Sunday, January 31, 2016

“And the stars are old”: Descent, Part II

Last time on Star Trek: The Next Generation...
“'Descent' marks an important turning point in a number of respects. Up front, it's the first time Star Trek: The Next Generation has done a cliffhanger season finale more or less only because this is the sort of thing it does to close off filming block seasons; in other words, the first time the cliffhanger finale structure is implemented as a matter of course and functional habit instead of being the result of unexpected necessity.” 
“This is not the same as critiquing, say Captain Picard's specific actions in that episode: In fact, the whole reason Alynna Nechayev is here is to further reinforce that he acted wisely and correctly-Let's not forget that Nechayev is the first Starfleet Admiral *overtly* coded as actively evil. Her very condemnation of Picard's choice lets us know that he made the right one. Rather, what “Descent” is attacking is the notion that moral choice was ever necessary: There is no moral dilemma in regards to the sanctity of life; it should be preserved and respected above all else no matter what, end of, and 'I, Borg' was stupid to insinuate that wasn't the case and to put Captain Picard and Guinan in the position of neglecting that.” 
“Because what the Borg have done here in 'Descent' is, terrifyingly, assimilate the very concepts of individual positionality and human empathy themselves. They've taken two of the most sacred tenets by which Star Trek operates, ground them into the engines of capitalism and turned them back against us in an attempt to quell any resistance we could offer before we reached a point where we were prepared to effect change. 
The Borg's endgame is, and always has been, to kill off Star Trek as Star Trek: The Next Generation before it transitions to the form that will do battle with them on their own terms. And even if they were to fail here, they'd still be ready for us in the future. Either way, they win.”
“And who better to mastermind it all than a psychopathic fascist android?”
And now, the conclusion...

It's hard not to go into “Descent, Part II” without acknowledging that this is the beginning of the end for Star Trek: The Next Generation's televisual voyage. The news had broken over the summer, so there's no point in pretending the shadow of cancellation wasn't looming long over the seventh season. Let's clarify a few facts first and foremost then: Yes, Star Trek: The Next Generation was prematurely canceled. Yes, it was canceled because Paramount wanted to launch a film series with the Next Generation cast. Production costs had gone up and, with the show as popular as it had ever been, they thought it would be more profitable to start a new film series than to continue the TV one. They were wrong. Everyone in the cast and crew wanted to keep going, and the actors were in fact *contracted* for more seasons: All that talk of the show being “tired” and “out of ideas” only happened suspiciously after the fact, and suspiciously came mostly from Ron Moore. Yes, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was always intended to inherit the mantle. No, it wasn't ready to do that in September, 1993. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was also not performing up to the studio's expectations, which led to Paramount making another decision that was, in hindsight, perhaps ill-advised.

This confluence of events and the choices made during them sets in motion a domino effect that will lead directly and inevitably to the death of Star Trek. And this will happen not in 2005 or 2013, but in 1994. But that's a topic for another time someday in the future.

The topic tonight is, relatedly, legacies. That of Doctor Soong on Data and Lore, and of the Enterprise, in and out of universe, at large and on me personally. It's also the story the pseudo-sentient metafiction of Star Trek: The Next Generation is telling for itself and for us. “Descent”, like “Time's Arrow” and “Chain of Command” before it, is the show doing a metacommentary on itself and the discourse surrounding it. It's extremely telling that a reoccurring theme throughout Part 2 is trying to parse out precisely what good the Enterprise has accomplished over the course of its voyage. Hugh (who of course has to be here given all the parallels this story has with “I, Borg” even before you get to the continuity references) petulantly demands Worf and Commander Riker justify their existence and prove they aren't doing more harm than good, and Lore succeeds for awhile in convincing Data that his “time aboard the Enterprise has been a waste”.

Lore is something slightly different and I'll get to him in time, but it's the Borg here who provide the most immediately direct and obvious challenge. The end result of both their assimilation of empathy and the diegetic and extradiegetic callbacks to “I, Borg” is that the presence of the Borg of “Descent” is meant to invoke grimdark, just as it does in The Worst of Both Worlds. Grimdark is the antithesis of empathy because grimdark is intensely egoistic (and egotistic): It is the adolescent, self-absorbed focus on one's own experiences to the point of near-solipsism; the elevation of the ego to the status of antihero protagonist of a noir tragedy you've penned yourself and that only exists in your own head. And it only makes sense that the Borg would turn to grimdark after assimilating the concept of individuality and self-worth that the Enterprise crew tried to teach Hugh, because grimdark is also fundamentally capitalistic. Because media is a defining force in modern society, and because modern media privileges the targeting of western adolescents and adolescent emotions above all others, grimdark has become profitable and successful to the point of becoming hegemonic: A perfect case study for the Borg in practice.

If The Worst of Both Worlds was a statement of purpose, than “Descent” is Star Trek: The Next Generation rising to the challenge once more. The Borg serve Data the classic grimdark false binary: The only way to truly become enlightened is to leave empathy, optimism and utopianism behind and focus solely on the negative. Positivity is the recluse of children, the non-rational and the non-enlightened. And, buying our product, at the low price of your loyalty and subservience to our authority, will set you free and allow you to flaunt your newfound wealth enlightenment in front of your peers. Even Lore's justification of his behaviour, which Data internalizes, comes out of the grimdark realpolitiking argument that everything has to be done in service to “the greater good”. Sacrifices have to be made. Wake up, sheeple. But that's what leads him to commit acts of unspeakable evil. Hugh's critique of the Enterprise crew is to-the-letter grimdark, and he's absolutely, positively, definitively proven wrong.

Frankly, I was stunned to see that from this creative team.

And it's among this backdrop that Lore's rise to power becomes not just logical but inevitable. “Descent” finally reveals to us all what Lore truly represents in the narrative of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's a fascist, a racial purist and a eugenicist. Of course he is, because he's the product of those selfsame concepts who has internalized them into a worldview he projects outward through his actions. Lore isn't working towards anything with the Borg that Doctor Soong himself didn't work towards with Data and Lore: He wants to engineer a Master Race around his notions of biological perfection which, due to his extreme interiority, come out of his own sense of self-image. Which is why Lore's runaway id complex is a natural fit for the Borg, because both he and they come out of Star Trek's unspeakable past that it is constantly in danger of repeating.

Not only are fascism, eugenics and capitalism the skeletons in Star Trek's closet, they are also the dark ideals aspired to by all destructive impulses and energies in the real world: Terrorists who start mass shootings because the fancy themselves the antihero protagonist of a grimdark action movie. Fundamentalists who believe anyone who looks and thinks differently from them should be bred, indoctrinated or genocidally purged out of existence. Elite liberal technoscientists who talk of “wasted human potential”, preach the coming of a messianic artificial technological singularity and who live in constant irritation at those they perceive as less intelligent and enlightened then them pleading that if “just the right person” was an absolute dictator the world would be a much better place. Precisely the sort of person who would appoint Lore their fuhrer in their perceived time of need.

This is the world Star Trek: The Next Generation foresaw and feared, and this is the world it's meant to counteract. That's its legacy, and if it's going to be judged as a success or failure it ought to be judged on its own terms.

