Sunday, November 27

Prodigy’ Writer Aaron Waltke On Red Shirts, Galileo’s Fate, And The Spirit Of Starfleet –

The latest episode of Star Trek: Prodigy (“All the World’s a Stage”) featured the USS Protostar finding a planet of aliens who built a society around the logs and teachings of a long-lost member of the crew of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek: The Original Series. This kind of lore-filled episode is what you would expect from writer and co-executive producer Aaron Waltke, who also wrote the episode “Kobayashi” featuring holograms of Spock and other Star Trek legends. TrekMovie had a chance to speak to Waltke about putting this episode together and got a few more hints about the rest of the season.  

So, you’ve done it again. They let you out of your box once every 10 episodes. Is that how this works?

[laughs] Yes, so to speak. I mean, they tolerate me with my gentle insistence that we cram every possible reference of Star Trek into every episode possible. But I think on mine in particular, I weave it into the episode so thoroughly that they have no choice but to let me go crazy with my insistence on Star Trek lore entering our show.

What was the genesis of this story?

It was a pretty interesting genesis, actually. Sometimes when we’re just sort of blue-skying ideas, we will kind of do a process where everybody just takes like a half hour, and we just write down as many just interesting story prompts as we can. And I think in this particular one, I have to give credit to Diandra Pendleton-Thompson. She came in with the idea and said, “All the world’s a stage.” And immediately I was like, “That sounds like an Original Series episode idea.” And then she said, “What if we came down to a planet where everybody was reenacting captain’s logs?” And I was like, “Well, how would that work?” Would it be like old transmissions? And then it slowly got our gears turning realizing like, what if it was a matter of cultural contamination? And maybe there was an old TOS-era character who—similar to “A Piece of the Action”—had contaminated and created this whole world that then became sort of this odd sort of copy of a copy of Starfleet.

It was only after I had written the episode and we had talked out these wheels within wheels of how it would then affect our crew and talking about imposter syndrome and how that ties perfectly into where they are with Dal’s arc and the Prodigy crew in particular, that I found out after the fact that Michael Piller had pitched an almost identical idea as a follow up to “A Piece of the Action” for the 30th anniversary of The Original Series on Deep Space Nine, and that eventually became “Trials and Tribulations” [which was a follow-up to “The Troubles with Tribbles”]. Believe it or not, that was a completely happy accident. And I just felt validated that it’s a good idea, because I suppose weird minds think alike. But that tends to be our process on Prodigy. We both think in terms of a wish list of just fun and interesting ideas. And then we think about our bills to pay emotionally and character-wise. And in this case, the Prodigy crew sort of coming off the heels of the revelation that they can’t go back to Starfleet right away, but can they still do good? And what does that make them? Are they Starfleet? Are they not? And then that overlapping perfectly with the society where everyone seems to believe they’re Starfleet and it felt like a story we couldn’t pass up.

This was specifically tied to the TOS episode “Obsession.” How did you pick that one?

I’ve always been obsessed with red shirts in general. And I always wondered, how is it that every single one just got zapped by the ultimate computer or whatever and just disappeared? Surely there’s more going on with these guys that they constantly are leaving behind on planets and just saying, “Yeah, well, it’s part of the business.” And with “Obsession” in particular, I think I was drawn to that episode specifically because of Garrovick’s mini-arc of being someone that is feeling this same exact idea of sort of imposter syndrome.

And the fact that he disappeared after that episode where it really felt like they had made a connection—Kirk and Garrovick—it struck me as, “I wonder what happened to him?” So as we were really breaking out this episode and talking it out, we were like, “Who is this person?” And then we revisited “Obsession” in the room and we were felt this actually speaks perfectly, because, in a way, Garrovick’s arc is sort of a slightly twisted mirror of what’s going on with our crew, as they kind of are thrust into a situation that seems to be beyond their control. And can they still be that Starfleet in those moments that count? And it was sort of icing on the cake that Garrovick—I believe—was the only minor red shirt to ever survive a landing party, but then you never saw him again. So I feel like we at least deserve to know what happened to him.

