Created by Kevin and Alex Hageman and overseen by an Alex Kurtzman-led team of producers, the Paramount+/Nickelodeon coproduction Star Trek: Prodigy (PRO) is a new animated Star Trek series consciously geared towards younger audiences, after the debut of the more adult (and arguably less mature) Star Trek: Lower Decks. Having recently finished 20 episodes over a protracted first season broken into two halves, this ‘kids’ show’ has grown into one of the best things to come out of the current Star Trek wave that began in 2017, with the launch of Star Trek: Discovery.
One criticism that I had with the double-length pilot episode, “Lost and Found, Parts 1, 2” was that it felt more like a modern Star Wars animated series than Star Trek, as we followed a group of young alien laborers on a remote prison mining colony who find their ticket to freedom with a captured Federation starship—escaping a Sith Lord-like villain called ‘the Diviner’ (John Noble). To be honest, that initial hour-long debut left me a bit underwhelmed. However, the third episode, “Starstruck” had me eating my earlier words, after the young crew of alien runaways began to settle into their newfound life aboard the advanced prototype starship, USS Protostar.
The young alien escapees and one hostage (the Diviner’s daughter) are curious to learn about the beings that built this luxurious new ride of theirs. They quickly set a course for the United Federation of Planets, as they hope to join its Starfleet. Aiding them on their voyage is a holographic guide and mentor patterned after former USS Voyager skipper, Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew). The Janeway hologram initially believes these kids to be Starfleet cadets, but eventually learns the truth. Nevertheless, Holo-Janeway keeps her promise to teach these kids the ways of Starfleet, serving as a photonic den mother, and preventing this series from becoming “Star Trek: Lord of the Flies.”
With Holo-Janeway’s guidance, we begin to learn the hidden talents of this rag-tag team of recruits. Assuming the captain’s role is alien orphan, Dal R’Ell (Brett Gray), since it was his cunning and quick-thinking that led to their escape from the colony. Dal’s former hostage, Gwyndala (Ella Purnell) soon realizes the darker side of her father, and soon becomes Dal’s de facto first officer. The Protostar’s new chief engineer is a mechanically-armed, often-lunkheaded Tellarite named Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas).
Unfairly relegated to chief of security is the formidable-looking being known as Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), who is revealed to be a sensitive young girl with a knack for science (thanks to the Protostar’s universal translator). Assuming the helm/ops position is the Medusan Zero (Angus Imrie), a non-corporeal being who if forced to live within a mechanical exo-suit since the Medusans’ unfiltered appearance drives most beings into catatonic insanity (see: TOS Star Trek’s “Is There in Truth No Beauty?”). Rounding out the crew is Murf (Dee Bradley Baker), an indestructible amorphous blob who makes for a natural jack-of-all-trades.
Holo-Janeway (Kate Mulgrew)
After the young escapees steal the Protostar, they begin to access its files and summon the Janeway holographic training program (Kate Mulgrew), patterned after the legendary captain (now admiral) who once commanded the USS Voyager. With all of Janeway’s habits, inflections, even personal tastes and memories, Holo-Janeway is essentially guide and mentor to the young runaways aboard the Protostar; a ship originally commanded by the real Janeway’s former first officer, Chakotay (Robert Beltran), who’s since gone missing, along with the Protostar‘s crew. Holo-Janeway is, by design, slightly more deferential to the new ‘crew’ of the ship, but she retains Janeway’s firm hand and compassion as well. The finale of season 1 (“Supernova”, Parts 1, 2) sees holographic Janeway volunteering to stay behind and manually destroy the Protostar, after its infectious malware-weapon causes Starfleet to involuntarily attack itself. Unable to copy her complex program in time, she is forced to lie to her escaping wards—leaving them a data rod with a goodbye message, instead.
Note: Original Star Trek: Voyager veteran Kate Mulgrew slips right back into Janeway’s groove, playing both a Janeway hologram and the admiral herself, who becomes a regular on the show midway through season 1 (“A Moral Star,” Part 2), doggedly pursuing the Protostar aboard the USS Dauntless (a ship once seen as an alien trick in VGR’s “Hope and Fear”). Through subtle vocals, it’s easy for listeners to differentiate between the two Janeways, as holo-Janeway has a slightly softer delivery, while the admiral is bit more hard-nosed. Mulgrew’s most hilarious moments come when Admiral Janeway accidentally swaps bodies with Dal during a botched telepathic contact, forcing the grimly determined admiral to suddenly adopt the parlance and looser body language of a teenaged boy (“Mindwalk”). It’s clear that veteran actress Mulgrew is having the time of her life on this show.
