Sunday, 7 April 2013

The Starfleet Escape Podcast: Listen Up!

If it wasn't for the rather excellent Google+ Star Trek community I would have missed out on a gem of a podcast.

Now up to their 17th installment (with number 18 coming soon),  the SF Escape Podcast looks set to become one of my must listen to Star Trek audio shows of 2013. Hosted by Aaron, Marty and Eric it's informative,  funny and exceptionally accessible to fans both new and well-established.

You might ask how that's possible considering the amount of material that's out there (and what you're reading!) but Trek Trio manage it with ease. I like to think I have a fairly decent understanding of the subject however I even realised a couple of things during the Borg show that I hadn't noticed in the TV shows after several reruns. That, for one thing really impressed.

It's a straight forward format to the podcast; 90 minutes (approx) of chat and banter separated into distinctive sections. For a starter in this Star Trek audio restaurant there's news and opinion followed by a main course of good wholesome and filling debate into the topic of the podcast.  Once that's been cleared then you get to enjoy a dessert of subspace comments from a range of social media channels where a question of the podcast has been asked.  Bringing it all together as the coffee and mints at the end are a few moments to air some grumbles they may have over the subject which just helps to remind us all that it is a work of fiction and open to the wonders of human error and almost 50 years of attempted continuity.

Due to a bit of a hectic home, blogging, work life recently I'm combining my reviews of The Borg and The Romulans podcasts into one piece.

Now I really enjoyed Episode 16 and the Borg discussions,  possibly because I was fortunate enough to get my comment on the cyborg nemeses read out (sorry it was only slightly shorter than War and Peace gents,  I'll be concise next time!)   but it's great to get some clever,  witty and genuinely entertaining words on Star Trek even when you might think think that everything there is to say has been said. The news section was good although I would have liked to hear a bit more opinion than news fact which we can pick up at the newsagents or off the web. When there is, it lifts the show and makes you listen because it's absolutely worth taking in. I would say for newer Trekkers and those who are just getting into the franchise with the most general audience friendly reboots it's an excellent avenue and devoid of technobabble I can assure you. As you would expect there's talk If of the new JJ Abrams movie but also fan productions such as Star Trek Continues, the Green Girl documentary and Star Trek Renegades. Upcoming releases such as the timeline video game are also covered but there does seem to be an absence of printed Star Trek be it novels or comics. The good thing is with this piece of the show is that if you're not keen on trying to sieve your way through the internet the news section will help you out admirably. Also there's a great bit where our hosts consider whether or not they would purchase a chosen Star Trek product. Have to agree that the Bye Bye Robot posters are very good but I've got very little wall space opportunity to display them ! While it took a few pauses to listen to,  I was still surprised to find an hour and a half had warped by.

So what did I get out of listening to their take on the Borg? Running through their appearances in Star Trek universe chronology rather than episode transmission order does help realise how there was an attempt to tie everything together, and even the perhaps poorly conceived Enterprise story, Regeneration. What you become aware of is how Picard and co effectively are the reason the Borg become aware of humanity with an ending similar to TNG's Conspiracy. There's of course a good deal of discussion on the seminar two parter,  The Best of Both Worlds (is it now the most overrated episode of all time? As well as Q Who and I, Borg but yet there's a Descent shaped hole only touched on during a reflection on the Borg ship designs we've seen over the years. I was always of the thought that this was a captured ship however the distinctly non geometric design and does suggest their more fragmented and individualistic nature as portrayed in the double-hander. While not classed as one of The Next Generation's stronger installments I would have liked more opinion on where this might have led in the future.

The majority of of the discussion does end itself more towards Voyager and by default everything that comes after Seven of Nine's arrival on the ship at the beginning of its fourth season. What you do get from the chat is how inconsistent Borg history is. I tend to distinguish between Borg Version 1 (TNG) 1 and Borg Version 2.0 (First Contact and later)  but even then flashbacks in Voyager and the Next Generation movie aren't correct on wardrobe for starters. Then there's consoles, backgrounds...Picky but noticeable. While it was noticeable that Descent was sidelined, the podcasters did manage to spend some time looking at the variations that appeared in Star Trek: Voyager ranging from the future-Drone, the Borg children, Seven's former associates in Survival Instinct and the wonders of Unimatrix Zero from the final two seasons. There's a lot of information on the Borg meaning certain episodes such as Blood Fever and Unity were skated over in favour of some of the later, larger stories such as Dark Frontier and Endgame. This also meant curve-ball angles such as Hope and Fear didn't even get a look in when they deal with the effect of life after an attack on Borg survivors. Even some conjecture on their origins was played out citing non-canon novels and the story of the NX-02, the Columbia. I would have enjoyed some more non-canon moments within both of the podcasts but I get that time is limited and for the sake of the audience who will be more aware of the televised material this is probably a good choice although it might be a good suggestion to do something non-canonical in the not so distant future? Or maybe even something on the library of excellent Star Trek reference materials that exist? (I know a good guest host you could get for that...runs a blog....English....) 

The additional comments from Twitter and Google+ mean we're not restricted to the views of our hosts - although I they are pretty varied anyway - and I'm going to have to add a disclaimer because they had the patience to read out my Borg essay. Thanks guys! It showed there's a lot of love for TNG's first two parter as well as for I, Borg and Scorpion which is interesting as there's a lot more love for Janeway and crew than I thought.

