Lost in Translation is approaching a major anniversary mark, so it’s a good time to look back over the years. Today, let’s start at the beginning, with the first review posted, Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the early days of Lost in Translation, I went after the easier, low-hanging fruit, and ST:TNG was well in reach. I had watched both the original and the then new Trek when TNG first aired in 1987.
When TNG’s pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint”, first aired, the original had been in syndication for eighteen years, gaining a fan base that was too young to watch the series when it first aired. In between the last original Trek episode and “Encounter at Farpoint”, there had been an animated series and four films, beginning with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, all with the original cast. TNG, though, guaranteed a weekly hit of Star Trek, thanks to first-run syndication; ratings weren’t going to be an issue, just sales to TV stations.
The first two seasons were rough. TNG re-used some scripts for a proposed but unfulfilled Star Trek II TV series with the original crew of the Enterprise. The Star Trek II series ultimately became ST:TMP, and the mappings of characters can be seen between the movie and TNG. The obvious ones are Kirk and Decker to Riker, Xon, the Vulcan science officer who died in a transporter accident, to Data, Ilya to Troi, and Argyle and MacDougal to Scotty. The mappings aren’t perfect; there was an effort to make the new characters their own selves. With Troi, some of the Deltan culture, such as openness to sex, had to be toned down for television. Data’s quest for humanity mirrors Spock’s quest to balance and integrate his Vulcan and Human halves, but the paths each took are different.
It does take time for a TV series to get settled in, for character to develop to what fans will remember. TNG was no different. Season three was when the characters sorted themselves out. Still, the worst episode of TNG, the second season flashback episode “Shades of Gray”, is still better than TOS‘ worst, the third season’s “Spock’s Brain”. Meanwhile, the best of TNG pushed the envelope of Trek storytelling. “Darmok” explored the language gap in first contact while bypassing the universal translator.
In the time since the last TNG episode, the two-parter “All Good Things…”, in 1994, more Trek has been made. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which began during TNG‘s run and Star Trek:Voyager began the year after TNG‘s end. Star Trek: Enterprise began after Voyager‘s run ended. Today, there are three concurrent Trek series, Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the animated Star Trek: Lower Decks. Picard is a direct sequel to TNG while Lower Decks follows the crew of another starship in the same era. At this point, TNG is the more familiar Trek series, thanks to having a longer run and and the subsequent series set in the same era.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is a good example of a successful reboot, matching the original series in quality, both highs and lows, and becoming its own entity.
Still looking at fan adaptations this week. It turns out, animated Star Trek fan works are a thing, along with fan podcast series. Two weeks ago, Lost in Translation looked at Curt Danhausen’s memorial to James Doohan, “The Quintain” and how he used Filmmation’s art style and approach to animation to be a one-man studio. This week’s review, Star Trek: The Paradise Makers, looks at what a team can do.
The Paradise Maker is a two-part series from Sagittarii Productions, with special effects by Tommorrows Magic. The feature runs over two hours, all animated. It took the team four years to complete. Animation styles include rotoscoping and chroma-key to add in architecture and iconic Star Trek gadgets.
The feature uses a known idea from Star Trek: TOS, that of Star Fleet officers going rogue. There have been a few in Kirk’s time who have ignored orders and gone their own way, including Commodore Matt Decker in “The Doomsday Machine”, Garth of Izar (“Whom Gods Destroy”), Commander Spock (“The Menagerie”), and even James T. Kirk himself (Star Trek: The Motion Picture among other events). Dr. Xiang LI’s self-aggrandizing fits in.
The animation style fits in with the Filmmation series while being a little more fluid. The aquashuttle comes from the animated series, though not lifted directly. The use of chroma-key allows for using real settings and architectural photos and film to save time. Even then, the small team still needed four years. The regular cast of characters are recognizable in appearance. Lost in Translation has mentioned before on how difficult it is to portray Spock, so props to Jay Prichard for tackling the role and trying to balance cold logic with hidden human emotion.
The Paradise Makers fits in the first season of Star Trek, with Dr. Mark Piper (“Where No Man Has Gone Before”) retiring and new Ship’s Surgeon Dr. Leonard McCoy reporting for duty. The Enterprise and the Bowfin appear as expected, with the animated series having influence for stylization and requirements for animation. Animation also allows for sets that the live action series didn’t detail, such as ground installations on airless worlds, something The Paradise Makers shows early in Part 1. There’s always a tradeoff; more time needed but fewer restrictions save those imposed by the setting.
The plot would fit in with the original Star Trek. The feature is a morality play on what happens when ambition is not tempered. Dr. Xiang Li risks the lives of the planet and of the crew of the Enterprise all to become a god. Even Garth of Izar at least waited until he became a captain before playing god. However, as Arthur C. Clarke puts it, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” something Star Trek touches on repeatedly.
The Paradise Makers was put together by fans of the original Star Trek. Ideas that appeared in the original and the animated series appear, with nods to the progression of today’s technology. The feature has core elements of Star Trek from the superficial – the gadgets, the sounds, the music – to the building blocks, including the message wrapped up in a captivating story. The Paradise Makers also shows what a team can do to put together a feature, even if it takes them four years to complete.
