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Sunday, 30 March 2014

In Praise of the Mission Log Podcast

Following on from last week's paean to podcasts, I feel I missed out on mentioning another podcast I listen to regularly. Mission Log bills itself as a Roddenberry Star Trek Podcast (Gene's son Rod is one of the executive producers), and features two hosts, John Champion and Ken Ray, talking about the show episode by episode.

They started in 2012, with the famous lost pilot, the Cage, and have done an episode per podcast since then. Each week John and Ken discuss that episode's plot, message and whether it still holds up, nearly fifty years later. They've given themselves 13 years to go through every single episode of every single show (and probably the movies). While they're already done with the Original Series and are tackling the Animated Series, I'm still languishing in Season 1.

While it's fascinating to see the genesis of a lot of the tropes (and cliches) about Star Trek, which I'm well familiar with after about three decades, on and off, of watching its various incarnations, it's pretty slow going. For me, the production values frequently distract from the action on screen (which is also why I've always had trouble getting into Doctor Who); and a lot of the time, the storytelling is pretty antiquated, too, from the treatment of women to the childishness of a lot of the characters.

In the latest episode I heard, deconstructing the time travel episode "Yesterday is Tomorrow", one of the hosts referred to it as a "Fisher-Price" treatment of time travel: for instance, Kirk welcomes aboard a fighter pilot from the 1960s and shows him around, only to be reminded that he's messing up the timeline and that they'll have to keep the pilot on board forever. And "Fisher-Price" seems to be a fair assessment of a number of episodes, though by no means all.

But another important point to make is that Star Trek, for all its faults, is probably the only show that can support this kind of close scrutiny or study. Not because other candidates are particularly bad (I keep thinking I'd love to listen to a similar podcast about the X-Files), but because I feel few shows have tackled storytelling the same way.

As I said, John and Ken spend a portion of each podcast talking about that episode's message. Messages are, frankly, pretty uncommon in most shows, particularly these days - the hour-long drama has been taken over by serialized shows, so each episode rarely has to stand on its own. This isn't to say that modern drama is shallow, by any means, but it's become more novelistic, and so there's less room to discuss the issues of the day.

The other interesting thing, which I've discovered from recent episodes of Mission Log, is that Gene Roddenberry intended for Star Trek to be more of an anthology series, in the same vein as the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits. Viewed through that lens, the fact that Star Trek had a message each week makes more sense - after all, many of the famous Twilight Zone stories are vehicles for some greater metaphor, if not commentary.

What's fascinating then - at least to me - is how later incarnations of Star Trek have kept doling out a message of the week. The Next Generation was probably the most successful, with episodes like "The Measure of a Man" or "The Drumhead", but even Enterprise - which was mostly nonsense - had a good run of a few episodes looking at how the characters dealt with a 9/11-style attack on Earth by mysterious and hostile aliens.

Some were thirsty for revenge, while others were numbed with grief at the loss of loved ones. But by the end of the storyline, we'd also learned who these aliens were, and why they were hell-bent on destroying humanity, leading to a greater understanding by both sides, rather than a genocidal war. For something made during the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, that's pretty brave.

Of course, I've kind of gone out of order in my own rewatch (or first viewing, in many cases) of the entire Star Trek canon, having finished all of TNG and Enterprise. I don't know if I really want to go through Enterprise again, given what an awful start and abysmal final season it had - but I do want to hear what John and Ken have to say about, whenever they get there.