To quote Scotty, “I’ve always held a sneaking admiration for this one.” Actually, my admiration for the efforts of Fan Trek Productions (out of the Netherlands) has never exactly been “sneaking.” These “semi-professional” (their words) fan filmmakers have consistently turned out really impressive, self-funded episodes of their fan series. And now, after ten years, that series, STAR TREK: DARK ARMADA, has released its final episode.
But that’s only the beginning!
I’ll explain that unusual comment in Part 2, but first, let’s take a look back at a decade of a truly remarkable fan series…
The year was 2005, and the “granddaddy” of low-budget Trek fan films, Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, was already starting its SIXTH season of productions, with FORTY episodes already released to fans. Hidden Frontier‘s chosen method to create the 24th century was to film actors in front of a green screen and then Chroma key composite them in front of backgrounds taken from photos of the sets from the various Trek TV series. (Hidden Frontier initially used the CD-ROM The Captain’s Chair to get their backgrounds, coupled with limited 3D animations.) This resulted in very simple scenes with little movement from the actors and no motion of the backgrounds. But it was still enough to say, “These are Starfleet officers serving on Federation starships.”
Inspired by Hidden Frontier, two new fan series, both out of Europe, popped onto the scene at about the same time. Star Trek: Intrepid (based in Scotland) and Star Trek: Dark Armada (based in The Netherlands) both took green screen compositing to the next step: using the “layering” abilities of more sophisticated editing software to put one actor “behind” another without having to film them both at the same time (something problematic when using green screen). The new technique could add a layer of depth to a scene, making sets like the bridge appear much less “cramped.”
Both European fan series gathered their volunteers together in 2005. Star Trek: Intrepid would shoot that same year but not release its first episode until 2007. Star Trek: Dark Armada, however, began filming in January of 2006 and had their first episode ready for fans by that September. To be fair, Intrepid‘s debut episode “Heavy Lies the Crown” was 47 minutes long, while Dark Armada‘s first offering was only 8 minutes.
Dark Armada‘s debut “These Are the Voyages…” wasn’t intended to be an actual episode or pilot for the series. Instead, it was more of an “test” for the filmmakers to see what it would take to make a short episode using green screen and Chroma keying technology and what improvements would have to be made to master this technique.
Nevertheless, Dark Armada‘s debut promised exciting things to come. The episode featured a framing sequence set in the 24th century on what appeared to be a science scout Starfleet vessel. But things quickly moved to a story-within-a-story when the crew gains access to a hidden Holodeck simulation of a 23rd century mission buried deep within the Federation database. There appears to be quite a bit more going on than we actually get to see, but the hints of greater things to come are enticing. (Unfortunately, most of those plot points don’t get developed later in the series since this was, as I said, only meant as a test. Oh, well…)
Although the majority of the actors were from the Netherlands (I believe the series also features some Belgians, but I don’t know whether they were in the pilot), the lines are all delivered in English, as a good majority of citizens of the Netherlands are fluent in both Dutch and English…which is more than I can say for myself when I was in Amsterdam (although I do love that accent)! Speaking of accents, the Dutch lilt is, of course, quite evident in Dark Armada. And while I didn’t have trouble understanding the actors’ lines, series creator and show-runner Robin Hiert was considerate to post all the episodes with English subtitles that he provided himself. Dank je wel, Robin.
It would be two and a half more years before fans would get to see another episode of Dark Armada, but it was worth the wait. Three new episodes would debut between March, 2009 and February 2010, each about 15 minutes long, and all continuing the same general story.
With the first of the three episodes, fans finally learned the name of the science scout vessel from the debut: the USS Batavia. You might recall that, in Star Trek: Voyager, the Nova-class science vessel they encountered was the USS Equinox. Nova, Equinox–both celestial occurrences–one might have expected another vessel of the same class to be named Eclipse or Solstice or Apogee or something like that.
Batavia, however, was the original name of the capital of the Dutch East Indies (and is currently called Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia). Of course, in the Voyager series finale “Endgame,” we see an alternate future in which Captain Harry Kim commands the refitted science scout USS Rhode Island. So maybe Starfleet ran out of celestial occurrences (like the USS Asteroid Collision or USS Elliptical Orbit?) and switched to names of locations.
