Friday, 31 July 2015

Fluid Movement in an Alien Domain

One more online Star Trek game has broken cover in the form of Alien Domain

Not just limited to the GameSamba site, it's also available to play via the wondrous portal that is Facebook and is currently in beta testing so it's not 100% finished but there's enough going to get a good idea of where this is heading. Be warned though, I'm in a grumpy mood after reading Savage Trade.

Let's nail off the backstory first. It seems that those naughty, naughty Species 8472 aliens from fluidic space weren't given the ass-kicking we thought in Scorpion, decided that we weren't that friendly after In the Flesh and have been amassing their forces ever since in anticipation of returning to the franchise - sorry - in anticipation of a larger attack. Forgoing their "Undine" moniker from Star Trek Online, Alien Domain is immediately setting itself firmly away from that gaming powerhouse but frankly that's where I think my dissatisfaction begins. Luckily though I realised early on I was in a negative frame of mind and contacted the Powers that Be to help give me a more balanced opinion on the game. You know why? Because everything has two sides and it's very important to me that we hear all the angles. While listening to me grumble might be super-entertaining, it's not very constructive. Check me out being all adult here.

Explained the very helpful GameSamba Vice President of Content, Brendon Lindsey; "The game has been in development since early 2014. In terms of the background/setting taking place in fluidic space, and after Voyager, that was a decision based on many factors. Ultimately, it came down to the idea that we could kind of work in a new area most other Star Trek games haven't really explored much, and as fans of the franchise working with the Star Trek team to craft a new story, a "new" setting, and come up with some of the new characters and species we have in the game was just too awesome to pass up. 

"For the game itself, we went with this style of game primarily because of its widespread appeal not only with players in the US and Europe, but also globally. Web-based strategy games like this are really popular worldwide, and to date there have been very few sci-fi themed ones that have been released; usually it's fantasy or medieval. It works well with Star Trek, as these types of games are about exploring new areas, and moving further into the unknown."

Alien Domain seems like a brilliant concept when you hear the background and therefore an experience that should grip social gamers across the globe so, let's skip forward a bit in time, use a handy wormhole and drop into fluidic space to start a whole new mission of exploration. This is gonna be "way cool" and we get to kick Species 8472's posterior into the bargain. Hand me the mouse, get me on the internet and let's be on with it. After registering and some fancy gubbins intro, you can pick to start out either as a Starfleet officer or a Klingon warrior. Game on people, I'm going Federation.

OK, so off I go on my continuing mission. The first system (1.1) is the expected hand-holding walk-through. You get a redesigned Constitution Class starship to start up your fleet and explore while various photogenic Starfleet officers walk you through the features of the game.

Now with Online I actually like the design of the characters and the environments. They're very expressive, clearly created by fans for fans and feel at least a little lived in. Here for some reason all the Starfleet characters are in skin-tight spandex variations on The Next Generation season one/two uniform and also look like they've been hired from the CGI modelling agency. That depletes its credibility and starts to make Alien Domain look like a cheap child of the franchise. Certainly in respect to the female characters there appears to have been some "sexing up". Why it's aiming for such a market is beyond me, I thought, as I wouldn't associate this image with Star Trek.

"Because of the setting of the game, there aren't any recognizable characters -- unless you count some of the ships." noted Brendon, "Later on we may introduce some in the form of simulation missions, but we didn't want to make the game rely on existing characters to succeed. 

"As for "sexing up" the guiding characters, I think that may be putting it a little too extreme. Yes, some of the main guide characters may be drawn attractively (in this case I'm assuming you mean Jenny Snow (right)), but we have a mix of old and young non-playing characters in the game. We also worked with CBS to stay within the guidelines of design, so we have nothing over the top. But in the end, we are trying to appeal to that grey space where fans and non-fans mingle, so some degree of attractiveness in art is part of getting players into the game."

As it progresses though there's a horrid sense of repetitiveness that doesn't abate. You reach a planet, you fight some ships, you gain some rewards, you travel to the next planet and start again. Early on this does happen a lot as you march through the first 20 or 30 level-ups. At that point you might start to fight real people rather than the computer's generated adversaries. The only times that you seem to do anything different is when you can return to your space base, collect resources and upgrade buildings in a similar way to a lot of games ever. The base does offer the chance to update your ships with technology - which in itself can also be individually enhanced - and also build additional ships and as you reach certain levels other options open up to improve your facility and abilities. Of course the resources you have access to (metal, crystal, deuterium and synergen) all vary in the amounts you can collect and store which makes managing that a delicate balancing act itself especially since yoou seem to accumulate metal and crystal at a ferocious rate.

It is a worthy note that the first few ships I've encountered in the spacedock included the Sabre Class and the Steamrunner Class both of which are canon as opposed to the initial provision of the rebooted/super-Constitution Class. That's where Online certainly has another advantage in that you have a lot of chances to interact with characters, space battles, away missions and the chance to really indulge in a Star Trek experience. Here the action is very two-fold and there really aren't any big surprises once you're into the flow of the game.

Clearly those behind Alien Domain have been reading their Freemium Handbooks carefully as a lot of the better features and abilities are limited to those who have forked out for the VIP Access or various packs available in the game store. There is a tidy little bonus which you can build up over the course of seven logins (and not necessarily seven consecutive days) and also you can pick up additional little aids by staying online for longer per daily session. This does, in fairness, keep you playing for the want of the next prize although I was easily swayed offline after several attacks.