“Descent, Part II” is one of the most iconic episodes in the series for me. I've always vividly remembered Data's climactic showdown with Lore, and the final scene where he deactivates and disassembles him. It happens differently than I remember: Although I definitely remember the scene of Lore's head on the floor, I also remember (in practice incorrectly so) that their final confrontation took place in a darkened corridor and that Data took Lore apart on the spot, putting his parts away in a drawer. In hindsight, I think I've conflated parts of this episode with parts of “Datalore”, which I guess is appropriate. This time around I also noticed some structural problems: The entire episode is basically a series of captures and escapes, although I was pleased to see that Beverly's stint as acting captain and her gambit with the sun's corona and the solar prominence was every bit as badass as I remembered.

So many more of my most formative memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation lie ahead. This doesn't feel like a show on its way out. This feels like a show at its creative pinnacle.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Wave 1

I first learned Playmates were going to be doing a line based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on the cardback for one of my Star Trek: The Next Generation figures. In fact, on the back of my new Sela figure you can still see in bold red lettering the excited announcement that “toys and accessories” from the new show are “coming soon!”. Some of the figures from Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2 and the Original Series line (here called “Classic Star Trek”, which is how I knew that show for ages) even came with a mini checklist of all the Playmates toys released so far, with headshots of the figures and close-ups of the vehicles, playsets and prop replicas.

On the back of that checklist was one of the first-ever promotional shots of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast-It's the one where everyone's standing around in costume in front of a brown shag curtain haphazardly draped over the walls and floor of a photo studio somewhere. This was the first static image I ever saw of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine cast together in one place, and it was the first chance I had to get a good look at them. What's also interesting about this promo is what it promised was coming in the Deep Space Nine line: All of the characters you'd expect, as well as vehicle toys of Deep Space 9, the Runabout and a Caradassian Galor Warship. That will be interesting to go back and examine in a few months, methinks.

Even though I followed this launch fairly closely (well, as closely as I could at the time at least), it took me a *very* long time to actually bring anyone from this line home. At first it was due to simple wariness: While the characters looked cool and all and I dug the general design aesthetics, in 1993 I still wasn't completely 100% sold on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as an overall thing yet. So while I definitely saw these on store shelves at the time, I took care to admire them from afar-I was afraid to outright ask for them, and given a choice between spending my action figure money on one of these as opposed to a Wave 2 Star Trek: The Next Generation figure, the choice seemed clear. This turned out to be a cripplingly poor decision on my part, however: Within just a few months I was utterly hooked on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I would have killed for these figures and, of course, that was just when the Playmates Star Trek line in general was starting to retreat from department stores, and the first casualties were the lowest selling toys. Namely, the comparatively more niche Deep Space Nine figures, which seemed to disappear as quickly as they had appeared.

For practically an entire *decade*, I languished in regret knowing I had very likely missed my one chance to bring home my second space family, as well as the last remnants from the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew (namely Tasha Yar and Ro Laren). It wasn't until the Internet and eBay became available to me (which was later than pretty much everyone else on the planet because of circumstances surrounding where I live) that I was finally able to adopt my own plastic Deep Space 9 team. It happened in stages-I found a couple assorted open figures at flea markets, then I got one or two from eBay auctions. Eventually I hit the jackpot and found one guy who was selling almost the complete first wave in one go, and the day I won that auction was one of my most triumphant moments as a collector. It wasn't fully complete though, and it took me almost another decade to fill out the holes in my collection. But now, I can happily say I have the entire main cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in plastic form, plus a few interesting assorted comers-and-goers. Let's talk about a few of them.

At the time of writing, my Deep Space 9 population lives in a Matrushka doll of nested plastic bags that is beginning to look increasingly ratty. This is because, as I mentioned in the last chapter, Playmates never released any playsets for its Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line, likely due to the aforementioned sales issue (which is more of a topic for next season). The flipside to this is that, along with the fact these are all comparatively recent acquisitions, all of my DS9 friends are in complete and near-immaculate condition. I would still really love a proper place to display them one day, though.

Commander Sisko is one of my favourite Playmates figures. With Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Playmates started to trend a bit closer to the “adult collector” side of the “adult collector's piece”/“children's toy” binary, so the figures from this line boast more of an attention to detail and realism than even this year's contiguous Star Trek: The Next Generation wave (though this year's TNG toys are more realistically proportioned than last year's). It's with Benjamin Sisko that Playmates really nailed this-I mean, he looks *exactly* like Avery Brooks. A very tall, stocky and imposing figure in real life, no other Sisko figure captures Avery's impressive physique as well as this one does. Commander Sisko stands tall, walks tall, but has a serene expression that lets you know this is a kind and gentle soul as well.

Ben comes with a set of what will become standard Playmates Star Trek: Deep Space Nine accessories. A PADD, a phaser, a base and a laptop terminal. These terminals are cool, because instead of reusing the ones from the Star Trek: The Next Generation wave, Playmates took care to craft a visibly Cardassian-looking laptop with an all new display sticker showing a schematic of the station. This is one of my favourite Playmates accessories because it looks so distinctive, and because I love the look of DS9 so much. The Emissary also comes with an Orb, most assuredly his. It doesn't open, but in every other respect it's a dead ringer for the prop from the pilot, except for the fact that it's blue. It's also got a nice bulk and heft to it for its size, which means it's the Playmates accessory you're least likely to lose down a floorboard or under a cushion somewhere.

Major Kira was the figure I remember seeing in stores the most. Pretty much any time I went into a department store looking for Playmates Star Trek toys, if they had a display of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line it was primarily or exclusively of her. I don't know whether this means Kira was the most popular figure in this wave, or the least. One thing's for certain though, she's absolutely one of the most important and groundbreaking action figures Playmates ever produced. Why? Because Major Kira is the first unambiguously action-oriented figure based on a female character in either of Playmates Star Trek lines. Remember, in 1993 Tasha Yar is still over a year or two away, as are Duty Uniform Deanna and Beverly. At this point we still only had one Doctor Crusher and two Deanna Trois, both of which were effectively identical and neither of which could do much of anything action-wise. And sadly, as we'll soon see, this wave's Jadzia Dax couldn't either. Sela could at least hold her weapons and look cool, but she's still more of a display piece owing to the strange way she's glued.

But Kira is built from the ground up to be a woman of action. Her sculpt is very tense, trim and rigid (again, just like Nana Visitor's posture in character on the show), and the way she's jointed you can put her in some really tight and kinetic-looking action poses. She has a special set of Bajoran accessories (including a unique Bajoran phaser) that, mercifully, she can actually hold. And indeed, she looks damn cool holding them too. I love to put her phaser in her hands and imagine she's running across no-man's land in “The Homecoming”, leading the charge to rescue Li Nalas. Also, in what might be a neat nod to her origin as a Ro Laren expy, Kira comes with a messenger bag or satchel you can sling over her shoulder. I can't remember Kira ever using a bag like that, but it certainly puts me in mind of what Laren brought with her when she joined the Enterprise crew in her titular episode.

Oh wait. I'll bet that's supposed to be Bag!Odo from “Emissary”, isn't it? From the scene where Kira gives him to the rowdy Cardassians in Quarks so he can sneak aboard their ship and sabotage their long range sensors? I'm a fucking dipshit.

