Star Trek: Voyager (Season 2, Episode 13)
Though it’s been on television for many decades, Star Trek certainly didn’t christen the TV age of science fiction and fantasy. Classics like Doctor Who, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits preceded it and created a well-known story template, sometimes involving climactic twists. Star Trek was its own beast and had a separate, unique appeal from these shows. But it occasionally made use of that same framework for some interesting and compelling stories. “Prototype” seems like the kind of story that would have fit in perfectly on The Outer Limits – it has a traditional but interesting science fiction premise and escalating complications that lead to a startling reveal and climax. It’s classic sci-fi storytelling that makes for an intriguing episode of Voyager.
Robots and androids were featured prominently throughout The Original Series and The Next Generation. Perhaps for that reason they were not touched upon much by Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Which is fine, although the relative dearth of mechanical beings in Trek’s 24th century always struck me as a bit odd (cyborgs notwithstanding). Only a small handful of android individuals were shown on TNG, all descended from the work of Data’s creator Dr. Soong. Apparently no one else could get the hang of creating mechanical beings by overcoming the enormous technical challenges involved. Which seems a little weird. Soong was a smart guy – genius even – but are there not other geniuses in the galaxy capable of unlocking those same secrets? (interestingly, Star Trek: Picard would delve into this idea, for better or for worse)
The lack of robots and androids makes more sense in the thematic context of Star Trek. It’s a very humanistic franchise, and although androids do fit in with the general futuristic setting, Trek is primarily about people (human and non-human) and the emotional and philosophical concerns they tend to have. Artificial lifeforms do cross over into that, and Trek likes its stories about the emergent mental natures of these beings. “Prototype” is cool because we get not only a robotic character, but two entire races of robots! Asimov would be proud.
Voyager beams aboard a robot found floating in space. It’s a cool opening sequence, shot from the perspective of the robot. He only sees black and white, which furthers the Outer Limits feel and seems like a subtle and thematically appropriate stylistic choice.
His power source is fading and he will soon shut down unless it can be fixed. Torres is insistent on helping him over Tuvok’s security concerns – it may not even be possible to reactivate him again, so she wants to do what she can to keep him “alive.” B’Elanna is center stage in this episode, and it’s her empathy for this mechanical person that propels everything that happens. It’s nice and provides some depth to her character beyond “hot-headed Klingon.” She’s a natural engineer and wants to apply that skill to help the robot. There’s also the appeal of the technical challenge involved, which is cool to see. Our Starfleet heroes are propelled by the curiosity and challenges their careers presents. That’s a big part of Trek’s utopian ideal – people doing things to fulfill themselves, not because they need to pay rent. Your passion can (ideally) be your job, and you can follow it to everyone’s benefit. Torres is concerned for helping this individual, but also can’t help but geek out at the marvelous technology he represents.
A significant amount of time is devoted to Torres trying to get the disabled robot up and running. In terms of plot structure, this does feel a bit like wheel-spinning – similar to how DS9’s “Sanctuary” sunk a lot of time into the aliens’ nearly indecipherable (until it was deciphered) language. But it’s fun to watch and does help establish Torres’ single-minded determination for helping this person.
The robot’s energy source is completely unlike anything Voyager’s equipment runs on and stymies Torres’ and Kim’s attempts at resupplying it. Out of ideas, she even consults the Doctor as a sounding board. He actually inspires her to take a different approach, and soon enough she’s put together a converter that can take Voyager’s warp plasma and turn into usable energy for the robot. The difficulty in getting the robot up and running does serve a story purpose and leads into the ultimate twist – there’s a reason why it’s so hard to repair him.
She’s able to supply power to the robot and he wakes up and politely introduces himself as Automated Unit 3947. Played by Star Trek veteran Rick Worthy, 3947’s voice has an impossibly chipper ring to it, although he has no emotions. The costuming was clearly budget-friendly, but there’s something visually interesting and (also slightly unsettling) about his frozen chrome face. He’s basically a large silver-headed mannequin that wouldn’t look out of place on Doctor Who.
He’s from a race called the Pralor, and was in a mining ship that exploded. His memories before that are a little hazy, possibly because his power isn’t at full efficiency yet. He’s interested in the fact that Torres was able to repair him, and asks if she is a “Builder.” He wants her to create a new power source – not for him, but for their race. It turns out the Builders who created them are no more, having been killed off in a war. They built thousands of Automated Units like 3947, but over time they have begun to wear out and the race of robots is steadily dying. They can make simple repairs to themselves, but actually being able to reproduce (by creating new power cells) eludes them.
Torres pleads with Captain Janeway to help them create new power cells, but Janeway is hesitant, of course citing the Prime Directive. It’s an interesting debate, as Janeway states that giving these robots the ability to reproduce and grow their numbers is not something that is native to them. So it’s not a usual plea for help they could answer. Torres sees it as correcting a design flaw, but Janeway is wary of their lack of knowledge about these folks and the repercussions of changing their nature in such a drastic way. Her reasoning is spot-on, although we can sympathize with both viewpoints.