Continuing the look at fan works today with a Star Trek animated fan film, “The Quintain” by Curt Danhauser, part of his continuation of the animated series. Have a watch; it’s only twenty-three minutes long.
Lost in Translation has reviewed Filmation’s animated Star Trek, a series that is and isn’t considered canon, depending on the episode and how the studio feels any given day. “Yesteryear” is accepted as being part of Spock’s past, but other episodes haven’t been that embraced. For an animated series in theory aimed at a younger audience, the series touched on adult themes, turning the series into a continuation of the original Trek and an introduction into the franchise for pre-teens. The Filmation budget meant reuse of animated scenes and actions, to save time and money, but the restrictions allowed the production team to determine what was important for the episode.
With “The Quintain”, Danhauser wanted to do something for the 100th birthday of James Doohan, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott on the original Trek and the voice of a number of characters on the animated series, including Lieutenant Arex, the Guardian of Forever, Koloth, Korax, and Kor. Danhauser goes further, playing all but three voices in “The Quintain”. The episode brings in a few elements from the movies, including Scotty’s nephew, Peter Preston, who appears in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, adding some more depth to the relationship between the two.
Danhauser mimics the Filmation style well in the episode. The character designs, even for the new characters, would fit into an episode of the animated Trek. Danhauser uses animation to expand the diversity of the cast, adding more Federation species on to the Enterprise, something a live action budget would be hard-pressed to do. For a one-person studio, the Filmation style is an asset, providing a way to keep the animation under control.
“The Quintain” has character moments, action moments, and a satisfying twist. Danhauser caught the essence of Star Trek, live action or animated. The efforts and work as a one-person studio pays off in an entertaining episode that is almost indistinguishable from Star Trek: The Animated Series.
Fanfilms are a way for budding filmmakers, actors, and crew to get a taste of what making a film is like. But what happens when the fans are professionals already in the business? Star Trek Continues answers that question.
Going back a bit, I mentioned the approach taken with fanworks, how, because they’re made by fans, there’s the possibility of something lacking either through inexperience or lack of budget. With Star Trek Continues, lack of experience isn’t a factor. However, even with permission from Paramount, for-profit doesn’t work, so budgets could be a limiting factor.
Star Trek Continues was meant to finish off Captain James T. Kirk’s five year mission and be the bridge from the original Trek to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The cast includes Vic Mignona as Kirk, Todd Haberkorn as Spock, McCoy portrayed by Frank Namecek for two episodes then by Chuck Huber for the remainder of the episodes, Chris Doohan as Montgomery Scott, Grant Imahara as Sulu, Kim Stinger as Uhura, and Wyatt Lenhart as Chekov. New regular characters were introduced – Dr. McKennah (Michele Specht) whose role as ship’s councellor is an experiment by Star Fleet; Chief of Security Drake (Steven Dengler), Kipleigh Brown as Helmsman Smith, backup to Sulu; Martin Bradford as Dr. M’Benga, picking the role from the original series as played by Booker Bradshaw, and Cat Roberts as Lt. Palmer. A solid lineup, indeed. Chris Doohan is the sone of James Doohan, who originally portrayed Scotty, and while they may not look exactly right, the mannerisms are dead on.
The cast is a strong point for the series. The characters are easily recognizable, not just physically, but in personality. Star Trek Continues also shows just how difficult it is to play Spock. Leonard Nimoy made the character both alien and familiar, given audiences the empathy to understand Spock even if the character found that illogical. Zachary Quinto had the extra challenge of portraying a younger Spock along side Nimoy, who had brought the character through an arc of understanding and bringing his warring selves together in peace. Haberkorn does figure out the role after a few episodes, getting more comfortable in the role. With McCoy, Namecek brought out the warmer side of McCoy, the doctor who cares for all life. Huber brought out the more acerbic McCoy; both are viable approaches to the character. Mignona has William Shatner’s style of acting down pat, not overblown but still fitting the story and the series. The series makes an effort to expand several characters’ roles, especially Uhura’s. Stinger is allowed to have Uhura as more than the woman opening hailing frequencies. Chekov receives a promotion as he tries to figure out what his Star Fleet career will be.
The guest cast includes actors from a number of other science fiction franchises. Michael Forest reprises his role of Apollo from “Who Mourns for Adonais?” Erin Gray, who played Col. Wilma Deering on Buck Rogers in the 24th Century, plays a Star Fleet Commodore in two episodes. Lou Ferrigno, from The Incredible Hulk, puts on green makeup again as an Orion. Colin Baker, the sixth Doctor, makes an appearance and Nicola Bryant, who played his companion Peri, appears in the two part finale. John de Lancie returns to Star Trek alongside original Battlestar Galactica alumna Anne Lockhart in an episode about racism and barriers. Gigi Edgley from Farscape and Rekha Sharma and Jamie Bamber from the new Battlestar round out the guest cast. Special mention to Marina Sirtis for portraying the /Enterprise/’s computer, originally voiced by Majel Barrett, and to Michael Dorn for taking the computer role in the third episode.
