Today’s episode of Star Trek: Prodigy was written Aaron J. Waltke who joined the series as a co-producer in the first season and is currently a co-executive producer and co-head writer for the recently announced second season. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to the Emmy-winning screenwriter about the lore-filled episode “Kobayashi” and where things are headed next for the USS Protostar and crew. The ensuing discussion reveals just how seriously the Prodigy writers’ room takes the show, and the amount of love and understanding of the Star Trek franchise they have.
Prodigy has slowly dripped in the Star Trek bits, but this episode was kind of a firehose of Trek lore. So, is this the new normal or a special case?
I wouldn’t say you’re just getting this one Trek cookie, and then nothing else ever again. I also don’t think every episode is going to be as jam-packed with this much classic Star Trek lore. Obviously, we have to sort of balance that with the new story that we’re telling. As you saw at the tail end of the episode, we do have the introduction that Captain Chakotay was the former captain of the Protostar. And that’s sort of the next stage of the mystery of where’s the Protostar from; how did it arrive on Tars Lamora; why is The Diviner after it. And those are all kinds of hints that it is tying into the greater Star Trek Universe beyond just it’s a Federation ship, but it’s a Federation ship that was once captained by some legacy characters.
This episode was heavier on it, perhaps as a compensation–overcompensation on my part–for us going so light on it earlier on as we’re easing young and new audiences into the Star Trek Universe. But because we had kind of found a way to earn it with the holodeck and the Kobayashi Maru program, I basically turned to the Hagemans and said, “Just let me go crazy with it.” And they, thankfully, let me do so. So the writers’ room and myself broke the episode and argued ad nauseam over who would be the best, greatest Star Trek bridge crew. But ultimately, none of us could agree and we would wind up with way too many people on the bridge, or we’d have like three engineers or it would be like, all TOS and then one person for Deep Space Nine. And so we ultimately decided just to make it like a fun grab bag of an episode which hopefully would satisfy a lot of the hardcore Star Trek fans who were waiting for us to go there. I wouldn’t call this the new norm. But I also wouldn’t say that we’re moving away from the Federation. If anything, we’re moving towards it. So you’re going to get more like this.
How did you come upon using the Kobayashi Maru to be the pivot for Dal learning to not be so selfish?
We figure out our character arcs in terms of 10-episode mini-arcs, and then into the 20-episode seasons and whatnot. And Dal’s arc in particular was: ‘What if there was a kid that dreamed of the stars and dreamed of being free, but he was also impulsive?’ And he wanted to be a great captain, but he wasn’t there yet and didn’t want to acknowledge that yet. We thought what makes a not-so-great captain and it was somebody a little too impulsive and maybe a little too wrapped up in their own ego sometimes, even if they do care about their crew, and maybe putting them in danger. There were multiple mandates we were trying to serve. One of them was: how do we introduce young and new audiences to classic Star Trek concepts? And then another mandate was: how do we track Dal’s arc and his character growth? and when does he make that change and realize that he needs a wake-up call that he’s not the leader he thought he was? And of course, organically that Venn diagram became a circle of the Star Trek leadership test of the Kobayashi, Maru.
Then in terms of what the emotional meaning of the Kobayashi Maru was, what’s kind of interesting is, it is a little bit of a Rorschach Test, in a way. Because every character who has referenced it, or taken it, or whatnot, seems to impart their own kind of lesson from it. Even if it is just how do you react to a hopeless situation. And I guess that’s kind of the point. So with Kirk, it’s, ‘I don’t believe in hopeless situations.’ That’s why he cheated, right? But for Dal, I think he’s so used to being in a hopeless place, he believes that if he just keeps throwing spaghetti at the wall, eventually he’ll find a way to weasel his way out of it. And when he doesn’t, that’s when he has to realize that maybe just his old tactics of survival for a kid that maybe hasn’t grown up in the best of circumstances, and hasn’t had a strong parental figure or a good role model to emulate–as as you’ll see in later episodes, perhaps–that he has to kind of forge his own path. And it who better to hear that it’s not about you, it’s about them, than from Mr. Spock himself, the ultimate voice of Star Trek. Even if Dal doesn’t know immediately who he is, the gravitas that Nimoy possesses and him saying “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” The idea that that could be a new idea to Dal and maybe even some of the kids watching at home, made me a little emotional to think about.
Can you talk about the logistics of what it took for you and the team to put all of that together using the voices of the legacy actors?
