Star Trek: Prodigy

As I mentioned recently, I subscribed to Paramount Plus so I can enjoy the new series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds as its released. I’m still enjoying the series, but while I’m subscribed to the service, I’m also checking out some of the other recent entries in the Star Trek universe.

One thing that has bothered me in Star Trek since The Next Generation is how competitive entry into Starfleet is presented to be. It doesn’t bother me that it’s presented as competitive. After all, exploring space should be aspirational and I have no problem with the idea that its a job for the best and brightest. The problem is the scale of the competition. Back in The Next Generation, Wesley Crusher took a whole bunch of exams and became one of three finalists for some region of space to make it into the academy. Only one of them would make it. How many people started the application process wasn’t clear, but it seemed like these were the only three finalists from several worlds. More recently, in Strange New Worlds, it was stated that thousands of people applied for every single posting.

Two things bother me about these moments. First, we know that Starfleet has many, many ships and many Starbases around the galaxy. In some seasons, it seems like a ship is destroyed every episode. Most of these ships are presented as having somewhere between fifty and a thousand crewmembers. I don’t know how many people there are in Starfleet, but it seems like there are a whole lot of them and there’s real attrition because exploring space is dangerous business! Sure, they come from different planets, but it still strikes me that there’s no shortage of people in Starfleet even though it’s also supposed to be extraordinarily competitive to get in the door. It pushes my willing suspension of disbelief. Also, while I like the aspirational aspect of the competition, I watch a show like Star Trek because I’d like to imagine myself exploring the universe with those people. If it’s presented as too competitive, then I begin to see it as an unachievable dream. Interestingly enough, this is where Star Trek: Prodigy comes in.

Star Trek: Prodigy

Star Trek: Prodigy is a 3-D animated series co-produced by Paramount and Nickelodeon. The show opens on a mining colony outside the Federation where prisoners are used as labor. They’re overseen by a mysterious figure known as Diviner. One of the prisoners, a young man named Dal, is assigned to work deep within the asteroid being mined. There he along with a Medusian in a travel suit called Zero discover the derelict Starfleet ship, the U.S.S. Protostar. Dal and Zero assemble a team of people to resurrect the Protostar and flee Diviner. Their team includes a Tellarite mechanic named Jankom Pog, a rocklike creature named Rok-Tahk, and a slime-like alien called Murph. The inexperienced crew make a getaway aboard the starship with help from a holographic Captain Janeway, from Star Trek: Voyager. The ragtag crew learns about the Federation and decides to take the ship back to Starfleet. In the meantime, we learn that Diviner has been searching for the ship all along and is none too happy with the young people absconding with the prize he’d hoped to find. Diviner, his daughter Gwyn, and the robotic enforcer Drednok go in pursuit of the Protostar.

As our young crew learns about the ship and its abilities, they find that letting it fall into Diviner’s hands would be a bad idea. Along the way, they encounter some strange new worlds, learn to work together as a team and rise to meet the challenges presented to them. There may be a certain realism in presenting placement in Starfleet as highly competitive, but to me, Star Trek’s strongest stories are often about how characters cope with unexpected challenges. There’s no question the best and brightest face difficulties, but sometimes it nice to see people who didn’t necessarily rise to the top of the class, rise to the occasion.

Over the years, Nickelodeon has produced some great shows for younger audiences. While Star Trek: Prodigy may not rise to the quality of a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender, it still tells an engaging tale, expands the Star Trek universe in some good ways and worked equally well for my twenty-year-old daughter and me.

Peering Into Distorted Mirrors

The first time I encountered the idea of parallel worlds — where you might encounter familiar faces existing in an altered reality — was the classic Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” written by Jerome Bixby. The episode imagines Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura entering an alternate version of their world where a totalitarian Imperial Earth controls the galaxy instead of a benevolent Federation of Planets. Crewmembers move up in rank by assassinating superior officers and starships are sent to dominate worlds. To me, and I believe many other fans as well, it stands out as one of the more memorable episodes. Despite that, Star Trek would not revisit the “mirror universe” again until Deep Space Nine. At that time, we learn that Spock of the mirror universe attempted to affect changes to the Earth Empire, which, in turn, made the empire weak and allowed the Klingons and Cardassians to take over much of the galaxy. Of course, one wonders what the Mirror Universe equivalents of Captain Picard and the crew of the Enterprise-D were doing during this time.