Anyway, speaking of Quark, he's one of the most fun figures from this set. For one thing, he's sculpted to be a surprisingly action-ready character for a bartender, and he comes with a lot of neat accessories that are unique to him, and are of course painted gold. He's got a bottle of something or other, a Ferengi base, the ubiquitous gold pressed latinum, and the staff and that weird anteater-looking thing he has with him in “The Nagus”. But the most surprising thing he comes with is a Ferengi disruptor pistol-The exact same one the Ferengi pirate (who just so happens to look a bit like Letek from “The Last Outpost”...who was also played by Armin Shimerman) from the Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 1 set had, even down to the awesome metallic blue paint scheme! You kind of feel obliged to come up with some backstory to put them together on a Ferengi Marauder somewhere.

Quark was also in charge of the marketing campaign for the first wave of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine toys, if you can believe it. I distinctly remember seeing a flyer in my comics and magazines from the day featuring Shimerman in character as Quark trying to sell you a complete set of Playmates Deep Space Nine figures from across his actual bar. It was great.

Earlier I said I got most of my figures form this wave as part of one big eBay haul that had most, but not all, of the crew. Miles O'Brien was one of the ones who wasn't included-I got him as part of a second shipment sometime later, and in fact this isn't even my first O'Brien action figure. It is, however, the first produced, and to my mind it's still the best. The sculpt is of course excellent, and really is a spot-on likened for Colm Meaney's build. One thing that's distinctive about Miles is that Playmates took care to depict him in his most iconic look, with the sleeves to his uniform all rolled up. Just like on TV, he's the only character to sport that look in the entire crew, which makes him really stand out (well...until Playmates started messing with DS9 variants that is. But we'll get to that next year). Miles doesn't have a ton of accessories, just a thermos and a toolbox, but they're unique to him and fit his character really well.

Odo is another of my favourites from this wave. One thing that's great about the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line is that even though Playmates started going in a more realistic direction for their sculpts, they never once sacrificed playability in the name of accuracy, and Odo is a terrific example of that. He looks exactly the way he does on TV, but he has a ton of joints and hinges that allow to to pose him in a lot of colourful ways that really accentuate his character. Odo probably has the most personality of these figures (which says a lot as they're all excellent), and no matter what he always seems to look at once suspicious, guarded and exasperated, which is a lot of fun. He shares Major Kira's Bajoran accessories, which makes sense as he's posing as a Bajoran, all save for one: Rightly, he doesn't have a phaser. Instead, he has his beloved bucket, which, while more of a prop than anything else, still gives you some room for creative play and experimentation.

The only sad thing is that you can't have Odo transform into anything. I know that would have been physically impossible, but it might have been fun to have some cups or a little bird or something that came as accessories to represent this, or even a pile of amorphous gel to go with the bucket! Well, I guess there *is* that messenger bag...

My most cherished figure from this line is naturally Jadzia Dax. She was also the first boxed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine figure I ever got, long before I got any of the others. So she's in slightly worse shape then her colleagues, if you couldn't tell. I have to say though, even from the beginning Jadzia was something of a disappointment. For one thing, unlike Kira, she is absolutely a casualty of Playmates' design philosophy for female characters at the time, so Jadzia is very slight and delicate and her hands can't hold very much. However, this time Playmates *did* alleviate at least a little bit of this by giving her equally small accessories, mostly sample collectors and diagnostic tools, so Jadzia can at least feel like she's being useful and actually contributing something to the team. She also comes with a Trill. Like, an actual symbiote. Which was...awkward, to say the least. One fun thing about this figure, and actually all of Playmates' Jadzias, is that her hands, while dainty, are sculpted and her arms are jointed such that the most natural way to pose her is to have her clasp her hands behind her back, which is a physical tic Terry Farrell actually has on the show if you look close enough for it.

Granted, we hadn't seen Jadzia in a lot of action on the TV show by this point (and no, fucking “Allamaraine” doesn't count), but it's still a *massive* bummer for me considering she's my favourite character. More egregiously, this doesn't even fit with Playmates' mandated true-to-life realism for this line: In reality, Terry Farrell is actually very, very tall (she's a former model after all) and can actually stand head-to-head with Avery Brooks. But this Jadzia Dax figure, because she's so slight, is actually the *shortest* figure in the line, at least by proportions if not height. *Yes*, shorter even than Quark and Kira (who is *tiny* as an action figure). Thankfully, this would all be remedied in 1994 with the release of “Emissary” Jadzia Dax.

Going by the name, you can guess this Jadzia is meant to represent her very first appearance, in which she wore a Next Generation-style science division uniform instead of one of the open-collared DS9 team uniforms. And naturally, this is a Wave 2 release instead of a Wave 1, but, just like I did with Season 6 Deanna, I'm talking about it here in the first wave anyway. Additionally, because, “Emissary” Jadzia *also* uses the same outstanding female body sculpt made for Season 6 Deanna! So Playmates finally did make a Jadzia you can play with, and it was worth the wait. Actually, in my opinion Jadzia rocks this body even better than Deanna does: The slightly more caricatured look of the Star Trek: The Next Generation line really suits her, and gives this Jadzia a willowy, yet toned and muscular look that really fits the character, and she inherits Deanna's rank of commander to boot!. Furthermore, she can now finally see eye to eye with Benjamin. It's also kind of sweet, considering my old Season 6 Deanna used to do double duty as Jadzia until I got a proper Dax figure, and Terry Farrell and Marina Sirtis were roommates in real life. Or maybe that's more creepy, now that I think of it.

Either way, even though she's not wearing her “standard” look for the show, “Emissary” Jadzia is without question my preferred plastic representation of my favourite Star Trek: Deep Space Nine character. She even comes with all of the accessories as the original Dax, except hers are a fun hot pink instead of the original's more subdued purple. That's what this figure is to me-Fun. Even the paint apps on her face give her a wry, mischievous and warm expression, and while the original head was perhaps more “realistic”, this is how I prefer to remember Jadzia Dax. Maybe the Star Trek: The Next Generation build carries more weight than I thought it did.

Doctor Bashir was one of the last figures I got from this set, and I only got him in the past couple of years. For some reason, it took me forever to find him-I'm not sure why, as he's not an especially rare figure or anything. Although I suppose my waxing and waning interest in Star Trek over the years combined with the equally changeable ebb and flow of money probably had something to do with that as well. Either way I'm happy to finally have him. As you'd expect, his is a great sculpt that really captures the character. His accessories are mostly boring things every Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine figure comes with, although he has a couple unique medical accessories that are pretty cool. I know it's nothing special, but I think it's particularly fitting that he comes with both a discharging phaser and a set of medical tools: Julian's always gotta be the hero.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gul Dukat is one of the two non-DS9 team DS9 figures to be released in this line. He's also pretty much what your options are limited to if you want a “generic” Cardassian, which makes sense as Marc Alaimo is the guy who Michael Westmore basically designed the entire Cardassian species around. As such, Dukat has a bunch of unique Cardassian accessories, mostly weapons that you can pose him with in a variety of various fierce-looking stances. They look sleek and cool and are done in a similar metallic electric blue to those of the Ferengi figures (I guess it's a villain thing, though I prefer the Ferengi by far), although Dukat's are I think a little bit darker. I confess that as dynamic as he looks, I don't dig Gul Dukat out very much because, to quote Eddie Izzard, he's a mass-murdering fuckhead. As far as Cardassians go I can't fault the inclusion of Dukat, but I'd really have liked Marc Alaimo's first Cardassian role as well: Gul Macet from “The Wounded”.

