Star Trek: New Horizons

Here's something that I've never done before: a review of a game mod! I don't play mods very often. When I play games, I usually want to play the game that the creators created in order to get a feel for what their intent might have been. For some of the more sandboxy PC games that I play (like Cities: Skylines or the like), I might try some small mods.

There has yet to be an official game quite like Microprose's 1999 release, Birth of the Federation.

For this one instance, however, I'm making an exception because this particular mod fills a very specific niche desire for me that has gone unfulfilled for around 15 or 20 years. The "New Horizons" mod for Stellaris is finally allowing me to play a full 4-x strategy game set in the Star Trek universe. I haven't been able to do that since Star Trek: Birth of the Federation, developed by Microprose for Windows 98!

The creators seem to have been inspired by BotF.

Yes, there have been other Star Trek mods for other games in the past, and there's even some community projects to create spiritual successors to Birth of the Federation (such as Star Trek: Supremacy). The problem is that I've yet to ever see one of these get finished. "New Horizons" for Stellaris is still a work-in-progress, but it is mostly functionally complete and fairly robust. Since Birth of the Federation holds such a special place in my heart, I'm going to take a stab at reviewing "New Horizons" and see how it compares to my personal favorite [official] Star Trek game of all time.

Built on the back of Stellaris

"New Horizons" is, of course, a mod for the PC game Stellaris (developed and published by Paradox). Because of this, it takes advantage of most of Stellaris' strengths, but it is also hamstrung by many of Stellaris' faults.

"New Horizons" makes excellent use of the massive size and scale of Stellaris' maps by featuring a detailed recreation of the canon Star Trek galaxy, and including a surprisingly exhaustive roster of Star Trek races and factions -- all of whom are playable. Yes, of course, the big players like the Federation, the Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, Dominion, and Borg are all here. As are all the expected ancillary empires like the Gorn, Tholians, Orions, and so forth.

The playable roster is surprisingly vast and exhaustive.

It doesn't end there, though. This mod also features a crap-ton of "aliens of the week" as fully-featured, playable empires. They aren't "minor races" like what we had in Birth of the Federation or the city states of Civilization V or VI. They don't just have one planet and a handful of ships just waiting for a "major faction" to conquer or absorb them. The obvious choices like the Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, are all there. The game also features empires like the Sheliak, Anticans, Selay, Caitian, Cheron, Dosi, Hirogen, Kazon, Krenim, Kelpian, and more! If you have a favorite space-facing civilization from any episode of Star Trek (including Gamma Quadrant aliens from DS9 and Delta Quadrant aliens from Voyager), there is a very good chance that it's a playable faction in "New Horizons"...

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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally sat down and binged the second half of Star Trek: Discovery's first season. I was actually excited to see it (not excited enough to sign up for CBS's All Access service), since it looked like the mirror universe twist would take the show in new and creative directions, and might even establish that Discovery would be a sort-of anthology series after all.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I was initially excited to see Discovery's mirror universe episodes.

Stakes feel artificial and exaggerated

The mirror universe storyline didn't feel like it was new or creative at all. In fact, it felt like it was retreading a lot of territory that Star Trek has covered before. Except now, they are supercharging it with stupid.

Once again, I'm not going to fuss about the show being aesthetically different from the original series. Such complaints are mostly pedantic. You can't use the same 1960's aesthetics from the original series and expect the show to look futuristic to modern audiences. I can overlook the shiny touch displays, the redesigned ships, the new Klingon makeup, the holographic communications, and things like that. I'm a bit less willing to overlook details like the insignia badge, but whatever.

I was actually a little bit excited to see the mirror universe in the second half of Discovery. After all, the mirror universe episodes of Enterprise were some of the most fun that series ever allowed itself to have. Granted, it was super fan-servicey and silly, but it had that campy charm that helped make the original series so successful. Discovery does not have any camp, or any charm.

Enterprise's "In a Mirror, Darkly" got away with its silly fan service by being charmingly-campy.

What I can't tolerate are the major anachronisms like the Klingons having cloaking devices ten years before Balance of Terror, fifteen years before The Time Trap, and twenty-eight years (give or take) before The Search for Spock. Yes, I also complained about the Romulans already having a cloaking device in Star Trek: Enterprise as well.

