Sunday, July 16, 2023

Prodigy, Season 1

At this point, I don't know whether the words "Season 1" are necessary. The latest news is that Paramount+ canceled this series after its first season, and actually removed the show from its streaming platform, although there's also scuttlebutt that the second season was already in postproduction and will certainly be completed – so it's only a matter of where it will air and when. Paramount has seriously mishandled this series, an animated Trek show made in conjunction with Nickolodeon. When I watched it (on demand at my mom's place while dogsitting for her last month) I noticed that the Nick branding and the ads that went with it suggested that the show was being marketed to tiny tots, when it's really more appropriate for teens and young adults. Also, the network/distributor made the bizarre decision to insert a nine-month-long hiatus in the middle of Season 1, which no doubt cooled the enthusiasm of whatever fan base it was developing. And finally, when they did offer a DVD of the show in stores, it was only the first half of Season 1. Badly managed all around, and I don't think the show is to blame for Paramount not seeing the results it hoped for. It's another case, I believe, of the issue that has stymied Star Trek since its first inception in the 1960s: Either the studio or the network (in this case, kind of both) didn't understand what they had on their hands or what to do with it. And the casualty is a very fine TV series and the people who deservedly love it.

Star Trek: Prodigy is a kid-friendly animated series (as opposed to Star Trek: Lower Decks, which is emphatically adult), but don't let that mislead you. The art and animation are first rate, on a whole level apart from the "prime time animated sitcom" stylings of STLD. Its cast of juvenile characters find themselves enslaved on a nasty asteroid in the Delta Quadrant, run by a strangely frail yet terrifying alien known as the Diviner and his coterie of robotic goons, led by the menacing Drednok. One of the enslaved kids, a purple boy named Dal R'El (pronounced like the letters R.L.), doesn't even remember where he came from or what species he is, and no one can seem to tell him. He has developed an unlikely friendship with the Diviner's daughter, the linguistically gifted Gwyndala (usually called just Gwyn). When chance meetings with a handful of other inmates leads the kids to discover a Federation starship, the U.S.S. Protostar, hidden in a cave, Dal and the others kidnap Gwyn and take her on a joyride where they are soon joined by a training hologram based on Capt. Kathryn Janeway (cf. Star Trek: Voyager), who gradually pats them into shape as a crew of wanna-be Starfleet cadets. But meanwhile the Diviner is after them, and he has implanted a weapon on the Protostar that none of the kids know about but that threatens the entire future of the United Federation of Planets.

So, that's pretty much Season 1 at a glance. Here's the main cast for you:

At left, there's Zero: a Medusan (cf. Original Trek's episode "Is There In Truth No Beauty?") – a telepathic entity whose very appearance is enough to drive humanoids insane, and who therefore conceals himself inside a mechanical body – voiced by Angus Imrie, who played young Merlin in The Kid Who Would Be King. Then there's Jankom Pog, a self-taught engineer, belongs to founding Federation race the Tellarites, who are known for being argumentative; his voice actor, Jason Mantzoukas, also plays Mr. Mucus in the Mucinex commercials. Next is Gwyn, played by Ella Purnell, whose character in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children was lighter than air. Of course that's Hologram Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) in the middle, right next to Dal, played by relative newcomer Brett Gray. The little blue blob by him is Murph, a seemingly indestructable pet/mascot that'll eat just about anything and whose chirps and whistles are performed by prolific voice actor Dee Bradley Baker, who has also done some work on Star Wars TV series. Finally, the big, rocky looking character is Rok-Tahk, actually a little girl by her species' standards, played by Rylee Alazraqui. Other cast members include John Noble (Denethor in The Lord of the Rings, Walter in Fringe) as the Diviner, and Jimmi Simpson (House of Cards, Westworld) as Drednok.