Brendon totally understood my perspective on the game and certainly all the head-scratching which had led me to wonder what Alien Domain actually was. "With the game, our goal wasn't to create the ultimate fan game that encompassed everything Star Trek stood for, with lots of characters and stories from the shows." he said, "Other games are trying to do that, and it would have created too much competition for the same groups. What we wanted to do was to create a game that could appeal to a broader audience, and help introduce Star Trek to people and places it hasn't traditionally had a lot of fans in. 

"There's this stigma among non-fans or casual fans that if it's a Star Trek game (or really any super established property), they're never going to be able to enjoy it, or they're going to feel like they're missing out if they play. So we wanted to create something based on Star Trek that we felt could bring those people over the threshold, and serve as an easy-to-play, casual entrance to the brand from which they could later on explore other entities.

At the same time, we do know Star Trek fans are going to check the game out, and we do want them to enjoy it. That's part of why we created the setting and story the way we did -- to give fans something they can get out of the game. And even without the doses of nostalgia or the more subtle/political aspects from the series being really present, a lot of fans do enjoy the nature of Alien Domain."

To be fair this is perfect Facebook game fodder. There's not a lot to it and it's easy to get ensnared into the simplicity of the game after a very short time but it's just not got that Star Trek feel to it. Even the chat feature doesn't drive me to want to play this any more than I need to in order to review the game and I'm starting to grasp at straws to say why you should play it. The next kick was just how elitist I found the squadrons with notices specifically saying they didn't want anyone below a certain level and kicking anyone out that doesn't fit. I just found this another reason to turn off. I want to play and get more involved but if others want to get funny then I'm off. Surely these can't be true fans rather hardened gamers more interested in levels and numbers than the true Star Trek spirit. 

I approached Brendon over this and it's good to know they are very aware of their audience and what's going on; "I haven't seen a lot of instances of it, but like any game we have had our share of bad eggs. Our community and GM team is pretty active in monitoring the community interaction and responding to players, though, so if anyone is experiencing anything too bad I'd suggest to share with them and they can help you out. 

As for community reaction, so far overall it's been great. We have a large rate of new players staying in the game after they start, and many of them continue to play. As for the last part of the question, we do have a good proportion of Star Trek fans, but I would say most of them tend to be more casual fans (who have maybe watched the various series but only a bit here and there), or are from overseas and are fans of the newer movies but had only heard of the original shows existing in mentions. What's cool is we've gotten a lot of those types of people sending us messages after they start playing that they're now getting copies of the older series on DVD or digitally and are going to check it out because they want to learn more about Star Trek now that they're kind of involved with part of it.

OK OK, here's one - it might get people to take a second look at Star Trek. That's it. I just can't see hardcore fans touching this especially if they've already (just) tried  Online.

Brendon seemed to think along the same lines and I really did value his honesty when I asked him about the game and if it would be able to compete against the aforementioned Online; "Really if a game like Star Trek Online is your type of game, then there's no real reason to play this instead. 

"This is definitely a more casual type of game, and they aren't really competitors in terms of an audience. With client games, there's a higher barrier to entry, and also a higher need for a rig that can play it. Web-based games like this can be played on just about any Internet-enabled laptop or PC these days (and any device that supports Flash), and you can login and play instantly, no matter which device you're on."

So actually it's not for those of us who've touched Online. Perhaps it's something that fans who have joined the ranks since the arrival of the JJ movies could well enjoy with it's pacing, heavy focus on space battles and stylized game-unique characters. I believe this is probably the area it'll do the best business with the more hardcore remaining securely with their Online personas.

The game is currently in open beta testing so there won;t be any wipes and your data is perfectly safe if you fancy giving it a bash. Already there are lots of plans to improve the game and take it forward as Brendon closed off with some tempting morsels; "There's quite a few! We have some new faction PVP modes coming in the relatively near future, and we also have some cool things planned that pit players from different servers against each other. Moving forward we're definitely focusing on things for existing players and high level players to do to keep them entertained, and we are always monitoring new player activity to see what new features may be good to add for their enjoyment."

Even as I'm putting this together I've been dipping in and out of Alien Domain just to see what I can get and I suppose that does indicate that Brendon and GameSamba have "won" me over to some degree because it is very easy to drop in and pop out again during the day. You're not constricted to time and the chance to have a quick battle can be very tempting just to kick you up to the next level.

There is nothing revolutionary here. It's gaming by numbers but, as has been said, this is absolutely a casual gaming experience that might act as a gateway for new fans to explore the outer fringes of the Star Trek franchise before diving into the more intricate levels of the shows.

Star Trek: Alien Domain is available now to play either via Facebook or through the GameSamba website. Big thanks to Brendon Lindsey for his time in putting this article together.

Are you a big Alien Domain player? Are you already hitting past level 30 and taking the battle back to Species 8472? Let us know below and tell me where I've got it all wrong!

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Sunday, 26 July 2015

Admiral on the Bridge: Attack Wing's movie USS Enterprise

One of my must-haves for Attack Wing has finally been ticked off the list thanks to my amazing wife. Yes, she buys me Star Trek stuff.

As part of my Father's Day prezzie I was presented with the movie refit USS Enterprise from one of the early waves. I was, of course, completely controlled and did not flip out into a mad gaming moment at all. Honest.

As ships go for the WizKids game, she's pretty average in size with a fairly bland paint job. Quick and easy seems to have been the name of the game at this point so you're pushed to see a straight edge or in my case two straight nacelles since one is half-cock.

She did fit smoothly onto the stand however back in these dark beginnings of Attack Wing the card for the tokens was very thick which means that Kirk, Decker or Spock will find themselves getting damaged quickly due to the slot being a narrower width than the card. In later waves this hasn't been an issue at all.