Ensign Garrovick and Captain Kirk in “Obsession”

So the Memory Alpha question is: When exactly within The Original Series did this happen? Because the Galileo II shows up in season 3, so this is the first replacement of the Galileo that was seen in season 2. So Garrovick was lost after “Obsession,” but before season 3?

I think that’s probably the most plausible placement and in my head that’s where it would take place. What’s part of the fun of this episode is the mystery of what this sort of unseen Star Trek: The Original Series mission was. You only get sort of like a copy of a copy of a copy of it told essentially through the perspective of Ensign Garrovick and these people that revere him as facts become myth become legend. So there is a little bit of wiggle room.

But just to be clear, that was the season 2 Galileo—which replaced the one lost in “The Galileo Seven”—not the season 3 Galileo II?

Correct. In my mind, that’s what we’re going with.

So you have now explained why in season 3 there was a Galileo II? This first replacement Galileo was left on this planet with Garrovick?  

Yes. I would say yes.

The Galileo in “All the World’s a Stage”

This episode feels like it has a few inspirations, like a little Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, a bit of TNG’s “The Royale,” and some Futurama in the episode where they treat Trek as a religion [“Where No Fan Has Gone Before”].

More power to the warp core! That was written by the amazing Star Trek writer David Goodman. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I am very much an enjoyer of all science fiction. And I think Star Trek is too. Star Trek on more than one occasion has taken other sorts of ideas from short stories or other franchises and put them in a blender and Trekified them. And certainly, how this legend of a legend of a legend idea of what would these people look like, Mad Max is one of my favorite franchises of all time. I think the “long long ago before the pox-eclipse”  is going to be forever tattooed on my brain. So seeing the Starfleet version of that was pretty enjoyable to write. And certainly, you’re right, there are elements of “The Royale” and Voyager’s “Muse” as well. There are kinds of filigrees that are on the edges of this story.

The aliens may not have had all the wording right, but they really nailed the sets and even the sounds of the USS Enterprise. So how did they pull that off?

You hear a little bit about in the crackly log from Garrovick. He salvaged stuff from the wreckage and brought it back and spent a couple of months trying to teach them what he could about this technology, hoping that it would be enough to help them survive this quintessential Star Trek problem that they were going to be plagued with. And just basically putting his faith in them that they would eventually evolve to the level of civilization that could confront this problem. And they did to a certain degree with a little help from our Prodigy crew. In my mind, is every shuttle equipped with training tapes? I don’t know about that. I think he probably brought some paneling and stuff back to try to instruct them on how the different items work. And you see they have a video screen. And so I think he probably was at least able to show them the basics of it so 100 years later they were able to reverse engineer a lot of it and kind of become a pretty functioning society.

There is a point where Dr. Boons sort of admits he knows it’s all a game in a way. But does everyone get it?

I think it’s just like any society. I think there are some people that know that some of the institutions we believe in are only as strong as the people that believe in them. And I think there are some people that just sort of embrace it wholeheartedly. With any institution, whether it’s Starfleet or democracy, or faith, or what have you, I think there’s always going to be different people that appreciate them at different levels. Both at what they represent, but also how delicate they really are and why they need to be defended for the ideals that are behind them.

A big part of this episode is the voice acting playing essentially caricatures of Kirk, Scotty, Sulu, etc. And at points it gets a bit campy. Is that by design because it has become exaggerated over time?