More surprisingly, the other alien figure (well I mean as Quark says in that ad they're *all* aliens, but non-aligned Non-DS9 team DS9 figure takes too long to type, even though I just typed it) is Morn. Yes, *that* Morn. He's one of the best figures in the line, as a matter of fact: His sculpt is incredible. I mean, you won't be doing much playing with him (he can't even hold his glass because it's a square, which seems like an odd oversight to make) but come on, what the hell are you going to do with Morn? Apart from his glass, he comes with some triad dice, gold-pressed latinum and a special phaser that seems specially moulded for him, all in bright neon Data orange. He also, bewilderingly, has an utterly unique custom base designed especially for Morn, which are words I never thought I would see myself typing. If nothing else, he looks pretty rad posed next to Quark.

Or he would, if they'd ever made a Quark's Bar playset.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2 Errata

You can't have action figures without some place to put them. Even if you're too embarrassed to move them around in a playset, you've got to admit having a lavish plastic display to pose them all in looks awesome on your shelf. It was Wave 2 that started giving us those playsets for our Star Trek: The Next Generation friends-I've already talked about the bridge playset in this book. Although it technically came out as part of this wave, I felt compelled to talk about it back in the first wave because I really just wanted to go all-out gonzo with the first Playmates essay. This leaves me with one extra essay to write about and not a whole lot to fill it with here, however. So, let's see how long I can talk about what's left of Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2.

The other playset released this year was a transporter room. Now this was really cool because it actually worked by way of an old theatrical trick called Pepper's Ghost. In a Pepper's Ghost illusion, a one-way reflective surface is placed between the audience and a hidden room on the other side. There's also an overhead light source that, when raised or lowered, makes any objects in the room appear to appear and disappear out of thin air. This is how the Haunted Mansion in the Walt Disney resorts create the illusion of the dancing ghosts in the ballroom at the beginning of the ride, and it's also how Tupac Shakur appeared onstage at Coachella in 2012 and Michael Jackson did the same at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards (not, as is often reported, through the use of holography. We don't have holodecks yet).

A lot of times in a Pepper's Ghost trick the hidden room is painted black so that the “ghost” seems to materialize right in front of the audience, when really they're in another closed off area. The Playmates transporter conveys the illusion a little differently, with the mirror dividing the transporter pad in two. You put your prospective away team member in the area behind the mirror, close the door and manually raise the sliders (which wonderfully take the form of the LCARS finger panels from the TV show and make a satisfyingly accurate shimmering sound when activated either way) as the overhead light gradually shifts. Obviously to give the illusion your character is standing on the pad both sections have to look identical, and this also necessitates the transporter becoming more of a chamber than a pad. As a matter of fact, during the seven years I didn't watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, but did have these toys, I completely forgot the transporter room was even a pad on the show at all-I completely mentally retconned it as being a chamber and always remembered it as such until I saw “Encounter at Farpoint” again for the first time. I was utterly shocked-That's how deeply rooted these little pieces of plastic had become in my mind.

The box for the transporter shows a realistic Captain Picard, in full captain's jacket regalia, beaming down in the chamber, delightfully with a full-size child's fingers engaging the transport. I like how the implication is that Star Trek: The Next Generation exists in this miniature Gnome-world of playsets that interacts with playing children. That's exactly what it felt like. What's also cool is how there's an accompanying screenshot from the TV show of the transporter in action, and in spite of this being 1993 they went with one from “Encounter at Farpoint”! This means we get to see Tasha Yar, Skant Deanna and Babyface Will in all their glory in one of those glorious glitter water composition shots. I seem to recall this shot, or other ones from “Encounter at Farpoint” being used a lot to promote the Playmates line, actually: That's probably why my sensory memory of Star Trek: The Next Generation is a mash-up of imagery from the first, sixth and seventh seasons alongside the box art from the Playmates toys, as I held onto all of them.

It's also fitting because Tasha was far and away the character I stuffed in the transporter chamber the most. You were supposed to only beam down one person at a time because the chamber could only really accommodate one at a time (there was only one foot peg, for example). So I figured the best person to send down would be the action/scout/recon character, and that's who I imagined Tasha to be. But I sometimes tried to fit a whole away team in there, because even then I knew that, outside the Game Boy game, the Enterprise always sent people down in teams. And let me tell you, things got pretty crowded in there.

It wasn't a playset, but the “Star Trek: The Next Generation Collector's Case” was an important addition nevertheless. It was a little vinyl carrying case with some great sci-fi art of the Enterprise and the show logo on the front and back. Inside were plastic trays where you could store your collection of figures and accessories. The box says you could keep six-eight figures in the case, but I've seen some people stuff a whole lot more in there. And frankly, that was probably a better solution, because I always found that the trays tended to slide around a lot, leading to your precious accessories getting mixed up and sliding out through the cracks. You could, of course, avoid this travesty by bagging everyone up in snack bags beforehand, but I didn't figure this method out until much later in life. And anyway, at the time, for me this was an imperfect solution until I got ahold of the bridge playset. After all, where would you rather store your Star Trek: The Next Generation toys? Posed heroically on the bridge or stuffed away in a box somewhere? Admittedly, it is a very nice box: The skeleton in mine broke a long time ago, the vinyl is all ripped and the cards that form the picture got dislodged, so I've been on the hunt for a new one. It would actually be a really nice way to store my Star Trek: Deep Space Nine figures, who sadly never got a playset of their own.

But that's for next time.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2 Vehicles and Role Play

The first wave of Playmates' Star Trek: The Next Generation toys focused primarily on the Enterprise and its crew: For action figures we got (most of) the bridge crew, and for electronic light-up ships we got the Enterprise itself as well as a Shuttlecraft. Following along with the accompanying Wave 2 action figure releases, which both expanded upon the Starfleet crew and gave us a greater assortment of aliens, the Wave 2 vehicles included a Klingon Attack Cruiser and a Romulan Warbird.

Both of these ships are very nicely detailed. Actually, in hindsight, I have to say they're a bit more impressive than the Playmates Enterprise itself: The colours and proportions of both are screen accurate, which is really important when dealing with starships this distinctive and memorable. The Attack Cruiser does fare a little better in this regard: All of the little details and elevations Rick Sterbach sculpted onto it to emphasize shadowplay with the studio lights have translated perfectly to consumer-grade plastic, and as such I've always considered it one of the most bang-on replicas of the Playmates line. The Romulan Warbird only suffers a bit due to limited lighting: Just like all the vehicles, only the Warbird's nacelles light up, and while that's nice, one of the best things about the Warbird studio model is all the beautiful windows on the...prow I suppose, or beak section. That gives the ship an incredible sense of scale and grandeur the toy just isn't capable of recreating, and this hurts the Warbird more than probably any other ship in the fleet, save perhaps the Enterprise itself.

(One of my biggest disappointments is that Playmates never made a Ferengi Marauder. You'd think given Letek's headlining role in the first wave this would be one of the light-up starships they'd release first, but it never happened. Maybe it was because the Ferengi didn't play as prominent a role in the sixth season, although given all the callbacks to first that seems strange. Or maybe they were holding it back for a possible inclusion in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line. Although perhaps its for the best, as a Ferengi Marauder without windows would have left me heartbroken.)

