By Tom Anderson
The crew of the Enterprise at the launch of the other Enterprise. The OTL one. Gene Roddenberry appropriately takes centre stage.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In the 1990s, Star Trek as a franchise was arguably at the peak of its popularity. The original series continued to underwrite pop-culture references to a greater extent than Star Wars (in contrast to today) while the successive spinoffs The Next Generation (TNG), Deep Space Nine (DS9), and Voyager (VGR), set a century later, had established a coherent and consistent storytelling setting. Members of the public who had no interest in science fiction nonetheless knew what a phaser, a transporter, a warp drive, a Vulcan, a Klingon were. In Demolition Man, a 1993 deconstruction of action films set in a dystopian future, hardly immediately related to Star Trek, a defrosted criminal who was cryogenically frozen raids a museum for weapons and wonders: “If this is the future, where are all the phaser guns?” Star Trek’s dominance, at least on the small screen, was absolute.
This caused some problems for people who wanted to tell other kinds of TV science fiction stories, of course. It was hard to avoid the accusation of simply being called a Star Trek rip-off and not being taken seriously. It did not matter so much if the premise of one’s show was radically different, perhaps this being partly responsible for the proliferation of different kinds of science fiction genre shows in the era. I have already discussed Stargate SG-1 in a number of articles, and that show approached the problem in several ways.
Travelling by magic portal. Sorry. Stargate.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Firstly, it is grounded in our own present day (allowing X-Files type plots) and primarily on planets, though spaceships started to appear more often as it progressed. Ironically, Gene Roddenberry had considered doing a follow-up Star Trek show where a team travelled to other worlds with a long-range transporter rather than a ship, which sounds very much like a Stargate.
Secondly, SG-1 acknowledged that Star Trek was a fictional show within its own universe, and did not shy away from making references to it at times when it seemed natural. Jack O’Neill uses the pseudonym “James T Kirk when captured, asks (unsuccessfully) that Earth’s first starship be called the Enterprise, and so on. When SG-1 had a plot which its creators worried was ripping off the plot of the TNG episode Cause and Effect, they hastily clarified that they were in fact ripping off Groundhog Day (and, again, Jack name-drops the latter in the episode).
There are many other sci-fi genre shows of the 1990s that are sufficiently different that they could avoid the Star Trek comparison: The X-Files was the only real challenger to Trek’s juggernaut status in the 1990s. I could also mention Odyssey 5, Millennium, Earth: Final Conflict, First Wave, and more.
But there were other sci-fi series that wanted to use a space opera setting that loosely resembled Star Trek’s. In order to do so, they needed to build a world that emphasised the differences to Trek. Even in cases of media which are explicitly made as homages to Star Trek, such as GalaxyQuest or The Orville, copyright alone means that writers have to be careful to never mention phasers or transporters. They have to come up with their own terms, while it still being clear to everyone what is being meant. As is usual, this restriction breeds creativity, making this an interesting topic to discuss.
This is going to be an occasional series in which I look at different TV series (mostly) from this article which tried to capture a similar setting and storytelling logic to Star Trek while attempting to define themselves as different.
The most obvious place to start might be J Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, arguably the most successful of the not-Treks (to the point that DS9 has been accused of ripping it off in turn!) However, I am not as familiar with it as I might be, so I felt it better to begin with a series I have more background knowledge of: Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda.
The cast of Andromeda.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Andromeda was released from 2000 to 2005, and I mostly watched it on Sky One (where the seasons were, strangely, chopped up so that the end of season 1 was stapled onto season 2, for instance). It was one of a number of series based on unproduced ideas by Gene Roddenberry developed under the auspices of his widow Majel Barrett Roddenberry. In this case, Robert Hewitt Wolfe (best known for his work on the first five seasons of DS9 with Ira Steven Behr) was brought in to fully develop the show using Roddenberry’s notes. Wolfe was the primary showrunner for the first two years before leaving due to ‘creative differences’ with Kevin Sorbo (ex-Hercules) who was cast as the protagonist, Captain Dylan Hunt, with an ego to match. Much of what I’ll be discussing here came from Wolfe’s mind in those seasons, as I recall him discussing in a text interview I read via Web 1.0 Internet in 2000. I fell away from watching Andromeda from the third series as there had been a noticeable shift (ie drop) in quality with the retool.
Very briefly, the concept of Andromeda can be thought of as “Star Trek, but the Federation has fallen and one ship and captain has survived; awakening in the dark future years later, he resolves to rebuild it with the help of his new friends”.