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Star Trek: Discovery

I finally got around to watching the entire first half of the first season of CBS's Star Trek: Discovery series. I'm running behind on this show since I don't have a CBS All Access subscription. I've been deliberately avoiding information about the post-hiatus episodes, so information and opinions in this post may be outdated by the time I get around to publishing it. Maybe later episodes have resolved some of these complaints. If so, feel free to ignore such comments, or let yourself be giddy with the dramatic irony. Oh, and feel free to comment, even if you do so with spoilers. I won't be offended or upset.

Before I go into the details, I want to at least try to dispel the idea that I'm just an angry fanboy who is butt-hurt that the series doesn't strictly adhere to continuity. That's come up when I've talked about this show to people in person. So I'm not going to spend this review talking about how the Klingons look different. I don't care that they look different. I've already addressed that. It does bother me that the Klingons also seem to be culturally dissimilar to the established Klingons, but I won't harp on that either. I'm not going to complain about how the uniforms and badges are anachronistic. I got that out of my system before the show even launched. I'm not going to complain that the tech looks more advanced than Original Series tech. These complaints are mostly pedantic and silly. In fact, the aesthetic look of the show is actually one of its strengths.

The visual style is one of Discovery's strengths, even though almost all of it is anachronistic.

Instead, I want to talk about how I feel that the show betrays the series' foundation as hard science fiction, and how it actively avoids the very spirit that made the Original Series and Next Generation so beloved.

Discovery isn't optimistic or forward-thinking

I'm going to start with the more important of the two: that Star Trek: Discovery betrays the spirit of Star Trek.

Star Trek became so popular, and remained so culturally relevant, at least in part because it depicted a hopeful, forward-thinking version of humanity's future. People from all over the Earth had mostly set aside their differences and decided to work together so that humanity could explore the galaxy side by side with whoever else was willing to join them. That cooperative mentality allowed us to overcome poverty and tyranny, reduce disease, and provide a post-scarcity quality of life that allowed virtually everyone to live comfortably and happily and to pursue their dreams and aspirations without the burden of having to make ends meet. That is a society that I would want to live in. It is an ideal to strive for.

Star Trek isn't perfect, but it has always provided an ideal to strive for.

That isn't to say that every series, movie, and episode of Star Trek has to have everybody getting along all the time and living happily ever after. Some of the best works within the Star Trek IP are good because they challenge the series' own lofty ideals. Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country (my personal favorite film in the franchise) explored how years of conflict with the Klingons had made Kirk and his crew (and the top brass at Starfleet) bitter and borderline racist. Episodes like TNG's "Chain of Command" showed that Starfleet was still willing to conduct clandestine acts, and "I, Borg" exposed that Starfleet was still willing to de-humanize those who it labeled as "others". Heck almost the entire series Deep Space Nine revolved around challenging the Federation's ideas of religious tolerance, economics, the balance between security and individual liberty, and the desire to maintain peace when confronted with an enemy who desires only war. The creators of Voyager were probably intending to similarly challenge Trek's ideals when they stranded the ship on the opposite end of the galaxy, far from the support of Starfleet, and replaced half the crew with Marquis freedom fighters and terrorists. Sadly, that show goes on to mostly drop those concepts and becomes a bland copy-cat of TNG.

Plenty of quality entries in the Star Trek canon have challenged the series' very own ideals.

With all that said, I'm not automatically angry that characters in Discovery are "imperfect", or that they don't get along with each other. My problem is that right from the start, the show can't seem to really decide who these characters are...

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Star Trek: Discovery

After a myriad of false starts, delays, production problem, bad PR, and generally negative expectations, Star Trek: Discovery finally premiered at the end of September. And the general consensus online seems to be pretty positive. It's not going to be the anthology series that I'd hoped for, but I didn't hate the first two episodes. I really didn't like them either, though.

Based on the season preview following the end of the second episode, it seems like it's kind of hard to gauge the series after just the first two episodes. They seem like more of a "prologue" to the main story, rather than part of the main story itself. These first two episodes take place on a different ship, with a different captain and crew, and a different situation than the rest of the show. So I don't know how representative they are going to be of the series itself.

The first two episodes see Captain Georgiou killed and the Shenzhou destroyed.

