OK, so this is going to be incredibly geeky, and I’m going to voice some opinions so I expect to alienate some people with this one, but I have been thinking about writing this piece for a while now so sooner or later it was going to happen anyway.
People always assume I’m this massive Star Wars fan. Just because I know those films pretty much word for word, does not make me a massive fan. Just because I have dressed up as Obi Wan Kenobi for World Book Day, does not make me a massive fan. Those were “borrowed robes” to quote Shakespeare. If the owner had a Star Trek costume (and he just might) I may have opted for that instead. So, let’s set the record straight. I think the Star Wars films are lots of fun. I even enjoyed bits about the prequels. That doesn’t make me a massive fan. I find re-watching them a little bit of a chore if I’m honest. Doubtless when my son gains a few years, I’ll love introducing him to those films and watching him get excited the way I used to when I was young. Yes, I got excited when I was young. I had all the figures and I was signed on for the whole experience. When Return of the Jedi came out, I remember begging Mum to take me to the 3rd Floor of Fenwicks in Newcastle (is that still the toy department) so that I could experience the pit of the Saalac or whatever. I can’t quite recapture just how underwhelming that experience was, even for a 7 year old. The “pit of the Saalac” turned out to be a box with mirrors on the inside. Going inside was akin to going into any of the changing rooms on other floors of Fenwicks.
What this post is really about is collecting my thoughts on a number of different Sci-Fi universes. You know: you’ve got the Marvel Comics Universe, the Doctor Whoniverse, even the Whedonverse. Usually, most Science Fiction stories tend to have their own mythology and created universes, whether these be futuristic or a galaxy far, far away. The Star Wars universe just gets bigger and bigger now that it is the property of Disney with spinoffs starting to arrive this winter outside the central story to keep the money pouring in. I’m going to compare four of them here, using different criteria, and try to justify which I think is the best. See, I told you this was going to be incredibly geeky. If you’ve made it this far, however, I’ll assume you’ve bought in.
Here are the criteria – I’ll give each contender a mark out of ten for each and we’ll see who wins.
And here are the contenders:
- Star Wars
- Star Trek
- Mass Effect
- Battlestar Galactica
I said I was going to alienate people here. Let’s see…
Star Wars – I always found Luke Skywalker a bit moany. Han Solo is great but he is kind of left carrying things in the hero stakes for great periods of Star Wars without anyone else to step in. I like the new crop in Episode VII, especially Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Who else is there? Leia? Plucky but not really given a full part in things until her third film. For the first two, she isn’t really given any scope, besides in an organisational role. Lando? Hardly. Who else? I’m not including anyone from the prequels in this; Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi just exist without ever creating any real chemistry or emotion until the last ten minutes of their screen time together.
Star Trek – Two words: Captain Kirk. Never one to give up, always able to find a way out. Hey, he even backchats God. Difficult act to follow, so you draft in someone completely different in Picard, beautifully played by Patrick Stewart. Voyager and Enterprise passed me by as series so I’m unable to comment on them, but when you take the two central players in those first two journeys, that’s quite a powerful one-two punch of class. Then you have to add Spock into the equation. That’s three. I don’t think anyone else is on the same level (Commander Decker anyone?). Each of these three bring some real emotion to their roles. Kirk’s voice breaking at Spock’s funeral in Wrath of Khan always gets me.
Battlestar Galactica – Here we have heroes in different moulds. Laura Roslin’s cancer-riddled president who keeps hanging on through everything to get her people to safety, Admiral Adama (played to perfection by Edward James Olmos), the stalwart who has to adapt while maintaining his integrity, Apollo, sticking to his principles and making hard choices that fly in the face of his superiors and Starbuck: the rogue who still manages to do the right thing. Any one of these four are enough to justify the score I’m going to give this, because they’re played and written so well.
Mass Effect – I’m including a video game in this list as I’m really passionate about it and believe that it sits comfortably alongside all these others. What the developers created in Commander Shepard was a traditional hero, but one where you made the choices and felt the effects. There have been some criticisms of the quality of the voice acting on the male iteration of this character but I never found that to be a problem. Isn’t it just wonderful that you get to choose. Your hero doesn’t always have to play it completely straight, either. You can play the rogue or the knight as you feel on the day. This makes the experience different every time. On top of Shepard, there is a veritable gallery of heroes, each with their own histories, to get to know and fight alongside. Garrus, Tali, Liara, Thane, Wrex; each character has their moment to shine, and shine they do.
