Star Trek is boldly going into another new future at the end of the month with Prodigy, its first-ever CG animated series. It’s also the first to be explicitly aimed at families and younger audiences, compared to Trek’s usual demographics. But while there’s so much new to explore with the show—new heroes and villains, new worlds, and a perspective outside the Federation—there’s one important aspect Prodigy has revered from Star Trek past.
Captain Kathryn Janeway—Kate Mulgrew’s legendary character from Star Trek: Voyager—is returning for Prodigy, but not quite as we know her. Introduced as a Command Training Hologram aboard the primary ship of the series (the experimental Starfleet cruiser U.S.S. Protostar), Mulgrew’s return is not in the flesh, as Sir Patrick Stewart’s was for Picard. But as io9 learned from her fellow cast and crew at New York Comic Con recently, as well as from the Captain herself, Janeway’s comeback is an aspect of Prodigy that doesn’t just tie the whole series together but provides a beacon for newcomer and fan alike to be guided into a new kind of Star Trek altogether.
Janeway isn’t Prodigy’s only touchstone to connect its alien teen heroes to the wider Trek franchise—she’s not the only Voyager character even, as we recently learned that Robert Beltran will reprise his role as Commander Chakotay from the series, albeit now as the Captain of his own ship at this point in the timeline. But for Dan and Kevin Hageman, Prodigy’s showrunners, Voyager and Janeway herself were natural first choices when it came to bringing in a familiar face who could guide a rough-and-ready young crew of kids in the ways of Starfleet exploration. “I think it was Voyager—I wouldn’t say we’re using just Voyager, as you’ll see later in the series we touch a lot of the shows—but it was in the first 30 seconds when we came up with this idea of an outsider’s point of view, who would be the worst first crew and seeing them become a great crew,” Dan Hageman told io9 over video, in the wake of Prodigy premiering its first episodes to fans at NYCC. “We knew they wouldn’t be able to fly a starship from out of a planet on their own, you know?”
“Captain Janeway was the only consideration. I think we got Chakotay through hologram Janeway,” Kevin added. “We’re always thinking about heart. What do these characters care about? So I think that’s the reason why Robert Beltran as Chakotay got involved, too.”
That heart is what Mulgrew felt in joining the series. “It felt very good for exactly that reason,” she added. “It is an important time for Voyager, it’s an important time for Star Trek. I think in terms of pop cultural history, now is the time to target this young demographic and introduce to them the wonderful mysteries of Star Trek and Gene Roddenberry’s splendid philosophy.” The differing circumstances of her return also gave the actor an interesting challenge for her performance: how do you play a holographic representation of someone you embodied 26 years ago? “There is a certain discipline I have to practice here: a hologram would not have the dimensions of a practical Janeway,” Mulgrew explained, “but she also has additional qualities that I wanted to bring into her—a sense of whimsy. A sense of almost child-like irreverence—which is one way to get a kid’s attention, right?”
Janeway was known for being a little ruthless with her opponents when her back was against the wall as a Captain, but as a hologram—and with a crew of kids under her care—her sternness comes through in other ways. “A little joke. A little practical joke,” Mulgrew teased of her character’s approach to educating Prodigy’s unlikely new recruits. “The punishments that this holographic Janeway issues are not so punitive as they are, ‘Well, if that’s the way you want to do it... you’re gonna have to learn the hard way.’ It’s good. She’s a wonderful teacher.”
That approach is something her younger co-stars appreciated, even if, thanks to recording amidst an ongoing pandemic, most of Prodigy’s youngest stars didn’t get a chance to meet Mulgrew in person until they came together for the recent convention. “I wish that we could have done it in person. Because of covid, we all have to isolate while doing our sessions and I wonder had we all been in the room together, and we’d all been there... how would that have influenced us?” Ella Purnell plays Gwyn, the daughter of John Noble’s sinister villain, the Diviner—she gets whisked along for the series’ ride across the Delta Quadrant. Purnell, who wasn’t able to attend NYCC and meet Mulgrew in person, told io9, “I think I would have been too afraid to do anything —I’d so desperately want her to like me. She’s just so cool. She just exudes this grace, she’s an icon, she’s a legend. And I’m very jealous I haven’t yet met her in person and these two [co-stars Brett Gray and Rylee Alazraqui] have.”
“I got to sit next to her today at Comic Con—and it is, it’s palpable,” Gray (arguably Prodigy’s primary star as Dal, the young man who discovers the Protostar and helps his new friends escape a life of servitude under the Diviner’s authoritarian grip) said. “You can feel her next to you, when you speak to her she’s looking directly at you. And she’s speaking directly to you. The words that she chooses are the exact thing that she wishes to get across to you, and it’s very inspiring. There’s a majesty that she has, and you can feel it when we announced she was coming out today. Just to walk on stage for the panel was like— the audience was deafening. She is an icon. And so, I feel very lucky that the first iteration of Star Trek we get to be a part of has someone like that we get to model and watch. People who are incredible fans of Janeway and all of that get to now have a way into our show, too, and see what it’s like for people who know nothing.”
Knowing there was a figurehead like Janeway attached to Prodigy pushed Mulgrew’s co-stars in the recording booth, too. “Working with her was a pleasure, and I’m really grateful to be working with her,” said Alazraqui, the young girl who voices the larger-than-life (yet very sweet) Brikar Rok-Tahk. “She’s definitely inspired us to be our best and she’s so well known and an amazing, amazing actress and person, herself, I think that we’re all totally inspired by her. I think she’s going to help us along the way—and already made me realize what Star Trek is all about just by talking to her, and hearing her talk about it.”
The experience is a humbling one for Mulgrew too, to revisit a character that now means so much to so many people—and will mean just as much as Prodigy looks ahead. “It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a thing of great value and dignity in my life as both an actress and in pop culture, and certainly in more meaningful valleys of real thought—science, for instance, how Janeway has affected women in science and STEM... it’s been an extraordinary trip, let me tell you that,” Mulgrew ruminated. “And it’s not about to end. So, there’s something about this that is deeply mysterious, and I’m not going to argue with it.”
“It feels good, feels lucky... but it also feels nostalgic. I’m not a sentimental person—and neither is Janeway. By nostalgic, I mean... I can’t help but feel stirred up by what was, and what we are now going forward into a new future, and into a new way of telling this story. So, it’s moving, to me.”
Star Trek: Prodigy begins streaming on Paramount+ on October 28. After the series is complete, it will then begin airing on Nickelodeon.
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