Tag Archives: science fiction

Deep Space Nein?

It has been a long time since I’ve made a random geeky post (OK – so it has been a long time since I’ve made a post of any kind) but I’ve recently been enjoying something of a Star Trek renaissance (a rebirth of my interest in the franchise rather than of the franchise itself, obviously) and as a result I’ve had Deep Space Nine on the mind.

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Terok Nor, aka Deep Space Nine, aka our last, best hope for peace… oh no, wait…

Deep Space Nine? More like Deep Space Nein! you say. Alright, that was me. But while the wording may be a little trite, the sentiment is one I often hear expressed with regard to the original (and best) universe’s third installment (I’m discounting the animated series – sue me).

So why all the hate? Is DS9 really Star Trek’s ugly stepchild? And if one were to revisit the adventures of Captain Sisko and co. on their embattled ex-Cardassian/weird kitchen utensil of a station, is Emissary, the first DS9 episode, necessarily the best place to begin?

A brief discussion with possible mild spoilers (for DS9 and potentially the prime universe’s overarching story line) to follow…

Dark Space Nine

One of the big criticisms of DS9 is that it’s just too darn dark in tone, which often leads quickly to the accompanying accusation that it’s therefore just not Star Trek. I get this. Star Trek a la Roddenberry’s vision was, after all, a sci-fi utopia (for humans anyway, but more on this later) in which the upstanding protagonists strove to eliminate war, prejudice, oppression etc. etc. from the galaxy.

DS9 on the other hand is a series set in the aftermath of the Cardassians’ brutal occupation and subjugation of the Bajorans and is swiftly caught up in the several seasons-spanning Alpha v. Gamma Quadrant war with the Dominion, a conflict which the Federation very nearly loses. Admittedly a far cry from exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new civilizations, although they also manage to squeeze in a fair bit of that too.

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DS9 certainly has a higher rate of people being consumed by magical-alien flame than any other Star Trek incarnation. But when it comes to Gul Dukat, can that really be a bad thing?

I would argue, however, that it is in these darker moments that DS9 really comes into its own. That it is only in amongst all of this darkness that the series’ own, unique light is able to shine (ahem).

Captain Picard may spend TNG’s seven seasons occupying the moral high ground but it’s Sisko’s ability to delve into the grey (actually following through on a threat to poison a Maquis planet in order to stop the Maquis from unleashing biogenic weapons of their own in For the Uniform 5.13, for example) that makes him a commander capable of winning a war against an enemy like the Dominion. It is also part of what makes Sisko, and DS9, such an interesting and entertaining show to watch.

Star Trek obviously has a long and laudable history of addressing social injustices, but whereas TOS and TNG did so from a firm and inflexible Federation (read vaguely liberal American/Western) viewpoint, allying the audience with the (obviously correct) Starfleet protagonist’s moral position, DS9 goes further than any Star Trek series before in not just inviting the audience to question the motives and ethics behind its characters’ actions, but having the characters actively engage in this practice onscreen themselves, often without compromise or apology.

The prime example of this must surely be the season six favorite In the Pale Moonlight (6.19), in which Sisko not only admits to being an accessory to politically motivated murder, but that, given the stakes and the outcome, he’d do it again. He might not like it, but he can live with it.

Now I certainly understand people who complain that this is not their idea of Star Trek, and the morally questionable character actions/generally darker tone of DS9 is probably the main area in which Roddenberry’s lack of involvement with the creation of the series is felt. But after all of Picard’s moral grandstanding and inflexibility it’s refreshing to see someone uncomfortable in their Starfleet uniform, or who has the capacity to ask what it means to be morally flexible in a universe of moral hard-lines, however liberal. How can the Federation justify its pacifistic policies in the face interstellar aggression? And, at the end of the day, what gives the Federation the moral upper-hand anyway?

Little better than a homo sapiens only club

It’s during an ill-fated diplomatic summit aboard the Enterprise-A in the late twenty-third century that the Klingon Chancellor’s daughter, Azetbur, refers to the United Federation of Planet’s as “little better than a homo sapiens only club”, calling out the unspoken human-bias visible beneath the surface of the Alpha Quadrant’s major power.

Ignoring the obvious allegory of the real-world fall of the Soviet Union, Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country can be seen as the beginning of a process of the franchise’s knowing self-reflection that would be continued in Deep Space Nine, where – for the first time – non-Federation aliens are featured as main characters (the final movie to feature Kirk and co. as the central protagonists was released in December 1991, just over a year before DS9 made its TV debut).

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Quark and Odo provide important “outsider” perspectives on DS9, to say nothing of Garak and the many other reoccurring alien characters

Whereas TNG had offered occasional philosophical explorations of the purpose and worth of the UFP and its ongoing scientific and diplomatic expansion via the character of Q, it took DS9 to invite “outsider” viewpoints firmly onto the screen, week after week in the form of central alien (aka non-Federation and, crucially, I think, non-human-looking) characters. Non-human people with whom we were encouraged to empathize, not as oddities-of-the-week, but shopkeepers, scientists, merchants and even spies whose everyday lives were shown unfolding just as complexly as those of the Starfleet crew with whom they cohabited.

Now DS9 obviously needed the success of TNG (and the Kirk-led big screen outings) in order to facilitate such a risky change of perspective, and the shift of setting from a starship to a station can be viewed as part of this experimental leap (a part that one could argue was not entirely successful, necessitating the introduction of the Defiant in season 3). The result is that DS9 often plays more like a soap than a traditional dose of weekly sci-fi, and therein lies the second major criticism of the show.

