For a long time, it wasn’t that hard to define what Star Trek was all about. Pitched by creator Gene Roddenberry as Wagon Train in space, Star Trek followed, as the opening narration reminded viewers each episode, the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and its five-year diplomatic voyage of discovery to the far reaches of space. Each self-contained installment (barring one two-parter) brought a new adventure and the mix of science fiction concepts and social commentary favored by Roddenberry and the show’s creative staff. The series ran for three seasons between 1966 and 1969 and focused on a handful of colorful crew members. Though declining ratings cut its run short, Star Trek found a second life in syndication and an adoring group of fans who loved it just the way it was, even if they wanted more.
But that was a long time ago and in a dramatically different media environment. To survive, Trek has had to change. A string of movies and a new wave of series followed from the late-’70s through the first years of the 21st century. Each, in their own way, stayed close to the original Trek formula. The movies mostly played like Trek adventures writ large. The shows offered variations on the original series’ mix of memorable characters and thoughtful stories (apart from the occasional dopey side trip, like a visit to the Old West by way of a malfunctioning holodeck). That phase reached its end in the early ’00s with the truncated TV run of Enterprise and the box office failure of Star Trek: Nemesis. Questions started to swirl: Was there a place for Star Trek in the 21st century? And if so, where was it?
The mid-’00s saw the beginning of an ongoing, if often creatively fertile, identity crisis of which Star Trek: Prodigy is just the most recent example. An animated series aimed at younger viewers, it’s part of a strategy apparently designed to blanket the market with a Star Trek for every possible audience, from kids looking for interstellar adventures to those who like their Trek served up with wiseassery and in-jokes, to those accustomed to the serialized storytelling of contemporary TV (and who like to hear the occasional F-bomb dropped alongside talk of spore drives). All of these appeared on the heels of three big-screen adventures that featured classic characters but didn’t always try to recreate the classic Trek feel.
Is this mission drift or adaptability? The three episodes of Star Trek: Prodigy provided to critics (a double-sized premiere and one subsequent episode) don’t provide clear answers. Taking the form of pleasant but unmistakably budget-friendly 3D animation, it frequently resembles the Disney Channel series Star Wars: Rebels and similarly puts the emphasis on the high-energy adventures of a handful of wisecracking characters pitted against—at least in these early episodes—a power-hungry bad guy. Brett Gray (On My Block) provides the voice of Dal, who begins the series working as the Diviner (John Noble), a tyrant in the business of enslaving innocents to perform hard labor on his mining planet. The Diviner’s daughter Gwyn (Ella Purnell) serves by her father’s side but has already begun to question her father’s ways before Dal kidnaps her while escaping the Diviner’s clutches after unexpectedly discovering a disused Federation starship.
Despite the presence of a familiarly shaped Starship and some supporting characters connected to deep bits of Trek lore—Jason Mantzoukas voices a Tellarite, Angus Imrie plays a Medusan—Prodigy doesn’t feel that much like Trek, at least not yet. Its opening episodes involve a lot of running around and narrow escapes but not that many philosophical inquiries or moral conundrums. That could change, thanks to one element that provides a strong tether to Trek’s past: nothing less than one of its most revered characters, Captain Kathryn Janeway.
Unmistakably voiced by Kate Mulgrew, this Janeway is actually an advanced hologram built into the stolen starship, an educational device designed to assist fledgling members of Starfleet still learning the ins and outs of space exploration. It’s a clever device, one that sets up an arc in which Prodigy’s characters—none of whom have ever heard of the Federation—become immersed in the core Federation beliefs as they learn to navigate the stars. And while she might be a computer creation, this holographic Janeway is very much the character we met on Star Trek: Voyager, from her wry delivery to her love of coffee. (Do holograms need coffee? Better not to think too much about that.)
It’s not clear where Prodigy goes from here, or whether Janeway will be a strong-enough tether for it to remain recognizably tied to Trek. But in that sense, it’s not so different from Star Trek, Star Trek Into Darkness, and Star Trek Beyond, the film series kicked off by J.J. Abrams that ushered in what’s now called the Kelvin Universe. Or Star Trek: Discovery, the Paramount Plus series that brought Trek back to television and incorporated season-long storylines, movie-quality effects, and other 21st century touches. Or Picard, which attempted much the same while reviving Patrick Stewart’s beloved Next Generation character Jean-Luc Picard (and some other familiar faces). Or Star Trek: Lower Decks, whose stories remain firmly ensconced in Trek continuity but whose attitude and fast-paced wit owe much more to the world of adult animation.
Where Trek used to be variations on one clearly defined approach, there are a lot of different approaches to Trek floating around these days. The tension—between the clearly defined thing Star Trek used to be and its nebulous present and unclear future—can be frustrating to viewers at times. For some, the Star Wars-iness of the Kelvin Universe films provided a reason to check out (but also reintroduced the universe to contemporary multiplex goers). Lower Decks has some extremely vocal detractors (but also many fans). Across three seasons, Discovery has had tedious lows that suggest maybe Trek wasn’t supposed to work as a 13-hour movie. But it’s also had highs, introducing winning new characters, intriguing ideas, and, with its most recent season, offering a glimpse of the future that suggests the Federation’s future might not be that bright. Even at its lower moments, Discovery has still felt like a show in touch with the spirit of exploration, of both outer and inner space, that animated the original Star Trek. And though some might balk at Lower Decks’ humor or what Picard does with Picard, for others they play as attempts to try to do something new within the framework of something old. And for newcomers, not weighed down by ideas of the past, they may just play like exciting shows that double as gateways to the Trek of yore. Tension can be destructive but it can also be dynamic. What it will ultimately mean for the future of Trek as it goes where no Trek has gone before, and in several directions at once, remains to be seen.