It seems a bit disingenuous (to me) for CBS to air only the first episode and then expect us to shell out $6 a month for the rest of the season. The first two episodes seem like they should have been the bare minimum, but three would have been even better, just so that audiences could see what the series proper is going to look like. Ideally, they should have aired the entire first season and then moved subsequent seasons to the streaming service. As it stands, I still don't trust the show enough to feel inclined to spend the money on a subscription. After all, it could be that the first few episodes were conceived under the direction of Bryan Fuller, and his spat with the studio, and subsequent departure from the project, could have lead to a radical change in direction for later episodes. But then again, those creative differences apparently cropped up before filming the premiere even started, so who knows how much of Fuller's creative vision even survived at all (despite the fact that he's credited as the creator and lead story writer in the opening credits).

Maybe I could pay for one month (or do a free trial) and then binge the entire rest of the series?

Anachronisms, and apparently space is no obstacle

Right off the bat, I had a lot of the knee-jerk reactions that I was expecting to have due to uniform anachronisms, costume and makeup redesigns, and so forth. CBS went to the trouble to recreate phasers and communicators that resemble the ones from the original Star Trek pilot, and apparently even made Klingon blood pink (ala Star Trek VI), but they couldn't be bothered to design ship-specific insignia badges for the uniforms? Everybody wears the delta-shield, which was supposed to be an emblem unique to the Enterprise. It was only adopted as the symbol of Starfleet (as a whole) later, in part because of the increased militarization of Starfleet due to the threat of the Klingons, and in honor of the Enterprise's service.

Just as I'd feared, everyone is wearing the same delta shield insignia.

And in the interests of fairness to the new Star Wars movies, I also can't neglect to mention the problem that the Discovery premiere had with distance...

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The initial announcement of Star Trek: Discovery looked very promising. Unfortunately, the news has not been as good since then.

First of all, the first teaser showed some lackluster CGI effects, but I was willing to dismiss that as being evident of the show's early prouction. But then news kept getting worse. Bryan Fuller stepped down as the showrunner, CBS repeatedly stated that the show won't be an anthology (even though an anthology would be a great idea), and the show was delayed from January to March. Now it's been delayed again - this time indefinitely. The delays appear to be related with CBS's in ability to get its streaming service off the ground, delays in casting, and scheduling conflicts with those who have been cast.

But production has started, and the first teaser trailer has come out.

A behind the scenes teaser gives a look at uniforms, sets, possible ship redesigns, and the captain's chair.

The first thing that stood out to me is the tease of the new uniforms, which resemble a combination of the Star Trek: Enterprise uniforms, and the cadet uniforms from the rebooted Star Trek movies. But there's a huge flaw in this uniform: the breast badge is the delta shield. Since this is a prequel to the original series, this uniform is unlikely to belong to an Enterprise crew member, even though that delta shield was unique to the Enterprise in the original series.

Star Trek Discovery - delta shield
The Discovery teaser shows a delta shield badge on a pre-TOS uniform - which is a Star Trek faux pax.

In the Original Series, each ship, starbase, or installation had its own unique mission badges, similar to contemporary NASA missions. This was a detail that even Star Trek: Enterprise got right! But the Abrams reboot, and now the new Discovery series have broken with this detail, making the uniforms anachronistic within established series' canon.

Each ship, starbase, or installation in The Original Series had its own unique mission patch, inspired by NASA missions.

By the time of The Next Generation, Starfleet had adopted a single insignia for the use of its communicator badges, which was based on the Enterprise 1701's mission insignia. Of course, this badge was a piece of technology, rather than a simple patch on a shirt, so there could have been technical limitations that required the adoption of a single insignia.

UPDATE: FEBRUARY 10, 2017:
Since seeing the trailer and writing this post, it has come to my attention that I may have over-reacted to the insignia. The presence of this insignia may be a reference to the possibility that the lead character of the show is going to be the first officer from the original Star Trek pilot. This character was played by Majel Barrett (who later went on to protray Nurse Chapel), and this character was un-named, and was only called "Number One"). So this character would have previously served onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise with Captain Pike. Perhaps this insignia is on Captain Pike's uniform?

Either way, the fact that this insignia is still being used as the show's insignia bothers me, as the show is called "Star Trek: Discovery". The insignia for the show should be the Discovery's insignia, and the Discovery should have an insignia all its own. But this insignia is dangerously close to the original Enterprise's

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