Robbed of the “These are the voyages…” ritual opening and weekly meet-and-greet with strange new civilizations, many Star Trek fans were turned off by the seemingly pedestrian pursuits of the station’s promenade. But behind all of Quark’s get-rich-quick scheming and Garak’s vaguely camp suggestions of Cardassian intrigue, this different type of storytelling allowed Star Trek to explore something even more interesting: alien perspectives.

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Quark’s bar: the setting for numerous dodgy deals as well as some surprisingly complex story lines

Now as the human audience, we all know that the Federation is the galaxy’s very best society, with its post-money, post-resource scarcity economy and commitment to freedom, equality, and fraternity between species. But what does the UFP’s smug we’re better than gold-pressed latinum attitude mean for, say, the Ferengi, a culture whose sole sense of worth is derived from the accumulation of material wealth? Or what about the Cardassians, a people unfortunate enough to find themselves on a relatively resource-starved planet and therefore seemingly forced to adopt an authoritative, militaristic style of government, bent on aggressive expansion as a means to survive?

In TNG such aliens were cast as cut-out enemies and/or comic relief; cold, inhuman adversaries to be defeated, and sometimes pitied but always defeated, by the superior Federation. It is in Deep Space Nine, however, that we start to see the other side, that the Federation’s growing diplomatic and military clout necessarily means a reduction in space, political and literal, for others, and through scatterings of conflict with the Cardassians, the Klingons, and a smattering of folks from beyond the wormhole, we realize that when the Federation wins, someone else invariably loses.

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The cost of victory, however necessary, is perhaps brought home best in the scenes of Cardassia’s ruin following the defeat of the Dominion. As Sisko, surrounded by the death of so many civilians, refuses to toast with the Klingons, we are reminded that in Star Trek aliens often only survive by essentially submitting to/being colonized by the Federation.

If DS9’s alien protagonists allowed the audience to peek behind the curtain and explore the cost of Federation expansion, it also encouraged them to adopt, however briefly, an alien perspective and view the UFP (and by extension, the USA/West) through the imagined outsider’s eyes. This, I would argue, is one of the best and most enjoyable elements of Deep Space Nine’s soap opera style storytelling, facilitating often insightful and invariably humorous reflections upon what is ultimately an expansionist, if peaceful, United Federation of Planets.

But is it still Trek? Perhaps not in the traditional sense, but I do think DS9 represents the genuine growth of the franchise, even if Voyager and Enterprise later seemed to do their best to set the clock back, recycling everything good from TOS and TNG.

While it is certainly not without its flaws (and detractors), I would argue that DS9 is well worth a second look (or first, if you skipped it before). So where should the discerning viewer start such an endeavor? Probably at the beginning, but then skip ahead…

Deep Space Nine in Seven Parts

Following the breakout success of TNG, it seems there was some sort of rule written at Paramount that no Star Trek series after could be called a triumph unless it too ran to a full seven seasons (hence the reason the USS Voyager’s journey back from the Delta Quadrant is SO bloody protracted while the adventures of the Enterprise NX-01 (mixed as they were) are dismissed by many as a failure after managing a season count of a paltry four). While DS9 is no exception to this rule, it is also not immune to the dangers of drag and fluff, many episodes, and indeed seasons, contributing very little worth savoring, and are in fact just best avoided.

So how should Star Trek fans looking to fill the void left by the end of CBS’ reboot/squeal Discovery with DS9 proceed? I’m glad you asked.

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The Enterprise arrives at Deep Space Nine to give its first episode a good Picard talking to

As I previously mentioned, I recently returned to Trek after some time away (it was always in my heart, just not on my screen) and, at my suggestion, my wife and I sat down to watch DS9.

Now while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my wife was singularly unimpressed by the series’ opener, the aforementioned Emissary, I would say that she was decidedly underwhelmed. And with good reason: it kinda sucks. Partly this is due to age (honestly, even I was surprised at quite how 90s the show feels) but it’s also partly because DS9 has a fair few teething problems and takes a while to get going (to be fair, do you remember the first two seasons of TNG though?).

While sharing these musings with my brother in-law, he commented that while he thought the overarching story of the series was one of the best in Trek, he felt most individual episodes failed to stand on their own merits, describing them as “so-so” at best.

Although I do not agree that there are no good standalone episodes in the DS9 canon, I do agree that watching DS9 is an exercise in delayed gratification and much more similar to the way people watch modern, epic showstoppers like Game of Thrones, for example, as opposed to the episodic style pacing of TNG. With this in mind, my advice to the novice viewer is to simply cut the chaff and jump straight into the action.

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Season four opener The Way of the Warrior is where the Klingon s**t really hits Deep Space Nine’s proverbial fan

Start at the very beginning: Despite everything, Emissary *is* still worth watching. It sets up the premise of the show and introduces all the main characters. Start here but move swiftly on.

The Way of the Warrior: This *might* be controversial advice, but now you know the station and the crew, do yourself a favor and skip straight to season 4, which starts with two part epic The Way of the Warrior.

Not only does this episode signal the introduction of everybody’s favorite klingon to the main crew (it’s set just after the events of the movie Generations, so no lingering commitments to the Enterprise) it also kicks off the main story arc of the Dominion War that dominates the remaining seasons.

Yes, there will be a few details with which you’ll be unfamiliar (the presence of the Defiant and Sisko’s jump from commander to captain, for example), and you will have missed out on some hit or miss character development, but generally the best is still ahead of you, so strap in, and…

Stay the course: DS9 really is all about following the story line of the conflict with the Dominion through to the end. Yes, there are some twists and turns along the way and not all of them are expertly handled but overall I still think it’s the most satisfying story arc in Trek. Also, it’s not all doom and gloom – starting in season 4 means you still have the enjoyment of both Trials and Tribble-ations (5.6) and Far Beyond the Stars (6.13) to go; both standout, standalone episodes that allow you to see your favorite characters in a very different and fun light.