Dal R’Ell (Brett Gray)
The young leader of the Tars Lamora escape is Dal R’Ell (Brett Gray), and despite his earlier wish to simply take the stolen Protostar for parts unknown (“Starstruck”), Dal soon decides that life in the inclusive Federation would be ideal for he and his runaway friends. To that end, he decides to learn the ways of Starfleet (“Kobayashi”). With Holo-Janeway’s guidance, as well as his own mental dexterity and experience, Dal begins to earn his assumed leadership role (“All the World’s a Stage”). He later learns he was the result of a genetics experiment which combined the DNA of multiple Federation species (“Masquerade”), and that Starfleet forbids any such genetic augments from serving in its ranks. After saving Starfleet by having the Protostar and its irremovable weapon destroyed, Admiral Janeway makes a heartfelt appeal on Dal’s behalf that allows him to become a Starfleet recruit (“Supernova,” Part 2). Dal has come a long way in just 20 episodes.
Note: Actor Brett Gray gives Dal an affability and seeming confidence, as well as genuine self-doubt; this is not unlike other captains we see in Star Trek. But unlike those other Starfleet captains, Dal’s imposter syndrome rings a bit truer, since he is a genuine imposter. However, over the course of just 20 episodes in season 1, we see Dal go on an arc not unlike that of Deep Space Nine’s “Nog”; a young Ferengi petty thief who becomes a decorated Starfleet officer by the end of the series. Dal also has the headstrong confidence of a young Cadet Kirk, in “Star Trek” (2009), using his brashness to sometimes mask his own loneliness; the latter feeling is somewhat amplified after Dal learns he is the only one of his kind. Brett Gray makes all the shadings of Dal’s journey appealing, even his romantic fumbling with Gwyn, through his terrific vocal performance.
Gwyndala (Ella Purnell)
Gwyndala (Ella Purnell) is the privileged daughter of “the Diviner,” who is the evil ruler of the Tars Lamora prison colony. Despite her father’s best manipulations, Gwyndala begins to see evidence that her father’s power is built upon cruelty. After being kidnapped by Dal and his escapees (“Lost and Found,” Part 2), Gwyndala (aka Gwyn) comes to sympathize with the Protostar‘s found family of refugees. With her own intellect and breeding, she settles in as acting first officer to Dal’s acting captain. Trouble arises when her pursuing father makes contact, and reveals that he’s seeking to destroy Starfleet with a secret weapon secured aboard the Protostar, in retaliation for a botched first contact which caused a deadly civil war among their people. That knowledge is blocked, however, after the Diviner sees Medusan crew member Zero’s true form, which causes traumatic amnesia and madness. Gwyn is also afflicted with amnesia, after viewing Zero’s reflection in a mirror (“A Moral Star,” Part 2). She eventually recovers, and continues with her found family aboard the Protostar. The season 1 finale sees a conflicted Gwyn choosing to rejoin her people, after her friends find new lives in Starfleet (“Supernova” Part 2).
Note: Ella Purnell (“Army of the Dead”) begins the series with her character Gwyn’s loyalties oscillating between father and her newfound family of lovable misfits aboard the Protostar. Like most characters in this freshman series, Gwyn undergoes a long arc; from villain’s willfully blind daughter to eventual de facto first officer for the would-be Starfleet officers who populate the Protostar. With the character returning to her people by the end of season 1, we see a tender kiss shared between Gwyn and her former ‘captain’ Dal. After a season of deflecting his sometimes clumsy attempts to win her affections, this moment between them feels earned and authentic.
Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas)
Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas) is a blustering but lovable Tellarite (a formerly pig-faced species introduced in TOS’ “Journey to Babel”) with a mechanical right arm that offers a variety of conveniences for a ship’s mechanic. Escaping from the prison colony with Dal and the others, he quickly assumes the position of chief engineer aboard the Protostar, often making life-saving repairs with a combination of sheer will and blind luck. After many episodes as the ship’s reigning comic relief, we later learn the orphaned Tellarite was living on a mining ship when his cryogenics pod malfunctioned, causing him to awaken before the rest of the crew (“Preludes”). Alone on the transport ship, Jankom formed a frustrating relationship with the ship’s computer, which often failed to recognize his voice, prompting Pog to speak his name in the third person whenever they interacted—a habit which has since become permanent. After repairing the decaying ship, he chose to conserve oxygen by jettisoning himself in an escape pod, where he was captured by hostile Kazons. The sometimes blustery mechanic also joins Starfleet with his friends, after they receive a hero’s due at Starfleet Headquarters (“Supernova,” Part 2).
