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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek’

More Music

I have been acquiring music at a faster rate lately.  I’ve collected game soundtracks for almost two decades now (the power trinity of Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura are still the backbone of that collection, some of which is noted in my last music article thisaway), but it has sort of been a trickle.  Part of that is the expense of getting CDs often only released in Japan.  Part of it is just that I have other things to spend money on.

So what changed?  The Humble Bundle guys started including soundtracks with the games they sell.  The Indie Royale people followed suit.  GoG.com always offered soundtracks when possible, but I’ve been getting more of their games lately, too.  OCRemix.org has always been great at cranking out good music (free!), but I’ve been perusing their projects more lately, and they recently stepped up with a big Final Fantasy VI orchestral project.

I’ve also been more aware of articles like this one from Syp.  The game music industry is growing up.  (I still wish I could get to a Play! concert.)

Edited to add: I also just stumbled across this little gem of a site… I’ll be keeping an eye on their bundles. GameMusicBundle.com

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few of my more recent favorites, and a few oddball pieces that just seemed worth sharing for one reason or another.

Thoroughly Blue, Crystal Chronicles… I love the light, almost Celtic feel to a lot of the music for Crystal Chronicles, and this one covers a lot of the themes in the game.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s “Inner Light” Ressikan Flute music, performed by a full orchestra.  I love that episode.  I’m not the only one.  (And is that a Starfleet uniform on the conductor?  Awesome.  Nerdy, I’ll grant, but I love that nerdiness isn’t a kiss of death any more.)

Secret of Mana has some great tracks, and this is but one collection/overview.  I really would like to find that soundtrack on CD someday.  For less than $30.  Pesky imports.

Tangled soundtrack’s town music… sorry, I’m not sure on the title for this.  It’s just one of my favorite parts of a movie I’m very fond of.  I wish this piece had been longer.

Magic Taboria, Van Canto… this one is really odd.  It’s an a capella metal rock group, weird enough to start with, but they also appear to be… nerds.  They based this song on the MMO Runes of Magic.  There’s just enough absurdity involved that it makes me smile, even though metal rock is far from my favorite.  Really far.

The Bard’s Song, Van Canto… this was my first exposure to Van Canto.  A coworker submitted this to our weekly “Bad Music Tuesday” event, and, well, I kinda like it.  It doesn’t scream “metal” to me, it’s more of the sort of thing I’d expect from a modern “Gregorian Chant”-ish group, infused with gaming and storytelling sentiment.  Weird, I know.

The Final Fantasy Piano collections all sound great to me.  I’m a fan of pure, simple music (like the FFX piano version of To Zanarkand), and I grew up around pianos.  My mother teaches piano, my wife plays sometimes, my sister plays as well, and my daughter is learning.  This is one of my other favorite piano pieces, Eyes on Me from Final Fantasy VIII

And last, but far from least, there’s Austin Wintory, my newest addition to the “favorite composers” group.  He has a lot of great stuff at his site, but this one is one of my favorites, with touches of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack, shades of Mannheim Steamroller (one of my biggest musical influences growing up) and hints of Celtic and Viking spice:

Horn Soundtrack

I like all of it, but Bound in Stone (track 12) is especially fun.  Oddly, perhaps, it reminds me of some of the fun music in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, but with a more epic feel.

There’s a LOT of good music out there.

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Trek Tales

As much as I like Star Trek Online, I’m looking forward to finishing it and moving on.  I suspect it’s similar to how I’d approach Star Wars The Old Republic, inasmuch as I want to play the story and then move on to another one.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing, and I’m not burned out on STO (and I still highly recommend it, flawed though it is at times, like any other game)… I just have a lot of other games I want to play, and I need to move on instead of getting stuck in a rut.  This also means I’m less likely to burn out on the game, since I’m not feeling obligated to play past the point where I’m having fun, whether because I’m in a raiding guild or paying a subscription I want to get good value out of.