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The USS Defiant – the first purpose built Federation warship and a significant boost to Starfleet’s fight against the Dominion

 

A few to consider: If you still feel you’re missing out on too much by skipping the first three seasons, here are a few early offerings you might also want to consider beyond simply Emissary.

The Jem’Hadar (2.26) Notable really only for the introduction of the titular enemy super soldiers that will become a mainstay of the Dominion War and the destruction of the Galaxy class USS Odyssesy on the far side of the wormhole, The Jem’Hadar is otherwise a largely forgettable episode. But the death of such a big and powerful Starfleet vessel really sets the stakes for the impending conflict. Plus, it’s really cool.

The Search Part 1 & 2 (3.1&2) The season 3 opener is interesting for two reasons: 1) It introduces the USS Defiant, giving Deep Space Nine a much needed edge now that it has suddenly found itself on the front line of a developing conflict. 2) It firmly establishes the identity of the founders and starts Odo on his path of self-discovery/determination that will have drastic consequences for the fate of both the Alpha and Gamma Quadrants.

Past Tense Part 1 & 2 (3.11&12) Another two parter, this one is, on the face of it, a classic Star Trek time travel yarn, facilitated via the good old transporter malfunction mechanism. Upon closer inspection something else is revealed however, as Sisko, Bashir and Dax must navigate the perils of 21st century San Francisco, facing racism of a kind eradicated in their sanitized 24th century lives.

Apart from being a time travel story exploring the requisite action vs. inaction conundrum, Past Tense is notable too as a rare depiction of racism not from the viewpoint of the Federation (read white saviors) swooping in to educate the ignorant locals, but of people of color, as Sisko and Bashir actually face discrimination and violence themselves. A first for Star Trek.

Improbable Cause and The Die is Cast (3.20&21) Although denied the Part 1 & 2 moniker, these episodes are definite two halves of the same story focusing on one of the very best DS9 characters, Garak. Here, Andrew J. Robinson is really allowed to let loose as we explore Garak’s past, filled with twists, guile, betrayal and, of course, intrigue for everybody’s favorite not-so ex-Cardassian spy.

So what do you think? Am I completely off the mark and DS9 a mere pile of sci-fi space trash? Or are you a DS9 fan and you’re angry because I missed your favorite season 2 episode? How would you recommend a newbie approach the series? And just what is the deal with Morn?

Let me know in the comments below.

As usual, thanks for playing and TTFN!

To Boldly Go… Where Other Series Have Already Gone Before

Fifty years after the starship Enterprise first graced our TV screens, we are suddenly awash with new Star Trek properties, from the big screen adventures of a rebooted Kirk and co., to CBS’ forthcoming attempt to reclaim the television for the Federation. But will they, can they really be any good?

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Homage or simple replication? The poster for this summer’s Star Trek Beyond harks heavily back to the Motion Picture.

As many of you already know, I am a huge SF nerd and despite my love of, say, Iain M. Bank’s Culture, and the X-Files, if I am truly honest, my heart belongs to Star Trek. And not just any Trek; as a child of the 80s/90s, TNG has always been the daddy to me, opening my eyes to Roddenberry’s universe of soul-searching interstellar allegory via Patrick Stewart’s dulcet tones at 6pm on BBC 2 every Wednesday.

Rushing to get my homework done on time I would sit and watch it religiously, studiously recording and cataloging each episode to create my own VHS library of all seven seasons which, despite my painstaking efforts, I’m pretty sure I never watched and probably quite unceremoniously threw out when I went away to university. Not the most exciting way to spend one’s early teenage years, perhaps, but I have absolutely zero regrets – the lessons I learned on the bridge of the bulbous Enterprise D will last me a lifetime and will come in particularly handy should I ever find myself having to debate the merits of the Prime Directive. Any day now, I am sure of it.

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OK… so I could have cropped Wesley Crusher out of the picture but I still get teary over Tasha Yar, damn it!

ST:TNG is, in my humble opinion, among the very best TV ever created and, once it hit its stride, home to some of the very best small screen SF. Aside from the ever-present threat of the Borg, the continual testing of humanity’s worth by Q, some excellent holodeck-fueled adventures, and Data’s Pinocchio-like quest to become human, who can forget standalone gems such as The Measure of a Man, I Borg, The Inner Light (the very top of my list), and the excellent top and tailers Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things? It’s in these episodes, as we watch Picard and crew wrestle with what it means to be human in a universe of uncertainty, that Star Trek really reached its peak, building on all that went before to create programing that was both entertaining, thought provoking and, thanks more often than not to Patrick Stewart, genuinely moving.

Post TNG is another matter however, and, forgive me for saying this, but the with the demise of the regular televised adventures of Picard and co., the franchise went rather swiftly downhill. Despite some initial promise, and the first female captain (gasp!), ST:V was largely derivative, rehashing old TNG plots in the same way TNG plundered TOS in the first season, but with little in the way of interesting, original content (even the series-saving addition of Seven of Nine called for the introduction of the TNG big-bad, the Borg, which Voyager swiftly proceeded to neuter by making them series regulars). And although I do occasionally hear moderately good things regarding Archer and co., I never even tried to get into ST:E – I just couldn’t get past that theme song!

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An excellently pulpy rendition of DS9 in the unashamedly enjoyable Far Beyond the Stars, an episode that tackles discrimination, the nature of reality, and lets us see all our favorite guest stars out of their regular prosthetics, all the while tipping its hat to the origin of modern SF in the 1950s pulp scene.

