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Dal in a still from Star Trek: Prodigy Image: Nickelodeon

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How Star Trek: Prodigy creators pulled off animated cameos for the ‘Trekkiest Trek that ever Trekked’

The new episode ‘Kobayashi’ is a Starfleet fantasy draft

Star Trek: Prodigy is the latest installment in the Star Trek canon, an animated series designed to be an on-ramp for kids who are totally unfamiliar with its 55 years of sprawling mythology. On Prodigy, a crew of five young people (and one indestructible blob creature of indeterminate age) have commandeered the U.S.S. Protostar, a highly advanced Starfleet vessel that they find buried on a mining asteroid where they were once held prisoner. Through the guidance of a holographic mentor in the likeness of Voyager’s Captain Kathryn Janeway (voice of Kate Mulgrew), Prodigy gradually introduces the Protostar crew and a new generation of viewers to the key sci-fi concepts and philosophical principles behind the Star Trek universe.

In today’s new episode, “Kobayashi,” the Protostar’s self-appointed captain Dal R’El (voice of Brett Gray) wanders onto the ship’s holodeck and, seeking a way to win his crew’s respect, loads up an advanced command training simulation called “Kobayashi Maru.” He needs a crew, but rather than invite his comrades to play, Dal tells the computer to populate his simulated vessel with “some of the best you got.”

[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for the “Kobayashi” episode of Star Trek: Prodigy.]

In a flash, the bridge is manned by an array of familiar faces from Star Trek series past — Spock, Uhura, Scotty, Odo, and Dr. Beverly Crusher — all of whom are total strangers to the viewpoint character. Dal, a selfish teenage brat, bungles his way through countless attempts at the Kobayashi Maru test, baffling his Starfleet all-star team with his ineptitude.

A shot of the simulation screen in a still from the “Kobayashi” episode of Star Trek: Prodigy Image: Nickelodeon

One could be forgiven for assuming that the team behind Prodigy simply threw a bunch of legacy characters together in the hopes of inspiring fan interest (and articles like this one). But, according to episode writer Aaron J. Waltke, the story of “Kobayashi” actually began with a specific character need and grew into an increasingly complicated endeavor that allowed Waltke, a lifelong Trekkie, to create his dream holodeck episode.

“Very early on we wanted to balance a few things with the characters’ story arcs, specifically how quickly we introduce them to the world of Star Trek as most fans know them,” Waltke tells Polygon. “[We needed to] get Dal to realize that as much as he fantasizes about being in the Captain’s seat and ready for leadership, that maybe he still has to learn a thing or two. It dovetailed quite nicely into the discussion of ‘Well, what is the greatest leadership test in all of Star Trek?’”

First introduced in the 1982 film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the Kobayashi Maru test is a simulation in which a command officer candidate leads their ship into hostile territory in order to rescue passengers from a damaged civilian vessel. What the player doesn’t know is that the test is fixed — no matter what they try, their ship is always destroyed by overwhelming enemy forces. The scenario is designed to teach a prospective captain to cope with failure and to confront the real possibility of losing their ship, their crew, and their life in the line of duty. (James T. Kirk, famously, cheated at the Kobayashi Maru, reprogramming the test and becoming the only person ever to complete the mission successfully.)

While the Kobayashi Maru remains an often-referenced piece of Star Trek lore, Waltke realized that it had never actually been depicted on television before, and that The Wrath of Khan remained its latest appearance in Star Trek’s internal chronology. Since Prodigy is set 98 years later, the Prodigy team felt certain that Starfleet would have updated the test in the interim to use holodeck technology, giving the writers license to revamp the simulation to suit their own purposes. This eventually led to the idea of employing Starfleet legends as non-player characters.

“If you look at The Wrath of Khan, it’s not just random ensigns or whatever that are at Starfleet Academy,” says Waltke. “It’s literally Spock and Uhura and Sulu. They’re there, as this all-star crew. You have the best crew that you’ll ever have. Now, how are you going to face this, cadet?” Waltke argues that, when compared to Khan’s depiction of the Enterprise senior staff administering the test to Lt. Saavik as a live-action role play complete with death scenes, Prodigy’s holographic fantasy draft is relatively plausible.