Note: Actor Jason Mantzoukas’s voice for the character of Jankom Pog reminds me of something a younger Danny DeVito might’ve attempted in an alternate incarnation of PRO. In the process, Mantzoukas crafts a perfectly lovable (though still characteristically obnoxious) blue-collar character. Like the Medusans, Tellarites are another legacy species from Star Trek’s earliest days, making their first appearance in TOS “Journey to Babel,” where they were established as highly argumentative and confrontational. They were later seen as extras in the movies (“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”), and we later saw their important role in the formation of what became the Federation in the prequel series,“Star Trek: Enterprise” (2001-2005).
Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui)
Rok-Tahk helped Dal escape from the prison colony after being sent to kill him. Despite Rok-Tahk’s rock monster-appearance and grunting vocalizations, the Protostar‘s onboard universal translator revealed Rok-Tahk to be a sweet-natured child (Rylee Alazraqui), with great sensitivity and compassion for others. In the episode “Time Amok,” the Protostar falls into a tachyon anomaly which traps the crew in different pockets of time—each moving at different speeds. Rok-Tahk was trapped in a pocket that moved the slowest, allowing her to take all the time needed to understand and reverse the phenomenon by herself, spending months in isolation to save her then-newfound friends. In the process, she learned she had a knack for science, with xenobiology being her chosen field of study at Starfleet when she arrives (“Supernova,” Parts 1, 2). Rok-Tahk also has a deep affinity with and empathy for the indestructible gelatinous blob, Murf (Dee Bradley Baker).
Note: I adore Rok-Tahk; a formidable looking ‘monster’ who is actually a sweet and highly intelligent child. She is a classic Star Trek-style lesson in not judging books by their covers––a lesson Kirk and company learned when the murderous ‘Horta’ was revealed to be a mother creature defending her eggs from callous miners (TOS Star Trek’s “Devil in the Dark”) . As voiced by child actor Rylee Alazraqui (who’d sound just as at-home voicing a role in “Peanuts”), Rok-Tahk is Star Trek’s philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) embodied. I also appreciated that the character later learned she had a knack for science, not security—smartly defying the visual stereotype of an obviously brutish-looking being as the ship’s muscle. Rok-Tahk couldn’t be a better example of Star Trek’s message of inclusivity; a perfect character to have in a show targeted for younger audiences, as well as older Star Trek fans.
Zero (Angus Imrie)
Like the Tellarite Jankom Pog, Zero (Angus Imrie) is a ‘Medusan’; another legacy species from TOS Star Trek. As established in “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” Medusans are sublimely intelligent, non-corporeal beings with an unparalleled ability for interstellar navigation. Unfortunately, Medusans’ true, unfiltered appearance drives most beings insane. By the late 24th century, technology had advanced to the point where Medusans could live among corporeal beings through mechanical exo-suits, which they use to interact with the corporeal world. When we meet the genderless Zero in the Diviner’s labor camp (“Lost and Found,” Parts 1, 2), they are not exactly being a model prisoner. Zero’s good trouble creates a diversion that affords Dal and the others a window of opportunity in which to escape. Once in space (“Starstruck”), Zero has to rely on their innate, yet untested knack for navigation to pilot the Protostar. We also see Zero employing their species telepathic sense as well, which helps Gwen to recover her memory (“Asylum”)) after she accidentally glimpses Zero’s unfiltered reflection in a mirror (“A Moral Star,” Part 2). The episode “Supernova” Part 2 sees a Starfleet-bound Zero getting a new, state-of-the-art exo-suit, as well.
Note: Talented voice actor Angus Imrie gives an androgynous quality to the translated voice of Zero that is nicely in keeping with the Medusans’ genderless nature. Zero also allows younger audiences to become familiar with the concept of nonbinary personae in a way that’s easy for them to grasp, much in the same way that Uhura, Sulu and Chekov quietly ushered multiculturalism into mainstream 1960s television; a concept that was radical at the time, but downright pedestrian today. Like Rok-Tahk, the sublimely intelligent and compassionate Medusan is a creature at odds with their psychologically traumatizing appearance. Zero is another valuable, Star Trek-styled lesson in not judging “new life and new civilizations” by their appearances (or lack of gender).
