For Gene Roddenberry, The Original Series’ promise of a “five-year mission” turned out to be overly optimistic. So it was, too, for the members of Indianapolis Star Trek band Five Year Mission. What was conceived as a project that would produce one album a year for five years has now stretched into a decade-long wild ride.
When Mike Rittenhouse originally conceived of writing a song for every episode of TOS, it wasn’t even going to be a band — he thought he might write them all himself. Soon discovering that his ambitious goals needed company, he started recruiting friends from the local scene’s Indy Band Collective (now called Midwest Emerging Artists). When he first asked Noah Butler in 2009 if Butler might want to write a few songs about Star Trek with him, neither of them had any idea what they were in for. Adding fellow songwriters Chris Spurgin and Patrick O’Connor, along with drummer Andy Fark, they jointly conceived of a band that would release one album a year for five years, with songs for 16 TOS episodes each (in broadcast order, except for “The Cage,” which opens their first album). In the summer of 2010, they recorded Year One.
What they didn’t expect was that Five Year Mission would take on a life of its own — one that involved playing lots of live shows, including a packed schedule of convention performances. They’ve even been the house band at Star Trek Las Vegas, including at the 50th anniversary celebration in 2016, which they commemorated with the song “Beam Down.” In the process, they’ve made fans out of Star Trek celebs like George Takei, Denise Crosby and Ira Steven Behr, who tapped them to cover the Deep Space Nine theme song for his 2018 documentary What We Left Behind.
Their HQ continues to be Rittenhouse’s Indianapolis comic book shop, the Hero House, and they have also just started a podcast, Five Year Mission: The Podcast, on the Trek Geeks network.
All of this has left less time than planned for their original mission, and last year finally saw the release of Year Four, covering the end of The Original Series’ season two and the first half of season three. (To be fair, they have also released two EPs dedicated solely to one episode each, “The Trouble With Tribbles” and “Spock’s Brain”). Fundamentally an indie-rock band, they have not been afraid to experiment with different musical styles— from pop-punk to surf to country to Irish drinking songs and beyond. And they have won acclaim from Star Trek fans everywhere for their thoughtful, funny and often moving adaptations of the episodes, which are divided up between the four main songwriters, each of whom sing lead on the songs they write.
The band is now beginning to prep their final album, Year Five. All five members spoke to us about their love of Star Trek, their songwriting processes and their favorite memories.
StarTrek.com: Who’s the biggest Trek fan in the band, and how has writing these songs changed your perspectives on the show?
Mike Rittenhouse: About 15 years ago or so, I became oddly obsessed with Star Trek. I’d always been a casual fan, but one day it just clicked and I just became obsessed, like I wanted to watch every episode of every series. When we started, I was definitely the biggest Trekkie. I had seen all of the series; I was a fan of everything. The other guys were all pretty much novices — they were mostly fans of The Original Series, maybe some TNG. So they had some homework.
What’s interesting is when we first started out, when people would come up and ask Star Trek questions, everyone would turn and look at me, and expect me to have the answers — to know what episode, and who the character was and whatever. Now Andy has definitely surpassed me in his knowledge of Star Trek. We’re equally fans of it, but he has a way better memory than I do.
Andy Fark: The band was absolutely the catalyst for that. Playing all these conventions and everything, it’s not just people coming up interested in the band. They see us in full Star Trek uniforms at the booth, and they automatically want to talk Star Trek to us. That was happening so often that I was like, “I really need to know my stuff.” So I joined a bunch of Star Trek groups on Facebook, started reading articles, read These Are the Voyages, and barreled my way through every single series. So now, yeah, I think I definitely have surpassed Mike in my Star Trek knowledge, which is kind of strange to say. We just started Five Year Mission: The Podcast, and Mike and I in an upcoming episode play a game of “It’s Real or It’s Fake”—we just basically take either true or made-up facts about Star Trek and quiz each other. We have to say whether the fact from the other person was a real or a fake one, and he definitely stumped me on a few.
Noah Butler: I grew up on The Original Series. It was always on reruns around dinnertime in the early ’80s. We’d always watch it; it was kind of my sci-fi fix between the Star Wars movies. Me and my buddy who lived next door, we loved The Original Series, and would play-act it. We would take cardboard boxes and put buttons and dials on them. My mom had little plastic jewelry-case things that we would flip open and use as communicators. And then I moved on with my life — I saw a little bit of TNG, but I never saw any of the other spinoffs. So when Mike came up with this idea, first of all I thought it was a brilliant idea. But when he was first talking about it, he was just saying, “How about you and me write a bunch of songs and we’ll just record them?” It wasn’t a big thing like, “Here’s the next band!” It just kind of morphed into something bigger. We all knew each other from the music scene.