It’s remarkably similar to how I approach novel reading, actually.  I liked the Harry Potter books when I read them, but I don’t feel much impetus to start over and reread them.  On occasion, I do pick up one of them and just start reading somewhere in the middle, just for fun.  Likewise, I’ll pick up I, Jedi once every few months and reread a random passage, just because that’s the era of Star Wars that I like the most.  It’s a lot like my bookmark system that I wrote about back in my Turning Back Time article, where I can just jump into the narrative wherever I feel like it.  I do similar things with DVDs when I’m working in the evenings; I’ll fire up a movie or TV show I’ve seen but maybe I’ll skip around to the parts that interest me at the moment as I paint or design.

We don’t see that much in games.  Between autosave systems like Batman Arkham Asylum/City and MMOs and their “always on” nature, the biggest games I’ve played lately aren’t all that amenable to replay unless I flat out start over.  Y’know, I don’t always want to do that.  Sometimes I just want to jump into the parts that I loved most the first time through and replay the fun bits, maybe with some tweaks to my approach.

Maybe World of Warcraft is tinkering a little bit with this, as Big Bear Butt suggests over thisaway, by letting players bypass the grind inherent in gearing up alts, but that’s not quite the same thing as replaying some of the narrative bits or trying something as a different class (I’ve argued before for full character respecs, all the way down to class, as I note over at BBBs’ place).  Sure, we can replay a dungeon here and there, but what about the stories out in the world at large?  I don’t think there’s any way to replay a world quest without firing up a new character, and that’s a time sink.

It might be fun, sure, but it’s like starting a novel all over again just to get to that cool part one third of the way in or watching a movie on videotape.  Sure, you can fast-forward a bit, but you can’t skip ahead like you could with a DVD.  We’re totally spoiled by DVDs and their instant access to varied scenes in a movie.  I have a hard time watching movies on VHS these days.  I’d like to see more of that sort of spoilage in gaming.

This is where STO really shines.  I’m convinced that the best writing in the game is in their Featured Episodes, each a handful of missions with some tight scripting and play.  No, there’s not a lot of player autonomy or choice for Bioware-flavored gaming fans, but sometimes that’s OK.  Yes, I’d love to see more simulationist MMO gaming and player choice, but just going along for the ride can still be good fun, especially in bite-sized chunks of time.  (Though I maintain that it’s a Very Bad Fit for subscription MMO gaming, I do love a good Final Fantasy or the like sometimes, just like I love Minecraft sometimes.  They can both be good fun, just different.)

Anyway, the Featured Episodes are replayable pretty much whenever you’d like, so long as you’ve done them once.  They autoscale to your level (and there are three selectable difficulty levels) both in challenge and in rewards (experience aside).  This is fantastic, as I can just go replay the missions I loved most without starting a new character.  It’s simpler in STO, thanks to the instanced nature of missions, but man, it’s a great core design decision.

It also might be worth noting that I could get all the fun I’m getting out of STO if it were a single player offline game.  Sure, I’d need to go online to catch up with Longasc or BlueKae or Tipa in-game (though I’m not so good at that anyway), but I’ve been playing the Featured Episode missions entirely solo since Longasc helped me through one of them some eight months or so ago.  STO is a good game solo, and it’s a good game with friends.

…but it’s about time to move on.  I’ll finish the game, plunk it in my “good game” memory and move on.  Maybe I’ll come back just for fun one of these days (a huge strength of the nonsubscription model), but it will be because I enjoyed it and want to again.  Maintaining that positive mentality toward a game is a Good Thing, methinketh.  I’ll probably play through the new Feature Episodes on the 11th, and then go play Batman Arkham City or Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet.  Tally ho!

Oh, and here are some of my favorite screenshots from my STO play.  I have a LOT more, but these are my favorites.

Obligatory mug shot

Obligatory ship shot

Obligatory away team shot

Obligatory Earth orbit shot

Obligatory DS9 shot

Obligatory Empok Nor shot

Obligatory Enterprise-F Odyssey model shot (only available during the 2nd anniversary shindig)

Obligatory Memory Alpha shot

Obligatory cool planet shot

Obligatory cool space shot

Obligatory space station raiding shot

Obligatory shipping crates shot

Obligatory planetary cityscape shot

Obligatory weird lava planet shot

Obligatory Tribbles shot

Obligatory Gorn shot (my son's character, Sss'anta)

Obligatory noob shot (my daughter's character standing in a fountain, petting a Tribble)

…and a few other random shots.

