When Star Trek: Prodigy debuted in October 2021, the series did something no Trek series has ever done before: Begin the story outside of the Federation, with characters who had never heard of Starfleet. In this way, Prodigy inverted the status quo most Trek series often take for granted. The so-called “hopeful” and “upbeat” world of the Federation was foreign to the rag-tag crew of the Protostar, a fact which placed strange tension in the series, like an emotional rubber band that felt forever stretched by a hologram. In other words, a crew of rebels on the run felt less like Star Trek, and more like Star Wars. In terms of the grim universe these young heroes were facing, this galaxy looked more far, far away than the friendly final frontier.
All of that changed in Star Trek: Prodigy episode 9, “A Moral Star, Part 1,” when the crew firmly pivots from rebels on the run to brave, would-be Starfleet officers with a mission. Of course, this change didn’t happen in this one episode. It’s been happening for the entire series. And in this way, Prodigy has demonstrated how a fairly generic sci-fi premise can be molded, slowly into something greater than the sum of its parts.
After the Diviner issues an ultimatum to the crew of the Protostar, the kids of Prodigy are faced with a choice: They can either use the proto-warp drive to jump to Federation space or all the way back to Tars Lamora, the prison planet where they came from. Zero makes it clear they’ve only got enough power for one jump either way. Gwyn knows her father (The Diviner) will totally make good on his threat to kill all the “unwanted” still living and toiling in the mines on Tars Lamora, so, as the crew quickly realizes, they’ve got their own Kobayashi Maru, a test of character that will define who they are.
From the perspective of Prodigy being a kids’ show, the idea that the crew has to go back and rescue all the other folks left behind — including that adorable kitten alien — feels like a no-brainer. Kids’ shows tend to try to teach lessons about being a good person. But, Star Trek has always had a slightly more nuanced approach toward morality tales in which the decision to make the right call can get sticky. In a Star Wars ethical framework, the moral decisions are easy: Fight to survive, because the oppressive status-quo will kill you. This is why the heroes of most Star Wars stories — including ones for kids — tend to be given weapons as soon as possible.
Prodigy began this way, giving us a boatload of outcast boxcar children in space. But, after they’ve had a few adventures together, and been guided gently by Janeway, the impulse toward self-preservation has been shaken ever so slowly. The biggest change here comes from Dal (Brett Gray) the self-appointed captain, who has scanned more than a little bit like a teenage Han Solo, generally always asking, “what’s in it for me.” But after the episode “Kobayashi,” we clearly saw Dal change. He’s now shifted away from Han Solo and became closer to Chris Pine’s Kirk at the end of Star Trek 2009. When he hesitates to take the Protostar back to Tars Lamora in “A Moral Star Part 1,” it’s not because he doesn’t want to help the people (and kittens) that live there. This time, he’s worried about his responsibility to his crew. Can he keep them safe, too?
In the end, this episode ends on a cliffhanger, and the gang loses their ship and Gwyn is captured by the Diviner. Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas) says, “Why does it feel like we lost?” And Dal responds, “Because we did the right thing.”
A more conventional victory is probably in the future for the crew of the Protostar, but it’s very telling that in their first adventure as a unified, Starfleet-ish crew, they don’t actually save the day at all. As Picard famously told Data: “It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” With their big cliffhanger episode, the young crew of the Protostar is learning that big life lesson the hard way. And in doing so, Prodigy has lept from being a Star Trek curiosity to a perfect representation of the soul of Starfleet.
Star Trek: Prodigy will air its 10th episode on February 3, on Paramount+, before going on hiatus until later in 2022.