If this sounds familiar, a very similar idea was more recently done in Star Trek: Discovery. At the time when Andromeda came out, we were told that the idea could never be done with Star Trek because it would contradict the show’s identity as an optimistic and hopeful one about the future. Draw your own conclusions. There are differences to the Andromeda setting, of course. The alt-Federation is called the Systems Commonwealth, its ‘Starfleet’ is called the High Guard, humans are not a dominant race within it (according to an interview, they don’t even make the top four!) and it covers three galaxies, or parts of them. I always thought this part was a mistake, because a later story involves an extragalactic invasion, and it feels like much less of a threat when you can just go to another galaxy. It’s similar to how Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire having multiple continents makes the threat of the Ice People feel way less existential than is implied, but that’s another story.
We are introduced to Dylan Hunt and the crew of the Andromeda Ascendant in the first two-part episode. They encounter evidence that the Nietzscheans, a Commonwealth member state, are plotting a coup/attack against the Commonwealth. Hunt’s first officer, Gaheris Rhade, is himself Nietzschean and offers to put himself in the brig in case his loyalty is questioned. However, he turns on his guards and indeed is part of the revolt. The Andromeda Ascendant’s entire crew is evacuated or killed in the ensuing battle, other than Hunt – who is forced to kill Rhade – and the ship’s AI computer (played by Lexa Doig, but more on her later).
Captain Dylan Hunt
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
As Hunt bends over Rhade’s body in despair, the ship falls towards a black hole’s event horizon – and time dilation means that while only seconds pass for Hunt, over three hundred years pass in the universe outside. This is referred to as the Long Night.
Hunt and the Andromeda are retrieved by a mission paid for by the Nightsider, Gerentex. The Eureka Maru, a much smaller cargo ship commanded by Beka Valentine, manages to tow the ship out of its precarious position (don’t think too hard about how this is possible). The rest of Beka’s small crew consists of technical genius Seamus Harper, who’s from old Earth (which is now a shattered husk plagued by the Magog), the mysterious purple-skinned Trance Gemini, and Rev Bem, a pacifist Magog who follows the Wayist religion. Also present is Tyr Nasazi, a Nietzschean mercenary hired by the double-crossing Gerentex. While trying to get the Andromeda online, Harper is shocked to encounter a still-living Hunt (whom he says: “Looked like a Greek god!” to the others in a nod to Sorbo’s Hercules role). Hunt, in turn, is appalled to learn that the Commonwealth has fallen, his homeworld of Tarn Vedra has disappeared and the universe has become a nightmare dystopia in which the law of the jungle prevails. By the end of the episode, he resolves to rebuild the Commonwealth, single-handed if necessary, and is joined by the others (except for Gerentex).
I won’t go into how the plot develops beyond that, but that should set the scene. Instead, I want to focus on the worldbuilding, some glimpses of which you will already have seen in that rundown. Online interviews with Wolfe and others helped flesh out the background to the setting beyond that which was depicted on screen. I should also mention that every episode of Andromeda (which mostly used rather high-minded titles pulled from Shakespeare, the poem “The Second Coming”, and the like) starts with a black screen and an in-universe quote, similar to Dune (the book). That helped provide additional background and depth to its universe.
Easily the best part of the worldbuilding of Andromeda, in my opinion, consists of the work put into developing its alien races. I recall Wolfe or one of his colleagues mentioning that they wanted to get away from cases like the Bajorans in Star Trek DS9, who look almost identical to humans, and be more imaginative. This did have unfortunate consequences, however, as many of the actors turned out to be allergic to the more elaborate makeups and they had to be reimagined later! Sometimes there are elaborate in-universe explanations for this, but Gerentex, for instance, turns up in the later episode Fear and Loathing in the Milky Way looking totally different with no reason given. As I said before, it was stated in supplementary interviews that humans are far from the most important race in the Systems Commonwealth.
The Commonwealth’s premier race and founders were the Vedrans, a race of blue-skinned centaur-like being who were the first to discover slipstream drive (more on that later). The vedrans’ state began as a conquering empire, but then evolved into the more egalitarian and idealistic, multi-racial Commonwealth after they conquered the rival Kalderan empire and were forced to bring other races into the High Guard. Dylan himself was born on their homeworld of Tarn Vedra in the “human quarter”.
In the dark future, Tarn Vedra has disappeared (finding it becomes a plot point in the later seasons I didn’t watch) and the Vedrans are barely more than a myth anymore.
After the Vedrans, the next most prominent species was the Perseids, purple- or grey-skinned humanoids with long, bony chins similar to Egyptian pharaonic beards. The Perseids were known for being excellent administrators and scholars, and when the Commonwealth fell, they retreated to their homeworld for safety in the new lawless reality, which deprived many other nations of their former civil servants, further accelerating the collapse. We later learn that the Andromeda’s first captain, before Hunt, was a Perseid.
Third in line are the Than (short for Than-Thre-Kull), insectoids known for their industry; like the Perseids, the fall of the multiracial Commwealth deprived other nations of Than workers. The Andromeda’s pilot, Refractions of Dawn, was a Than who was slain by Rhade.
