Star Trek reruns are a little like Carpenters greatest hits albums: You’ll rarely find someone proclaiming unironic devotion to either one, but clearly someone is watching and listening, because ratings and sales figures don’t lie. Nerdy self-consciousness aside, 2016 has been a big year for Star Trek. Following on the heels of 2009’s acclaimed feature film reboot directed by J.J. Abrams, and Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, the franchise’s latest offering, Star Trek Beyond, has been met with praise by critics and fans alike. The recent newfangled Trek films have lots of panache, and at their best, they pay sincere and beautifully realized homage to the original series. But for people who came of age in the late 1980s and early ’90s, it will always be the commanding BBC gravitas of Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard—along with that series’ generally impressive acting, sharp writing, and spurts of earnest goofiness—that sets the standard for Trek fare. Fortunately, there’s now a place for fans of the original show to revel in nostalgia while discovering that series anew: the smart and hilarious Star Trek podcast The Greatest Generation.
The tagline of The Greatest Generation, which is part of the Maximum Fun network, pulls no punches, announcing that it is “A Star Trek podcast by two guys who are a bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast.” That much is clear from the first episode when the “two guys” in question, Ben Harrison and Adam Pranica, have an extended discussion about the pros and cons of using their real names while they’re recording. Why the embarrassment? Well, we all know why: conventions, costumes, Comic Book Guy, people who speak Klingon. Harrison and Pranica aren’t convention dudes, but they do admire the imagination and high ideals of the series, which is what makes them such good hosts: It’s more Mystery Science Theater 3000 than Comic-Con. Each episode opens with “The Picard Song,” a clever track by an artist called Dark Materia, which sets snippets of Picard dialogue to a “Blue Monday”–esque techno beat, perfectly capturing the blend of seriousness and ridiculousness that the podcast delivers.
Harrison and Pranica are both media production pros by day, and their ability to critique the show’s sets and special effects, viewing the series nearly 30 years after its premiere, is eye-opening. Star Trek: TNG launched in 1987, just before the CGI revolution that made the action in movies like Terminator 2 seem so fluid and real. Even with a budget of $1 million per week, TNG’s earliest episodes offer a curious mixture of compelling acting and dialogue with “jungle planet” sets that look as though they were created “by raiding the garden section of the Van Nuys Home Depot,” as Harrison puts it. Now more than 50 episodes in, the podcast has developed its own argot to describe the costumes and suspiciously Pier 1 Imports–inspired set designs that appear often in the first few seasons. Due to the household-appliance–esque design of the show’s late-1980s phasers, away teams get called “Dustbuster Clubs” and an episode called “Malibu Picard” begins with the discovery of an “Ikea Shuttlepod” floating in space.
Early episodes also contain, for all the show’s idealism, a few cringe-worthy plotlines that teeter on the edge of racism and sexism; Harrison and Pranica have gotten some flack online for taking on problematic portrayals of imagined species like the primitive, faintly “African” characters in the notorious episode “Code of Honor” or the Brigadoon-like tribe of low-tech colonists in the episode “Up the Long Ladder.” (The pair described them as the “Space Irish.”) But what has really set the online Trekisphere ablaze is the fact that unlike the chaste, almost courtly way in which TNG itself addressed sex and relationships, The Greatest Generation is dirty. Like, really dirty: One of the show’s running conceits is that Picard and the widely loathed character of ensign Wesley Crusher (played by eternal good sport Wil Wheaton) have an inappropriate relationship. The hosts riff on the sheer volume and impressiveness of Riker’s sexual conquests, in contrast with hapless awkwardness of chief engineer Geordi LaForge, whom they suggest is just one more bad date away from becoming a men’s rights advocate.
If The Greatest Generation has lost a few listeners thanks to their willingness to bust the show’s chops, other listeners (like me) delight in their clear affection for it and their admiration for its progressive ideals. In Picard, we witness the leadership style of a thoughtful captain who inspires confidence in his team, seeks knowledge and advice as needed, respects his staff, and demonstrates genuine goodwill toward all forms of life in the universe. Like the original series, which offered a utopian vision of the world at the height of the Cold War, TNG plainly critiqued xenophobia, anti-science thinking, sexism and racism, materialism and unfettered capitalism, and celebrated a universe in which human beings thrill to discover new worlds in order to learn from them, not to exploit them. Against the backdrop of an election cycle in which the candidate for a major party has successfully run a campaign fueled by the populace’s basest fears and most primitive prejudices, even fictional accounts of a better future offer a much-needed antidote. My advice: Engage!
Listen to episodes of The Greatest Generation here.