This interview was originally published on 1/6/22.
DISCLAIMER: This interview contains spoilers for the Star Trek: Prodigy mid-season premiere, “Kobayashi,” which debuted Thursday, January 6, 2022, on Paramount Plus. Use the Janeway Maneuver at your peril.
Before the episode’s premiere, I had a chance to chat with Star Trek: Prodigy‘s producer and writer Emmy-winning, Annie-nominated television producer and showrunner Aaron J. Waltke about the mid-season premiere of Trek‘s animated series, Episode 106, “Kobayashi.”
In this interview, Waltke offers incredible insights into the expansive lore surrounding the Kobayashi Maru, including some deep cuts that the Star Trek: Prodigy writer’s room did consider.
This interview is edited for clarity.
Rebecca Kaplan: Star Trek: Prodigy is about first contact with the Federation. What was your first contact with the Federation and Star Trek?
Aaron J. Waltke: My first contact was also one of my first memories. I would’ve been three-and-a-half. I was sitting on the couch with my dad, watching the saucer separate from the secondary hull of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D and sweeping fanfare was playing, and it all felt exhilarating, and I had no idea why.
I realized, years later, that I was watching the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation live with my dad back in 1987. That’s one of my first memories with my dad, period. My dad was very excited. He had me watching with him. That was my first exposure. It never went away.
RK: How did the process of including legacy characters in this episode unfold?
AJW: It happened organically. We talked very early on about how we can progress our characters’ arcs, particularly Dal, who wants to be a Starfleet captain. But he very obviously does not possess all of the skills or abilities or leadership qualities, in particular, that lend themselves to being a captain immediately.
He has a long way to grow. We thought, what better way to act as a wake-up call for him than to be tested by the most infamous Starfleet leadership test, the Kobayashi Maru. We could introduce kids and new audiences to it while also providing a moral lesson for Dal.
We wanted to use the Kobayashi Maru as an inflection point for Dal’s character. Then, we started discussing, well, what is the Kobayashi Maru at its core? What it means to face your shortcomings and failures and how to push past them for other people.
If you look at Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, you have a cadet in the captain’s seat, but Saavik’s bridge crew consists of decorated Starfleet admirals, captains and commanders. You have Spock, Sulu and Uhura, and they’re all doing the simulation with Saavik as a training exercise … and you’re meant to think she’s commanding the Enterprise.
It seems at least part of the Kobayashi Maru, as presented in The Wrath of Khan, it’s not about the quality or aptitude of your bridge crew because, presumably, you’ll have the best bridge crew. It’s about you as a captain, your decisions and how you command that excellent bridge crew.
We thought, “Well, how do you fast forward that a hundred years into a holodeck simulation where anything and everything could be adapted and selected?” Then like, “Oh, well, if you could customize it, maybe that could be another element of updating the actual simulation.”
After that, we started getting the question of, “Well, if the year was 2383, and you had to staff the bridge crew of the Enterprise with the best bridge crew ever, who would you staff it with?” I feel like a wish-fulfillment question that almost every Star Trek fan has argued about endlessly at conventions before.
How do you build the perfect bridge crew?
Ultimately, we tried; believe me, we tried to say who would be the perfect bridge crew, and we couldn’t do it. Because there are so many unforgettable characters in Star Trek, there were so many iterations of the ideal bridge crew that I would’ve had 30 people on that bridge if I had my druthers.
There are too many possibilities, and we didn’t want that blowback of saying, “Hey, guys, we figured out who the perfect bridge crew is,” because there’s not a perfect bridge crew. It’s about whoever you have working together to become a Starfleet crew.
Ultimately, we had a lot of options limited by the number of characters we could put in the simulation for budget reasons. There were also limits to who was available or whether there were lines that we could use that applied to the neutral zone or the Kobayashi Maru simulation.
It slowly went down to this fascinating, almost like a Moneyball crew of people you probably wouldn’t expect to put together, but who is a competent crew as you see them all working together. As you see quickly, Dal’s shortcomings are the weak link.
Ultimately, we decided to go with some of our favorite characters. Some of them are no longer with us, so we thought if we nothing else, it was an opportunity to honor that legacy and have a chance for the old and the new to touch tails before we launched into this new era with this next generation, literally.
Uhura, Spock, Odo and Scotty are excellent, and Beverly Crusher.
RK: Did you ever consider any non-canon Kobayashi Maru lore, like Nog in “Best Tools Available”?
AJW: Actually, I was a little surprised when we started breaking this episode how much of the mystique of the Kobayashi Maru was built in Beta canon and fan canon.
The Kobayashi Maru itself has only appeared in two movies and was mentioned offhandedly in a couple of episodes, I think. Maybe only one episode. However, it has never appeared on screen in a Star Trek television series until this episode. Whenever we are venturing into new territory, we try our best to look at the Beta Canon and fan canon. It’s like, what can we adapt here? We did consider a lot of that.
For instance, many novels say that if you try to abandon the quest to the Kobayashi Maru, your crew will rebel, and you see that happen in the episode “Kobayashi.” Dal says, “Hey, you just told me I can’t go into this war zone so let’s warp out of here.” Then Uhura and Odo threaten to resign their commission. I think that was from one of the Star Trek novels.
I believe what you’re referring to is when Nog breaks the simulation by negotiating a trade deal with the Klingons. The Klingons don’t know how to react to that.
We had an extended draft of that whole Kobayashi Maru sequence where it was just him trying to outline tactic after tactic. It was way too long, like five minutes over. But it was so much fun to write. One of the tactics Dal tries is inspired by that bit with Nog.
Dal calls up the Klingons and is like, “What? Let’s level. What’s it going to take? A keg of Cardassian bubbly? Let’s talk about this. Let’s make a deal here.” Then, they call him a P’takh and blow him up.
If this were an hour-long episode, I would’ve written nothing but silly, fun or wild tactics to try to beat the Kobayashi Maru. I thought beaming over to the Klingon ship was pretty rough, though.
RK: So, why the rock and roll?
AJW: The rock and roll, I think, is partially meant to be a homage to one of my favorite moments in Star Trek: First Contact, which is one of my favorite Star Trek movies. In the movie, when Zefram Cochrane is launching in the Phoenix, he says, “I need to put on a little classical music,” and he plays 1968’s “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf. The music blares, and he sees Geordi La Forge and William T. Riker be like, “Ah.” It was supposed to be a little bit like that.
It just seemed like a fun thing for Dal to dig into the library and play something similar to but legally distinct from AC/DC‘s “Thunderstruck” as a classic teenager response of, “Well, I’m just going to play my music real loud as an act of defiance.”
But it did serve a purpose. It distracted the Klingons long enough that Dal and his bridge crew could eject the warp core and try to blow them up. They were broadcasting it across all frequencies.
I think he got as far as he did because he did something the system wasn’t expecting. I hope it came across that, at a certain point, even if he got a little further, the game will still not let him win. Another Bird-of-Prey will appear and blow him up. That’s the lesson that Dal learned. And, who better to hear it from than Mr. Spock himself?
RK: A Bird-of-Prey would’ve shown up after that; he couldn’t have just won?
AJW: Yes. I think that’s how the thing is programmed. Something would go wrong, and the Kobayashi Maru would run out of time. I think I read in some of the beta canon, even if you took out all the Bird-of-Preys, the time spent trying to take out the Klingons, the Kobayashi Maru would implode because they have structural integrity. It was always programmed to lose. There’s no way to win.
RK: I was hoping he could be the one that didn’t have to cheat to win.
AJW: I feel like I pushed it as far as I could. But ultimately, Dal lost.
RK: Throughout Star Trek: Prodigy, Jankom Pog is somewhat antagonistic to Dal. Is this the “First Officer” role? Why do leaders benefit from questions? Do you consider things like teaching kids about ways to prevent “groupthink”?
AJW: Star Trek has always showcased the importance of second opinions. So many debriefs in the observation lounge involve the captain getting counsel from his “Number One.”
Part of the lesson Dal takes from his time in the Kobayashi Maru is that often, leadership involves putting your ego aside and considering what’s best for your crew by listening to them. It’s essential in science to consider the alternative and test varying hypotheses, even if it doesn’t adhere to your pet theory. In this case, Jankom and Spock fulfill that role for Dal.
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