Disappointed, Torres informs 3947 she can’t help him. Soon enough a Pralor ship approaches Voyager, filled with many more robots just like 3947. They politely thank Janeway for her assistance and prepare to have 3947 returned to them.
In the transporter room, Torres says goodbye to 3947, and even gives him some extra power in a container like it’s a sack lunch. It’s really cute. Not so cute: 3947 electrocutes her, takes out the transporter chief, and beams her and him over to his ship, which promptly raises its shields (I love the lightning bolts that just fly out of his palm). Torres wakes up in a laboratory on the Pralor ship and is told by 3947 that she is to construct a prototype Automated Unit that can be mass produced. Voyager tries to open a hole in the Pralor ship with its phasers, but the robots respond with a punishing attack that heavily damages Voyager. Torres looks on in horror and agrees to build their damn prototype if they stop the attack. Speaking to Janeway on the viewscreen, she tells the captain it’s the only way for them to survive. 3947’s face slides into view ominously (and hilariously).
Torres gets to work and tries to understand why the Automated Units’ previous attempts at duplicating a power cell failed. Apparently they were able to recreate one exactly, but it can’t sustain a charge for some unknown reason. 3947’s supervisor strolls in (who is physically identical to him) to check on their progress, and casually informs Torres that she will die if she fails. Cool, thanks.
Investigating more, Torres realizes that unlike their other body parts, each power cell has a unique signature that can only work in one Unit. She’ll have to create a new type of interchangeable cell that can work in any Unit and be mass produced. Despite her kidnapping and imprisonment, she has a rapport with 3947 and their interactions are cute. As a robot, he’s intelligent but very concrete in his thinking, so Torres’ quips and humor bounces off his silver skull. But he is curious as to whether Torres’ people have mechanical servants like the Pralor did. She acknowledges that they do, but not as sophisticated or intelligent as 3947. With the exception of Data, who she name-drops. 3947 says he wishes he could meet this Data fellow, who is apparently equal to a Builder. Aww!
The crew of Voyager has their work cut out for them in making repairs and plan a rescue mission to get Torres back. They need a distraction, and get one when another alien ship identical to the Pralor vessel and also filled with robots approaches. The plot thickens when it promptly begins attacking the Pralor ship and Janeway realizes they’re witnessing a robot war. The Cravic are a palette-swapped gold version of the Pralor and politely warn Janeway to steer clear of the battle. Paris approaches the Pralor ship in a shuttlecraft, hoping to sneak through the shields during the attack.
Torres has completed building the new, interchangeable power cell and installs it in a new Automated Unit. He gains consciousness and identifies himself as Prototype Unit 0001, awaiting instruction. Success, question mark?
As their ship is attacked, 3947 explains to Torres that the Pralor’s mortal enemy the Cravic also constructed Automated Units as their servants and soldiers. Torres wonders if the Cravic could be contacted to call off the attack since the Pralor are no more. Except… the Cravic don’t exist anymore, either. Uh oh.
As 0001 repeats his request for instructions, 3947 matter-of-factly explains that both sides of the Automated Units were programmed to achieve victory over one another at all costs. Torres doesn’t understand why the Pralor and Cravic never called a truce, to which 3947 says they did… at which point the Automated Units turned on their creators and destroyed them. In trying to stop the Automated Units, the Builders then became the enemies, so that was that. But now that they can build new Units, 3947 cheerily announces that the Pralor can finally destroy the Cravic. Horrified, Torres realizes that the robots were built so that they couldn’t reproduce and overwhelm their creators, and now she’s removed this limitation.
She wanders over to 0001 as it still asks for instructions and she plunges a tool into its energy cell, destroying it. 3947 promptly zaps her and tells her that she will make another. She refuses and apologizes before she is beamed out by Paris. The battling Pralor and Cravic ships are too occupied with one another to stop them, and Voyager makes its escape.
As far as sci-fi twists go, it’s not quite a mind-blowing development and you could probably have guessed it going in. But it is a chilling notion, made all the more so by 3947’s characteristically chipper tone and complete lack of emotional awareness of the situation. Although the Automated Units are human-shaped, intelligent, and even polite, they lack any trace of humanity and have no moral compass whatsoever.
The phrase “uncanny valley” is used to refer to automatons that approach a certain physical human-like quality but end up being repulsive in how far they still miss the mark. The Automated Units represent a moral and philosophical uncanny valley. Although they approach human-like intelligence and awareness, the gap between them and a truly conscious being is still very great and it embodies a horrifying lack of respect for life and an inability to parse anything above their programming. A synthetic being can only know what we teach it, and if its Builders instruct it to be a gun they can’t be that shocked when it goes off in their own faces. It circles back to Trek’s theme of humanism and “Prototype” illustrates why our humanity is so important.
