Star Trek canon just rebooted an essential piece of warp drive technology
Starship tech in Star Trek is weird. For example, what keeps complicated warp drives from blowing up and ruining the space-time continuum? It turns out that one very small piece of tech that’s been mentioned in dialogue since the ‘90s is suddenly crucial to the crew of the USS Protostar in Star Trek: Prodigy. Here’s everything to know about a “warp matrix,” and how Trek canon has finally given some clarity on what it actually does. Spoilers ahead for Prodigy Episode 8, “Time Amok.”
In The Wrath of Khan, Kirk quipped “You have to learn… why things… work on a starship.” Arguably, the various writers, producers, and directors of Trek have always made it up as they went along. But, the majority of Trek tech talk calcified in the 1990s, during the runs of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. For ‘90s Trek writers like Nareen Shankar, this type of technobabble was “like spraying this thin metal coating of science on the show.”
Silly or not, each techy phrase has entered the Trek nomenclature pantheon. When something happens on the newer shows, even a kids’ show like Star Trek: Prodigy, the writers have to dig into technobabble canon and explain preexisting fictional tech.
This leads us to the “warp matrix” that’s essential in the Prodigy episode “Time Amok” despite been glazed over before now.
What is a Warp Matrix?
In previous Trek canon, a warp matrix vaguely described the ways in which the warp core interacted with the rest of the ship’s controls. In the Deep Space Nine series finale, Chief O’Brien joked that “somebody has to teach you officers the difference between a warp matrix flux capacitor and a self-sealing stem bolt.”
The phrase “warp matrix flux capacitor” scans as a joke about Back to the Future, but Trek continued to mention the warp matrix whenever something vague but crucial was wrong with the faster-than-light propulsion of a starship. For example, in the Voyager episode “Unimatrix Zero,” Tom Paris mentioned the warp matrix of the Delta Flyer was out of alignment. From Enterprise to DS9 and Voyager, we got a general sense that the “warp matrix” kept various aspects of the warp drive from messing up. If it was misaligned or broken, that was an automatic game over.
How Prodigy retcons the Warp Matrix
In Prodigy’s “Time Amok” episode, both the protostar drive and the warp drive are destabilized by a tachyon storm. Translation: a time storm makes both engines on the Protostar go bonkers, which throws each crew member into a separate time stream that all run at different speeds.
Because the Protostar houses two different drives for faster-than-light travel, Janeway and Zero realize that something is needed to balance the gravity between all the instability. Thus, Zero begins schematics for a warp matrix. Here’s what Zero says will happen:
“I deduced the only way to restore gravitational balance was to reroute power from the primary warp drive directly to protodrive, using a warp matrix.”
Based on what we know about warp matrices in Trek canon so far (very little!) this line seems to establish that a warp matrix is a conduit through which warp power is shunted and converted for other uses. If the warp drive (or protodrive) of a starship were like plumbing, this would make the warp matrix like a water flow regulator for your pipes.
All of this could imply that the Protostar didn’t have a warp matrix prior to this new one getting built. But, what’s more likely is that the ship did have a regular warp matrix, but it didn’t have one to transfer power between the two drives. Zero talks about building a warp matrix specifically for this function, not about building a replacement for the existing one.
The bottom line is that Prodigy has established that a warp matrix can safely transfer power from the warp drive to something else. And what you choose to transfer that power to depends on what you need to do. In the end, the person who actually built the special warp matrix was Rok-Tahk, the youngest member of the crew, suggesting that maybe Trek technobabble will eventually become simple enough that even a child could build a warp engine.
Star Trek: Prodigy airs new episodes up until February 3, when episode 10 drops. Check out the full Star Trek 2022 schedule here.