What the Warbird does have are some awesome sound effects. Both the Attack Cruiser and the Warbird have four sounds: Cloak, Disruptor blast, “shield hit” and impulse. Neither one has what I'd call especially accurate samples, but the Warbird's at least were terribly cool sounding. I think I pounded that disruptor cannon button enough times to wear both it and the sound chip out. At least, that's the excuse I'll give for the electronics in mine no longer working. Also, my Attack Cruiser is missing its battery case cover for some reason, as well as one of the “prongs” at the front of the ship, which is really annoying. I seem to recall getting my Attack Cruiser (and maybe my Warbird too) one Christmas at my great-grandparents' house on my maternal grandfather's side. It's a nice memory, but one that's due to be replaced. Maybe someday when I have all the money in the world I'll get a new set, but the Playmates ships are getting harder and harder to find these days and thus more expensive (in stark contrast to the action figures, which are damn near ubiquitous).

If my sources (meaning Memory Alpha) are correct, this wave also saw the release of the special “7th Anniversary” edition of the Enterprise model. It's literally the exact same ship as the one from the first wave (even with the 1992 date stamped on it) except it was gold-plated and marked as a collector's edition limited to 50,000 units. I'm not sure if it was common knowledge at the time that Star Trek: The Next Generation seventh season would be its last on television, but this toy was the first I recall hearing that the seventh season was important somehow. Anyway I do have one of these, and it's probably far more battle-worn than a “collector's edition” toy ought to be, but who cares. I got this while visiting a Toys R Us with my aunt one day, and it became my primary Enterprise for a few years due to a couple of reasons. One, the electronics on my original model stopped working for a time, and two, the gold finish made this one quite a bit nicer to look at. Still not the azure blue and rainbow I wanted (the deflector dish is *still* a boring red and doesn't do anything), but better than flat off-white. A few other differences between this release and the previous: The nacelles are glued to the struts so you can't take them off, and the sound effects are much deeper and lower pitched. This makes them sound richer and more powerful, but even less accurate. Still, a really nice model, and the light-up nacelles really pop against the gold finish in a way they don't on the original.

Not my box. Obviously.
There was one other ship released as part of this wave. It's the Enterprise again, but a really weird version of it, because instead of an electronic replica it's a lightweight Styrofoam *glider*. There was a little handle on the bottom of the saucer section, and the idea was you'd grab hold of it, toss it forward and ideally it would glide on its own power for some distance. Mine crumpled into a heap years ago and the box was long ago the victim of my person-of-interest level fixation with scissors and random logos and promotional art so I can't show you any pictures of it, but I seem to recall that in practice it flew about a foot before taking a swift nosedive into the ground. This is also probably why my glider is crumpled into a heap somewhere. One thing I definitely remember is that I was really impressed with the design of the thing: It managed to resemble the actual Enterprise to an uncanny degree (probably why it had the aerodynamic capabilities of a rick), and I seem to recall the nacelle struts being better than the ones on the actual electronic toy. The deflector dish was definitely the right colour too, and I always loved that about the glider. Being styrofoam it was still an uninspiring white though.

(Funnily enough, while doing research for the Galoob chapter in the previous book, I learned that they too were planning a Styrofoam glider model of the Enterprise, but theirs would have had a more exaggerated saucer section that resembled a Frisbee. I guess kids who were fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation really wanted an Enterprise they could make fly.)

As fun as the ships were though, the real highlight of this wave on the replica front was the role-playing stuff. Considering my communicator toy broke within hours of getting it, I was stoked to get this set of communicator badge walkie-talkies! There was a badge you could attach to your shirt that worked as a speaker, and a receive/microphone pack you could clip to your belt. Of course if you really wanted to play a Starfleet officer you'd hide the packs, but you wouldn't want to because they were so beautifully designed! Each had a lovely glossy black finishing sticker adored with the show's logo, the insignia itself and its own individual waveform display. It doesn't look quite like anything from the show, but it does look very much of its time and I absolutely loved that.

Even better was the tricorder, the final piece needed to complete your away team set. This has got to be one of the best replicas in the line hands-down: I mean, as far as I can tell it looks exactly like the prop from the show (I'm sure hardcore Star Trek nerds will be able to prove me wrong though). Either way it's just the coolest thing-It has a screen that lights up when you turn it on (via a power switch on the back) and it has three buttons you can press to activate sound effects that are expertly worked into the face design of the toy itself. The scanning sounds don't have actual names on the show as far as I know, but thanks to this toy I will forever know them as “GEO”, “MET” and “BIO”. The screen is an amazingly detailed little LCARS display that shows a topographical overlay of a planet and an interface link to the Enterprise computer, and when you push the buttons a set of lights on the side lights up in sync with the sound effects! This tricorder is one of the prize gems of my Playmates collection: It saw action decades after the fact and, miraculously, is one of the only electronic toys of mine from this era that *still works*.

I think that's somewhat sweetly fitting: A tricorder is a scientific tool designed to scan things, and thus learn about the natural world. If there's one object the sums up my feelings on what Star Trek: The Next Generation means to me, I think it might have to be this.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Totemic Artefacts: Playmates Star Trek: The Next Generation Wave 2

As the Playmates line of Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures expanded, I have to confess I started to get less of them. I know it's hard to believe and that I have to keep stressing this, but I was actually never a hardcore Star Trek fan, and thus didn't possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every single character and every single episode. When it came to toys, I was primarily interested in the Enterprise crew and the most recognisable aliens: My fondest memories of Star Trek: The Next Generation are of images and scenes, not specific episodes or stories. So, as Playmates began to expand beyond the main cast of characters I wasn't as feverish about keeping up with their releases.

It's the second wave where this began to manifest. That's not to dismiss the toys from this wave and beyond in the slightest: They're all of the exact same peerless quality you'd expect from Playmates Star Trek, just to articulate and further highlight where my interest in this franchise really lies. This is the wave where variants, one-shots and reoccurring characters started to become more pronounced (for obvious reasons), and the simple fact is I just wasn't as interested in that stuff. I still had a fair amount from this wave, but I didn't have *all* of it. In fact, I still don't, and I'm not likely to ever finally “complete” my collection as it were. I'm not the kind of collector who has to horde absolutely every release from every line imaginable: I like to have representations of my favourite characters, and I don't really need more than that. So I'll review the figures from this line that I have, and only give a passing mention to the ones I don't.

A few of these ones I've already looked at as part of the bridge crew retrospective last season. Even though they weren't part of the Wave 1 1992 releases, it would frankly have been ridiculous of me *not* to look at Doctor Crusher and Guinan,who in fact didn't actually get plastic likenesses until 1993. It's especially dumb that Doctor Crusher wasn't among the early releases. Normally I would grumble about sexism in the toy industry leading manufacturers to believe that action figures based on girls don't sell and aren't popular (which is sadly based on real, material sales figures in spite of what certain activists would have you believe and how much we might want to think), except Deanna Troi was part of the initial wave, and she seems like far less of an action-oriented character, and thus a weaker candidate for an action figure, than Doctor Crusher. Maybe it's because Deanna's not a mom. The Bev released as part of Wave 2 is the rather boring, unplayable version with the lab coat moulded to her body and hands that can't hold anything, but for quite some time she was the only Bev we got.

