A Crew for Kids
Star Trek: Prodigy: Season 1, Part 1
Over the last few months there has been a disturbing trend among streaming networks, removing shows they hyped up and promoted, casting them aside for a quick tax break and likely condemning them to never be seen again. The most famous and pronounced of this behavior was, of course, WB Discovery shelving the nearly complete Batgirl to take the tax write off, meaning that film can never get finished and can never be shown (because then they'd have to pay back the write off). But other networks have gotten into the game, too, and now many, many shows are lost, maybe forever.
The latest announcement came from Paramount+, which has said that a few different shows (Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, The Game) will be canceled and removed from their network. One show of note for us is Star Trek: Prodigy, the Nickelodeon-produced part of the Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. franchise, which had already been picked up for a second season, and that season was basically done and ready to go. Now, instead, the second season won't debut on the streamer, and while they have stated they will shop it around to other networks, its hard to have hope that this series will find any kind of permanent home for any length of time.
I will admit that I struggled to get into the series despite a love of Star Trek. My wife and I watched the first five episodes soon after they came out, and while we thought the series was decent, it lacked that Star Trek hook. It presented a story so far removed from the Federation, Starfleet, and any of the familiar trappings of the franchise that it could have been any sci-fi animated series and it would have felt the same. Sure, there was one ship, the U.S.S. Protostar, that looked like a Federation star ship, and a holographic Janeway (voiced by Kate Mulgrew) was there to act as a guide, but it still didn't feel like Trek. It was disconnected somehow.
I fairness to the show, it did evolve over time during the first half of its first season, to the point where the last couple of episodes (with discussions of duty, what it means to be an officer, what Starfleet stands for) really did start to feel like Trek. It got the right vibe, and it really began to become part of the franchise. I can understand why the producers went this route -- instead of forcing kids who may have never heard of Star Trek before to learn everything about the franchise in long series of info dumps, the show gave us new, kid-friendly characters in their own part of the universe so we could organically discover new things. I works from that approach, but that hardly made it feel like Trek in its early going.
That, then, is what I think hurt the show early on and why, with other shows in the franchise at least getting three seasons or more, this is the first Star Trek series to not get a second season. Despite finding its groove by the last couple of episodes of this first run for the show, a lot of Trek fans could have been turned off from watching the series further. If the fans aren't going to watch it, aren't going to sit down with their kids to get the next generation into the franchise early, then Prodigy would have lost its audience early and struggled to ever get them back. And then, sadly, it gets coincided to the dustbin of time.
The series starts off on an asteroid mining station where Dal R'El (Brett Gray) works as, essentially, slave labor mining away at the rock. Everyone on the rock are young, "unwanted" slaves, toiling their days away under the watchful eye of the Diviner (John Noble). The Diviner rules with an iron fist and thinks nothing of the lives under his care. All he wants is a hidden prize at the center of the asteroid, a prize that, in just so happens, Dal is able to find first... with a little help from some new friends.
When Dal -- along with techie Tellarite, Jankom Pog (Jason Mantzoukas), a rock-bodied Brikite with a head for science, Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), and the robot-bodied, non-corporeal entity Zero (Angus Imrie) -- finds a lost Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Protostar, the use the ship to make a break for it... but not before the Diviner's own daughter, Gwyndala (Ella Purnell), sneaks on board. Now, under the watchful gaze of command hologram Janeway (Mulgrew), these kids have to find a way to pilot the ship and work as a crew if they're ever going to have any hope of truly escaping the clutches of the Diviner.
Aside from being a Star Trek show very little actually Star Trek (it does feel like Janeway was tacked onto this show so that we'd have one character standing around in proper uniform), probably the greatest weakness of the show is its lead character, Dal. This guy, an alien of unknown origin, is just an obnoxious prick. Yes, it's in service of a character arc, one where he grows from little, annoying douchebag to someone worthy of sitting in the captain's chair, but that doesn't make him any more bearable in the early goings of the show. There are very few redeeming qualities to Dal, and he presents himself in such an egotistical way, that you wish anyone else could have been the focus for the series instead of this prick.
Probably the most compelling character of the set, and the person who I feel doesn't get nearly enough focus, is Gwendala. As the daughter of the Diviner, she has a solid arc -- loyal followers to turning against him and then being horrified as she realizes the lengths he'll go to in services of his own desires -- that she actually makes for a far more interesting lead character than Dal. In a different version of this show she would be the captain, he her cocky first mate, and the dynamic between his blithely charging into stupid situations while she has to think of the needs of everyone would make for proper Star Trek drama.
Hell, having her as our lead character actually would give the whole mission further personal stakes. As she's the daughter of the villain, she's torn between her desire to make him proud and her realization that he's not the man she thought he was. That's the stuff of long term character arcs. That could fuel an entire arc of a series. Yes, the show does find its feet and is able to grow into something compelling by the end of the first half of the first season, but it feels like, by putting the focus on the wrong character, it has to struggle through his crappier story to actually get to a point that is actually interesting and compelling.
But the show does find that place and that's why I'm interested in where it goes in its second half (the show was released in two parts, a few months apart, during its initial run). By the time the first half of the season comes to a close, stakes are established, the characters are working together as a crew, and some of Dal's worst impulses have been tempered. It brings us to a point where it finally feels like we're watching a Star Trek show, and that's what this series needed all along.
I can't blame anyone if they ducked of the series early. It was a series that, while pretty and obviously well made from a production standpoint, lacked a compelling hook for the Trek fans that were tuning in. A bad pilot can ruin the chances for a show, and this was a series that produced a good five or so weak episodes, all at the earliest part of its run. Getting there sometimes isn't good enough, and this rough early patch is likely why the ratings suffered. It's hard to imagine a Star Trek show getting so unceremoniously canceled after just one season, but that's what's happened with Star Trek: Prodigy and, much as I enjoyed the later episodes of this half of the season, I can totally see why the series failed.
Still, for my own coverage, I have another half to watch before the series is removed from Paramount+ later in the week. Gotta get it in while it's still possible, especially when only the first half of the series is on home video. When people complain that "we don't need physical media anymore," instances like this, where a series could be lost forever, illustrate exactly why. Even a middling effort is worth preserving just to show what could have been and to course correct for the future.