‘Star Trek: Prodigy’ First Look: Trekking Hard or Hardly Trekking?

Since the franchise was relaunched on streaming television in 2017 with Star Trek: Discovery, CBSViacom has sought to expand Star Trek into a four-quadrant brand, something it hasn’t been since the mid-1990s, if ever. Rather than try to mold a single product to satisfy all audiences, producer Alex Kurtzman has taken a prismatic approach to Trek, commissioning five separate series for streaming platform Paramount+. Each new show takes a different approach to the Star Trek universe, catering to a slightly different corner of the fanbase. The latest spin-off is Star Trek: Prodigy, a computer-animated series aimed at kids, presumably as a way to cultivate a new generation of fans not yet born the last time Star Trek played on free TV. It’s created by Kevin and Dan Hageman, best known for their work on the hit Netflix series Trollhunters, which spawned two spin-offs of its own.

I don’t really have the right to criticize this obvious attempt to “get ‘em while they’re young.” Star Trek got me while I was young, and I’d be a fundamentally different person if it hadn’t. I grew up during the peak of Trek’s popularity, when there were two series and a film franchise running concurrently, a new PC game out every year, books being published for every reading level, and multiple toy lines. It didn’t seem to matter that neither The Next Generation, nor Deep Space Nine, nor Voyager was made specifically or kids — kids watched them anyway, either with their parents or on their own, because frankly there were not as many shows to watch and altogether fewer things to do with your weeknights after school at the time. Now, if Viacom wants to get kids into Star Trek, they’re going to have to meet them where they’re at, and since that teased Fortnite crossover apparently didn’t pan out, that means a youth-targeted animated series that can be rerun on Nickelodeon. 

Of course, if you’re reading this, odds are you are not a child between eight and twelve, you’re a jaded adult who wants to know if this new corner of the Star Trek universe might be of interest to you. Some of you, like me, are conditioned to watch anything that bears the name Star Trek regardless of its quality and are just here to get an idea of what to expect. To all of you, I can say this: Whether or not you enjoy Star Trek: Prodigy will have little to do with how much you like Star Trek and a lot more to do with how much you like kids’ adventure cartoons. If an original Nickelodeon show about a bunch of scrappy youngsters flying through space is not something you would ordinarily watch, then Star Trek: Prodigy is probably not going to appeal to you. That said, even in the first hour, Star Trek’s core values of curiosity and communication are already at the forefront, which makes me feel like Prodigy might still serve its purpose as an on-ramp to the universe at large. 

Star Trek: Prodigy

To Boldly Get the Hell Out of Here as Fast as We Possibly Can

Star Trek: Prodigy opens on an asteroid in a far-off corner of the galaxy, where teenager Dal R’El (voice of Brett Grey, On My Block) is one of hundreds of people held prisoner by the mysterious Diviner (John Noble, Fringe). The prisoners are all fugitives, runaways, and otherwise “unwanted” people captured and sold to the Diviner as a mining workforce, denied translator technology in order to keep them from organizing. For the first time in Star Trek, there’s not a human in sight, but there are a handful of familiar races among a wide variety of aliens. Dal doesn’t even know what species he is, but he does know that he wants out of this prison even if all the other prisoners seem to have given up on escape.

All but one, at least — Dal finds an ally in Fugitive Zero (Angus Imrie, The Crown), a non-corporeal Medusan contained in a shoddy metal exoskeleton. (“Try to build one without any hands,” says Zero. “I think I did a fine job.”) Zero’s telepathy allows them to hatch a plan together, which eventually leads them to what the Diviner is really mining for — an advanced, abandoned Starfleet ship called the Protostar. Dal and Zero gather a small crew in the hopes of repairing the ship and escaping off world. They’re joined by Jankom Pog, a contrarian Tellarite engineer (voice of comedy stalwart Jason Mantzoukas); Rok-Tahk, a hulking rock monster who’s just a little girl by her species’ standards (voice of actual 10-year-old Rylee Alasraqui); and a cute gelatinous slug that she’s named Murf (voice of human soundboard Dee Bradley Baker). The first episode provides only a brief glimpse of the crew’s guide through the Star Trek universe, a holographic training program based on Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew, reprising the role).