Chris Spurgin: As I’ve been doing this, my love of the whole Star Trek universe has really expanded and deepened. Writing these songs, you have to attain this level of understanding and appreciation that you didn’t have before.
What were the songs that defined how the band was going to approach The Original Series?
CS: Mike had already written “The Cage,” and we had all heard it. Patrick had recently gotten into the band, and said he wanted to do “Menagerie, Part 1” and I said, “Okay, I’ll do “Menagerie Part 2.” Mike said, “You guys do these songs, but I want you to take something from my song for ‘The Cage’ and put it in your songs.” So we said, “Okay, sure.” Little did we know that not only were we each going to choose the same thing to put in our songs [variations on a lyric from the chorus, “You’re not my hero, what are you doing in my world”] —because Patrick and I did this independently of one another—but they had the same feel. A progression of feeling almost, where his is a little more elevated, and mine is a little more melancholy, which kind of follows what was going on in those episodes. To me, the way we did that, and the way it came together so well, kind of cemented the cohesiveness of this band that we were getting into — how well we worked off one another.
MR: “Shore Leave” is the last song I wrote for Year One. It’s still our most requested song. The opening to it is kind of a joke, because when we first started talking about the band, one of my ideas was that we’d write these songs that were vaguely about episodes of Star Trek, and maybe reference a character now and then, but if you listened to it, you wouldn’t necessarily know it was about Star Trek. And then Patrick joined the band and wrote “Miri” and Chris wrote “Balance of Terror” and “The Naked Time,” and it was like, “Well, I guess we’re not being vague anymore!” That’s when I made that opening to “Shore Leave”: “By now you’ve figured out that all of these songs are about Star Trek.” I put that on the demo as a joke, but we ended up keeping it as part of the song.
NB: We weren’t going to make the title of the episode the title of the song. It would be like, “This song is about ‘The Man Trap,’ but I’m going to write it in a way that only people who know it so well would start to wonder, ‘Is this about that Star Trek episode?’” That was our idea, and then Patrick’s “Miri” was like, “Here’s the episode!” As soon as he sent us “Miri,” we were just like, “There’s really something special here. This is going to happen.”
Patrick O’Connor: I wrote my stuff for Year One very quickly, because it was already like half done when Chris and I got in there and started recording our songs. Mike came over and played me demos for “The Man Trap” and “The Enemy Within.” So I immediately wrote “Miri” and “Charlie X” the first couple of days after they asked me to join, because I wanted something to bring in. And those two were both very easy, because there are musical cues in the episodes. “Miri” has the “Bonk-bonk on the head” chant — which, clearly you want to use that — and “Charlie X” has Spock and Uhura actually performing a song in the episode. So I cheated a bit — it’s not in the same key or anything, and I changed it up a lot, but I took a basic chord progression from that song.
The four main songwriters have each written four songs for all four albums. How does drawing the songs work, and is it ever a tough process?
CS: What we do is take all the songs and put them on pieces of paper, and then we draw them — we’ve used the Gorn mask a couple of times, and one time we were at Noah’s house and there was this urn, so we threw them in there. But we try not to have a lot of back to backs — Mike has two songs back to back on Year One, and that’s it. And we mix up who’s going to open and close an album.
MR: There has been trading on each album. Even on the first album, I gave up “Balance of Terror” so there would be an equal number of songs, because I actually had five songs written for the first album, and Chris only had three, so I gave him “Balance of Terror.” And with the other albums, you know, if someone drew four episodes that weren’t that exciting, and someone else got three or four that were really good ones, we’d make a trade.
PO: “Tomorrow is Yesterday” was one of those things where not all your favorite episodes are the best episodes. Sometimes they’re just the fun ones. That particular episode was that for me. That was the first one that I traded for when we drew songs, because I already had the idea for all the studio trickery [the song rewinds near the end, to mimic the Enterprise traveling back in time via the Slingshot Effect], and I wanted to do it. So I actually traded Mike. I got “Errand of Mercy” and he got that one, and we switched.
One of the interesting things about the songs is that they often are written from the point of view of characters besides Kirk, Spock, McCoy or other Enterprise crewmembers. Sometimes they’re unexpected choices, like Korob in “Catspaw,” the Horta in “The Devil in the Dark” or the Brothers of the Sun in “Bread and Circuses.” Some songs are from a single perspective, and others are almost like a narrator laying out the plot of an episode.