The episodes themselves span the range of setting up continuity, returning to ideas explored before, and morality plays much like in the original series. “Fairest of Them All” takes place in the mirror universe after the alternate Spock sends Kirk back to his proper universe, showing the fallout of the events in “Mirror, Mirror.” “Come Not Between Dragons” shows how a situation can change once more knowledge is discovered about it. “What Ships Are For” is as subtle as the original series episode, “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”; subtle as a sledgehammer and just as needed today as the original episode was in 1969, covering refugees and efforts taken to keep them out.
The music is as important to the story as the dialogue. The score is based on the works of Alexander Courage, re-recorded for the series. Star Trek Continues could have just used a recording of music from the original series. Instead, a new arrangement is recorded to match the action of the episode, whether it’s a battle in space, a romantic scene, or the ramping up of tension. The final episode has the score bringing in elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s music from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
The sets are indistinguishable from those found in the original series. Sound effects are accurate. Various regular locations onboard the /Enterprise/, such as the bridge, sickbay, engineering, and quarters, are faithfully recreated down to the props. New sets, such as for planets visited, may be made with modern techniques but reflect the style from the original series. Camera technology now allow for shots not previously possible, but those were used to accent the style of the original, not replace. Someone unaware of the nature of Star Trek Continues seeing the sets would be convinced that they were watching the original.
Costuming follows the approach taken with sets. Star Fleet uniforms are recognizable. Romulan uniforms are recognizable. The colours are bright, almost Technicolor. Even the guest stars’ outfits, new to the series, carry elements that fit in with the original series, from fabric to design. The truly alien creatures, such as the ones from “Come Not Between Dragons”, even with the better articulation thanks to modern technology, still look like they came from the original series.
What can fans in the business do in a fanfilm? What they set out to do. They have the experience and the love of the original to bring out the what drew audiences the first time again to give an ending to Captain Kirk’s historic mission. Star Trek Continues is very much Star Trek thanks to the effort of cast and crew.
Lost in Translations tends to avoid parodies. The nature of a parody means that the original won’t be necessarily recognizable in the final product. There are exceptions; Airplane! is a parody of 70s airplane disaster film while being an adaptation of Zero Hour!, using the original film as a scaffold to hang all the jokes and gags. So why look at The Orville, a gentle parody of Star Trek?
Let’s take a step back before answering that question. Science fiction is known for tackling subjects in the time it was written despite moving the problem to the future. Star Trek is known for this, with episodes like “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” pointing out the insanity inherent in racism and “The Trouble With Tribbles” exploring the dangers of removing a species from its natural habitat. The later Trek series continued in the same vein, exploring issues that appeared in eras they debuted in. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine may have been somewhat prophetic, predicting social issues that came about during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq years after DS9 finished.
Why look at The Orville, then? The Orville, created by Seth MacFarlane, set out to be a gentle parody of Trek, adding a layer of comedy to the proceedings. While the original series had a number of light episodes, such as “The Trouble With Tribbles”, “A Piece of the Action”, and “Shore Leave”, later series had trouble finding the touch needed. The goal of The Orville was to pull back from the grim and gritty direction science fiction was taking and show a bright potential future because and despite of humanity. The series also looks at today’s social issues through the science fiction lens.
The series stars MacFarlane as Captain Ed Mercer, commander of the mid-level exploratory vessel Orville; Adrianne Palicki as Commander Kelly Grayson, first officer and Ed’s ex-wife; Scott Grimes as Lieutenant Gordon Malloy, the ship’s daredevil helmsman and Ed’s best friend, Penny Johnson Jerald as Doctor Claire Finn, the ship’s chief medical officer; Halston Sage as Lieutenant Alara Kitan, the ship’s chief of security who hails from a high gravity world, Peter Macon as Lieutenant Commander Bortus, the second officer who comes from a single sex species, J. Lee as Lieutenant John LaMarr, navigator and, later, chief engineer, and Mark Jackson as Isaac, science officer and an artifical life form on board to study humans. The make up of the crew is more inspired from Star Trek: The Next Generation than from the original Trek. Indeed, the uniforms wouldn’t look out of place on board the USS Enterprise-D.
The Orville herself is a shiny ship, brightly lit, with familiar amenities including the bridge, crew quarters, a lounge, a shuttle bay, even a holodeck. Missing are transporters and a quantum drive replaces the Trek‘s warp drive. The Orville acts as home for the crew during the mission, a base of operations, and a way to get to the adventure, much like the Enterprise in Trek. Uniforms are colour coded by department. Someone unaware of The Orville‘s creation would be wondering why things are different on a Star Trek series.
There are differences. Characters on The Orville are as likely to screw up as people are today.. Little mistakes, major mistakes, it’s what the characters do afterward that counts. The characters are also more likely to use less high-brow entertainment. Where on Star Trek, characters would listen to classical music or read classic literature, Picard’s preferences for Dixon Hill notwithstanding, the crew of the Orville are listening to classic rock, reading popular literature, and enjoying a few drinks in the crew lounge. On The Orville, humanity can reach the stars and still listen to a rocking tune.
