Who Carries Star Trek’s Torch?

It seems like the great nerd debate lately is which show is the better successor to Star Trek’s legacy: Discovery or The Orville.

The cast of Seth MacFarlane's The OrvilleI have to be honest, mulling over things during the mid-season break, I’ve got to admit that Discovery is losing some of its luster. I watched a random episode of Enterprise a few days ago (“Judgment”), and I couldn’t help comparing it to Discovery. “Judgment” isn’t even one of the better episodes, but even so, I wound up really missing the Star Trek of yesteryear and feeling as though Discovery was missing something.

The thing is, Discovery is trying too hard. It wants to be edgier and more real, and it also wants to have the same morality of old school Trek, and although its had flashes of brilliance, more often than not it doesn’t do a great job of either.

The Klingons have no nuance. They’re just disgusting space goblins with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. However cartoony the Klingons of TNG onward may have been, they were still people, with a balance of noble and negative traits.

The attempts to make the human cast members grittier has also been hit and miss. I was initially happy to hear some harsher swearing on Star Trek, as it added an element of realism for me, but the fact it was just one line in one episode leads me to believe it really was just something thrown in for cheap shock value.

As is much of Discovery, really. It’s a show that’s trying hard to surprise and to shock, and damn the consequences. Who cares if it makes sense, who cares if it has a meaningful purpose in the story, if it gets people talking, that’s all that matters.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Commander Michael Burnham on Star Trek: DiscoveryMore than anything else, Discovery doesn’t feel honest. It feels artificial, contrived, constructed.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s also plenty that’s good about the show. The cast is really strong, and there’s a lot of great acting in it. And I still think Stamets is the best. I’m going to keep watching, if only due to a dearth of good sci-fi television right now. But as far as carrying on the legacy of what Star Trek stands for, it could do a lot better.

As for The Orville… well, I haven’t seen it. I don’t think there’s a way to watch it streaming in Canada, and even if there was, I find Seth MacFarlane to be the human equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard, so that’s enough to turn me off out of the gate. To be fair, the buzz is surprisingly good, but I still have a hard time seeing it as a true torchbearer for Star Trek’s ideals.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think this is a two horse race. I say there’s a third contender here, and it’s the one that deserves the crown.

It’s called Mass Effect: Andromeda.

My review of Andromeda was probably a bit confusing. I spent most of it complaining, then closed with a glowing recommendation. At the time, I had trouble articulating just what it was that made me love Andromeda so much. Over the last few months, though, I’ve had time to ponder it, and I think I’m figuring it out.

The space whales of Havarl in Mass Effect: AndromedaAndromeda is a story about the triumph of the human spirit. It’s about a group of people who left behind everything they knew to explore the unknown, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It’s about the wonder and the terror of the unknown, and it goes to some dark places, and it pulls no punches, but never does it lose its core of optimism, of hope, of joy.

You see it in Suvi’s wide-eyed stare as she takes in the grandeur of Khi Tasira for the first time. You see it Drack as he learns that after centuries of violence, he has something to live for, not just kill for. You see it in Jaal as he comes to understand humanity, and finds an entirely new family.

Even Liam — by far Andromeda’s worst character, whom I have taken to calling Jimmy the Idiot Boy — at times can embody the spirit of human goodness that lies at the heart of Andromeda. When sweet, good-natured Liam furiously declares that whoever unleashed the Scourge were “some motherfuckers,” it doesn’t feel like a cheap play for shock value. It feels like an honest expression of pain.

And that’s what Andromeda is that Discovery isn’t: honest. That’s what made Andromeda so special. That’s why I love it so much despite its flaws. When the characters despair, your heart hurts in sympathy. When the characters succeed, you feel the joy palpably. It’s not trying to be dramatic, or powerful, or profound. It is dramatic, powerful, and profound.

Sara Ryder, Nakmor Drack, and Vetra Nyx take in Kadara Port in Mass Effect: AndromedaWhen I started playing the game, the headline on this blog read, “Mass Effect: Andromeda Is the Best Star Trek Movie in Years,” and the more time goes by, the more I realize how right I was. Except a Star Trek movie would run at most two hours, while even a casual non-completionist playthrough of Andromeda will likely net a couple dozen hours.

Can there be a better embodiment of what Star Trek stands for than Suvi Anwar? A gay Scottish scientist with a Finnish first name, an Arabic last name, a child’s wonder for the unknown, and a poet’s appreciation for the beauty of all creation. She’s the walking avatar of IDIC.

Andromeda is more Star Trek than Star Trek has ever been. For this reason, I think it — and not Discovery, and not The Orville — deserves to be viewed as the true successor to Roddenberry’s ideals today.

That’s why I view it as one of the best games — nay, one of the best stories, period — I’ve had the pleasure to experience in recent years. That’s why I reject the frothing hate of the hyper-critical Internet mob. That’s why I feel so bad for all my non-gamer Trekkie friends and family who will probably never get to experience the best Star Trek in years — those who can’t afford the hardware to run it, or don’t have the time, or are too intimidated by the concept of video games to give it a shot.

What made Star Trek special was never its superficialities, but what it stood for. You don’t need the Star Trek name to be true Trek. You just need to carry that torch of hope, of curiosity, of aspiration.

Suvi Anwar in Mass Effect: AndromedaThat’s exactly what Andromeda did.

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The Strange Kinship of StarCraft and Mass Effect

From the time I first began learning about the Mass Effect franchise, I’ve seen a strange degree of overlap between it and another beloved sci-fi gaming franchise, StarCraft. At times I’ve dismissed it as the result of an over-active imagination, but they just keep borrowing from each other.

