Given the current trajectory of pop culture, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which we turn on our televisions one day to see some version of the USS Enterprise popping out of warp speed to face down a Borg-ified Death Star. Obviously, in-universe timelines and studio ownership of various intellectual properties would make this challenging, but as we live in a world where Space Jams continue, for some reason, to exist, certain conclusions appear inevitable.
If that’s the case, one could certainly do worse for a mash-up than Star Trek: Prodigy, a computer-animated kids show that drops the hack-and-slash fantasy space adventure of Star Wars into Trek’s Delta Quadrant, complete with a Kate Mulgrew-voiced Kathryn Janeway hologram to guide us on our way.
That’s not to say Prodigy is a crossover in any official sense of the word. It’s more a vibe, the still lingering effect of the J.J. Abrams reboot of the film series that continues to shape each new modern TV iteration of the franchise. “Lost & Found,” the two-part premiere, leans on kinetic, fluid action sequences, a motley band of misfits coming together to fight for a common cause, a surprising variety of alien species, and two major villains: a controlling elder with mysterious plans, and his menacing, cloaked, robotic enforcer. No one uses the Force, but there are psychic powers in play, and if a light saber had made an appearance, it would not have appeared out of place.
None of this is actionable, of course, and it’s not even really a criticism; but it raises the question, in this day and age, of what it really means to be a “Star Trek show” at all. For most of its runtime, “Lost & Found” is a perfectly acceptable, if occasionally annoying, whiz-bang space action show, one with a zippy pace, nifty visuals, and a cast of (mostly) likable characters, and if it doesn’t walk lock-and-step with classical ideas of what Trek can and can’t be—not a Vulcan to be seen, no red-shirts, no one gets beamed anywhere—well, maybe it’s just a function of needing a name to sell a premise, and Disney already owning the more seemingly relevant one.
Yet that lack of immediate signifiers may also be an intentional attempt to subvert expectations. Where Star Trek: Discovery leaned into Abrams’ high stakes/high emotions big swings, and The Lower Decks offered affectionate parody of familiar Trek tropes before learning to use those tropes to its own advantage, Prodigy seems genuinely interested in bringing a new kind of story to the Trek-verse.
While the “new” is largely contextual—the rhythms here should be familiar to anyone who’s watched similar stuff in the past—there’s an interesting tension that arises when the show does finally deign fit to start delivering on the first part of its namesake. There have been Trek shows about new crews, about new worlds, about new civilizations, but there’s never been one from the outside looking in. What does Starfleet and the Federation mean to a bunch of orphans looking for a home?
It’s not a bad pitch: a new angle to make an old idea seem fresh. The biggest problem, at least in the first three episodes shown to critics (two-parter “Lost & Found” and “Starstruck”) is how long it takes to get to that idea, and how much time is spent establishing but not developing the aforementioned orphans who, at least initially, run the gamut from “predictably charming” to “please stop talking before all hope dies.” It’s doubly unfortunate that the latter applies directly to the show’s apparent protagonist, a spiky haired purple-skinned “maverick” named Dal (Brett Gray) who spends most of his screen time being sarcastic, getting into trouble, and believing himself to be smarter than he actually is.
“Lost & Found” opens with Dal trapped on Tars Lamora, a prison colony where he’s forced to mine for valuable crystals alongside hundreds of fellow misfits, all of them under the controlling watch of the mysterious Diviner (John Noble, always welcome even if he’s not given much to do here). When Dal discovers a ship buried deep underground, he believes he’s found his ticket to freedom, but he’ll need to put together a crew of oddballs like himself in order to make it happen, all while the Diviner and his main henchman Drednok (Jimmi Simpson) tighten the noose.
Dal will likely develop into a more reasonable, less aggressively Poochie-esque figure with time. For right now, though, he’s the only real bad apple in a crew of otherwise pleasant oddities, from Zero (Angus Imrie), a genderless energy being in a self-built metal suit; to Rok-Tahk (Rylee Alazraqui), an 8-year-old whose large size and prickly exterior belie a fundamentally sweet personality; to Murf (Dee Bradley Baker), a language-free blob who eats things.
Jason Mantzoukas is on hand to do a G-rated version of his wildman shtick, this time in the guise of Jankom Pog, an engineer with the annoying tic of constantly repeating his own name. Rounding out the ensemble is Gwynn (Ella Purnell), the Diviner’s daughter and the colony’s main translator; sympathetic to the rebel’s (heh) cause, she gets dragged along for the ride, presumably to soften and develop a kid-friendly will they/won’t they with Dal as the show goes on.
Then there’s Mulgrew, voicing a holographic teaching aide built to instruct new cadets on their journey to being Starfleet officers. Holo-Janeway doesn’t arrive until nearly the end of “Lost & Found,” and while her presence is more integral to the show’s second episode, it’s still unclear how the self-aware the character is, and just how a ship with Federation technology ended up buried in a rock in the Delta Quadrant a decade after Voyager’s adventures through the region. Mulgrew is clearly relishing the chance to revisit the role even in an artificial capacity, and Janeway as a character had enough no-nonsense grade school teacher even in her original iteration that making her the mentor for a gaggle of unruly teens feels surprisingly appropriate.
It’s unclear what all of this adds up just yet. The first three episodes are so heavily serialized that it’s hard to pinpoint what kind of show Prodigy intends to be; “Starstruck” is more self-contained but serves mostly as an extension of the premiere, establishing the last few pieces of the puzzle before the story proper begins. There’s potential here, albeit of a moderate sort—the character banter, with an ensemble featuring not just one but four different versions of comic relief, is passable, and John Noble could (and maybe is) do this kind of role in his sleep. The series is aimed at children, but in a cheery all-ages kind of way that avoids insulting its audience even if it never quite manages to impress them. Star Trek has always been a more flexible franchise than it’s given credit for, and it’s nice to see a new entry try and take advantage of that fact, even if it does mean cribbing a little from someone else’s notes.