When Star Trek: Prodigy was first revealed as a “kid-friendly” show, certain fans decried that they did not need a “dumbed-down” entry to get into Star Trek when they were young. A blessing then, that this next generation doesn’t have that either: instead, they’re offered something smart, fun, and perfect for them, that never forgets what Star Trek is really about.
Prodigy — the third Star Trek animated series, and its first foray into computer-generated animation — is the first show in the franchise that doesn’t follow Starfleet officers. Instead, opening on the mining colony of Tars Lamora, the series focuses on a cast of young ne’er-do-wells, a hodgepodge group of alien teens who don’t know each other, and fascinatingly, can’t communicate with each other either. Ruled with an iron fist by the Vau N’Kat known as the Diviner (John Noble, delivering a slight, but still delectably sinister performance), the miners of Tars Lamora have been stripped of a fundamental idea we’ve come to assume of all Star Trek: a basic, universal translator. The inability to communicate has broken these people — our future heroes Dal (Brett Grey), Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas), and Zero the Medusan (Angus Imrie) included — into submission. Without the simple unity of being able to talk to each other, no single miner can dare attempt to rise up against the Diviner’s control.
It’s a simple, fascinating idea that sets the tone for the first few episodes of the show provided for review: a Star Trek as hell thought experiment that’s provoking enough for fans to latch on to, but simply executed and communicated so that a young audience can understand. They’ll likely understand too that Prodigy is an action-adventure series at heart. The initial conflict is solved quickly enough when Dal and Zero, dragging their two new friends along in the process — as well as the Diviner’s daughter Gwyn (Ella Purnell), cast here as more of an unwilling hostage than a protagonist — discover mid-escape that Tars Lamora is the resting place of a secret, experimental Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Protostar.
The ship, housing another important Star Trek connection beyond its status as a Starfleet vessel (more on that later) not only translates our heroes’ thoughts so they can actually start working together, but gives them the chance to escape and dream of the stars beyond their current home. Their adventures are punctuated by high-speed escape chases and lots of pew-pew phaser firing as the kids try to get used to the exploration/military starship they suddenly find themselves at the helm of. But dreaming of more is an ideal that has fuelled generations of Star Trek, just examined from a slightly different lens here. What kind of young kid hasn’t longed for something more, had the wanderlust to see the world beyond their normal life? What is Star Trek about, if not that mission first invoked by Captain Kirk, and countless others over 55 years after: to boldly go?
It’s this idea that suffuses Prodigy with a heart and optimism that makes it feel quintessentially Star Trek, even if its gang of unruly teen heroes feel anything but. Prodigy constantly plays with the friction that these kids, and likely part of its audience, have never heard of Starfleet or the Federation before, and that like all teens, they’re not going to act anything like the Starfleet officers that have been the protagonists of Star Trek shows before them — even the ones at their most insubordinate. This especially comes through in the introduction of that aforementioned connection: the Protostar is home to a Command Hologram Program modelled after Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway (the returning icon, Kate Mulgrew, in a form that feels like she’s not missed a beat since the character was last on screens nearly two decades ago).
The hologram Janeway is not quite like her human self, she’s less Captain to these kids, and more teacher, and even then, hovering a little closer to Cool Aunt than she is Schoolmarm. At first, she represents an authority figure, welcoming and beneficial, but that’s something our young crew has little time for after spending their lives under someone else’s thumb (at least at first). It creates a fascinating early relationship, as older fans who are likely here to see more of Janeway than they are these kids, and a younger audience much more likely to relate to those kids than they are a woman they’ve never heard of, are pushed and pulled between two halves of the show’s core.
But whether you come out of the first few episodes wanting these kids to have become a little less early Deep Space Nine Nog and more like Dominion War Nog, or that maybe Holo-Janeway can cool her jets and let them have a little more fun every now and then, these dual aspects of the show ultimately come together over what matters to the show most: that aforementioned desire to be free to explore, to see new things and new places, dangerous or otherwise, because there is a joy in that wanderlust. It’s what gives you hope that Holo-Janeway’s connection to Starfleet might one day show these kids the ideals the Federation has found worth fighting for over eons, and that this motley crew can show her, hologram or otherwise, that exploring the universe doesn’t necessarily need prim and proper order. Because deep down, whether these kids are Starfleet material or not doesn’t matter: they’re here to see what’s out there, and so far as Prodigy is concerned, what’s out there is a ton of fun.
Star Trek: Prodigy begins streaming on Paramount+ today, October 29.