I do have a soft spot for DS9, however, and the series did have moments of brilliance (Far Beyond the Stars and In The Pale Moonlight, to name but two) and TOS is of course home to many classic, genre defining and genuinely quite groundbreaking episodes of television, but try as I might, I just can’t muster the same affection for Kirk and Spock as I can for Picard and Data. Perhaps it’s a formative thing and I just happened to hit TNG at the right time, but for all its numerous faults (like most of the first two seasons) I just can’t stop holding a candle for the crew of the Enterprise D, and of course Tasha Yar (*sob*).

With this in mind, and after four rather disappointing TNG movie outings, I approached 2009’s J.J. Abrams-led big screen Star Trek reboot with some trepidation. Although various developmental tasks, like growing up and getting married, had somewhat reduced my, perhaps at points bordering on unhealthy connection to the TNG crew, the world of Star Trek still meant a lot to me and I was keen for Abrams not to screw it up. And largely he did not.

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Say what you will about the reboot,  but the new Enterprise is unquestionably some kind of awesome!

2009’s Star Trek offered a pleasantly surprising and engaging take on the Kirk/Spock relationship with the kinds of space battles Trek fans had only previously dreamed of, and 2013’s Into Darkness, while a little silly (and redundant – remake The Wrath of Khan, really?!?) was an enjoyable space romp nonetheless. Now that Abram’s himself has departed the director’s chair in favor of that other little space franchise obsessed with a group of light-sword fighting monks, we are due to get the third installment in the shiny new universe next month in the form of Star Trek Beyond (they have done away with the colons for some reason).

Although the misjudged first trailer for Justin Lin’s Trek film was worryingly un-Trek-like in tone and universally panned accordingly, the second has more than whetted my appetite, showcasing the characters we know in new and yet appropriately Trekkie situations: debating the ethics of the existence of the Federation and its near obsessive drive toward galactic expansion with an unrecognizable yet menacing Idris Elba, for example. Moreover, Lin (of various entries into the Fast and Furious franchise fame, apparently) seems to be putting his credentials as a action movie director to good use, finding (if the trailer is to be believed) several exciting new ways to film the main star of the show, namely the Enterprise herself.

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The USS Enterprise warps itself through space, probably. We’ll have to wait and see, but whatever it is, it makes my geek heart jump.

And isn’t that what these new Star Trek films are all about? Explosions in space and spinning cameras, lens-flares (it’s Abrams after all) and inter-species martial arts? The excitement factor has definitely been turned up all the way to eleven and if the box office tallies from the last two reboot entries are anything to go by it certainly seems to be attracting audiences to the cinema, but is it really Trek?

Watching Abram’s first Star Trek again the other day it was hard not think of it as an extended audition for the job he ultimately got rebooting/continuing/re-imagining Star Wars, complete with an Ewok-esk comedy sidekick for Simon Pegg’s Scotty. In fact, about half way through I actually found myself wondering where all the scenes of old people wearing wobbly prosthetics sitting round a table and debating interstellar politics were. Not to mention the Enterprise’s famous mission that speaks to the very heart of Trek – to seek out new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before! Despite repeated verbal references to a five year mission we have yet to see the new Kirk and co. actually do any exploring.

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Kirk and Spock continue their mission of exploration where few dare to tread… erm, the bus.

Come to think of it, it’s not just the reboots that are guilty of this – from The Motion Picture to Into Darkness, none of the Star Trek films show the crew of the Enterprise doing any star trekking – not in the way Roddenberry had envisaged anyway. Arguably, Star Trek has never been fully realized on the big screen with few, if any, of the films, viewed solely on their own merits, actually working.

Think about it: can you name a single one of the movies that would stand up against 90 minutes (so two episodes) of the best of TV Trek? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home are usually cited as the best of the silver screen bunch (although I have a soft spot for The Motion Picture) but how do they rate against, say The City on the Edge of Forever and Space Seed? We only really got one half decent TNG movie and arguably First Contact suffers from the same action-oriented flaws as Abrams’ offerings (albeit without the flares), and although the Jonathan Frakes directed outing gave us the Borg Queen, it’s still not as good as the Best of Both Worlds double-header story arc from which it draws heavily.

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Alice Krige brings life to the Borg Queen, a worthy if somewhat confusing addition to the Borg mythology.

The point is, I’m not sure Trek really works on the big screen. Yes, it makes its money, but after 12 (soon to be 13) worthy attempts I think we can safely say that Roddenberry’s wagon trail to the stars is, I believe, an idea intrinsically linked to the episodic nature of television. As we watched, for example, Data’s quest to gain his humanity in TNG unfold over seven seasons and numerous interactions with main and incidental characters, pivotal or otherwise, we observed through repeat and slowly building exposure what this obsession truly meant to him, and his insertion of the emotion chip in Generations is therefore seen as a culmination of this seven year journey rather than a knee-jerk response to a minor holodeck embarrassment.

When Picard is first revealed as Locutus, his distinguished face drained of color, implanted with multiple painful looking metal augmentations, one eye covered by a cool-looking but quite obviously useless laser pointer, it is only because we have watched this man lead the Enterprise for three full seasons now that it really matters, and I’m not sure that connection can adequately be reproduced in twenty minutes of preamble before a the first big set-battle in a summer blockbuster.

