HERE THERE BE SPOILERS
“Dreamcatcher” invokes a long-standing science fiction trope, including one with which Star Trek has flirted in the past. The episode doesn’t really offer anything in terms of surprises with respect to the trope, at least in this part, but that’s not really the point. The writers clearly understand that the real emotional core of the story lies in the fantasies each member of the Protostar’s motley crew experiences and what it tells us about these lost kids. “Dreamcatcher” shows us with a kind of brutal honesty what each of these children wants and in so doing provides us an unflinching look at just how much pain they have had to endure.
In his first Captain’s Log, Dal explains that Janeway has begun teaching the Protostar’s crew the basics of piloting the vessel and expresses his continuing fear that the Diviner will catch up to them. Janeway triggers a proximity alert to bring the “cadets” to the Bridge where she informs them that she’s detected an M-class planet in the Hirogen system. She goes on to explain that Starfleet protocol requires that the cadets explore the new world, and Dal initially refuses until she threatens to report him to Starfleet. According to their scans, the planet looks to be safely uninhabited aside from plant life and therefore a perfect training environment for the Protostar’s crew. There’s clearly no way that will end badly.
Upon landing, Jankom Pog, Zero, and Rok-tahk proceed to explore the planet, while Dal takes the exploration vehicle Runaway on a joy ride. Gwyn, having been left in the brig uses some sort of telepathy to summon her weapon to herself. She breaks free and immediately heads to the Bridge where she uses the skills her father taught her to take control of the Protostar. Janeway attempts to contact Dal just before Gwyn reprograms her to give Gwyn complete command control over the ship, but Dal is too busy joyriding to hear Janeway’s comms. Gwyn orders Janeway to prepare the Protostar for liftoff.
On the surface, Rok-Tahk encounters a species of absolutely adorable creatures, and they bowl her over to play. Jankom Pog stumbles upon an uninhabited home that just so happens to have a Tellarite stew bubbling over an open flame, and he cannot resist the temptation to taste it. Zero wanders into a shrubbery maze and finds the ship’s mysterious third engine at its heart, and Dal crests a ridge to discover what looks to be his parents waiting for him. Janeway then appears to him and tries to convince him to stay, but Dal knows that Holographic Janeway cannot leave the ship. The vision reveals itself to be a series of writhing tendrils reaching for him. Dal escapes with the use of his phaser and flees using the Runaway.
Aboard the Protostar, Gwyn finds that the ship cannot lift off because the same tendrils have grasped the ship and are holding fast. She runs down to the Protostar’s primary hatch and uses her weapon to hack at the malevolent tentacles. Just as Gwyn turns to reboard the ship, the Diviner appears. She goes to kneel, and he tells her how proud he is of her. Gwyn immediately guesses that the Diviner is a hallucination and returns to the Protostar.
Meanwhile, Dal rescues Zero from the maze. Zero enthusiastically deduces that the planet is actually a microorganism that uses airborne spores to cause anyone landing on the surface to hallucinate their deepest desire and then consumes the prey while they remain enraptured. Dal advises Zero to grab the handles, and they hurry to rescue Rok-Tahk and Jankom Pog. Dal turns the Runaway toward the Protostar and arrives just in time to see the ship struggle to achieve liftoff. Unfortunately, the planet’s vines have infiltrated and entangled the ship’s nacelles, so the ship’s engines go into emergency shut down. Before the Protostar plummets to the planet’s surface, Gwyn runs to the shuttle bay where she finds Murf. She rescues Murf, but the shuttlecraft cannot quite break the atmosphere and also crashes to the ground. Dal and his crew rush to the shuttlecraft and find Gwyn holding Murf in the cockpit. Dal stares her down and informs her that she’s marooned them on this hostile world.
A long time ago, I read a comment somewhere to the effect that writing television shows for children is far harder than it is for adults because children are an unforgiving audience. If something about the story fails to ring true for them, they stop watching whereas an adult will give the show the benefit of the doubt. The statement resonates more with me now that I have children because now, I find it to be true. Children are far more discerning consumers than we give them credit for being, and Prodigy’s writer’s room has embraced this idea. The result is a show that gives us child-appropriate stories that adults can enjoy because the emphasis is on good storytelling, not just good storytelling for children.
