Interview: ‘Star Trek: Prodigy’ Writer On Janeway’s Twist, Murf’s Singing And More From “Ghost In The Machine”

This week’s episode of Star Trek: Prodigy took the kids on a series of holodeck adventures, a classic Star Trek storytelling device. TrekMovie had a chance to speak with writer and Prodigy co-producer Chad Quandt about “Ghost in the Machine,” giving some more insight into the making of the episode and how it fits into the bigger picture, along with what is coming for the rest of the season.

Were you a Trek fan before you started on Prodigy?

My mother was a Trekkie, especially The Original Series, and she bestowed its values onto me. As a kid I didn’t get it as much as Star Wars pulled me in… And then as I grew up in high school I came to realize, ‘Oh, there is real meat here, really good stuff,’ especially as I wanted to become a writer. Star Trek is this testament for sci-fi. If you are writing sci-fi, you have to know Trek. TNG was my main one and it was like comfort food, especially in college and just pitting put on an episode just to enjoy it, even the ones that are not the so-called popular ones, I still have a blast.

This episode was a holodeck adventure, which is its own subgenre. Did you push for that idea?

I think everyone on the crew adores holodeck episodes. We did have some previous episodes that explored it like like “Kobayashi,” written by Aaron [Waltke]. They are a mainstay of the franchise. But I was the guy saying, “Holodeck episode! Holodeck episode!” That was me in the writers’ room for two seasons of the show. Holodeck is such a unique idea from Star Trek. It’s my dream technology. If I could pick one thing from science fiction in my house, it would be the holodeck. But I love so many of those episodes, like “Elementary, Dear Data.” Stories like that where it takes the idea of what does it mean to actually have a simulation and then give them some real crunchy sci-fi with it. I adore those episodes, so it was a real pleasure and honor to get to do a holodeck episode for Prodigy.

Did it start with the holodeck, or start with the need to do another episode to explore certain character issues?

It was kind of concurrent. Since episode 101, when our writers’ team was assembled, holodeck up is up there on the board of something we want to do. But if it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be helping our overall story and our character arcs, it’s going to feel forced in there. It would feel like a filler episode and I don’t think there’s a single filler in Prodigy. I think with “Ghost in the Machine,” in the second half of season one we knew where we were going with Janeway and with the living construct and this idea that Janeway has been essentially a kind of Manchurian Candidate and how she didn’t realize that she’s been kind of following the Vau N’Akat programming. We have been tracking that through every single episode and hopefully, on a rewatch you will see how it all makes perfect sense to get to the Federation. And knowing this big reveal that Janeway didn’t even realize she is corrupted. We knew we needed to get to that part and how heartbreaking that was going to be. And so then it was like, ‘A holodeck episode would be a perfect way to show that.’

Regarding her manipulation, should we take Zero’s assessment as correct that she genuinely was helping them get to Starfleet with good motives and the construct only kicked in when they changed their minds about going to Starfleet?

Yes, one hundred percent. Her intentions were pure in wanting to get them to Starfleet because that is what Janeway would want. It was that moment of “maybe we should stay in the Neutral Zone and don’t follow through with our plans” that the Vau N’Akat programming comes in to start pulling some strings without even Janeway knowing.

Holo Janeway realizes she has been corrupted

The twist in this episode is that it wasn’t another holodeck malfunction episode but more of a con job, and we have seen stuff like that on Star Trek like TNG’s “Ship in a Bottle.” Were you drawing from that subgenre too?

A con job is a great way to compare what was actually happening. Without looking at any specific episodes as a full-on reference point, I think it was in our mindset to really sell that the events that are happening in the holodeck seem accidental and they seem motivated by our characters’ actions, but that every single part of it is Janeway accidentally manipulating them all without them ever seeing it and that when you get that final sting at the end with the footage playing what she was actually doing. So the audience will also sort of feel as betrayed as the crew will.

Getting into the specifics, there seemed to be a lot of gaming references within the different programs, was there a lot of discussion about picking which genres to use for each character?

