Back in November 2021, I reviewed the two-part series premiere of Star Trek: Prodigy, the first Star Trek series specifically aimed at kids. It follows the adventures of a group of young people who escape imprisonment aboard the USS Protostar, a derelict vessel with an experimental engine built by some far-off entity called “Starfleet.” At the time, I was impressed by the show’s slick 3D animation and production values, but wasn’t sure what to make of it as a work of Star Trek. Off the bat, it seemed more like a generic action-adventure cartoon, with only a tease at the expected themes and trappings of a Star Trek series. This, it turns out, was the entire idea — for Prodigy’s first ten episodes to serve as a hyperbaric chamber of sorts that gradually adjusts its young audience to the unique Star Trek universe before joining it in earnest.
Upon the completion of its first ten-episode arc, I had the opportunity to briefly interview series creators Kevin and Dan Hageman about the nature of the series as an entry point to Star Trek, and on the storyline that’s been set up for the remainder of the season.
A Remix, not a Rerun
In some ways, Prodigy is the polar opposite of the other Star Trek animated series, Lower Decks, a sitcom obsessed with demonstrating its franchise bona fides via in-jokes and Easter eggs. Lower Decks has grown into itself over its first two seasons, but the humor still greatly relies on the audience’s knowledge of the tropes and minutiae of the franchise’s glory days in the 1990s, and on viewers congratulating themselves on picking up on its most obscure references. Prodigy’s producers, on the other hand, aren’t really in the business of validating existing fans’ decades of investment in the Star Trek universe. They’re here to convince the uninitiated that Star Trek is worth buying into in the first place. For Kevin and Dan Hageman, that means introducing kids to the fundamentals of the franchise, one at a time.
“We put together a writer’s room of fans of Star Trek [and] spent the first entire week just talking,” says Kevin. “‘Why do we love Star Trek? What episodes of Star Trek do we love? What makes Star Trek, Star Trek?’ We called [our list] the Greatest Hits.” Over the series so far, we’ve seen the results of this conversation in the form of ten episodes that serve as a sort of a “Star Trek 101,” educating a band of scrappy young space rebels (and their audience) to the themes, rules, and values of the franchise. To call it a “Greatest Hits” collection actually undersells the originality of the series — Prodigy’s motifs are familiar, but they’re rearranged and reorchestrated to suit the strengths of an action-adventure cartoon and the needs of this specific cast of characters.
“Kobayashi” is a holodeck episode, a format which usually involves giving the Starfleet crew a break to lounge on a simulated beach or LARP as hard-boiled detectives. For Dal R’El (Brett Gray), the self-appointed commander of a stolen craft crewed by kids who don’t take him seriously, the holodeck lets him play out his fantasy of being a legitimate starship captain and proving himself worthy of his station. In “First Con-tact,” the crew learns the hard way why Starfleet’s Prime Directive is not to interfere with the development of other worlds, a principle that is considered a given for characters in other series. “Time Amok” pits the Protostar crew against their first temporal anomaly, but its effects are different from any time whammy we’ve seen before, separating each squabbling crew member into their own temporality and forcing them to learn how to communicate. Because the characters are kids from outside the Federation, each series staple, down to the universal translator and transporter, is introduced under the assumption that the audience has no previous exposure, but is also not belabored with technobabble or long explanations of deep lore. Dan Hageman calls this audience perspective Prodigy’s “magic sauce.”
Canonical Collision Course
Spoilers ahead for the mid-season finale
For the first half of Season One, Prodigy’s only connection to Starfleet or the United Federation of Planets has been via the USS Protostar herself, and a holographic training program based on Star Trek: Voyager‘s Kathryn Janeway (voice of Kate Mulgrew). That’s all about to change, as the mid-season finale “A Moral Star, Part 2” ends with the crew setting a course for Federation space, where they hope to become a part of the egalitarian utopia that Janeway’s been teaching them about. But, as the episode’s final moments reveal, their troubles are far from over. Not only has their former jailer the Diviner (John Noble) already weaponized the Protostar with some sort of virus designed to turn Federation ships against each other, but the real Vice Admiral Kathryn Janeway is now hot on their tail, and she’s not going to be happy when she discovers that Starfleet’s experimental prototype has fallen into the hands of unruly teens.
Admiral Janeway (also Kate Mulgrew), now commands the USS Dauntless II. (The Hagemans confirmed to me that this vessel is a recreation of the super-fast starship built by the alien Arturis in the Voyager episode “Hope and Fear.”) She’s been on the hunt for the Protostar ever since it went missing with her former first officer, Captain Chakotay, in command. The whereabouts of Chakotay and the rest of the original Protostar crew are a mystery, one Admiral Janeway is determined to solve, and the cast of Prodigy is in her way. The crew is about to have their first real interactions with Starfleet, and they’re not going to receive the welcome that they’ve been dreaming of. In fact, circumstances are such that Voyager’s hero is about to become Prodigy’s primary obstacle.
“It’s not going to be the Admiral Janeway Show,” says Dan, “[but] Admiral Janeway is on the hunt. We always talk about the movie The Fugitive, and [how] not all antagonists are bad guys. Sometimes they’re tough ladies.”
“You could say that she becomes the antagonist over the next ten episodes,” Kevin adds. “For anyone who’s a fan of Voyager, this is going to be a fun next chapter for Janeway and Chakotay.”
Despite the Protostar’s imminent return to Federation space, the brothers have also made assurances that references and cameos from other series won’t steal the focus away from Prodigy’s leads.
“We want the things in our show to be fresh,” says Dan. “All of the Voyager references have kind of come from having Captain Janeway as our touchstone, thus that leads to Chakotay, but we don’t have plans to bring in The Doctor or Tuvok.” Instead, the Prodigy characters who have received less development so far — Jankom Pog, Zero, and the indestructible, non-verbal space blob Murf — will get a little more attention.
“Dan and I could never do 20 episodes of a character who just eats things,” says Kevin. “There’s gonna be more to Murf than meets the eye.”
Paramount hasn’t revealed a return date for Prodigy, but since there’s already a Star Trek scheduled for every Thursday from now until July, we’re probably looking at Summer 2022 at the earliest.