Star Trek Prodigy is back after its brief holiday hiatus. I kind of lost some momentum with the show during the break, so I keep forgetting that it’s on. However, I managed to catch up this weekend, and I’m still a fan.
Star Trek Prodigy is surprisingly episodic, though there is an overarching story with the bad guy who’s mining colony they escaped from. He’s still searching for them and more importantly, for the ship.
But that’s really not the big news. That’s not the thing that makes this work. It’s far from Star Trek Discovery or Picard, both of which traded optimistic humanism for nihilism and have mistaken cynicism for wisdom and original thought. It’s also not Star Trek Lower Decks which feels like it was somebody learning as much as they could about Star Trek just so they can trash the fans. They’re not laughing with us, they’re laughing at us. Really. They said it out loud.
No, Prodigy feels different… Almost like… Star Trek?
One of the big differences that I’m noticing in the series is that it’s an ensemble. It’s a diverse group of misfits. And in this case, it’s truly diverse. Whereas on Star Trek Discovery, diversity just means no straight white men… (In fact as few men as possible, thanks) In Star Trek Prodigy, we have male and female, each a different race with their own personalities and quirks. Much of the current crop of Star Trek doesn’t bother developing personalities, rather their entire characterization is the superficial… “I’m the black one”, “This is the gay one”, “That’s the black gay one!”… And the only characters getting any real development are their leads. Star Trek Picard is entirely focused on deconstructing Jean-Luc Picard, whereas Star Trek Discovery is all about the almost Christlike perfection of Michael Burnham. They’re definitely the stars of their shows.
Star Trek Prodigy doesn’t have a star. It has an ensemble.
Thing is, this is really were Star Trek shines. It’s the thing that always worked about Star Trek. Even back to the original series, where the idea was to have a star in William Shatner, the show very quickly shifted into team mode… No longer just being about Captain Kirk, but being about Kirk Spock and McCoy as one unit… And even the second string characters each got their moments (especially Chekov and Scotty who really got development in the later seasons). Likewise, Prodigy is very much an ensemble. It’s not just about Dal, the purple captain. It’s not just about Gwyn, the albino white girl with the AWSOME thought metal sword-armlet-thing, or big rock girl ( Rok-Tahk is consistently my favorite character on this show, although gelatinous Murph comes in as a close second). It’s not even about hologram Janeway, arguably the most recognizable element of the series. She’s not the lead, but she’s also not just a supporting character. Everyone has equal weight, everyone gets equal development, everyone has equal importance. They work together to make something really special.
I mentioned in a previous post, because it’s set and the far-flung reaches the universe, and I don’t even know what time period it is, it’s not quite so burdened by the continuity. It allows it to restart. That’s a smart thing. This is very much intro to Star Trek, a good way to ease new viewers into the series. The characters act as our avatars, as they discover things like the holodeck, the transporter, the replicators, and more importantly… they’re discovering the heart that always drove Star Trek. The character, and the engaging storytelling. Unburdened by continuity, or the preachiness of current year politics, We go on adventure after adventure, experiencing first contact for the first time. We’re dipping our toe in the Kobyashi Maru, and experimenting with phasers and communicators and tricoders and discovering a few secrets that this long lost ship just might have its own.
Also because they’re experiencing all these things for the first time, because it’s all new to them, it doesn’t quite feel like just gratuitous ‘member berries when we see a hologram of Spock show up, or a picture of one of the old ships, or note that phaser designs, while streamlined, or awfully familiar (and, man…what IS it with the fetishization of the arrowhead/delta insigina in all these new series?).
In shows like Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Lower Decks, it feels like they’re just throwing as much of this stuff at the screen as possible to try and remind you “Remember how you used to like Star Trek? Remember the Klingons? You love the Klingons! Remember 10 forward? You love 10 forward!“ It’s all very shoehorned in there. Here, it feels more natural. They are discovering these things with the audience, and it feels new. The fact that there’s Klingon writing on the side of that cloaking device in the junk pile? That’s for the old viewers. Something for us to spot (but with no attention drawn to it) while the new viewers get to discover what a cloaking device is in the first place. It’s organic and natural.
