Geek Punditry #1: The Next Next Generation

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for close to 40 years now. I liked the original series, the movies, the Nickelodeon reruns of the animated series, and when The Next Generation premiered, I was a steady customer. Deep Space Nine set the hook even more firmly, giving the strongest story and the greatest character arcs of any Trek to date (even now, 30 years after the series’ debut). After that, though, although my passion for the Trek universe was untarnished, my satisfaction with specific series and movies began to vary. I never particularly cared for Voyager, and although I liked Enterprise, I was too busy in those pre-DVR days to keep up with it. I liked the Abrams movies well enough, but I thirsted for a new show, and then Discovery…well it wouldn’t be until Lower Decks that a new Trek series would fully capture my heart.

Then came Star Trek: Prodigy. Another animated series, and the first one to be specifically targeted at children. I knew I would watch it, I knew I would give it a chance, because it’s Star Trek. I ALWAYS give Star Trek a chance. But my expectations, to be honest, were not high.

At first, those low expectations seemed to be justified. We were back in the Delta Quadrant from Voyager (ugh), far away from the stories and situations I loved. The cast was made up entirely of brand-new or obscure species, which further divorced this series from the Trek saga that began in 1966. Worst of all, these characters had never even heard of Starfleet or the United Federation of Planets. If it weren’t for the prototype Starfleet vessel they found and the holographic recreation of Kathryn Janeway on board, there would be nothing about this series to designate it as Star Trek at all. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t loaded with shoestring stories and catchphrase-spouting idiots like so many shows targeted at kids. But I finished the first episode – the first few episodes, actually – feeling like I had watched something that belonged in the world of The Clone Wars or one of the subsequent Disney Star Wars series. Not to say anything negative about those cartoons – they’re good Star Wars. But I didn’t want good Star Wars. I wanted good Star TREK.

After watching a few episodes together, my wife gave me permission to watch the rest of the season without her, as polite an indication of dissatisfaction as there can be, and I really couldn’t blame her. This wasn’t what we expected coming in. And I considered joining her in abandoning the show, because I wasn’t really satisfied, but…

Something told me to keep going. Maybe it’s my renewed devotion to Trek that has become far more passionate over the last few years. Maybe it was that each episode was only a 22-minute investment instead of an hour. Maybe I’m just pigheaded. But I kept watching.

And thank God I did, because as the season wore on, I realized I was watching the most brilliant magic trick TV has given us since someone found a hatch on Lost.

The thing I forgot in the first few episodes was that this is, first and foremost, a show for kids. It’s a show that airs on Nickelodeon, where kids can stumble upon it, and not just on Paramount+, where the existing fans seek it out. That’s important, though, because this is the first Star Trek project since 1966 that is intended specifically for an audience that has no pre-existing expectations of Star Trek. The familiar aliens, the ships, the characters, the lore – everything I love would be completely foreign and meaningless to a child watching this as their first Star Trek.

Just. Like. The. Characters. On. The. Show.

This is where the Hageman brothers, the showrunners, did something so unbelievably brilliant that I want to hug them until security has to drag me away.

As the season continued, through the holo-Janeway at first, we saw bits and pieces of familiarity. A known alien species. A recognizable name. An Easter Egg or three. And the Prodigy kids began to learn about the history and the mission of Starfleet – which is, of course, the history and mission of Star Trek.

And they loved it.

Loved it so much, in fact, that by the midseason finale (where we see the real Janeway and not just the hologram), all they wanted was to be a part of it.

And who can blame them?

I saw someone on Facebook describe Prodigy as a show about kids from Star Wars trying to run away to Star Trek, and never has a description been more apt. But the beautiful thing, the glorious thing, is that the show is constructed in such a way that the kids watching at home (like my 8-year-old nephew Grant, watching with his Trek-loving mother) who know nothing about this Trek are on this journey with them. 

In the second half of the season the curtain is pulled back further – it wasn’t just Easter Eggs anymore, but full plots and stories built on the scaffold of classic Trek and intended for the new kids, the ones still learning. And by the time we reached the magnificent two-part season finale, the trick was complete. The first half of the season taught the kids to appreciate Trek. The second half is where the Protostar crew proves they belong there, and do so in the finest tradition of Kirk, Spock, Data, and Dax.

If you, like my wife, decided to bail on this show after a few episodes, it’s totally understandable. I get it. You didn’t know. But I’m here to tell you that it’s worth revisiting. Give it another shot, at least until the midseason finale, before you pass final judgment. It’s worth it to see how they took a bunch of characters who had no business being in Star Trek and turned them into a crew as worthy as any that has ever borne the name. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. You wouldn’t believe how long it took him to type this up, what with all his fingers crossed for Picard season 3 the entire time.

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