Mirror Universe Collection

IDW Comics decided to explore this idea in a set of comic book miniseries which have been collected in the graphic novel Star Trek: The Next Generation, Mirror Universe Collection. The graphic novel contains three complete story arcs. The first, “Mirror Broken,” tells the story of how the mirror universe Jean-Luc Picard took command of his version of the Enterprise. This story features beautiful painted artwork by J.M. Woodward and is possibly the best artwork I’ve seen in a Star Trek comic. The story by David & Scott Tipton does a nice job of weaving a Next Generation story out of our glimpses of the mirror universe from the TV series. The second arc is “Through the Mirror” which imagines the mirror universe Picard and his crew finding a way into our universe to plunder technology and resources. Of course the Picard of our universe must do what he can to thwart the mirror Picard. The final story arc is “Terra Incognita” in which the mirror universe engineer Reginald Barclay is stranded in our universe and must find a way to blend in. This proved to be my favorite story since it focused on one character, how he was the same and different from his counterpart in “our” universe and how he had to learn to fit in to survive and thrive.

The graphic novel also contains two one-shot stories: “Origin of Data” and “Ripe for Plunder.” Both stories were interesting. The latter involves the mirror universe Data seeking out the deposed Emperor Spock in exile. The idea was interesting, but I thought the tale deserved more nuance than a one-shot story allowed.

To me, the appeal of parallel universe stories is that they allow us to explore “the road not traveled.” We can look back at history and ask what if historical figures made different choices than they did in the history we know? This is what I do in my Clockwork Legion novels. Such alternate universes don’t have to be “dark” universes like the one presented in Star Trek’s mirror universe. They can be an exploration of human drives under different conditions. They can provide for a fun character study. Although I have issues with Star Trek: Into Darkness, I still love the idea of exploring the Enterprise’s encounter with Khan Noonien Singh under different circumstances than we knew in the original series.

In an interesting piece of real-world alternate history, I gather Jerome Bixby and his son Emerson wrote a sequel to “Mirror, Mirror” called “Broken Mirror” for Star Trek: The Next Generation. This version was written before Deep Space Nine’s creation and imagined Spock from the mirror universe discovering a problem which developed when Captain Kirk and his landing party returned to their home universe many years before. Apparently matter from the two universes would have been leaking into one another creating a disaster about to happen, which required crews from both universes to work together. I would love to see this story adapted or even a published version of the screenplay.

Dark alternate universes provide an interesting approach to the cautionary tale. “Mirror, Mirror” and its sequels give us a look at what our future might be like if we give into our darker, more totalitarian natures. After all, there’s no guarantee the Star Trek universe is ours. We could be living inside the mirror.

You can explore my alternate version of the late 1800s by reading the Clockwork Legion series, which is available at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

Exploring Strange New Worlds

A little over two weeks ago, I was a panelist and vendor at El Paso Comic Con. I had a great time at the convention. Tamsin Silver and I hosted three writing panels. On two of the panels, we asked another attending author, Alan Morgan, to join us. The panels were the best-attended writing panels I’ve seen at El Paso Comic Con. We spoke about “Researching Your Fiction,” “Getting to Know the Characters in Your Head” and “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera.” The first two panels were focused very much on the process of writing. We discussed how research is important whether you’re writing historical fiction, space opera, or even fantasy set in a world of your own creation. At the very least you need to know how things work so you can describe them realistically. The character panel focused on how we can pull from people all around us to create characters. Alan brought a great perspective to both of these because he writes games as well as fiction. The final panel, “From Weird Westerns to Space Opera” essentially brought the themes of the other two panels together by considering how the process of creating all speculative genres share common elements.

It was appropriate to discuss space opera at the convention, since one of the featured guests was none other than William Shatner. My wife and I got to meet him briefly for a photo op. Unfortunately, these photo ops don’t give much opportunity to interact, but we did exchange pleasantries and I have heard Shatner speak on other occasions.

William Shatner, David Lee Summers, and Kumie Wise

Now I will confess, I did Photoshop this image slightly. Since everyone was unmasked for the photo, they placed us a few feet from Mr. Shatner. I simply closed up the gap to give the photo a more friendly feel. One thing that was fun about meeting Shatner when we did was that it came just before the debut of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds which features a character first portrayed by none other than William Shatner.