As I said, it's a visually magnificent series, with spectacular scenery. It also has well-drawn characters who grow from one episode to the next (except the baddies, of course), becoming more sympathetic as their experiences in a series of Trekish adventures rub the rough edges off them and their adventures shake them down to form a cohesive unit. The deft combination of serialized storytelling with stand-alone, planet-of-the-week adventures hits that tricky balance between feeling like classic Star Trek and pushing for the resolution of an increasingly urgent plot arc. It hits emotional spots ranging from laugh-out-loud fun to suspense, thrills, chills and touchy-feelies. It models themes for the young heroes of tomorrow, like selflessness, courage, leadership, team work, loyalty and determination. And it also features, either as older versions or as holograms of their previous Trek characters, Robert Beltran (Chakotay from Voyager), Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher from TNG), Billy Campbell (Okona from TNG's "The Outrageous Okona"), Ronnie Cox (Jellico from TNG's "Chain of Command"), and archival voice recordings of René Auberjonois (Odo from DS9), James Doohan (Scotty from TOS), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura from TOS), Leonard Nimoy (the original Spock). Also, Jason Alexander (George from Seinfeld) voices a recurring character, and Fred Tatasciore (STLD's Shaxs) plays a lieutenant from the Original Series episode "Obsession" whose original actor is no longer living. So on top of everything else (and making allowances for inferior sound quality in some of those archival recordings) the acting in this series is, obviously, top-notch.

How quickly can I run through the show's 20 episodes? The first two were initially aired as a single, one-hour special, titled "Lost and Found," and they pretty much cover my synopsis above, up to the point where Holo-Janeway first appears to them. In "Starstruck," self-appointed captain Dal almost destroys the ship before he bends his pride enough to accept guidance from the hologram. "Dream Catcher" brings the kids to a planet that plays mental tricks on them, slowing them down enough for the Diviner and Drednok to catch up with them in "Terror Firma." Luckily, the kids are able to activate the Protostar's experimental engine, which I don't want to spoil for you, but it's pretty cool. In "Kobayashi," Dal uses the holodeck to try his luck (and leadership skills) at the classic, no-win scenario (cf. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"). In "First Con-tact" (that hyphen is not a typo), the Protostars learn about the Prime Directive and the risks of dealing with Ferengi. "Time Amok" is the one where where the ship goes through an anomaly in which each member of the crew finds him- or herself experiencing time at a different speed, yet somehow they have to pitch in together to save the ship. "A Moral Star" is the two-parter that concludes the first half of the season, in which the crew goes back to their slave asteroid and has a climactic confrontation with the Diviner. And it's around this point in the series where the Protostars set a course for Starfleet, blissfully unaware that they carry a (computer) virus that could destroy the Federation.

As Part 2 begins, "Asylum" is the one where the Protostars encounter a Starfleet outpost, but the ensuing disaster sets the real Janeway (now a Vice Admiral) on their trail. And worse, she finds and rescues the Diviner, who for the moment has lost his memory. In "Let Sleeping Borg Lie," the Protostars risk being assimilated to find out whether the Borg can cure their ship of its fatal virus. In "All the World's a Stage," they encounter a planet whose civilization has been shaped – and threatened – by the crash landing of a Starfleet shuttle. In "Crossroads," they meet that rascally Okona at a starport, and he stows away with them during a narrow escape from Janeway. Dal learns what he truly is in "Masquerade," thanks to a sketchy geneticist who, unfortunately, injects him with something that causes him to mutate rapidly. "Preludes" reveals the backstory of all the main characters. "Ghost in the Machine" traps the crew insidea mash-up of their personal holodeck programs, as they struggle to maintain control of a ship that is increasingly motivated to force them into disastrous contact with Starfleet. In "Mindwalk," Zero tries to use his telepathic abilities to open mental communication between Dal and Janeway, but instead the two swap bodies – just as a traitor in Janeway's crew and the Diviner, with his memories restored, make their move. The season concludes with a two-parter, "Supernova," where the conflict between the Diviner and the Protostars comes to a final climax, and now that the virus has gotten loose, a great sacrifice is needed to stop Starfleet from blowing itself to pieces.

Three Things That Made It For Me: (1) The ordeal poor Rok-Tahk goes through in "Time Amok," when she has to spend a vast amount of time all alone with vast responsibility on her young, albeit massive, shoulders. (2) The whole Janeway-Dal body-swap wheeze. (3) The seemingly unavoidable tragedy to which the whole second part builds, and the emotionally hard-hitting solution holo-Janeway comes up with. But of course, there are so many more than three things that made this season for me. Paramount is a big fat stupid jerk; I resign the title in their favor. They don't know what they had. I just hope somebody else has it soon and takes it where it deserves to go.

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