Well, I think as we talked about before, each program was a character study in the same way that I think is a part of every holodeck episode. What is Data getting out of them? What is Picard getting out of doing his Dixon Hill stories? Beyond how much fun it is to dress up, what are they getting out of it beyond just how fun to be to dress up? My favorite holodeck episode is “Hollow Pursuits,” where Barclay is pretending to punch out Picard and Riker and be a swashbuckler. It’s a very silly episode, but it’s very much about a lower-ranking guy’s video game stress reliever. He’s getting out his frustrations with his boss.

So for our show, Jankom for sure, it’s very obvious that he’d be letting off steam with Dr. Noum and the fight he wishes he could have. The most obvious one for us was Zero, who is our Data and that means they are our detective. We have already seen Dal explore what it would be like to be a captain through the Federation training ones, but to us, it was about what would give Dal a power fantasy. So the pirate captain made sense. For Rok-Tahk I wish we could have spent more because I really wanted to play along with any sort of veterinary care. Gwyn would be the most serious one. She is the one that doesn’t get video games, so to speak. So she is using the holodeck for therapy and that’s what is with The Diviner merging into Murf’s. Murf was probably the last one. Murf has to have a holodeck sim too because I think the gang–with the exception of Rok-Tahk–always underestimates Murf a little bit. It’s very clear Murf is not a pet, even though they first saw Murf as such. Murf is a sentient being and even though they can’t communicate with them directly, this metamorphosis is also part of Murf’s growing up. So of course, Murf has a fantasy of being a jazz singer.

So exactly how smart is Murf? He is going into the holodeck and punching buttons?  

It could be punching buttons. It could be flinging a limb on top of buttons that happen to hit in the right coordinates. I think that is something we wanted to tease, that Murf maybe knows more than they have let on. This is really a big episode for Murf. Murf can lip sync? Maybe Murf has been crawling down at night when nobody else is away and having these adventures.

What the actual f---?

Murf likes to lip sync

This was a big episode for Noum–or Noums. It really gave Jason Alexander a chance to shine, when this was written did you know he had the part?

We are all huge fans of Jason’s, not just for Seinfeld. We knew Jason Alexander was just coming on board. If we had more episodes, we’d spend so much more time with Noum and the entire Dauntless crew. So I think getting to show and let Jason play and do all these different characters was a big opportunity. The same is true with Mr. Noble as The Diviner at the bar.

It does feel like you guys did a deep dive on holodecks, Rok even uses some technobabble explaining how holodecks work that sounds like it came from the TNG Technical Manual.

I believe that was from The Technical Manual. Shawna Benson had an original copy and brought it in like the first week that we were constantly referencing. I think for some on the team that were not as familiar with holodeck episodes, those questions come up, “How does this possibly work?”

There is something about the ice cream party scene that feels like it’s your version of when characters on another Star Trek show would have gone to the bar to get drunk. Is that how you guys approach things, to keep in mind the younger audience?

Sure, there have been times when we’re like, “Well we can’t have them drink Romulan Ale.” Even at the bar at the Key Club in this episode, Gwyn is ordering tea. I think we’re being smart about what standards and things we can have for it. But hopefully, it doesn’t rob the scene of any maturity to it as well. I think for all of our stories, we try to write it as adult or all-audiences possible. So maybe it’s not alcohol, but the spirit is still there of drowning your sorrows.

Something that was very surprising was how this episode never picked up on the cliffhanger from the previous episode. Was that a debate within the room?

I think we had to have faith that the cliffhanger is so good, that you’re going to still care about it will be cut back to it after, and as you see these plot lines can kind of converge into each other. So the end of this episode really matters in what goes into the next one.

So we have paused and reflected on these characters for a couple of episodes, does that mean nonstop action for the final three?

Not nonstop action. There are going to be a lot of emotional moments in the midst of some firefights, I can say that.

The kids eat their sorrows with ice cream

You can follow Chad Quandt on Twitter @QuandtumTheory.

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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I liked this episode.

It definitely succeeded in making the kids earn the realization that Holo Janeway was subverted at a deep level.

While I didn’t love this episode, this interview proves once again just how much thought goes into every inch of this show. It could’ve just been another holodeck break down trope we gotten at least dozen times in the past, but I love that they used this idea and not just build on the overall story line but also giving us a major twist with hologram Janeway. This is why this show is so impressive to many of us.

