When Star Trek’s Original Series first aired in the 1960s, one theme was a constant – the theme of looking to the future. Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future centred itself around the philosophy of working to better oneself and the rest of humanity, about looking ahead to the future, rather than languishing in the mistakes of the past. Of course, it wasn’t about forgetting those mistakes – it was about learning from them, and moving onwards.
This theme was carried right through The Next Generation (TNG) era shows and films. They all looked to the future; to the continuing evolution and betterment of humanity.
Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future centred itself around the philosophy of working to better oneself and the rest of humanity, about looking ahead to the future, rather than languishing in the mistakes of the past.
Things changed upon the release of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2001, which began a trend of producers and writers choosing to focus on a period of time before The Original Series (TOS). Enterprise and the currently airing Discovery are both set in the Prime timeline, before the events of TOS, while the J.J. Abrams produced films are all set parallel to the Original Series, but in the entirely new Kelvin timeline. The chance of a series or film that is set in the post-TNG time period being produced is beginning to look very slim indeed.
Fans of The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager (what we’ll from here on refer to as “classic Trek”) are well and truly divided when it comes to these new Trek offerings. While many classic Trek fans do enjoy these newer shows and films, there are those that accuse both the Abrams-Verse Trek films and the Discovery TV Series of pursuing themes that are the antithesis of the vision Gene Roddenberry based Trek upon. Rather than exploration, stories of compassion, and the development of intelligent characters, they’re seeing combat, stories of revenge and characters who are far too eager to resolve their problems with fists or a phaser. Even the darkest of the classic Trek series’, Deep Space Nine (which of course saw a quadrant-wide war being fought onscreen) tackled the idea of how something like a galactic war fit with the ideals of the Federation, and as a result became one of the most poignant, and well written classic Trek offerings.
While the themes and stylings of classic Trek appear to have left our TV and theatre screens for good, there is one place you can still experience it – Star Trek Online, the Trek themed MMO video game developed by Cryptic Studios that launched in 2010.
I’m both a classic Trek fan, and a long-term player and fan of Star Trek Online (STO), having subscribed to the game at launch and then having played it on and off over the next eight years as new content dropped. In all, I’ve dropped over 300 hours into STO, and while it’s not without its flaws, it’s always been enjoyable. This is largely because the developer, Cryptic Studios, has spent those eight years constantly adding to and improving the game – looking ahead, as it were… much like classic Trek’s vision. Indeed, the amount of content that has been released for this game in the last eight years is hugely impressive – it seems to get a major update with additional story-based content a few times a year, which is one of the reasons I’ve kept coming back to it for so long.
The game’s lead developer, Al Rivera says that this comes down to the business decision to change the game to a free-to-play model in 2012. “Going free-to-play was huge for us,” he says. “When you go free-to-play, there’s no barrier to entry. There’s no reason someone shouldn’t just check it out.” And check it out, they did. Al says that the increase in players and revenue from the change to a free-to-play model was massive, in his words: “We’re talking an order of magnitude increase.” And this is what allows Cryptic to continue telling stories successfully within the Star Trek universe. The onus is on the team to continue producing engaging content. “If you’re playing a free-to-play game, it’s up to us, the developers to make sure it’s worth your time,” he says. “You can check it out, and think ‘this stinks, I don’t want to play it’ and walk away. So, we have to make sure we deliver an experience that makes it worth sticking around.”
Made by Star Trek Fans, for Star Trek Fans
Star Trek Online as it stands today is a vastly superior game to the one that launched in 2010. “There’s very little original content in the game from when it launched and it’s a completely different experience from nine years ago,” Al says. “We’re pretty proud of the amount that has changed with STO.”
While much of this can be attributed to the improved profitability since going free-to-play, the evident passion that the team has for not just the game, but for Star Trek in general is perhaps the key reason. It’s clear just chatting to Al how big of a fan he is of Star Trek. Whether it’s his excitement at meeting and working with so many original cast members (“working with them is pretty much a dream”) or his knowledge of Star Trek Lore (“When we first started working on this, I re-watched a ton of Star Trek, and basically I’ve never stopped”), Al lives and breathes Trek. And the dev team is filled with people just like him. “It’s not a prerequisite to get hired on Star Trek Online to know Star Trek,” he says. “But most people who come here, come here because they’re fans.”
