In its third season, Mission To Zyxx—a sci-fi/improv comedy podcast about a squad of spacefaring ambassadors traveling around the galaxy on various diplomatic missions—is changing. With lore that’s getting deeper with each episode, the series is becoming bigger and more ambitious, all while staying true to its original self. I met with Mission to Zyxx’s team a few weeks ago in the Brooklyn studio where they record, but I must admit, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.
Late as it was, I thought the group might have already been in the weeds of bringing the next episode together, but when I found everyone in the cozy (but somehow still spacious) recording room, they were making their way through Thai food and waiting for the spoils of a much-needed beer run.
The entire cast being together in the same physical space is something of a rarity these days following Allie Kokesh (who voices Dar) making a recent move to Amsterdam, and Moujan Zolfaghari (who voices Bargie, the sentient ship) living in Los Angeles, requiring their parts of the show to be recorded remotely. But you would never know that listening to Mission to Zyxx’s recent episodes. Seeing them all bouncing ideas off one another in person, it’s obvious that the collaborative energy you can hear reflected in the show is something has bonded everyone together in a meaningful way.
With two seasons under its belt, Mission to Zyxx has gotten to a point where summarizing its larger epic story is something of a challenge, because the medium of the show lends itself to expansive, ever-changing narratives. Though the crew of the Bargarean Jade began as employees of the Federated Alliance established after the fall of the nefarious Galactic Monarchy, during their travels through the Zyxx quadrant, they’ve come to learn of the Federated Alliance’s own corruption and evil nature, and been forced to reinvent themselves in a variety of ways.
While Mission to Zyxx’s latest season opens with a useful narrative overview that acts the same way a Star Wars film’s opening crawl does, the show isn’t particularly concerned with whether you’re familiar with the specific ins and outs of the story thus far. Listeners—like the show’s guest comedians whose pitches are the basis for each episode—can dive into the story largely at random and understand what’s going on, because so much of Mission to Zyxx is born out of the cast riffing on and poking fun at pieces of pop culture that are atmospheric at this point.
“Sometimes those pitches are straight-up parody ideas. Dru Johnston’s Flarn translator character, for example, is a Jabba goof. Or [guest star] Lorraine Cink’s Whiffle character, who’s a play on Tribbles in Trek,” actor Seth Lind told me. “But often times they’re not even genre specific, let alone nodding to a single sci-fi property. Like, a very fun upcoming episode was based on a super simple pitch—just the occupation of the character—and through the recording we ended up tying it deeply into the lore of Zyxx and playing with specific Star Wars tropes.”
Bumbling former ambassador Pleck Decksetter (Alden Ford) lost an eyeball, and even though he’s as naive as he’s ever been, he’s found a degree of newfound purpose through learning about the existence of the Zima Warriors, a group of stick-wielding, budget Jedi who believe in maintaining balance between the Fresh and Whack Sides of the “Space” that exists between all living things. C-53 (Jeremy Bent), the team’s protocol droid, has long since broken out of his shell—quite literally—and inhabited a number of other robotic frames that allowed him to experience aspects of life he was never meant to. Similarly, Zolfaghari’s Bargie has spent ample time contemplating what kind of life she really wants to live, and if she truly wants to spend her days shuttling around a group of people inside her.
When I asked Zolfaghari about what it’s been like to evolve Bargie from a concept to a fully-realized character, she explained that while the character’s always been very much a literal ship, Bargie has also been a vehicle for her stepping into the sort of broad, dynamic range roles that her day-to-day acting typically doesn’t include.
“Because it doesn’t matter how I look, who I know, what a group of execs think about me, or how many social media followers I have, in Zyxx I can play whatever role and character I want—and I play a lot,” Zolfaghari told me. “I knew I wanted Bargie to be a down and out former actor, but through developing her voice, I also wanted to make her more than that. She’s a three-dimensional character who has had hardships, has had joy, has a son that’s an amusement park, and has gone through heartbreak. And any time anyone assumes anything about her, I make sure to correct them —she is more than just a generalization, she is complicated, she’s lived a life and that’s what makes her who she is. Also, she’s a spaceship.”