“Dreamcatcher” conveys the depth of tragedy these children have suffered through the medium of their fantasies. By showing us as viewers what they most deeply desire, the episode necessarily implies what they have never had or what they have lost, and it’s just heart-breaking. Jankom Pog wants a home, which the planet manifests in the form of both a literal building and comfort food. Zero wants intellectual challenge generally, hence the maze, and to understand the strange engine specifically. Dal wants to see his parents and learn his origins, and Rok-Tahk just wants friends whom she doesn’t frighten and with whom she can play like the child she is.
If imagining Rok-Tahk’s loneliness plucks at your heartstrings, still more tragic is Gwyn’s story in “Dreamcatcher.” Gwyn escapes the brig and re-programs an entire Federation ship in order to bring her father’s prize back to him. The planet recognizes her desire for his approval and tries to give that to her, and it’s that very kindness that persuades Gwyn that the being she sees before her is a construct. Let that sink in for a moment. Gwyn deduces that she’s hallucinating because she knows that her father will never give her the approval she so desperately craves. Still, she struggles to fulfill his wishes anyway despite that knowledge. The entire sequence takes less than five minutes of screen time and tells us so much about Gwyn.
While I do not doubt that the children watching this week’s episode of Prodigy appreciate and understand what the episode wants to tell them about these characters, representation serves as the story’s real hook. These kids can see themselves in Dal whose ready impulse to joyride in the Runaway is not only in character for Dal but also for a teenage boy. Rok-Tahk’s desire to be accepted is as universal as breathing, but the added layer of her appearance and size being intimidating to others reaches a very specific group of kids that may not have had the chance to have seen themselves on screen. Even Gwyn’s terrible choice will strike a chord with kids caught in a similar situation.
However, the episode doesn’t just leave the characters with their tragedies. Rok-Tahk finds herself standing between Zero and Dal, and even visually, she’s no longer alone. Zero gets the chance to ruminate about the carnivorous planet. Jankom Pog gets rescued and rolled into close quarters with his fellows. It may not be stew, but it visually suggests companionship and home. While Gwyn ultimately makes the wrong choice with respect to the Protostar, her rescue of Murf hints that at her heart, she’s a good enough being to make better choices in the future. Dal switches gears radically, going from utter irresponsibility to embracing Janeway’s exhortation to take care of his fellow crew. The very Trek theme of hope therefore ties not only their stories but also our intrepid crew-members together, and I can’t wait to see how the story’s resolution will build on this foundation.
Four crates of Chimerium
Stray Thoughts from the Couch
- First, let me apologize for how late this article is. Happy Armistice Day/Veterans’ Day.
- I also want to remind everyone that Discovery’s fourth season airs next Thursday. I’ll cover that episode in this space next week and pick Prodigy back up the following. I’ll probably alternate between the two going forward.
- Check the Unimatrix47 twitter account because you might be able to catch yours truly and several other Trek-loving friends livestreaming a chat about the episode. I’ll post more details about it there soon.
- Gwyn gets a full name! She’s Gwyndala.
- Gwyn’s weapon is starting to inch ever closer to MacGuffin status. Is there anything it or she can’t do? Granted, I like that the episode gives us an explanation for that, but also, Gwyn herself skirts the edge of being a Magical Girl.
- We also get a hint of how Jankom Pog ended up in the Delta Quadrant. He mentions a Tellar Sleeper Ship, so perhaps he was in cryogenic sleep for seventy five years.
- I love that Dal caves to possible censure from Starfleet. The kid has no idea what that is, but threatening to tell the grown-ups gets him to toe the line.
- The episode refers to the Hirogen system, which is a great wink at the episode’s story. If you don’t recall, the Hirogen are a species of hunters that hunt literally everything, much like the carnivorous planet.
- The Protostar can land! That brings the total of Starfleet ships I’ve seen do that to approximately two, including Voyager.
- Speaking of Voyager, I feel like Hologram Janeway’s programming needs some updating. Having experienced everything going sideways in her own experiences in the Delta Quadrant, her spider senses should have been tingling at the Murder Planet.
- Oh, Zero, you sweet summer child. Plants require nutrients, and if there are no nutrients in the soil, you really need to start looking around for what those plants might eat. It could be you. I do sort of wonder what the planet would have done with Zero, however.
- Our first log entry! Prodigy is officially Star Trek now.