In earlier posts, I’ve discussed my reluctance to subscribe to streaming services. However, I’ve been looking forward to Strange New Worlds for a while and I decided I didn’t want to wait for the video release. Overall, I enjoyed the first episode and I look forward to seeing how it plays out. For those who haven’t seen it, this new Star Trek is set aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise roughly six years before Captain Kirk takes command. The Enterprise is commanded by Captain Christopher Pike played by Anson Mount. His First Officer is Una Chin-Riley played by Rebecca Romijn and his science officer is Mr. Spock, played by Ethan Peck.

Ethan Peck and David Lee Summers at WIYN

The episode opens when a starship approaches a planet to make first contact. We then cut to a scene in Montana where Captain Pike is on leave between missions while the Enterprise is undergoing refit. Admiral Robert April turns up and informs him that the first contact mission went awry. What’s more, that mission was being commanded by Una. So, the Enterprise must leave on its mission early to find out what happened. Robert April is a character we first met in the animated Star Trek series where he was introduced as the captain of the Enterprise before Pike. I won’t say much more at this point because I don’t want to risk spoilers. One of the things I did find interesting about the episode was that it posited the idea of the warp drive being weaponized. Tying this back into the discussion of the El Paso Comic Con panels, one thing that came up back in the 1990s when I was first researching engines and plausible methods of faster-than-light travel, was how often new power sources can be weaponized, which led to the dual concepts of Quinnium weapons and the Erdon-Quinn drive in The Pirates of Sufiro. You can see the results my research along with an array of colorful characters by reading the novel, which is available at: http://davidleesummers.com/pirates_of_sufiro.html

Another fun element of the new Star Trek series was getting to see more of Ethan Peck’s work. As I’ve mentioned before, he visited the WIYN telescope on my birthday in 2019 as we were commissioning the NEID Spectrograph, which actually looks for strange new worlds around other stars. I am glad to be part of a team that’s paving the way for a Star Trek-like future and I think it’s very cool that one of the actors in the series has actually seen some real exploration of strange new worlds.

Burning Dreams

While waiting for this Thursday’s premier of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I decided to spend some time with one of the novels featuring Captain Christopher Pike and the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the days before Captain James T. Kirk. Soon after I had watched the second season of Star Trek: Discovery season 2, which introduced Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Rebecca Romijn as Number One, and Ethan Peck as Spock, I dived in and read D.C. Fontana’s novel Vulcan’s Glory which is also set in this era along with reprints of Marvel Comics’ great series Star Trek: The Early Voyages. As you might imagine, Fontana’s novel focused on Spock and I picked her novel since she was so involved in Star Trek’s development and the development of Vulcan culture. I wasn’t disappointed and was treated to an enjoyable look at Spock’s early years aboard the Enterprise. For my recent read, I chose Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno which focused on Captain Pike.

Burning Dreams by Margaret Wander Bonanno

Burning Dreams was released in 2006 as part of Star Trek’s 40th anniversary celebration and it’s a sweeping novel that covers much of Captain Pike’s life and career. In the two-part original series episode, “The Menagerie,” we learn Captain Pike was grievously wounded saving cadets during a training voyage. He becomes a quadriplegic who can no longer speak. Spock takes him to the planet Talos IV. The inhabitants there have phenomenal powers of illusion and can create an environment where Pike’s active mind can express itself. What’s more he has a companion, the survivor of an earlier crash named Vina, who was also seriously wounded and relies on illusion for a happier life than she would have in human society.

The novel opens in the 24th century. Several decades have passed since Captain Pike was left on Talos IV. Spock is an ambassador and he’s summoned to Talos IV. He remembers leaving the captain on the planet. We then shift to Pike’s point of view where he meets Vina again and begins telling his life story. We learn that Captain Pike’s family terraformed worlds for the Federation and we learn how he developed his love of horses. Once Pike is grown, we follow him on a transformative mission where he served as first officer under a hawkish Starfleet captain. Then we follow one of his adventures aboard the Enterprise. The novel tells us that Pike commanded the Enterprise for two separate five-year missions. The novel ends with Ambassador Spock reaching Talos IV, where he learns Captain Pike has died. Despite that sad, but expected news, we are treated to the kind hopeful ending the best Star Trek episodes excelled at.