I really have wanted this one for a while and hunted her out on the internet. I did win one on eBay which never arrived and may have forgotten to mention I'd purchased it to the wife who went ballistic. Understandable because she'd already got it hidden away for Father's Day, not that I knew. Did I feel stupid. Yep.

So to the expansion and once you've ripped open the box, dug out the cards it's time to see just what the first three movies can offer you. First up is James T himself as either your fleet admiral or the captain of the Enterprise. It's not the best upgrade of all time with Kirk allowing you to disable one upgrade on a ship at range one.

If you're not a fan of the main man, you can always choose Spock or the man-who-would-be-captain, Will Decker. The Vulcan fares little better than Kirk though, allowing you to perform a scan or target lock as a free action. Only Decker with sacrificing a shield for critical damage offers any kind of serious threat to your opposition. Somewhat disappointing in the command echelons is the Enterprise refit but surely it's better if we take a look over the crew...

Well we have seven options available to fill the maximum of four slots available here. Not only do you get the expected McCoy, Scotty, Uhura, Sulu and Chekov but also The Motion Picture's Ilia and The Wrath of Khan's Saavik as played by Kirstie Alley.

The good doctor allows you to open up two disabled upgrades - definitely useful in the throws of battle as is the Chief Engineer who can significantly reduce the number of auxiliary power tokens tacked onto your vessel. Again, a good one if you're pulling some red maneuvers to get out of trouble. Uhura adds two to your captain's skill level for the phase and the Chekov card can be disabled to allow you to re-roll any blank attack dice in a round. Sulu does provide the sensor echo advantage that only cloaked ships seem to have. It's again good to see the game makers thinking about the characters and how their traits fit the upgrades. Sulu, Scotty and McCoy are definitely useful given the average moving ability of the USS Enterprise and Chekov will help out if you're coming close to defeat. Uhura's skill to upgrade your captain's skill is always useful and can make the difference between surviving a combat round or finding you're removing your ship from the play area.

Ilia allows you to keep the ability to perform actions if you overlap another ship's base which is a bit weak but Saavik offers a slight tactical nuance by the opportunity to replace a battle stations or scan token with an evasive one. It certainly makes it apparent that this is a very defensive pack, offering Federation players a lot of options which will help keep them out of trouble but not necessarily put them in a stronger offensive position.

Interestingly the forward firing arc is a full 180 degrees which is very different to the later era ships. We do get the requisite photon torpedoes as well as a few handier upgrades which might offer more potential than the crew features. 

The Needs of the Many draws on The Wrath of Khan for its feature, sacrificing one of your crew with an SP of three or more to repair up to three shield points. Keeping that movie in mind though you can't sacrifice Spock. The second Elite Action available takes its lead from The Search for Spock allowing you to destroy your ship and hopefully inflict some serious damage on any ships within a range of one. It's a clever move that could prove decisive at a late point in the game especially since any ship in the blast radius can't defend.

Covering off the set is a one player scenario which takes on The Motion Picture from start to finish. Controlling both a trio of Klingon ships (you'll need Birds-of-Prey or D-7's) and the Enterprise you're mission is ultimately to communicate with V'Ger and stop it from reaching Earth. The twist is that the Klingons can attack and can't talk to the upgraded Earth satellite while the Enterprise can do the opposite - and don't forget to pick Spock up enroute.

The first time I took this one out was alongside the USS Prometheus and the USS Defiant against a Romulan fleet comprising of a D'deridex Class Warbird and the pretty lethal Scimitar. My reliance on the hi-tech weaponry of the Prometheus was misplaced and a kicking was had with the Enterprise the first victim. Y'see the issue is that if you get hit by anything big then she was always going to take damage quickly. Two attacks and the movie refit had gone the way of the dodo leaving a cloaked Defiant and a hastily retreating Prometheus to try and salvage something. They didn't.

The Enterprise is a great little ship with a lot of options packed into the expansion but it needs a lot of boosts to make it a viable ship within the Attack Wing game. I made the mistake of overloading the Prometheus, giving the Defiant some hardened upgrades and then leaving the Constitution Class ship open to the elements if you will and falling short of anything like 40 points of goodness. 

The 24 point cost means that if you are intending to give it a full 40 points then it might just stand a chance but it's certainly not a ship you can get away with having just to make up the numbers. You have to treat her with respect or you'll be a ship down within a few moves at the most. I speak from experience here. Potentially using her alongside two equally "low value" ships could offer better flexibility in a three-ship fleet but I sense I'll be altering my fleet arrangements for some time to find the "perfect" Federation formation.

Using the movie Enterprise within your fleet? What tactics do you use or suggest to make her effective? Drop us a note below!

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Meeting Up: Dominion Serves a Vignette

Dreadnought Dominion premiered just over two months ago with its 20 minute first episode Haunted and now has returned with a prequel of sorts.

Filmed before that already released episode, this vignette picks up the story as Commodore Grissom is cleared of any wrong-doing in relation to the Cromwell Nebula incident and is given two weeks to prepare the Dominion for departure following her lengthy repairs.

Explained Gary Davis, who plays first officer Commander Jason Brousseau; "We met over a weekend during "Farragut Fest", a mini-convention at the Farragut Films Studio in Georgia and knocked out this one-set scene in two days. Then we met again in January for a four day shoot and completed Haunted. We felt that the latter was a much better production, so it was decided to edit it, work on the visual FX, sound, and score to present it first to the public. After we completed Haunted, we then started editing Anchors Aweigh. We even did a sneak preview at the premiere of Haunted to cast and crew, then went back and smoothed it out more before finally releasing it to the public."