Yeah. In some ways, I think some of that meta stuff is like what we kind of are facing now when it comes to some fandoms. I think if you listen to an impersonation of William Shatner, it doesn’t actually sound like William Shatner anymore. It’s doing an impersonation of an impersonation of and impersonation. In this case, I was trying to imply is that they are sort of an oral storytelling sort of society. As we’ve seen here on Earth, a lot of those societies tend to—as they’re creating their hero myths or their mono-myths—they tend to exaggerate things to the point where they do become sort of idealized Platonic versions of those heroes. Whether it’s Kabuki theater or Italian opera, they have very specific exaggerated expressions or archetypes, like the Crone or the Jester. And that’s sort of what happened here, where their society is built on these idealized archetypes that perhaps aren’t necessarily accurate representations, but at least are harkening to something.

So getting really into the nerd weeds, when the Protostar bridge is transformed into the TOS bridge, what happened to the real chairs and consoles?

If you listen—and this was some brilliant Treknobabble from David Mack—they create the Constitution class bridge via the holo-emitters and transfer the commands to those holographic imagery. And so effectively, they’re hard holographic stuff just like you might have in the holodeck, because we’ve established there are holo-emitters all over the ship that allow Hologram Janeway to move freely. So they were able to create a hard light kind of representation that was sort of an overlay. So when you pressed one button, the computer would interpolate that to whatever the 24th-century equivalent would be.

But some of these things were smaller, so what happened to the original equipment?

It got beamed into the cargo bay. [laughs] I think you’re going to have to chalk that one up to stylistic interpretation.

The Protostar bridge gets a retrofit in “All the World’s a Stage”

There are some deep lore and tech things in these last couple of episodes. Do you guys ever end up spending a whole day in the weeds talking about nanoprobes and the like, spiraling into a technobabble wormhole?

I mean, I do that every day. So you’re describing just like a Tuesday for me, even when I’m not writing Star Trek. [laughs] But yes, we do talk about this stuff. I think some of us were more interested in talking about that than others. Like for this episode, the harder core Star Trek fans in the room, like the Benson sisters and myself, really wanted to hammer it out to make sure that all of our T’s were crossed, and I’s were dotted. So that way when it came to these conversations we’re having right now two years later, that it at least made sense in our head. And so that way, when the inevitable fan canon meets the Memory Alpha canon, there was a plausible explanation of how it all works together. And then obviously, it becomes a bit of brinksmanship of like, how much of that exposition can we cram into a 22-minute episode? And how much of it do we just have to imply or suggest or make it clear enough that that fans can connect the dots?

Being that you wrote it, I assume you started with probably 40 minutes to begin with. So what was the hardest thing for you to let go of?

[laughs] I think the hardest thing for me was, I think I had probably another minute or so of the Star Trek play. And then as far as Star Trek technobabble, I had a lot more about the ionosphere and the nature of the dilithium crystals in the cave. And I was politely asked to simplify it as much as possible. But I think you still get the basic idea that there was an accident of some sort in which this red shirt Garrovick and the shuttle were presumed lost, but they actually crashed in this dilithium cave and created a distortion field that masks their signatures. So it looked like they had been destroyed on entry. But actually, it was just masking their sensors. And then the rest, as they say, is history.

So someone didn’t just say, “We can’t seem to find Garrick on sensors” and Kirk just said, “Okay” and they flew off?

Well, I think that they probably did do that because that is what they do on every TOS episode when a red shirt dies. They’re just like, “Darn it… anyway… he knew what he was signing up for, so let’s move on.”

Ensign Garrovick’s story is told in”All the World’s a Stage”

Let’s follow up on something you said on Twitter: The ship is in the Beta Quadrant, close to the Romulan border?

Yeah. The Neutral Zone, at least according to the more recent maps, they show the Federation border extending and wrapping around the top of the Romulan Star Empire essentially. So they would be sort of north of the Romulan Star Empire and south of the Delta Quadrant.

So the first half of season 1 was all Gamma Quadrant essentially, and the second half is Beta Quadrant?

Yeah. I think you’re going to get a lot of Beta Quadrant in these next few episodes.

