“Ghost in the Machine”
Star Trek: Prodigy Season 1, Episode 17 – Debuted Thursday, December 8, 2022
Written by Chad Quandt
Directed by Andrew L. Schmid
Prodigy extends the calm before the final episodes of the season to do some fun and insightful character exploration using classic Star Trek storytelling.
WARNING: Spoilers below!
Following a quick disastrous fake-out battle with the Romulans and the USS Dauntless, the prodigies are found failing their 86th attempt to escape the Neutral Zone. After days of trying to figure out a way out that doesn’t get the Federation infected with living construct, the gang is dejected, with Dal declaring “our dreams of getting to the Federation are dead.” Pog prescribes ice cream—lots and lots of ice cream—to melt each of their problems away. And it works, because ice cream (and friendship) are awesome. They take Holo Janeway’s advice to catch some sleep, but no one can rest as they all start seeing and hearing strange things, including a cutesy character (Glittersmooch) from one of Rok’s holo programs. But as spooky fog rolls in and they find themselves on a dark island, Zero sorts out that they “never left the holodeck at all.” Wooooooooo, the kids got themselves their first holodeck malfunction!
Naturally, the holodeck isn’t responding; however, they can communicate with Janeway, who is a hologram herself, hmm. She assures them she is working on the problem and suggests something about subspace distortions, so to kill time until that is worked out, Zero welcomes the gang into the lighthouse from what turns out to be the HQ of his “Cellar Door Society,” an amateur sleuth mystery adventure program. Dal and Pog are quick to nerdshame, but Zero figures if they solve a mystery, the program will end and they can get out. So who’s the dork now? Soon, a puzzle arrives—quickly solved by Rok, who gets smarter every week—and the gang begins their search for a skeleton key. Things get weird again when they open a door and find themselves in a whole new world: an urban alley… the turf of a gang of tough-looking Tellarite bikers. Really, they do.
“This isn’t a game anymore.”
They have stumbled into one of Pog’s programs where all of the bikers are versions of Dr. Noum, his nemesis ever since the Dauntless CMO called him short. Pog uses this fighting program to let off some steam. He demonstrates with some impressive moves and a special attack, with the confidence one could only have assuming holodeck safety protocols are functioning. Pog learns what they always say about assumptions the hard way when a tooth gets knocked out by one of the Noums. Dal desperately calls Holo Janeway for help, giving her his command codes to override whatever’s gone wrong with the program, but it doesn’t work—so the kids take on the bikers the old-fashioned way with a big Rok Smash, leaving just one Noum biker on the ground, his torso bearing a tattoo… of a skeleton key! But the game is still afoot as the tattoo is just another clue. Next stop: the “Key Club.”
This “next chapter” takes the gang to a black-and-white film noir world and a nightclub populated by tough guys—and of course, more Noums plus a few Glittersmooches from Rok’s cutesy space vet program. Things get even weirder when it is revealed this nightclub program is from Murf, who has been using the holodeck to live a fantasy as “Mr. Murfy No Shoes,” lip syncing jazz standards as an old-school crooner. Um yeah, we are all just going to have to take that in. Gwyn needs a drink (tea) but the bartender (sorry, “barista”) turns out to be her dad! Actually, he just looks like her dad, but this friendly guy is a good old joe ready to pour one out and listen to her story of woe about the pressures of her father putting the fate of a whole world on her. “Sounds like despite your pop’s intentions, you gotta find your own way.” The Diviner could really learn a thing from this dadtender. Meanwhile, chaos ensues as the rest of the gang searches for a key, leading to a confrontation with some palookas. Once again, Rok finds the next clue: A “key” is missing from the piano, which leads them into a portal and their “next adventure.”
“This game never ends.”
Now they are on a pirate ship! No surprise, this is Dal’s program, and he has the “me hearties” lingo down, ordering his crew (all Noums) to search for the skeleton key. Zero and Rok are starting to question the nature of these “malfunctions,” which suggest a hidden motive revealed by the selection of their programs instead of random ones from the entire holodeck database. Chaos erupts again as the ship is attacked by the cutest sea monster ever, the “Sparkle Sea-Hugger” from Rok’s program, who may just start hugging them all to death. “No more hugging! Bad girl!” As the ship begins to sink, Murf finds the next clue, a compass with yet another key on it. This is getting really frustrating, and Zero—who originally assured them finding the skeleton key would fix everything—now sees this has all been a “calculated attempt” to keep them in the holodeck. They declare the only way to win is to refuse to play “her game.”
And with that, the program ends and a relieved Holo Janeway enters, perplexed by why everyone is looking at her funny. They straight up ask her if she was the one that locked them in. She denies it and Zero believes her, but this sharp detective has solved the real case. Janeway’s program has been manipulated by a “secret subroutine” that was triggered once the ship’s “core directive” changed… and that trigger was way back when the kids started talking about giving up on their plan to go to Starfleet. And what wants more than anything to get to Starfleet? Yep, the living construct. The security logs show it has been pulling Janeway’s strings all episode long. She appears to genuinely not remember, exclaiming “there’s something wrong with me.” But it doesn’t matter, as the construct can manipulate her whenever it wants. Now it has Dal’s command codes and has already used them to set the ship on a course straight for Earth. On the bridge, things come full circle as they are out of the Neutral Zone and bow-to-bow with the USS Dauntless, but this time it’s real. They’re locked out of the controls things look grim as Holo Janeway arrives, and all she can say is, “I’m sorry.”
