Star Trek: New Worlds, New Civilizations – Book Review


“It’s not safe out here. It’s wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross; but it’s not for the timid”

 

John De Lancie, Star Trek: The Next Generation ‘Encounter at Farpoint’

Author: Michael Jan Friedman

Published: 1999

Allow me if you will, to indulge another of my personal interests and introduce a long forgotten Art Book that has stood idly on my shelf for the best part of a decade but in my humble opinion exemplifies the best artistic aspects and practises we have been championing for the past half year in the gaming community and highlight this incredible visionary take on the worlds and societies of Star Trek. From publisher Simon and Schuster and acclaimed author Michael Jan Friedman whose credits include multiple Star Trek novels and material, this is one the most unique and fascinating reference books on the worlds and civilizations of the Star Trek universe, ostensibly told from the perspective of a visitor to these distant shores, the 288 pages span the entire franchise of locations visited up until that point from the pilot episode of the Cage to the latest motion picture in 1999, Insurrection. Written somewhat in prose, each world is meticulously introduced and described, from the terrain and temperature to the culture and wildlife that inhabit these alien worlds. You are a passenger on an incredible journey that spans a galaxy and with an abundance of incredible imagery from an amazing team of artists it feels like a genuine treasure trove of concept art and unique conceptual designs and interpretations on the many species that were largely serialised and conceptualised in a short space and time and given life in a way as a long term fan of the series and genre is incredible to witness. Last year, when we looked at The Art of Dead Space one of the more technically accomplished aspects of the world building was the design methodology implemented to bring the concept sketches to fruition and playability in the game engine. In that instance there was a degree of repetition and familiarity with a number of the concepts and influences from the xenomorph of Giger to the general aesthetic of the creatures from The Thing. As a fan of the genre of course I find no fault with this approach, I enjoy all these series and media but found some of the worlds in that game a little to familiar. But the sketches were incredible, I had hoped perhaps one day to come across something similar for Star Trek, one of my personal favourite past times and was amazed to discover the imagery and artistry had a very similar approach.

Alien worlds and civilizations, certainly from the era I first became aware of the series were by and large somewhat repetitive and certainly were betrayed to an extent by budgetary concerns and repetition of certain sets and locations. Whilst some episodes and movies had the money to produce unique and interesting worlds, you did begin to see a great deal of Southern California as an influence on the creative endeavours. Where more recent video game production has challenged this lethargic approach to design is the conception and development of environments and terrains, more often than not fantastical and incredible to witness in concept form before their final realisation constrained on occasion by the game engine used. What I find fascinating, to use an old adage from the legendary Leonard Nimoy is the design methodology to take realised alien worlds through finished sets, some passable, others comparatively primitive and using various approaches and designs infuse them with a sense of wonderment and create genuine worlds and civilizations that challenge our conceptions and ideas of the normative environment whilst framing the book around the most basic premise of the natural elements, water, wind, fire and earth. I adore concept art, the sketches shown and the world’s presented are instantly recognisable as a fan of the various series but all have an unknown and and unsettling appearance, from the deep red sand dunes of the Vulcan terrain to the remains of the portal. Whilst, in itself a beautiful tour of the Star Trek galaxy these sketches are accompanied by a nuanced and detailed perspective tour of the areas by our visitor and guide who explains in such a way you can feel to the connection to the environments presented on the page. To an extent it almost feels like backwards engineering, taking the thematic theme of the episodes and presenting the landscape and architecture which were always one of its weakest elements in the earlier seasons and effectively given the worlds more grandeur and substance. Vulcan especially, given its connection and prominence looks and feels genuinely alien in contrast to Earth, almost Mars like in parts, the sketches of the statues of the high priests both familiar but also unique to the location.

Whilst notable for its new worlds, of equal merit and prominence are the various civilizations and species that inhabit the galaxy the various crews encounter on their travels. In the context of the series, predominantly the alien species encountered tend to act largely as metaphors and framing devices for the crew to develop and grow, to learn from and find truth in their existence. Purely from a presentation aspect, there certainly was a great deal of creative license in using small appendages and makeup to create the so called, species of the week but here the more notable and established alien civilizations discovered on their travels are given a unique and bold makeover more akin to that found in traditional fantasy concept art work. The Klingons for example, one of the most featured and developed species which continues to evolve with the launch of Discovery from an aesthetic perspective would perhaps be a race that would not require any great changes or allow perhaps for them to be made. I adored this art style and presentation of the warrior race, creating almost a spiritual finish with the symbolism and markings which are more in keeping with the traditional evolved nature of the species found in the later series. The Trill sketch, an adaptation of the bonding process as featured in Deep Space Nine is an interesting take of this sole series featured race that creates almost a magical effect which contrasts to the series established lore of genetics and science. My favourite though remains the Borg skull of the deceased drone and the mechanised implant attached to the bone of the dead humanoid. Whilst dead and damaged drones did feature towards the middle of the Voyager run with a somewhat decomposed Borg in a mid season episode conclusion there wasn’t a great deal of prominence or detail shown. I enjoy these images and sketches because they take a concept so instantly recognisable and familiar and add a sci-fi twist that is both unsettling but also fascinating to study. Perhaps it challenges certain concepts and established lore of the species, afterall from what we witness the Borg largely recycle the dead and fallen members of its race, however, it is artistically great to see and challenges your preconceptions of this race and death.

I enjoyed the focus on the alien species perhaps a little more than the design and artwork for the established and regular cast members which seemed to rely and present themselves in a more sanitised and safe fashion. Arguably a necessity to allow the reader to identify and associate the individuals before them with the cast members and characters they have followed intently but it does seem a shame and one of the areas the dedicated game books has a slight advantage in presenting alternate perspective and takes through development, The Last of Us for example showing a variety of perspectives and takes of Ellie from her final portrayal to a more anime style in comic form. Overall however the book strikes a good balances between the familiar, with sketches of the central characters confined somewhat to the later series but more general alien and environmental sketches and worlds. The various designs for the Borg are thrilling to see and present a genuinely different perspective on this species, the Queen for example almost predatory and arachnid in her evolution in contrast to the more sanitised final form as seen in First Contact movie and appearances in Voyager. The presentation and form the book takes is unique in its style, acting like a literary Trip Advisor for the 24th century and beyond with its detailed and effective review and descriptions of the alien worlds encountered and traversed, some familiar such as Vulcan, others more niche and specific to a single episode or movie. Having enjoyed ‘living’ within the world of the Star Trek franchise for over three decades even I have to admit a number of these locations were beyond my knowledge and allowed me to just enjoy the alien worlds and environments for just that. A great deal of the credit is due to the many talented artists and designers for their work, taking established images of sets and environments and adding a touch of the majestic one comes to expect from more traditional fantasy based world building novels and concept work. My appreciation for video games and gaming culture has blossomed in the last half year due to an appreciation of the design work behind these titles, it hadn’t occurred to me to find that same enjoyment in another universe I have enjoyed for far longer. I’m grateful I’ve discovered this gem of a book and the many worlds and civilizations contained within.

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