Romulans experimenting on Borg tech

Reman Base

Broken down

Fire Caves

Blowing stuff up

This illustrates my favorite ground combat trick: my Science Captain’s “endothermic field somethingorother”… basically a nice Area of Effect ground fire.  It’s a blast to use on stationary targets.  It’s also good to use on NPCs, since standing in the fire confuses them, and they don’t use special abilities or move out of the fire.  Then I turn the Cryogun on them for a little fire-and-ice action.  Yeah, I love AoE attacks on targets that just sit there.

Standing in the fire

150 or so over on the Google hivemind.  Resistance is futile.

(4200+ not shown.  Yeah, I take a lot of screenshots.)

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Star Trekkin’

Star Trekkin’, across the blogoverse..

I’m a Trekkie… sorta.  I grew up on reruns of The Original Series, loved the later seasons of The Next Generation, tolerated Deep Space 9 until it got really good, laughed at Voyager (though “Timeless” is one of my favorite episodes across all ‘Treks) and had an allergic reaction to Enterprise.  I disavow knowledge of the J. J. Abrams production.

When Cryptic announced Star Trek Online, I was tentatively curious.  I figured after the ENT era, the IP was pretty much gutted anyway, so I didn’t expect anything like the classic (surprisingly good) adventure game Star Trek 25th Anniversary.  (Hey, GOG.com, when do we get that one?)  When it was noted that there would be tanks, healers and DPS roles in ‘Trek combat, I shook my head and shrugged.  When it was announced that it would require a subscription, I gave up.

…When Steam had a sale and offered the game with 30 days of play for $3.something, I buckled and bought it.  Longasc has been enthusiastic about the game for a while, and I guess it rubbed off.  (Articles from Tipa and Blue Kae have been good reminders, too.  I’m sure there are others I’ve read, so please forgive me for not remembering who wrote them at the moment.)

And, y’know… it’s a game that I would buy happily as an offline game.  It’s a game that I’ll play if/when it goes F2P.  I still hate subscriptions, but the game itself, well… I like it.  More than I thought I would, actually.

Interestingly, it plays a bit like Dungeons and Dragons Online in my mind, in that a lot of the content is mission-based, effectively little encapsulated instanced stories, stitched together with an overarching shared space.  (Conveniently monetizable via selling content in mission packs, not unlike DDO or Wizard 101, while we’re at it…)  It doesn’t play like a MMO in the sense that anyone can bother you wherever you are (instanced raiding and dungeoneering aside).  It’s more like a giant shared interstellar space lobby with nuggets of story to play alone or with friends.  The thing is, that works perfectly for the ‘Trek IP, what with the theme of missions and “episodes”.  The quasi-military nature of Starfleet in a time of interstellar war makes mission-based play work really well.  (It makes me wish the Stargate MMO hadn’t folded; that’s another game that would have been perfect for mission-based play.)

Of course it’s silly in the way all MMOs are silly, in that the bad guys respawn for the next player, wars never end, combat is way too prevalent, and the economy is wonky.  Animations are weird, the Uncanny Valley causes a few stumbles, the Admiral stands on his chair, and I’m still not sure how we got Spock’s context-relevant voiceovers if he’s stuck in Abrams’verse.  Character development is a bit unclear as to what really matters down the line (yeah, there are wikis, but the in-game descriptions aren’t terribly helpful) and respeccing costs real money.  The item shop layered on top of a sub is a dumb cash grab.  The fact that I had to officially register for a subscription (PayPal or credit card) just to gain access to the thirty days that come with the box still annoys me, especially with all the hacking going on lately.  The Klingon war declaration is a bit… forced, but hey, I guess playing as Klingons was more appealing than playing as Romulans if players didn’t want to be good little Federationistas.  It’s still just a little rough around the edges in a lot of little ways, but then, what MMO isn’t?

It’s not a perfect game, but I still like it.  I have fun playing it, and in the end, that’s the important part.