Playing the long game
Once again, Prodigy takes a bit of a diversion, this time for a holodeck adventure. But this is no bottle show indulgence in costumed fun—it’s another deep dive into our core characters, just like the previous episode, “Preludes.” Following up on all of their backstories, Prodigy uses the classic holodeck malfunction subgenre to explore both the dreams (and the frustrations that hold them back) for our characters, all while having a hell of a lot of fun along the way. Just as much as the episode draws on holodeck classics like TNG’s “Elementary, Dear Data,” it also indulges in gaming classics like Street Fighter. The malfunction turning out to be a manipulation evoked legacy episodes like TNG’s “Ship in a Bottle” and Enterprise’s “Stratagem” as well as “Fauxtastic Voyage” con job classics like Mission: Impossible’ s “The Submarine.” This combination allows “Ghost in the Machine” to jump from action to laughs to heartbreak and back again with excellent pacing.
Taking another episode to focus on character was a bit daring; leaving the big cliffhanger (of Admiral Janeway discovering Asencia is a Vau N’Akat) hanging for another week may prove too frustrating for some viewers. However, there was a huge bit of plot to cover this week that deserved focus, because it required some nuance. The reveal of Holo Janeway being manipulated by the living construct needed the time here—and probably could have even benefitted from even more. It’s important for the emotional impact of the show and all of the characters to ensure this isn’t a “It was Janeway All Along” scenario: This isn’t evil Holo Janeway like we saw in episode 10, this is more akin to The Manchurian Candidate, with Holo Janeway unable to control herself, beautifully played by Kate Mulgrew, who had devastating heartbreak in her voice as she came to understand what was happening to her.
Another performance that made this episode work came from Jason Alexander as a multitude of different characters, all versions of Noum. The Seinfeld veteran has been tragically underused in the series, so it was a delight to hear him show off his comedic range. Having each adventure populated by Pog’s nemesis was just one of the clever ways this episode explored the frustrations holding back each of the characters, with John Noble also stepping up to show a surprisingly softer side of The Diviner as the understanding barista, which gave us more insight into Gwyn. All of this heavy characters stuff feels like a big setup for the final episodes and if this weren’t a kids show, one could imagine they are building up to something potentially tragic for at least one of them.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about this episode wasn’t Janeway being manipulated or even Gwyn being able to relax like a real kid spraying whipped cream into her mouth, it was Murf—sorry, Mr. Murfy No Shoes. The “metamurfosis” is far more than arms and legs and the ability to kick butt as the “security officer.” Murf can actually sort of communicate and apparently understands how to work the holodeck. He even does some good mocking of Zero. This all shows he has come a long way from just being Rok’s funny blobby pet. Murf is a person with desires, which opens up all sorts of questions. Hopefully there will be enough time to explore them in the three remaining episodes, because it almost feels like they skipped a few steps to get us here—surprising for a show that likes to do slow burns (and is very good at them).
This also may seem like a nitpick, but how exactly did Dal actually get the command codes to the USS Protostar, especially without Holo Janeway also getting them? Unless Captain Chakotay left them on a Post-it note in his quarters, this is a fascinating and even frustrating question when you really think it through, because the Vau N’Akat (and therefore The Diviner and Gwyn) clearly didn’t have the code or the construct wouldn’t have needed to get it from Dal. It may seem minor, but this entire episode, which itself was part of a long-term setup since the beginning of the series, all relied on Dal having that code. Usually, the show is better at laying out the crumbs for stuff like this, so it’s surprising that this was never mentioned in an earlier episode, even as an offhand comment, to create the payoff here.
“Ghost in the Machine” was a powerful episode and an excellent entry into the franchise’s holodeck adventures. While it was frustrating to have to wait to pick up on the cliffhanger from episode 16, it was a lot of fun to take some time to play and to move the story on the USS Protostar further. With both Janeways in jeopardy, the anticipation (and perhaps even worry) for the final episodes is almost too much.
- Even though it originated in the 19th century, Morse code was often referenced and used in Star Trek, including Tom Paris warning the USS Voyager the Delta Flyer was rigged to explode in Voyager’s “Drive,” not entirely unlike what Rok-Tahk attempted to warn the USS Dauntless in a failed simulation.
- Rok explains how different people can seem so far away from each other in the holodeck through “motion floor tracking, visual horizon manipulation,” which comes from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual.
- Dal’s command code is GB64N32X, another gaming reference, which references Nintendo Gameboy, Nintendo 64, and Sega Genesis (32X).
- At the noir nightclub, Gwyn ordered Jumja tea, a Bajoran beverage first referenced on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (and found in Ethan Phillips’ Star Trek Cookbook).
- The song Murf lip-syncs is “Smile and Forget It” by Troy Kline.
- Even though the nightclub had an old Earth setting, the briefcase Pog opened was full of bars of gold-pressed latinum.
- The map towards Earth showed the Protostar’s current location next to Yadalla, a system next to the Neutral Zone originally from the Star Trek: Star Charts and Stellar Cartography books, later shown in Picard, Discovery, and Strange New Worlds.
- Gwyn’s heirloom feature of the week: can be used as a pull-up bar.
- Zero line of the week: “The mystery is a feet. Get it? Feet.”
More to come
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New episodes of Prodigy debut on Thursdays exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., and on Fridays in Latin America and select countries in Europe. The series is also carried on SkyShowtime in the rest of Europe with the second half of season one expected to arrive in 2023.
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