I’m surprised at how much I’m enjoying this. Along with a lot of the traditional Star Trek designs and tropes, we get some stunning alien designs, and some real innovation. One of the bigger shortfalls of Star Trek in the late 90s, was everything started to look the same. You had the same people working on the show for 20 years, and the alien computer started to really resemble the federation ones. The lines of the ship were kinda distinct, but still felt a little too similar to everything we’ve seen before. Prodigy goes out and creates wild creatures and landscapes, trying very hard to go where no one has gone before… While still trying to maintain a reasonably familiar, comfortable look inside the Federation ship. Everything around it though, it’s so new and fresh, that the protostar ship almost feels out of place, The Federation vessel becoming the alien itself.
We’re better than halfway through the season, and we’ve had some good episodes and some filler episodes. We’ve had some things that were shocking, like watching the bad guy sneak onto the ship in the most innovative way possible, and these bad guys are genuinely frightening. We’ve had some real character development in just about everybody, and watching this team start to gel, and really become a crew.
Look, if you’re not watching Star Trek Prodigy, this is the one to really give a try. So far I’ve enjoyed everything about it. I gave both Star Trek Picard and Star Trek Discovery a good long chance (and I’m disappointed that my faith wasn’t justified – though you can actually see the cracks even as far back as my earliest Discovery blog posts https://argocitycomics.wordpress.com/2019/01/21/star-trek-discovery/ ). And it didn’t take long for me to realize these are not good shows. That they’re just not Star Trek. Honestly, I’ve been burned so much at this point, I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never does. Star Trek Prodigy is solid Star Trek, and the absolute best thing to come out of Paramount+ and Secret Hideout.
Is it just me or is Discovery in full damage control mode now?
I suppose I shouldn’t be criticizing this. I’m actually watching Discovery fix a lot of my problems with the show, but these are a lot of things that shouldn’t have been issues in the first place.
I’m genuinely surprised at how much I like Captain Pike in this series. I never particularly cared for him in TOS and I haven’t exactly been dying for a Pike series, nevertheless Anson Mount seems to pull the role off well. It’s big shoes he has to fill. I really dug Jason Isaacs. Mount’s compassionate yet firm performance is an interesting contrast to Isaacs’ duplicitous, edgy Captian Lorca. I still miss him, but Pike is a good replacement. His command to replace all the holographic communicators on the ship with analog on-screen ones (because they are supposedly more secure) is however, a sloppy fix to my (and other’s) complaints about the use of technology that shouldn’t exist at this point in the timeline yet. We’re seeing a lot of this kind of quick patch-and-fix method.
Pike’s not the only classic Trek character being brought in though. In addition to Spock (Who, four episodes in, we still haven’t seen – and that’s probably a good thing. It builds suspense), episode four also brings in Majel Barett’s first officer character from “The Cage”, this time pleasantly played by an unrecognizable Rebecca Romijn (actually, I like her version better than Majel’s. She’s more likable – and cool that she vanishes into the role. I can’t believe I didn’t know that was her!) for a quick pop-in cameo at the beginning of the episode. It’s another example of nostalgia overkill. I swear, the Star Trek Writer’s have been trying to make something of this character for at least the last thirty years. There’s something of an obsession here. I’m not convinced that fandom is really dying for a “Number One” story, but Discovery is still trying to pull in that pre-trek crew and any familiar face they can (Please don’t bring back Harry Mudd btw. Rainn Wilson was wholly unlikable – which completely misses the point of Harry)
Speaking of familiar faces, the Klingons look a hundred percent better in this series. They are transitioning them over to what is more recognizable by growing their hair out and dressing them in more leather, less bone and resin. I see a lot of forehead ridges being sculpted differently to. They’ve explained it as a story point, that the empire shifted once L’Rell took it over at the end of the last season. The Klingons are growing their hair out now. It’s a nice try. A little late – those drastic changes to the Klingons were a major sore point to a lot of Trekkers. Had they gone with this mix, a sort of evolved Klingon makeup, I think people would have accepted it a lot more readily – even been excited about it. You’ll never convince me that this evolution however, was the intent from the beginning though.
It’s actually the NEW faces that seems to really work for me. I’ve never been a real fan of Tig Notaro’s comedy, but man does she fit right in here as a recently rescued engineer from the shipwreck on a wayward astroid. I’d actually really like to see her replace Anthony Rapp as chief engineer. It’s not that Rapp has done anything wrong, it’s just that Notaro is that much better. I love watching her and Rapp verbally spar and would really dig seeing that kind of chemistry with a Captian. She absolutely feels like the McCoy of the group, and that’s something we’ve needed in this series. It brings into sharp focus just how sterile the interpersonal relationships have been on Discovery.