AF: Going from Year One to Year Four, you’ll notice there’s a lot more “deep cut” kind of references to the episodes, where instead of a synopsis of the entire episode, it’ll be one certain character or one certain scene, and we’ll kind of laser-focus in on that. Of course, I’ve only written three songs for the band, so I can’t really speak too much to the songwriting process, but that’s just what I’ve noticed.
NB: We’ve definitely tried to challenge ourselves in our songwriting, and also challenge each other. I think sometimes a certain song lends itself to a more narrative telling of what happened in the episode, and there are others, like “The Naked Time,” when Chris decided to just focus on one three-minute scene of Spock breaking down. I don’t think we always know what’s going to happen with it. Behind the scenes, sometimes we have several different versions of a song. We were even thinking, after everything’s said and done, of putting out an album that’s like, “Here’s the alternate versions of a bunch of these songs.”
CS: When I’m writing these songs, I think I just connect with the human aspect of the episodes. With “The Naked Time,” what really stood out to me is that Spock wants to be so disciplined. If you’ve watched a lot of Star Trek, and especially if you’ve seen Discovery now, you kind of get this understanding of how close he is to falling off the edge. “The City on the Edge of Forever” came from a scene in the episode where they walk by this store window and there’s a song playing. I thought to myself, “I really want to capture that feel” — that song, to me, really encapsulates the feel of the whole episode. I thought a waltz would be a really good way to do that, and it just kind of came together from there.
PO: The guys all have different ways of approaching their writing. I always try to capture the mood of the episode; that’s how I go at it. My early songs were mostly all kind of ’60s style, because the show was made in the ’60s. Since then, I’ve kind of branched out to do different things.
MR: A lot of the times I’ll look at the characters in an episode, and think, “Which one is the most underappreciated?” I’m more drawn to the underdog.
Andy, in coming up with the drum parts for the other members, what have you noticed about the other guys’ styles?
AF: Patrick’s style tends to lean a little more toward poppier stuff, and he has a lot of surf influences. So I’ve got to mix it up with a lot of backbeats. Noah is highly influenced by stuff like Built to Spill and Superchunk, so I have come up with a little bit dreamier type stuff for him. It’s a little more straightforward for Chris, a lot of 1-2-3-4, just speed it up and slow it down here and there. Mike and I both grew up on a lot of pop-punk like NOFX and Lagwagon, so his stuff is a little more what I grew up playing. I’ve had to become a better drummer just to keep up with these yahoos.
What compliment from Star Trek fans has meant the most to you?
MR: We’ve had a lot of people tell us they’ve started appreciating episodes that they didn’t before, because of the songs. Episodes like “Charlie X” or “Miri” or “Catspaw.” And we’ve also had several people tell us that they became fans of Star Trek because of us. That’s the biggest honor right there.
What’s the story behind the song “Happy Birthday, George Takei?”
PO: The happy birthday song is still, I think, our most popular song, mostly because George Takei latched onto it and said nice things. It’s kind of cool that it exists, because that song took less time than anything we’ve ever done. I wrote the words down and had the tune in my head, came home, figured out the chords in about ten minutes, and made a demo. We got together and rehearsed it one night and then recorded it in one night, shot the video, and we were done. The quickest song we’ve ever done, and I still love it.
Which songs were the hardest to write?
MR: “A Piece of the Action.” We had the whole album done and pretty much mixed, and I still didn’t have the lyrics written. The week we were going to send it off, I finally got the words written for it. So I recorded my vocals on Wednesday, Chris came over and recorded his harmonies, and we sent the album off on Friday. I’m very happy with that song, but one of the things I struggled with was the episode has Vic Tayback in it, and I really wanted to make some kind of reference to Alice. But I couldn’t make it work. I couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t take you completely out of the song. Nothing fit. That’s my biggest regret from that, that I couldn’t make that reference.
PO: The one that took a really long time was “I, Mudd,” because I had a very specific idea of what I wanted to do with it. It has that chant that I wanted to fit in. And I actually ended up writing two different songs for it. One that was a very breezy, poppy song, and the other one was the more raucous punk-rock thing that happens in the chorus. They were two different songs. Then one day, I finally said, “I have to make a decision about what I’m going to do with this,” and I ended up putting them together. That might be my favorite one that I’ve written.