Similarly, The Inner Light, a truly glorious episode in which Picard relives the entire life of a long dead alien via a telepathically delivered message from an ancient probe, would not work in the cinema at all – it’s far too slow and, ultimately, rather pointless. Picard now has this alien’s memories but where’s the interstellar threat, the lens flaring, camera wobbling dynamism? There isn’t any, and there shouldn’t be, for The Inner Light is a slow, meditative musing on the nature of mortality, the kind of risk no big studio would take (not with the Star Trek name on it anyway) but the very kind of TV SF that works precisely because of all the emotional investment we, the audience, have made in Captain Picard over the preceding episodes. In short, it’s just good TV.

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Teaser image for CBS’ new Star Trek series tantalizingly set in the prime (i.e. pre-reboot) universe.

Which brings me to CBS and their so far only teased new Star Trek TV series set to premiere this fall. Now, I’m trying not to get too hopeful about this (it’s set in the prime universe! Ahhhhh!) and I can’t be alone in wondering if it is in fact not just an attempt to get millions of Trekkies to cash in their love of the franchise for a subscription to CBS’ streaming service on which all episodes after the first will run and which surely doesn’t stand a chance in hell aginst the might of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu without them, but beam me up Scotty if I’m not excited anyway!

Can they really recreate that magic though? Star Trek, TOS, was undeniably a product of its time, a more optimistic time, arguably, and the same goes for TNG. How CBS’ offering will fare in a Trump, Brexit climate of economic uncertainty is anybody’s guess. Perhaps a new wagon trail to the stars is exactly what we need to take our minds off the petty squabbles of modern existence, or maybe the creators will dare to offer us a darker, grittier version of Roddenberry’s future, where humanity still wrestles with demons and there is no last minute mcguffin to save the day?

Either way, I await their offering with bated breath, hopeful that Star Trek can once again assume its rightful place at the forefront of TV science fiction. If they have any sense, surely the producers at CBS will ask themselves WWJLPD? before every major decision. Since 1987 it has been one surefire way to never go wrong!

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Words to live by: What Would Picard Do?

Are you a Trekkie or an SF fan in general? Do you have an opinion on the reboot(s)? Are you hopeful or fearful for CBS’ coming TV offering? Let me know in the comments below.

That’s all for now internets.

As always, thanks for playing!

Ode* to Civilization

*Alright, it’s a rambly blog post not an ode. I recently took the very dangerous step of starting to play Civilization again. Dangerous because, as every Civ veteran knows, Sid Meier’s classic strategy game has the power to suck entire weeks of time from the lives of its players, replacing them with understandable pride at the accomplishments of your victorious armies on one hand, and a fear of going “outside” where there is “sun” on the other. Not to mention a deep suspicion of anybody with whom you don’t have a current open borders treaty. (They’re not as easy to negotiate outside of the game where, in my experience, people tend to think you’re just crazy.)

Don’t worry though… I think I’m keeping things in check. I mean I’m in control (of whole nations!). I can quit whenever I want to… right after this one last turn…

Good luck negotiating with Stalin! The Windows 95, multiplayer enabled-update of the original Civ, called CivNet, was where it all started for me.

Seriously though, I don’t think I’m in any danger. There is far too much going on in my real life for me to be able to replicate those heady summers of my childhood spent glued to the computer monitor while my armies swept across an unsuspecting continent and I diversified my economy and built the Pyramids in Tokyo. Also, I’m play Civ IV (vanilla) which isn’t nearly as addictive as II or III, in my opinion. So I should be OK.

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International conflict threatens Russia, England, and Greece during a late-age CivNet game. These blocky maps and randomized continents were studied far more vigorously than any of my school books as I sought a path to victory!

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the wondrous game (seriously, you’re using your computer wrong), there are six versions ranging from the original Civilization released in 1991, to Civilization V from 2010 (counting CivNet as a separate entry in the series rather than an update and excluding the arguably quite distinct Colonization and the sci-fi themed Alpha Centauri and Beyond Earth (and I’m not even going to acknowledge Civilization Revolution beyond this highly dismissive note 🙂 )) and a whole host of expansions and additions, not to mention player-created content.

Civilization is a turn-based strategy game (as opposed to strategy games of the real-time variety such as Age of Empires, for example) that has been called the most important strategy game ever made and is routinely ranked amongst the best compute games of all time, it’s rich level of detail and repeat playability causing it to standout as a really quite unique gaming creation. But more about that later.

Choosing the right place to found your cities is key.

The object of all six Civ games is to guide your civilization (you can chose from a historical selection at the beginning of the game or create your own one) from the stone to the modern age, exploring, expanding, trading, fighting and/or negotiating your way to the top in the process. With control over the economic and cultural output of your civilization you must pay equal attention to developing your country’s infrastructure and building schools as to advancing your military tech. Devastating wars of conquest can be a great path to victory but so can the construction of world wonders, control of the united Nations, or the launching of an interstellar spaceship to become the first nation to send out colonists to another star.

Civ II boasted a newer interface with better graphics, more advanced AI, new game concepts and squabbling advisers played by real-life actors in annoying pop-up videos. It also came with a rather cool pre-seeded Earth map.

If this all sounds a little detail heavy, that’s because it is, a feature that undoubtedly contributed to the rise of a dedicated if somewhat nerdy fan-base for the series which continues to this day with a bustling online community of modders and scenario builders actively keeping their megalomania-fueled dreams alive. Although I must confess to never having played Civ V, I consider myself a veteran Civer with a good nineteen years of gameplay under my belt.

The slightly more polished graphics of Civ IV could lead to animated diplomatic clashes with rival world leaders. It looks like the time for talking has pass here though. Alexander the Great is pissed!

My first brush with the franchise came when I got my very own PC circa 1996 (yes, my own – it was in my bedroom and everything!); a Packard Bell that shipped with a free copy of CivNet for Window 95. Instantly transfixed by the premise, not to mention the promise of ultimate power over the course of an entire civilization, I was soon saving my pocket money with an eye to upgrading to the newly launched Civilization II – obviously MicroProse’s cunning aim in giving away a free copy of CivNet to begin with.

