Did the world need another hardcore Trekkie podcast? It appears that the powers-that-be who control the Star Trek franchise (Viacom/CBS/Paramount) looked at the wide-world of Trekkie podcasts, noticed that excellent and detailed deep-dives were being well-executed by various aspects of the fandom, and said, nope, that’s not what the new official Star Trek podcast will be, at all. Instead, the official Star Trek podcast — which is called The Pod Directive, and launched this week — has refreshingly side-stepped the more in-the-weeds aspects of Trek fandom, and instead created a chatty podcast where the definitions of a casual fan and hardcore fan are quietly, and expertly, blurred.
If you wanted a little bit of real-life in your Star Trek podcast, The Pod Directive seems specifically created for you. It’s a subtle brand-shift for Star Trek, especially when coupled with Lower Decks and Discovery Season 3, which seem to indicate that the Final Frontier is finally acknowledging a silent majority of Trekkies: People who aren’t hardcore aficionados but are still huge and devoted fans.
This isn’t to say that The Pod Directive doesn’t have real Trekkie cred. Instead, the goal of the podcast seems to be to create the opposite of old-guard Trekkie gatekeeping. Hosted by Tawny Newsome (Ensign Mariner on Lower Decks) and Paul F. Tompkins (the funniest nerdiest guy in the universe) this podcast is a place for deep-cut references to episodes of TOS you haven’t thought about in years, but also a place where people talk about which episodes their moms are into. (Newsome says the answer for her mom is all of them.)
The interviews in the forthcoming season of The Pod Directive were mostly taped before the COVID-19 pandemic, which means the conversations between the hosts and their subjects inadvertently create a safe space where the listener can retreat from the world, unbothered by references to things that might be stressing you out. The Pod Directive is by no means the only podcast like this, but the fact that the format is mostly just Newsome and Tompkins interviewing famous Star Trek fans, the fact that nobody is talking about COVID-19 (at least in the first episode) feels oddly appropriate. It’s like The Pod Directive is a podcast taking place in a slightly kinder universe than the one we live in, siphoning off that optimistic sci-fi fairy dust from the rest of the Trek franchise, and sprinkling it into what is otherwise a fairly innocuous podcast.
The first guest in the first episode is Ben Stiller, which might seem like an odd choice. Until it doesn’t. Did the world need to hear Ben Stiller’s thoughts on his TOS fandom? And at first, because Stiller spends so much time not talking about Star Trek, it might make a fan scratch their head. What is this podcast about anyway? But then it starts to hit you. Stiller named his production company “The Red Hour” after a maniacal Purge-like hour of chaos from TOS episode “Return of the Archons.” He named Will Ferrell’s character in Zoolander “Mugatu” after the “Mugato” creature in the episode “A Private Little War.” In Cable Guy, Stiller had Jim Carrey’s character sing the Fred Steiner and Sol Kaplan score from “Amok Time.” So, the more Stiller, Newsome, and Tompkins talk, the more you realize what this podcast is about. It’s just really interesting people talking about Star Trek and what it means to them. But, the best part is — unlike so many documentaries and televised interviews — all the big stuff is a given. In the first episode, Stiller isn’t getting into the larger political relevance of Star Trek for everybody. He’s mostly talking about how it was his “best friend” when he was a kid.
Future guests on The Pod Directive will certainly be hitting heavier material. Upcoming guests include Stacey Abrams, Michelle Hurd, Bill McKibben, and many, many more. This indicates that The Pod Directive might be doing something that “regular” Star Trek has a harder time achieving through science fiction: Talking about real issues of the day in a straightforward way. It’s an interesting paradox, but as someone who has worked in the non-fiction world of Star Trek for over a decade, it’s profound to me, how much real-world info about Star Trek can be just as fascinating as the fiction. The Pod Directive is a good reminder that the layers of the most enduring sci-fi aren’t just about canon questions or Easter eggs or reboots. But instead, that a universe like Star Trek changes the real world every day, simply by existing. And that you don’t have to be a fan with an encyclopedic knowledge of something to be invited to the table and talk about it.
After all, even though Stiller owns two pairs of real Spock ears, the original Gorn head from “Arena,” and several costumes from TOS, he admits he doesn’t really know anything about The Next Generation. And that, right there, is the ultimate merging of a super-fan Trekkie, and a filthy casual — the guy who owns the original Gorn head doesn’t really know anything about the other Trek spin-offs. Welcome to the future of Trek fandom.
You can listen to new episodes of The Pod Directive every Monday.