And literally using the TNG Technical Manual as dialogue for Rok? Again above and beyond.

That said, I still had problems with it and I think part of it is that nothing in the holodeck itself pushed things forward. It did give us more insight into the characters (and a big reason why I like holodeck stories, they are basically character builders and you can see them in a different light versus just being on the bridge) but I think BECAUSE this episode just followed a really big twist in the last one, it felt more like filler even though it pushed the story forward. But it really only did it in the last few minutes.

But I really do love this show for so many reasons.I just think it’s great how they are incorporating every alien species, canon and Trek elements into one big story line. Its so creative, especially when it’s target audience is for 8 years old. And those kids watching this now are going to really appreciate it more when they get older and check out VOY, TNG, TOS, etc for the first time and realize how strongly it connected to all of those shows.

I think that is something we wanted to tease, that Murf maybe knows more than they have let on. This is really a big episode for Murf. Murf can lip sync? Maybe Murf has been crawling down at night when nobody else is away and having these adventures.

Murf seems like it is building to be an extremely powerful character with both intellectual and physical prowess that matches or exceeds everybody else in the show. We are getting glimpses of that with its shapeshifting powers.

One of the things that I have been noticing, especially in this episode, is that Murf is reaching out their hand-like appendages towards and to maintain contact with the other kids in time of stress, especially but not exclusively Rokh.

This reminds me of toddler and preschoolers. Given that everything in child and adolescent development is intentional in this show, it really make one wonder what Murf will be as they grow up.

The inability of the prodigy crew to communicate with the Dauntless is becoming tiresome and drawn out. They can literally write a message and beam / throw it out of the ship, inside the Dauntless to read.

They can try radio.

They can send Zero over.

They can write a frikkin message on the hull.

That’s the problem with these season long plots

Trusting is a hard thing for traumatized and abused kids to come to. So is feeling safe. This has to be earned.

The first adult living being from Starfleet who they encountered, very quickly misrepresented his experience of them.

And the one adult-like holographic person that they had come to trust and rely on has just been revealed to have been compromised.

I’m rather in awe that, unlike most ‘orphaned kid’ hero stories, theses writers are giving us an authentic taste of how much kids like this long for home and safety and how hard it is for them to reach it.

But you’re finding it tiresome?

Janeway had heard from two eye witnesses — one of whom was a Starfleet officer— that they were dangerous criminals who pretended to be Starfleet refugees just long enough to use a hidden weapon aboard the hidden Protostar to blow up a station, kidnap someone’s daughter, etc.

She didn’t have a lot of reason to believe their word at face value. And once she had contrary evidence, she was incapacitated by the Diviner.

Starfleet regulation would be to seize the ship and check the logs, which would end in disaster/destroy Starfleet.

If they had just talked to Janeway and the other Starfleet officers when they met them, then Janeway would have contrary evidence. We’re talking about the Federation, not the Klingons. Starfleet isn’t just going to toss them in jail and throw away the key. If the Prodigy kids turned themselves in they would get a fair trial and receive legal representation. Once they tell their side of the story, Starfleet could send somebody to activate the Protostar and look through the logs and talk to Holo-Janeway without connecting the Protostar to any other Starfleet systems. It wouldn’t take long to confirm that the kids were telling the truth.

We know that because we have several decades of experience to back up our beliefs, to the Prodigy refugees they have zero real knowledge other than what Hologram Janeway has told them.

This was a decent episode, but definitely one of the weakest.

Murf just doesnt work as a concept. Jettison that, writers.

Agree to disagree. The kids loved it!

I like Murf, but I do agree that this was one of Prodigy’s weaker episodes. I think the main issue, is that they didn’t spend enough time in any of the simulations for me to really enjoy any of their holo-scenarios. With the possible exception of Murf, I don’t think any of the simulations really showed us anything new about the characters that we didn’t already know.

What I would like to ask is, did they use an actual piano with a missing key?

The title of this article spoils that, a) there is a twist and b) who it concerns. This ruined that part of the story for me. Could you please not do that in the future?