The episode brings the senior staff of the Dominion together over a drink aboard the Starbase for the first time and actually stays away from the ship completely, focusing solely on the characters' first interactions. In a way this does work to give us a flashback in a sense but maybe it could have been held back for a little longer and some clashes and other traits could have been seen in later episodes with some explanation then given by taking us back to these moments prior to departure. Admittedly there are a couple of uncomfortable meetings here, particularly between the commodore and Chief Brooks whose father was killed during the Cromwell Nebula incident.

My thoughts on Anchors Aweigh? It's not as good as Haunted by some miles and that episode did impress me as you'll see from the post I dropped at the beginning of June. It's easy to see this was produced fairly quickly with only two settings required and the key actors. There are no effects shots, only one use of a viewer for Grissom's conversation with Admiral Bennett very early on so it does heavily rely on your engagement with the characters rather than any inclusion of fancy tech or CG.

The challenge with the scene is that, well, nothing really happens and it all feels a bit stilted. The characters don't get a lot of room to breathe here and the dialogue does, at times, seem very bland. I know from watching Haunted that the team are much, much better than this and I came away a little disappointed. It was OK but there was nothing here that would, if I was a casual viewer, keep me interested in this show. Even the small amount of backstory sprinkled for each character didn't perk that much interest but having seen Haunted first I know that this was very much the water-test.

Now, I like Frank Parker as Grissom but again, here he's very much finding his way in the role and was a lot more convincing in Haunted. There was more depth to the commodore and it was a lot more personal. The rest of the senior staff we see here in Anchors Aweigh are given a few lines and some brief background and I hope that they are given more screentime and exploration in the third episode which has yet to be filmed.

It is the first time these characters have met and are, for the most part, feeling out the first tentative steps of what could be long-term working relationships and friendships during their time onboard the Dominion. I do want to see where this goes and having Haunted premiere first was a very good move in retrospect. It's easily the stronger segment produced to date, the acting is much better and the story worked more successfully. I definitely felt the writing in that episode was a marked improvement over Anchors Aweigh. Having Grissom step aboard the Dominion and lay his ghosts to rest made a more solid opening, almost negating the need for this flashback, bar-talk episode.

"The premise around Anchors Aweigh was simply to get "our feet wet" with our characters." said Gary (pictured right), "Starship Farragut had a vignette that they shot called Just Passing Through. It was simply in a bar on a starbase with different characters there as they reminisced about past meetings. Frank Parker Jr. envisioned Anchors Aweigh with the same premise. So this was pitched as a single set, one shot vignette that introduced the characters, and set the tone for the rest of the story. We've taken both Anchors Aweigh and Haunted and combined them and will be releasing it as a "Producer's Cut".. making it one episode. The combined offering makes it a "normal" length episode and I think Haunted compliments it and balances it out as an introduction to the action."

Maybe that's something I'll try - combining the two and watching it through as a full length episode. Thing is I think that even though only a month passed between the two shoots, there does seem to be a noticable improvement in standards from all involved. 

So not a huge review for this little installment but I like to keep my eye on this new arrival on the scene and am certainly keenly awaiting the arrival of their next story which I believe will be Redemption at Red Medusa which will see us revisiting the events that led to the near-destruction of the USS Dominion at the Cromwell Nebula incident.

Said Gary; "Episode three will be a "normal" length episode of hopefully 45 minutes or maybe longer. It is a "full blown" episode unto itself. Episode three is written and scripted and we are getting everyone's schedules and suggestions for when we may journey to our studio to film the ship scenes. 

"We will also have one or two off-site filming segments that don't involve the ship sets that we could shoot where the actors are already home based."

Excellent news from Dreadnought Dominion then that they will be giving more. Gary did note that they will be getting episode three completed before even considering embarking on a fourth story. What that might be is still open to suggestions I would believe.

You can watch the first two episodes of Dreadnought Dominion now via their website 

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Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Where's Star Trek: Rebels?

As my son was zooming his Hot Wheels mini JJ-USS Enterprise around the lounge, hoping to blow my USS Vengeance out of the sky, my wife raised a very good point. 

"He loves ships and the whole space thing," she observed, "and he does like watching Star Wars Rebels - how come there's no Star Trek for kids? Surely they're missing a trick and an audience?"

That's a very good point indeed, especially when it comes from a someone who has no serious love for the franchise. Flashback; the only non-live action Star Trek in 50 years was the 1973 animated series and while it's a good diversion, these days it's classic fans who are the most likely to buy it on DVD and laud some of its exemplary stories. Either that or take berate the brilliance that was the personal forcefield belt. 

Star Wars on the other hand has certainly cornered the market not only producing excellent animated shows such as The Clone Wars (twice) and Rebels in recent years but let's not forget Droids and Ewoks back in the 80's. Plus there were the more child friendly(!) Ewok movies and that "amazing" Christmas special. So why not Star Trek? What has stopped a 50 year old franchise from branching out and potentially extending its lifetime even further. Even in recent years Doctor Who has realised the opportunity within the younger audience. While kids will watch the show, Russell T Davies brought in The Sarah Jane Chronicles to appeal to a younger generation and, I suspect, prep them to watch Doctor Who when they get older. As a footnote here, '60's retro series Thunderbirds has been rebooted in CG and already I can see what the bulk of my son's Christmas presents will consist of and I'm hooked on it for Saturday morning viewing. It's a good example where that rebooting has succeeded in capturing fans of the original and finding a new, adventurous and young audience.

However Star Trek has always aimed for a slightly highbrow audience intending a branch of sci-fi that provokes discussion and is cleverly multi-layered which, no offence intended, has made it less accessible to children. Yes I and many others will have watched it in our formative years but I wouldn't think we're in any for or majority. There wasn't a ton of action, it wasn't all explosions and space battles and there was a fair bit of talking. 