CS: The two that were the most stress-inducing for me were “Mirror, Mirror” and “The City on the Edge of Forever,” just because they’re so well known. The expectations are huge. I think they turned out really well, but when I pulled “City on the Edge of Forever,” it was definitely a mix of “Oh, this so cool!” and “Oh no, what am I going to do?”
NB: I find the ones I enjoy writing the most are the absolute trash, throwaway episodes. Because there’s no pressure. It’s like, I can do anything with this. I can pick any moment. A lot of times a great song comes out of a historically bad episode. Like “Spock’s Brain,” which is infamous. Writing a couple of songs [for the EP about the episode] was so easy.
What are your best memories of playing Star Trek conventions?
NB: It would have to be the 50th anniversary when we were the house band in Vegas. That whole five, six days, the whole thing was just amazing.
MR: There’s so many, because we’ve played so many conventions. But I have to say that the one that stands out the most to me is playing Whoopi Goldberg onto the stage at the 50th anniversary in Las Vegas. We played her on with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” obviously referencing her movie. No one but us would know this, but I made sure that we played it in B-flat, because in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, the whole point of the title was it was the password for her to get into the spy thing. And the other question was, “What’s the key?” And the key was B-flat. There’s how meta my nerdism is. But she came on stage dancing, and there were like 8,000 people in that room, and every one of them screaming. It was the most surreal moment possibly ever in my entire life.
CS: Getting to know people like Jeff Combs, who’s a super cool guy. Jeff actually wrote a song about Spock after Nimoy died. Jeff was at Starbase Indy, and we had heard him play this song in Vegas, and I asked him if he intended to record it, and he said, “No, I probably won’t ever do that.” So I said, “Would it be cool if we did it?” and he was like, “Oh yeah, I’d love that!” So I actually have a recording of him playing it acoustically so that we can do it.
AF: Walking backstage in Las Vegas, I was just heading into the green room and there’s Chris and Mike sitting down and chatting with Ira Steven Behr, the showrunner for Deep Space Nine. I was like, “Okay, why is he in our green room?” And it turned out that just hearing us throughout the convention, hanging out backstage or even being out in the audience, he turned out to be a big fan of ours. And that’s what led to us having our music over the end credits of the recent What We Left Behind documentary on Deep Space Nine.
When you’re not writing songs, what’s your favorite TOS episode to watch?
MR: “The Trouble With Tribbles.”
PO: “Mirror, Mirror.”
NB: “The Devil in the Dark.”
AF: “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”
What are the biggest challenges for Year Five?
NB: The hardest songs for me are always the big fan-favorite episodes. On Year Five, I have “All Our Yesterdays.” That’s my mom’s favorite episode, and I know it’s one a lot of people love. So when I approach that, I can’t write something that my mom will never want to listen to.
CS: I was lucky enough to get “Wink of an Eye,” and I already have ideas for how to do it. But I also have “The Savage Curtain,” and “The Savage Curtain” is one of the most putrid episodes in Star Trek ever. It’s so dumb. It has this concept that I don’t think panned out, this idea of how you define “good.” I think that’s a cool concept, I just think it was kind of ineptly done. So “The Savage Curtain” is going to be rough. To me, it’s just finding what to write about. So I’ve actually started on that first, because if I can get that one, I’ll be able to write the others.
AF: When we first started off, the way Mike pitched it to me was that we were going to be a recording-only project. “Eh, you know, we’ll just release it online and not do shows. We’ll just make it like a weird little side project.” Then, of course, I went and booked us our very first live show, and it’s been all downhill since then. We initially had the goal of recording one album per year. As the band got more and more popular, we started playing more and more shows, and we just lost time. We haven’t been able to find that good mix of being able to just sit down and flesh out 16 songs a year and record them.
MR: One of the ones I got is “Turnabout Intruder,” which is the final episode. So I had the first song on the first album, and I’m going to have the last song on the last album. I’m struggling with many different thoughts about that, because it’s a silly episode, and part of me wants to do a silly song. But another part of me knows this is the last song of the five albums— it needs to leave an impression.
You can connect with Five Year Mission at their website, fiveyearmission.net, or on Twitter at @5YearMission. Their videos can be found on their YouTube channel, and ‘Five Year Mission: The Podcast’ is distributed by the Trek Geeks network.
Steve Palopoli (he/him) is a writer and newspaper editor in California. Find him on twitter @stevepalopoli.
Steve Palopoli (he/him) is a writer and newspaper editor in California. Find him on twitter @stevepalopoli.