Unlike CivNet, Civ II came with an editor which allowed players to easily create their own maps and custom scenarios. Its launch was also followed by an official expansion packFantastic Worlds, which introduced both science fiction and fantasy elements to the game, challenging players to test their leadership skills against invading aliens or in worlds populated by wizards, elves and dwarfs. However it was not until the launch of Civilization III (the pinnacle of Sid Meier’s series imho) that the whole user-made mod craze really took off for me.

The pretty but static city-view screen in Civ III. Here, somebody seems to have successfully clogged this town with wonders from the towering Colossus on the coast to SETI’s huge radio dish nestling in the shadow of the Great Wall in the background.

Although the third installment in the Civilization series was criticized as too detail/micro-management oriented, its clever AI and more advanced diplomacy made for challenging and addictive gameplay. With the growth of the online Civ community, the introduction of a play-by-email option to compliment the existing LAN and internet multiplay acknowledged the potentially damaging time-sucking quality of the franchise and enabled Civers to enjoy new mods while also keeping their family together and holding down their job 🙂

The Civ III game engine had serious downsides however – there was no ability to include scripted events, for instance – yet creative modders came up with some ingenious ways to get around these shortcomings leading to range of highly detailed, imaginative mods. El Justo’s Cold War Deluxe and Age of Imperialism are both shining examples of this practice with historically accurate gameplay, hundreds of unique units, new soundtracks, and meticulous play-testing leading to flawless and truly immersive gaming experiences.

A screen shot from Age of Imperialism: a lovingly created scenario set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century that allowed players to control one of thirty two historically accurate countries and their empires leading up to and through World War I.

I must have lost weeks of my life playing these creations and even more coming up with strategies and sharing tips and stories with the friendly and interactive online community that grew up around such mods.

And now for something completely different: The Civ III Escape from Zombie Island mod. Historical accuracy: 0. Creativeness and fun: 10+.

Yet more than simple entertainment, the truth is that Civilization inspired me and, dare I say it, actually taught me things. The history, geography and politics I encountered in the game intrigued my young brain far more than the drab classroom-based attempts to engage me on such subjects ever could and I found myself voluntarily reading up on wars, nations, and social structures in my free time.

In secondary school (middle-high school for any Americans) history class had always been a dry endeavor and I had dropped it from my syllabus as soon as I was able. Yet at university it was my first choice and I loved it so much I gained a Masters in it too. I don’t think I ever admitted this to any of my professors (or even my classmates) but Civilization is almost certainly responsible for awakening and nurturing this passion in me and was probably a much better introduction to many important historical subjects than most people ever receive at school.

Why was Queen Elizabeth such a stickler for religious freedom in Civ IV? I didn’t know – but inspired by the game, I soon found out reading up on Tudor history.

My experience is in no way unique of course, and Civilization has actually been used by teachers as a creative way to bring subjects to students’ attention in schools across the world. Moreover, I know I am in good company: one of my favorite ever authors, the late Iain M. Banks was a known Civilization addict and it is said his experience of the game inspired the creation of one of the most enjoyable Culture novels: Excession.

Are the insanely powerful minds of the Culture essentially playing a great game of Civilization with the universe?

Then, a few years ago, I was highly amused to stumble upon this:

10-year-long video game creates ‘hellish nightmare’ world

It’s a news report about a guy who goes by the name Lycerius, who played the same game of Civ II for 10 years, resulting in an nightmare Orwellian world of constant war. Details of the decade long game are available on his Reddit thread. Highlights from his description of the war-torn world include:

The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation.

There are 3 remaining super nations in the year 3991 A.D, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

The ice caps have melted over 20 times (somehow) due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swamp land, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

Lovely. In fact Reddit users were so traumatized by Lycerius’ experiences that they even set up another thread called The Eternal War, which is both dedicated to ending the virtual suffering of this ravaged world and allows users to post their own tales of never-ending Civilization wars.

I’ve not done any research beyond the Reddit threads, but I am pretty sure Lycerius’ game is the longest ever played. The fact that over this length of time the Civ II engine produces such global stalemate, akin to the geopolitical situation described in Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, is incredibly interesting and suggest the games creators were not too far off in their bid to create a game that mimics both societal development and the ultimate futility of war.

In Civ II nuclear fallout is aptly illustrated by skulls pockmarking the landscape around irradiated towns.

Returning to Civ now, after several years away, I have to admit that some of the magic has gone. This may partly be due to the fact that I am playing Civ IV and I was never particularly fond of its cartoonish, faux 3D graphics (a superficial addition to a turn-based strategy game if ever there was one) or its interesting but in my opinion flawed civic system.

Or maybe it’s just a part of getting older, growing up.

Never again will I be able to spend quite so many guilt-free hours clicking away at world maps and adjusting sliders, not when I have actual things I want to accomplish, work to do and relationships to maintain. Perhaps this is why I can’t bring myself to justify spending the money on Civ V (just yet, anyway) and yet I still find myself going back for that one last turn that somehow morphs into another couple of hours. Honestly, I don’t know how my wife copes.

A nuke takes out an American city in Civ IV.

In what must have been a stroke of genius, the creators of Civ IV employed the late, legendary Leonard Nimoy to narrate the introduction to the game, and he follows the player’s progress, rewarding them with a relevant quote read in his distinguished dulcet tones whenever they unlock a new technology. Even though I must have heard each quote a dozen time by now, I still get that tingle on the back of my neck whenever Mr Spock’s voice rings out over the world, encouraging and inspiring me to research fast and reach ever further.

