This week back in 1996 we were midway through season two of Voyager, and up popped an episode that acts, I feel, as a solid litmus test for hardcore fans. A hardcore fan, you see, is a bit more willing to “go with the flow” when a specific episode doesn't quite have all its “i”s dotted or “t”s crossed. No slavish devotion but, well, when put bluntly, “Prototype” certainly has its flaws. But it also has a number of really cool ideas floating around, and some great moments with our characters, too. When there are seven seasons to a show (and not one of these BBC seasons that have six episodes) they can't all be home runs. But what makes a show worth watching is when even a middling engagement is worthy of discussion.
“Prototype” opens in a curious manner. We're in space, looking at the ship. Then, the light blue dissolve of the transporter as it looks to the transportee (something we'd only seen in TNG's sixth-season episode “Realm of Fear”). With intentionally glitchy video, B'Elanna, Tuvok and Captain Janeway are stickin' their mugs in the camera, similar to the revival scenes of RoboCop.
Voyager has discovered a rather unique piece of space junk. A highly advanced robot that is on the fritz. “Dying,” if you will, unless B'Elanna is able to adapt energy sources from aboard the ship to power it back up.
She's able to do so, of course, and she does it after “talking it out” with The Doctor. It's perfect that the idea stems from a conversation with a holographic computer program (and not, say, with the very organic Neelix, puttering around the mess hall) because “Prototype” is headed where, indeed, some episodes of Trek have gone before. In a few scenes, we'll be back in the realm of, say, “The Measure of a Man,” debating the rights of artificial intelligence. But this time it's a little different.
When you think that's where this is going, Captain Janeway surprises you. (And you have to love the way Kate Mulgrew throws this line away.) “I'm not saying they don't have the same rights as any organic species. That's not the issue here,” Janeway shrugs, surprising B'Elanna and, by extension, us. Is an android a person? Been there, done that. But the newly revived (arguably) sentient robot wants B'Elanna's help in figuring out how to help how to preserve its kind, to “procreate,” in a rather mechanical sense of the word. To “evolve,” really, if you want to get philosophical. This is definitely the second chapter in the landmark TNG episode with Data's “life” on the line.
B'Elanna is ready to go. She feels a sense of pride regarding the robot. A sense of ownership? Well, probably not, as she's a very enlightened person – but the fact that she was able to figure out how to adapt the warp core plasma to charge up the robot (using a set of relays) means that she's at least protective of her discovery.
The way that B'Elanna's magic bullet charge-up just automatically works may make some engineers roll their eyes a bit. (Consider that I can't even open a new PDF file without making adjustments to my laptop). There are a lot of similar story shortcuts in this one – especially once B'Elanna tries to create a new robot out of component parts.
Does this mean that Captain Janeway allows her to continue tinkering? Actually, no. She shuts that project down, rightly citing the Prime Directive. “What you're talking about is giving them new abilities, which is the equivalent of altering their genetic structure.” This was the way the robots were designed and that's all the Captain will allow.
Of course, B'Elanna is then captured and a ticking clock is set. Voyager's chief engineer quickly surmises that the robots were unable to create new models because the original designers – the Builders – created a special energy code for each specific unit. While her robot captor is quick to throw in the towel, B'Elanna holds out. “What we've got to do is design a standardized module with a uniform energy code that can power any unit,” she says. How she plans to do this . . . well, we don't really get into that. We cut back to Voyager, where Janeway is planning her rescue and then, of course, there are invading bad guys. This takes our focus away from the tech problem.
The invaders aren't necessarily bad. It's just how they're programmed. You see, Janeway was right. The Builders were wise to have a failsafe against the creation of new robot models. Turns out that they were, essentially, Killbots programmed to destroy one another . . . and anything that gets in the way of that goal.
Luckily, Voyager and crew are able to get out of there – and B'Elanna enacts something of a robotic partial birth abortion on her prototype. We end respecting B'Elanna's technical genius, but also Janeway's nose for making the right call.
Now, as for the mechanics of the whole thing. There's a “Ship of Theseus” paradox happening. B'Elanna is told that the robots adapt to replacement parts. So you can screw on a new head a new arm or any other part. However, each power source is individualized and won't work if you try to build a new one. In other words, you can't take power source A and put it in robot B to make it come to life. But you can replace all the parts that surround power source A. But is it the same robot?
Clearly, no – and there must be some higher level engineering going on here (earlier in the show B'Elanna makes a quick comment about “a polymer plasma composed of elements I didn't even know existed 24 hours ago), but this marvel of engineering goes under-discussed.
Still, I dig the episode. I confess that part of the reason I like it is that the robots are designed more in line with what Tom Paris' Captain Proton holonovels look like more than what we normally see on Star Trek. They are very Golden Age of Sci-Fi, even somewhat resembling Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
You tell me – am I misremembering a fairly lame episode and giving it too much credit? Or was this one that you liked a lot, too? What would you have done in Janeway's shoes? Let me know in the comments below.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, ScreenCrush and Badass Digest. On his BLOG, Jordan has reviewed all 727 Trek episodes and films, most of the comics and some of the novels.