A Future Unfulfilled
Star Trek: Prodigy: Season 1, Part 2
And that happened really fast. it was just last week that Paramount+ announced they would be removing Star Trek: Prodigy from their service, canceling the debut of the second season in the process (despite it already being done and in the can) and either shunting it off to a rival network or just dropping it in a vault never to be seen again (if no one else picks it up). And look, I get it. An animated 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. show for kids isn't the easiest sell. In the history of the franchise there have been three animated shows -- The Animated Series, Lower Decks, and Prodigy -- and the only one to have any staying power is the one not designed for children to watch it (i.e., Lower Decks). I think pitching a Trek show at children is a great idea, but apparently it wasn't an easy sell for the general public.
The pitch is strong. As Captain (now Admiral) Janeway actress put it, "the girls that grew up with me as their captain can now watch a new series featuring Janeway that they can watch with their own daughters." I like that idea, but maybe not everyone was on board. Certainly the first half of the first season got off to an uneven start, such that even Trek fans primed to watch the show, like me, didn't always make it through that batch of episodes. It's great having Janeway back, except the real Janeway doesn't become a major character until the midpoint of the season, and fans had to come back for the second batch of episodes to really get her. And through it all it felt like the show was straining to balance being a Trek show against being a show for kids. Even at its best it was uneven and not necessarily the show Trekkies wanted.
The second half of the season does help course correct a few of the bigger issues. In this set of episodes, he crew of the U.S.S. Protostar -- Captain Dal, First Officer Gwyn, Science Officer Rok-Tahk, Chief Engineer Jankom, Specialist Zero, and Security Officer Murf, joined by consulting hologram Janeway -- have to figure out what to do with the weapon built into their ship. It's designed to take over any nearby Federation starships, causing them to fire on other Federation ships, while spreading the virus further, destroying the Federation from within.
Obviously that weapon can't go anywhere near Starfleet as even a simple communication message passed from the Protostar to anyone else would instantly infect them. But they can't let the weapon fall into anyone else's hands, either, for fear of what they would do with a weapon that could instantly annihilate Starfleet. Could it be reprogrammed to take out other fleets too? And what would happen to the galaxy if Starfleet were wiped away? Even as teenagers, these cadets know the weapon is too powerful to go, well, anywhere, so they have to plot their own course and find a way to keep away from everyone lest the entire political structure of the galaxy were to be destroyed.
On its face the show does manage to create some solid stakes. It has a good villain, the Diviner, from a race of people who were seemingly wiped away by their own chaos over meeting Starfleet. He hold anger towards the Federation, whether legitimate or not, and that rage fuels his every decision. With a back story that's fleshed out, and a real weapon that could do real damage to Starfleet, how could this be anything other than an absolute winning addition to the storied franchise?
Coming at it, as I have, after watching the third season of Picard, the first issue I had is that the main arc of Prodigy feels a lot like the main arc of that third season. A major, charismatic villain bent on destroying all of Starfleet with a virus weapon that can take over and destroy the fleet from within is used in both shows. I'm not saying the producers cribbed from each other, but someone in charge of the franchise should have looked at both shows and said, "hey, guys, you're doing the same thing." Sure, Prodigy did it first, so arguably this should be a flaw with Picard, but that was the splashier show that everyone talked about, and anyone going back to Prodigy after the fact (like so many of us did) would sit there going, "sure, but I saw this already."
Now, there were ways to fix it. Considering the crew of the Protostar meet up with the Borg in an episode, and the Borg realize the potential of this weapon, we could have had a quick note in Picard (which takes place after this series) from the Borg saying, "we saw this weapon and figured out how to engineer it ourselves," and that would solve that problem. But they didn't, and that makes it feel like the right hand wasn't talking to the left hand, to the detriment of the show people watched far less. That's bad planning on the part of the franchise's overseers, as well as Paramount+ as well.
This an issue, but a bigger problem is that this series strained against the needs of being a show for kids. Almost every episode has to build to a moral, with one character or another than explicitly stating that moral out loud after. "Oh, so the real lesson was that we needed to work together as a team." Sure, yes, thank you Rok, but I think everyone got that from the fact that you all worked together as we team. Someone in standards and practices clearly said, "hey, for this to count as kids' programming we have to teach a lesson," and either the writers didn't know how to make that subtle or subtly wasn't allowed. In either case, the show struggled because its writing wouldn't let it have the nuance that a good show required.
Not every episode was bad, mind you. There were some winning stories in this back half that felt like proper Trek in all the right ways. The Borg episode was pretty decent, even if the Borg here acted with some weird quirks to save the kids from being Borged. In other episodes of the series, the Borg, when they attack, will inject a crewman immediately, causing them to become a Borg within seconds. Here, though, hen captured the Borg drag the crew of the Protostar off to a lab and take their time getting the Borg process ready. It feels out of character for the Borg, more like the writers here wrote themselves into a corner and then had to twist a known entity into a new shape to let the story resolve itself. A bit of a flaw, yes, but the episode overall was solid.
Probably the best episode of the season, though, was "All the World's a Stage". Here the crew comes across a planet that ended up discovering the existence of Starfleet long before they should have. Improper first contact was made, due to a shuttle from the Enterprise crash landing on the planet and never getting rescued, and the sole surviving crewman went among the people, spreading the story of Starfleet to them. They twisted it a bit, though, understanding the broad strokes but missing little details. They becomes "Enderprizians" who revere and adore "Star Flight". They want to be in Star Flight, even building their own (nonfunctional) Enterprise while telling stage play stories of the famous crew. It's endearing, like the franchise is working the idea of Galaxy Quest into the actual continuity of the franchise. It makes for not only the best episode of this series, but also one of the best Trek episodes ever. It's goofy and fun but feels like proper Trek.
On average, really, the series was pretty good. Good enough, anyway, that I binged through this whole second half in a weekend. Good thing, too, since it was gone by Monday. Had I waited even a few hours longer I wouldn't have even been able to finish it and then I couldn't have reviewed it. That leaves us in a weird spot where, at least for now, I'm reviewing something no one else coming in after can watch. Only the first half of the season is on home video and the series has yet to get picked up by anyone else. Will someone come along and grab it? Maybe. A streaming like Tubi or Roku may decide to put it in rotation on one of their broadcast channels, at least for a run or two, but I don't see a major network grabbing it. What's the sales pitch of picking up this show? When even Paramount+, the "home for Star Trek," doesn't want the series, would anyone else think twice about it. This is a cast off, plain and simple, rejected by its home and left unloved.
I would say that if the second half of the series ends up on home video (or if you want to pay to watch it on Amazon before it disappears there, too) it's worth giving it a watch. Maybe the second season (and all of this series) gets picked up elsewhere, and if it does I'll tune in. But for now I'm going to enjoy the few memories I have of this cute, if uneven, series and hope that maybe, some day, the best episodes of this run can be see again.