As the game’s storyline has progressed over the years, it’s become clear that this is a game that’s made by Star Trek fans, for Star Trek fans. Set in 2409 and 2410 (roughly 30 years after the conclusion of Star Trek Voyager), the story has a somewhat serialised arc, commencing with a conflict with the Klingons. But the suggestion that Star Trek Online caters primarily to fans of “classic” Star Trek seems to grate a little on Al, who clearly doesn’t like to discriminate between fans of each series. “We want to present everything from Enterprise, TOS, Voyager, TNG, Deep Space Nine and J.J. Abrams’ Kelvin timeline, and we’re starting to lean into Discovery type stuff,” he says. “Everybody has a different favourite Trek, [and] we’re building a Star Trek experience for [everyone]. If you want to be from the Kelvin Timeline, if you want to be from The Original Series era, that’s what you can be. We’re going to tell stories in all those timelines.”
“We don’t try to end our stories by blowing up the bad guy every time.” – Al Rivera
Perhaps one key thing that Al and his team have focused on, and have worked hard to improve on since the game’s launch, is the presentation of the original philosophy of Star Trek, that many would argue is lacking in the modern TV and film offerings. “Our missions, our stories have been for some years now moving more to a very narrative-heavy and exploration-heavy kind of story,” he says. “It is very, very hard to make a game, [especially] an MMO that doesn’t have conflict in it. And it’s also been one of the challenges for the Star Trek franchise in general to make interesting games that feel like Star Trek – because Star Trek is about people, and it’s about morality plays. It’s about dialogue and character – it’s about avoiding conflict.” So how does the dev team achieve this? “We always try to end our stories like Star Trek,” he explains. “What I mean by that is we don’t try to end our stories by blowing up the bad guy every time, right? In our Iconian arc, which I won’t spoil, it’s basically ending [by] saving the galaxy with a single act of kindness. That is how we want to [continue] building the stories for Star Trek Online, and that is how you’ll see us do it.”
Another way that Star Trek Online achieves its classic Star Trek feel, is by picking up story threads from the shows or films that never necessarily got a conclusion, or in the developer’s eyes were begging to be expanded on. Perhaps one of the best examples, is a story thread explored in the game’s Delta Rising expansion that delves into the character of Harry Kim, played by Garrett Wang, who reprises his role from Voyager.
“If you remember, the Harry Kim who finished Voyager is not the same Harry Kim that [started],” Al says. “There was an episode where they were split into two quantum realities. So, the original Harry Kim is dead, and they just grabbed this Harry Kim from the other quantum reality. So, we did a story where [the Kobali, a species which reproduces by genetically altering corpses] find Harry Kim’s dead body floating in space and reanimates it. And he wakes up and he’s freaked out. And it’s 30 years later for him. He’s like ‘where’s Mom, where’s Captain Janeway?’ And this is really, really kinda gut-wrenching, [going] between the original Harry Kim and the Kim that ended up coming home with Voyager, having this conflict about who is he now. So, it was a really powerful story and we just love to pick up those threads and make the stories about what’s personal to that character.”
Reuniting Star Trek’s Expansive Cast
One of the things that has been a welcome addition to Star Trek Online, has been the inclusion of a large number of original cast members from the various TV series’ and films. For Al and the team, it’s not just about the “wow” factor of having these much-loved actors reprising their roles, it’s about telling an authentic Star Trek story with their characters. “I will avoid putting a character in the game if I can’t secure the [original] actor for it,” Al says. “There have been times where we’ve wanted to have a story about a particular character and we could not get that actor for whatever reason. [So we] changed the story. The only time we’ve made the exception was for Scotty. For James Doohan. We had his son Chris Doohan play the role, and I think he does a dead-ringer for Scotty. I think fans understood, respected and appreciated that it was his son portraying that. When we did TOS stuff, we didn’t include characters who’d passed away or characters we couldn’t get access to, but we got Chris Doohan and Walter Koenig as Chekov.
Since STO’s launch, Cryptic have managed to utilise a whopping 27 original cast members from every single series, with the exception of Discovery.
“It’s also important, that whenever we get a character or an actor from the show, that we make the story important to that character. The character is not just there for window dressing. They’re there because it’s important for that character, or even better that they’re there to resolve something personal to their character thread.”
Since STO’s launch, Cryptic has managed to utilise a whopping 27 original cast members from every single series, with the exception of Discovery. Whether it’s Leonard Nimoy as Spock, Michael Dorn as Worf or Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine (to name just a few), there is a very definite joy in hearing these actors reprising roles that many of them haven’t revisited since the end of the series they originally starred in.
“It’s really amazing when you work with these actors, they’re real professionals and you’re talking to them and they sound like normal people, you don’t even think about them as an actor,” Al says. “And then all of a sudden, just like that they’re in character and their voice changes and their tone changes, and they just sound completely different. It’s a testament to just how good they are as actors that within moments they can come back to a character 25 years later. Jeri Ryan, Seven of Nine, was a really great example, so was Neelix. For them to just become those characters was crazy, and you’re seeing the same thing again with these Deep Space Nine actors. All of a sudden they’re… Jeffery Combs becoming Weyoun, and then next minute being Brunt, it’s just great.”
