Star Trek: Prodigy

3 out of 5

Created by: Kevin & Dan Hageman

covers season 1

Star Trek: Discovery has had its ups and downs, with some positive steps taken in its second and third seasons leading toward some of the most cringe-worthy writing of all time in its fourth season. Picard, ultimately proving itself to be a great show, has a bit of barrier-to-entry nostalgia and “this ain’t yer daddy’s Trek” ‘tude to sift through. And Lower Decks, hit or miss, has the problem – to me, at least – of being incredibly unfunny.

Star Trek in the 2020s is, in other words, in a weird spot: lots of it, but all with qualifications, and nothing exactly fulfilling the episodic appeal of some of the classic eras.

I wasn’t put off by applying the ST formula to a kids series, with Prodigy being a Nickelodeon production; there are plenty of great kids shows, and the swerve that that demographic might apply to the trend of try-hard formulas and references-as-a-substitution-for-jokes could only be a positive. And Prodigy does have some great bones: a good backwards way of gathering its crew upon a starship, and providing a structure that does support both an ongoing storyline plus bottle episodes. Solid voice acting and great animation round this off: it’s a good looking show, and easy to watch.

It’s also oddly generic.

Dal R’El (Brett Gray) is an upstart slave on a prison planet being run by “The Diviner” (John Noble) and his daughter, Gwyn (Ella Purnell). Gwyn has more of a soft spot for the inmates, but still pushes her dad’s agenda of having all those under the rule search the planet for… something. Co-opting a rebellion kickstarted by the prisoner Zero (Angus Imrie), Dal stumbles across that “something”: a starship called The Protostar. Circumstances arrange themselves such that other young prisoners, plus Gwyn as a captive, are on board when Dal is able to use the ship to break free of the planet, with The Diviner in pursuit. Onboard AI “Janeway” (Kate Mulgrew, indeed reprising a hologram version of her Voyager self) informs the crew that the ship is a Federation one, and we have our premise: stay away from The Diviner, and learn the ropes of not only working together as a team, but as a Federation team to boot.

In all sincerity, I love this. It’s not an easy pitch, and it earns it’s two episode opening to get us there, but it feels very fresh and traditional at the same time. And the “training” missions that Janeway tasks them with are similar: there are echoes of classic Trek conundrums, told with an exuberance and sassiness fitting for the teen team. Prodigy’s writers also pace things effectively, such that we’re not just one training montage away from competency: everyone has a lot of learning to do, and they float in and out of teamwork at a believable, non-grating pace. Plus, I mean, John Noble.

However, even with these good bones, and great production design lending itself to exciting, dense visuals across planets and starships, the show never quite passes that “entertaining” mark to be something truly gripping, and doesn’t even have the hints of the types of ‘toons that appeal to adults that suggest that the narrative will get more layered as we go along; it’s definitely a drop-in, drop-out show, with one episode a week being all you need. The reason for this, as far as I can ascertain, is that these solid ideas are filled up with the most generic possible versions of their characters, talking to each other in very boiler-plate chatter. None of the characters are inherently interesting. The fact that a character voiced by Jason Mantzoukas did not cause me to even chuckle once during the season seems telling. It’s as though all efforts were put into the concepts, with a note to add in the dialogue later, which then gets populated Madlibs style from a selection pool of tropes. In the moment, it’s not distracting, but when I’m starting at a new episode, realizing I have no special draw to hit “play” that I realize the effect this takes.

But: out of all the Treks, I do think Prodigy has the most promise. Picard has already met the mark, but again, that’s a different type of investment. I want something that I’m eager to watch, but can also be very episodic, and I think all of the pieces are there for Prodigy to be that. It’s very much the most level-headed and steady of the 2020 Trek offerings, and leaves me hoping that the show is given time and room to add some more interesting stuffings to its well-established frame.