And that’s just it. I’m not a kid anymore; I can’t afford, and indeed don’t want to waste my time conquering fake worlds on my computer, not when there’s a real one out here to be a part of everyday. But nor do I want to forget that owe a lot to Civilization, to all the lessons it taught me not just about history and geography but about the struggles faced by our civilization(s) both now and in the past. The game inspired me and, 3D graphics or not, I hope it continues to inspire others.

Tanks advance upon Budapest in the admittedly rather beautiful Civ V.

I will always be grateful for the passion for history playing Civilization in its various incarnations awoke in me, not to mention the joyous days spent expanding my empire and conquering other nations. To this day I cannot hear Beethoven’s Ode to Joy without picturing all those little pixelated fireworks exploding over my little pixelated cities as my virtual citizens celebrated in my honor. And I think there are elements of world geography that will only ever look familiar to me in blocky, CivNet map style form, but I don’t mind.

Thank you, Civilization! Thank you, Sid Meier!

This isn’t a ode, it’s just a rambly blog post; but it is for you.

Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in all its midi glory!

The Red Planet or Blue?

There is water on Mars!

Liquid water for that matter, held just below the surface, if the latest readings from NASA’s Curiosity rover are to be believed.

According to a paper published in Nature, which you can access here, humidity and temperature data collected from a full year of readings on the red planet indicate that the conditions are right for liquid brine to form on the surface of Mars. What’s more, instruments on board Curiosity have reportedly detected liquid water just below the surface, contradicting the previously held belief that temperatures on the red planet were too cold for water to exist outside of solid form.

Has Curiosity found the last remains of once mighty Martian oceans?

These latest findings, which suggest that the soil below the Martian surface is moist with brine (the freezing point of which is significantly lowered due to the high levels of salt), were made by Curiosity as the rover attempts to climb Mount Sharp which lies in the middle of the giant Gale crater, a scar on the Martian surface 154km in diameter which has been home to the intrepid robot explorer since 2012.

Previous images from Curiosity’s camera have indicated the presence of old riverbeds where liquid water once flowed across the red planet and it is known that ice exists in the form of caps at the Martian poles. The existence of liquid water on our closest planetary neighbor however, is an important step forward in our understanding of the origins of life in the solar system, not to mention the search for traces of extra-terrestrial life itself.

NASA’s Curiosity has been scouring the red planet since August 2012

So, should we get out the bunting and prepare to welcome little green men from the red planet to Earth? Not just yet. Even with the presence of liquid water, conditions on Mars remain hostile to life and it is still considered unlikely that there is anything living on the fourth rock from the sun, even below the surface.

In the paraphrased words of Ogilvy the astronomer, the chances of anything coming from Mars are still a million-to-one. But then again, if the late, great Terry Pratchett taught us anything, it’s surely that a million-to-one chances happen nine times out of ten. So a sci-fi nerd can always hope!

Bye bye HMS Thunder Child! Maybe the lack of Martians is a good thing after all.

That’s all for now. TTFN!

Geekery

Here’s some general geekery for you, two stories from this past week that caught my eye:

Should Computer Scientists Study SF? & Elon Musk Names SpaceX Drone Ships in Honor of Iain M. Banks

The first comes from the Guardian which poses a question raised by Australian scientists concerned that the quest to develop artificial intelligence could be a quest that leads to our own destruction. Obviously this is not a new fear, it has been explored many times in the realm of speculative fiction which, interestingly, is exactly where these researchers suggest computer scientists look for answers, or at least for a little hubris-checking ethical argument.

Among the sf books suggested for inclusion on a new computer science curriculum are The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, but the Guardian is keen to hear your picks too – as am I. You can find the original article here (link) and add your own thoughts to the comments, but feel free to add them below as well if the fancy takes you.

Highly unlikely but pretty freaking cool-looking AI super soldier, AKA a T800. Should the Terminator films be compulsory viewing for all computer science students?

 

Second is an article on TOR.COM which reports that innovative entrepreneur, SpaceX CEO and basically real life Tony Stark, Elon Musk has named SpaceX spaceport drone ships in honor of the late and immeasurably great Iain M Banks. Plucking the monikers from Bank’s Culture novels – excellent examples of a brilliantly written science fiction universe run by a huge number of thankfully benevolent AIs – Musk has apparently christened two of his craft after vessels from The Player of Games. 

The Just Read the Instructions and the Of Course I Still Love You are “custom-built ocean platforms designed to accommodate the landing of booster rockets after they have sent spacecraft into orbit” and represent an important leap in the development of commercial space enterprise. I honestly wouldn’t have though it was possible to make these giant autonomous ocean-going spaceport drone ships any cooler than they already are, but by honoring Banks and his wonderful literary creations, Mr Musk just has.

A SpaceX autonomous spaceport drone ship in dock. The Just Read the Instructions, or the Of Course I Still Love You?

You can find the original TOR article here (link) and some more info about SpaceX’s science-fiction-esque endeavors here (link). As for Banks’ Culture novels, well if you can’t find them in your local book shop then it’s not worthy of the title. They should definitely be on the reading list of every Computer scientist – it’ll give them something to aim for – and if you haven’t read them yourself, then they should be on yours too!

That’s all for now folks. Be kind to each other while you still have the chance – come the AI revolution you never know who you’ll end up sharing a cramped and dirty dugout bunker with as you cower at the advance of the machines.

Bye!

 

“The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium” by Julian Mortimer Smith

Hello!

This is a very quick post to let you know that my friend and author, Julian Mortimer Smith has a new story out in the December issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine.

