Star Trek: Prodigy

Star Trek: Prodigy

2021 - United States

The core cast are all excellent, bringing their characters to life engagingly

Star Trek: Prodigy reviewed by Daniel Tessier

Part of CBS/Paramount's ongoing relaunch of Star Trek as a sprawling property, Prodigy is the third animated series in the franchise's history and the first to be explicitly targeted at children. (Star Trek: The Animated Series from 1973-74 was also clearly a more child-oriented version of the original show, but it was created ostensibly a continuation for the same audience.) A large writing team is headed by Kevin and Dan Hageman, who have an excellent pedigree in animation, having written the Hotel Transylvania and The Lego Movie franchises.

Produced by CBS in association with Nickelodeon, Prodigy was intended, from the start, to stand apart from the otherwise increasingly adult slate of new Star Trek. As such, it was intended for broadcast on Nickelodeon and its associated streaming services, although in the event, it was also made available on Paramount+ (currently the only legal way to view it outside the United States). The first season was broadcast in two halves, the first from October 2021 to February 2022 (with a gap in December) and the second from October to December 2022. (How this doesn't simply constitute two seasons is a mystery.) In any case, the twenty episodes, running at a punchy twenty-five minutes, tell an overarching story punctuated by exciting adventures, that work just as well watched weekly as all in one go.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Unlike Star Trek: Lower Decks, which uses a hand-drawn style for its animation, Prodigy is designed to look clearly computer-rendered, with 3D-styling to its characters. Stylistically, it’s similar in style to the many Star Wars animations, particularly The Clone Wars and The Bad Batch. Indeed, the feel of the opening episodes, the two-part "Lost and Found," is very Star Wars indeed, with colourful aliens battling an evil villain and his robot servants in death-defying escape. However, the visuals of the series are more remarkable than Star Wars has ever managed on the small screen, easily matching the best animated science fiction films. Accompanied by a stirring score by Nami Melumad, a theme by Hollywood's Michael Giacchino (who composed the score for the 21st century rebooted Star Trek movies), it sounds as good as it looks.

The series revolves around a group of "Unwanted," young alien orphans who have, through various unfortunate stories, been imprisoned on the deadly planet Tars Lamora, on the edge of the distant Delta Quadrant. Forced to mine a rare mineral by a mysterious alien known only as the Diviner, the kids are left divided by their lack of the otherwise ever-present universal translator. This is a great idea, and one that comes up later in the series in the climactic attack on Starfleet: take away the various species' ability to talk to each other, and any hope of working together falls apart.

The orphans discover what the Diviner is really looking for: an experimental Starfleet ship, the USS Protostar, which houses an incredibly powerful stardrive. Boarding the ship, the various aliens of the main cast can suddenly talk to each other and decide to use it to escape the prison.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Central to the series is Dal R'El, a purple-skinned humanoid of mysterious origins. Initially he appears to be the standard wise-cracking, cocky male hero, but Dal proves to have greater depths. He hides a lot of insecurity, particular about his lack of a family and past. (The fact that he is speaking English, or "Federation Standard," even before he finds the ship might be a clue.) Dal sets himself up as captain of the ship, which the others go along with, even though, at first, he is completely out of his depth. Dal's voiced by Brett Gray (On My Block, When They See Us) who brings the needed charisma.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Jason Mantzoukas (at fifty, rather old to voice a teenaged character) voices Jankom Pog, a pig-like Tellarite with a mechanical arm and an aptitude for engineering. Recognisable for playing various bizarre characters in comedies such as The Good Place, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, Mantzoukas is perfect for the argumentative, eccentric alien.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Angus Imrie (The Archers, We Hunt Together), son of actors Celia Imrie and Benjamin Whitrow, voices Zero, a formless, genderless, energy-based alien called a Medusan. Like the Tellarites, the Medusans were created for the original Star Trek, but unlike that other commonly seen species, the inclusion of a Medusan proves that the showrunners aren't afraid of calling on some obscure lore. Zero exists in a spherical containment suit, since seeing a Medusan without protection would render most organic beings mad. Unlike the other Unwanted, who were merely of use as labour, the Diviner wanted Zero to use as a weapon. The Medusans are known as skilled navigators, able to position themselves in multiple dimensions, but poor Zero appears to be dyspraxic and it doesn’t come naturally. He is, however, a powerful telepath.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Rylee Alazraqui plays Rok-Tahk, an eight-year-old from a rock-like species called the Brikar. An even deeper cut than the Medusans, the Brikars were created by author Peter David for his nineties novel series Star Trek: New Frontier. Hulking, fearsome in appearance, and incredibly strong, Rok-Tahk is forever seen as a monster by those who don't understand her but is really a very sweet and highly intelligent young girl. She becomes the ship's science specialist and has a moving journey of discovery as she learns to believe in herself.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Joining the escapees is Gwyndala, or Gwyn, the Diviner's cloned daughter, and his right-hand until she realises the extent of his cruelty and sides with the runaways. Voiced by Ella Purnell (Yellowjackets, Arcane, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children), Gwyn has a natural ability to speak almost any language and is a formidable fighter.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Oh, and then there's Murf: a seemingly indestructible blob voiced by Dee Bradley Baker (Gravity Falls, American Dad, Steven Universe) although he mostly just squeaks. With a voracious appetite, Murf is essentially the gang's pet, although he shows more sophistication and intelligence as time goes by. He is eventually revealed to be a "mellanoid slime worm," perhaps the deepest cut of all, being taken from a throwaway insult in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1988!

