Published Dec 19, 2022
WARP FIVE: Julie and Shawna Benson on Crafting 'Mindwalk' for An All-Ages Audience
The Star Trek: Prodigy writers walk us through the body swap episode!
By Christine Dinh
SPOILER WARNING: Discussion for Episode 8 of Star Trek: Prodigy "Mindwalk" to follow!
Welcome to Warp Five, StarTrek.com's five question post-mortem with your favorite featured talent from the latest Star Trek episodes.
The latest episode of Star Trek: Prodigy, "Mindwalk," demonstrates the resourcefulness of the scrappy Protostar crew. Unable to utilize official comms out of fear of further unleashing the Living Weapon into Federation space, Zero and Dal work together to harness their telepathic abilities to reach Vice Admiral Janeway and explain the predicament they face.
However, the Dauntless merges their warp bubble into the Protostar's at that exact same moment as Dal and Zero are amplifying their thoughts. The perfect storm causes Dal and Vice Admiral Janeway's minds to trade places as opposed of transferring Dal's thoughts.
StarTrek.com had the opportunity to producers and writers Julie and Shawna Benson, who penned this incredibly fun body and mind swap episode of the hit all-ages animated program.
Star Trek: Prodigy - Trading Places
The Benson Sisters credit their parents for introducing the Star Trek universe to them at a young age, emphasizing their dad's strong interest in science-fiction.
"[Our parents] are both nerds," explained Shawna. "Our dad reads a lot of sci-fi books. He had comics. He did watch The Original Series. Most of what we picked up was very casual until we started seeing some of the movies in the theaters. My first memory of the theater experience would've been Star Trek IV. We tried to research this to see if we went to see Wrath of Khan or not."
"We had to have," remarked Julie, before adding that she wasn't born yet for its first theatrical run.
"The thing that really cemented Star Trek for the both of us was The Next Generation," continued Shawna, with Julie jokingly interjecting, "Shawna would record the episodes; don't get us in trouble with copyright."
Shawna was very "fastidious" with her process with both sisters elaborating how she would record the VHS tapes after finding the live satellite feed for affiliate syndication, labeling each tape with the time codes and their corresponding episode title, and ensuring they cut out half of the commercials. However, they didn't encounter TNG until its second season so they had to wait for syndication breaks to catch reruns of the first season in order to complete their archive.
What was it that drew them into the series? Julie noted, "Shawna was such a huge fan of Beverly Crusher most of all, and of course, Wesley." As the loving sister she is, Julie remembered, "One Christmas, I made her a Beverly Crusher uniform in the early '90s."
In "Mindwalk," feeling immense guilt for inadvertently activating the Living Construct and putting the young crew in jeopardy, Holo-Janeway takes herself offline to avoid further acts of sabotage. It dawns on Vice Admiral Janeway (in Dal's body) that her holographic counterpart is a non-essential program; therefore, she's able to reboot the program and remove the secret subroutine infecting her.
Recalling the heartfelt scene, Julie Benson shared, "When we broke it in the room, we all talked about how this had to be emotional and that we had to do it quickly in order to get Holo-Janeway to know that 'Dal' is telling the truth. We went back into our memory banks of the sister — we can mention her 'cause we already mentioned her dog in a previous episode."
"Just the idea that we were visually going to see both of them on-screen was such a huge excitement in the room; getting to that point was really exciting," said Julie.
The sisters lavish a lot of praise on the animators for their work on the series, but especially of that scene. Shawna shared, "The animators were really able to realize the vision we had. We hoped the audience, especially the kids, would understand that even though Dal is still standing there, we could merge it into Janeway. You get the sense that Janeway is talking to Holo-Janeway without there having to be Dal in-between. That gave it a lot more resonance, obviously, because now you're really seeing what Holo-Janeway sees because she would be able to see through Dal and see to Admiral Janeway. The animators did a brilliant job of relaying that."
"This was such a fun episode to write," added Julie. "We were like, 'It's going to be funny.' And [the animators] made it even funnier than we could have imagined with all of the little visual cues."
"Animation has been very different experience for us" explained Shawna. "We're used to being on a set and seeing things happen. And here it was like, 'Well, let's see what happened with this episode we wrote two-and-a-half years ago. Fingers crossed.' Honestly, we were never worried."
Remarking on the prior evening's first-ever Children's and Family Emmys Award, Shawna added, "Alessandro [Taini] totally deserves his Emmy," with Julie interjecting, "It's magic! That man can do no wrong."
The Benson Sisters are not new to luring new audiences into longstanding franchises; in addition to writing an episode for Netflix's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (2021), they've rebooted the superhero team the Birds of Prey with a 23-issue comics run of Batgirl and the Birds of Prey for DC Comics.
While the writing team is most known for their work on the critically-acclaimed CW series, The 100, they were more than ready to travel boldly for Prodigy and its all-ages audience. How did they approach tailoring their writing to an audience that skewed younger?
"There are some things that are easy, and some things that are a little more challenging," noted Shawna.
"It really wasn't that difficult," echoed Julie, "I say that and I'm probably forgetting all the difficulty we had. But Starfleet in its core is just about goodness, empathy, and caring — all the things that we learned on Sesame Street — the basics."
Once they've laid out the ideals, how did they plan on conveying those basic ideals to an audience that involved both kids and adults?
"There was a lot of it where we just didn't want to talk down to kids," reflected Julie. "We wanted to write a show, the whole room did, that we would've watched at that age. We kept thinking, 'What would be a great show be for 11-year-old Julie or 7-year-old Shawna?' We really wanted to speak to that so it wasn't hard at all. We don't have children, Shawna and I. We're the fun aunts who talk to kids like they're adults; we don't know how else to talk to them. They seem to like that."
"Julie's right," stated Shawna, agreeing on the approach. "The simple part is in the ethics and the morals, which Kate [Mulgrew] is able to do those really great supplemental videos after the release of the episode. They are perfect and awesome for family conversation and not something that we really even thought about in the room."
Set A Course with Star Trek: Prodigy's Kate Mulgrew - Keep An Open Mind
"We did talk about what is the moral, or what is the story moral or learning behind this episode," continued Shawna. "So to see it then illustrated after the fact, we're like, 'Oh my gosh! Well yes, that's exactly what we said, that's amazing.' It really helps too. The challenge is in finding the artful ways to do it that the adults watching aren't going to be bored, and not feel like they're being talked down to either. It's a little bit of a balance."
While Vice Admiral was able to connect with the Protostar crew easily in "Mindwalk," Dal unfortunately had a far more difficult time keeping up the ruse that he was the admiral on the Dauntless. In a shocking moment, with The Diviner alone with Dal-as-Janeway restrained in Sick Bay, he lets the admiral go due to the kindness and generosity they've shown him.
How did The Diviner arrive at this point? Speaking on The Diviner and Janeway's little connection, Shawna Benson detailed, "It's a culmination of the 17 episodes that have come before this; you couldn't get to this moment without those episodes."
"You can't get to The Diviner wanting to help Janeway without him having the experience of seeing Starfleet through a completely different lens without his baggage, without his memories of what happened to his planet. To see them in the way that we see Starfleet," explained Shawna.
Noting the change in The Diviner, Julie commented on how he now calls Gwyndala his 'daughter,' with Shawna echoing, "That's right. He stopped calling her 'progeny' once those memories were gone. She's no longer an offshoot of him. When Asencia calls her 'progeny,' and he calls her 'daughter,' that was a big deal for us. It meant that was a turning point in their relationship; he didn't see her as an object or a means to an end anymore. She was a person to him. She is someone he cares about."
"And it's great Dal gets to hear that," added Julie, "and to know it's true."