Chad is an Emmy Award winning writer, producer and showrunner who alongside Star Trek Prodigy has worked on shows such as Trollhunters, Wizards and Teen Titans Go!
Ghosts in the Machine has aired this week and Chad kindly took some time to talk about his inspirations for the episode and love for Trek.
Lets start with an ice breaker – Who is your favourite Captain?
Your first question is your toughest one! I’m torn; I grew up on Picard’s charming diplomacy, but in recent years have revered Sisko’s righteous fury, though ultimately I think I relate the most to Janeway’s perseverance. Something about the chaos of an ambitious animation pipeline that reminds me of being lost in the Delta Quadrant.
Ghost in the Machine is a fresh take on a classic Trek genre, the ‘Holodeck goes awry’ episode. How much inspiration did you take from past holodeck episodes, did you try to approach writing this one in a different way?
The past holodeck episodes are what first truly pulled me into Star Trek! The concept is a
fantastical technological dream; like the X-Men’s Danger Room on steroids– though arguably less violent.
Holodeck episodes may seem like side adventures to some but I’d argue they’re a fundamental pillar of the franchise. In a utopia where humanity has moved past wars and money and other turmoils, how is everyone not constantly in their own holodeck worlds?
As video games have become more and more a cultural touchpoint for us, the Trek holodeck episodes become even more timely. Huge inspirations were Data’s multiple trips through Sherlock mysteries (“Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship In A Bottle”) which are great standalone sci-fi stories. And ‘Hollow Pursuits’ with Lt. Barclay using the holodeck to live out the ultimate fantasy of punching out your boss.
We wanted to do both a homage to those great stories while putting our own voice on it. We wanted to tell a holodeck story that was updated to this generation’s familiarity with video games and what we get out of them. For some it’s venting frustrations, for some it’s therapy, for others its distraction from troubles.
Was there a particular scene, character moment or idea that sparked Ghost in theMachine into life?
The holodeck has malfunctioned many times in the past (in fact it seems broken more often than working) but I always wondered what would happen if the simulations bled into the other, like game files getting corrupted and dragged into the wrong folders on your PC.
So that was our writers room origin point for the story; turning the holodeck into a sort of ‘cosmic gumbo’ with everyone’s embarrassing personal programs bleeding into the others and revealing things they wouldn’t normally do to each other.
And we went through a lot of versions of this internally with different combinations of genre
mashups. For example there was one earlier draft of the story where each of the crew were
stuck in different simultaneous simulations on the holodeck, mere feet from each other in reality but worlds away in the simulations. Though I think in the end that was feeling a bit too similar to our fantastic ‘Time Amok’ episode written by Nikhil S. Jayaram.
References And Ideas That Didn’t Make The Final Cut
Ghost In The Machine had subtle (and unsubtle) references to a number of other franchises and cultural figures, we spotted Street Fighter, Pirates of the Caribbean and a subtle nod to Tolkien in there. How difficult was it to get approval to add these? Did you have to get a legal sign off?
I’m impressed with how many folks have caught the Tolkien reference with ‘Cellar Door’! In
general we tried to be inspired by video games as a medium rather than just doing direct
references. Jankom Pog is just the latest in a long ling of fighters to toss a super fire ball (or a ‘Jankom Bomb’ if he named it).
I always believe any reference shouldn’t be in there just for the sake of reference; it should have meaning and reason to the character or story beat. That being said, I couldn’t help but sneak in a bunch of game console abbreviations in Dal’s command code.
In high school I worked at a retail store called Game Crazy and saw those letters on the inventory screen constantly.
And shout out to our fantastic support and legal teams making sure we weren’t stepping on
anything too copyright. I don’t want Nintendo coming after me. They’re scary.
Many are saying that Star Trek: Prodigy is the spiritual successor to Voyager, while Ghost in the Machine was focused on the crew’s personal programmes. Was there ever a version of the script that nodded to some of the old Voyager favourites such as Fair Haven or Captain Proton?
We definitely talked about Captain Proton a lot in the room! At one point we wondered if the corrupted Vau’Nakat version of Hologram Janeway (seen when The Diviner took over the Protostar in episodes 109 and 110) should just look like Arachnia, Queen of the Spider People from ‘Bride of Chaotica’. But as fun as that would be, it would’ve broken logic a bit.