One of your tweets made it into our theory article connecting Zero to the Borg and the Artifact, etc. Are you having conversations in the writers’ room about these kinds of things? Your show is set in between different series so everything you do has consequences. Is this a common thing for the writers to deal with?

Yeah. We are very much in constant communication with the other Star Trek shows. Terry Matalas [Picard] and myself and the Hageman brothers and Akiva Goldsman [Strange New Worlds] and Mike McMahan [Lower Decks], and Michelle Paradise [Discovery] to a certain degree, although she’s far enough out and advanced that we don’t overlap as much. But certainly, the shows that in the timeline that are immediately before and after us—Lower Decks and Picard—we were in constant communication. And if there was something that kind of overlapped or dealt with the same subject matter, we wanted to make sure that all connected. Stuff like the Borg, for instance, was very much like, “Okay, we’re all in agreement here after the events of Voyager “Endgame” this is what happened to the Borg. They were decimated. They are on their heels. They’re not the same as what they were before.” And everybody said yes. As far as the particulars of was that cube the same one as The Artifact or just another one of that fleet? I always add the caveat “maybe” because I don’t want to necessarily succumb to small world syndrome, even though I love it! And I love everything being one grand adventure. But we definitely gave enough in our episode “Let Sleeping Borg Lie” to let you make that connection, or at least see that it is of the same sort of fleet that were perhaps be a new invasion fleet that was being built when it suddenly got struck down by the neuroleptic pathogen.

If that cube was the Artifact or not is not entirely as relevant as, did Zero wake up a cube, and then that cube woke up others and got the Borg going again?

I can’t answer that definitively because it’s not on screen yet. But what I can say is, I think Borg space is very big. And whether you want to believe that every single Borg cube went dormant, or a lot of them went dormant and some of them were just heavily weakened. I think any of that works. But the important thing is they are not the same after Janeway’s neurolytic pathogen attack.

You are writing the Admiral Janeway logs which come out every week. The first one namedropped B’Elanna Torres. So are these connections just for fun or should be looking for clues to upcoming episodes in these logs?

I am dropping names that tie directly into the backstory of the Dauntless and the Protostar. As far as when and how you might see some of that stuff crop up, you’ll have to watch and see. But you will see that they are meant to be told cohesively together. You are getting some little tidbits that you might not see on the show, and you’re getting some things on the show that will make a little more sense once you hear the full context. They are all kind of married, of the same ilk. As far as who specifically you’ll see and what you’ll see, I can’t spoil that.

The Hagemans have said there are more legacy people coming. Speaking of which, when are we going to see Ronny Cox [Jellico]?

I think we have him in more than one episode. You will see him soon. There’s going to be a reason why he shows up… There is going to be a reason why Vice Admiral Janeway is going to have to communicate with Jellico.

Ronnie Cox joins Prodigy as Jellico.

Returning to that DS9 pitch which would have found the planet filled with people dressed like Kirk and Spock—apparently, one of the reasons they didn’t do that is a concern it might look like they are making fun of Star Trek fans. Is there any element of your episode that is a commentary on fandom?

I think it’s hard to hard to get away from the fact that these people on the planet sort of worship Starfleet or at least embrace it in such a way that they internalize its ideals. And I think that that is very much of fandom. I think the central question to this episode is: As a fan, can you ever truly live up to being Starfleet? And I think the answer in the episode is an unequivocal “yes!” And if anything, Starfleet is nothing without people who believe in it, like the Star Trek fandom. It’s meant to start from a place of “Oh, look at these people that are sort of doing Kirk impressions and dressing up. Are they truly Starfleet?” And then by the end of it, they’re the very ones that are Starfleet to a tee and save our crew.

So Starfleet was inside us all the time?

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Well, thank you for the discussion.

Yeah, live logs and proper.

Aaron J. Waltke

New episodes of Prodigy debut on Thursdays exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S., and on Fridays in Latin America, Australia, and the U.K.  The series will air later in the year in South Korea, Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland.

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