Star Trek’s Spiritual Successors

To be blunt, the Star Trek franchise is, at best, a pale shadow of its former self right now. The new films are keeping the name alive, but not the spirit. There’s finally a new TV series in the works, but while I’ve heard some promising things about it, my expectations remain terribly low, and I’m not entirely sure I’m even going to watch it.

The cast of Star Trek: The Next GenerationI have ranted before about my complex relationship with Star Trek and my disillusionment with the franchise, but I must confess part of me does miss it. Or what it stood for, at least. As bitter and dysfunctional as my relationship with Trek is, I at least always admired its potential and its ideals, and the world does feel a bit lesser without them.

But there is some good news. Traditional Star Trek may be gone, but its spirit is being kept alive in other forms. I thought it’d be worth taking a look at Star Trek’s spiritual successors.

Mass Effect:

I think Mass Effect, more than anything else, is the franchise that’s kept the soul of Star Trek alive. This feeling has only gotten stronger since Bioware put out a promo for Mass Effect: Andromeda that is basically the opening credits for Enterprise except they replaced the crappy music with Jennifer Hale narration.

The similarities are immediately obvious. Both feature a future where most, though not necessarily all, of our current problems have been solved by technology and enlightened society, and humanity has joined a galactic community of many myriad species.

Cerberus is pretty much a hybrid of Section 31 and Terra Prime. The Reapers have Borg overtones. Krogan are Klingons, and Asari are Betazoids (to the point where Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis have voiced roles for them). We’ve got Brent Spiner voicing a sentient machine who wants to be more human.

A good bunchMass Effect could have done better when it comes to the ideal of infinite diversity in infinite combinations (IDIC), but they at least made an admirable effort toward it, featuring a core cast composed of both humans and aliens, a decent balance of genders, and at least some non-white humans.

They also offer good representation to LGBT characters, which is an area where Star Trek dropped the ball. My version of the story prominently features a mixed race same-sex couple, and it doesn’t get much more IDIC than that.

And of course Mass Effect is filled with moral quandaries the likes of which would do any Trek episode proud.

Heck, Mass Effect even inherits some of Star Trek’s bad habits, like a somewhat bland and safe setting, an excess of filler, and alien races that are usually just weird-looking humans when you get down to it.

Overwatch:

Overwatch may not be about space travel or exploring the universe, but it’s probably the best exemplar out there of the IDIC philosophy, with one of the most diverse casts in gaming (or any media, really).

Pharah, a character in OverwatchThere’s that same sense of optimism Trek embodied, too. The idea of trying to inspire us to our fullest potential. What was that quote from Winston’s short? Something like, “Don’t see the world as it is. Dare to the see the world as it could be.”

Something like that anyway. That’s pretty much the soul of Trek right there.

Of course this does again bring up the bizarre divide between Overwatch the world and Overwatch the game. The world is this beautiful vision of a better future and the heroes fighting to build and maintain it, but the game is just a pointless murder box. All the story takes place outside the game.

Of course this does have the advantage of letting Trek fans get an IDIC fix even if they’re not gamers. I feel bad for all my non-gamer Trekkie friends who missed out on Mass Effect.

Stargate: Universe:

I considered leaving this out because SG:U has been off the air nearly as long as Star Trek, but I think it deserves a mention.

If you’re craving a story of space exploration, it doesn’t get any better than Stargate: Universe. No other series has captured the wonder and terror of deep space as well. Actually SG:U did a fair bit better on this front than Trek ever did.

Ancient Space:

A cutscene from Ancient SpaceAnd we’re back to video games.

Ancient Space is another title that really embodies the mysteries of deep space exploration, depicting a surreal and alien area of deep space and its strange inhabitants.

Actually, the entire game was quite clearly an homage to Enterprise’s Xindi arc and the Delphic Expanse, an idea I whole-heartedly approve of. They even hired John Billingsley to play one of the major roles and had him reference one of Phlox’s more famous lines.

And Ancient Space did make at least some small effort toward a cast with diversity. The main hero is a female scientist, Dr. Willow Burke, and that’s both fairly unusual for a video game and quite a Star Trek-y thing to do.