Nova in her titular Covert Ops DLC in StarCraft III thought it’d be interesting to look at the bizarre relationship of these two franchises that increasingly seem to have been separated at birth.

This post will contain spoilers for Mass Effect: Andromeda up to and including the mission Journey to Meridian.

Your StarCraft in my Mass Effect:

It began with my reading a plot synopsis for Mass Effect 1. I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded eerily like the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost game, which was also a third person shooter.

An elite human operative goes on an intergalactic journey to track down and stop a renegade Spectre.

Which game did I just describe?

Of course, once you get into Mass Effect, the two games divulge quite a bit, but by then the connection between StarCraft and Mass Effect had wormed its way into my thoughts, and I kept seeing small similarities here and there.

My favourite sniper rifle in Mass Effect 3The Protheans and the Reapers both bear some vague resemblance to the Xel’naga in their role in the story. Turians look like Protoss with hydralisk mouths. Alliance military uniforms look a fair bit like Dominion naval uniforms. Biotics are not unlike the telekinetics wielded by some of the more powerful ghosts.

Your Mass Effect in my StarCraft:

And it’s not a one-way street. StarCraft II clearly took a lot of inspiration from the Mass Effect franchise.

The basic structures of the games are largely the same. Go to the bridge, pick a location via the galaxy map, play a mission, and come back to your ship to chat with the NPCs before embarking once again.

Wings of Liberty even tried to copy a little bit of Mass Effect’s famous choices by giving the player great control over what order to do missions in, and even some choices on how to direct the story.

This was somewhat of a failed experiment, as Blizzard just isn’t that good at non-linearity. Later games abandoned most (though not all) player choice regarding the story and what order to tackle things in, but the general Mass Effecty structure of missions and conversations remained.

The bridge of the Hyperion in StarCraft IIAnd StarCraft was definitely the richer for it. Every entry in the StarCraft II trilogy has featured some great core characters, and in both SC2 and Mass Effect, the conversations between you and your crew are highlights, whether you’re talking spirituality with Thane or being simultaneously fascinated and chilled by Abathur’s utter inhumanity.

Then there’s the Covert Ops DLC to consider. To match Nova’s high-tech feel, the traditionally guitar-heavy soundtrack given to Terrans was shifted more towards synth sounds, and the end result is very reminiscent of a lot of Mass Effect’s music. One song in particular that plays in the main menus sometimes sounds almost exactly like the main theme from the earlier ME games.

Plus, if you squint, the Griffin has a pretty similar silhouette to the Normandy.

A new phase:

And then came Andromeda, and things just got weirder.

I kind of blinked when I saw Andromeda was going to prominently feature a ship called the Hyperion. But that’s small fries.

You can also see a bit of the Zerg in the Kett. Their modus operandi is pretty similar. Go around assimilating other species and stealing their best genes. Abathur and the Archon would have a grand old time talking shop, I’m sure.

Concept art for Remnant ruins in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

This is concept art for a Remnant Vault in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

There’s still a lot of difference, though. The Kett are still humanoids who rely on technology, and they don’t appear to have any hive mind.

But then there’s the Remnant.

Holy hell.

The Protheans and the Reapers each occasionally reminded me of the Xel’naga in some vague ways, but the Remnant — or, more accurately, their creators — are the Xel’naga. Literally, unequivocally, the Xel’naga.

I remember the first gameplay video of Andromeda I saw. It featured a Remnant ruin, and I was like, “Hey, look, it’s a Xel’naga temple.” Finally playing Andromeda only confirmed the uncanny resemblance between the architecture of the Remnant and the Wanderers from Afar.

Still, that’s just visuals.

But then we learned the Remnant’s creators, the Jaardan, were grand intergalactic biologists who seeded life throughout the cosmos for unknown purposes. Then we learned their civilization was centered around a lost artificial world in deep space. Then we learned they were in the business of creating whole sentient races.

Concept art for a Xel'naga temple in StarCraft II

This is concept art for a Xel’naga temple in StarCraft II.

In other words, they are the Xel’naga.

And now it’s just too weird. An entire core section of the StarCraft universe has basically been transplanted wholesale into Mass Effect. At this point I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we found out the Kett were created by some renegade Jaardan. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Artanis popped up on the Tempest vidcon.

Not complaining. In a way it’s kind of cool. Damn strange, though. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any work of fiction copy another in such an uncanny way. I like to joke that the Krogan are basically Klingons, but there’s vastly more difference between Krogan and Klingons than there is between the Jaardan and the Xel’naga.

Tinfoil abounds:

I don’t really know what all this means. I freely grant that at least a good chunk of this is my seeing patterns where there are none. Lots of these similarities can easily be dismissed as random happenstance.

And certainly there are plenty of differences between the franchises, too. Mass Effect tends to present a relatively optimistic vision of humanity’s future, whereas StarCraft embraces a more dystopic view.

But some stuff, especially around the Remnant/Jaardan/Xel’naga, is harder to dismiss. I mean, I don’t imagine Bioware is sitting around consciously stealing ideas from StarCraft, but the fact remains that if they were they could hardly do a better job.

The starship Griffin in StarCraft II's Covert Ops DLCI know there has been at least a little cross-pollination between the two development teams. Brian Kindregan has written for both StarCraft and Mass Effect. But beyond that I don’t really know what’s going on here.

I just know it’s weird, and fascinating.