There is just one individual already onboard the Protostar: an Emergency Training Hologram, based on none other than Captain Kathryn Janeway of the Starship Voyager. Kate Mulgrew, an experienced voice actress, returns to voice Hologram Janeway, who takes the runaways under her wing, initially assuming they're cadets.

Star Trek: Prodigy

This illustrates to a strange issue with the series. While it's aimed at kids, especially those who haven't seen any Trek before or are put off by its age and style, it's bound up in Trek lore so much that it practically demands the viewer has been watching the franchise for years. Obscure aliens like are fine, as they are either fully explained or mere Easter eggs, but Prodigy as a whole is specifically a follow-up to Star Trek: Voyager, which finished its original airing twenty years earlier.

Set only five years or so after Voyager, Prodigy relies a great deal on established Star Trek characters, particularly in the second half, when the real Janeway, now a Vice Admiral, appears on the trail of the missing Protostar. It's revealed that her former First Officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran, also returning for a voice role) captained the ship when it disappeared. Other characters are brought in from The Next Generation, with Admiral Jellico (Ronny Cox - Deliverance, Stargate SG-1) giving her orders, and Billy Campbell (Dynasty, Tales of the City) returning as Thadiun Okona, an obscure one-off TNG character who no one could stand the first time round.

Certain episodes revolve around Star Trek's long history. Episode six, "Kobayashi," pits the kids against Starfleet's most famous, unbeatable test, with holograms of famous Starfleet officers helping. (Audio archives of Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan and Rene Auberjonois are used for Spock, Uhura, Scotty and Odo, respectively, while Gates McFadden records new lines for Dr. Beverly Crusher. Odo was never actually in Starfleet, but never mind.) Episode thirteen, "All the World's a Stage," is a lovely episode which has the crew visit a planet where the inhabitants have based their culture around a visit from the original Enterprise crew. It's an idea that's been floated a few times, and it's good to see it finally done here, with some frankly hilarious impersonations of the original cast by the aliens. Still, these are the sorts of things that established fans will enjoy, not young viewers new to the franchise.

On the other side of this, the setting is somewhat confused, with a lot of familiar aliens appearing in the Delta Quadrant very, very soon after Voyager's groundbreaking journey. This is one issue of a very confusing timeline, and while a lot of this is explained by a time travel thread that weaves through the season, it doesn't make sense of everything. Admiral Janeway commands the USS Dauntless, apparently a copy of a fake Starfleet ship that was used to trick her crew back on Voyager. These are the sort of odd choices that wouldn't bother a new viewer but prove a bugbear for the more dedicated fan. As such, it feels like the showrunners are never quite sure who they're making the series for.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Still, this complaint is splitting hairs. Prodigy is a cracking adventure series that is both appealing to a younger, newer audience and older viewers, while all the while staying true to the core message and values of Star Trek (something that the latest series haven't always managed to do). The series might start off feeling like a Star Wars knock-off, but this doesn't last. Indeed, the main storyline is really one of a bunch of kids from Star Wars who run away to join Star Trek. Along the way, they learn to better themselves, work past their differences and fulfil their potential, inspired by the ideals of the mysterious and far-off Federation that they're searching for. They even teach the real Starfleet a thing or two (while the kids, understandably, make a lot of stupid mistakes, the pig-headedness of some officers is teeth-grindingly frustrating).

The core cast are all excellent, bringing their characters to life engagingly. Alongside the regulars we have recurring voice roles for the great John Noble (Fringe, Sleepy Hollow, Elementary) as the Diviner and Jimmi Simpson (Breakout Kings, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Noble, in particular, is perfectly cast as the terrifying Diviner, although in true Trek style, he shows greater humanity as things progress. Other strong performances include Jameela Jamil (The Good Place, She-Hulk) as the secretive Ensign Ascencia; prolific voice actor Grey Griffin as the Ferengi criminal Nandi; and rapper Daveed Diggs (Hamilton) as Janeway's First Officer, Tysess.

Star Trek: Prodigy

There are no duff episodes, but particularly strong instalments include episode eight, "Time Amok," where a temporal anomaly separates the runaways and forces them to work as small parts of a big machine to save the ship; "A Moral Star," the two-part mid-season showstopper; and episode twelve, "Let Sleeping Borg Lie," where the kids, perhaps unrealistically, narrowly escape from Star Trek's most deadly and popular villains. Episode sixteen, "Preludes," is a real highlight that explores the orphans' backstories and illuminates their characters, and the season comes to a truly climactic finale with "Supernova."

A second season is already in production, following up on the finale's intriguing new developments and revelations. Having received a Children's Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Production Design, and nominated for the award for Outstanding Animated Series, Star Trek: Prodigy has achieved critical success. Whether it has succeeded in bringing in the hoped for new audience remains to be seen, but it has the potential to be one of the best series in Star Trek's long history.

Published on January 23rd, 2023. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.

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