The sounds are great, the ambiance feels Trekkish, the visuals are sufficiently Okudaish, and the little nods to history and canon are like a bunch of easter eggs for an attentive nerd, er, fan.  (I even got an ENT reference… for shame.)  Space combat is great fun and ground combat is pretty good.  The incidental Scienceish objectives (go scan that anomaly!) are a nice nod to the exploration mandate of Starfleet… though I wish there were more of that.  (Yes, I’m playing a Science officer… which is ostensibly a Healer, but whatever, I’m going to be the best Spock Dax I can be.)  Conveniences like remote contact with quest, er, mission-givers makes sense, as Starfleet really can’t function if everyone had to come home to Earth to turn in personal reports.

I’m sure that true blue diehard fans have quibbles with the game, and I’m sure many MMO devotees don’t like its departures from the DIKU mold.  In the end, though, taken for what it is, a big ol’ Star Trek multiplayer game, it’s been my experience that there’s plenty of fun there to make it worth playing.

…at least for the 30 days.

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…have good reason to outweigh the needs of the many, Spock’s heroic sacrifice notwithstanding.

Y’see, as Uhura rightly points out in Of Gods and Men, the balance between the needs of the many and the needs of the few and how it guides choices hinges on who makes the choices.  It’s the difference between communism and community, between fascism and freedom.

When the individual chooses to sacrifice for the many, it’s noble and heroic.  When the group sacrifices for an individual, it’s heartwarming and constructive.

When the group tells the individual to sacrifice for the sake of the collective, it’s a short hop to Big Brother Statism and all of its ills.  When the individual demands the group sacrifice for them, special interests can control society over the voice of a silent majority.

…and yes, I just used Star Trek and a fan film as a springboard to obliquely refer to a game company’s statist behavior and warn against fascism clothed in feel-good stated intentions.  Yes, I think that Blizzard using RealID as some sort of “the community needs to be a better place” excuse, while stripping away the defenses of people who would rather be anonymous for non-trolling reasons is firmly on the wrong side of the balance of this “needs” philosophy.  I won’t bother with political applications of this principle at the moment, but they exist.

While I’m at it, here’s an interesting take on how the Federation might just be a giant, scary cultish mess (the second video, unfortunately it’s a bit mouthy, but he makes some solid points).

Too much geek for one day?

Did I need to throw a KHAAAAAAN! in there?  I mean, really, fiction and games can’t possibly have anything useful to say about real life, can they?

Oh, and this sort of kerfluffle is precisely why many “pundits” such as myself write so much about the business of games in addition to the games themselves.  They inevitably affect each other, no matter how much we want to mentally isolate the game world from the real world.

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As I note in my Star Trek movie review, I have some quibbles with the film.  One of the bigger ones is the misuse of the very well defined “black hole” to present some sort of magical space singularity creating a variable time warp sort of… thing that kinda sorta sucks like a black hole, but not really.  To some people this isn’t a big deal, since hey, “it’s just a movie”.

Sort of like how WoW is “just a game”, and when they make fundamental changes to how stats behave, it’s not a big deal.  BBB fidgets a bit about the wonky itemization that seems to be going on in the current raiding scene, asking for some consistency in the approach, so that players don’t have to feel that they have been messed around with.  It’s really not too much to ask, as people don’t like parameters changing arbitrarily on them.

See, the way Star Trek arbitrarily and mistakenly uses the term “black hole”, it’s fundamentally ignoring what the already defined term actually means.  In WoW terms, it’s like the newest expansion of the game blithely saying that Strength now determines how many hit points you have, but only in that expansion, since hey, “it’s an alternate reality”.  Remember what the old stat did?  Did you itemize around it?  Sucks to be you, the system changed arbitrarily.  It’s just a game, suck it up.

That’s Hollywood Science.  Writers can’t even be bothered to understand the most basic definitions of words and phrases that they are ostensibly being paid to write about.  It’s a sweet job, if you can get it.

Do you see the difference?  Black holes are known entities, and should function the way they are defined to, or it’s just lazy writing and bad science.  The film’s red matter doesn’t raise the same red flags because it’s a new bit of magical technowidgetry, and they can do whatever they want to with it.  As oakstout noted, someone someday may indeed make red matter, because they wanted to understand the magic.  That’s not a problem.