Speaking of Bev being a mom, Wesley Crusher is (regrettably) another new release from this wave. And, unlike Bev, I can totally see why he was held back a year for the second wave. This Wesley is dressed in a Starfleet Academy uniform and is therefore intended to be based on his appearance in “The First Duty”, which strikes me as just an incredible idea: “Hey kids! Here's a new toy for you of a boy, just like you, whose criminal negligence led to the death of one of his classmates in a story intended to patronizingly browbeat you into always telling the truth and trust authority figures! Have fun!”. I actually do have him, but he's buried in a box somewhere and I couldn't be bothered to get him out for a picture. I have no idea where his accessories are. All I remember is that he barely ever saw any action, but not out of spite: Wesley Crusher was, believe it or not, actually a character I never really knew at the time. I was vaguely aware Doctor Crusher had a son somewhere, but we never saw him and thus I didn't care about him one way or the other. So my Wesley figure was basically only used if I needed a random, generic-looking crewman extra to hang around in the background somewhere. I *think* he may have also been Julian Bashir prior to me getting the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine line as well.

There's also, as I said, a fair amount of variants and a surprising number of reprints. I don't have any of them, personally: I was never a fan of variants, always preferring to have one neutral, “definitive” figure who could represent their character in the vast majority of situations. So a bunch of figures based on alternate uniforms or outfits they only wore in one or two episodes didn't appeal to me. The variants in this wave predominantly feature the original uniform designs by William Ware Theiss, that is, the spandex jumpsuits the crew wore in the first and second seasons before Bob Blackman radically redesigned the uniforms to be two-piece cotton suits with collars in the third season after the actors complained about asphyxiation and back problems they were developing as a result of spending long filming days in the inane original ones. So here we get Captain Picard, Commander Riker and Data with the full spandex treatment. Will's sculpt is specifically a second season one because he has a beard, and Playmates didn't want to spring for the new head mould that would have been necessary for a babyface first season Riker.

(However, much later they did release a line of alternate universe “Starfleet Academy” toys depicting the Enterprise crew as teenagers, and that line's Will is a new clean-shaven sculpt. This figure is a favourite amongst hobbyist customizers who like to take its head and affix it to a Wave 2 Second Season Will body to create a functional Playmates First Season Will.)

Also like Will, Deanna Troi gets a specifically second season variant in a figure depicting her maroon jumpsuit and later hairstyle (although this is less specific as I believe she has that look in a number of third-fifth season episodes too). Once again, Playmates obviously did that because it's very cheap to change one colour injection for an existing mould and call it a new figure. In contrast to Will and Deanna, the Geordi and Worf variants are specifically first season, as they're in command purple and are referred to as Lieutenant J.G. (Junior Grade) Worf and La Forge. Geordi and Worf actually get two variants this wave: In addition to their early days figures, Geordi is also the first character to be depicted wearing the dress uniform, and Worf gets a “Klingon Warrior” variant based on the traditional Klingon warrior caste uniform he wears as part of Kurn's crew following his temporary resignation from Starfleet in “Redemption II”.

I'm fairly certain, by the way, that it was these exact Playmates toys that first jogged my memory that there was in fact an older uniform design from the first two seasons (and, for that matter, that Geordi and Worf had been promoted at some point). I seem to recall reading about these figures on a cardback or catalog, then going back to my ViewMaster reel of “A Matter of Honor” and having a sort of lightbulb-clicking moment. The uniform redesigns had become so ubiquitous and familiar to me that I'd completely forgotten they weren't the original ones. Even to this day, when I go back to the first season, seeing the old uniforms feels ever-so-slightly wrong to me. And it also makes my back ache in sympathy pains for the actors.

There's also no less than *three* Original Series characters in this wave, which frankly seems somewhat stunning. Looking back, it does make a lot of sense: Not only had both Ambassador Spock and Captain Scott had significant roles in comparatively recent episodes, Playmates' line of Original Series action figures had just come out too, so naturally they'd want to do a little cross promotion, perhaps in the spirit of that ever-present 25th Anniversary that's now two years old. I do have the Original Series line but, fair dues, I'm not going to review it here for purely personal reasons. I don't have a lot to say about them anyway: If I wasn't re-enacting Star Trek: 25th Anniversary with them I was using them for whatever spare roles I had lying around that needed to be filled.

What's neat about the Next Generation versions of these characters is that they're not cheap kitbashes which, given what some of this wave looks like and the fact a contemporaneous TOS line did in fact exist, would have been understandable. Playmates could have just taken the Spock and Scotty heads, repainted them, stuck them on a new body and called it a day (though admittedly this would have been harder with Scotty), but no: These are entirely new sculpts with all the appropriate aging moulded in. This is especially evident in Admiral McCoy, the third Original Series character in this line, who's practically unrecognisable from his counterpart in the Original Series set. I'll admit he's one of my favourite releases purely for his uniqueness: Not only does his presence reach *all* the way back to “Encounter at Farpoint” (and hey! maybe that's why we got so many first season variants in this wave!) he's quite possibly the least “action” action figure Playmates ever released.

(I do actually have Scotty and McCoy, but not Spock, though I often forget I do. They never saw a ton of play time either, though McCoy made a fun “Old Man” figure.)

The big draw in this wave for me where the new aliens, in particular the new figures based on reoccurring characters. There was a re-release of the Borg drone from the first wave, I'm guessing because it was a popular character (this is the one I think I have, by the way, because mine comes with a trading card and Playmates didn't start packing trading cards in with their figures until this wave) along with Locutus (just in time for The Worst of Both Worlds too!). I was always deeply uneasy about Locutus: I didn't like seeing Captain Picard's face staring back at me from a Borg drone, and it seemed wrong to commemorate the worst moment of his life in plastic form. If I used Locutus, it was only ever as a second Borg drone (I just had to pretend that wasn't Captain Picard's face) or, rarely as a Borg “clone” of Captain Picard. There was a also a Vorgon, who I don't have because he was utterly random and forgettable (remember the Vorgons? Those guys from “Captain's Holiday”? Yeah, them) and K'Ehleyr, who I also don't have, because she was a non-presence whose episodes I never saw.

Captain Dathon though I definitely knew. Even back then I knew “Darmok” was incredible, and he was far and away one of the most unique characters in this set. He looks dynamic and noble, as befitting the character he's based on, and I think he was one of the only aliens in my collection who never wound up doing double duty as someone else. He comes with the two daggers from the episode, one of which you can actually fit into the holster on his uniform, just as Dathon does on TV. Dathon also comes with the book of poetry he reads from and, most interestingly, the burning branch from the iconic scene where he helps Captain Picard get his fire going. The branch is a truly lovely bit of design: It's very stylized, completely eschewing any sort of representationalist look. It's the last thing you'd expect would be given an artistic design, but it's incredibly appropriate because, if you think about, what better accessory to represent the themes of the episode than that one? No wonder Playmates' toymakers took care to sculpt poetry into its design.

Then there's Q, and you just have got to have Q. As far as characters demanding a figure go, he's practically right up there with Doctor Crusher as being people you just expect to have from the beginning of a Star Trek: The Next Generation toy line. He's depicted in his most usual form here, wearing a Starfleet uniform with captain's rank insignia. He comes with some really cool accessories too, like a big scepter, once again invoking “Encounter at Farpoint” (though he wouldn't be depicted in his iconic judge's robes until next year) as well as a miniature purple Earth and USS Enterprise, really driving home his omnipotence. He also comes with a dilithium crystal for some reason, I guess in case you ever needed a spare dilithium crystal for something (you wouldn't. You never, ever need another dilithium crystal. They're like phasers, tricorders and computer bags: Every other guy comes with one). Q I actually never used much, though I can't for the life of me think of why. I certainly liked the character; I guess I just couldn't think of any good stories to tell with him.

