Does Star Trek: Prodigy Work For More Than Just Kids?
Is the newest entry in the Trek universe worthy of adults’ attention or is it disposable kids entertainment?
Whether appropriate or not, from the moment Star Trek: Prodigy was announced it has attained the moniker for “Star Trek for Kids.” Since it was initially slated for Nickelodeon (but now also airs on Paramount+) this makes some degree of sense. Nickelodeon is a mostly kids network after all. But does Prodigy end up more on the side of a kid show adults can enjoy, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, or is it more akin to Star Trek: Babies? (They make your Warp 10 dreams come true!)
It’s easy as an adult to look at the cast of Prodigy and roll your eyes. They’re mostly teens, you’ve got Dal, the hot headed leader, Rok-Tahk, a big rock alien with a young girl voice, and Murf, an adorable mascot character who speaks in unintelligible blurps. The crew even has a babysitter in the form of the Janeway hologram. Also, the show employs fart gags every so often, which for whatever reason has become the universal sign of a show meant for kids. And I mean come on, it’s a cartoon! Cartoons aren’t usually for adults, right, the common person might think!
But that’s only the surface of Prodigy. If you look even a little deeper it’s been clear from the moment Prodigy premiered it had something more to offer. For those unaware, the basic thrust of the series is that a group of teen prisoners manage to commandeer a Starfleet ship, the Protostar, and attempt to fly it to the Alpha Quadrant in order to learn more about the Federation, the ideals of which appeal to the wayward crew. Along the way they’re pursued by The Diviner, a being intent on getting The Protostar back for a nefarious purpose, and they explore new worlds in the Star Trek tradition.
One of the first moments that clues you in that Prodigy is going to be much more than the “Star Trek for Kids” moniker implies comes in the third episode, ‘Starstruck.’ The holographic Janeway, who’s taken on the responsibility of training the teens, shows them all the replicators. While some of them order whatever their minds can come up with, the shy Rok-Tahk, the youngest of the group, isn’t sure what she wants. She’s lived on the prison colony her whole life; her only food an unappealing goop mixture that provided the simple essential nutrients. Rok-Tahk is finally given the choice of any food she wants… but she simply asks the replicator for more of the goop.
It’s a stunningly powerful moment, informing Rok-Tahk’s character but also doing a lot to communicate the intense life she’s had to live. She’s been beaten down mentally by being a prisoner and isn’t quite ready for the freedom that’s suddenly come her way.
The other characters on Prodigy all get similar moments to be fleshed out. This isn’t just a cast of happy go lucky teens on a good fun times adventure. They’re complex, just like the best characters in Trek history.
Prodigy also goes out of its way to be have plots that are more than just Star Trek-lite missions. ‘First Con-tact’ has the crew mislead by a Ferengi, an old mentor of Dal’s, into making first contact with a race of beings that communicate and control the world around them through unique frequencies in crystals. Of course Trek has done endless first contact missions but Prodigy uses the medium of animation to make this first contact more majestic than any other in the franchise’s history. The team is caught off guard by the brilliance and beauty of these beings, their form of communication truly alien. When the Ferengi steals one of the crystals, the beings entire harmony is thrown off balance, causing the sandy planet to violently collapse in on itself. It’s only through the quick work of Dal that the crystal is given back.
It would have been easy for that to be the end, an easy win for the young crew. But no, hologram Janeway lets them know they’ve done irreparable harm to the species and now they’ll be far less trusting of anyone else visiting their world. The crew’s actions have consequences.
The whole episode isn’t redoing a Trek plot but dumbing it down for kids, it takes a unique approach that wouldn’t be possible without a cast of characters who’ve never heard of what a first contact mission is. It uses that inexperience to make this first contact all the more majestic and beautiful, turning a Trek standard plot into something wonderful and engagingly strange while still not making things easy for the crew.
Prodigy really leans in to the power of animation to do the kinds of things live-action Trek never could. The main cast themselves are a mish-mash of cultures and races, some previously seen in Trek but some brand new. A particular standout is Zero, a Medusan separated from their species hive mind (remember the TOS episode ‘In There In Truth No Beauty?’ with the box filled with deadly light? Same species!) Zero is portrayed as a swirling ball of purple and blue light held together in a containment suit that finally gets Trek away from its reputation of only featuring humanoid aliens. You’ve also got Rok-Tahk who, again, is a giant rock girl that just wouldn’t be possible in a live-action series.
Then there’s Murf. Ah, Murf. A gelatinous life form that looks like it was created solely to sell plushies. Yes, Murf is adorable and basically functions as the crews pet. Murf being adorable will automatically take Prodigy’s “adult” cred away for some but, okay, let’s be real. Murf is the best. Murf makes funny noises! Murf can survive in space. Murf ate a photon grenade AND a protosar and lived! And damn it, Murf is cute and there’s nothing wrong with that! Data had Spot in TNG and Archer had Porthos in Enterprise and both of them were adorable to! You can’t hate something as cute as Murf!
And if you’re an adult fan who’s hoping for that sweet sweet Trek lore, Prodigy delivers. There’s of course the hologram Janeway, portrayed by Kate Mulgrew, who’s attempting to figure out the mystery of what happened to the Protostar’s original crew and its original captain, Chakotay. A Kazon makes an appearance in the first episode, setting at least some of the events of Prodigy in the Delta Quadrant. The biggest of all though is when Dal takes on a new version of the famous Kobayashi Maru test on the holodeck, aided by recreations of famous Trek characters. Its pure fan service but its so sweet.
The show is also building up a lot of new corners of the Trek universe and introducing several new species, always welcome in long running franchises which can tend to be content reusing old favorites.
Adults will find a lot to love in Prodigy. Yes the show is made so kids can enjoy it; it goes out of its way to re-explain familiar Trek staples like replicators, but its never writing down to them. Prodigy is simply a different kind of Trek show for a new generation but one that welcomes adults with open arms. And yes, there are a few fart jokes. But come on, don’t pretend. Farts can be funny to kids and adults.
Now that Star Trek: Prodigy has aired ten episodes and is on a break, now’s the perfect time to catch up! You won’t regret it.