It’s a microcosm of the “canon vs. reboot” debate.  If you’re going to honor canon, you’ve got to make more than a half-baked effort at it.  If you’re going to reboot and do your own thing, don’t use the same terminology, do your own thing.

True, this can be chalked up to a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things.  Still, it’s a symptom of deeper issues.  As the Green Armidillo notes, The Persistent Reward is a Lie.  People don’t like being jerked around, being told one thing, only to be subject to something else.  At its core, it’s a betrayal of trust.  Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes it’s incompetent, but it’s always an irritant.

It’s bad game design to teach players how to play the game, then arbitrarily change how the game functions.  True, a Silent Hill or Eternal Darkness game will use that specifically to mess with your head, but in a game that isn’t meant to drive you nutty, undermining the most basic elements of trust between player and dev is a dangerous road.  That trust is built on consistent application of action/reaction couplets, so that players can predict how they will approach the game.  A game that arbitrarily switches your UI elements might be fun if you want a gaming equivalent to a drug hallucination, but it’s usually just an annoyance.

You can extend the same thinking to finance (a big root of why the economy is broken at the moment is because of people changing the rules or trying to subvert them), language (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) or any other interpersonal interaction.  If you can’t trust the other party, at some point, interacting with them will not be something you want to do.  It’s cheating, in other words, and it’s a  disservice to those who are interacting.

That’s why we have dictionaries with definitions in them.  If there are no standards for communication or interaction, there is no trust, and with no trust, a lot of things break down.  To be fair, language does tend to evolve over time (just check the definitions of “thong” or “gay”), for better or worse.  That’s not what I’m talking about here, though.  I’m talking about lazy writing and arbitrary changes that betray incontinent thinking or wanton disregard for what has gone on before.

Life needs to move on.  People change.  Things change.  As Remy of Ratatouille notes, “life is change”.  It’s inevitable that some things will change over time, and that some old ideas probably should be challenged.  They should be challenged from a position of intelligent questioning, though, rather than hack writing that panders to an ignorant population.

So it’s not so much that I’m mortally offended that “black hole” in particular is misused in Star Trek, it’s that I’m annoyed and dismayed that they couldn’t be bothered to even get basic science right in what is a dominant science fiction IP.  I’d expect it of a Lost in Space sequel, but not Trek.  It’s that laziness and incompetence that I’m bothered by, whether it’s just bad writers or good writers who feel they need to dumb down the “technobabble” to appeal to the unwashed hordes.

…which should be a nice reminder of those inevitable arguments from MMO nuts who complain about the “dumbing down” of MMO design.

It’s real.  Producers feel an urge to dumb down their products, rather than lift up the audience with something genuinely intelligent.  That, more than anything, is what bothers me.  I see entertainment as something that can have a side function of education and enlightenment, and when I see it stoop to stupidity, it bothers me.

With Trek specifically, I’ve always seen it as something that at least tries to be intelligent, even if it’s a bit hokey or simplistic.  That the recent film is rather brain dead is extra disappointing as a result.

I suspect that linguists similarly mourn the overuse of “like” in teenager vocabularies, or the corruption of the language that textspeak invites.  Good math teachers mourn the idiocy of Investigations Math, since it produces mental incontinence and incompetence.  “Moral relativity” is ludicrous to theologians.  The “old guard” doesn’t always just complain to complain.  There are very real, valuable aspects of the human condition that we lose when we embrace mediocrity.

Misusing “black hole” or changing the Spellpower system in WoW isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a step into stupidity via shifting standards, and I’ll always have an instinctive allergic reaction to that sort of thing.  It’s a betrayal of trust, and tacit approval of inferiority, one paper cut in a death of a thousand cuts.  By itself, it’s not a big deal.  But these things add up, and accepting them as “just a game/movie/show” can lead to problems down the road.

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Arthas Trek

I’ve indulged in a bit of geekdom lately by partaking of the latest Blizzard World of Warcraft novel, Arthas, and the latest Star Trek movie, curiously titled Star Trek.  The novel, incidentally, came thanks to this kind lady, who pulled my name from a hat.  If you have any interest in sci-fi or fantasy fiction, she’s got a lot of good reading around her site.