Looking back and thanks to some input from Dennis Koch on Twitter, I recalled that there were forays into material for a younger audience - certainly the comics of the 80's and 90's were looking to expand the ranks of fandom. Likewise there were the 100+ action figures in the Playmates range that many of us still have mint, styro-chipped and vacuum-sealed for future generations, there were books about the main characters at the academy, the Corps of Engineers books, handheld computer games, Galoob figures (yeah, they were great...), Micro Machine starships, I could probably go on but there was, indeed one thing missing, perhaps the hook that needed to be there to secure a more successful merchandising/revenue stream for the future - a TV show.

Think about it. Kids and adults watched Star Trek, kids and adults watched Star Wars but the later pulled out something that meant the younger generation were hooked even more and wanted X Lego set or Y action figure because there was a show which was "exclusively" theirs. At a push there were the Kre-O sets for Into Darkness and we'll be seeing a Mega Bloks USS Enterprise from The Original Series on the shelves of your local toystore in 2016 BUT Star Trek has never hit that mark and while there have been numerous lines or toys, books or games which could attract that market. They've not had an alternative visual gateway which could have then led them on to the experience of the main Star Trek series.

I am in no way suggesting we dumb Star Trek down, nor am I suggesting that The original Series or Deep Space Nine are inaccessible for younger fans but there needs to be something which is more encapsulating so it's not just the "geeky" kid in the class who watches it. in fact we could even speculate that The Worf Chronicles is perfect for a younger audience if we slap an inexperienced, rookie crew in with the angry Klingon captain(!) and some horrific comedy character - or Neelix.

So is it time to change? As with the JJ movies that have dragged Star Trek more firmly into the 21st Century is it now time to draw in that younger audience because it might well secure a better future for a franchise that, at the moment, is relying purely on a third motion picture in its 50th anniversary year. It could easily be set in the JJ-verse, it could be live or animated I don't think it really matters but it does need to aim for that demographic because there has to be something to ensure the longevity of the franchise. Star Wars is managing to do that through its multiple projects but Star Trek still seems blinkered or maybe it really doesn't appeal that strongly or want to appeal to that younger generation. Before you mention it, yes I have thought about the ever increasing comic book/graphic novel range but they seem more focused on the older viewer and collector especially with cash tie-ins such as The Planet of the Apes, Doctor Who and most recently Green Lantern. Even more singular titles have revisited old concepts such as The Tholian Webs. No guessing what that was about which is going to interest more invested fans than perhaps younger, newer ones.

Of course such a conversation also kicks off other possibilities. With some clever scripting there could be characters dropped into Star Trek Beyond (or taken from) that would lead into said children's spin-off and launch a whole new strand of the franchise. Interest in the movie is certainly starting to gather momentum with visual confirmation of Idris Elba's involvement by his appearance in the launch video to win a walk on role in the third installment (has it really come to this?!). Nice twist on that video guys just adding Idris in there but I can't forgive the break-dancing. Seriously, is there no better time to grab that hot iron and expand the universe as we're seeing DC and Marvel do with their superhero franchises?

I might be going crackers here but Star Trek has always remained, at least on the screen, 100% pure to a single vision, one crew and a seven (not always) season run with no variation outside the lines. The reboot did blur those lines and I would like to think that adding a more juvenile-aimed show could really smudge those boundaries for all time. There needs to be a good head in charge to give it the edge and feel of Star Trek that some recent spin-off elements have tragically diluted. Certainly a spin-off wouldn't do the merchandising department any long as it's done right and doesn't turn out to be a Bucky O'Hare that is and not allow it all to end up in the 99p bin after six months.

It is after all about getting it right and if there's one thing Star Trek hasn't been good at it's consistency. The last 50 years - and the last 15 for definite have been rocky, uneven affairs that have distanced fans and potentially begun to cut off that younger audience. Taking the bull by the horns and exploring new avenues just as the rebooted films have done could be the key to unlocking some new potential and who knows, we might not be looking forward to a Sulu series in a couple of years but a Sulu movie. I could see an animated version doing well and the options would be limitless. Heck, I'd even go as far as saying George Takei would be onboard immediately to voice.

Whatever happens, the next 12 months will be critical to the future of Star Trek and it's existence for another 50 years. I just hope that it's going to keep the vision focused and cater for all potential parties.

Have I got it right? Does Star Trek need to explore other media avenues to remain a strong player in the sci-fi market? Let me know below!

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Friday, 17 July 2015

A Rocky Road with Tony Daniel's The Savage Trade

I'll kick off with a spoiler alert purely because I don't want to ruin Takedown for anyone so either close or scroll down as I have a mini-rant!

We seem to have hit something of a Homage Focal Point in the literary universe with the last The Next Generation novel bouncing back to its fourth season and reintroducing the Cytherians, The Missing located Katherine Pulaski, Foul Deeds Will Rise returned Anton Karidian's daughter Lenore from The Conscience of the King and now in Savage Trade we're back in the company of the rocky The Original Series beings, the Excalbians. Yay.

With a starbase attacked and out of contact it could only be a mission for Kirk and the USS Enterprise and it doesn't take the crew too long to track the perpetrators - which is certainly a refreshing change  When they encounter the Excalbians however I wasn't sure if Daniel was taking the mickey and had lost the plot since we're introduced to one in the form of George Washington before revealing the name of the alien race last seen onscreen in The Savage Curtain from 1969.

