Okay, I swore I wasn’t going to review every single episode of Paramount+’s new series “Star Trek: Prodigy,” but after last week’s double-length pilot (which had an uncanny “Star Wars Rebels” vibe) I was curious to see how/where the series would go after our heroes escaped from the prison mine and took their newfound starship, the USS Protostar, into the depths of space. Well, I have to say the first (technically third) episode of the series proper didn’t disappoint–if anything, it was pure giddy fun.
I realize that, at fiftysomething, I’m entirely the wrong demographic for this admittedly youth-aimed show, but I really enjoyed it. Unlike the more PG-13 rated “Lower Decks,” this is an animated Star Trek series that can be enjoyed by the entire family, and I found myself caught up in this week’s compact, 24 minute adventure–so much so that I felt it deserved a mention in this column. While I’m not promising to review each episode (more likely a season recap), here are my thoughts on “Starstruck,” which sees the USS Protostar and her young crew flying into space for the first time…
Written by Chad Quant and directed by Alan Wan, “Starstruck” begins where the pilot left off. Self-appointed captain Dal (Brett Gray), with his ‘Lord of the Flies‘ crew and prisoner, Gwyn (Ella Purnell), pilot their newly acquired Federation starship USS Protostar off the mining world of their enslavement and head off into deep space. As we last saw, a hologram of Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) appeared on the bridge, offering advice for what she assumes is a shipful of Starfleet cadets. Holo-Janeway then asks which one of the group is the captain, and Dal steps up to interrupt a bound Gwyn, who seeks escape by any means. The holographic Janeway is suspicious of Gwyn’s being tied to the captain’s chair by glowing energy restraints, but Dal lamely insists that Gwyn is suffering from a form of space flu, and doesn’t know what he’s saying. Uh, huh…
Dal then bluffs his way into getting some remedial information on their ship’s manufacturers by asking Janeway to refresh his crew on the ship’s origin–the United Federation of Planets, located in the Alpha and Beta quadrants of the galaxy. Summoning a large holographic map, Janeway speaks of the Federation’s many diverse races (Vulcans, Andorians, humans) and of its democratic system of government. Despite her formidable appearance, the young, innocent “ship’s muscle” Rok-Tahl (Rylee Alazraqui) is immediately drawn to the idyllic Federation illustrated by the holographic Janeway. Janeway’s software also recognizes Tellarite crewman Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas), as his homeworld is a founding member of the Federation. She even offers Medusan pilot Zero some tips on navigation.
When asked to show them the exact location of the idyllic Federation, holographic den mother Janeway details a section of the map containing the Federation’s various member solar systems, offering her ‘cadets’ a return course to Earth. Dal, however, remains distrustful of authority, and instead asks that Janeway show them a course to an obscure planet he spots on the map, far away from the core of the Federation. Reluctantly, the hologram obliges.
Note: Hologram Janeway seems to want to offer a warning about the planet that Dal points to on the chart, but over his insistence, remains silent. I assume that Dal picked a system in a bad part of the Federation neighborhood…?
With the crew finally learning a few shipboard terms, such as starboard and port, they move Gwyn to the ship’s brig as they each settle into their new surroundings…which are downright luxurious compared to their hard lives in the mines. Zero and Murf (Bradley Dee Baker) settle into their comfortable barracks, while Dal is overjoyed by his huge new captain’s quarters, complete with a panoramic view of the stars. In the mess hall, Jankom and Rok-Tahk learn from Janeway that they don’t need money to get a meal from the replicators, and are equally surprised that the automated food dispensers can synthesize any food they crave. Jankom creates an overflowing plate of Tellarite delectables, while Rok-Tahk summons the same rations she ate back at the mines, since she’s never eaten any other food in her life.
Note: I very much appreciate how Rok-Tahl (Rylee Alazraqui) has gone from what could’ve easily been a two-dimensional brute character to a much more sensitive, intriguing portrait of an abused child. Rok has never known any other existence outside the cruelty of the mines, and her lingering resentment of Gwyn expresses her understandable rage at that character’s remaining silent during the abuses Rok (and the others) endured. Rok defies the cliches that her monstrous appearance would usually entail, as her voice bears the innocence of a character right out of Charlie Brown’s Peanuts. It may be premature, but I think Rok might be my favorite character of the series.
Later, Rok is assigned by Dal to keep an eye on Gwyn, who is being held behind the protective forcefield of the brig. It’s here that Rok expresses her anger at Gwyn for turning a blind eye to the abuses of she and her fellow prisoners at the hands of Gwyn’s father, the Diviner (John Noble). Gwyn insists she didn’t realize the ‘prisoners’ of her father’s mining colony were innocent, yet she still seeks any opportunity to break free and return to her life. Wisely, Rok doesn’t trust her.
Note: Once again, the child-like rage expressed by Rok to Gwyn over the abuses suffered at the hands of her father are heartbreaking. In the best tradition of Star Trek, this episode has addressed the all-too real issue of child abuse with the unlikely metaphor of a large, rock-encrusted creature. In many ways, Rok’s anger at Gwyn for her blind-eye role in those abuses reminds me of the mother ‘Horta’ in the legendary TOS Star Trek episode, “Devil in the Dark” (1967); that classic episode saw a seemingly murderous, silicon-based tunneling creature revealed to be a mother desperately trying to protect her eggs from the destructive actions of the colonist miners.