The most interesting character on the series so far is Gwyn (Ella Purnell, Army of the Dead), the Diviner’s daughter and translator. Gwyn has been raised to serve her father’s aims, but learning the hundreds of languages that her work requires has awakened a curiosity about other cultures, other places. Likewise, interfacing directly with prisoners has made her far more sympathetic towards them than either her father or his robotic lieutenant, Drednok (Jimmi Simpson, Westworld). While her redemption has only just begun, Gwyn is Prodigy’s closest connection to the soul of Star Trek, which teaches that your enemy today will not always be your enemy and that communication and compassion are the only keys to lasting peace. Gwyn also benefits from the most natural vocal performance and the coolest character design, which includes a pretty and completely impractical sword that conceals itself by wrapping around her arm like a tattoo sleeve. (Sidebar: The Diviner and Drednok both refer to Gwyn as “Progeny,” which surely won’t confuse any kids who are trying to learn the name of the show.)

More Trek:

Star Trek: Prodigy

Star Trek Rebels

Attempts to make Star Trek appeal to broader or younger audiences often result in a product that’s closer to Star Wars, and Prodigy is no exception. The pace, tone, and sense of humor immediately call to mind early episodes of Star Wars Rebels, an animated series produced for the same age group. Like the start of that series, we have a wisecracking Space Aladdin for a lead, a motley found family for an ensemble, and a light comic adventure story with darker implications to be explored at a later date. The character and creature designs, the soundscape and musical score, and the atmosphere of the prison planet in general evoke Star Wars as much as Star Trek. This makes the Protostar herself feel a little like Star Trek intruding into Star Wars, which is a clever way to acclimate a young audience who is more familiar with the latter than the former. 

And while watching Prodigy, you will never forget that this show is for a young audience. The jokes are silly, obvious, and almost continuous, and characters sometimes speak their thoughts aloud in an unnatural way. Like many kids cartoons, Prodigy has a resident “loud and annoying” character in Jankom Pog, who is obtuse, constantly yelling, and always refers to himself in the third person, which is a thing that Tellarites have never been known to do and is therefore a creative choice made for this series. It pains me to say this, but Jason Mantzoukas is by far the worst part of Prodigy — nearly everyone is giving a broad, “kids show” performance, but his is the only one that’s simply too much. Your level of tolerance for this type of thing is going to set the ceiling for how much you can enjoy this show.

While I’ll be trying to get Jankom Pog’s voice out of my head all week, Prodigy’s visuals gave me little to complain about. This double-sized debut episode is colorful, action-heavy, and overall spectacular. Environments feel big and well-furnished, camera angles are dynamic and varied, and there are some neat lighting and particle effects. The only area in which the budget limitations of TV animation are apparent are in the faces of the humanoid characters, whose skin doesn’t really stretch or scatter light the way it should, but Prodigy isn’t aiming for photorealism and those sorts of details can get very expensive. On the other hand, CGI is perfectly suited for starships and starscapes. The Protostar is a sleek speedboat of a spacecraft and a treat to see in action. The cosmos itself has never seemed more inviting than through the eyes of young people to whom it represents a freedom they’ve never known. 

Without a school-aged child in my life, I can only guess as to whether or not Star Trek: Prodigy is going to connect with kids, or whether or not it’ll lead them to load up old Voyager episodes on Netflix or Paramount+. I can only ask myself: “If this wasn’t called ‘Star Trek,’ would I still watch it?” Truth be told, were it not a part of a franchise I’ve gobbled up since I was a toddler, I might never have put it on in the first place. But since it is, I have, and that’s given it an opportunity to dig its hooks in just a bit. Is it a must-watch for Star Trek fans? No, and I don’t expect that it ever will be. But if you’re the sort who likes to indulge their inner child with something bright, fast, and colorful, Prodigy might be worth a shot for you.