* * *

I do think it’s interesting how most of what I come up with for spiritual successors to Star Trek are video games. Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact I spend more time playing video games than watching TV these days, but I think it also says something to how video games are really on the bleeding edge of entertainment these days, how they’re often one of the best places to find daring and cutting edge story-telling.

Review: Ancient Space

One day while browsing Steam, I encountered a game called Ancient Space that sold itself as an RTS focused on a story-driven single-player campaign.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceI pretty much started manically smashing the “buy” button.

And I’m not sorry I did. Ancient Space is not without flaws, but overall I found it a solid and enjoyable experience.

The story for Ancient Space focuses on an enigmatic region of space known as the Black Zone, so called because of anomalies and rifts in space that block communication and sensor signals, rendering ships within it deaf and blind. The Black Zone is home to a race of hostile aliens called the Scythe, and rumours swirl of vast alien beings known as Balaethans lurking in the cold voids.

Worse still, the Black Zone is expanding, swallowing entire star systems as it encroaches on human space. Years ago, the human government dispatched the starship Ulysses to find the source of the expansion.

A cutscene from Ancient SpaceIt was never heard from again.

Ancient Space follows passionate scientist Dr. Willow Burke as she commands a new expedition into the Black Zone aboard the Ulysses II to uncover the truth of what happened to her predecessors, unlock the mysteries of the Black Zone, and halt its expansion.

The story is pretty strong, with good pacing and plenty of alien mysteries, political intrigue, and twists. It does suffer a little bit due to the technical limitations of the game — all story is delivered through in-mission dialogue, short mission briefings, or sparse flavour text — but considering that, the writers do an admirable job of working with what they’re given.

Something that appealed to me is that this game seems to have been designed as an homage to Star Trek: Enterprise. The Black Zone is eerily reminiscent of the Delphic Expanse from season three, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the main characters is voiced by John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox), especially considering he even references one of Phlox’s more famous lines at one point.

The story of Ancient Space is helped along by a strong sense of ambiance enforced by the game’s graphics and audio.

Scythe ships in Ancient SpaceThe soundtrack for Ancient Space is one of the best I’ve heard in a video game. Seeming like a combination of Mass Effect and Battlestar Galactica’s soundtracks, it’s an eclectic mix of synth sounds, orchestras, and exotic instruments. The action tracks are thrilling, and the more ambient songs fill one with a sense of mystery — and maybe a little dread — reinforcing the alien nature of the Black Zone.

Unfortunately, the sound effects are not of such a high quality. Weapon hits and explosions are almost inaudible, which tends to make the battles feel rather sterile.

While not quite top of the line, the visuals in Ancient Space are quite impressive, depicting a variety of surreal and hauntingly alien deep space environments.

My one complaint about the graphics is that the units are incredibly tiny and covered by obnoxious icons. Try as I might, I could not find a way to turn these off.

On the plus side, the miniscule units are another thing that hammers home the feeling of isolation that runs throughout Ancient Space. Ambiance is not an easy thing to create in an RTS, but Ancient Space does a very good job of communicating the feeling of being lost and alone in a vast and often hostile universe.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceWhen it comes to gameplay, Ancient Space is for the most part a very traditional RTS. I found it reminiscent of old school games like the Dune series and the original StarCraft.

It doesn’t cling to the past too much, though. While it’s not wildly innovative, it has enough modern ideas to feel somewhat fresh. There are between mission progression systems that allow you to upgrade your units and customize the capabilities of the Ulysses II. Your choice of senior officers for each mission grants you access to a variety of powerful (if fairly uncreative) abilities similar to the god powers in Age of Mythology. While the mission design isn’t as wildly creative as in StarCraft II, it’s got enough variety to stay interesting.

However, the one major issue with Ancient Space’s gameplay — and my biggest complaint with the game — is that it is quite hard. Even playing on the lowest difficulty setting, I often found it challenging to the point of frustration, and more than once, I found myself having to restart a mission because I got slaughtered.

And I’m an experienced RTS player who’s beaten StarCraft II on brutal. Someone without a lot of skill and experience in the genre would probably have a miserable time.

A screenshot from Ancient SpaceHowever, if you’re already an RTS fan, then I definitely recommend Ancient Space.

Overall rating: 7.5/10 I’m hoping for a sequel.