One of the biggest standouts of this line for me was actually Lore. I've loved him as a villain since the very beginning, and have always felt he was almost the definitive antagonist for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Q always has a more complex relationship with the crew I'd be hard pressed to call antagonistic, and at the time the Borg didn't appeal to me as true dark mirrors: To me, they were cannon fodder at best, likely due in part to how underwhelmed I was by the Playmates Borg action figures in terms of playability and how absolutely overblown fan opinion on “The Best of Both Worlds” was and is. Lore though was deliciously, skin-crawlingly evil and played with charismatic aplomb by Brent Spiner, and I'd just been blown away by the “Descent” two-parter. As such I do wish Lore was wearing his black jumpsuit from that episode instead of the slightly doofy Pakled uniform from “Brothers” he is in his figure. If for no other reason then the Pakled look limits his mobility, and thus his playability. Lore's accessories are pretty standard as well, but it was enough for me to have him.

The second most used figure from this set in my house, believe it or not, was the Benzite! For everyone else I'm sure he'd be like the Vorgon-Some utterly random one-off alien from an episode a million years ago everyone's forgotten about. But the Benzites were always very iconic characters for me because of how intimately familiar I was with “A Matter of Honor” thanks to my ViewMaster reels. But to me he was a necessity, and, as Ensign Mendon, he was actually a bridge crew *regular* of mine for quite some time. Of course, this Benzite is meant to be Mordock from “Coming of Age” instead of Mendon from “A Matter of Honor” (perhaps another reason for all those first season variants, though strangely enough Wesley wasn't one of them). But because it was the exact same actor and the exact same prosthetic, he passes for Mendon just as well, barring his lack of a Starfleet uniform. Mordock also comes with the usual stuff you'd expect from a Starfleet officer.

(Both my Benzite and Dathon are probably due a regeneration. As you can see, poor Mordock/Mendon is broken in several places due to how popular he was, and my Dathon is missing a few of his unique and lovely accessories.)

But the big standout for me in this wave, and far and away my most loved figure from it (not counting Doctor Crusher, who I mentally don't even associate with this wave) is none other than Commander Sela. The stories my Sela could tell. First of all, she's an incredibly cool character, both on TV and in figure form: She looks sleek, svelte and fiercely determined, and those pointed shoulder pads and sharp-edged sashes let you know she means the most serious kind of business. At first glance, you might think she suffers from Playmates female dainty hands syndrome, but then you might notice one hand can hold a Romulan disruptor just fine, while the other is posed in such a way that should you move her arm to her chest, you can make her do the Romulan salute!

Interestingly enough, though she comes with the same “Romulan phaser rifle” that the previously released Romulan guy came with, Sela is completely incapable of holding it. But you know who is? Tasha Yar. In fact, Tasha's hands seem to be sculpted *specifically for* this particular accessory. Tasha never used the rifle on the show, so this is another example of Playmates opening up avenues for storytelling its source material would never do. And it totally makes sense: This is exactly the sort of pose you'd expect a space marine to adopt.

From the moment Sela was released and I brought her home, she became *the* go-to Romulan character for every single story involving Romulans that would get told. She even rendered the original Wave 1 Romulan obsolete (she even comes with every single one of his accessories, except hers are cast in an *awesome* electric blue instead of his boring black), although he did wind up finding second life as Commander T'Alar from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Hearts and Minds. Either as Sela or some other female Romulan/Vulcan character, although increasingly just as herself, Sela was absolutely *everywhere* in my plastic Star Trek: The Next Generation. And naturally, once I eventually made the connection, she became Tasha Yar until I finally at long last picked up the real Tasha Yar figure. But Sela's time spent as her mother from an alternate universe (gotta love genre fiction) left her with an interesting legacy in my head: I wound up having to explain away this “Tasha”'s very Romulan mannerisms and dress sense as being the result of some significant amount of time spent with the Romulan Star Empire, perhaps as an undercover Starfleet intelligence officer or, most intriguingly, as a Romulan operative herself involved in a form of officer exchange. Much like, actually, Ensign Mendon.

The only annoying thing about Sela is that she's glued together in such away that it's extremely difficult to have her sit anywhere. Every time you move her legs, it puts stress on the seams that hold the two halves of her torso together, and if you do this enough eventually the glue will dry and separate and she'll collapse into seven neat compartmentalized parts. Of course, since I played with her *all the time* this eventually became an inevitability. The nice thing is this also makes her a very easy fix, which I did with some modelling glue. Problem then is that just bought me time until she fell apart again. So in this way she's actually a great deal like Season 6 Deanna Troi, although in Sela's case I was able to keep all the pieces together so she never became Crewman Just-a-Head or something. However, this did mean that Sela is my most recent figure to be regenerated, partly because she kept falling apart, but also because the paint apps on mine had faded to the point she was starting to develop an uncanny resemblance to Angela Lansbury.

I mean nothing against Angela Lansbury: She's a great actress and I'm a fan of hers and all, but, y'know.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Flight Simulator: Williams Star Trek: The Next Generation Pinball

If you have time to kill, you could make an entertaining diversion over debating whether or not pinball tables can be considered video games or not. Traditionally, they've always existed on the margins of the industry: You won't see any big video game publications talking about them, but you will likely see fans of a certain kind of video game, namely retro hobbyists, displaying a passion for pinball tables very similar to the one they have for their favourite video games.

From my point of view, this is extremely easy to explain. Pinball tables may not be video games per se, but they're definitely close relatives-Fellow travellers at the very least. There's a lineage shared by both pinball and a certain strand of the video game industry, which just so happens to be the one that most interests me personally. In fact, I would argue that video games, at their purest, are far closer to pinball than they are to computers and computer games. To put my point in the crudest and most basic terms, although they're both technically speaking interactive electronic entertainment, computer games were historically always programming exercises intended both to allow coders to flex their logic muscles and test the limits of computer hardware. Video games, by contrast, I feel have always been more of an attempt to design a kind of action-oriented sensory experience. As an illustration, contrast two of the most prototypical computer and video games: Zork and Asteroids: Both came out within a few years of each other, both were called “games” of some kind, but each is profoundly different from the other. One consists of nothing but plain text, is deeply narrative-driven and is meant to be puzzled over in long, marathon sessions, the other consists of vector graphics, has no story whatsoever and is meant to be played in short bursts.

Another difference is the setting these two titles were conceived of as being played in. Zork is surely for the home computer user, and in 1977 “home computer user” signifies a very specific sort of person. Asteroids, on the other hand, was meant to be played in bars and arcades: Extremely public places. Asteroids was also a coin-op cabinet. In other words, it's a game that can be played by literally anyone who has some loose change in their pocket. This is what brings us back to pinball, because it's pinball tables, not computer games like Zork, that are the true ancestor for video games as we know them today (or at least as *I* know them). Like Asteroids, pinball is a stand-up, coin-op cabinet game that has no story and relies on visual and auditory sensory feedback to cultivate an experience between the player and the game, and like Asteroids, pinball games used to be found in bars and arcades everywhere and could be played by anyone with a few quarters to spare. And both pinball tables and video games exist in the liminal space between digital electronics and analog mechanics inhabited only by a chosen few.

