Meet Aaron Waltke — one of the creative minds behind Star Trek: Prodigy

Aaron Waltke - Star Trek: Prodigy writer
Aaron Waltke – Star Trek: Prodigy writer

Some might argue that we’re living in a new Golden Age of Star Trek. Most Treksperts would argue that the original era of greatness spanned from when The Original Series cast was in theaters, and The Next Generation was on television. But now we’re entering an era where there will be four live-action Trek shows airing, as two animated shows are available as well. This seems pretty special too.

One of the shows in development is Star Trek: Prodigy. While still shrouded in secrecy, we know a few things, like the fact that this show will be geared to a younger audience and will air on Nickelodeon — not on CBS All Access. The show will be directed by Ben Hibon, and will star Captain Kathryn Janeway herself — Kate Mulgrew.

One might imagine that the creative team behind the scenes at Prodigy are hard at work, creating this unique take on the Trek vision. Among the talented team that co-showrunners Kevin and Dan Hageman have assembled is screenwriter Aaron Waltke, who might be the biggest Trekkie on the staff. Waltke knows the films, series, and stories up and down, and brings his Trek knowledge to the table as the team formulate this new series.

We caught up with Waltke and asked him about his background, what goes into writing an animated show, and about Star Trek: Prodigy too.

You’re originally from Indiana. How did you get from the Hoosier State to Hollywood?

I grew up in Greenwood, a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Indianapolis in a rural farming community — my neighborhood was literally between two cornfields. When I was younger, our internet was dial-up and cable television was a luxury, so my friends and I were forced to entertain ourselves — mostly by keeping the local Blockbuster video permanently out of stock of every sci-fi, fantasy, and horror film they had, and endlessly debating on the playground whether Frodo would have survived if Lord of the Rings was set in the Dune universe. Eventually, we started using my parents’ camcorder to begin telling stories of our own.

Once I arrived at college at Indiana University, I focused my studies on Telecommunications, English and Theatre. Curiously, Bloomington is the future birthplace of Captain Janeway and alma mater of Star Trek: Voyager creator Jeri Taylor — it’s also where Next Generation writer Lee Sheldon was teaching at the time. I spent my time absorbing as much as I could and began writing and directing short films, performing sketch comedy, as well as producing documentaries for PBS. 

While there, some friends created an animated show for our college TV network and they asked if I wanted to write a few episodes for them. They later sold that idea (and a several others) to Mondo Media as a digital series in the early days of YouTube, and I was lucky enough to continue in a staff writer capacity. Shortly thereafter we all moved to Los Angeles. It was around then a comedian pal of mine, Sandy Danto, was working as a writer/producer for National Lampoon, who were best known for Animal House and the Vacation films.

Aaron Waltke
Aaron Waltke

They needed someone who could write, direct, and edit comedy shorts for their online comedy and college television network, and I fit the bill nicely. I usually worked in development, taking meetings and writing screenplays on the side until I was able to sustain a living writing full-time. A few screenplays and award-winning television shows later, and now I get to write for Star Trek!

​You were part of a comedy troupe in college. ​What turned you toward working behind the camera instead of in front, and did performing in front of an audience inform your writing?

There was a period early on where I thought I might break into the industry selling a show with my sketch friends, so we could imitate our heroes from SNL, Monty Python, SCTV, Kids in the Hall, etc. We performed regularly at iOWest, UCB, and the Comedy Store, had a number of short films accepted into the Los Angeles Comedy Shorts Festival, and our team was in the finals of the LA Comedy Festival two years in a row. Breaking in that way is still somewhat of a viable career path for some, but these days it seems to require building an online presence first… and a lot of luck. 

That said, I always fancied myself as more of a Michael Palin type — someone who could hold their own, but enjoyed the creative process far more than the acting side — though being onstage absolutely informed my screenwriting. I learned the value of what a great performance can bring to any line of dialogue, just as my years in the editing bay helped me understand how to be concise with a scene or cover transitions on the page. If you want to learn how to tell a story, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself in all aspects of it. The experience was immeasurably valuable to me.

I’ve heard theater folks say that TV and movie people are often jealous because theater gives instant feedback. Does that apply for what you do?

It’s both exhilarating and terrifying. In film and television, at least there is a safety net of rewrites and the editing room if something truly isn’t working the way it was meant to on the page. In theatre, especially comedy, either the audience is with you or against you, and there’s no taking it back.

It also forces you to appreciate everyone’s unique voices and teaches you how to broaden your own. Sometimes the most intellectual and perfectly crafted line will get a polite chuckle, while someone screaming about a magic pie will tear the house down with laughter. It’s a valuable lesson in playing to the crowd.

​You’ve written for Wizards: Tales of Arcadia, Trollhunters, Teen Titans Go, and Unikitty! Are there other shows/projects which are in developement that you can talk about?

The curious thing about creating film and television, especially animation, is that it takes a very long time to make them — between writing the first draft of a script and its final release on the screen, it often takes years! As such, there are a number of projects I’m working on that are currently in development that are very exciting, but I’m not allowed to talk about them because they haven’t been officially announced yet. 

That said, Star Trek: Prodigy is one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on. I’m a producer and writer for the animated series, and I was brought onboard the Prodigy after serving as a co-executive producer on Wizards: Tales of Arcadia, because I’d collaborated with Dan and Kevin Hageman on Trollhunters a few years ago. As a hardcore Trek fan, it honestly felt less like writing a script and more like breathing.

