Every time I try to explain what Audioboom’s podcast Mission to Zyxx is, there’s this moment where I realise that on paper, it sounds like the kind of thing that would normally drive me insane. It’s an improv comedy podcast parodying Star Trek and Star Wars and a bunch of other genre fiction. It’s… a lot.
Much to my surprise, though, Mission to Zyxx works despite its potential to be all of the things that I, someone who’s not too hot on space adventures or improv would normally skip over. Over the course of listening to the podcast’s first season (the second season’s currently in production), it’s slowly dawned on me just what it is about the show that’s so appealing and honestly, it’s a lesson more of the TV shows and movies the podcast is lampooning could stand to learn.
Mission to Zyxx chronicles the travels of a team of interstellar ambassadors as they journey from planet to planet throughout the Zyxx quadrant on behalf of the United Federation, the galaxy’s newly-ascendent power that unseated the oppressive Galactic Empire. Recent Federation recruit Pleck Decksetter (voiced by Alden Ford) is the show’s closest thing to a human and the captain of the Bargarean “Bargie” Jade (Moujan Zolfaghari), a sentient (albeit outdated) ship who was once a famed movie star. Pleck’s joined by the crew’s hulking, omnisexual bodyguard Dar (Allie Kokesh) and C-53 (Jeremy Bent), a sardonic protocol and diplomatic relations droid whose sentience is regularly placed into a variety of different robotic bodies.
Each episode kicks off with a fresh assignment from beleaguered Junior Missions Operations Manager Nermut Bundaloy (Seth Lind) that sets the crew off on a new adventure to meet Zyxx’s strange inhabitants. After you get a grasp of who everyone is and what they do, it’s easy to recognise just how much of Mission to Zyxx‘s narrative DNA is synthesized from genre franchises that people have loved for decades. What’s wild about the show is that aside from those expository moments when the episode’s story is being set in motion or when someone breaks character ever so slightly, Mission to Zyxx never feels like Improv™, which I usually find only funny to the people performing it. Everyone’s ad-libbing and dynamically working off one another’s energy, but there’s an impressive cohesion to everything from the series’ opening credits to its ad spots that are styled as intercepted communications from the anti-Federation Rebel Alliance.
That isn’t at all to imply that the crew or the people they meet have their shit together – pretty much everyone (including each episode’s guest star) is a mess of the highest order. Pleck’s a guileless dummy who has no business commanding a ship, Dar’s a nymphomaniac with impulse control issues, Bargie exists somewhere between unhinged and out of service, and C-53’s just a dick. At one point or another, each of them comes close to jeopardizing a mission, only to have things barely work out in the nick of time, but the thing that sets Mission to Zyxx’s characters apart is that, for the most part, you’re seeing the details of their adventures develop in real time.
The thing that’s always put me off about Star Wars (and Star Trek to a lesser extent) is the way its biggest and most important stories all tie into a larger, overarching narrative defined by fate and destiny. Because Mission to Zyxx is largely off the cuff, all of its twists and turns feel fresh and inspired especially once it becomes clear that once a plot point – like a character’s name or a random phrase – is tossed into the mix of things, it’s an established and irreversible addition to the show.
To be clear, there is a grand design to Mission to Zyxx and the podcast more than dabbles in the trope of the prophesied “chosen one.” While on a mission to an asteroid where farmers work to harvest what little moisture there is to be drawn out of the atmosphere, Pleck encounters one of the last Zima warriors, an ancient order of knights who’ve sworn their lives to maintaining the balance between the Whack and Fresh sides of the Space. It’s kind of like, you know, a force, but more…space-y. Though the Zima warriors are certain that Pleck’s their chosen one who will wield a sacred woodsaber, Mission to Zyxx makes sure to remind you that there’s a very good chance that Pleck’s just waving a stick around with a bunch of cultish weirdos.
You always have the distinct sense that Bargie and the gang really are just a random, motley crew of fuckups flying through space and being kind of bad at their jobs. You know, like regular people – the kind of regular people who are seldom seen for very long in these types of series.
Even though podcasts have been around for a while and we’re now living in an age where pretty much everyone has one, Mission to Zyxx is proof that the medium still so much untapped potential, particularly for fictional work. There’s no telling whether podcasts are fated to become the next big thing in scifi and fantasy dramas but, if Mission to Zyxx any indication, shows like it very well could be.