The Orville, even with the comedy aspects, does tackle the social issues of today. from cultural differences to social media use. One episode, “Mad Idolatry” examines Trek‘s Prime Directive, the non-interference with pre-warp cultures, and the nature of cultural contamination, with the result being that, while Kelly did influence a young society, the society itself realizes that it didn’t matter who or what happened, the conflicts would have occurred one way or another; Kelly’s portrayal as a god wasn’t a catalyst. Being science fiction and being part comedy allows The Orville to examine the issues, poke and prod them, and present them in a way that the audience can take and mull over. The presentations aren’t heavy-handed, unlike “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, but do leave the audience thinking.
As a parody, The Orville may be doing Star Trek better than current Trek offerings. The series hearkens back to both The Original Series and The Next Generation, with episodes that explore characters while still examining today’s social issues. The series provides a change of pace from grim and gritty, allowing its audience to see a future of hope, much like Star Trek pioneered in.
Lost in Translation has looked at fan works in the past. When reviewing a fan work, the quality isn’t as important as the understanding of the source works. Crossovers add a wrinkle, as two or more sources are being brought together and something has to give to make the story interesting. Crossing four or more sources is a challenge to have everyone involved have a role while keeping each source unique. Along comes “Galactic Battles”. It’s easier to watch it than to read a synopsis, so go ahead an watch the short film. Keep watching past the credits.
“Galactic Battles” brings together four separate sources, two film series – Star Wars and the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot – and two video game series – Halo and Mass Effect. Each of the settings is obvious. The main setting, from Halo, gets the narrator explaining the newfound peace, thanks to the Master Chief. The Normandy from Mass Effect and the Enterprise from Star Trek have appropriate lighting, complete with lens flares for the latter. The Millennial Falcon gets the Star Wars wipes at the beginning and end of the ship’s appearance.
The creators did their homework. They are well aware of the details of each setting. The music blends the themes of all the sources, melding them as the camera switches view. The controls for each ship are unique and recognizable. The costumes are appropriate. Bonus points for having Garrus, one of the aliens, specifically, a Turian, from the Mass Effect series. The Master Chief’s armour is well done, too. Everyone is recognizable, from red, gold, and blue uniforms on the Enterprise to Joker and his baseball cap from Mass Effect.
The little details matter. The circle wipe when Star Wars first appears, how Shepard enters and leaves a scene, the lens flares on the Enterprise‘s bridge, the view from the Master Chief’s HUD, all add to the feel of the sources. Getting Mark Meer, who played the male Shepard in Mass Effect to reprise his role also helped. Details can make or break a major studio’s adaptation. With fan works, they are necessary, and “Galactic Battles” delivers.
The short is a visual masterpiece. Jupiter hanging in space as the battle rages on provides colour to what would normally be just black space and metal ships. The special effects, sound as well as visual, matches each setting’s contribution. Phasers sound like phasers, not like TIE fighter lasers or Reaper cutting torches. There’s care taken to make sure each element looks and sounds appropriate, even in the post-credits sequence.
The key issue with making a crossover meant to appeal to fans each original source is making sure characters from each one has a hand in solving the problem. With “Galactic Battles”, the solution starts with Spock, but Shepard, Master Chief, and Han all have a role to play in putting the solution in action. The breakneck pace doesn’t let up as they put the daring plan into action.
“Galactic Battles” is a fun fan short to watch. It handles each original source well, keeping the little details that define the originals.
And for those interested, there is a behind the scenes look to “Galactic Battles”, showing what it took to make the short.
Last week, Lost in Translation looked at a fan-made audio drama, including the nature of audio plays. The post goes into greater detail about the needs of an audio adaptation. This week, Lost in Translation looks at another fan audio work, Star Trek: Outpost, from Giant Gnome Productions.
Like Starship Excelsior last week, Outpost is a Star Trek fan audio series set after the end of the Dominion War. However, Outpost is set on Deep Space Three, a neglected space station near the borders of both the First Federation, first seen in “The Corbomite Maneuver”, and the Ferengi Alliance. The relative calm of the sector compared to those abutting Klingon space, Romulan space, and the ones consumed by the Dominion War meant that Starfleet did what it could to keep the station running without spending too many finite resources. Commanding the station is Captain Montaigne Buchanan, an efficiency expert who has managed to keep the station going with fewer and fewer resources. Captain Buchanan is looking forward to his efforts at the station being rewarded with a promotion to Admiral. However, the transfer of Lt. Commander Greg “Tork” Torkelson from the USS Remington to become as the station’s Executive Officer, throws a few hitches into Buchanan’s approach. Torkelson, as the Exec, also gains command of the USS Chimera, an Oberth-class starship similar to the USS Grissom from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Deep Space Three has a reputation for being a place where Starfleet personnel whose careers have nosedived go to, a collection of misfits and outcasts. The Chimera‘s Chief Engineer, Chief Petty Officer Bert Knox, is one such character. His goal is to keep the Chimera functioning, going so far as to salvage other decommissioned Oberths and to install alien technologies when the proper part isn’t available. Torkelson’s arrival, though, brings in new ideas on how to make Deep Space Three relevant again. Tork’s plans include re-opening parts of the station shut down to conserve power and resources, including the station’s mall. While Torkelson’s choice to run the station – Ferengi brothers Vurk and Tirgil – may not work out as well as he hopes, Deep Space Three is beginning to turn around from its reputation. Whether it can while Orion pirates, a rogue Klingon warrior, the return of the First Federation, and the general weirdness of the Pinchot Expanse are around is another question.
