Interview: ‘Star Trek: Prodigy’ Writers Talk Body Swaps, Janeways, And What’s Driving The Diviner

Dal in Janeway's body in Star Trek: Prodigy - "Mindwalk"

Thursday’s episode of Star Trek: Prodigy, “Mindwalk,” brought the Protostar nose-to-nose with the Dauntless, where an attempt to communicate telepathically with Admiral Janeway (who’s been stuffed in a closet after being knocked out by The Diviner) results in a body swap between Janeway and Dal.

TrekMovie had the opportunity to send questions via email to the writing/co-producing team of (sisters) Julie Benson and Shawna Benson. Their written answers covered the inspiration for the mind swap, the motivation driving both Asencia and the Diviner, the differences between Admiral Janeway and Holo Janeway, and more.

Body swapping is a classic Star Trek (and sci-fi) trope; was there always a plan to do this on Prodigy at some point (like Chad Quandt wanting to do a holodeck episode), or was it something you came up with to get communication going between the two ships?

The body swap trope appears often in sci-fi and fantasy and we love many of the films and TV shows that have done it well, most notably the original version of Freaky Friday, which was a favorite of ours growing up. No matter how much we love an idea we never try to shoehorn it into a story. When we started mapping out the second half of season 1, we knew that a big theme was about communication—or, in the case with the Protostar and Dauntless crews the lack of communication. How could Dal and the others successfully contact the Dauntless without the Living Construct being unleashed? It’s only in that moment of desperation when they are staring down the nose of the Dauntless and after the crew knows Dal’s genetic makeup that the idea of trying to reach Admiral Janeway through telepathy presents itself. Unfortunately, things don’t go to plan…

Was there a particular body swap episode of Trek (or something else) that inspired you?

There have been very few Freaky Friday-style body swap episodes in Trek lore as most are a variation of mind melds (like in TNG’s “Sarek”) or possession by an entity, but not an actual body swap. The closest version we could name was “Turnabout Intruder,” when one of Kirk’s exes takes over his body and tries to kill him in her body. (Sidenote: it’s pure coincidence that Star Trek: Strange New Worlds honored the trope in their first season with “Spock Amok.”)

So we were more inspired by our love for the TV series Quantum Leap which has been rebooted since we wrote the episode. In fact, our original title for this episode was “Quantum Leap!” But beyond Star Trek the trope comes up often, because it is rich for humor and gives actors a chance to do something a little different with their characters.

The scene with Holo Janeway and Admiral Janeway (in Dal’s body) was so poignant; how did you think about the two of them as distinct characters as you wrote that scene? What makes their personalities different?

It’s an important moment for both characters. Each Janeway has burning questions for the other, but not much time to catch up. Not to mention, Holo Janeway is questioning a lot after learning she’s been under the influence of the Living Construct and needs a confidence boost, so who better to provide it than the one person who knows her better than anyone? Admiral Janeway gets a chance to do something most of us wish we could do—impart wisdom on her younger self.

The writers spent a lot of time discussing every character’s arc for the season, including Hologram Janeway. We never wanted her to be a static, unchanging character, and it wouldn’t be consistent with what Star Trek has done with hologram characters in the past, most notably Professor Moriarty in TNG and the EMH Doctor in Voyager. It would be impossible for our young crew to not have some effect on her! Holo Janeway represents the Janeway everyone remembers from Voyager, but she’s a pure distillation of her character traits, and dealing with some memory loss. But the real Admiral Janeway has continued to accrue memories and experiences, and the loss of Captain Chakotay affects her greatly and she’s driven to find him. Holo Janeway with an assist from the Protostar logs is the only way the Admiral can discover what really happened to her former first officer.

Holo Janeway and Admiral Janeway in Star Trek: Prodigy - "Mindwalk"

Holo Janeway and Admiral Janeway have a heart-to-heart

Writing Dal’s dialogue for Kate Mulgrew and Janeway’s dialogue for Brett Gray must have been a blast; what was the process like, and were there any surprises with how it played out in the final episode?

Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented us from attending recording sessions, but we know that Kate and Brett recorded each other’s lines as a reference for emulating each other’s vocal quirks and cadences. They are both superlative actors and we appreciate the work they put into their performances. The results speak for themselves.

There are a lot of physical cues to the body swap, was that scripted or from the director and animators?