I basically had to create some algorithms with every Star Trek script ever written in order to search the databases for relevant lines. I also wound up reading probably 80 or 90 scripts, and rewatching about 40 or 50 episodes top to bottom. Knowing the shape of the story I wanted to tell, which, of course, is the Kobayashi Maru scenario and how Dal would interpret that, I then proceeded to go through find the lines to try to line them up to make sure they sounded like they’re all in the same room talking to each other. Then I went to the Star Trek archives where they thankfully have the remastered audio from all the DVD sets and the movies and such. And I would give them the time code and the episode and say, “Please give me the cleanest, just dialogue track of this line.” And then our team at Audio Circus, they had a specialist who was able to clean up the audio as much as they could using modern technology. Obviously, there’s still some of the stuff that was recorded in the ‘60s and it still has a little bit of a guttural quality to it. But I think it’s that’s almost charming in a way. Because it does feel relatively seamless once you kind of buy into the wish fulfillment of it. But there was a lot of a lot of takes that didn’t work for one reason or another. Maybe they’re too far away from the microphone or the line just didn’t work or the inflection was wrong. So there was a lot of back and forth and testing. Like getting the right delivery of “Live Long and Prosper” to work. He actually doesn’t say it very often in the series. I was kind of surprised to learn he only says it maybe six or seven times.
You also pack in a lot of your own lore, including more on the history of The Diviner, Gwyn, and The Protostar. So, in the flashback, The Diviner was looking for something called “Protostar” before the launch of the USS Protostar or even before the USS Voyager went to the Delta Quadrant? Is that right?
Yes. There’s only so much I can say without spoiling. But what I will say is you are right, and that the timeline is very wibbly-wobbly, and convoluted. But that’s also not the first time that’s happened in Star Trek. But there is a reasonable explanation for it, and you’ll probably figure it out. But I will confirm that The Diviner was looking for the USS Protostar 17 years ago, and several years before even Voyager had left.
Ah, so it rhymes with fime fravel?
[Laughs] You might say that, yes.
Well, Chokotay says something about an anomaly. That got my Trekkie sense going…
I believe the fan term is a “space wedgie” whenever you involve an anomaly in the storyline. But you are very eagle-eared to notice that yes, Chakotay went through an anomaly, and then was boarded by trespassers of some sort that you’ll find out about later.
You have mentioned all these mysteries for the show. Are you seeing the first 10 episodes as its own arc, that will wrap up the current big storylines like what’s up with Chakotay, and the Protostar and the Diviner’s obsession with it? That’s the story of the first 10?
I can’t spoil too much. But I think what I can say is: there are answers to those questions that are answered by the end of these 10. And there are other questions that either continue or evolve as the season continues.
Regarding Chakotay, when I interviewed the Hagemans, I asked if Beltran and Chakotay and the other actors announced at the same time were the original crew of the Protostar, and they said they weren’t. Were they just protecting a spoiler, or is there some nuance to this?
In that instance it was a miscommunication–they misheard and thought the question was whether Doctor Noum [Jason Alexander], Ensign Asencia [Jameela Jamil], and Commander Tysess [Daveed Diggs] were the former crew of the Protostar. I can confirm that they are not Chakotay’s crew on the Protostar, but Chakotay was indeed the former captain. We couldn’t clarify that until now without it being a spoiler.
We have just got into the sci-fi and Star Trek weeds. Do you ever worry that these complicated, interesting, fascinating mysteries could end up being too complicated for a younger audience new to Trek? Is that a struggle in the writers’ room?
We had talked about it. But then I just thought back to my own experience as a seven-year old watching time travel movies and watching “Time’s Arrow” and staying up late at night thinking, ‘Wait, so if Data’s head was alive, what was in the ground for 500 years and they reattached it, does that complete the time loop?’ Ultimately, myself and the Hagemans and all the writers in the writers room are of the firm belief of: just write a good story. Kids, I think, are smarter than you might give them credit for. And even if there are a few elements that they don’t totally wrap their heads around right away. They’ll intuitively start to understand and think about them and they’ll eventually understand them later. I think a great example of that is Avengers: Endgame, which I would argue has some time travel elements that I’m still trying to unpack in my brain. But it was a hit movie, and I think kids love it. I think there’s stuff for hardcore, crunchy sci-fi fans and then there’s the emotional truths that you can glom on as you go on this adventure with these characters.
One of the questions my young nephew had regarded Gwyn being a clone, but did she come out of her tube fully-formed 17 years ago?
No. Because it was supposed to be sort of like a hazy memory, almost. So when it kind of goes out of focus, that was supposed to be a little bit of a time lapse to when she was older. I think she came out as a child and then eventually grew up just like any child. That was kind of a crossfade to 17 years later, before we cut to black. It was a little surreal so I totally I totally understand why your nephew asked that question.
Another quick clarification, are they now in the Gamma Quadrant?
I don’t know if they’re actually in the Gamma Quadrant, but they are–gosh, how do I say this without spoiling anything?–they were going towards the Gamma Quadrant. I can tell you definitively that Tars Lamora is on the border of the Delta Quadrant and the Beta Quadrant. So they were kind of going along the border, if that makes sense, riding the border between the Delta and Beta Quadrants, toward the galactic center.
So further or closer to Earth?
I think a little bit closer to Earth and a little bit closer to the United Federation of Planets.
You guys have been drip-feeding the introduction of Trek tech to not overwhelm new viewers, so this episode was the holodeck. But is it also count as the introduction of the transporter, which would have been handy in the previous episode for rescuing Gwyn.
Indeed! The transporter comes into play. It is worth pointing out that in the previous episode, Hologram Janeway identified thoron radiation on Murder Planet, which is notorious for disrupting transporters. Probably not the best circumstances to learn how to beam up your colleagues, especially without a transporter chief onboard. Nobody wants to see a repeat of that transporter accident from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
There is also a C Story with Murf which is a bit fun, but would it be wrong to think this new “indestructible” reveal will come into play later in the season?
You would not be wrong! Without giving any spoilers, Murf’s unique indestructibility isn’t forgotten as our story progresses.
Did you ever worry you were packing too much into this one episode? Is it denser than episodes 7-10?
This is probably the densest episode of the season, but I think we barely managed to make it all fit. I believe the first draft even had an additional four or five pages of fun holodeck and Kobayashi Maru material that we had to cut for time. At one point, there was an extended tractor beam tug-of-war sequence that became a sort of starship ballet, and I believe Dal even tried to negotiate with the Klingons by haggling over safe passage in exchange for some gold-pressed latinum or Romulan bubbly. He got blown up anyway.
Here’s a nerdy nitpicky question: Why set it on the Enterprise-D and not the more current Enterprise-E. Or why not the original refit, since the scenario was based on 23rd century pre-Khitomer Klingon/UFP neutral zone? Doesn’t Starfleet update the test to match current galactic politics and ships? (Obviously, Kirk took the test on a ship predating the refit Enterprise)
You are absolutely right, they update the Kobayashi Maru from time to time to match the era. We figured whoever was in charge of updating the program for the Federation exploratory ship fleet hadn’t gotten around to uploading the latest version yet–or perhaps Dal loaded an earlier version of the holoprogram when he was tinkering with the settings. Besides, the Enterprise-D is so beloved, we just wanted to see it again. Thankfully, it seems the fans agree with our instincts.
Was there ever an issue when you found out Discovery was doing an episode called “Kobayashi Maru” which would come out just a few weeks before?
There wasn’t really an issue, no. There are plenty of similar-ish titles in Star Trek – TNG/Movie: “First Contact”, TNG/TOS: “Eye of the Beholder,” TNG/DS9: “Emissary”, DS9/VOY: “The Muse”/”Muse”, VOY/ENT: “Demon”/“Demons”, etc.–but the stories are usually so different, there isn’t much confusion. With the timelines of animation being as extensive as they are, our episode was written back in 2019 while they were still working on Discovery Season 3.
With this episode, what message do you have for old-school Star Trek fans? What should they take way from this?
That’s an interesting question. I guess on the one hand, I hope that old-school Trek fans appreciate that it’s meant as a letter of love, and to that sort of fun and adventure that not only all holodeck episodes have but that I think the best Star Trek has. And also that the world of Star Trek is a pretty wide net, and there’s room for old veterans and newbies to coexist. And I hope that they can see that we want to bridge the gap and celebrate while expanding the universe.
Recently P+ announced an order for another 20 episodes, so are the writers already at work on those 20?
Yes! We’re writing them as we speak. I can’t wait for everyone to see where we’re boldly going next in the first season and the next. It’s going to blow some minds.
New episodes of Prodigy premiere on Thursdays on Paramount+ in the U.S. and on CTV Sci-Fi Channel in Canada, where it’s also available to stream on Crave. It is available on Paramount+ in Latin American, the Nordic Countries, and Australia. Amazon Prime Video internationally on Fridays. It will debut in 2022 in parts of Europe with the launch of the Paramouint+ Sky partnership.
Keep up with all the news and reviews from the new Star Trek Universe on TV at TrekMovie.com.