As mentioned last week, audio works need to create the setting solely through sound. Redundant, but success and failure hinge on making sure the audience knows what’s around through sound cues. Outpost succeeds here; the Chimera and Deep Space Three have different sounds, and starship and station both individualize their sets even further. The bridge of the Chimera has the proper sounds as expected and is different from the engineering section and sick bay. Likewise, Deep Space Three’s command centre is different from the station’s sick bay and from the mall. And when power is lost in one episodes, the background sounds disappear.
Like Excelsior, the cast of Outpost is more than compentent, and the two productions share a couple of voice actors, Larry Phelan and Eleiece Krawiec. Of note, the father-and-son team of Ben Cromey and Doug Cromey are fun to listen to as the Vurk and Tirgil, especially their rallying cry, “We’re gonna die!” Combined with the writing, the episodes of Outpost are compelling, with characters who have depth and can be empathized with, even when they’re not immediately sympathetic.
One thing the creators of Outpost do is create “minisodes”, or mini-episodes, when at conventions. They bring in netbooks with USB microphones and get volunteers from the audience to read parts in a script to show how a show is put together. Overnight, they edit the parts together, add in the sound effects and music, then present the minisode in a panel the next day. A good example of how the creators get this done is the minisode, “Ferengi Apprentice“, recorded at the Denver Comic Con. They had some problems with the recoding due to an unshielded cable interfering with a microphone, so the episode was redone, but both versions, the original recorded at the panel and the redone one, are included to show the differences.
Star Trek: Outpost is another fan-made production that takes pains to fit in with the original work. The effects are correct for the era, and the Chimera‘s mish-mash of parts include sounds from Star Treks of old. The result is a well-done adaptation that demonstrates how to adapt well.
Last week’s Lost in Translation featured a discussion about fan adaptations, including a rationale on what works would get analyzed. This week, a look at a Star Trek fan audio productions.
Radio serials were the forerunner of today’s TV series. Families would gather around the radio and tune in favourite series. In the Thirties, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had his own, live, show that had a large audience. Orson Welles had Mercury Theatre on the Air, the production that scared the US with War of the Worlds. The key is to engage the audience’s imagination. Unlike theatre before, movies concurrent with radio, and television afterwards, radio relies on just one sense, hearing. The cast and crew have to create an immersive setting while just using audio. Sound effects become key. The more real the situation sounds, the more the audience buys in. Creative use of sound can also create the mood desired. Welles’ War of the Worlds has a memorable scene where one plaintive voice calls out over radio, “Is there anyone out there?” over and over while the background sounds fade out one by one as the Martian advance, leaving the audience in horror of what’s happening even if they don’t realize why*.
Even with television ubiquitous these days, radio plays still abound. National Public Radio (NPR) adapted the original Star Wars trilogy into radio serials shortly after each movie was released. BBC Radio 4 still airs radio dramas on Saturdays. With the proliferation of portable devices capable of playing .mp3 files, from dedicated .mp3 players to cell phones to tablets, audio plays join music and audio books as something to listen to when the eyes are busy elsewhere.
Fan works, however, exist at the forbearance of the person or company owning the original material. Fan fiction tends to get overlooked; unless the fanfic is notorious, a blind eye is usually turned. There is also no barrier to entry when it comes to fan fiction; all that is needed is a means to write, available with all computers or even pen and paper. Some rights holders encourage fan fiction, with limitations, because of the creativity the endeavor encourages. With original visual works, like TV series and movies, the closer a fan work is to matching, the closer the work gets to being an infringement. Full video also has expenses; while the cost of professional-quality recording and editing equipment has dropped, creating sets and costumes still have material costs. If the fan production charged a fee for viewing, the work becomes a copyright and trademark infringement and corporate attack lawyers will have cease-and-desist orders issued before the first payment can be processed. There are ways around, including donation in kind, where a fan can help by providing equipment, costumes, or props that are needed.
Audio works don’t have the range of expenses a video would. Where a video would need props, sets**, and costumes, audio just needs the sound effects of those elements. The actors don’t even need to be in the same city or even continent, thanks to the Internet and cloud storage. Each actor just needs a good microphone and a way to record, which even the Windows operating system had since version 3.1. The audio production, though, needs to use sound to build the sets, so details that get taken for granted by audiences, such as subtle creaks in an old castle or the rumble of a starship’s main drive through the hull, have to be added to help the listener create the image in his or her mind. One wrong detail, even if it’s just getting a sequence of beeps on a starship’s viewscreen out of order, can break the suspension of disbelief and lose listeners.
Strength of writing is also important. Getting the audio details correct does go towards satisfying an audience, but if characters aren’t acting as expected or the plot is dull, listeners won’t tune in. Some original works, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, and Harry Potter, have settings broad enough that new stories can be created in them without ever interacting with the original characters. In the case of Star Trek, a fan work could focus on the crew of a different starship, exploring different sectors at any point in the history of the setting. The precedent already exists with Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise. With Harry Potter, the novels already show a glimpse of a larger wizarding world; setting an audio series at a different wizard school isn’t farfetched. There’s room to play, and that sort of room allows for creative interpretations. Let’s take a look at a fan-made Star Trek audio series.