A few physical gags were scripted (like Dal/Janeway spitting out coffee), but most of the credit goes to our director Sung Shin and the artists and animators who really sold the body swap concept with those physical cues. It’s a joy to watch Dal’s awkward walk in Janeway’s body while Janeway’s poise and elegance is captured in Dal’s movements. And we are in awe of Nami [Melumad]’s score for the episode, which balances the silly with serious so perfectly. Everyone who worked on this episode, including the rest of the writers, had fun with it, but not so much as to undercut the very important emotional moments of the story.

Dal in Janeway's body in Star Trek: Prodigy - "Mindwalk"

Dal tries to fake it as Janeway

What does Asencia think has happened to Admiral Janeway? Why doesn’t she just shoot her when they meet in her quarters? And wasn’t she tipped off when the Admiral asked her how to contact the Protostar without comms, presuming she knows exactly how the weapon works?

As far as Asencia knows, Janeway’s odd behavior is the result of knocking her out. Maybe The Diviner hit the Admiral harder than she realized? But she keeps The Diviner’s warning in mind. Killing Janeway would prevent them from completing their mission. So, she keeps her emotions in check, but clearly was ready to act if Janeway called her out for the attack she suffered. When the Admiral doesn’t immediately point a finger at Asencia, she returns her focus to catching up with the Protostar to complete her mission rather than assessing Admiral Janeway’s odd behavior.

Why did The Diviner say he was freeing Janeway as part of his mission? Is he feeling conflicted about his mission?

The Diviner’s actions in the first half of the season are so ruthless and cruel, no one would mistake him as having real empathy or depth of feeling. But if he really were so evil, he wouldn’t be so passionate about saving Solum from disaster. His deep love for the Vau N’Akat has driven him to his darkness.

The Diviner’s memory loss after seeing Zero’s true form has given The Diviner the ability to see Starfleet and the Federation in a new light, free of his own trauma and baggage. He’s very aware that Admiral Janeway saved his life when she rescued him from Tars Lamora and she’s treated him with kindness and respect while he’s been recovering. So, while he now remembers his mission, he’s conflicted about the impact it will have on the people who have shown him real compassion. He feels that he owes Janeway his life, so he helps her when she most needs that assistance.

But there’s a bigger reason he helps Janeway—Gwyn. Whether he knew it consciously or not, the Diviner does love his daughter. You may have noticed it is Asencia who calls her ‘progeny’ when the Diviner refers to Gwyn as his daughter. His relationship to Gwyn has changed because he can finally see her as something other than a means to an end. And now that he has connected with her emotionally, her safety is as important to him as his mission.

The Diviner and Janeway in Star Trek: Prodigy - "Mindwalk"

The Diviner frees Dal/Janeway, to his great surprise

We were a bit confused by why the proto-drive is offline, as they repaired it two episodes ago; what happened to it?

Ah, the Living Construct strikes again! Just as that program has maneuvered the Protostar out of the Romulan Neutral Zone, it intends to keep anyone from changing its course. The crew are essentially locked out of all the ship controls at this point and are at the mercy of the Living Construct.

Intrigued by the fact that you are a writing team and you’re sisters! Can you describe your process when you write together?

Lots of screaming, shouting, fighting—just kidding! We are fortunate in that we have our own mini writers’ room together. We live and die by the best idea wins, and if we are married to an idea, we can fight for it. But honestly, we share so many of the same references, it’s easy to complete each other’s sentences. We break everything together, then usually split up the work, swap pages, do a pass on each other’s work, rinse and repeat.

Holo Janeway with the Living Construct on Star Trek: Prodigy - Mindwalk

Holo Janeway contemplates the Living Construct

Follow Julie Benson and Shawna Benson on Twitter.

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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Good to get more of a look into the writers room.

And by the way, it sounds as though season one consultant and Trek Lit writer David Mack formed some kind of bond with the room. I’m just reading his new Vanguard/TOS novel now. He’s put Julie Benson at the helm and Aaron Watke as navigator on the 1701 bridge when Sulu and Chekhov are on an away mission. (Haven’t seen Shawna yet.)

Now, Mack has a track record of inviting people to be named and killed off in his books. I have some trepidation about their likely survival despite the gold shirts. (Julie is said to prefer the pants to the miniskirt.)

Thank you Laurie for this interview. Those were good questions and it’s no mystery or fluke why this show is so good; there’s a lot of substance behind the characters.

I think this interview sums up why Prodigy has become my favorite among all the new shows. How everything is so thought out and layered. And it pretty crazy both it and SNW did a body swap episode in their first seasons and they both worked beautifully IMO.