Star Wars – Where to start? This is an impressive list. Imagine inviting all the coolest people to your housewarming party. A great list of names, and then somewhere down the bottom is that person you really don’t want to be there but feel compelled to invite. I’m going to get that out of the way first: Chancellor Palpatine! Not from Empire and Jedi but from the prequels. Just too obvious, and that whole mentor thing with Anakin wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with anyone who had half a brain. My brother and I particularly like the opera scene where he tells Anakin about Darth Plagueis. This has to be one of the most dull scenes in the entire series. Hang on a minute, while I’m in that place let’s add General Grievous to that list. What on Earth was the thinking there? A robot that coughs. Really? Really? All this doesn’t take away from the trinity of villains that occupy the rest of the story. Darth Vader is a brilliant creation whose redemption seems impossible until the very end. Kylo Ren is a great evolution of that who owns his screen time. Finally, Darth Maul, who seems like a criminally missed opportunity. One theory is that he was meant to last through all three prequels, which would have been much better. He would have been there instead of Grievous in Revenge of the Sith and that would have made for a much better fight with Obi Wan to avenge his mentor. Add Boba Fett to that list, even though he wasn’t given the credit of a decent exit (see aforementioned pit of the Saalac) and there is menace in full supply. I can’t wait to see how they develop Kylo Ren over the next two films.
Star Trek – We’ve been treated to a wide range of villains over the long run of Star Trek in its various voyages. Is it fair to judge this against the others given the breadth of its scope? Perhaps. I’m going to anyway so I don’t know why I asked this question. Klingons went from being the villain to being integrated, from being just humans with oily faces to being bumpy-headed latex creations. I thought rather than look at races as, with the exception of The Borg, that would be to generalise, I would instead look at individuals. The great granddaddy of them all has to be Khan. His episode in the original series is a standout and he is the perfect foil for Kirk in the film. I love Benedict Cumberbatch, but Ricardo Montalban will always be Khan for me, fake chest, dramatic delivery and pantomime intensity all rolled together. Next up, I’ll cite Kang, the Klingon leader from the original series’ Day of the Dove – a leader protecting his crew whose no-nonsense approach to things provides a great opportunity for the 1960’s audience to see that what we perceive as the wrong side in a conflict often has compelling justifications for what they do. The ultimate discovery for Kang that he is being manipulated is a very well-executed bit of television. Honourable mentions here should go to the Borg, a creeping “Cybermen/Invasion of the Body Snatchers” inspired race who do provide some of the best episodes in Star Trek: TNG. For every Borg, however, there’s a Harry Mudd; for every Khan, there’s a God Monster thing. That has to cost some points in the final analysis. With a show that has run for this long, you would expect to be able to reel off quite a few decent villains quite easily, and I just can’t.
Battlestar Galactica – The cylons are the primary villains, and outside of the generic CGI soldier/robots, there are the human-looking versions. Each version has many different personalities as offshoots from the original coding. Amongst them, the original Number 6 from the mini-series would be a stand-out (killing a baby, even kind of accidentally, in its pushchair is hard to come back from). Number 2 (Leoben) has some great moments with Starbuck in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way. I always thought number 1 (Cavill) was a bit of a waste of Dean Stockwell. The character came over a bit too pantomime and obvious without ever really being threatening. Really, there is only one villain that shines out in Battlestar Galactica: Dr. Gaius Baltar. While credit must go to the writing team for developing his character through four seasons, the true genius is in James Callis’ acting work. He plays the role to absolute perfection, lurching from self-confident swagger to cowardly desperation by way of borderline madness. He won a Saturn Award for his fantastic work and richly deserved an Emmy. Above all, he’s a villain you can believe in. He’s not evil; just selfish. He makes the decisions we all say we would never make if we were in the same circumstances.