Starship Excelsior began its first season in 2007. Set on board the Sovereign-class starship, the USS Excelsior, hull code NCC-2000C, the series is in its fourth season. The main plot of the first three seasons picks up to dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation and ties them together as the crew of the Excelsior investigates an anomaly that leads into dark revelations that threaten the survival of not just the Federation, but the entire galaxy. The fourth season starts a new arc as the Excelsior begins an exploration mission, with a mixture of lighter and darker episodes, though some still harken back to the earlier episodes.
The cast of characters consists of the Starfleet officers assigned to the Excelsior. The ship’s captain, Alcar Dovan, received the command after the previous commander, Rachel Cortez, died in action. Dovin joined Starfleet to explore, not to engage in military action, but he has excelled at surviving in battles, something he has grown to hate. His first officer, Alecz Lorhrok, is an unjoined Trill, chosen to be the exec by Dovan. The by-the-book operations manager, Neeva, is an Orion, dealing with the difficulties of being one of the few of her people in Starfleet. The chief of security, Asuka Yubari, was severely wounded in the special forces, moved to intelligence, then was assigned to the Excelsior. The helmsman, Bev Rol, also served in intelligence, where he lost his idealism. The ship’s surgeon, Doctor Melissa Sharp, wanted to be a researcher, away from patients, but found her career stalled as a result of her beliefs before signing up on the Excelsior. The characters all have their own motivations, from Dr. Sharp’s opposition to military engagements to Rol’s atonement for past misdeeds. They clash, they argue, they laugh, they are fully formed, brought to life by actors who could easily get into professional voice work if they so choose.
The writing of the series is tight and takes into account Trek canon. As mentioned about, the major plot of the first three seasons centred around two dangling plot threads from Star Trek: The Next Generation, one involving the Borg. The first three seasons are also one continuous story, as opposed to being episodic. Missing an episode means missing plot and character developments. The fourth season has more single-story episodes, but still has an arc to it. Listeners can easily get attached to the characters and worry about their survival and success. There are times when the writers’ fannish tendencies*** show up; Dovan’s exclamations owe a lot to Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars, with a nod to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld with a colour that Bolian vision can see that humans can’t.
The audio sets are also built well. The sounds that are expected from a Starfleet vessel are all there, from the rumbling of the engines to the beeps of consoles and PADDs to the alarm klaxons. Even if someone was just tuning into the middle of an episode, the effects would be enough to tell them where the story was set. The result is a series that is very much Star Trek, though in the darker realms of the franchise.
Of special note, Starship Excelsior ran a Kickstarter campaign to create an episode for the fiftieth anniversary of /Star Trek/’s first airing. The campaign was more than successful, letting them rent a proper recording studio and fly their audio engineer in from Toronto. More than that, the success allowed the series get Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Walter Koenig (Chekov), Robin Curtis (Saavik, The Search for Spock), Joanne Linville (the Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident”), and Jack Donner (Subcommander Tal, “The Enterprise Incident”) to reprise their original characters in a new story that still ties into the Starship Excelsior storyline. “Tomorrow’s Excelsior” is a one hour, forty minute story where Uhura and Chekov must save Starfleet, the Federation, the galaxy, and the future while avoiding war with the Romulans, with a solution that fits well with their characters. The series took care in emphasizing in the Kickstarter campaign that all money raised would be put into the production of the episode, with the main costs being getting the actors they wanted. The episode is available for free from Starship Excelsior‘s website.
* Creative use of sound continues even today. Alien, a science fiction horror movie, removed background music, leaving the audience no cues on what was about to happen.
** Even with green screening and CGI available, some physical elements are still needed, if only to give the actors something to play off.
*** To be fair, even professional works will have this sort of thing. The Serenity from Firefly had a cameo in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, appearing overhead on Caprica.
The original Star Trek recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of the air date of its first episode, “The Man Trap”. Since then, the series has had a number of adaptations, including feature films, continuation TV series, games, comics, books, and even a cartoon. However, when the last first-run episode, “Turnabout Intruder” aired, fans had to resign themselves to watching the series in syndication, despite the efforts put into letter writing campaigns.
The dearth of new Star Trek episodes came to an end in 1973, when Gene Roddenberry worked with Filmation to create an animated series. Now known as Star Trek: The Animated Series, to distinguish it from other Trek entries, the cartoon brought back the crew of the USS Enterprise for two more seasons, this time on Saturday mornings. Filmation is best known for series such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, its spin-off series She-Ra: Princess of Power, and Ghostbusters*, and animation techniques that were budget friendly, including long establishing shots and animation reuse. During the series’ two seasons, twenty-two episodes aired.
Budget-friendly animation helped ST:TAS, allowing the series to bring back most of the cast to reprise their roles for the cartoon. With the reuse of animation, artists could ensure that the characters looked like their actors. Also because of animation, aliens were no longer limited to looking like humans in rubber masks. Two new crewmembers were introduced, Lieutenant M’ress, a cat-like communications officer, and Lieutenant Arex, a tripedal navigation officer. Both additions allowed Star Fleet and the Federation to feel larger and inclusive. Thanks to being animated, alien worlds could look alien with no more effort it took to paint a corridor of the Enterprise.