Were there locations for the crew that you wanted to include, but didn’t get the chance, such as for Gwyn
Oh totally. Gwyn was a bit tricky as we wanted her to be– to use an old trope name– the
‘straight man’ in this, someone who didn’t see the need for playing around in the holodeck until she saw its merits in this adventure. Gwyn’s been using it privately, but for therapy about her dad, Solum, and to ruminate on all the weight that comes with that.
We had longer sequences we wanted to do with Jankom’s street fight, with everyone getting more moves in. And I would’ve loved to have time to play inside Rok-Tahk’s Delta Heart: Magical Veterinarian sim. “Gotta cure them all!”
Twists, Turns And Trek Royalty
This episode ended on a tragic twist, as it was revealed our holo-Janeway had also been corrupted by the living construct. Was this a part of the story pitch from day 1, or something added later to tie the original pitch into the series arc?
Great question. The writers broke the season at large before diving into individual episodes so we knew ‘Corrupted Janeway’ was where we were going. But how to get that big reveal out in the best, most natural way? Well diving into the corrupted code of the holodeck of course.
That’s something our team has always tried to do; make each episode part of the bigger
narrative. I really appreciate our whole writers room for that as it required all of us to work with each other and make sure the narratives worked. If you go back and rewatch the season you should notice that everything Holo-Janeway does fits within the subconscious programming of the Living Construct. But she didn’t know!
And that’s a testament to our fantastic room of writers, who all worked together on every
episode to make sure arcs all worked together. Shout out to our leaders Kevin and Dan
Hageman, my fellow co-producers Julie Benson, Shawna Benson and Aaron Waltke, and the
rest of our writers room Lisa Schultz Boyd, Diandra Pendleton Thompson, Nikhil S. Jayaram and Erin McNamara.
As an addendum to the above, this episode also featured a previous ally (Holo-Janeway) taking the inadvertent role of villain, while the series villain (The Diviner) played a friendly barkeep, was this narrative symmetry intentional?
The duality wasn’t intentional necessarily but we love telling stories about redeemable
characters and showing different sides. No one is ever fully black and white evil. And while this Diviner was just a simulation I think there’s more to the real one than just a nefarious doomsday villain. You should get more of that in the next episode, “Mindwalk” written by Shawna Benson and Julie Benson.
How does it feel to hear trek royalty like Kate Mulgrew reading lines that you wrote?
I still can’t get over it. Kate Mulgrew is a legendary actor and it’s been an honor to be a small part of bringing the admiral back into deep space. Our entire cast is stacked with talent but with Kate especially we knew we were in good hands. Kate is playing multiple versions of herself with distinct characters and nuance. In fact can we get a third Janeway in there? Maybe her Bloomington, Indiana Hoosier self falls out of a wormhole?
Cliffhangers, Jankom And Murf
Star Trek Prodigy is really keeping us fans on a thread with all of these cliffhangers, do you have a favorite Trek cliffhanger?
That’s a tough one. We really try on Prodigy to make each episode end with you wanting to see what happens immediately after! But maybe TNG’s ‘Best of Both Worlds Part 1’ ending with the first view of Locutus? That’s a hell of a problem to get out of.
Did you really put Jankom Pog doing a Hadouken in the episode?
I need to clarify that it was a legally distinct fireball super. A ‘Jankom Bomb’. But also I originally wanted him to do a version of Blanka’s Electric Thunder super. Oh and Gwyn’s heirloom weapon was going to transform into a blade whip ala Ivy from Soul Calibur. Again, legally distinct.
Will we be seeing more of Mr. Murfy No-Shoes in the future? Could this be the foundation for a musical episode?
Clearly Murf has been going into that sim multiple times; he’s a beloved regular there! The real question is can Mr. Murphy No-Shoes exist outside the holodeck? That Mellanoid slime worm is full of surprises.
We’d like to express our thanks to Chad for taking the time to answer all of our questions in such detail and look forward to his future contributions to Star Trek.
Star Trek Prodigy continues next Thursday with Mindwalk
Play us out Murfy No-Shoes!