It's a fairly uneven novel and certainly not one of my favourites. For the majority of the time I found it very difficult to take seriously as historical figures appear all over the place including Admiral Horatio Nelson and Benjamin Franklin among other notables. We are reminded that these are Excalbian "refugees" in disguise but still this is maybe a story concept too far as their actions post The Savage Curtain led down a terrible path that led to an encounter with something called the Demiurge which destroyed their world when they captured it for sport as they had with Kirk and Spock.

Having read Takedown recently I was hoping for big things from Daniel but Savage Trade hasn't supplied to my demand(!). In fact it felt like The Phantom Menace. While we could have had a good, action-filled story that harked back to The Savage Curtain and The Original Series the novel gets rapidly bogged down in negotiation, the establishment of an independent Excalbian group and the L'rah'hane who are absent for a massive portion of the time. I genuinely lost interest in the story and ended up taking a longer time to get through this than I expected and thereby longer to get to Crisis of Consciousness.

Tony Daniel has a great style and can write the characters very well. His Vulcan ambassador, Valek was a great addition to the standard cast especially when we got into the backstory of her and her twin brother's relationship with Spock. While she was intricately involved with the Excalbian storyline, the narrative between her and Kirk was far more inspiring and provided better character analysis than any other part of the story. There's even a bizarre Sybok throwaway line (literally one line) that will either make you smile or wince dependant on your appreciation for The Final Frontier. Valek starts out very much as the stoic Vulcan but has more character development than anyone else it seems and makes her the most compelling element of the story. A shame we'll probably never see her again. I also liked the play-it-safe Captain Anvit from the Montana who made for a nice diversion if only to "play" to the stereotypes of all other 23rd Century Starfleet captains except for Kirk. However, the introduction of these great characters still couldn't pull me away from the average-ness of this story.

One line won't put you off but I really felt like nothing happened. There was a bucket-load of promise at the beginning with this new enemy attacking, the Excalbians turning up in all their Earth-historical weirdness and a chase ensuing with the Enterprise carring one of those classic stuffy diplomats but like watching Time and Again after Caretaker you wonder right away where all that potential got flushed to? Where's the conflict? The danger and the power of the author to will us towards the gripping climax?

I got none of it. If Tony Daniel came up with the plot I can see that he has attempted to go for a different, more subtle tack which allows for more talking, expression and supposed exploration of the cast but this all gets wasted since the story drags like a warp engine in fluidic space. Even then the cast of Excalbian copies just doesn't cut the mustard. They don't exude their personalities and while Yarnek takes us back to the core of the third season episode of The Original Series even his rocky posturing within the body of George Washington left me somewhat cold. Daniel's last Star Trek novel used the Horta as it's main protagonist in Devil's Bargain and I'd be keen to see if his next novel will be a complete work of his own not borrowing elements from classic episodes.

What adds insult to injury might be the space pirates. One of the concepts that Gene Roddenberry himself avoided like the Terrellian plague and was bent ever so slightly for Gambit in The Next Generation's final year, it's one more piece in this uneven tale. There are some great ideas here including the discovery of the supposedly lost Hradrian race by Sulu and Chekov but then that element dangles for a few hundred pages before receiving an average, forseeable payoff battle that left me, once again, colder than space.

I am a fan of the Excalbians and of the original episode but the unique nature of the race along with the ethos of that story seem to have been lost and over complicated here. Personally I'd skip it and head over to Armageddon's Arrow or maybe Crisis of Consciousness which was released recently. If I've utterly missed the point on this novel I can only apologise but not my Earl Grey.

Is Savage Trade a better book than I make out or is it one to pass by?

Savage Trade is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £7.99 ISBN 9781476765501

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Monday, 13 July 2015

Three Stories, One Vision: Star Trek Anthology

What do a Miranda Class starship, Gary Seven and a freighter have in common?

Before 2015 only the fact they were very different elements of the Star Trek universe. Now though they are part of Star Trek Anthology; a super-ambitious fan project that doesn't just look at one aspect of the franchise but THREE at the same time.

A couple of weeks before they began location filming the second instalment of Challenger, I grabbed a chance to speak with series creator and Chief Executive Producer Jim Bray and Executive Producer Scott J. Smith to discover the real story behind the project.

"It is a little ambitious!" started James, "And let me take you way back. We got into this whole mess after the guys at Starbase Studios picked up the old Exeter bridge set and posted some pictures on-line."

The set itself had been stored in a barn and had become a little neglected. An email chain between Jim and the studio struck up and he offered to help get them started on the road to restore the three-quarter set. It eventually became a full 360 degree piece once work was completed. "It was a splendid job," continued Jim, "There were some stories written, I offered to direct and my wife can act. They suggested that she looked like Colt (from The Cage) and wanted to somehow write her into an episode. That in turn became Starship Ajax but they just couldn't seem to get a head of steam."

Travel costs were also mounting up travelling from the Bray home to Starbase Studios but as luck would have it James was also in touch with Phase II producer James Cawley who suggested that they could use his sets to get Jodi on screen as Colt. So they set to work and after 12 months there was a lot of material but something else clicked.

"We started thinking we could do an anthology," recalled Jim, "kinda Twilight Zone, kinda Outer Limits but in the Star Trek universe with a hint of Galaxy Quest to show we're not taking ourselves too seriously because we love things with a dose of humour. That led to writing these stories."

Initially that provided Challenger and then thoughts moved to consider Gary Seven who had never received a series after the back-door pilot which was Assignment: Earth from The Original Series fell through. The team realised it wouldn't be that difficult to do and could be fairly contemporary which would keep costs at a minimum. However, there still needed to be a third element.