Murf (Dee Bradley Baker)
Murf (Dee Bradley Baker) is an amorphous and indestructible gelatinous being who forms a deep attachment with Rok-Tahk. Murf can survive in the vacuum of space (“First Con-tact”), and can ingest things that would easily kill other life forms, such as swallowing the protostar that is the drive core of the escapees’ new ride (“A Moral Star,” Part 1). In “Asylum,” we learn through medical scans that the previously unknown Murf is, in fact, a Mellinoid slime worm; a species known to Federation science (TNG’s “Coming of Age”). When Murf appears stricken by illness (“All the World’s a Stage”), we learn that he’s actually undergoing a metamorphosis common to his species. When Murf emerges (“Crossroads”), he is now in a slightly more humanoid shape, though retaining his indestructible nature. After saving the ship from Romulan intruders (“Masquerade”), Murf is given a new role as ship’s security chief. Following the destruction of the Protostar (“Supernova,” Part 2), we see Murf joining his friends in Starfleet.
Note: Voice actor Dee Bradley Baker is well-known for his work in the various animated Star Wars shows (“The Clone Wars,” “Rebels,” “The Bad Batch”). His dialogue-free role as Murf is arguably as endearing as director Bill Melendez’s role as ‘Snoopy’ in the “Peanuts” cartoons. It’s hilarious (and a bit cheeky) that the mysterious Murf cannot be understood even by Starfleet’s advanced universal translators. It’s also a testament to the writing staff of this smartly-crafted series that even an amorphous blob creature is allowed to experience literal character growth by the end of its first season! With his eye-pleasing purple and aquamarine colors, Murf also has instant merchandizing appeal, as I’ve already seen plushies and other collectibles of the character selling like hotcakes at Star Trek conventions.
Re-animating Animated Star Trek
As someone who grew up watching Star Trek: The Animated Series (TAS) in the 1970s, I’ve watched the series struggle to find its voice within that format. TAS had some solid stories, but was largely hindered by substandard cell animation of the time. However, with most of the TOS cast returning to their familiar roles, as well as some TOS writers (Dorothy Fontana, David Gerrold, Sam Peeples) it still feels very Star Trek. I tend to think of TAS as crudely-animated audio adventures of the original series. Yes, there are some truly bonkers ideas (an inflatable Enterprise used to trick pursuing Romulans, a giant Spock clone, etc) but among the oddities, there are some unpolished dilithium crystals, as well.
Debuting in 2020, Star Trek: Lower Decks (LD) enjoys a devoted following, and I’m very glad it has an audience, but I just can’t stand its annoying characters (none of whom I believe as Starfleet Academy graduates) and its unceasing use of Star Trek references as punchlines. Instead of mining characters for comedic moments, it makes Star Trek itself the joke, and that joke got old for me very quickly. I gave up on LD after watching a good chunk of season 1 (including the finale), but from what I’ve seen and gleaned, I haven’t missed a whole lot. For Star Trek parodies with more substance, I prefer “The Orville.” LD is just not my cup of black coffee, I’m afraid…
After seeing the totality of its season 1 arc (nicely embedded within standalone stories), PRO has turned out to be one of the biggest surprises I’ve seen in Star Trek since Deep Space Nine. Yes, it is peppered with many messages specifically aimed at younger audiences, but they’re framed within half-hour stories that are steeped in classic Star Trek-style storytelling and sophistication. All of the familiar elements of Star Trek are there (warp drive, replicators, transporters, the Prime Directive, etc), but with its cast of young, non-Starfleet characters, Star Trek is allowed to be experienced through fresh eyes—much like the new audience members it hopes to gain.
Warping into the Future…
The many shakeups in its first season promise a very different second season. With the loss of the USS Protostar, as well as the departure of Gwyndala, the future for this found family-crew is both uncertain and exciting. With Dal and his team now learning on the job, their missions will no longer be kids playing at space adventure—they will be actual Starfleet cadets on real assignments. I just hope these characters don’t lose their sense of funky uniqueness that made them special. I’d hate to see future Starfleet training drain them of the color and unconventional thinking that made them so endearing in the first place. Given the confident, clever, and creative handling of this series? I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
PRO is the animated Star Trek series I’ve always dreamed of; a high-end show with enough slick action-adventure to bring new viewers into the fold, without compromising thoughtful storytelling or compelling characters. While it is certainly inclusive enough for younger audience members, it is not dumbed down for them. There are also plenty of legacy character cameos and references to make older fans feel welcome, too. This is an animated Star Trek series that is ideal for multiple generations of Trek fans to enjoy together.
May it truly live long and prosper.