For those of you who don’t know Urban Fantasy, it’s available as a pay-what-you-want download and is a really great source of new fiction as well as non-fiction and reviews.

For those of you who don’t know Julian Mortimer Smith, he’s a Canadian writer of weird and, I think, really quite wonderful stories and is well worth a read. If you don’t want to pay for Urban Fantasy (although you can download the latest issue for as little as a penny!), why not check out Julian’s short Barb-the-Bomb and the Yesterday Boy which you can read for free over at Daily Science Fiction (another great source for new short form SF).

Well, that’s all from me for now.

Stay Classy {insert appropriate city/town/village name here}

Rosetta: rendezvous with a comet

Unless you have been living under a giant space rock for the last 24 hours, you are probably already aware that yesterday, Wednesday, November 12 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission successfully touched down on Comet 67P, the first ever human-made object to land on such a body.

Welcome to a comet: The first ever image from the surface of a comet taken by Rosetta’s lander Philae.

The media response has been staggering and today #CometLanding is still trending on Twitter all over the world. All this public interest, and of levels normally reserved for flashy NASA missions, is partly because Rosetta is an amazing achievement and partly because ESA did such a great job informing their global audience about the extent and potential of the endeavor.

I blogged about the inspiring sci-fi short film ESA released to promote the mission here, and even though I am over a day late, I thought I’d better follow that up with a few pics of the historic landing itself.

You can find out more information about the mission along with links to more pics, videos, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and so forth at ESA’s official Rosetta portal, here.

The first panoramic image from the surface of a comet showing a 360º view around the point of final touchdown.

The Rosetta mission was launched over a decade ago following eleven years of preparation and planning. Carried into space on an Ariane 5G+ rocket, Europe’s primary expendable launch system, the probe used the gravity of Mars and Earth to propel itself into deep space where it hibernated for two years while it caught up with its target comet.

Awoken in early 2014, Rosetta began collecting information about Comet 67P even before launching the Philae lander, including the first ever recording of a comet’s “voice” – a strange, astral “song” picked up by Rosetta’s Plasma Consortium that you can listen to here.

Image from Rosetta’s camera showing the Philae lander detached, with legs and antennas deployed, heading toward the comet.

After landing, Philae bounced several times and traveled more than a kilometer before finally settling relatively close to the intended touch down site where it will now stay and transmit data until it either runs out of energy or suffers mechanical failure. The lander itself is equipped with an array of sensors designed to answer questions about the presence of water on comets and the role such bodies may have played in the origins of life on Earth.

Philae’s parting image of Rosetta, taken shortly after separation looks for all the world like a still from a science fiction film.

ESA is ‘Europe’s gateway to space’, an intergovernmental organization with twenty member states including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK. As human ambition in space becomes ever grander, missions such as Rosetta are increasingly beyond the scope of single nations and can only be achieved by a pooling of international resources. ESA’s mission, to expand human understanding and exploration of the cosmos, is a powerful and inspiring force for global cooperation, building peace as well as dreams.

So why am I blogging about all of this? Well, aside from the fact that we just witnessed a little bit of history in the making and that missions like Rosetta have the potential to shed light on some of the most fundamental questions surrounding the existence, origins and future of humankind, I believe they can also be the inspirational glue that holds this planet together. Seriously. In a world of increasing wealth disparity, where millions face hunger and disease while an elite few bask in a level of luxury systematical unattainable to the rest, looking to space, to the vastness of the cosmos and the fragility of our place within it, brings a level of perspective that, I believe has potentially healing properties. Also, it’s just freaking cool!

As a writer and a sci-fi nerd this stuff makes my spine tingle. I mean come on people – we have landed a robot on a comet and we have rovers on Mars! We’re living in the future, and what’s so great about all the best, uplifting sci-fi visions of tomorrow? In addition to traveling amongst the stars, to teleportation and warp speed, in the bravest, purest visions of human potential we have built an egalitarian society free of injustice, hunger, war and disease. I know Rosetta will not bring us any of those things, but it is a scientific success born of dreams, and if it inspires any of us just a little bit closer toward some of these lofty ideals, who knows what tomorrow may bring?

 

Ambition: the film

Howdy readers! I’m back with another post and this time it has nothing to do with Vestigial Tales. {gasp!}

Rather, I wanted to show you this short film by ESA (The European Space Agency) titled Ambition. It’s a rather clever bit of PR for their impressive (not to mention ambitious) Rosetta mission which was launched in 2004 and is currently chasing a comet 494 million kilometers from the Earth.  It’s also a pretty cool bit of sci-fi to boot.

You can watch the film below and find out more about ESA and Rosetta at their website here.

I’ll be back with a more down to earth update soon. TTFN!

Spaceteam Admiral’s Club is go for launch!

Hello! One week ago I blogged about the Spaceteam Admiral’s Club Kickstarter – a brilliant little project inspired by a great game and offering  you the chance to get involved in the funding of free, innovative apps.

Well, today I am very pleased to write that the Admiral’s Club has been funded, reaching its target of 80,000 CAD and then some! This is a great success for both Sleeping Beast Games and the future of indie game development. Huge congratulations Henry Smith and the Spaceteam team!

Promotional shots from the original Spaceteam – looks like player 2 needs to brush up on his Picard Maneuver!

For those of you who have never played Spaceteam (what have you been doing with all your spare time?), it’s a cooperative multiplayer sci-fi themed adventure which is both highly addictive and a shed load of fun. Also, it is completely free. You can find out more about it and download it here.

Well, that’s all from me today. Off to work on VT now, which I am pleased to say is edging closer and closer to completion. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on Sleeping Beast games in the future and I suggest you do the same!