to choose from (Star Trek: Lower Decks).
But the first half of Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1, Paramount+’s collab with Nickelodeon to craft a CG-animated Trek adventure geared toward younger audiences, was such a pleasant surprise. The tale of a ragtag crew of young misfits from the Delta Quadrant who steal an experimental Starfleet vessel (USS Protostar) and make their way to a new home, Prodigy made a big impression with its unique art style, strong, cohesive writing, and an instantly endearing cast of characters. (And don’t forget Kate Mulgrew’s return as a holographic version of Captain Janeway.)
After a short break, Prodigy returns for the second half of its 20-episode first season, but it feels less like the back half of a prior season than it does the start of a whole new adventure. And the five episodes provided to critics before its October 27th premiere on Paramount+ herald new challenges for our outcast Starfleet recruits, the biggest of which is: How do these unguided kids live up to the ideals of Roddenberry’s utopian vision?
Licking Their Wounds
When last we left the Protostar crew, they’d accomplished a most bittersweet victory: the defeat of the Diviner (John Noble), father of Gwyn (Ella Purnell), and freeing the other prisoners they left behind on the asteroid prison where they found the Protostar. But the win didn’t come without cost — Zero (Angus Imrie), the ship’s Medusan helmsman, was forced to reveal his true form to save Gwyn, making the Diviner lose his mind and Gwyn her memory. Bad timing too, as she’d just learned that her father was a time traveler from the future, hellbent on using a device he’s implanted inside Protostar to destroy the Federation from within (thus saving his race from a first contact that would lead to the destruction of his home planet).
That’s the status quo Prodigy’s second half opens with, as the Protostar clan gear up to finally meet the heroes they’ve spent so much time trying to emulate. In the opening minutes of midseason premiere ‘Asylum’ (S1, Ep11), they’re doing just that, whizzing through an alien ocean in a submersible pod (shades of Phantom Menace abound) to rescue some space whales from poachers. As Dal (Brett Gray) puts it in his “captain’s” log, they’re hoping that the more good they do in their corner of the galaxy, the more likely Starfleet will forgive the whole “stealing one of their ships” thing.
It’s this element that sets Prodigy apart the most from its brethren, one that fits the more whiz-bang Star Wars vibe of the show. While the first half let our crew of nobodies work their way up to a major victory in the two-parter ‘A Moral Star’ (S1, Ep9-10) – right down to donning some slick black-and-gray Starfleet uniforms – Dal and co. recognize that there’s still a lot of work to do. They only know about the Federation’s values secondhand, and they’re still shaking off the shadows of a lifetime’s worth of loneliness and subjugation.
To be sure, the self-appointed crew of Protostar are hardly Starfleet material yet. Dal continues to struggle with his self-worth, desperate to solve the mystery of his identity (he belongs to an as-yet-unidentified species, regardless of quadrant) and to adequately fill the captain’s chair. Gwyn yearns to restore her memory, while Zero is wracked with guilt over their responsibility for that pain.
And yet, the magic of Prodigy is seeing how these kids gradually internalize Starfleet values — friendship, cooperation, altruism — and let those values change them for the better. One of Prodigy’s best episodes last year saw everyone’s favorite Brikar, Rok-Tahk (Renee Alazraqui), realize she’s into science, despite the crew naturally pigeon-holing her into security because she’s large and tough. This season explores that beautifully in fits and spurts, as Rok discovers there are hundreds of different types of science, and she should choose one to focus on.
Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas), meanwhile, learns that Tellarites are one of the Federation’s founding members (“Jankom Pog is royalty!” he blusters upon learning), only to be put down by another Tellarite as a disposable “runt.” And as for Murf (Dee Bradley Baker), well, our gelatinous friend is going through some changes of his own.
Starfleet without Starfleet
If the first half of Prodigy’s first season was about how these mismatched adolescents can learn to work as a team, the second half concerns making that team worthy of Federation acceptance and approval. By the end of this first new episode, it’s clear that they can’t zip back to Federation space, not yet. After all, the Diviner’s new weapon makes communication with Starfleet impossible, unless they want to destroy Starfleet along with it. What’s more, their first brush with the Federation leaves them branded as criminals, adding the whole clearing-your-name business to their already packed docket.
So, they do the one thing they can think of: steer clear of the Federation, while still trying to uphold Starfleet’s ideals in their little corner of the galaxy. All they’ve got is their wits, a holographic guide, some good intentions, and an experimental starship with many mysteries left to unfurl.
It’s a lovely way to continue the series’ mission, one that dovetails nicely with Prodigy’s own misfit place in the overall Trek canon. Just as the Protostar crew adheres to their interpretation of Federation values, so too does Prodigy take a decidedly different route to exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations.