ST:TAS brought in science-fiction writers as much as the original series did. Larry Niven wrote “The Slaver Weapon”, bringing in his Kzinti from his short story, “The Soft Weapon”. David Gerrold, who wrote the original series episode, “The Trouble With Tribbles”, revisited the furry ecological menaces with “More Troubles, More Tribbles”. DC Fontana, who both wrote and was a story editor for the original series, contributed “Yesteryear”, a look at Spock as a young boy. The limitations of the format, a 22-minute long cartoon, was worked around and, in many cases, used to great effect.
For a while, the animated series was considered non-canonical, except for the cases where it was. Kirk’s middle name, Tiberius, was given to him by Gerrold in “More Trouble, More Tribbles”, and stuck. Fontana’s “Yesteryear” provided such a rich look at both Spock’s early life and Vulcan culture that it was more-or-less accepted as is. “Yesteryear” is part of Spock’s story arc, as he evolves from having his Human and Vulcan sides at odds to him accepting that he is part of both worlds, as seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyager Home. Canonicity has returned in bits and pieces, with ST:TAS being mined for background for different characters.
The series continued to delve into social issues and showcased characters that didn’t get spotlight time in the original series. Of note, “The Lorelei Signal”, by Margaret Armen, placed Uhura in command of the Enterprise after the male crewmembers fell under the effect of space sirens. Beings that appeared to be dangerous turned out to be misunderstood. The dangers of introducing an invasive species were explored. The show worked to keep to the spirit of the original series. While there were episodes that fell flat, the same happened with the original series. However, the animated series took what it had and expanded the Trek universe, entertaining fans who were starved for new episodes without disappointing them.
Star Trek: The Animated Series transcended the Saturday morning cartoon format, bringing back the crew of the Enterprise to boldly go, once again, where no man has gone before.
* Not to be confused with The Real Ghostbusters, the animated adaptation of the Ghostbusters movie.
Any work with a large geek following is fodder for being adapted as a tabletop role-playing game. If that work has a setting that allows for other groups to live in without being affected by the events of the work, it becomes prime, whether fan-created or licensed. Star Trek is such a work; popular with a setting that spans the galaxy. It shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been three Trek RPGs published over the decades.
Star Trek introduced Star Fleet with its main mission being exploration. Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise boldly went where no man had gone before, finding new life and new civilizations. The series showed a number of first contacts, some more dangerous than others, and introduced Klingons and Romulans to the audience. The original Trek lasted three seasons, but remained in syndicated reruns since leaving the air in 1969. The popularity of the show in syndication led to two season of an animated adaptation in 1973, featuring most of the original cast*. The animated series led to an aborted second TV series that turned into the 1979 movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the film franchise that followed.
Trek returned to television in 1987 with Star Trek: The Next Generation. The new series introduced a new crew and a new Enterprise, helmed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The Next Generation ran seven seasons, then went into its own movie series. Meanwhile, a third Trek TV series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, began in 1993, showing a different aspect of the Federation. Instead of exploration, Deep Space Nine focused on life on a space station as the Federation helped the Bajorans recover from being occupied by the Cardassians. When The Next Generation wrapped up, a fourth TV series, Star Trek: Voyager, began. Voyager chronicled the story of a lost Star Fleet vessel, the USS Voyager under the command of Captain Kathryn Janeway as the ship tried to return to the Federation. When Voyager came to a close with the ship returning home, another series was ready to go. Star Trek: Enterprise looked at the history of the setting, from Earth’s first steps into space to the birth of the Federation. Fatigue and story quality, though, meant that Enterprise was the first Trek series since the original to not last seven seasons. No new Trek production would be made until the 2009 film, Star Trek.
Even working from the original Trek, the germ of a roleplaying game already existed. Players could be Star Fleet officers, commanding a starship and exploring the galaxy. This was the basis of the first Trek RPG, FASA’s Star Trek: The Role Playing Game, released in 1983. FASATrek had only the original series, the animated adaptation, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture to work from, with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan coming out during the game’s production. Character creation in FASATrek assumes that players will be Star Fleet officers, though later supplements allowed players to play merchants, Star Fleet intelligence agents, Klingons, and Romulans. The core rules, though, took characters through Star Fleet Academy, their cadet cruise, and their previous experience before embarking on their new mission. The core mechanic was a percentile, or d100, roll, with players trying to roll underneath their skill rating used. The skills reflected what was seen on the TV series. Available races included Vulcans, Andorians, and Tellerites, all from the TV series, plus Caitians and Edoans, both from the animated series**.