One of the things that impressed me about watching Tig and Rapp fight was the subject matter, a discussion of old reliable methods – Dilithium Crystals and Duck Tape, versus new tech – that is, the Spore Drive. This is the kind of social commentary that Star Trek has usually done well. It’s metaphor for Liberal vs. Conservative thinking and it hits both sides of an issue. It’s not the in-your-face SJW rhetoric that has taken over Doctor Who. I know Discovery has occasionally come under criticize for that same “Woke” attitude, but I don’t see it here nearly as much as I do in say, the abysmal last few seasons of Supergirl. I think we’re more sensitive to it in this day and age where it oversaturates too much of genre TV. Discovery actually could be commended for dialing it back to traditional levels.
So the real question for me is whether this season is better than last. It feels very similar, but with a lot of Tig’s duck tape trying to patch over the leaks in the series. It’s not like the real jump in quality we saw between the first season of TNG and the third. Then again, I don’t think Discovery is really as weak a show as TNG was during those first two seasons. However it also doesn’t have the goodwill That TNG derived frm being a return to weekly television after eighteen years (the animated series notwithstanding) off the air. TNG also didn’t have the responsibility of being the flagship for both a new network AND platform hanging around it’s neck like an albatross. Discovery’s mandate to launch CBS All Access has created an uncomfortable relationship between series and studio. The subscriber base for All Access has plateaued, and that puts Discovery in jeopardy. Had it been on a traditional network – even a premium cable one, that might not have been the case. Shows like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones thrive on their networks, largely because the infrastructure has been build and the general public have already accepted the platform. Discovery lacks that, and to put the burden on it’s shoulders is somewhat unfair. Star Trek is durable, but history shows us this is a losing bet. Star Trek II (the aborted TV series) failed to launch a paramount network. Voyager was moderately more sucessful, but wasn’t enough to create a sustainable network and UPN is now no more than a memory. I fear we’re watching that same scenario lay out now. CBS’s attitude is somewhere around “Wait and see” though insiders are saying CBS is abandoning Discovery and focusing on their Picard series (Not sure what that means for the black ops spin off that was suosed to feature Michelle Yeoh’s Georgiou). I think that’s a shame, because there’s plenty good here. I’d like to see more…but I’m not convinced we’re going to.
So Discovery came back last week, though it took me until the weekend to actually see it. It hasn’t been that long a wait for me actually. With the exception of the first two episodes, I only finally got around to watching the bulk of the first season this past December.
Let’s get straight to the heart of this, because I see a lot of Trek fans constantly trashing this series out of hand. Discovery is not bad. It’s better than Voyager and Enterprise. It’s closer to Star Trek in spirit than the J.J. Abrams movies (hereon out referred to as the Kelvan timeline) ever came. It’s not as good as TNG, but might tie with DS9 as far as quality and originality goes.
There. We’ve established a pecking order. We’ve also established that I like it, more or less. Indeed, when CBS premiered the show last year with their two episode sneek peak, I actually told friends I was surprised that I liked it as much as I did. The effects are up to par. I love the uniforms (I ALWAYS wanted blue uniforms, back as far as 8th grade. Asymmetrical even. I couldn’t have done a better job myself.) and I’m totally in love with that spunky plump redhead on the show (Seriously, Tilly pushes all of my buttons). Sonequa Martin-Green does a fine job here, and actually is a far more interesting character than she ever was on The Walking Dead. Also, I’m pretty much on board with anything Jason Issacs is in. I also love the redesign of the Enterprise (brief glimpses as we get). It’s actually EXACTLY what I wanted to see done to the ship when TOS went through all it’s remastering and redone FX all those years ago. I also have to give them credit for finding flattering angles to shoot the U.S.S. Discovery from – ones that help it look dynamic and cool. No small feat to pretty up what is possibly the ugliest ship in Trek history. They definitely deserve some praise for that.
But there are problems.
- I’m so sick to death of prequels. Not only is making this a prequel unnecessary, it’s CONFUSING. Exactly what is this a prequel to? Is it taking place in the Kelvan timeline? Because that might make sense. Tech and fashion and stuff in general developed differently there. If however, this is supposed to be in the prime timeline with the original series, it’s creating some continuity holes big enough to drive a Klingon warship through. Not one of the little ones either like a bird of prey, no I’m talking one of those ginormous Neghvar cruisers that dwarfed the Vor’Cha class.The Holographic communicators really bother me since we actually SAW the introduction of this tech in the fifth season DS9 episode “For the Uniform”. Yeah, it’s funny that that’s the one t hat irks me more than the jump drive thing….I suppose I can believe that the Jump tech was classified and never used again. Maybe. If I start thinking about it, the whole thing unravels pretty quick.
So for fifty years we’ve just forgotten that the Jump tech exists. We’ve also forgotten about the brief use of the Discovery uniforms and the rank designations being on the arrowhead insgina (which is different from any we’ve ever seen before). This stuff is the peril of doing a prequel. What’s frustrating is that this didn’t HAVE to be a prequel. It’s not about forging the frontier or any significant events that were history in TOS. This could have just as easily been set fifty years after the end of Voyager and been the next, NEXT generation. It means you don’t get to use Sarek or Mudd, but those could easily be swapped out with other characters.
- We’re going back to the well. The last THIRD of Discovery’s first season was all about the mirror universe. This has quickly become the go-to stock story for these series. It’s the single thing most people remember and rave about Enterprise. It’s a trope so often used in TV and print that I’m actually shocked that Discovery got to it before the Kelvan timeline films did (To be fair though, they were busy with regurgitating Star Trek 2 – another trip to a different well). This is another one of those things that plays havoc with the timeline by the way. In the TOS story “Mirror Mirror”, both the Enterprise crew and the mirror universe blokes all seem blissfully unaware of the whole thing, despite incursion by both Archer’s Enterprise and the Discovery crew. This does not compute.
Mirror Universe aside, the fact that season 2 is bringing in both Captain Pike and Spock as major players signals a certain degree of uncertainty on CBS’s part. It’s a mandate to bring in familiar faces. The problem is even though this Spock actually looks better than Zachery Quento, I’m not actually jonseing for more Spock and I certainly don’t dig the importance they are putting on this long-lost sister thing that Michael Burnham represents.Where did Sybok go anyhow?
- TV-MA. Seriously, I understand that Star Trek has always been Adult Sci-Fi, but it’s never been ADULT (Bam-chika-wow-wow) fare. I wasn’t a particular fan of Data’s expletive as the Enterprise-D crashed in Generations but it felt organic and wasn’t excessive. Honestly though, I don’t really feel the need F-Bombs or Klingon breasts in my Star Trek. It doesn’t make it any more mature subject matter nor does it push the narrative. It’s a classic case of “We’re doing it because we CAN” rather than doing it because they should. I had the EXACT same criticisms of the film Logan, which did precisely the same thing. The only thing this accomplishes is to guarantee that my kids won’t be watching it. That’s kind of a shame isn’t it?
- You can’t talk about Discovery without talking about the paywall. Quite frankly, no matter how good the series is, the paywall was always going to turn a lot of people off. We’re still in the middle of figuring out the business model for streaming services. CBS is operating on an old model, releasing one episode a week, while applying the netflix pay model (and ironically, for foreign markets CBS decided to forego the streaming platform and just go on Netflix). That hybrid is turning a lot of souls off, as evidenced by Discovery consistently being in the to 20 most pirated shows on TV, with the pilot actually hitting #12 (and that was one of the ones CBS made free to everyone to watch!), rivaling shows like Game of Thrones. Plenty who don’t pirate, just waited for DVD. I didn’t have cable growing up and I still never missed an episode of any Trek series – as evidenced by snowy VHS recordings with the Channel 43 logo in the bottom right corner. One more service on top of cable and netflix and maybe Prime or Hulu….it’s to much. The guy to finally make sense of this ala carte system is going to be a millionaire. But untill then, the various individual streaming platforms is only going to generate a bunch of ill will, especially for millenials, who already despise paying for cable. CBS hoped that Trek would help their streaming brand. While it probably has, I’d say it’s had a greater effect to the opposite – it’s damaged the Star Trek brand too, and hung a particular taint around the neck of Discovery. There’s a good article about this over here – https://www.fudzilla.com/news/44594-star-trek-discovery-shows-that-big-content-still-has-not-got-the-message.
I don’t think Discovery is a bad show. If you haven’t given it a chance, I think you should (and I wish there was an alternative to dropping the cash on the streaming service or the DVD set. Come over to my house. We’ll crack a couple Dews and watch a couple, the same as I used to do with my buddy Johnny Em.)But I think it has some serious baggage. Voyager and Enterprise limped along despite fatigue and softening ratings. But they didn’t have the baggage Discovery does. Now with the announcement that fourth Kelvan timeline film has been shelved, combined with the sort of playing-it-safe move that bringing in Spock is do make me wonder for the future of the series.