The Closest Thing We’ll Ever Get to a Deep Space Nine Film
When Cryptic announced earlier this year that the next major expansion would be called “Victory is Life”, and be based upon Deep Space Nine (DS9), with 12 Deep Space Nine actors reprising their roles in the game, there was a lot of excitement. Like many fans (myself included), Al admits that Deep Space Nine is his favourite series, and he says that this expansion has been a long time coming. “We went with the Delta Quadrant first because it was easier,” Al explains. “It was easier because Voyager, Janeway cut a path through the Delta Quadrant and made like 40 enemies. There was so much conflict in the Delta Quadrant, there were so many bad guys out there including the Borg, that there was just a lot to hook into from a story point of view.
“As we thought about the Gamma Quadrant for a really long time, we were like ‘do we really want to tell another story about the Jem’Hadar and the Dominion?’ I mean it was so expertly explored in Deep Space Nine that I think it would be foolish of us to think that we could tell a better [story]. Or even one that’s nearly as good, that was just about fighting another Jem’Hadar war. So, we put a pin in it for a while ‘til we figured out where we wanted to go with it.”
The ongoing story arc of Star Trek Online eventually led in a direction that made heading to Deep Space Nine and the Gamma Quadrant seem natural. “We kind of figured out we should do the Hur’q, because the Hur’q are from the Gamma Quadrant,” Al says about the species that was recently revealed in the STO feature episode ‘Scylla and Charybdis’, which leads directly into the ‘Victory is Life’ expansion. “The only thing we know about the Hur’q [from the show] is that they stole the Sword of Kahless, that 1000 years ago they invaded the Klingon homeworld – they’re the only aliens that ever defeated the Klingons. That’s exactly the kind of thing we like to explore in Star Trek Online. Although there will be conflict with the Dominion, because they’re the Dominion, it’s not a story about being invaded by them – it’s not a Dominion War 2. It’s a Hur’q story, and it’s dealing with an uneasy alliance with someone like the Dominion.”
The expansion will also explore the Dominion from the perspective of the Jem’Hadar, by including them as a new playable faction. “It’s very much like either the way we did the TOS expansion or the way we did the Romulan expansion,” Al says. “We’re going to be exploring the journey of what it is to be a Jem’Hadar, an engineered soldier who worships a god that is not really a god. And what has Odo been up to, you know? Is he the same Odo we knew? Or is he a seduced Odo, like he was seduced by the Female Changeling before. And what are we going to learn about the Dominion and the Founders – because we’re gonna learn some stuff. And we’re going to tell it in a very Deep Space Nine kind of way, dare I say in a ‘Pale Moonlight’ sort of way. You can capture moments like ‘Pale Moonlight’, and ‘Siege of AR-558’, and if people feel that then that will mean a lot to us. That’s the Deep Space Nine story we’re trying to tell.”
With a massive returning cast that includes former DS9 lead cast members Nana Visitor as Kira Nerys, Alexander Siddig as Julian Bashir, Rene Auberjonois as Odo, Armin Shimerman as Quark and fan favourite recurring cast members such as Andrew Robinson as Garak, Jeffery Combs as Weyoun and Brunt and J.G. Hertzler as Martok, ‘Victory is Life’ is shaping up to be a genuinely exciting return to the world of Deep Space Nine. “This will be the closest thing any of us may ever get to seeing a Deep Space Nine movie,” Al says. “Having the opportunity to tell a story about [characters like] Odo, Quark and Garak… is just delightful and delicious.”
Star Trek Online genuinely feels like you’re playing a Star Trek TV series, where you’re your own captain with your own starship, and that is precisely what Al and the team at Cryptic have been aiming for. “If you feel that way then we succeeded,” he says. “That’s what we want you to feel. Until Discovery came out a few months ago, this was about the only way that people could experience Star Trek stories – through Star Trek Online. And we’ll be filling in the gap for however long before the next season of Discovery comes out, and then we’ll still be there after that. So, we’ll just continue to tell Star Trek stories that allow you to be the captain.”
Star Trek Online is free-to-play on PC, PS4 and Xbox One. Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Deep Space Nine, the “Victory is Life” expansion will feature seven new episodes, a new playable faction and will launch on June 5th on PC, and later on PS4 and Xbox One.
Writer, filmmaker and gamer, Travis is based in Sydney and is of the unpopular belief that you can be both a Star Wars AND Star Trek fan at the same time. Check out his recent piece about why KOTOR 2 tells his favourite Star Wars story and tweet him here @Trav_J_A.