This ironically means that pinball tables, by their very nature, are almost a purer form of what I consider a video game than a lot of video games. The fundamental goal is a constructed sensory experience that evokes a resonance and response through images, sound and player agency alone, not a logic puzzle to be solved or an Aristotelean narrative with a bell-curve plot and character development. Done well, both pinball tables and the best video games can transport you into a Zen-like state of focus and clarity where it's just you, the game and the experience of the sensory confluence. That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the tacit capitalist undertones implicit in arcade gaming: Namely, being a coin-op cabinet sort of requires the machine to make money off of players, and the way many of them do this is by employing the same trick as gambling casinos: Manipulating addiction cycles to get people hooked so they'll keep pumping money into the slot until they get a new high score or advance past that tricky level that's been stumping them so they can finally “beat” the game.

(This is, incidentally, in all likelihood where the concept of video game difficulty comes from. Yet another reason to immediately disregard the opinion of anyone who says difficulty is the most important part of a video game.)

Which is why it's perhaps always been destined that the arcade would be saved by the video games they gave birth to. The earliest driving force behind the home video game industry was providing people with arcade games they could play at home: The Atari 2600 tried to sell itself on its home conversion of Pac-Man, and even though it was far from accurate it was enough to ensure the system's longevity. Later, it was Nintendo's painstaking translation of their own Donkey Kong that cemented the early success of the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although it's been a desire that's existed since the dawn of the industry, It wouldn't be until years later that consoles would be able to get truly accurate arcade reproductions. Nowadays however, you can get wonderfully lavish packages collecting all of the great arcade classics in immaculate condition, like the two-volume Atari's Greatest Hits for the Nintendo DS, Midway Arcade Origins for the XBOX 360 and the multiplatform The Pinball Arcade, and the best part is you only have to pay one flat rate these days. It's in that third compilation that you can find a perfect representation of the Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball table designed by Steve Ritchie for Williams Electronics in 1993.

To my pleasant surprise, it seems that Star Trek: The Next Generation is considered by aficionados to be one of the greatest pinball tables ever made. I'm not actually a pinball expert myself, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say it's probably due to the wide variety of different modes and target combinations that add up to a complex gameplay experience that's both frenetic and tactical. It has three different high score tables, which is a feature entirely unique to this table, and the production quality is amazing. The entire cast of the TV show provided voice clips for the game, and it's this pinball game that really brings to light the utterly endearing, tongue-in-cheek, puckish charm and sense of humour these people have better than just about anywhere else they've ever worked together. The table itself is adorned with beautiful pieces of retro futuristic 80 science fiction pop art that to me are of a kind with the Playmates toys. There's a video display with some great pixel art, including one of the best representation of the Starship Enterprise I've ever seen, and a fantastic downmix of the music from the TV show. It all comes together to capture what to me is and always has been the definitive, truest look-and-feel for Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I wouldn't be able to describe the gameplay and do it justice here-I find pinball to be by necessity a deeply complex game that's difficult to adequately summarise in a manner that's not the tone of a dry technical manual (The Pinball Arcade version alone has something like a 637-page instruction manual, and that's just for this one table). But basically, like any pinball game, Star Trek: The Next Generation involves activating a series of different modes which have you targeting specific parts of the table to score points. Triggering events in a specific order is important, as are hitting the right targets at the right time. The good thing is, unlike some other pinball tables I've played, Star Trek: The Next Generation does a good job lighting up different parts of the playfield for you so this, alongside vocal cues from the cast, makes it very easy to intuit what the game wants you to do at any given moment without spending a month studying the intricacies of the table's mechanical design (not that people don't, of course: Pinball fans are notoriously hardcore about this stuff).

There's a variety of modes, called “Missions” here, with names like “Search the Galaxy”, “Wormhole”, “Neutral Zone Encounter”, “Rescue” and “Holodeck simulation”, and you have to complete all the missions to unlock the “Final Frontier” mission, which is the true endgame scenario (and of course, you get a higher payout if you score well on all of the different modes beforehand). One thing I really like about this table is how much thought has clearly gone into to making the actual gameplay fit the Star Trek: The Next Generation framing device: “Search the Galaxy”, for example, has you shooting the “Alpha Quadrant”. “Beta Quadrant” and “Delta Quadrant” ramps in order, than shooting a specific target to activate “Gamma Quadrant” mode. And, for an added bit of fun, the target you hit for “Gamma Quadrant” mode is right next to a picture of the Bajoran Wormhole, which also plays a part in the “Wormhole” mission! The first time I noticed that it brought a huge smile to my face: Not only is a piece of contemporary Star Trek: The Next Generation spinoff media finally acknowledging the existence of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it's also reaffirming my belief that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine truly belongs in the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

(I really appreciate, by the way, how there's a mode called “Search the Galaxy” here at all. There's also a secondary objective where you collect certain “Artifacts” by scoring exceptionally well on certain missions: It really makes you feel like an adventurer out exploring the wodners of outer space, which I've always though the Enterprise ought to be.)

Although the Pinball Arcade version of Star Trek: The Next Generation is probably one of my most-played video games, I've only actually seen the real thing in person twice. Once was...I'm not confidant it was contemporary, but it was certainly closer to Star Trek: The Next Generation than to now. I was at a restaurant with my cousin's family, and they happened to have this game near the entrance. I'd never seen it before, nor was I aware that a Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball table even existed. I was really excited, because I was fascinated by pinball tables and of course loved Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I had to give it a go. Now bear in mind, “fascinated by pinball and the arcade” does not mean “good at pinball”-I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, got completely overwhelmed by the scope of the thing and sank all my balls pretty much immediately. But it was the sensory experience of the whole thing, playing Star Trek: The Next Generation pinball in a dark, smoky bar with all the lights flashing and sounds swirling around, that was the most important thing to me.

The second time I got to play it was just last year as of this writing, at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. The Strong has an utterly peerless collection of arcade pinball and video game cabinets, and has a significant portion of its space dedicated to the history of the industry. Among their pinball tables they had a copy of Star Trek: The Next Generation, so I naturally had to have a go at it. I was *significantly* better at it this time around due to me being older and having a ton of experience with the game on my own time. And I can report firsthand that The Pinball Arcade's digital recreation of this table is as perfect as they could possibly have made it: Playing the game on my computer and playing it in real life felt effectively identical, and I think I even prefer playing it with an XBOX One controller instead of with flipper buttons on the side of the cabinet! I didn't play my best that day (at home I've actually made it to the top of the third high score table), but I had to stop myself from spending all my money on arcade tokens.

Pinball tables, by the nature of what they are, can only operate on the level of aesthetics and imagery. It's a loose collection of sounds and images, and its up to your imagination to fill in the rest. When playing a pinball table based on a licensed property, like Star Trek: The Next Generation, the game can only capture the iconography and pop culture memory of the thing itself. And yet in doing so, I would argue pinball actually captures the work's true essence. I have a hard time putting into words what Star Trek: The Next Generation means to me and what I feel when I'm reminded of the sensory imprint it's left on me, but, like pornography, I know it when I see it. And this pinball game is it.

The Pinball Arcade is free-to-play on Steam here, and downloading Star Trek: The Next Generation is only $5. You can check the game itself in action here.