A voiceover of the lead character talking out a journal or diary entry. At the beginning of the show, this is used to allow the main character to be Mr. Exposition, or to remind watchers of a Story Arc of which the current episode is a part.
Given that this usually supposed to be an official record of a commander's duties, there's some opportunity for humor when he experiences some embarrassing problems or has to make a difficult decision. In that situation, he often has to struggle to phrase his log recording in a way that could downplay it without getting into trouble for writing a false report.
In the middle of the show, it's used to move slow plot points forward (usually things that you suspect were once scenes but were cut for time, budget and/or script pacing).
At the end of the show, it's used to sum up the plot and deliver An Aesop.
One downside of using a "Captain's Log:" the obviousness that, at least the Captain (or whoever recorded the log) would survive the episode, no matter how terrible the situation or what manner of danger was presented the crew. Otherwise, who would have been around to record the log afterwards?
If it's being used for exposition purposes when the viewpoint characters are Late to the Tragedy it probably fits better under Apocalyptic Log, but the two can overlap. Compare Private Eye Monologue, a similar narrative style typically used in Film Noir.
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Classic Star Trek uses this trope in virtually every episode, and the trope is named for it. Kirk would often dictate his log at the start of the show and after every commercial break. Sometimes this discarded all logic, as when he dictated about things he didn't know yet, or recorded his log when he was nowhere near a recording device. (Of course, that show got the log from the Real Life logs in sailing ships, but the use of it in the form of this trope came from the show.)
Though Deep Space Nine did show Odo recording a log ("The Ascent") with a comm badge, leading to the possibility that TOS communicators served that function, too.
In Season 2, there was at least one case when the log was played when Kirk was captive (with hands up etc.) so they are recorded from memory.
This and other situations were due to the perceived need to recapitulate the events of the episode. When it deals with events Captain Kirk was not aware of at the time of recapitulation, Kirk would say "Captains Log, Supplemental", meaning that Kirk added these remarks after he found out what had happened.
Reviewer SF Debris likes to poke fun when logs are made at inappropriate times. Such as when Riker is heading to engineering due to an emergency "and stops along the way to make a log on how urgent this is." Or when Kirk and someone else have a "Freaky Friday" Flip and Kirk somehow makes a log entry while detained in sickbay (as the crew is unaware of the switch).
The Captain's Log was planned as the narrative device for the show by Robert Justman and Herb Solow as a quick way of orienting the viewer in situations that could have been confusing. The "These are the voyages" business at the beginning was meant to be the same type of thing.
Apparently, Star Fleet personnel are in the habit of making logs, possibly to get them ready should they advance to Captain. In one episode of The Next Generation, clues as to why a crewmember committed suicide are sought for in his "junior officer of the third watch of the port nacelle engine room" log or something similar. These revealed the crewman was calm, rational and had no indication that he was contemplating ending his life.
It seemed it was standard for Starfleet personnel to record personal logs, which amount to diaries. Not a bad idea considering the kinds of goofy things that seemed to happen to Federation vessels. Like the episode where Worf kept jumping from alternate reality to alternate reality, and a personal log entry he made was a plot point, as it would keep changing in each reality.
The reboot made a quick joke about star dates in logs when Kirk records one after being marooned. He starts to give the star date, gets confused on what the star date actually is, and finishes with "...whatever" and continues the meat of the log.
Baccano!! 1711 - Whitesmile is separated by several interludes in the form of status reports sent by Victor to his employer, Lucrezia de Dormentaire. The thing is, he was also sleeping with her. And since he figured that Szilard and Carla would send more formal reports covering all the boring details anyways, he decided to personalize his own. Acquiring immortality shortly after the mission, he comes to regret this in 2002 when one of his underlings finds them in a dossier regarding the Lotto Valentino bombings.
Inspector Jennifer: Would it be acceptable to begin my reports to you with 'Hey. How've you been? Feel any lonely 'cause I haven't written to you in so long'?
Explorers on the Moon has a few all-text panels headed "Extract from the Log Book by Professor Calculus."
Rorschach's journal in Watchmen, at least to some extent.
Once upon a Time in Mexico featured an FBI agent who was constantly giving a running commentary on what he was doing into a concealed tape recorder, presumably to be used as a record of what he thinks is a semi-legitimate investigation into a drug lord.
If one assumes that he is the Hero of Another Story (as he is presented in the movie), then this could very well be the source of the narration if he were the star. As it is, he ends up spending much of the movie talking to himself and commenting on whatever foolish thing he is about to do.
12 to the Moon. A member of the crew (not The Captain) records the historic events of the first Moon landing as they happen; unfortunately as the audience can also see it happening, this becomes a Captain Obvious Log instead.
[While being bombarded by meteors] "We are constantly being bombarded by falling rocks."
A different take on this occurs in Gravity. Despite being cut off from Mission Control, the protagonists continue to transmit to them (even asking permission for various actions) in case they or someone else can hear their transmissions and help in some way. This serves as a handy means of exposition for the audience, as well as providing dialogue when a protagonist is by themselves.
