Voyager rewatch 2.13 – “Prototype”

The Cylons Automated Units were created by man. The rebelled. They evolved. There are many copies. And they have a plan.

The creation of artificial life in Star Trek is usually the domain of men. Think of Noonian Soong and Lewis Zimmerman, creating Data and the EMH in their own images. To build a life form in this universe is as much about ego as anything else.

I can only think of two women who have created artificial intelligences in Star Trek. One is Dr Farallon, a one-off character from late TNG, who was dismayed to learn that the tools she had invented were sophisticated enough to be considered both sentient and intelligent.

The other is B’Elanna Torres in “Prototype”.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to women and artificial life. Why, some of my friends have edited and/or contributed to a whole anthology on the subject! And, as the title suggests, issues of motherhood and parenthood are big parts of those discussions — just as “can/should this artificial species reproduce?” is a recurring theme throughout science fiction.

“Prototype” addresses both tropes as B’Elanna rescues and repairs a robot lifeform designated Automated Unit 3947. She devises a way of replacing its faulty power core, which greatly intrigues AU3947, as its creators, the now-extinct Builders, deliberately withheld the ability to do so from the Automated Units, who are now slowly dying.

Can B’Elanna repair and upgrade the entire race? She’s eager to try, but Janeway cites the Prime Directive. So AU3947, as it is about to return to its people, abducts her and forces her to create a new prototype with a superior power core.

Curse their sudden yet inevitable betrayal! And THEN it turns out there is a different faction of Automated Units, and both were created to fight for their respective Builders in a war … only to destroy said Builders when they attempted to negotiate a truce. Because children are meant to outgrow their parents, and when those children are actually artificial lifeforms, they tend to do so with extreme prejudice.

B’Elanna is forced to kill her creation, the pure smol cinnamon roll robot known as Prototype Unit 0001, and she ends the episode sharing a melancholy cup of tea with Janeway.

The Robot Handmaid’s Tale

I usually love The M0vie Blog’s Star Trek reviews, but I have to take issue with their post on “Protoype”, in which Darren writes:

It is a story about motherhood, but one which suggests that unconventional motherhood must be monstrous and grotesque.

I don’t want to suggest that “Prototype” is this amazingly progressive and feminist story, but I think that take overlooks the pretty key fact that B’Elanna’s participation in the construction of the prototype — metaphoric childbirth and all — is entirely without her consent. She only agrees to it under duress. And that is monstrous and grotesque — and complicated: she recognises that 0001 is innocent, even as she has to destroy it.

In fairness, I’m not certain the actual writers of “Prototype” noticed the consent problem either. They set out to explicitly write a story about B’Elanna having a metaphorically maternal relationship with a robot:

“I tried to explore B’Elanna’s relationship with this thing – this metaphor for motherhood – with B’Elanna kind of giving birth and then having to kill her own baby.”


And you wanna hear something really embarrassing? They failed so badly that, until I actually looked at the Memory Alpha entry, I was going to praise the script for making B’Elanna an engineer more than a surrogate robot mother.

Because I, foolishly, thought this was a story about B’Elanna being an engineer. (Maybe I’m the one who should be embarrassed.) After all, Scotty, Geordi and O’Brien get to obsess over machines without entering into parental relationships with them.

And B’Elanna herself seems to avoid the maternal metaphor: when she’s telling 3947 that he’ll need to be able to replicate her work, she describes it as obstetrics. She sees herself as something more like a midwife to the robots than their mother. Janeway comes closer to making the metaphor explicit in the final scene, but B’Elanna’s response is ambiguous.

Clearly, I should have left the author dead in that ditch. I like my take on “Prototype”, dammit.

(And I’m switching to male pronouns for AU3947, because what is more masculine than meeting a woman and deciding she’s responsible for the care, maintenance and perpetuation of your entire species?)

None of this is to say “Prototype” is a good episode

I like B’Elanna, and I enjoy getting to see her be a giant engineering nerd, but there’s no escaping that the whole “robots destroyed their creators” business is … familiar. There’s more than a whiff of pulp about it, from the Automated Units’ costumes (straight out of early 1980s Doctor Who) to 3947 abducting B’Elanna by carrying her out bridal style. She literally says, “My God, what have I done?” when she learns the truth about the AUs.

(It doesn’t help that 3947 is played by Rick Worthy, who went on to play the Cylon Four in Battlestar Galactica. Not that this is in any way Voyager‘s fault. Or BSG’s. He just has a distinctive voice.)

(Four is the Cylon most obsessed with reproduction, by the way.)


(Usually, when I joke about BSG reproducing Voyager plots but with more overt misogyny, I’m talking about “Equinox” and Razor.)

Another problem: much as I adore scenes where women get to have abstract conversations about the Prime Directive, that scene between Janeway and B’Elanna is still … abstract. B’Elanna could have persuaded Janeway, but the script didn’t require it. It feels perfunctory.


I don’t usually notice how a movie or episode of television is directed — but the kinetic style of Discovery proved controversial on Reddit, and now, God help me, I’ve started noticing things.

For example, Jonathan Frakes brings a lot of visual flare to his work. It doesn’t stand out so much on Discovery, where unusual shots and moving cameras are standard, but even within the constraints of ’90s Trek, he managed to do things a bit differently.

Take “Prototype”‘s teaser, which takes place entirely from 3947’s perspective. That in itself is cool, but the teaser ends with 3947 catching a glimpse of what looks like engineering security footage — and that’s how we find out what he looks like. It’s a small thing, but nifty. This was the last Voyager episode he directed, and he did some nice work.

Some of my best friends are artificial lifeforms!

The last few episodes have been pretty light on the Doctor, but he gets a nice scene here, acting as a sounding board for B’Elanna as she obsesses over fixing her robot buddy.

Later, though, there’s a scene where 3947 is amazed and impressed to learn that there is one (only one!) artificial lifeform in the Federation, and he serves in Starfleet, and has a name, and has the same rights as a biological person — and all I could picture was the camera cutting back to the Doctor and zooming in closer and closer as it becomes clearer that he’s not even slightly on B’Elanna’s mind.

It makes a certain amount of sense that B’Elanna takes the Doctor for granted, and hasn’t quite made the connection that he’s as much a lifeform as Data. But at the same time, well. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guy.


Other observations

  • There’s an odd moment where Tom and Chakotay get snarky with each other, and Chakotay makes a crack about not wanting to lose any more shuttles. It’s set-up for an attempted arc (*sigh*), but also … look, I don’t wanna point fingers, Chakotay, but I’ve seen the whole series, and I know who has the highest shuttle body count.
  • “Prototype” feels on the whole like a failed experiment — and maybe the writers felt the same way, because we’re going to get another B’Elanna-bonds-with-an-engineering-project episode later this season.
  • B’Elanna’s burgundy pyjamas delight me — not least because they resemble the Starfleet-issue PJs seen in Discovery. I like to think she found the old style in a database and replicated a set.

In conclusion

“Prototype” is a mediocre episode. It’s mediocre in ways which I, personally, find interesting, but it’s ultimately one you can skip. Two robot soldiers out of five.

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