I’ve internalized so much lore from its myriad series over the years that I instinctively know how the Heisenberg compensator in a transporter works and can easily write an essay comparing the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition and the Great Material Continuum to ancient Egyptian cosmology. Now I get to tell my own stories in that universe, and the opportunity to contribute to such a rich mythology that’s been so influential in my life has been a tremendous honor.

Aaron — in the middle with the purple polo — with his fellow Prodigy writers. Photo courtesy of Julie Benson
Aaron — in the middle with the purple polo — with his fellow Prodigy writers. Photo courtesy of Julie Benson

Explain what it’s like to work in the “writers’ room.” Do you come to the table with ideas in hand, or does someone set the tone for the show and you guys figure it out verbally?

Every room is slightly different, and your role in the writing process can change depending on whether you are a showrunner, running the room, or a staff writer. Typically, a room starts with a pilot written by the showrunner and a pitch bible with the basics laid out of what the series could be (and what the network bought).

Once the writing staff has familiarized themselves with the material, there’s a period of brainstorming called “blue sky” where there are no wrong answers, and it’s just answering the question what if…? Over and over again. That’s where you determine the groundwork for who your characters are, what sorts of stories we can tell, and some specifics of what the general arc of the season and the series is and will be.

Once you have a loose idea of the show and where it’s going, you’ll start to break episodes of the show. On Tales of Arcadia and Star Trek, we would typically discuss the content of the episode together as a writing staff and break down the scenes and act breaks with increasing detail until there’s enough bulletpoints to create an outline. 

This process can be difficult, but in my experience I’ve been lucky to have rooms of extremely smart people who are great at building together. In many ways, it’s like a game of slow motion dramatic improv, with the option of going back and revising earlier ideas if you encounter a problem or come up with something better later.

The outline is then sent out for notes from the producers, the studio and the network, and then once approved is turned over to a writer to type up a first draft. The showrunner gives notes and may do some rewriting themselves. Then there is a table read, where any last ideas or spot checks can be addressed before it’s sent out for feedback. Rinse and repeat!

Is writing for a CGI show different from line/hand drawn animation? ​Do you have different constraints for either medium?

There are definitely differences, mostly when it comes to the production pipeline, which in turn can affect the writing. In CGI, it’s more costly to create character models, props and assets, but once you’ve created them, they exist forever on a server and can be used for set construction or repurposing just as you might in a live action shoot.

For that reason, finding creative ways to utilize characters, ships, locations and props to their fullest over multiple episodes tends to be easier on the production. This also makes serialization slightly more budget friendly in the 3D animated space, since you are building stories over the course of a season rather than episodically. There are also extra steps involving lighting and layout that take longer to get right.

In 2D animation, you also have to be careful not to break the bank, but in different ways. Things like crowd scenes can be a nightmare, because every single character has to be hand drawn. Rotating camera angles with the background in focus can be a chore to do for the same reason. 

I don’t have a preference for one medium over the other — it really depends on the story you are hoping to tell and how you want to tell it. I consider it a privilege I’ve been lucky enough to work in both.

An image from a Picard deleted scene where Riker and Troi... actually it's Aaron and his wife, author and screenwriter Ellen Tremiti.
An image from a Picard deleted scene where Riker and Troi… actually it’s Aaron and his wife, author and screenwriter Ellen Tremiti.

​You’ve been writing for TV for a while now. How has the industry changed? ​Have the streaming wars opened up more opportunities?

I would say the biggest thing that’s come with the streaming revolution is the number of platforms out there. There’s certainly a lot more opportunities than there were, say, ten years ago, and many networks are willing to take bigger and bolder swings to cut through the noise and gain an audience. It’s my sincere hope this leads to more unique and diverse voices out there, from those we haven’t heard yet.

As for me, I have some live action and animated projects in the works that I’m very excited about… I can’t wait to share them with the world!

Tell us ab​out Trek. What was your “first contact” with the franchise? ​

One of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my father, watching the saucer of the U.S.S. Enterprise separate from the secondary hull as the sweeping fanfare played — it all felt very exciting, but I didn’t entirely know why. Years later, I realized I was watching the pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation as it premiered live way back on September 28th, 1987. It’s not an overstatement that Star Trek has been a part of my life since the beginning, and had a profound influence on my sensibilities as a storyteller.

My local FOX affiliate would air reruns of TNG and Deep Space Nine back to back and in order every weekday when I got home from school, and I would tape them on VHS so I could binge watch them all over and over again, before we even had a name for that activity. The continuity between series and season-long arcs felt so rewarding, and I spent nights wondering about the rules of Vic Fontaine’s holoprogram and whether Tasha Yar was still alive in the mirror universe.

Writing for Prodigy must be exciting. Have you had to go back and watch the prior shows and movies to get up to speed?

When I joined Star Trek: Prodigy, it was a lot of fun doing a deep dive into the last fifty years of the franchise in search of inspiration, especially with every film and television iteration available on demand. My personal mission working on the show was to always instill a sense of wonder, optimism, and adventure — what I remember so fondly experiencing the shows during my own childhood and adolescence. I was also a bit obsessed with getting my treknobabble right — it’s essentially a second language, and there is a lot of it to pull from. 

What can fans expect from the new series?

There isn’t a lot I’m allowed to say… but it’s been exhilarating to make a series that honors classic Trek for legacy fans like myself, but also provides an entry point for new audiences to be introduced to the world of the Federation and its aspirations for an idealistic future, even when facing adversity. And as I mentioned before, my family is from the same Indiana town as Kathryn Janeway — writing the return of our beloved Voyager captain feels oddly iconic, like a homecoming for me. And we hope to create something both young and old can watch together… just as I once did with my dad all those many years ago.