Mass Effect – The Reapers (giant cuttlefish-like synthetic lifeforms) are a brilliant creation and very well realised. When the curtain gets pulled back in the first game and you realise that Saren (who you assume is the villain of the piece)’s ship is actually a lifeform in itself and in charge of the whole thing, that’s quite a powerful piece of drama. That first conversation with Sovereign is steeped in threat and menace on a par with anything in the genre. The Geth form a nice backdrop. I know I’m going against what I said with Star Trek and looking at races instead of individuals, but the Geth are, actually, all one. If Star Wars had properly thought out the droid army in Phantom Menace, they would have been the Geth, plain and simple. The Collectors are a similarly menacing foe in Mass Effect 2. In the third game, you actually get to face off against a Reaper, hundreds of metres high. When you see it in front of you, you realise what a powerful medium for storytelling that video games can be when the right attention is paid. Just a pity about Kai Leng, a generic anime style ninja villain who was reviled by fans of the trilogy. At least you got to hit the renegade interrupt and put an end to him in short order. So, World Killing Robots from Beyond The Galaxy, can’t argue with that
Star Wars – When it comes to mythology on Star Wars, you basically have the Empire and the Rebellion, the Jedi and the Sith. These are very black and white concepts with very little in the way of grey. This doesn’t make for very compelling drama in my opinion, from an adult perspective at least. Maybe I enjoyed this more when I was a child because I liked its simplicity. The Jedi and the Sith are never fully explained as concepts, either. Where do they come from? How did they start? Outside of these in the Star Wars Universe, what else is there? Hot planet, cold planet, jungle planet, repeat. It all just feels very shallow.
Star Trek – The black and white of Star Wars fades more into grey here as the history of our relationships with alien races is explored in more detail. The villains are not necessarily identified by their race. The good thing about Star Trek is that it has always explored multi-culturalism. It also explores the origins of belief systems (Who Mourns for Adonais?)and inner fears (Wolf in the Fold). The downside to this is that the many civilisations and beings in this universe seem to have very little crossover giving a ‘Monster of the Week’ feeling. The history of characters is explored however, along with the history of this possible future, which adds some depth – and points.
Battlestar Galactica – The idea of humanity creating a race of robots with artificial intelligence who rise up and overthrow us is not entirely original. It forms a background for the events in Frank Herbert’s Dune. The series goes to great lengths to outline the idea of history being cyclical – All this has happened before – and it will happen again. The 12 colonies, where humans live up until their destruction are reasonably fleshed out if a little generic. The real mastery in this universe is around the search for Earth, the way it is found and the state it is found in. I worried that the ending of this series would be mishandled. I didn’t know how they were going to bring it all together. I needn’t have worried. Everything had been thought through from the beginning and it all fit perfectly.
Mass Effect – There is such a wealth of information available in codex entries throughout these games. The galaxy is created with such a high level of detail that it is impossible not to be impressed by how vast the background is. Every alien race has had so much background and history created for it, down to social habits and old racial stereotypes. When you have conversations with one species, you have to take into account their feelings towards you and the members of your crew. As you travel around the galaxy, you can literally find hundreds of planets and each one has a codex entry detailing its population and history. I know the main story has been labelled as too linear, with a few stops on the way to a final outcome. What I love about this story is the side quests. Each one feels like it could be its own episode of series, with enough backstory to make it seems real. As you play through the first game, you do see the same buildings pop up over and over with different furniture arrangements, but that’s not the point. The point is that each little story feels like it could be real in this galaxy that has been created and that is proof of the care that was taken over it all by its developers.
These are just going to be lists of what stands out. Every classic design will get two points, up to a maximum of 10.
Star Wars – Millenium Falcon, X-Wing, AT-AT, Star Destroyer
Star Trek – USS Enterprise, Klingon Bird of Prey, Klingon Cruiser, USS Reliant
Battlestar Galactica – Galactica, Colonial Viper, Cylon Basestar, Cylon Raider
Mass Effect – SSV Normandy, The Citadel, Reaper,
1st Place – 32 points – Mass Effect
2nd Place – 31 points – Battlestar Galactica
3rd Place – 30 points – Star Wars
4th Place – 29 points – Star Trek
OK, so there it is, and it’s close. I didn’t expect Star Trek to come last, but I thought Mass Effect was going to win. I think it deserves its place, too. It truly is an advert for how the gaming industry can be just as valid as a medium for storytelling as anything else.