Around the early 1980s, Gene Roddenberry and a few people in his inner circle went to some effort to define Star Trek’s “canon.” By that point, Paramount Studios had granted licenses to create tie-in media such as books and comics. Understandably, with an eye on the series’ future development, Roddenberry wanted to define the official continuity of the series and no one monitored the continuity of that tie-in media. That said, this process was taken to extremes. Whole series and movies were declared not part of the canon and I’ve seen fans get into intense arguments over what is and isn’t canonical Star Trek.

I’ve seen indications that the current Star Trek production team has a friendlier approach to the tie-in media and I’ve heard murmurings that they have tried to find ways to work in certain elements from the tie-in media that play well with the established continuity, but don’t over-constrain the current writing teams. Enough details about Star Trek: Strange New Worlds have appeared in the media to make it apparent that its story differs in some details from those presented by Margaret Wander Bonanno in her novel. Still, there are a few tantalizing hints that the series and novel may dovetail in some interesting ways.

In a world like Star Trek where they’ve established that multiple universes exist and they’ve even created new canonical universes through time travel stories, I find it hard to get too worked up about what is and isn’t part of the canon. I was glad to meet Margaret Wander Bonanno’s version of Captain Pike. It delighted me that she used aspects established in D.C. Fontana’s Vulcan’s Glory and the Marvel comic series. I would love it if elements from Burning Dreams appeared in the new TV series. If they don’t, I’m still glad to have spent some time with this novel’s version of Captain Pike. All I ask is that TV series tell a similarly compelling story.

Revisiting the Cage

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds debuts in just a few days. It will follow the crew of the Starship Enterprise under the the command of Captain Christopher Pike. Captain Pike, his first officer, Una, and his science officer, Mr. Spock appeared for several episodes of Star Trek: Discovery’s second season. That noted, Discovery was not the first time we encountered the Enterprise in the days before before Captain Kirk. Strange New Worlds is a series inspired by Star Trek’s original pilot film from 1965 called “The Cage.”

Like many Star Trek fans of my generation, I first encountered “The Cage” cut into the original series’ only two-part episode, “The Menagerie.” In that story, we learn that Kirk’s predecessor, Captain Pike was grievously wounded in an accident saving cadets. Spock hijacks the Enterprise and takes his former captain to Talos IV. It turns out that a visit to Talos IV is the only death penalty offense in Federation law. Kirk and a commodore catch up to the Enterprise and put Spock on trial. In the trial, as part of his defense, Spock plays a recording of the Enterprise’s first visit to Talos IV, which also happens to be the original Star Trek pilot.

Screen shot from “The Cage” (CBS)

“The Cage” has a somewhat unique place in television history. Most of the time when a network turns down a pilot film, that’s the end of the story. In this case, the network liked the pilot just enough to commission a revised pilot. The sets were updated, new people were cast to fill critical rolls and the producers went for a more action-packed script. All of this became the original Star Trek series most people are familiar with.

I first became aware of “The Cage” during my pre-teen years. I knew Gene Roddenberry occasionally screened a personal print at conventions, but there were few opportunities for most fans to see the episode except as part of “The Menagerie” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite that challenge, I wanted to experience the original pilot. My solution was to use an audio tape recorder to record the parts of “The Cage” that had been cut into “The Menagerie.” With that, I had my own audio play of “The Cage.” A few years later, “The Cage” would be released on home video and it was finally aired on television for the first time in 1988.

Because I worked so hard to experience “The Cage,” it holds a special place in my heart. There’s a lot I really like about Star Trek’s first pilot. I like Captain Pike’s vulnerability. I like that his first officer was a woman. Spock is emotional here and I like how he contrasts with the somewhat colder captain and first officer. I love the bridge design, which feels a little more “real” and militaristic than the brightly colored version of the set we got in the series. That noted, some things about “The Cage” have not aged well. The navigator’s name may be José, but it’s a very white cast compared to the production version of the series. Although we have women as first officer and captain’s yeoman, they’re presented as exceptions to a rule that most officers are men.