The lead character of Empath: The Luckiest Smurf occasionally begins the story with an entry in his personal journal, and in some stories updates his journal with things that took place in the story from his perspective.
Averted in the Aubrey/Maturin books. Aubrey's log is referred to occasionally, along with the logs kept by the Sailing Master, the midshipmen (which Aubrey reviews as part if their training) and there is also a scene where Aubrey specifically refers to his log while appearing before a Navy Board, but the use of "Captains Log" as exposition never appears
Taken a few steps further in one of the X-Wing Series novels, where Wraith Squadron captures an enemy ship where the Captain stores his Captain's Log in hologram form. We're talking hours of holo-footage here. There's so much of it that the Wraiths are able to use it cobble together a CGI Captain to messaround with the Big Bad of the novel in a rather delicious Indy Ploy.
The first couple of paragraphs of The War of the Worlds form an opening narration that sets the scene, then goes above and beyond Foreshadowing only to explicitly lay out the premises of the story that is about to come, namely that we are about to witness an invasion, that the invaders will be from Mars, and that they will ultimately die, mentioned in reverse order.
Frequently used by John Wyndham, with several books opening with a description of what situation humanity will be in by the end of the book. In addition, since the books are often framed as an in-universe account by the main character, some entire books could be seen as fitting the trope. The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes are probably the two best examples.
Parodied in The Witches of Karres: Captain Pausert makes an entry about battling space pirates to explain some unauthorized target practice on a nearby asteroid.
The original Dracula uses this trope for exposition in one chapter, and somewhat unusually the result bears a passing resemblance to a genuine ship's log of the period; remarks about the increasingly weird goings-on aboard the ship initially take a back seat to everyday stuff like position, condition of the ship and provisions etc.
JD of Scrubs constantly talks in voice-over, a internal monologue, and so serving the same role as a Captain's Log. These voice-overs also serve as An Aesop and Double Aesop in, quite literally, every episode.
Agent Cooper's dictaphone notes to Diane (his never-seen secretary) on Twin Peaks serve a similar function.
Janeane Garofolo's character on Felicity, as the never-seen therapist sending dictated comments serves as both An Aesop and a Captain's Log in reverse.
And of course both Doogie Howser, M.D. and Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City summarizing their episodes, quandries and lessons into their computers. In Carrie's case, speaking out loud as she writes her column.
Early seasons of The X-Files had Agent Scully writing reports to her superiors at the end of many of the Monster of the Week episodes. In the final seasons, after David Duchovny left the show, Scully read her journal entries as letters to the missing Mulder.
John-boy Walton of The Waltons kept a journal, and apparently couldn't write without moving his lips...
The early episodes of Red Dwarf often had the ship's AI, Holly, give a spoof captain's log, which (with one exception) were merely one-line gags with no relevance to the plot of the episode.
And again, in later episodes where a hologram from a hologramic ship "beams" aboard Starbug and documents the surroundings into a Dictaphone, Lister whips out a cigarette packet and gives his own captians log. They both trade witty banter discussing each other until Lister mentions having a holo-whip capable of causing pain to holograms which ends the scene. He ate the cigarette...
On the pilot episode of Sliders, Quinn Mallory keeps a videotaped log, so that the audience can follow along with what he's doing. Later, Wade's handwritten diary is used for the occasional introductory voiceover.
Babylon 5 uses this fairly frequently, especially in the later seasons. In this case, not only Captain Sheridan keeps a log, but also Commander Ivanova and Doctor Franklin. Sometimes a distinction is made between their personal and professional logs, and occasionally other characters narrate in a similar way, though without the "Log" intro at the beginning of the voiceover. They are generally used to show the characters' thoughts and reactions in a way that couldn't be done through dialogue, and they additionally help with the intended feel that the show is a historical record of events long-past.
Quark parodies this, along with almost everything else from the original Star Trek.
Starhunter has a few of these, which is to be expected since it's a space exploration show. There's no stardates though, and he's a bit more of a Terse Talker than normal captains.
When 3rd Rock from the Sun did story arcs, Dick explained what happened last week with a Trek-style "High Commander's Log". Sally and Tommy later got into the act as well and, in fact, the first time Sally did this, she opened with "Lieutenant's Log; yes, I have one too."
Odo: Commence station security log, stardate 47282.5. At the request of Commander Sisko, I will hereafter be recording a daily log of law enforcement affairs. The reason for this exercise is beyond my comprehension, except perhaps that Humans have a compulsion to keep records and files — so many, in fact, that they have to invent new ways to store them microscopically. Otherwise their records would overrun all known civilization. My own very adequate memory not being good enough for Starfleet, I am pleased to put my voice into this official record of this day. Everything's under control. End log.
Deep Space Nine, however, tended to avoid this, leading to very few episodes having stardates. The above example in "Necessary Evil" ends up the equivalent of a Private Eye Monologue.
Star Trek in general liked to play around with the Captain's Log a bit, especially in the later series:
On Deep Space Nine, when the Cardassians retake their station from the Federation, Gul Dukat actually makes some log entries of his own.
