"Mission Log" boldly goes where no podcast has gone before
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On Sept. 8, 1966, NBC debuted a strange, stylish, and thought-provoking science fiction series. In “The Man Trap,” a hideous salt vampire with the appearance of a rubbery banshee takes the form of an attractive woman, infiltrates a space ship’s crew, and gradually bumps off anyone unlucky enough to get in its way. It was a pulpy, scary, and slightly sexy hour—a wildly creative whodunit unlike anything aired on television before.
“It won’t work,” declared Variety, famously dubbing the show “an incredibly dreary mess of confusion and complexities.”
The rest, of course, is nerd history. Star Trek not only worked, it endured and thrived for decades on end, becoming a sci-fi franchise rivaled in impact and longevity only by Star Wars and Doctor Who. And commentary on Star Trek became its own cottage industry: dozens of memoirs by various cast members and behind-the-scenes personalities, documentaries, fan blogs, and podcasts, the latter ranging from the general commentary of Trek Cast to the hyper-specificity of the Voyager-focused Delta Quadrant.
Into this crowded galaxy ventures Mission Log, a new podcast from Chris Hardwick’s ever-expanding Nerdist federation and Roddenberry Entertainment. The podcast’s stated goal is looking at Star Trek one episode at a time. All of it. That’s 716 episodes across six series—yes, including the animated series—plus 11, soon-to-be-12, movies.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine anybody having anything new to say about Star Trek. But if anybody should be able to pull it off, it’s the three men behind Mission Log: producer Eugene “Rod” Roddeberry—the son of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment—and hosts Ken Ray and John Champion. Ray is the longtime host of the acerbic, Apple-themed podcast, Mac OS Ken. Champion hosts the podcast DVD Geeks.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told this story publicly,” said Champion in a Skype conversation with Ray and Roddenberry. “When I was 15, I auditioned for the role of Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation. I called my agent and was like ‘Please, please get me in front of the people who need to see me.’ So one day my mom picks me up after school and says, ‘I’ve got a backpack for you. We’re going to New York. You have an audition for Star Trek’.”
The rest, in this case, is not history. Champion didn’t get the part, obviously, but remained a fan of Star Trek… though some sore feelings lingered.
“I referred to [Wil Wheaton] as ‘that pinhead’ for about three years,” Champion recalled.
There are two stories behind the creation of Mission Log. One’s pretty straightforward: Champion, Ray, and Roddenberry crossed orbits and became friends. When Roddenberry, looking to further explore the ideas behind his father’s creation—an exploration begun in the surprisingly tender Trek Nation, a documentary that charted the younger Roddenberry’s sometimes-conflicted relationship both with the legacy of Star Trek and his father—decided to do a podcast, he turned to his two veteran podcaster friends.
The other creation story involves drinking.
“The real story is that A) there was wine involved, and B) the drinking devolved into us saying ‘Hey we should have a movie night and watch Star Trek,” Champion said. “And then Rod said ‘No, no, we should watch all of Star Trek.’ And I have to quote Ken here— ‘It’s pretty awesome when your friend comes to you and asks you if he can pay you to watch Star Trek.’”
But however good an idea an exhaustive look at Star Trek might seem in a state of partial inebriation, there’s an obvious question: What could Mission Log possibly do differently that could give it a unique purpose?
“I live this life where I’m constantly hearing from people, ‘Star Trek has really influenced me, with its ethics and morality plays,’ and I’ve always wondered: If you look at the original series alone, does it really have all that? Or have the fans taken that nugget and expanded on it?” Roddenberry said.
“Ultimately, I don’t think the philosophy of Star Trek is fabricated or make-believe. I don’t think people pulled it out of thin air. But to what degree have people expanded on it?”
So that’s the hook of Mission Log for you: Each episode tackles one episode of Star Trek—going in order of original air date—and hones in on its ethics and messages, or lack thereof. What’s the moral of the story? Does it hold up? It’s a surprisingly savvy idea. After all, one of the most enduring aspects of Star Trek is the show’s sometimes heavy-handed messages. (Remember the half-black, half-white aliens of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”?) Even Mad Men took Star Trek’s emphasis on morals to heart, with a reference last season to character Paul Kinsey’s Star Trek spec script, hilariously titled, “The Negron Complex.”
“The idea is to investigate the morals, the ethics, the philosophy that is embedded in this piece of pop culture entertainment,” Champion said.
“From a podcasting point of view, I learned a long time ago that a good attitude to take is to be an inch wide and a mile deep. If you’re going to take on a subject, be really passionate and find that one particular niche.”
That format makes Mission Log surprisingly focused,entertaining—and impressively accessible. Now five episodes in, the show steers clear of references to the vast and ever-expanding continuity of Star Trek. It’s a relaxed, freewheeling discussion designed for a listener that’s tackling Star Trek for the very first time. With a lack of topical references, it’s easy to imagine viewers new to Star Trek—say, those coming to it through Netflix, where all 716 episodes are on Watch Instantly—queuing up Mission Log as a sort of companion piece.
Naturally, though, being an official Roddenberry production does have some benefits for the podcast—notably, access to the Roddenberry archives, which include extensive notes and materials that Ray and Champion plan to weave into the discussion from time to time.
“My family has kept all the scripts from the original series, many with my father’s handwritten notes,” Roddenberry said. “And it’s tremendously interesting to look at some of these things. I figured after 45 years all of the stories that could be told would have been heard. But we keep finding things that are pretty cool.
“I mean, Spock was supposed to have a British accent.”
Still, no matter how fascinating Star Trek is, no matter how much love Ray, Champion, and Roddenberry may have for the material, Mission Log is a big undertaking. Assuming they don’t take a week off, they have more than 13 years of work ahead of them. And God help them if another Star Trek series hits the air and draws the whole thing out even longer.
But everyone involved is in it for the long haul.
“Do I wanna do this for 13 years? Absolutely,” Ray said. “But who knows what happens in five years? Fortunately, with the format of the show, it’s something that can go on without us. You’ve got 13 years of really stellar content to go through. If somebody else has to take part of that 13 years I’m envious of them, because it’s already been a tremendous amount of fun.
“And if I get to do it for 13 years, then I’m pretty lucky.”
Correction: The Delta Quadrant podcast focuses on Voyager, not Deep Space Nine as previously reported.
Photo via Mission Log/Facebook