Things soon go south for Dal and the USS Protostar when the ship is involuntarily drawn into the gravity well of a dying star, causing the ship to be pummeled by various bits of rocky debris within the surrounding accretion disk. The inexperienced crew barely know how to fly their ship, let alone deal with such an emergency. Dal unwisely ejects all excess cargo and escape pods in a desperate bid to lighten the ship’s mass and slow its course with oblivion. With hologram Janeway only able to give pointers to the crew, Dal is forced to divert all power to the shields and emergency thrusters to prevent further damage to the hull–this, of course, also deactivates the energy screen to the brig containing his prisoner, Gwyn, and she escapes…
Note: I appreciate how this series approaches Star Trek from the perspective of an outsider, making it a perfect primer for someone unfamiliar with the 55-year lore of the franchise. Longtime Star Trek fans will look at the Protostar’s situation and think, “Well, why don’t they just raise shields, or fire phasers at the asteroids, or blah, blah, blah?” Yes, we fans know all of that, but it’s a very different thing to watch a group of newbies trying to figure it out on their own…it’s also a clever way of making Star Trek fresh again. Star Trek: Prodigy is like an interactive Star Trek adventure, where viewers can vicariously take the controls of a starship through these inexperienced characters.
Unable to get to one of the ejected escape pods, Gwyn makes her way to the lower levels of the ship, where she discovers that the Protostar has a special bay for quickly replicating new shuttlecraft (insert “Star Trek: Voyager” spare shuttlecraft jokes here). Using the shuttle replicator system has drained ship’s emergency power, and the Protostar’s course into the collapsing sun is accelerated. Rok, as the ship’s de facto security chief, finds Gwyn in the shuttle replicator bay, and they soon have a colorful (and clever) fight through the automated shuttle replication process–with each character trying to trap the other inside the newly emerging vehicle. Gwyn is eventually thwarted and returned to Rok’s custody.
Note: The shuttlecraft replicator bay scuffle between Rok and Gwyn is a clever in-joke addressing endless fan speculation over exactly how the USS Voyager seemed to carry a near-infinite supply of shuttlecraft while being stranded roughly 70,000 light-years from Federation space. Since 3D printers are a fact of 21st century technology (with one aboard the International Space Station) it makes perfect sense that Voyager losing a shuttle or two (dozen) wouldn’t be such a big deal, after all. Aesthetically speaking, the replicator bay fight is more like something you’d typically see in a high-end Disney/Pixar feature film; the animators truly outdid themselves on this one.
A moment of truth approaches as the Protostar draws nearer and nearer to the dying star, and Dal’s ability to command is tested. While offered many pointers from Janeway, he ultimately chooses to fly the Protostar into the turbulence of the accretion disk and use its energy to hurl them out of it–like a surfer riding a wave. This counterintuitive plan works, and the Protostar is saved. As Dal thanks Janeway for her invaluable advice, he is reminded that taking good advice is one of the many marks of a good leader. Despite their inexperience, hologram Janeway thinks this crew might just have the right stuff for Starfleet after all…
Note: The most important lesson for young viewers is well-delivered in the episode’s final moments; it’s not a failing to seek an adult’s advice, but ultimately the decision on whether to act on that advice rests with the individual. I’m pleased to see that a Star Trek aimed at younger viewers isn’t condescending or without important messages. In the ways that matter, Star Trek: Prodigy is emerging as good Star Trek, with the long-running franchise’s tradition of delivering timely (and timeless messages) through metaphor.
The episode’s coda sees the Diviner deciding to take the search for the Protostar, and his daughter, into his own hands. He launches part of the mining complex from its very foundation and heads off into space with it, searching for the missing Federation starship by following its warp signature…
Note: The spaceborne mining complex, with its sharp angles and unwieldy design, looks very much like the Romulan mining ship “Narada” seen in 2009’s partial-reboot “Star Trek” (2009).
Summing It Up.
Shedding the Star Wars-style aesthetics of its overlong, double-length pilot, “Starstruck” feels much more like Star Trek. This ‘bottle episode’ offers viewers an immersive, guided tour of a functional Federation starship. The ‘cadets’ of the show are avatars for younger audience members who may be new to the world(s) of Star Trek. With hologram Janeway acting as the crew’s den mother, these “cadets” soon learn to fly, navigate through space, use replicators to make food and even create shuttlecraft. Janeway even offers occasional bits of command advice to young captain, Dal. “Starstruck” acts as a virtual Star Trek ‘space camp.’
Note: “Bottle episode” being a term used to describe a TV episode (usually a space show) that takes place either entirely or mainly within a show’s existing environs.
It’s also nice to see (through the innocent eyes of impressionable Rok-Tahk), the image of a diverse Federation being aspirational once again. In these challenging times, it’s important for young people to see beyond the hopelessness of the present–just as the original series allowed viewers to see beyond the political strife/upheaval of the late 1960s. While Prodigy is more specifically targeting younger viewers, I’m pleased to say that it’s not talking down to them; only relating to them. Holographic Janeway doesn’t give Dal all the answers; she lets he and his friends work some of it out for themselves. Perhaps that is the single most important lesson that young people (and even their parents) can glean from Star Trek: Prodigy… yes, that bright shining future is out there waiting for us, but we have to figure out a way to get there on our own.
This episode brought that lesson home in a classically Star Trek way.
Where to Watch.
“Star Trek: Prodigy” (and all Star Trek series) can be streamed on ParamountPlus. To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current COVID pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are well over 750,000 as of this writing (over 5 million deaths worldwide), so please wear masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible to prevent infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are now available as well–just got mine recently, in fact). With a bit of Star Trek optimism and medical science, we can persevere through this pandemic.
Live long and prosper!