And I’m really liking how they are handling The Diviner. In the beginning, he came off like another mustache twirling villain who wanted to destroy the Federation for reasons (gee, that’s new). But then we learned why and it became more understandable. Still wrong, but he was trying to protect his planet. But then we got another interesting twist and he was originally fighting to become part of the Federation, not against it. So this is a villain with real nuance for a change. In the end, he decided it was better for his home to be whole and stable again instead of joining the Federation.

But I really love how well this show has honored Janeway. It’s gotten everything right about her. Sadly this show has done a much better job of Janeway’s portrayal than Picard’s in Picard IMO. I don’t hate how Picard is portrayed, but it does feel night and day to the original character but that’s probably all down to what Stewart wanted. But on this show, Janeway is still Janeway in every way that matters.

Anyway, Prodigy is an amazing show. It brings out the best of Star Trek nearly every episode. I hope this show goes at least 5 seasons.

Kate Mulgrew has embraced Janeway and owns her impact.

Patrick Stewart seems to never have understood why Picard was iconic and has been spending much of the past three decades trying to make him into a character he would rather be.

I’m sure that makes it easier to write Janeway as Janeway.

Agreed. The way Picard was handled in ST Picard indicates that. Picard was a stoic philosopher in TNG. The movies turned him into an action hero, and he was almost unrecognizable in STP.

I definitely agree with both you and Brent. And certainly nothing wrong to evolve the character, that’s usually a good thing. But I think what you said is true, he likes Picard obviously as a character overall, like what he stands for, etc, but I think he wanted someone more dashing, heroic, etc. I don’t think he really liked Picard being where everything is more underneath, but that’s why so many of us grew to love the character. He’s NOT Kirk. He does look at everything more through an intellectual lens. He gives off such a commanding presence and every time he talks, it carries weight, etc.

By the time we got to the movies, Picard had opened up a lot more, which again, is a good thing. I’m not faulting him for wanting more personality but he’s just so radically different now. The best example was the first season of the Picard show and in episode four when the guy beams down to Romulus to evacuate them in a summer suit lol. Is he there on an urgent mission or a vacation tour package? It’s so jarring to the old Picard who would probably sleep in is uniform if he had to. That basically told you Stewart had completely snuffed out Picard of old.

But there is some good news, listening to some of the people who has seen season 3 already, they make it clear he is much more Picard of old again like the show. I assume Matalas probably convinced him to play him that way again. How much, IDK, but that’s definitely a positive if true.

I suspect that Paramount wants a
true TNG sequel and Matalas is doing his best to convince Kurtzman and the Paramount+ suits that he can get there via a final season of Picard.

This may be a ‘true farewell’ for the TNG cast, but it’s also a ten episode back door pilot for whatever Matalas has cooked up with Titan.

My current bet is Star Trek Titan, with some kind of Riker (played by Stashwick) as captain, Seven as first officer, a younger LaForge as bridge crew, and Admirals Riker and Janeway and assorted 90s legacy characters as regular guests.

And for those who say Stashwick (like Jason Issacs) someone we expect to be a villain, the fact that his character went from a 2 episode dystopian leader to an antihero over a few seasons suggests that Matalas has other plans.

Agree with all of this. Yeah they obviously want this season to feel a like true TNG sequel so it isn’t surprising Picard may finally feel and act more like Picard again.

They have said whatever the spin off idea is sounds like it will be a next next generation approach so I can definitely see a mixture of whatever new characters get introduced and probably some of those legacy characters too. And still crossing my fingers Janeway will show up next season too. And you’re probably right it will be based around the new Titan.

Even though (like many of us) I have been very mixed on Picard as a show, the best thing about it other than bringing back this era of Star Trek again is the potential for future shows and characters. That’s the great thing about Star Trek right now, anyone can be brought back as we are constantly seeing these days.

Yep. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. TNG’s Kirk is not Picard. It’s Riker. That’s IMO why it’s the first officer that always led the away missions and stuff while Picard stayed on the ship. Picard was much more of a philosopher and explorer which is ironic because he didn’t do a whole lot of exploring during TNG

Sadly true from what I have seen the past 3 years. When he took on Professor X he kind of left Picard behind and getting Picard back meant turning into Logan’s Picard. That was never going to work because that just isn’t who Picard is. Heck that really isn’t even who Prof X is either.