Saturday, 7 January 2023

Prodigy: Strong Return

What seems like years have passed since the mid-season break for Nickelodeon’s impressive Star Trek: Prodigy leaving us wondering what lay ahead for the youthful crew and how the real Kathryn Janeway would affect proceedings.

It's return hasn’t disappointed. At time of writing we’re hitting the midway point of the second half of season one (episode 15 in shorthand) with each week just adding a little more spice to this young child of the Star Trek Universe.

Just to recap, the crew seemed to have defeated the Diviner and made good their escape aboard the USS Protostar however it came to pass in the final seconds that the real Admiral Janeway and the USS Dauntless were hot on their heels. Problem is that the Protostar is carrying a weapon from the future which could destroy Starfleet if it so much as communicates with any element of the organisation.

This was borne out in the mid-season premiere, Asylum in which the starship docked with a distant Starfleet communications outpost and met with its sole operator, the Denobulan Barniss Frex. Revealing Murf’s race in the process (and almost off nonchalantly)  it opened up the mystery of what species Dal is and showed the destructive power of the Protostar’s terrible secret which cannot be removed. Offering the first real contact with Starfleet it expectedly doesn't go to plan.

If you thought the opener was a powerful move, its successor in Let Sleeping Borg Lie, topped out with the return of the Borg. But wait, instead of First Contact/Voyager Borg, Prodigy chose to go full-on retro and chose to take the cybernetic collective back to their TNG days albeit that little more stylish. It’s an episode that definitely stakes a claim that Prodigy isn’t a kids series for the most part with a big call back that would require at least some knowledge of the franchise to ‘get’. There’s even phaser modulation, reference to specific pieces of Borg tech and a visually gorgeous cube packed into the episode. 

Actually let's justify that even further. The Borg haven't felt this menacing since First Contact. They are malevolent, unstoppable once more and ooze the menace that has been missing from them for nearly thirty years. Let Sleeping Borg Lie takes the crew deep into a Cube in search of a vinculum (previously referenced in VGR) but turns into a nightmare as Zero links with the Collective and near turns into a Drone. This is potentially Prodigy's most bleak instalment, driving the show to its darkest limits and trusting that fans of all ages will follow the nods to the past. It's actually a good thing to see the Borg once again raised to the level of a truly threatening opponent right where they should be.

Following on, All the World's a Stage is a strong episode to highlight the Prime Directive (non-interference) while also providing an unexpected sequel to TOS. Star Trek has mocked itself before through most of Lower Decks and notably VGR's Live Fast and Prosper and this episode combines that with the storytelling aspect of the latter's Muse. It even nods towards the times Starfleet inadvertently influenced civilisations such as the Iotians from A Piece of the Action

As with the Borg-focused previous episode, the intrinsic links to the show's history are key to the understanding of the plot. Prodigy seems to be stepping firmly out of "just a kids show" and into the mainstream of the franchise with its choice to embrace near six decades of lore. My only concern is that while it is a clear chance to promote all the great elements from Star Trek's far and wide corners, the fan friendly nods might end up alienating the younger generation who were the original target audience. That said you can't ignore how good it feels to have such a rich history to mine, explore and expand upon just as we see here.

In All the World's... Starflight has inspired the Enderprizians way of life for a century. While the eventual reveal of the real Gallows is a tip to The Motion Picture's V'Gr, it's still an effective story that would be accessible to new fans. It gives a glimpse of the franchise's past and therefore a little temptation to find out more while also giving long-term fans something of a payoff that they might not have been expecting. Earlier in the season we'd seen Dal tackle command choices by recreating the bridge of the Enterprise-D replete with assorted crew from the franchise and now we have the appearance of the classic Enterprise bridge both as a stage performance and also to assist the Enderprizians when they are aboard the Protostar

But there's also real development for the characters here. Ok, so the Diviner's return and amnesia drives the story, we are starting to see each of the main crew come into their own. Dal has a mystery to solve alongside his evolution as a would-be captain. Gwyn has become more trusting as the series has gone on. Ruk isn't a third wheel to most of the stories and Zero is proving to be even more enigmatic than before. 