Bringing the premise to screen presented a host of challenges, not the least of which was deciding which characters would make the lineup, one of the geekiest workplace arguments that anyone’s ever been paid to have. The Prodigy writers room attempted to create the perfect Star Trek bridge crew, an exercise in which diehard Trekkies (Waltke included) have participated for as long as there’s been more than one cast to choose from.

A consensus crew proved impossible, but the technical requirements of the episode helped narrow down their choices. Waltke felt strongly that the characters had to have their original voices, and sought out and spliced together lines of dialogue from classic episodes that would be appropriate for their new scenes.

Having the right line in the script wasn’t enough, either — the performance and sound recording also had to be the right fit. Finding applicable sound bytes was a painstaking process that Waltke took on primarily by himself, reading about 90 teleplays and rewatching 40 episodes from across the franchise looking for perfect matches, and then bringing the specific timecodes to the Star Trek archives where the individual audio tracks are stored.

“I’m not gonna lie, it was probably one of the hardest writing experiences I’ve ever had. Obviously rewarding, but there were cases where I thought I had finally found the perfect line and then I would go track down the audio and the [actor] was just too far away from the 1960s microphones that were recording, or they were rattling something.”

The full Kobayashi Maru crew in a still from the “Kobayashi” episode of Star Trek: Prodigy Image: Nickelodeon

Throughout the years-long production cycle of the animated episode (which was written way back in 2019 and finalized in the past month or so) the scene had to be reworked multiple times, requiring return trips to the archives. One draft of the script featured eight holographic crew members, but the process of streamlining the scene meant Worf, one of Waltke’s personal favorites, was written out of the episode.

Waltke and company eventually put together functional snippets of dialogue for Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Scotty (James Doohan) from The Original Series and Odo (Rene Auberjonois) from Deep Space Nine. When it became clear that one character would need to be able to interact more directly with Dal, Gates McFadden, The Next Generation’s Dr. Beverly Crusher, returned to perform her character for the first time since 2002. McFadden even improvised a few lines, one of which — “The phenomenon of your stubbornness belongs in a medical textbook.” — made it into the final episode.

The difference in sound quality between the new and old sound recordings is definitely noticeable, but between the playful tone of the episode and the in-universe artifice of holographic simulation, it’s easily dismissed. Frankly, it’s also more charming that way: A truly seamless integration of the archive audio might actually be unsettling, considering that Nimoy, Doohan, and Auberjonois are dead.

Dal and Jankom look at the simulation for the Kobayashi Maru in a still from “Star Trek: Prodigy” Image: Nickelodeon

Prodigy doesn’t typically clutter its episodes with references to previous series (that’s squarely the domain of its sister show, Lower Decks), but executive producers Kevin and Dan Hageman let Waltke go “hog wild” on “Kobayashi.” Janeway introduces Dal and shipmate Jankom Pog to the holodeck by flipping through a few familiar scenarios, from the Vulcan kal-if-fee battle rites to the real Janeway’s well-worn Brontë program.

Of course, it’s important that all of this fanservice for longtime Trekkies doesn’t overwhelm the story. After all, none of these in-jokes and cameos mean anything to the show’s younger viewers.

“We specifically pivoted it in a way that there’s an irony there, so newer audiences can still be on the adventure with Dal. He’s with this dream team and has no idea who any of them are, but senses that they’re good at what they do. He thinks ‘aha,’ finally I have a crew that I can work with,’ only to find that the problem is with himself. So there’s a story there that works whether or not you understand any of the Star Trek references at all. But the fun was, if we’re gonna go there, why not pack as much stuff for the super-fans as we can?

“Let’s just make this the Trekkiest Trek that ever Trekked.”

New episodes of Star Trek: Prodigy premiere every Thursday on Paramount Plus.