In the episode, the Enterprise receives a distress call from a ship that crashed on Talos IV. The Enterprise arrives and finds survivors. However, the survivors turn out to be illusions and the whole thing is an elaborate plot to trap Captain Pike for a zoo-like exhibit. In the exhibit is a woman who seems interested in seducing the captain. The woman, Vina, turns out to be the crashed ship’s sole survivor. The Talosians have become so addicted to their power of illusion, they can no longer maintain their own machines. This last idea seems to have become even more relevant in the years since the story was filmed. The Talosians want Pike and Vina to start a colony of humans who can build a new civilization. When Pike seems less than thrilled about this idea, the Talosians arrange for Pike’s first officer and yeoman to beam down as additional choices for Pike to breed with, leading to a famous, unintentionally funny line where Spock, left standing on the transporter pad shouts, “the women!” I like to think there’s an alternate universe version of this scene Vina is given the choice, only the men beam down, and Number One shouts “the men!”

I like the actors who will be portraying Captain Pike and his crew in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. I like that we’re seeing a more diverse cast. I was fortunate enough to meet Ethan Peck who plays Spock in this version when he visited the WIYN telescope in 2019, so I look forward to seeing his work. I anticipate there will be moments that will make me groan or prove unintentionally funny, but I also anticipate moments that will inspire me, which has always been Star Trek’s greatest gift to me as a writer and a scientist.

Perry Rhodan Lemuria

Two weeks ago, I shared my discovery of Perry Rhodan Neo. This is the German space opera series which the publisher J-Novel Club started translating into English and publishing in the United States this year. In effect, it’s a reboot of the original Perry Rhodan series, which contains over 3100 stories written between 1961 and the present day. I was curious whether any other Perry Rhodan stories had been translated into English after the Ace Books editions ceased publication circa 1978. I discovered a series of novels called Perry Rhodan Lemuria. This is a six-novel series that was published separately from the main Perry Rhodan serials, but fits within the original continuity. The first novel in the series was translated into English in 2005. The other five novels finally saw translation and publication as ebooks starting in 2015.

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I first learned about Perry Rhodan because he inspired Bubonicon’s mascot Perry Rodent. I also have an interest in science fiction and fantasy published in other countries and languages. What’s more, I took several German language classes in high school and college. I’ve translated a few of the original Grimm Fairy Tales for my own interest, so it’s fun to look at modern science fiction from Germany.

Perry Rhodan Lemuria is set almost 3000 years after Perry Rhodan made first contact with aliens on the moon. He’s still alive thanks to a device called a cell activator, which gives him virtual immortality. In fact, one of the things I enjoy about these later Perry Rhodan books is how Rhodan takes immortality in stride. He doesn’t complain about living too long. Instead he enjoys the fact that he has time to see large swaths of human history and explore vast reaches of the universe. The Lemuria series opens with Perry aboard the prospecting vessel Palenque. He’s there to make peaceful inroads with a group of people called the Akonians. Meanwhile, the Palenque has sent out several of its exploration vessels and one is destroyed when a shuttle traveling near the speed of light collides with it. It turns out, the shuttle was stolen by a Lemurian named Venron, who has been aboard a generation ship. When Venron comes aboard the Palenque, it spurs Rhodan to seek out the ancient craft to learn more about it. Soon after they reach the craft, they discover the Akonians have also intercepted it.

In the Perry Rhodan storyline, it turns out the Lemurians are the progenitors of all the humanoid species around the galaxy. Not only that, but the Lemurians come from Earth itself. The idea is that a great space faring civilization rose to prominence on Earth, but it ultimately collapsed and vanished before humans again reached their potential and went out to the stars. Admittedly, having human-like aliens in your space opera helps to make them more relatable. Star Trek once suggested that many of the human-like species in the galaxy might share a common ancestor. That said, it does push my willing suspension of disbelief a little to suggest that such a common ancestor would come from Earth itself, but that’s never really a major plot point, at least in the first two volumes of Perry Rhodan Lemuria. Doing a little research, it seems the Lemurians have been part of the Perry Rhodan mythos since around 1966 and I would guess that changing their backstory wouldn’t be a simple matter. It will be interesting to see how and if Perry Rhodan Neo deals with the Lemurians.

