This post contains moderate spoilers for the first episode and slight spoilers for episode two of ‘Star Trek: Prodigy.’
How do you make a series that can draw in newcomers while still appealing to long-time fans? In the case of Star Trek: Prodigy, you set it in a place where the United Federation of Planets has little to no presence — the Delta Quadrant — and make your cast a bunch of misfit kids who have never heard of the Federation or Starfleet. That puts them on the same level as the children this show hopes to draw in, while offering up just enough tidbits to intrigue their Trekkie parents.
The pilot, ‘Lost and Found,’ is a feature-length episode that debuted today on Paramount+ (that means it’s technically two parts). It was originally planned to air on Nickelodeon first, but it was changed to a streaming-exclusive for 2021 with the cable channel airing it later at a still-unknown date. The animated show fills in the content gap between the end of Lower Decks earlier this month and the premiere of Discovery season four in November — which in turn, should carry fans through to the start of season two of Picard in February. The idea is to keep Star Trek fans from dropping their subscriptions to Paramount+ during the downtime, something that was fairly common during Discovery’s first three seasons.
That assumes, however, that Prodigy has something to offer those adult fans. And that’s where the deeper ties to Trek lore come in. Though Voyager spent seven years in the Delta Quadrant, the ship’s mission to get back to Federation space meant it couldn’t stick around in any one place too long, or return to previous locales. There’s a ton left to explore — as well as plenty of room for Prodigy’s creators, Dan and Kevin Hageman, to populate their own corner of the universe.
First, they have to introduce their main characters, and that’s what ‘Lost and Found’ is largely dedicated to doing. Our cast of misfits, led by Dal (voiced by Brett Gray), lives on a mining colony populated by prisoners and orphans. It’s the last place anyone would want to be, especially a Star Trek character, which is why the main drive is to just get off this bleak rock. But right away the series makes its point about being far from Federation space and technology, as the inhabitants can’t even talk to each other due to a lack of universal translators. That system has been how, for over 55 years, Star Trek has managed to populate its cast with aliens who all speak English. It’s the future! Different languages aren’t a problem!
Except here, they are. It keeps the characters from even knowing each other’s names, which makes the discovery of the USS Protostar and its built-in translator the perfect opportunity for everyone to re-introduce themselves to each other and thus, to the audience. And, when Dal and Rocktok discover a lost Starfleet ship buried under the surface of the planet, the ship itself may fill them with awe, but it’s the translator that truly elicits the most enthusiastic reaction: Rocktok calls it “magic.” It’s a rather fitting introduction to a franchise with a goal to “seek out new life and new civilizations,” in how it puts the connection between these disparate aliens up front.
When I saw the pilot at New York Comic Con a few weeks ago, I compared it to shows like Clone Wars and Rebels. The Star Wars influence that J.J. Abrams brought to the Star Trek franchise is still present in Prodigy, notably in its action sequences and score, the latter composed by frequent Michael Giacchino collaborator Nami Melumad. Giacchino is best known for his work on various Pixar and Star Trek films, and he also supplies the main theme for Prodigy. You can hear his influence on Melumad’s score, which does a great job of blending a quirky style with the signature Trek leitmotifs.
The final action sequence feels like pure Star Wars, as the USS Protostar makes its way off the planet and Dal is trapped on its hull, battling the villainous Drednok. The bad guy’s insect-like cyborg body reminds me of General Grievous — if the general could turn into a giant gun, that is. It’s the kind of thing that works best in CG and, like Lower Decks before it, Prodigy seems more than willing to embrace the extra freedom offered by animation as a medium. We’re long past the clunky microfiche displays and cosplaying dogs of the original series.
That freedom is probably best illustrated in the character of hologram Captain Janeway, voiced by Kate Mulgrew (of course). It’s been over 20 years since Voyager last graced the small screen, and Mulgrew has kept busy on shows like Warehouse 13 and Orange is the New Black. But in the Star Trek universe, it’s only been six years (though an exact date is never given on-screen in Prodigy). Animation means they can easily erase the decades from Janeway without resorting to the creepy live-action simulacrums seen in Rogue One of Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia.
Hologram Janeway makes her debut at the end of today’s pilot episode, but she’ll make a much fuller appearance in next week’s ‘Starstruck.’ That’s where the new “cadets” get to explore the ship and learn more about the distant “Federation.” While there’s still plenty of banter and conflict between the characters, the real star of the second episode is the ship itself — what it looks like, and what it’s capable of. While there is a plot — which I won’t divulge details of — it serves as a showcase for all the different features of this new prototype ship. You can almost imagine Janeway as a car salesman, slapping the hood of the Protostar and saying “this baby’s warp core can travel to so many planets.”
Star Trek has always been a humanist franchise, devoted to exploring social themes and dilemmas. It also has a tendency to take its technology and the “post-scarcity utopia” for granted. Prodigy goes against the grain by showing from the start how technology can change lives.