As Nermut Bundaloy (Lind’s character) has gone from being a junior mission operations manager to a master mission operations manager (a MOM, if you will), his relationship with Dar (Kokesh), the team’s sexually-aggressive bodyguard, has become more intimate and emotionally charged, giving both of them opportunities to discover new things about themselves they might not have otherwise. For Kokesh, who’s become much more of a genre nerd because of Zyxx, getting to know who Dar is has been an exercise is finding the balance between her own personality and the person the character was when she started out.
“From the jump, Dar for me was my opportunity to explore. I’m not someone that is physically intimidating and I’m not as mean as season one Dar,” she explained. “But as we’ve lived with our characters, Dar has also become a lot like me. More vulnerable. More in love with their teammates.”
Though the show’s made a point of spoofing other sci-fi franchises set in space, season three sees Mission to Zyxx delving deeper into the mythos of the Zima Warriors in a story that’s a send-up of Return of the Jedi, with elements of commentary about the Star Wars franchise, and its fandom, woven throughout.
According to Alden Ford, half of Mission to Zyxx’s cast consider themselves Star Wars fans, and so it makes sense that the show would brush up against the franchise in the way it’s doing this season with AJ, a Clone Light Infantry Nomadic Trooper or C.L.I.N.T. (voiced by Winston Noel) who defects from the Federated Alliance, and a new Rey-like character who’s infinitely more competent in her manipulation of the Space than Ford’s Pleck Decksetter has ever been. But Mission to Zyxx is never especially explicit in the way it engages with the Star Wars and Star Trek discourse, Ford said, because that isn’t really the point of the show.
“Personally I just like that there’s new Treks and Wars being made and explored, and in any case I like to think our show is more concerned with playing with tropes and geek touchstones to tell our own story than with parodying something just because it’s in the zeitgeist, or we have a hot take on it. That gets boring and/or toxic fast, it doesn’t age well, and it tears down the veil between the world of the show and our own,” Ford said. “But if you’re asking if we yell at each other about Discovery and Resistance right up until we start rolling episodes? Yes, we do.”
One of main goals for season three was to make Mission to Zyxx feel decidedly more cinematic in terms of scope and feel, something it accomplishes in part with the help of newly-recorded, fully-orchestrated versions of its interstitial music and opening theme. But Ford and sound designer Shane O’Connell emphasized that Mission to Zyxx is meant to be consumed as a podcast, not simply a movie without visuals—and because of that, each episode is crafted as a showcase of the cast’s talents.
“The overarching idea is that the sound design should function as the most deadpan character in the show. If the world of the show feels real, logical and tactile, the comedy can sometimes land harder,” O’Connell said. “As the only person on the team that doesn’t come from the UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] world, I’ve enjoyed learning about improv by seeing how it shapes the show. Most obvious to me is how it gives the show its specific rhythm. The cast doesn’t have any more information than their respective character has. Seth, for example, doesn’t know what Bargie is about to say or do any more than Nermut does, which lets scenes unfold at a natural pace, and allows for genuinely surprising moments.”
(Check out the video above to listen how a Mission to Zyxx scene comes together)
Mission to Zyxx has always punched far above its weight by podcasting standards, but in its third season, it feels as if it’s really come into its own in a significant way. It’s not just that the sound production is tighter, or that the rules of the universe have been firmly established—everyone working on the show has moved into a space where they keenly understand who their characters are and how they come together organically, something that’s often lost on people who listen to the show for the first time. Even though there’s a bit of discussion of details before everyone slips into their on-mic personae, the episodes are improvised. Along with the show’s editing, the seamlessness of it all really boils down to the cast being good at what they do and having faith in one another’s abilities.
Mission to Zyxx is now streaming wherever podcasts are available.
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