"We cooked up this show which had an element of Firefly in The Original Series era." recalled Jim, "So we have this ship which is run by a computer which has the memory engrams of the mother of the family who crew her. She was killed in an Orion raid and she lives on in the ship. This meant we had a strong female character in each one of these shows."

Indeed, Mother, Colt and a more dynamic, street-wise Roberta Lincoln are at the forefront of their shows. "Gary tries to push her around," explained Jim, "but she pushes back!"

It was soon decided that Challenger would be the starting point and the centre-pin from which everything else would spring. The Anthology team therefore are looking to that vehicle as their first major work. "We'll be looking at what Colt has been through in her career," stated Jim in relation to the commanding officer of the eponymous starship, "How she has ended up there and in the process we're going to upset the balance but I can't say too much!"

Jim has warned us that the twists of the pilot will leave us slack-jawed but being the utter professional I couldn't drag anything more from the show's producer. Valuably, Jim has been allowed to use some of the team from Phase II to make Anthology and is more than aware of just how important it is to get this right not only for himself but for the fan series that is lending a hand.
Phase II Scotty actor Charles Root may well show up and while Jim would have loved for Brian (Kirk) Gross to be involved with the opening and closing of the first adventure, it looks like they may only be voice-overs.

Scott J Smith, executive producer and webmaster extraordinare has known Jim since "back in the day" and a post on Facebook from the series producer about being green-lit for a webseries peaked his interest. He picked up the phone and the pair reconnected but couldn't put it down until he'd accepted a role in the Anthology project.

It's now been 18 months since the original idea was being kicked around for Anthology and they are now shooting location footage for episode two; A Logical Solution and in August will be shooting all the shipboard material for the pilot and that second episode. "By the end of September we will have everything in the can," explained Jim, "and then it's down to our editor, Bill Lutz, to start to put everything together." 

Australia-based veterinarian(!) Henry Gibbens is on CGI duty for Anthology and his VFX reel is on the Anthology website already and well worth a watch. Given basics from Jim, he took the Challenger from a "junky little model" into a space hot-rod. The pilot too is very VFX heavy including a new "creepy creature" alien race which might take a bit of time to get right. Henry will be getting some assistance from Ken Thompson who has been working on another fan show, Starship Saladin. He also turned up in Kitumba don't you know.

Editor Bill Lutz has a big job ahead and with life in there as well, Jim is expecting pilot episode Another Door Opens to land early in 2016 with the second episode soon after. But there are a few other bits that could be tricky to juggle including a three-way crossover in A Logical Solution.  Ken, Joseph Kerezman from Excalibur and Michael King from Valiant show up to lend support to the Challenger when it gets into a sticky situation.

Importantly though, Challenger won't focus solely on the captain. The Logical Solution looks at Carmichael and Sokaal and their relationship closely. There's going to be a LeClair (helmsman) episode too....Future episodes will also show some of the abilities of our characters. Our comms officer Gnee Tomalin is of a race who can absorb and contain static electricity from the atmosphere around them and discharge it in different ways (such as creating forcefields on away missions or a ball of lightning)."

But why would you want to do this? "To show that we can all work together," said Jim, "We're one big family who can do these little crossovers and all of us can play nice! We can stomp out some of those contentions and rivalries."

Michael King has in fact already shot his scenes while shooting some extra material for Valiant's vignette, Legacy. Scott Smith explained that on a conference call they discovered Michael was working at Starbase Studios and convinced him to nip back in front of the camera to capture his lines for Challenger.

Jim would love to land the pilot as a 2015 Christmas present if he could and it all goes to show that plans for the first of the Anthology shows is well in hand. So what about the other two?

For me it seems like a huge undertaking of galactic proportions not attempted anywhere else in the known Star Trek movement. "Scott and I come from theatrical backgrounds," explained Jim, "and we've put on god knows how many shows. Jodi (Captain Colt) and I ran a theatre company for a number of years so we know what we're doing. We know how to put multiple productions together and there's something I learned called "value engineering" which means how to build things on a shoestring.

"We know how to value engineer our sets and so it can be cardboard and duct tape but if you do it right no-one will know. With Mother all we need a bridge and a few corridors."

In fact the living space for Mother is pretty small since the majority of the ship is designed for hauling freight. The "home" section is intended to look very much like a house with windows that show programmable views meaning a lot of it can be shot inside a normal house environment. "With a couple of control panels here and there it'll remind us that we're on a ship," said Jim, "and some green-screen effects to fill in computer screens. There will be little reminders that this is a ship. We can write around it and do it on the cheap and still impress. What it's really about though is telling a good story and that's what we care most about. We have two incredible writers working on Mother; Jessica Burke and Anthony Burdge who have written an amazing script and it gives us the chance to discuss our other big interest which is autism awareness."

The two children on the Mother ship have Asperger's Syndrome and is something we've never seen within the Star Trek universe before. It's a theme that does also run into Challenger where the helmsman's son is said to have severe autism and wants to send him to a Vulcan master to help sort his mind out.

The Anthology series and website is peppered with references and information on autism to help raise awareness and will certainly help you find out more. As Jim noted, this gives the audience something different to look at and consider - which of course was at the core of Star Trek back in the 1960's and one of Gene Roddenberry's motivations when writing the show.

Jim fervently noted that this is a strongly character based series. Yes there will be action to satisfy but all three shows will be about the people. Nor are these perfect people. They all have their fallibilities, their quirks but that's what makes them interesting and more than just cardboard cut-outs filling out sets.

The Gary Seven script has yet to be written and it's planned that not only will it link in to the main hub that is Challenger but also give a chance to include Valiant or Saladin for example. There have been some tweaks before the script starts to come together with two additional secretive characters and a re-think of how his office "works". Jim fully appreciates that Gary Seven has more than a few things in common with a certain TARDIS-flying Gallifreyan and will be giving the occasional nudge and wink to make sure we know they are very much aware of the parallels."