Circumstances in the first novel send Perry and the crew of the Palenque after a second Lemurian ark in the second novel. That second ark ends up crash-landing on a planet. There, the idea of human-like aliens is turned on its head when the Lemurians and the crew of the Palenque encounter a group of energy beings who don’t seem happy about the human-like aliens on their planet.

Overall, the first two novels in this series have nicely woven plots, some interesting ideas, and characters I care about. The first novel seemed well translated, but the second one could have used some careful copyediting. I found several places where words were missing or sentences seemed a little too close to German word order for easy reading. The storyline has caught me well enough that I want to read more in this series and I was grateful to see an example of Perry Rhodan’s later adventures after he left the Earth and started exploring other worlds. I recommend it, especially if you’d like to get a taste of a very long running science fiction series published outside the United States.

William Shatner in Space

Earlier this week, William Shatner took a ride into space aboard a rocket built by Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos, best known as the founder of Amazon. The rocket launched from outside Van Horn, Texas, a town about two and a half hours to the southeast of my home in New Mexico. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I thought it was great that Shatner, who brought the role of Captain Kirk to life, had the opportunity to go into space for real. What’s more, at 90 years old, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. I’ve long thought, I hope to be doing as well as William Shatner when I’m 90!

Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, and Chris Boshuizen in Space. Image courtesy Blue Origin

As a kid, when I first became aware of Star Trek, the last Apollo missions were still flying. I remember thinking that Star Trek was just another document of a real mission into space. My parents soon explained to me that it was all just make-believe, but in a way that excited me just as much. That made me pay attention to the opening credits and notice those writers who made up Star Trek’s vision of exploring space. In the end Star Trek’s captivating writing helped to launch my careers in both astronomy and writing. So, it should come as no surprise that I watched Shatner’s journey from the moment he entered the rocket until he landed again in west Texas near the launch site.

Some have criticized Jeff Bezos for investing his personal wealth in space flight rather than causes to help the planet. He’s argued that developing space flight is one way to help the planet. I think he has a point. Developing space technology has a long track record of creating other technologies that help us on the Earth. I also believe there’s no reason we can’t work on solutions to problems on Earth while developing space technology. We have no shortage of people. Among the challenges are training and directing them to places where they can do the most good.

This all noted, I don’t feel I can let Bezos completely off the hook. According to Yahoo Finance, Bezos’s income is somewhere in the ballpark of 110 billion dollars per year and he invests 1 billion of that in Blue Origin. To put his income in perspective, you only have to multiply minimum wage by a single digit to get to my income. You have to multiply minimum wage by six digits to get to Bezos’s income. Over a million people could be employed at better-than-minimum wage with his income alone.

There are plenty of reports that suggest working conditions for front-line workers at Amazon are not great. As an author I do business with Amazon. In the last year and a half, I’ve received several packages in poor condition. They look as though they were rushed out the door without care and some books have arrived in unsellable condition. This makes sense if workers are being rushed to get things out the door without concern for quality of service. I’ve also had to call Amazon at times to resolve issues. Most of the time, their representatives are very helpful, but I’ve had at least two instances where I asked them something that clearly went “off script.” They promised to call me back and simply didn’t. Again this smacks of putting perceived efficiency ahead of customer service.

Given what’s reported of Jeff Bezos’s salary and what that must imply for Amazon’s total profits, there must be room for Amazon to improve salaries, make conditions better for front-line workers, and improve service. Star Trek suggested that humans would be ready for space exploration when we learned to appreciate our own diversity and treat our fellow humans with respect and dignity. Sometimes making the planet better starts with how corporate executives and upper management treat and pay the people who are making them the money that allow them to invest in cool things like space exploration and who make it possible for someone like William Shatner to visit the final frontier.

The Magnificent Five

As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts, I’ve been listening to the Gerry Anderson Podcast, which distributes new episodes to various podcast platforms on Mondays. Recently, they introduced an audio book and novel by co-host Richard James called Five Star Five: John Lovell and the Zargon Threat. The audio book is available from Big Finish Productions and I downloaded it so the family could listen while taking my youngest child back to college a couple of weeks ago. Five Star Five was the name of a movie project Gerry Anderson was developing after Space: 1999 and I’ve often heard it called his answer to Star Wars. A script had been completed, studio space had been secured, and work on pre-production began when the project was abruptly halted because one of the major investors pulled out of the project. Unfortunately, the project was never finished.