The angular, unconventional art style continues to take some getting used to, at least where the character designs are concerned — the Protostar and the ships around it continue to look gorgeous. And Nami Melumad’s score still dazzles, especially in moments where she can hearken back to the bombast of the ‘60s TV series or a few notes of the classic Voyager theme. But mostly, the show’s all-CG look offers the writers license to go bigger and more ambitious with their setpieces, whether it’s a Gravity-esque jump back to the Protostar from an exploding space station or a thrilling speeder chase through snowy mountains.
It may skew a little younger in its target audience, but it still feels like Star Trek, even in its imperfect attempts to be Star Trek. Despite being set in the frontiers of the Delta Quadrant, there are plenty of Easter eggs and familiar faces to work from, many of which are helpfully integrated into the show’s fabric. An encounter with the Borg is maybe the scariest they’ve been since season four of Voyager, doubled by the kids’ relative unfamiliarity with the collective (and all the tricks previous crews have used to render them toothless). A visit to a trading planet puts our crew in front of another returning character, one who’s aged nicely from his guest spot on The Next Generation and offers a nifty counterpoint to Dal’s already shaky confidence as a leader.
But the best of these comes in the season’s best episode thus far, an extended homage to The Original Series that offers some gentle ribs to the hokiness of that era (from the chintzy sets to William Shatner’s halting, pause-happy line delivery) while keeping its values intact. It’s all a bit Galaxy Quest, and that’s a good thing: what’s more, it’s the perfect litmus test for our barely-Starfleet heroes, as they try to figure out how to model values against a planet of people that’s been idolizing them for a century.
But for all the fanservice, the inclusions don’t feel arbitrary, nor do they feel overwrought. Maybe that’s something to do with how distant Prodigy feels towards the rest of the Star Trek universe, and how much that plays into the show’s textural fabric. After all, this isn’t just another Starfleet crew, but kids idealizing the Federation without much real-world experience with them. This allows the show to look at these old faves in a brand new context — youngsters still negotiating their own relationship to the iconography and ideals of Trek — and it all feels so novel.
That contrast is made all the clearer by a new recurring element to Prodigy’s story — the appearance of the real, flesh-and-blood Janeway (Mulgrew), now a vice admiral commanding USS Dauntless. Episodes now split their time (though hardly evenly, thank God) between both ships, the season turning into a cat-and-mouse chase as Janeway searches for the ship and her long-missing Captain Chakotay (Robert Beltran, in a quick cameo).
It’s lovely to see Mulgrew get to inhabit the “real” version of Janeway once again, and her performances eke out subtle but noticeable differences between the Vice Admiral and the spirited hologram who’s grown fond of the Protostar crew. This Janeway is older, with a Susan Sontag streak of white in her hair, but her signature obsessiveness hasn’t dulled with age. She’s determined to find Chakotay, and is convinced that whoever is flying Protostar knows where he is. (And the kicker is, Protostar can’t so much as answer a hail from a Federation vessel to explain themselves, lest they get the ship and the Federation destroyed with the Diviner’s inextricable weapon.)
Her stretches of the show are arguably the less interesting, especially considering that the crew members around her (Jason Alexander’s grumpy Tellarite doctor, Daveed Digg’s stern Andorian XO, and Jameela Jamil’s Trill ensign) don’t get much of a chance to shine. But her presence offers a welcome ticking clock to the whole season — especially as a chance retrieval of the Diviner gives her a uniquely skewed perspective on Protostar’s current occupants.
You want Protostar to find Starfleet, and you don’t want them to at the same time. That’s the genius of Prodigy’s overall writing this season, effortlessly balancing this larger serialized tale with more classic planet-of-the-week setups. And yet, even those mark important character points for many of our crew — including, in one episode’s poignant climax, Zero reckoning with his guilt at hurting one of his own (“We all get hurt, Zero,” Gwyn reassures him. “It’s the risk we take for revealing pieces of ourselves to each other”)
“Star Trek: Prodigy” fights for the love of their heroes — and fans
At its core, Prodigy is a show about aspiration, of the deep yearning we feel when we want to be something more than ourselves. And in a franchise where most of its stories center around the best of the best, it’s nice to see the animated series tackle the folks left behind by Starfleet’s flagships. But where Lower Decks takes an irreverent, workplace-sitcom route to exploring what those far from the bridge do to find purpose, Prodigy lets its characters start from the very beginning. For Dal, Gwyn, and the rest, Starfleet is an ineffable ideal they must continually strive toward, whether they actually make it to the fleet or not. Every mission they undertake results in one or more of them learning something new about themselves, whether it’s a secret from their past or an uncovered path to a brighter future. They’re deeply flawed, but trying their best, trying to live up to the notions of peace, courage, and teamwork that greeted them as soon as they escaped a life of imprisonment and subjugation.
Through these alien eyes, we get to see what makes the Federation — or Star Trek in general — great. And as Prodigy continues what is hopefully a long, fruitful journey, I can’t wait to see how else these kids grow into the admirable people they so badly strive to become.
This review was first published on October 27th, 2022, on the original Companion website.
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