Challenger will remain as the tent-pole and then spoke off into the other shows. If things don't work out as planned then there are other options which they can explore. If the reception for one isn't as good as they might have hoped then they can look elsewhere to fill that gap; "One of our producers Brian Covault has written a standalone story about a mining ship and an entity they encounter." explained  Jim, "It's a really nice story that takes the Prime Directive and flips it on its head. It was so well written in the first draft I'm afraid to touch it!"

Funding for the show has been interesting to say the least so far. The team launched a Kickstarter campaign which didn't go to plan but did teach them a lot about what to do and perhaps more importantly what not to do. "Our next attempt will be to leave a donation button on the website so we can reach out to everyone. If everyone who follows the site dropped $5 or $10 we'd have more than we needed."

The big costs seem to be focused more on Challenger since Mother and the Gary Seven show are intended to be low-budget and using a lot of already available locations. Luckily they are getting the chance to use James Cawley's bridge sets for some shots and will, if necessary, turn to Ken Thompson to create some green-screen magic for other scenes on the ship.

Talking of green-screen, a lot of the shots of the original Exeter episode, The Savage Empire were done using the technique and Jim has nothing but praise for the show which was one of those that inspired him to create Anthology; "Exeter really was the biggest inspiration because those guys really did make something from nothing," said Jim, "They managed to capture that whole feeling of Star Trek with another ship, another crew and we learned very quickly to like these characters. A number of years ago I sat down with one guy and wrote back-stories for all the characters and explained why there was this friction between Harris and Cutty and developed that and why Garrovick the way he was. It was a four or five story arc but then they decided not to do any more!"

Who knows, I suggested that Jim could drop some of the characters into the show so if he does, you heard it here first!

As we've seen earlier, Galaxy Quest (the greatest Star Trek film never made) was also a big influence on the Anthology project; "It was so much fun and we want to bring that tongue in cheek humour and a little nod to the audience. If you watch because there will be little easter eggs and prop items or lines that is pulled from something else and put into a different context here."

It's a theme that they're pushing through all three which might make Mother a distant cousin of Brit sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf. If that kind of thing is your bag, then the character of Gramps will apparently be right up your street. In fact the actor who is taking that role, Pat Evans, has already trodden the Star Trek boards as Doctor Wright in New Voyages' Mind-Sifter. "The character's a jerk!" laughed Jim, "He's a jerk but I love him!"

Jim is looking to push the limits though, finding our what might be at the end of a Jeffries tube, what's in a cargo hold or where does that corridor go. "We can shoot that kind of thing in an empty warehouse but as long as we put those little set dressing reminders in view that we're in a hold we can still do it on the cheap - but it's not about that it's about the characters and the story. That's what's ultimately important."

"We want people to relate to these characters," reinforced Scott, "to identify these characters and want to see what happens next. It's one thing to have a hero but if you have a hero that has faults and its own demons it gets people tuning in to figure how are they living, growing and developing."

"We really want to get into these characters," continued Jim, "For instance Colt has lost a number of people under her command, she has seen death after death after death. What we're going to see is that she is suffering severely from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Doctor Martin lost his wife when she was working on a planet where she contracted a plague and died in his arms. He became a drinker and these demons still haunt him. We have LeClair who is divorced from his wife and whose son has the more severe aspects of autism and is trying to get his kid away from the doctors who don't know what they're doing over to a Vulcan master."

There's lots of planning, pushing and getting the word out for Jim as production steps up. He'll also be directing the first episode as well as being heavily involved (as you would expect) with the location shooting in New England for The Logical Solution which is taking place right about now. Certainly the location work is getting the team very excited and Jim is sure it'll impress audiences and help increase the drama.

"We've got a lot of great talent," added Scott,who will be on hand to offer onset advice to the actors about the performances as well as being involved with the creative direction to make sure that the series has the unique Anthology feel and brand while also keeping firmly in the Star Trek mould; "We'll be making sure it all fits in. I've also been thinking about doing a story. I have some scenes and need to pull them together."

That's much the same way that Jim and co pulled the first episode of Challenger together over a couple of years which also included extensive rewriting and tweaking, "But there's a point where you have to stop, put it away and don't touch it!"

So as you can see there's a lot going on with Anthology in every single piece of its puzzle. Bold, daring...crackers? Potentially, but you just want them to succeed more than anything because it's a step outside that comfort zone and a web-series that's pushing boundaries that haven't even been marked yet. There's a lot to juggle - would they have been wise to "commit" to a single thread with the potential to go beyond that? Yeah, but then the buzz just wouldn't be the same and I don't think that challenge would satisfy Jim let alone anyone else involved.

There's a growing following looking at this team and their production(s) but how far they will get I can't guess right now. The good news is that filming has begun. They're out there on the frontiers finding new worlds and new civilisations through the magic of film right now and having that step being made makes it ever more real and closer to a tangible end product.

Just as we clicked "publish", Jim gave us a quick update on the show's progress; "Our late June shoot went fairly well, though we had some technical issues with equipment, only managed to get a third done of what we'd hoped. Also, our August shoot is being rescheduled due to some scheduling conflicts, BUT we hope to have a nice surprise or two when we do a panel at Trekonderoga in September!"

The team attitude to the production is very professional. Let's get Challenger right before they tackle making Mother and then the Gary Seven script. Having this Big Plan is certainly going to be the key to their future. I'm crossing everything to hope they get there.

Want to find out more about Anthology? Click over to their website right this second...

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