That’s where Richard James comes in. He took the script and turned it into a novel this year, so the rest of us could finally learn more about Five Star Five. The premise is that the evil Zargon Empire plans to take over the peaceful planet Kestra. On Kestra, Colonel Zana seeks a champion to help save them from the threat. So far, this does sound a bit like Star Wars. The person she hopes to recruit is John Lovell, a freelance freighter pilot who reminded me a little of Han Solo, right down to his hirsute co-pilot Clarence. As it turns out, Clarence is a talking chimpanzee. At first I thought the character would put me off, but it turned out elements of the character hearkened back to both Planet of the Apes and Rocket Racoon from Guardians of the Galaxy.

Once Lovell is maneuvered into helping the Kestrans, the story becomes less Star Wars and more The Magnificent Seven as Lovell goes out to recruit a team to help him defeat the Zargon invaders. His team includes a powerful, but sensitive robot, a mystic, and a kid who communicates telepathically with his robot dog.

Unlike other Big Finish productions I’ve listened to, this one is an audio book with Robbie Stevens serving as the sole narrator. Music and sound effects are provided by Benji Clifford. Stevens’ narration is so well done and his voices for the characters so well thought out, I almost felt like I was listening to a full-cast audio drama. I do highly recommend the audio edition. The total runtime of the audio is 5 hours and 19 minutes, so it does feel more in-depth than a movie, but the action never slows down.

John Lovell and the Zargon Threat also felt very much like a first adventure in a series. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gerry Anderson would have produced more movies in the series if the first had proven a success. I suspect the movie Gerry Anderson would have produced circa 1979 would have have rivaled both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises in effects quality. What’s more, I thought this was a more engaging take on the idea of “The Magnificent Seven in Space” than 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars. It would be fun if the folks at Anderson Entertainment decided to give us more Five Star Five adventures.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Given my love of both Star Trek and animation, I knew I would get around to watching the first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks eventually. I admit, I didn’t quite rush to the show for two reasons. First off, back when Star Trek: The Next Generation did a couple of episodes from the point of view of junior officers, I felt they’d botched certain elements of it. Also, the animation style put me off. Still, I’m glad I took a chance and saw what the series had to offer. I was pleased to find yet another incarnation of the Star Trek universe to enjoy.

Set aboard the U.S.S. Cerritos, Lower Decks focuses on four ensigns: Becket Mariner, an irreverent character who has climbed up to higher rank, only to be demoted again; Brad Boimler, a by-the-book character who sees himself as a future captain; Davana T’endi, an Orion medical technician; and Eugene Cordero, an engineer adjusting to a cybernetic implant. The ship itself is on a mission of providing engineering support to worlds just entering the Federation. The series features many references to classic Star Trek episodes and, perhaps not surprisingly, has many wonderful tributes to the original animated series. On the whole, the source of the humor comes from poking fun at places fans themselves have poked fun at the different series. More than once, the series reminded me of Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.

Back in Star Trek: The Next Generation, there were two episodes told from the perspective of junior officers. The first was called “Tapestry” where the powerful alien Q shows Picard what would have happened if he hadn’t gotten into a fight which resulted in him needing an artificial heart. We learn Picard never took the chances he needed to be promoted and remained a junior officer. The next episode was “Lower Decks” about four junior officers up for promotion. Both episodes were good overall, but my problem was that the senior officers seemed too aloof and frankly snobbish around the junior officers. The dynamic felt more like Hollywood producers around interns from the back office than members of a team working together to explore the galaxy. Over my time in astronomy, I’ve had the opportunity to work with numerous well-known scientists in leadership positions, including Nobel Prize winners, and while some have been challenging to work with, most have been team players who recognized that everyone in the room was there because they had something to contribute no matter their level of seniority or what accolades they’d received. When I turn on a Star Trek episode, I want to see a team I’d want to be on as much or more than the one I’m on in real life. The Lower Decks animated series succeeded at this, possibly helped by the comedy premise. All of the characters are flawed, which puts them on much more equal footing as people, even when some of those people have more experience. What’s more, I felt as though the characters were having fun, which made me want to join them for the fun of exploration.