I’ve made some comments about the book over at Spinks’ place (it’s worth bouncing over there, not just for my comments but for her reaction and any other great articles she may have up).  Now that I’ve finished the book, my impression is about the same.  Arthas just isn’t the tragic hero that I’d hoped for.  He’s an arrogant, morally weak, shortsighted, unintelligent caricature of the Greek tragic heroes he’s trying to emulate.  (Which isn’t to say the Greeks were sterling samples of humanity, but their falls made more sense.  Arthas “falls”, but because he’s easily manipulated into idiotic decisions.  Puppets aren’t nearly as interesting.  It’s tragic that he’s so malleable, but it doesn’t make for a terribly compelling moral tale.)

I lay the blame for this squarely at Blizzard’s feet.  Christie Golden does a good job filling out the character and some of his life and motivations, but it just throws his “fall” into sharper relief than we saw in the WarCraft 3 game itself.  His reasons for declining into madness and villainy are terribly shallow, and don’t follow organically or logically from the “good caring prince” that he was presented as initially.  We also get precious little of Arthas questioning himself, or a really good look into what he was thinking that spurred his actions.  He just acts, and while that can make for a rip roaring plot, it’s not all that effective as a character study.

Arthas is a puppet, “destined” to become the Lich King’s greatest servant, and perhaps even usurp his throne.  That’s not tragedy, not a legendary story of twisted motives (like, say, the story of Watchmen‘s Big Bad).  It’s just a Face/Heel turn going through the motions to give the Scourge an iconic face, and a traitor for the Humans to hate.  They were probably going for the Well Intentioned Extremist in Arthas, but I didn’t buy his conversion in WC3, and I don’t buy it now that I see more of his character.

Ms. Golden did what she could, but the core structure of the Arthas mythos is to blame here.  So, if you like what they did with Arthas in the games, you’ll find a lot to like about the Arthas novel.  Ms. Golden knows her lore, and weaves some interesting threads into Arthas’ life.  If you didn’t find him to be a very sympathetic character there, or were hoping for more depth, well… I’m not sure it’s there to be found.  The book’s a good read, but Arthas is an underwhelming character.  I wasn’t expecting a psychoanalysis of the guy, but what I did get just isn’t all that satisfying.  I’d still recommend the book for anyone who likes to geek out to WarCraft lore, though.

As for Star Trek, it’s been argued that the universe’s “reboot” in the movie is necessary to keep Trek relevant to today’s world.  I concur:  it’s dumber (terribad science, plot holes, odd characterization of established characters), louder, sexier, grittier, blingier and bloodier.  That can be praise or condemnation, depending on what you want out of entertainment and the Trek universe.  And, since Trek wasn’t exactly high literature in the first place, well… it’s not straying too far from its original roots.  (Star Trek: The Next Generation was a different animal in the family, for better or for worse.  This movie happily goes back to the Original Series heyday of stunts and silliness.)

As an artist trained to do these things, I’ve got to point out that J.J. Abrams’ high budget alternate reality fan fiction has ILM on board, so at least it looks pretty.  Of course, I’ve already faintly cursed such misplaced priorities (that money could have been better spent on a decent script).  Still, a movie that lets Ryan Church go nuts will get a thumbs up from those who want a healthy helping of eye candy.  (Spock’s ship has Ryan’s fingerprints all over it, so it looks awesome… despite being distinctly non-Vulcan.)  The only slightly sour note that struck me (beside the general Star Wars>Star Trek vibe) is the scale and clutter of the interior spaces of starships.  They certainly scream “unnecessarily complex” in an effort to appear “deep”, but even if you’re not seeing Okuda’s starship blueprints in your sleep, the size hinted at in the sweeping camera movements around the Enterprise’s belly doesn’t gibe with the external proportions, or with even the vaguest sense of utilitarian design (which is kind of important in practical space travel, though not in movies).  It’s not a big deal, just another discordant note in a symphony of noise.

In short, then, it’s a decent popcorn blockbuster flick (way more so than any other Trek movie, with the possible exception of the similarily loud, hyperbolic and overblingy First Contact), but it’s not really what I’m looking for out of Star Trek.  So it goes; dinosaurs like me have to die out sometime.

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