Sadistic and evil beings can cause great damage, but a being with power that lacks a conscience can also wreak havoc, even to its creator – it’s a theme that goes back to Frankenstein, or even the Jewish golem legend. Asimov’s robotic-centered stories revolved around the famous three laws that guided mechanical beings’ behavior. Clearly, neither the Pralor or Cravic thought to include Asimov’s first law into these robots’ programming. If they had, the robots would not have been as effective soldiers. Any weapon can be used just as effectively against the wielder as its intended target, and “Prototype” points out the basic folly of an arms race.
Another recurring trope of Trek is the Civilization Destroyed by War. In some cases, the weapons of these wars are still active and cause problems for the heroes, as in TNG’s “The Arsenal of Freedom” or “Booby Trap.” The Pralor and Cravic Automated Units are leftover weapons from a war that ended long ago, still causing mayhem for anyone who draws near. Trek loves to point out the futility and even absurdity of war – in TOS‘ “A Taste of Armageddon,” two races fight a completely simulated war but with real casualties. “Prototype” is a variation on this theme, depicting a simulated war without even loss of life anymore – everyone is dead but the cannons continue to obliterate one another. There is no objective for either side here except the destruction of one another. They’re both locked in a doomed struggle that has no rhyme or reason. Does any war, really?
In the mess hall, Torres recounts her experience to Janeway. It’s a remarkable scene because it has such a strong feminine energy to it. Not just because it features only women (Kes is even briefly in it bringing them coffee, guess she’s moonlighting as a waitress), but because it’s basically Janeway assisting Torres in emotionally processing what she went through here. Janeway was against Torres helping the robots, but is sympathetic to what she did to protect Voyager, so there’s no hard feelings. Torres created a new life with her own hands, and was forced to destroy it. Janeway seems very empathetic to the emotional toll that must have took, and they speak in hushed voices just above a whisper. Star Trek can be so masculine and this scene sticks out in a welcome way by embodying a softer and more emotionally vulnerable tone.
Perhaps it was writer and Voyager co-creator Jeri Taylor’s influence that’s being seen here? The typical concluding scene in a lot of episodes is of the characters stoically (and silently) digesting their experiences in a “stiff-upper-lip” sort of way. But this concluding scene is so interesting because of how the two characters are acknowledging the emotional depth (and cost) of what Torres went through. Janeway is a tough and no-nonsense captain, but she could also be a warm and nurturing person, even maternal. She places a tender, supportive hand on B’Leanna’s knee, even. It’s a credit to Mulgrew’s performance that she can embody that duality of being a tough alpha female and also someone you can pour your heart out to. Scenes like this were more common in the earlier seasons of Voyager but became much more seldom as time went on – even after the character of Seven of Nine was added, which is unfortunate (the real life icy relationship between the two actors no doubt had some part in this).
“Prototype” is a good old-fashioned science fiction tale that still feels right at home in Star Trek. It’s a compelling parable about that classic theme of war’s pointlessly destructive nature. All war is ultimately self-defeating, and in this case it has defeated both sides and continues to persist on its own, personified in the mindlessly battling robots. Because of their design limitations, the Automated Units of the Pralor and Cravic don’t have a choice in their conflict and aggression towards one another. But it only highlights that the rest of us human beings always do.
- I like the way the details of the Pralor-Cravic history unfold, but realistically I don’t think it should have taken quite so long for the truth to come out. Starfleet types have always shown themselves to be very curious, even nosy, so a basic line of questioning should have sussed out the disturbing particulars. 3947 could have been holding back on revealing the full truth, but he doesn’t really seem to posses that level of guile (but maybe he does – his lack of memory isn’t followed up on – was he faking?). He reveals the twist in such a plain way and doesn’t seem to be aware of the horror of it, so it seems like the kind of thing he would just blurt out if probed with any depth.
- In terms of the Laws of Robotics, these guys seem to only have the third one – which compels them to protect themselves at all costs. One could imagine how much of a threat they could be if able to grow their numbers without limit, much like another mechanical Trek foe.
- Rick Worthy, who plays 3947 has had quite a few appearances on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Insurrection, and Enterprise. He really disappears into each role and would go on to play Noah Lessing, one of the surviving members of the Equinox crew. Again, it’s a shame they were completely dropped after that.
- I always like seeing the first person perspective of being transported, which we hadn’t gotten since TNG’s “Realm of Fear.”
- Apparently UPN preceded this episode with an on-screen note that the initially bad picture quality is an intentional, stylistic choice. Do not adjust your television sets!
- Janeway’s adherence to the Prime Directive is interesting here, as compared with later episodes. She’s very concerned about making huge, influential changes that will affect the peoples of the region. And yet, she shows no such concern when she sides with the Borg in their conflict against Species 8472. “Hope and Fear” later examines the effect this action has when Voyager runs afoul of an angry, vengeful alien whose people were counting on 8472 wiping out the Borg, only to be conquered by the Borg themselves.
- I liked Torres’ and Kim’s initial dynamic, established in the pilot and carried through for the first couple seasons. But like a lot of interesting character-related stuff on Voyager, it was kinda forgotten about, especially once Seven was around.