The fourth most prominent species were the Nightsiders, like Gerentex, genderless humanoid rat-like being which are most similar to the Ferengi from Star Trek. They nearly destroyed their homeworld through pollution and were only saved by Commonwealth contact.
As for humans themselves, though they don’t make the top four, they are most notable for being incredibly numerous – making up 80% of all inhabitants of known space (which conveniently saves money for the makeup department!) However, not all humans are the same. Genetic engineering and transhumanism are rife (a significant difference to Star Trek). Some cases are as mild as Hunt having above-average strength due to his mother coming from a heavy-gravity world. Harper is proud to be a non-enhanced human, though he does have a data port implant that lets him interface directly with computers.
Other human variants are more significant, like the Inari, who were modified to live in low-light volcanic environments, or – most prominently – the aforementioned Nietzcheans. Following the titular Darwinist philosophy of “the devil take the hindmost” (and throwing around names like Ayn Rand), the Nietzscheans (Homo sapiens invictus) are alleged genetic supermen, like the Augments from Star Trek. Unlike in Star Trek, however, they were not wiped out and controlled early on, but grew to be about 8% of the human race. Despite these small numbers, the Nietzscheans were able to bring down the Commonwealth from within in the uprising depicted in the first episode, and enslaved much of the rest of humanity. The Nietzscheans are divided into “prides” (think lions) of which the most prominent is the Draco Kasov Pride (as seen in text in-universe, but pronounced Drago-Kasov and spelled as such on the Andromeda wiki). The only immediately apparent evidence of their genetic enhancement is that they have natural ‘bone blades’ that come out of their forearms like a discount Wolverine.
There are many other races and groups that feature in the setting. Of the non-Commonwealth races before the fall, among the most prominent were the Magog (named for Gog and Magog from the Book of Revelation), basically a take on the ‘horde of orcs’/’alien monsters trying to eat your face archetype. They look like a cross between TNG Klingons and demons, and they reproduce by injecting hosts with larvae that chew their way out from the inside. Lovely. They also attack in space by overwhelming ships with hordes of swarmships that bind to their hull and then begin drilling their way inside to land boarders.
At the end of season 1, we discover that the Magog are actually extragalactic invaders, with a gigantic worldship slowly approaching the Milky Way, and all we’ve seen thus far are outriders. The worldship consists of an artificial star on the (very slow) move with multiple hollowed-out planets held in a grid of supports around it, worthy of Larry Niven, and containing a trillion Magog. However, in a nice deconstruction of the ‘faceless horde’ archetype, the crew includes one Magog who turned to the pacifist religion of Wayism, Rev Bem (his original Magog name means Red Plague). Wayism is one of those “ecumenical future roll everything into one” religions (see also Dune) which worships ‘the Divine’ and has made saints out of existing prominent religious figures in a way similar to how Hinduism co-opts them for avatars of Vishnu.
Another prominent non-Commonwealth race was the Pyrians (unfortunately pronounced multiple ways depending on the episode), a non-humanoid, methane-breathing species who look a bit like floating jellyfish (actually reminiscent of the rather obscure Melkotians from Star Trek TOS). The Pyrians were a major enemy of the Commonwealth held in check by treaty, who then expanded after the fall of the Commonwealth. They ‘pyroform’ planets for their own needs, making them uninhabitable by humans or similar species (an idea also done in Stargate SG-1 with the Gadmere species). Their battle tactics are also interestingly different, with them flying ‘torchships’ that weigh down enemy craft with gravity packets and then close to point-blank range to slice them up with plasma flamethrowers.
There are also groups that are not associated with particular racial governments in the same way. The Restorians, or Restors for short, are eco-terrorists who think space travel is ruining planets. It turns out they are actually led by a mad High Guard ship AI, the Balance of Judgement (played by Michael Shanks, Lexa Doig’s partner and one of several Stargate SG-1 actor crossovers). Another group are the Knights of Genetic Purity (or Genites/Genknights for short), humans who seek to annihilate all genetically modified humans and fly carriers that launch ‘seraphim’ drones. The Genknights turn out to be a more extreme splinter faction of the Templars, founded by a former Commonwealth High Guard admiral, who “only” wanted to exterminate the Nietzscheans specifically. Finally, there are also one-off groups we unfortunately never saw again, such as the AI machine-empire Consensus of Parts – who, like the Replicators from Stargate, are obviously a “the Borg are popular, right?” group, yet also manage to be interestingly different.