What is good is that this podcast is just like getting a group of your mates round for a couple of beers and having a chat over an episode. It's informal, relaxed and very easy to listen to. I also didn't feel that I was getting an opinion forced down my throat, only provided with a few more angles to see the series which can only enhance future viewings - especially now I realise that Geordi is the one who starts up the deflector dish and not Worf as Riker requested at the end of The Best of Both Worlds, Part I! Never spotted, but another example of Worf getting neglected. There's also the good old subject of the Borg Queen and the drones from Star Trek: Enterprise that don't seem to fit too well with the space/time continuum but that kind of discussion is probably best left alone until a few more cans are drunk. What I had forgotten until this side of fandom came up was the potential Borg/V'Ger link that's been banded around for some time. Kudos for picking this one up as it's always been an interesting concept (although it goes out the window in David Mack's Cold Equations trilogy). However disappointed Peter David's classic Vendetta didn't get a mention - now that's how to deal with the Borg!

The Romulan podcast (Episode 17), which followed a couple of weeks later trod a similar concept in it's setup. Kicking off with the news section as before, the topic quickly turned to the Star Trek isolationists and conspirators extraordinaire, the Romulans. In comparison to the Borg I actually found this to be a better  structured discussion focusing on sections of the species rather than chronological appearance. Leading with subjects such as technology, clothing, footwear culture and ships it was great to reflect on how the Romulans have been portrayed since their first sighting in The Original Series episode, Balance of Terror

Now I just want to take a second here actually because I was perusing Terry J. Erdmann and Paula M. Block's Star Trek 101 this week but couldn't get this podcast far from my mind when flicking through it. While it's designed as mini reference and ideal for the Star Trek new starter I would say that the SF Escape Podcast is a better and more comprehensive way to understand the series and what is all about. As with the Borg for example, if the introduction to the Romulan discussion kicks off with some useful background which would help newbies. Take note Mr Erdmann, sans-serif this is a much better way to break in some new fans. Aaron, Marty and Eric ensure that the scene is clearly set for discussion and then we're into the "good stuff". Gets a big gold star from my box of reviewing badges, gents. 

I really enjoyed this different approach and while it made me reconsider how the structure of the Borg episode had been crafted I also realised that this meant these guys are more than aware of the need to keep their audience awake and listening not turning for the stop button. There are certain things that will be heard on each installment but it's how those sections are made which provides the interest. The Romulans as a podcast was much more about their subject as a people and its portrayal over the various films and series; reuse of wardrobes, the difficult and yet managed appearance of their technology in Star Trek Enterprise when it has been made clear that they were not seen until Balance of Terror. A lot of time is given over to Enterprise in particular because of how things might have progressed into the now mythical season five and how the Romulans had infiltrated the Vulcan High Council.

My particular area of interest here was the ship designs over the course of Star Trek history - how they altered, how models got lost along the way and all the variations in between including the Nemesis revamps and the Next Generation scout ship version. 

While The Borg virtually stepped over Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to talk about the Delta Quadrant residents in Star Trek: Voyager, the space station saga got its fair share of air time here, most notably in reference to the classic and much revered In the Pale Moonlight. This seemed to be a much more comprehensive and flowing discussion with very little, but if anything being overlooked. From their origins through female commanders, the shoulder pads of the 80's, cloaking technology, peace treaties, neutral zones and even up to the destruction of Romulus itself in the 2009 reboot, then there's an opinion to hear on it all backed up with more subspace thoughts from fans on social media. Interestingly no mention of the fact that Denise Crosby's Sela is the only ever blonde Romulan within Star Trek but with the onslaught of information contained within Episode 17 this is such a minor detail that I can let it go. For those of you who do find there's a lot to take in during the SF Podcast then there's also a handy show notes download available. It helped a lot when covering these reviews it's a nice touch to add to the overall experience and for fans of all ages. Great to see the listeners comments included too.

I've got to applaud these guys for their enthusiasm through out the 90 minutes of run time. There are no uneasy silences, nothing too much and a very focused agenda that keeps the conversation and topics flowing. I didn't know whether I would get anything out of it as a long term Trekker but I was pleasantly surprised, sans-serif maybe because my 'specialism' doesn't lie in Star Trek: Voyager where we get the most information around the Borg so I got a lot from the reviews of that time frame. I have to agree with one thought at the end - the Borg have had their day and a decent run now on the big and small screen. They ended up being the main nemesis in Star Trek: Voyager by default and held their own until the end. In conclusion though the Borg could have probably managed another 30 minutes to look at some of their lesser appearances and references but when you have a broad audience to satisfy it once again comes down to ensuring common and referable ground is covered and covered well. 

The balance of understanding across the franchise is well proportioned with no particularly overwhelming part of this Trek Trio holding all the cards. I indeed I having the varied experience with the franchise makes it all the more accessible, sans-serif importantly reassuring us that Star Trek fans are human and not just huge memory resources of fictional information. As I've mentioned above though it would be good to hear more on non-canon material out there and perhaps even a section that allows listeners to air their though ts on the previous installment and anything contained therein. While one can always point for things that could be done differently this is still a supremely enjoyable production and clearly a lot of work goes into producing the information to fill the show. I'd guessing that all three hosts aren't in the same location either (?) for the production which must take some level of co-ordination just to manage that. The audio is crisp and there's not a moment wasted throughout either podcast.  I have to say this is well worth listening to and has helped me refresh my mind on some pieces of Enterprise and Voyager I'd completely forgotten about in respects to the two races featured in episodes 16 and 17. Good work gents - you're managed to secure my time and I look forward to your next recording!

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