But the two standouts at this stage have to be Jankom Pog (whom I really didn't like at the beginning) who is helping viewers to expand their understanding of Tellarites (cleverly mirrored with the Dauntless' medical officer) and has shown himself to be an adept engineer. Then there's Murf. His species now revealed, the cute blue blob has started to evolve, opening up a whole heap of new possibilities as yet untouched by Star Trek and all borne from one single reference in a first season TNG episode. Not bad at all. His evolution into some sort of super-agile defender of the crew is amazing and gets played slightly comedically which can seem out of place in the show's more high-intensity sequences.

Four episodes in to this half-season and Crossroads actually felt like the right time for Admiral Janeway to come face to face with the young runaway crew of the Protostar. She has her questions as to what's happened to Captain Chakotay (and his crew?) but the point that Dal wouldn't reveal what was going on did feel as though it was the first real misstep of the show. 

Why not just explain what was going on and save the subsequent (but cool to see) chase between the two Starfleet ships? It makes for a great action-filled story that combines space combat with neat snow-bound racing with added Thadiun Okona yet it does feel oddly convoluted and a bit like banging your head on a wall.

With that issue still in the back of my head, Masquerade did further the Dal/genetics plot as well as the continued pursuit by the Dauntless and the appearance of the Romulans. It feels as though this was the episode of the season where the most elements were crammed in to the half-hour run time. Fortunately (but rather abruptly) Okona leaves and that does alleviate some of the focus. That's odd in itself since there's a lot made at the opening of the episode around his speedy integration with the Protostar's crew.

Unboxing some of Dal's recessive genes makes for a different take on his character and one that does have lasting effects beyond Masquerade. Sometimes that's a good thing with Prodigy and at other points it does make him look like a spoiled child however that in turn does allow for a good breadth of character exploration.

Escaping the Romulans intact is one thing and Preludes provides something of a respite before hitting the final run of four episodes. What's great here is that viewers get to see some of the character background and references played out which have been sprinkled in across the course of the season - and there have been a fair few. Jankom's pre-Federation sleeper ship for one, Zero's capture for another, Rok-Tahk's familiarity with Nutra-goop a third; they're all dipped into with more clarity. This could have been a filler yet wisely chooses to expand the understanding of the cast in a way that greatly benefits the show, not that audiences won't already have a level of attachment.

While all this is going on aboard the Protostar there's still the ongoing narrative surrounding the revitalised but amnesic Diviner aboard the Dauntless. Janeway's crew is a little more generic but her first officer and doctor do receive at least decent screentime to act as her support. The main focus though does tend to be on Janeway and Ensign Ascensia. The junior officer does have a lot to offer as you head into the final run of episodes and is far more integral to the show than we might have anticipated back in Asylum but again if you watch it back there are small hints right from her introduction that there is more to be revealed. 

Potentially the most disappointing episode of the season could have been Ghost in the Machine. As a kids show it's a solid move to introduce a holodeck-breaks episode while also a brave step to head into heavily charted territory. Certainly there are hints of TNG's Emergence with the holodeck seeming to bear surreptitious messages in the sequence of programs. Of course there is an endgame to it all which leads into Mindwalk

As with the holodeck dangers, body swapping is an oft-used trope especially in Trek with it only recently utilised in the excellent Spock Amok with particular aplomb. Here it does help to further the overall arc and give Kate Mulgrew some new and different material to work on as Dal in Janeway's body. As a vocal performance she absolutely hits the mark and that has to be in part thanks to some sparky dialogue and the work of the animators to envisage just what it could be like. As said, it does really focus the attention onto the final two part episode.

Sharing it's name with the recently released Prodigy game, Supernova has two very distinct parts to it. The first 30 chew out the dangers of the Living Construct buried aboard the Protostar and the second with the aftermath. Why does this work? Because the show actually takes time to deal with the results of the (SPOILER) devastation caused by the Construct and what to do with the Protostar crew. Again I don't want to screw over anyone who hasn't seen it yet but this is one of the most emotional, intense conclusions to a season that Star Trek has produced for a good few years. The characters really are fully rounded and for once a finale doesn't just round it all off nicely and reset. There are consequences here, there is fallout and it is a fitting way to round off season one.

As a season this is one of the finest pieces in the Kurtzman jigsaw and totally, utterly, jaw-droppingly unexpected. For years I've dreamed of a Star Trek series that each week I've wanted to come back to over and over to find out what happens next and Prodigy delivered. Great characters, cool ship, great villain and a great, respectful nod to Voyager and the franchise. A grade Trek that's for kids... wink wink.

What's been your take on Prodigy? Favourite moment or character?

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