While the original Trek emphasized a peaceful approach, there were starship battles, most notably in the episode, “The Balance of Terror”. The developers of FASATrek wanted to keep to what was shown in the series, avoiding turning starship battles into a board- or wargame. FASATrek broke down responsibilities by position. The captain gave the orders, the helmsman piloted the ship and fired the weapons, the navigator managed the shields, the engineer tried to balance the power available to the needs of each station, the science officer ran sensors, and communications maintained damage control. Security officers were the only ones without a duty during a starship battle, provided shields didn’t fail allowing boarding parties. A second edition came out before Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with an update after the movie was released to take into account the events shown. The new edition cleared up problems found in the first and took into account the film franchise. The core mechanic was kept, with some clarifications, and starship battles still used a console for each position on the bridge. The end result was a game system that kept the flavour of both the TV series and existing movies.
FASATrek was published through to the first season of The Next Generation, with two supplements released for the new series. Paramount, however, wasn’t pleased with what FASA was doing with the license and pulled it after the first season of The Next Generation was complete in 1989. FASA, though, had other game lines to fall back on – BattleTech, the miniatures wargame involving giant mecha, and Shadowrun, a role-playing game crossing cyberpunk with Tolkein-esque fantasy.
FASATrek worked to maintain the Trek flavour as seen in the original series, then expanded the setting based on what was known. As will be seen below, the game established a feel that would be repeated by later publishers. FASATrek managed to replicate the feel of both the TV series and, with the second edition, the movies.
The Trek RPG license lay fallow for a decade, In 1999, Last Unicorn Games obtained the license and released Star Trek: The Next Generation Role-playing Game. The Next Generation had wrapped up in 1994, with Deep Space Nine wrapping up its seventh season and Voyager still boldly going. The new RPG used LUG’s Icon system, using six-sided dice and target numbers instead of FASA’s percentile system. Character creation, though, still followed the same lifepath, going from youth to Star Fleet Academy to prior experience before the new mission. Starship battles also ensured that all the characters on the bridge had something to do. By focusing on The Next Generation at first, the game was able to feel current, especially with Trek available on TV and in theatres. LUG released several supplements, covering the Andorians, the Vulcans, the Klingons, and the Romulans, as well as core books for the original Star Trek and Deep Space Nine. A Voyager core book was planned but never released. The license was transferred to Decipher before the book could be created.
LUGTrek had a different feel from FASATrek, thanks to the change in mechanics. However, the change in mechanics helped reflect the change in tone from the original series to The Next Generation. The tone of the each series was reflected in the writing; but each core book was still Star Trek.
Decipher wasn’t a new game company, but had focused on collectible card games, including one based on Star Trek. However, when it received the license, the design team from LUG moved over to Decipher. A new mechanic was devised, called CODA, which would also be used in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game. The Star Trek Roleplaying Game used the CODA mechanics, two six-sided dice instead of LUGTrek‘s dice based on the attribute. Decipher also split the rules between the Player’s Guide and the Narrator’s Guide. This did allow DECTrek to incorporate all the existing series, including Enterprise, into the core rules, instead of splitting them over several books as LUGTrek had. DECTrek also used a lifepath for character creation, but characters weren’t restricted to being Star Fleet officers unlike both FASATrek and LUG’s Next Generation core rules, The end result is a character with a backstory as detailed as the player wants.
Aside from some layout issues, DECTrek still aimed to achieve the feel of Star Trek, with the added difficulty of trying to be all eras of Trek. For the most part, the game succeeded. Decipher ended publication of RPGs by 2007, leaving material for both the Trek and the LotR games unpublished.
There is no licensed Trek RPG currently in production. However, there is Prime Directive, a role-playing game derived from the universe created in Amarillo Design Bureau’s wargame Star Fleet Battles. The wargame, originally published by Task Force Games, was licensed, not from Paramount but from Franz Joseph, who had created blueprints of various Trek ships and had written The Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. As such, the wargame, and thus Prime Directive, does diverge from canon. There have been four verstions of the Prime Directive RPG. one from Amarillo using its own mechanics, one published by Amarillo that uses Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS rules, and two D20*** editions. A Mongoose Traveller version was announced in 2011, but it appears that the development of the base game’s second edition has delayed production on Amarillo’s end. Prime Directive is centered on “Prime Teams”, Star Fleet officers who are specifically trained for landing party duty so that senior officers would not be endangered by beaming down to new worlds. The system allowed players to create connections to events as needed, reflecting how in the various Trek series that a character would know someone in an episode, from Kirk’s rivalry with Finnigan to Dax’s many lives. Prime Directive, though, wasn’t as reflective of Star Trek as the other games, in part because of limitations in the licensing.
It is possible to adapt an existing role-playing game for Star Trek. Licensed games remove the work of adapting from the GM, having already made the effort to get the details down. Each of the games mentioned above has done the hard work, setting down in mechanics a work where writers will create new solutions without having to worry about the ramifications in a game. With this work done, the GM just has to create situations to send players through, without worrying about what damage a phaser can do.
* Budget considerations meant that Walter Koenig didn’t return as Chekov, but he did write the episode, “The Infinite Vulcan”.
** The Paramount-mandated requirement that licensees not work together hadn’t come in yet. This can be seen with the 1983 supplement, The Klingons, which was in part written by John M. Ford, who also wrote the tie-in novel, The Final Reflection, about the Klingons around the same time. The two works build on each other.
*** The D20 system was Wizards of the Coast’s core mechanic for the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Wizards released an Open Gaming License version of the rules to allow other companies to focus more on setting than on mechanics.