In graduate school, I was a fan of Matt Groenig’s comic strip, Life in Hell. I watched Groenig go on to develop The Simpsons and Futurama. I then watched other creators use a similar style in shows like Family Guy and Rick and Morty. In effect, Groenig’s style became the “adult animated comedy” style and we see it again in Lower Decks. I don’t dislike the style, but I found myself wondering if it would work for Star Trek. As it turns out, the style was adjusted to give it just a little more realism. While I was frustrated to see another American animation show forced to look a certain way because of its intended audience, I did find the actual look appealing and I soon warmed to the characters, in part because of solid voice acting and good scripts.

On a personal level, I loved the California-class ships named after the state’s cities. Growing up in California, I recognized all the ship names they’ve mentioned so far. I would love to see my old stomping grounds of San Bernardino or Barstow get a starship in a later season. The former seems like it would provide an opportunity to pay tribute to original series writer Jerome Bixby, who lived there. It might be fun to see it appear in an episode about the mirror universe that he created. Of course, Bixby’s stories were an early influence on my own writing, which you can learn more about by visiting http://www.davidleesummers.com

Main Mission

A week and a half ago, I shared the model of the Starship Enterprise’s bridge that I built. It seems I’ve been in the mood to build science fictional command centers lately, because I also recently completed a model of Main Mission from Space: 1999. This was, in part, inspired by my enjoyment of Big Finish Productions’ audio version of the series, which in turn led me to re-watch the first season of the 1970’s television series.

As for the model itself, I discovered it when looking up videos that might help with some points of assembly on the Enterprise bridge model. Some videos that turned up in the suggested play list discussed the Space: 1999 Moonbase Alpha kit, which includes the show’s first season command center, Main Mission. As it turns out, I remember seeing an early version of the Moonbase Alpha kit from when I was a child. I also remember asking my parents to buy it for me. At the time, they turned me down. It was probably for the best. That was during the height of my slap kits together as fast as I could, without really caring about the quality of my work! I discovered MPC had released an update of the Moonbase Alpha kit in the not-too-distant past and they aren’t hard to find for decent prices on eBay, so I bought one.

MPC Moonbase Alpha Model Kit

As of this writing, I haven’t actually built the Moonbase itself. I may share that at a later time, but I have tackled the miniature of main mission. Like the Enterprise bridge, it’s not a perfectly accurate replica. Two problems stand out at first glance. First, there’s a spiral staircase in Main Mission. In the show, it was a simple staircase with landings. Second, Commander Koenig’s office is too short. In the show, he had a lower level with a conference table and several chairs. It was actually a rather spacious workspace. The biggest challenge of this model is that it’s rather small, so painting details and adding decals took some care and patience. Still, I managed it. Here’s a look in from the top.

Main Mission from above.

I rather like the details in the decals they included. The big screen is a very accurate version of what was shown on television. The globe in Commander Koenig’s office was another selling point for me. It was such a memorable prop, I was delighted they included it in the model, even if painting it was a challenge. The continents don’t really match up with anything on a real globe, but they do give the impression of the continents as they looked in the show.

Main Mission from the side

The second view shows a more oblique angle, so you can see the computer banks on the lower level. Again, these were good decals. It also made me realize how similar the main mission and command center sets were in Space: 1999 and the earlier series produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, UFO. As with my Enterprise bridge model, one of the most fun elements was painting and placing the people. I tried to imagine something of a story in progress. I have Commander Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell speaking in the commander’s office. Dr. Victor Bergman is running in to tell them something. We have Paul Morrow, Alan Carter, and Sandra Benes sitting at consoles. One challenge was whether to depict the televised Main Mission, or as I imagine it might be in the audio. On television, the computer officer is David Kano. We see a person that could be him standing by the computer. In the audio, David became a woman named Dashka Kano. I have a woman that could be her standing near one of the Main Mission doors.

Main Mission and the Enterprise Bridge

This final image serves two purposes. It shows the Main Mission model with its roof panels in place and it also shows the model compared to the Enterprise bridge model. As you can see, the Main Mission model is a much smaller scale. One of the reasons I decided to get this model is that the Enterprise bridge model was pretty plain on the outside, so sitting on the table, it’s not very attractive unless you look inside. The Main Mission model makes a nice compliment on the shelf.

At some point in the not-too-distant future I hope to build the actual Moonbase part of the kit, but for now, it’s time to get back to writing.