This is great worldbuilding, although not all of it was ever visible in the stories themselves (which is not necessarily a bad thing). Other than alien races and groups, the other main area in which worldbuilding in Andromeda was focused was in technology and concepts. As I mentioned before, ships in this setting achieve faster-than-light travel using “Slipstream Drive”. Interviews with Wolfe and others indicated that the philosophy behind this was based on the idea that Star Trek was still dependent on scientific concepts that were current in the 1960s, when the original series was conceived, and conversely Andromeda would focus on current topics in the 1990s. A high-minded ideal which, in my view, failed to live up to expectations. Claiming you’re going to be different from Star Trek is a bit cheeky when the name “Quantum Slipstream Drive” had appeared in Star Trek: Voyager over a year earlier! And yes, the Andromeda version is also quantum, even though the word is not used; the interesting twist to it is that (referring to the quantum concept of the observer effect) only a biological mind can make the choices to navigate a ship through slipstream. A ship AI can’t do it alone. There’s a nasty twist involving the aforementioned AI Consensus of Parts, where they get around this by having literal brains in jars.
So Slipstream drive is not that original. What about other technologies? Another area which Wolfe’s team said they wanted to focus on was nanotechnology. This, unfortunately, fails in two ways for me. Firstly, again, Star Trek was already doing a lot with nanotechnology (in Voyager) and secondly, in both Trek and Andromeda, the way they treat nanotech is “basically magic” rather than having any connection with what the actual field is like. (See also the James Bond film No Time To Die which, after spending years going on about how the Daniel Craig era is supposed to be all gritty and realistic, uses a nanotech weapon plot that is sillier than anything Roger Moore ever faced). The High Guard use these extending staff weapons called Force Lances (which are at least an interesting idea and different to the staff weapons from Stargate) but they fire “nanotech discharges” with programmable effects. On at least one occasion, we see these actually tracking someone and changing course through the air, which then got quietly forgotten when the writers realised it would mean that firefights would be over in about ten seconds. Nanotech is used slightly more plausibly with how Beka is able to change her hair colour spontaneously due to having them in her hair (which turn out to encode a secret message from her deceased father).
Probably the best bit of tech worldbuilding in Andromeda is the use of AI. Each Commonwealth High Guard ship has an AI computer which manifests as an avatar (always human because budget). That avatar can be either a hologram, or a flatscreen, or take the form of a humanoid android. According to Lexa Doig in interviews, the three forms are all independent and have different personalities; she said she portrayed them as three sisters, with the hologram being the elder, the screen the middle sister, and the android the youngest. It wasn’t always entirely clear on-screen that they were meant to be independent (at least at first), however.
One of the show’s odder inconsistencies is where the android the Ship Made Flesh (referred to as Rommie) comes from. Or rather, this is consistent (Harper built her out of one of the ship’s multi-purpose androids) but what isn’t consistent is whether this was a new idea or not. It seems to be implied that there was no android avatar of the ship AI until Harper had the idea, but we later meet at least two other Commonwealth ships (the Balance of Judgement, played by Michael Shanks, and the Pax Magellanic, played by Monica Schnarre) which also have android avatars and Rommie implies the latter already had a nickname before the Fall and... argh! To be honest, I was just put out that I’d independently had the idea of holographic ship AI avatars when I started writing as a teenager in the 1990s, though I believe the idea is much older than that.
Weapons are another area where Wolfe’s team wanted to be different to Star Trek. They arguably succeeded, as we don’t see energy shields or energy weapons much in Andromeda. The Andromeda Ascendant is mostly armed with various types of missiles, and is protected by a series of point-defence lasers, a hull polymer sheath and ‘battle blades’ that swing forward to help protect against missile attack. This also fits with the ships aesthetics, with lots of empty space to (so supplementary information says) help make missile contact less likely.
The aesthetics work pretty well from a storytelling standpoint, making the Andromeda look both substantially different to Star Trek design and also have smooth and utopian lines that contrast suitably with functional fallen-world rust-buckets like the Eureka Maru. Getting the contrast between eras is really difficult for a brand-new sci-fi series, so this should be recognised. However, the missile weapons really aren’t that interesting to look at.
Andromeda Ascendant. A design different to the Star Trek format, and consistent within the terms of its own technology.
Picture courtesy Andromeda Wikipedia.
In an interesting comparison to the nuclear deterrent nowadays, ships like the Andromeda are also armed with 40 ‘Nova bombs’ which can cause suns to explode. Hunt uses up all 40 of them in the first episode to help escape from the black hole by turning it into a white hole (again, don’t think too hard about this). Then in literally the next episode, he gets another one from a group of children who fanatically worship the ideal of the High Guard, which seems like an odd storytelling choice.
Overall, the creators of Andromeda generally did a good job at creating a rich storytelling setting that is recognisably space opera, but also very different from the omnipresent Star Trek. While the show had a troubled run and never took advantage of this foundation, this achievement is worthy of note.
Next time we return to this article series, I’ll talk about a case where a setting was always meant to be a parody of or homage to Star Trek, yet its creators put a remarkable amount of effort into coming up with interestingly different ideas: GalaxyQuest.
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
The Look to the West series