On Voyager, "Muse" actually opens with some actors from some extraterrestrials' roughly Bronze Age culture putting on a theatrical production with something a lot like a Greek Chorus reciting some of Voyager's logs to their patrons in the audience to set the tone for their story.
The main character in The Invisible Man starts every episode with a famous quote, usually foreshadowing the episode's plot.
One episode had Darien narrating a flashback and starting it off with a quote, causing the listener to stop him ask him about his quoting.
Each First Wave episode starts with a fake Nostradamus quote, followed by the hero's exposition of what it could possibly mean. Sounds like he is reading from a journal.
Sheldon keeps a log on The Big Bang Theory, including stardate. With appropriately geeky attention to detail, the stardate is correct, working from 1987 (the first season of STTNG) as stardate 41000.
Good Luck Charlie: The titular baby's big sister Teddy is a recording a video diary with pearls of wisdom (mixed in with her own self-glorification) for her sister when Teddy (being a decade and a half older) is out on her own. It forms a substantial portion of the narrative.
The "Dear Dad' episodes of Mash used Hawkeye's letters home for the same purpose. Letters by Fr. Mulcahy, Radar, Klinger and Col. Potter were also used. Major Winchester taped nearly all his correspondence to his family, creating an actual (rather than mental) vocal narrative.
The title character's diary on Mr. Belvedere is the "end-of-the-episode" version.
Back To The Ship follows the increasingly nonsensical Captain's Logs of Captain Kirk after he ingests way too much LSD. In particular, it does a great job of mocking the precisely numerical nature of the original logs:
"Stardate 2 point... something, f*** it, I've taken too much LSD."
The long-running radio series Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar used the title character's expense account entries; in the show's introduction, Johnny was credited as "The Man with the Action-Packed Expense Account".
Episodes of the 1940s radio series Voyage of the Scarlet Queen began and ended with Philip Carney, the Queen's captain, making entries in the ship's log.
Halo Wars plays this straight. In this case, though, it goes: Captain's Report, February 14, 2531. Just to be different.
The Neverwinter Nights 2 module "Dark Waters" has a parody of this trope as a dialogue option at the end of the first chapter, with the player commenting that he didn't bang any green skinned space babes on this particular voyage, and Daniel and Heather giving classic Spock/McCoy reactions.
Kazuma Ardygun from Super Robot Wars W keeps a diary that he writes on at the beginning of each chapter. When he can't update it, his sister Mihiro takes over for him.
In Sluggy, it's also parodied with a different "Captain's log" (he's a rabbit; it's the wooden kind of log, which he scratches and bites as I guess rabbits do) and then right away in the same comic by having the "text" he appears to be writing actually be another character speaking out loud. Basically amounts to a triple subversion.
In The Transformers three part pilot, Spike uses his diary at the end of each episode as a framing device, but this was never used again. The Transformers Ladybird Books however, borrowed this from the show and used it occasionally.
played with in Family Guy when Peter "narrates" his life for some reason
Given a Shout-Out by Toy Story: When Buzz first "lands", he begins recording, and says "stardate". He later gives a Vulcan Salute to Woody.
The Pilot Movie of the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command spinoff takes the homage further; having Buzz making log entries incessantly, to the point where he's about to be brainwashed by the bad guys and opts to record his final moments — and the bad guys lampshade it but write it off as Buzz being a control freak as usual. Too bad for them he wasn't recording, he was transmitting and calling in the Big Dang Heroes.
The Futurama episode "Love's Labours Lost in Space" parodies this over and over again. Zapp trying to use Star Trek's "Stardate", which is nonsense in the Futurama world, Leela giving up when she fails to find An Aesop in the episode, and then there's this exchange:
Zapp: Captain's journal, stardate 3000.6.
Kif: Who are you talking to, sir?
Zapp: You! Aren't you getting this?
A cut scene from Kif Gets Knocked Up a Notch was also to have featured Zapp's voice over to the Captain's log... a literal fallen tree that he found in the jungle.
Beast with a Billion Backs adds "Stardate... The Year of the Tiger."
Practically every episode of Doug, involves Doug writing the episode's events into his journal.
A short on I Am Weasel that featured Weasel and Baboon as a captain and first mate on a ship has Weasel doing the traditional approach with paper, and Baboon using an actual log.
Dexter's Laboratory had an episode in which in the first few minutes, Dexter does a voice-over starting with "Dexter's Log, stardate 1234.5". This was one of the show's many homages to Star Trek, but still...
One of the space episodes of The Ren & Stimpy Show has Captain Ren reporting to his log (not that one) with a helmet that sends thoughts bulging down a wire into a computer.
In My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Twilight Sparkle's letters to Princess Celestia on the Aesop of the episode are like this. Granted, unlike most examples, this happens at the end of each episode, but the basic idea is the same.
In season four the main cast actually get a collective diary to track the aesop of the day.
South Park usually ends with one of the children giving a Captain's Log style Aesop. Occasionally subverted and lampshaded: