Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch

Star Trek: Voyager Rewatch: “Prototype”

“Prototype”
Written by Nicholas Corea
Directed by Jonathan Frakes
Season 2, Episode 13
Production episode 129
Original air date: January 15, 1996
Stardate: unknown

Captain’s log. We open from the POV of a robot that is floating in space. He’s beamed onto Voyager and brought to engineering where Torres and Kim spend hours and hours trying to figure out how to power him up. (It’s not clear that the male pronoun is appropriate, but “it” doesn’t feel right, and since a male actor provided the voice, I’m going with that.)

After consulting with the EMH, Torres comes up with a way to power him up using the warp plasma, and he comes online. His name is Automated Unit 3947, and he asks if she is a Builder. She says she’s an engineer.

According to 3947, he’s functioning at 68% of capacity, and he’s grateful to Torres for helping him. He also wants to know if she can create a power module like his. She says she probably could, but why bother, as he already has one?

Apparently, the Automated Units have tried to create new power modules so they can reproduce, but have never been able to succeed. They have been able to do maintenance on individual parts, and also replace them when they’ve been damaged, but the power module has eluded them for some reason. The Builders made the AUs, but they’re gone now.

Torres pleads the case to Janeway. The Builders were all wiped out in a war, as were many of the AUs. There are only a few thousand left, and they’re starting to wear out after so long. (3947 has been active for a century and a half.) But Janeway refuses to let Torres give them the means to reproduce when they weren’t created with such. It would violate the Prime Directive, and besides, they don’t really know enough about the Builders or the AUs or much of anything. Torres is disappointed, as is 3947 after a fashion, as he thought Torres was a Builder. (“So did I,” she replies sadly.)

Voyager does find 3947’s ship, and they head there. Janeway speaks to Pralor Automated Unit 6263, who is unemotionally grateful for the return of 3947 to them. Torres says her goodbyes in the transporter room, but then 3947 renders her and the transporter chief unconscious and takes over control of the transporter, beaming her over with him, and stopping Chakotay and Kim from overriding the transporter controls.

Janeway demands Torres be returned, which the Pralor AUs refuse. A firefight ensues, in which Voyager is very badly damaged. Torres offers to build the prototype for them if they leave Voyager be. 6263 agrees, as does Janeway.

Torres gets to work on trying to construct a prototype, while Janeway orders Voyager repaired, though Kim says it’ll take at least 72 hours to get the warp drive up and running. That’s critical, as Tuvok is working on away to retrieve Torres, and if he’s successful, they’ll need to bugger off in a hurry, so they can’t even think about implementing a plan until warp drive is fixed.

Meanwhile, Torres learns that each AU’s power module has a unique energy signature. Every other part on every other robot is interchangeable, but the power modules aren’t. 3947 at first thinks this means all is hopeless, but Torres doesn’t give up quite that easily.

Eventually, she dopes out a way to make the power modules interchangeable, and is able to create a prototype. Prototype Unit 0001 announces that he’s powered up and awaiting instructions. By this time, Voyager is repaired, which means it took a couple days for this to happen. (How Torres was able to rest, eat, or use the bathroom in that time when none of these are amenities the Pralor AUs would be capable of providing is left as an exercise for the viewer.)

Janeway’s plan involves distracting the Pralor ship while Paris sneaks in with a shuttlecraft. That distraction comes from another ship that attacks the Pralor. This is a vessel from the Cravic, another sect that was at war with the Pralor. Torres finally gets the whole story from 3947 as the two ships pound the crap out of each other: the Cravic and Pralor went to war, and created the Automated Units to help fight that war. But when the organic beings sued for peace, the robots killed them, because their function was to wage war. The war has continued for centuries.

Realizing that the ability to make more AUs would only prolong this war, Torres destroys Prototype Unit 0001.

The two ships fighting each other provides an opening for Paris to fly in a shuttle and beam Torres out. Once the shuttle comes home, Voyager warps away as fast as their nacelles will carry them.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity? Torres is able to power up an inert robot with incompatible power and create a power module that could theoretically make more robots. Because she’s just that awesome.

There’s coffee in that nebula! Janeway is okay with rescuing and restoring 3947 as an individual—something Torres reminds 3947 of when he declares Janeway to be his enemy—but isn’t willing to change their entire society on the word of one robot. This proves wise. 

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Mr. Vulcan. Tuvok cautions against bringing 3947 on board, as he’s a security risk. He is 100% right about this, and only his Vulcan reserve probably kept him from doing an I-told-you-so dance when it was all over. 

Half and half. Torres finds herself in the position of being able to create life—and then having to destroy it for the greater good. Up to that point, though, she gets to excel at science, which is cool.

Please state the nature of the medical emergency. The EMH helps Torres brainstorm ways to revive 3947, taking a medical approach—using plasma for a transfusion when whole blood isn’t available—as a guide for how activate 3947. 

Everybody comes to Neelix’s. Torres goes to the mess hall in the predawn hours to take a break and get coffee-equivalent from Neelix. Neelix eventually cuts her off and tells her to go to bed.

Forever an ensign. Kim helps Torres out with the activation of 3947 and after she’s kidnapped, he gets to supervise the repairs to the ship.

If I only had a brain… 3947 is surprised to learn that there is a sentient artificial life form in the Federation who has all the same rights as organic beings. Torres does allow, however, that other mechanical beings are not sentient, and that Data is unique. (She probably doesn’t know about Lore…)

Do it.

“I’m sorry, B’Elanna, but two pots of Landras blend is the absolute limit.”

“You’re cutting me off? Oh, I guess you’re right. It was starting to taste almost palatable.”

–Neelix trying to get Torres to go to bed instead of mainlining caffeine, and Torres snarking off on Neelix’s coffee substitute.

Welcome aboard. Rick Worthy and Hugh Hodgin play the various AUs, with Worthy providing voice and body for 3947 and the Cravic AU captain, while Hodgin does 6263 and the prototype. This was the first Trek role for Worthy—probably best known as one of the humanform Cylons on the 21st-century reboot of Battlestar Galactica—who will return to play Lessing in the “Equinox” two-parter, and who also will play Kornan in DS9’s “Soldiers of the Empire” and an Elloran in Insurrection, and have the recurring role of the Xindi named Jannar in Enterprise‘s third season.

Trivial matters: This is the last episode of a Trek TV show that Jonathan Frakes would direct for 22 years, a gap that ended when he was tapped to direct Discovery’s “Despite Yourself” (and he is now one of the regular directors for both Discovery and Picard). In the interim, he directed two Trek movies, First Contact and Insurrection, and also became one of the most talented and in-demand TV directors in the business, having helmed episodes of such shows as Leverage, Burn Notice, The Twilight Zone, V, Castle, Falling Skies, NCIS: Los Angeles, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Roswell, and The Librarians (on the latter two, he also served as one of the show’s producers), among many others.

Chakotay mentions a Maquis trick Torres pulled once to use a holoemitter to create the illusion of another ship. It isn’t used here, but Voyager will employ the tactic in “Basics, Part I” at season’s end.

Reportedly, Michael Piller championed this episode over the objections of fellow executive producers Jeri Taylor and Rick Berman, who expressed concern that they couldn’t pull off robots convincingly. Piller’s response was that they’re the top science fiction television franchise in the world, why the hell can’t they pull off robots?

Star Trek: Voyager

Screenshot: CBS

Set a course for home. “Prototype Unit 0001 is ready to accept programming.” What an excellent little sci-fi episode. This is a storyline that wouldn’t have been out of place on the original series—indeed, it shares many themes with “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” particularly in terms of the history of the artificial life forms our heroes stumble across—and it also proves to be a good showcase for why the Prime Directive (when used properly) is a good idea.

It’s funny, because instinctively you want to side with Torres when she and Janeway have the discussion about whether or not they should help 3947 build a power module. For all the hand-wringing about the Prime Directive, one of the most important aspects of it that this episode shines a light on is that it keeps the Federation from jumping in to interfere before they have all the facts. 3947 withholds important information from Torres throughout, including the rather critical fact that the AUs wiped out the Builders because they had the temerity to try to make peace.

I also love watching Torres at work here. One of my frustrations in this rewatch—which has only started to coalesce recently, which is why this is the first time I’m writing about it—is that Torres has a much higher failure rate than her counterparts on other shows. Scotty, La Forge, and O’Brien before her, and Tucker and Stamets after her, don’t screw up nearly as often as Torres does. Torres’ technobabble solutions in “Emanations,” “Prime Factors,” “Elogium,” “Twisted,” “Tattoo,” and “Resistance” all failed. It’s starting to get really tiresome, especially given that she’s the only one of those six chief engineers who has a uterus…

So to see Torres win at science throughout the episode is a welcome change. The process by which she tries to figure out how to revive 3947 is tremendous fun, with Kim, Neelix, and the EMH all doing a nice job playing her sounding board at various points. Her joy in discovery, in trying to solve the problem, is palpable, and a lot of the episode’s appeal is watching her work—and then her nicely, uncharacteristically subtle anguish when she realizes she has to destroy her creation.

The episode loses a couple of points for having Torres somehow work for 72 hours on a ship populated by robots without eating, sleeping, or going to the bathroom. It’s exacerbated by the early part of the episode focusing so much on how important food and rest is for Torres to get in order to solve the problem. Still, this is a solid adventure story, an excellent vehicle for Roxann Dawson’s Torres, and a good use of Rick Worthy’s superb voice as 3947.

Warp factor rating: 7

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