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 50th anniversary

On September 8, 1966, a cultural revolution started. The first episode of a new science fiction television series named Star Trek premiered on NBC. This series broke new ground in the genre of science fiction by being one of the first series ever to present high science fiction concepts to television audiences, while also using its space adventures as allegories for contemporary social and political issues. While it presented itself as mindless space adventure in the same vein as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, it took a serious approach to science fiction that (at the time) was limited to literature like the novels of H.G. Wells and the stories of Isaac Asimov.

Star Trek wasn't the first serious science fiction television series. Shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had existed for a almost a decade. But Star Trek differed from these series in that it depicted a revolutionarily positive and uplifting version of the future of humanity during the height of the paranoia of the Cold War. Humanity, according to Star Trek would overcome the threat of mutual destruction that the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union posed, and we would come out the other side with a spirit of cooperation and a desire to peacefully and benevolently explore the stars, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations.

Television science fiction was dominated by childish adventures like Buck Rogers
and more cynical anthology series like The Twilight Zone that drew off of Cold War paranoia.

The show was created by Gene Roddenberry, a former United States army air force pilot and Los Angeles police officer who eventually found his calling as a television writer and producer. He wrote and produced some police dramas and westerns before pitching his defining project: Star Trek. The show was picked up by Desilu Productions, a company that was run by Lucille Ball (yes, the titular actress of I Love Lucy) and her husband. The production of Star Trek was tumultuous. The show was canceled by NBC after its second season, only to be revived due to an unprecedented, fervent letter-writing campaign staged by its fans. It did not survive its third season, however, as Desilu Productions was rapidly running out of money, was forced to cut budgets, and NBC moved the show to the dreaded Friday night "death" slot. In an age before DVRs, or even VCRs, if people were out on the town on a Friday night, and they missed an episode of a show, then that episode simply went unseen.

Gene Roddenberry
Gene Roddenberry's optimistic vision
of the future remains endearing.

The series eventually saw tremendous success after its cancellation due to its episodes being syndicated during the 1970's. It gained a cult following that grew and grew, setting up conventions that would come to draw thousands of attendees. Though not immediately apparent, Star Trek would grow to become one of (if not the) most successful science fiction properties in the world. The series is often cited by scientists, engineers, and astronauts as their inspirations for their careers, and the technology of the series has inspired many real-world technological innovations, such as wireless communication, mobile devices (in particularly mobile phones), speech-recognition software, and so on. Roddenberry became the first TV writer to receive a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame, and was one of the first human beings ever to have his ashes carried into earth orbit...

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Earlier this year, it was announced that CBS will be creating a new Star Trek television series to celebrate the franchise's 50-year anniversary. Very little was known about the series except that it would be under the leadership of Bryan Fuller (a former Deep Space Nine staff writer), and that it would premiere on CBS's All-Access streaming service. As one of Fuller's first actions, he made a lot of Trek fans very excited by hiring Wrath of Khan and Undiscovered Country director Nicholas Meyer to be the chief writer of the new series. These happen to be my two favorite Star Trek movies (with Undiscovered Country getting better each time I see it).

Star Trek 2017 series poster
A leaked poster for the new Star Trek series.

The biggest questions were when would the series take place, and what would it be about. Many of the previous pitches for show ideas that I had read sounded terrible. Many sounded like really cheap fan-fiction concepts. Like the idea of a series about James Kirk's descendant becoming captain of a new Enterprise to save the Federation from an extra-galactic alien threat. Boy, that one sounded dumb.

I avoided talking about the topic of CBS's new series up till now because I wanted to reserve judgement until something more concrete about the show was announced. Well now, something has, and it has me very excited. According to rumors, Fuller and Meyers are producing a seasonal anthology series similar to the popular American Horror Story. This means that each season would contain its own self-contained, independent storyline that could explore any time period, characters, locations, or concepts from the entire series' canon. I've been saying for years that Star Trek would be a great fit for an anthology series. The canon is large and expansive enough that focusing it on a singular time, place, and characters feels very restraining and limits the types of stories that can be told.

Star Trek VI: the Undiscovered Country
The first season will supposedly take place sometime after the events of The Undiscovered Country.

Of course, when I started pitching that idea to friends and anyone who would listen (don't know why I never blogged about it...), I hadn't conceived of a seasonal anthology. I was thinking more along the lines of a true anthology similar to The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. ...

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Who doesn't like a good hamburger?

Hamburgers are a pretty casual, always-tasty meal that can range from a bland and simple fast-food cheeseburger to a gourmet bacon burger.

Me, I'm a big ribs guy! They're my favorite. Lone Star Steakhouse always made the best ribs - ribs fit for a Caesar's Memorial Day barbeque - but it's hard for me to say "no" to just about any rack of ribs. Sadly, all the Lone Stars in town are closed, and I've yet to find a true successor.

Star Trek Into Darkness poster

How does this relate to Star Trek Into Darkness? The original Star Trek series and Star Trek: the Next Generation are like those Lone Star ribs to me. They're my favorite. A really good science fiction movie - like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Terminator, or Moon, or maybe even the recently-released Oblivion - is like a visit to [say] Famous Dave's to have some ribs. It's good, but it's still not Lone Star good! These new Star Trek movies, however, aren't even like ribs to begin with. They're more like hamburgers. Yeah sure they're a satisfying meal, but sometimes, I don't want a hamburger; I want ribs!

Into Darkness isn't what I wanted in a "Star Trek" movie at all. Even worse, it's worth as a movie is mostly superficial.

Into Darkness reminded me a lot of two other Star Trek movies: Star Trek V: the Final Frontier and Star Trek Nemesis.

The Final Frontier is widely-regarded as the worst original-cast Star Trek movie (and rightfully so). It's premise is silly. The script is poorly-written (although still much more coherent than many of today's movie scripts - including Into Darkness). And the special-effects are atrocious! It was like one of those really bad episodes of the original series brought to life on the big screen with a slightly higher budget. But it did have one redeeming characteristic. The beginning and end of the movie consist of the camping scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and these scenes are actually really good. They're character-driven scenes in which we learn a little bit about the adventurous spirit of Kirk, his greatest fear, and the desire to explore that drove him to join Starfleet. It manages to further develop a character that had been around in movies and television for over 20 years, and whom one would have thought couldn't be further developed at all.

Kirk: I'm not trying to break any records. I'm doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the most important reason for climbing a mountain...
Spock: And that is ... ?
Kirk: Because it's there.
   -Star Trek V: the Final Frontier

As bad as that movie was, this simple exchange in this simple scene exemplifies what Kirk, Starfleet, and Star Trek are all about: the desire to go out there and experience the universe! Even if it's dangerous, the rewards of the experience, and the discovery that it brings is worth the risk. This is one of the prime ideologies behind Star Trek. Sure we could send probes out to collect data and send it back to us in the comfort and safety of our laboratories on earth. But why do that when we can go there and experience the universe for ourselves?

And that is a spirit that is sadly missing from Abrams' interpretation of Star Trek. Why does Kirk join Starfleet? Is it because he has a passion for adventure and discovery and expanding the horizons of human experience? Not according to these movies. In these movies, he does it because Captain Pike dared him to. Or maybe because he wants to pursue hot alien pussy, because both movies still treat Kirk like a cartoon horn dog whose eyes pop out of his head whenever a skirt walks by.

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