TV, Writing

First Impressions – STAR TREK: PRODIGY – ‘Lost and Found’

If you had said to a Star Trek fan three years ago that the best show of the franchise’s new era would be animated, they would probably have laughed you straight out of the airlock.

Lower Decks completely upended that perception, banishing the ghost at the feast that long was The Animated Series from the early 1970s, a kitsch and dated reworking of The Original Series. Mike McMahan’s series combined occasionally raunchy, modern adult comedy with a loving and kind reverence for 1990s era Trek that has grown in confidence, humour and stature over two seasons. It has established animation as a key string to modern Trek’s bow in a way few expected.

Star Trek: Prodigy is expressly designed to carry the torch forward and, in many respects, the pressure and expectations are different. Many fans knew what to expect from McMahan, given his comic pedigree on the TNG S8 Twitter feed and later writing experience with Rick & Morty; he was a known entity who did largely what people expected of him with Lower Decks, but brother team of writer/showrunners Kevin & Dan Hagerman are, to an extent, an unknown quantity.

On the basis of the two-part pilot, Lost and Found, they have gone straight for the comic adventure jugular, crafting an effective and beautifully animated origin story for the nascent crew of the U.S.S. Protostar.

How great is it that, for the first time since Enterprise and Broken Bow in 2001, a new Trek series is starting off with a two-part story?

Granted, the entire running time is only half of what the 1990s era Trek series pilots would deliver, but the two-part opening tale is a legacy of Trek’s Golden Age that Prodigy adopts in a story that, to the Hagerman’s credit, is not immediately reliant on call backs and tropes to Trek’s past. Lower Decks more than has that covered, indeed it is part of that series’ DNA. Prodigy very much sets its stall out as, first and foremost, an adventure tale for children exploring what could be a new or largely untapped corner of the Star Trek universe, certainly for a while – the Delta Quadrant, as travelled by the U.S.S. Voyager in the show of the same name.

Voyager is casting a broader spell over modern Trek than many people perhaps anticipated, given Seven of Nine’s inclusion as a mainstay of Star Trek: Picard, Tom Paris popping up on Lower Decks, and one of the key selling points for Prodigy has been the return of Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway (and most recently the announcement Robert Beltran will reprise the role of Chakotay in the series, himself promoted to Captain).

Inevitably, Janeway is saved for the final few moments of the pilot, and we have a context about who she is—in recorded holographic form, rather than the character herself—that the new characters do not, but Lost and Found admirably works to foreground the assortment of newcomers and work to initially develop them, as opposed to relying on the pull of Janeway.

Series director Ben Hibon has described the initial approach:

From a design and concept respect… We just want the newcomers to own as much of Prodigy as the old fans, the current fans. It was really important that everyone starts from zero and builds together.

This makes sense from a creative standpoint.

Lower Decks had the luxury of a concept that was very easy to parse and understand, given it was based on an episode of The Next Generation, set in the midst of a recognisable Starfleet ship setup, and playing stylistically from a recognisable adult animated playbook. Prodigy has to begin from first principles and not just establish a visual look but also a storytelling narrative style of its own, one designed and geared more toward a child-friendly audience than Lower Decks was envisaged for. Prodigy’s assortment of alien characters, many of them children or teenagers themselves, is intentional. They provide an instant window for young Nickelodeon audiences to enter the world of Star Trek.

Here is where my problem with Prodigy’s pilot begin, and it is worth pointing out at this stage that a lot of this is subjective opinion.

From an objective point of view, there is little wrong with Lost and Found. It presents a clean, understandable narrative (perhaps too easy to see the beats coming at points) around a set of recognisable character tropes—the cocky young hero searching for his origin, the intense girl trapped by her abusive father, the boorish, loud mouthed comic sidekick and so on—all of whom progress through a plot entirely devised around setup. The pilot needs to get them off mining prison colony Tars Lamora, onto the Protostar, and away into the stars – at which point the central thematic ideas of teamwork, learning and self-discovery, through Janeway as a mentor, can come to the fore. This all makes absolute sense and is a logical entry point.

For me, there were two major issues. Firstly, the characters themselves. Many of them did not just feel rather rote, trope-filled versions that we’ve seen a hundred times before, but some of them actively grated on me. Dal (Brett Gray) is smart-mouthed and immediately quite annoying; Gwyn (Ella Purnell) has a solid character arc in play but came off rather earnest; Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), though a neat concept of a growling seemingly male monstrous alien in truth being a little girl, is immensely squeaky and irritating as soon as the universal translator makes her clear; and Jankom Pog (Jason Manzoukas) is simply a cliche extension of scurrilous, roguish characters we’ve seen in many a Trek series. Zero (Angus Imrie), a Medusan entity living in a Wall-E style encounter body, stood out as the most intriguing, rounded example of an inventive alien character.

Again, this is subjective. Many of these characters have delighted audiences given the initial reaction to Prodigy and that’s wonderful. Equally, it takes a while for every new Trek cast to warm and grow into their roles; this is as true of animation as live action, as Lower Decks has displayed over its first two seasons. There is every likelihood this might happen for me too. Moreover, the villain of The Diviner (the great John Noble) came out well as a sinister, Machiavellian bad guy and presumed recurring foil, even if his henchman Drednok (Jimmi Simpson) is basically a re-heated General Grievous from Revenge of the Sith. Speaking of Star Wars, this brings me neatly to my second issue with Prodigy on the basis of Lost and Found.

In short, it felt much more like Star Wars than it actually did Star Trek.

Now. This isn’t me suggesting that Prodigy is not Star Trek, or anything like that. Prodigy is obviously subscribing to the principles of Trek as much as any other show given the core concept, and it will likely lean further into what we understand as Star Trek as Janeway imparts lessons based on Starfleet and Federation principles as she helps fashion these teenagers into a functional crew. Lost and Found, nevertheless, particularly given how long it takes to get the Protostar out of the ground, struggles to shake off a Star Wars-style feeling of space fantasy as opposed to the scientific approach we see in Trek, in everything from the characterisation, visuals and the storytelling. Until they find the Federation starship, this could be an episode of The Clone Wars or Rebels.

In truth, we shouldn’t be surprised at this approach. Since the Alex Kurtzman-era of Star Trek began in 2017, we have seen the franchise veer closer to a combination of the J.J. Abrams Kelvin-verse and Star Wars in terms of the aesthetic approach, the success of which has been decidedly mixed at points. For Prodigy, to establish the world in these terms, through a visual style adults and children can recognise, certainly makes sense. And the visuals here are genuinely stunning, with the characters and particularly the Protostar beautifully rendered. This is a slicker, modernised animated style as opposed to Lower Decks—as good looking as that show is—and no detail has been spared. There is a distinct visual flavour in terms of the character animation that no Star Trek series previously has ever managed to capture. Equally, the credit sequence is visually sublime.

Prodigy, then, could well be a grower.

Lost and Found is a necessary establishment of character and core story, from the means of getting the crew on the Protostar and providing them antagonists to escape from, and the thematic ideas and inventive storylines that allow these characters to become more than archetypes and tropes, and hopefully settle into themselves a little, will come. The building blocks are certainly there. Whether it can a balance being a Star Trek series geared ostensibly for kids, via a children’s channel, with enough to satisfy adult fans, remains to be seen. That balance wasn’t quite right for me on the evidence of this pilot but, again, the series has every chance to nail that. We have two seasons immediately happening, at least, and all signs point to this already being hugely well received by Star Trek’s vociferous fandom.

My hope, come the end of the season, is to be as in love with Prodigy as many fans already are. Let’s see where their maiden voyage takes us.

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