That said, I was still somewhat curious and looked up “Batavia and ship” on Google and came up with a fascinating entry on Wikipedia. It seems the Batavia was a sailing vessel built in 1628 by the Dutch East India Company that sank off the coast of western Australia on its maiden voyage. But that’s only part of the story. The ship was purposefully sailed away from the rest of the fleet as part of a mutiny by the second in command against the ship’s commander!
I was left to wonder: was this a hint of what was to become of the USS Batavia at some point in the saga of Star Trek: Dark Armada? (And no, I’m not going to tell you. Watch the thing, darn it!) And I wondered what exactly the Dark Armada was. Unfortunately, I and the rest of the fan world (at least those watching this series) wouldn’t get that answer until 2013!
The first “real” episode of Dark Armada (as opposed to a “test” episode) was the 13-minute “Worst Nightmare.” It introduced fans to the commanding officer of the USS Batavia, Captain Alexander Richardson, played by series creator Robin Hiert. As an interesting fun fact, Robin has both Dutch and Indonesian roots and says that Captain Richardson also has ancestry from Indonesia…making the Batavia a very appropriate name for his vessel. We would also meet Lt. Cmdr. Celissia Katina, played by Iris Janse. Both of these actors continued to appear in the rest of the episodes of the fan series. A third character, played by Frank Maurits (I won’t spoil it by telling you who he was) did not appear again in the series.
The compositing effects were noticeably better this time out, with much less blurriness and ragged edges. The actors were better lit, and the backgrounds had a very convincing 24th century Starfleet feel to them. And although the series kept the original opening title music, written by Justin R. Durban, new background music for the rest of the episode was provided by the amazing Hetoreyn, who also composed awesome background music for multiple episodes of Starship Farragut as well as for the fan film Eye of the Tempest. Hetoreyn’s eerie and suspenseful score permeates each scene of “Worst Nightmare,” giving it a wonderful richness and unsettling mood…setting up the unexpected ending perfectly.
While the visual effects during the opening title sequence were still a little blurry, the episode begins with a gorgeous shuttlecraft fly-by. A team of a half dozen modelers, animators, and special effects people worked on the look of the film…along with a director of photography and a few others to handle the lighting. Another team of a half dozen people worked on the audio quality and sound effects. Creator and lead actor Robin Hiert, in addition to writing the story and script, also storyboarded the episode, designed and provided the costumes and the props, and served as one of the four executive producers. All told, about twenty-five people volunteered their time and labor to make this 13-minute episode.
“Worst Nightmare” also began a tradition of showing outtakes from the episode during the closing credits. You can see the actors performing their roles in front of a small green screen no more than 2 meters (6 feet) across. It’s pretty amazing to realize how such a limited filming environment can lead to such an immersive 24th century environment.
“Worst Nightmare” came out in March of 2009, two and a half years after the previous episode. But Dark Armada fans only had to wait a relatively brief seven more months for the next episode, “Choices, part one.” Just shy of 15 minutes long (as was part two), Dark Armada was unknowingly following the first of the fan film guidelines (the 15-minute, 2-part limit) seven years before the guidelines were even written!
Even though “Choices” was billed as a two-part episode, it was actually a continuation of what had gone before, complete with a “Previously on Dark Armada…” montage of short snippets from “Worst Nightmare.” Once again, the lighting, compositing, and visual effects were top notch, including a new, sharper opening credit sequence that was vastly improved over the previous version.
This episode also introduced the attractive 24th century era uniforms that were unique to Dark Armada (and one of my favorite aspects of the series.) Similar to the gray-shouldered uniforms worn from Star Trek: First Contact onward and in the later seasons of Deep Space Nine, the Dark Armada uniforms add in a distinctive colored departmental stripe along with thin black stripes at the top of the collar. (I actually prefer these to the “real” Starfleet uniforms from DS9.) Because the time period for this series is established in this episode as about a decade after the end of the Dominion War, it’s conceivable that these might be the new uniforms…along with a new comm badge design.
Looking even better and more ambitious than their previous episode, “Choices, part one” went from a production team of 25 to more than 40, including a crew of four in America working as a unit from Star Trek: Hidden Frontier. Show-runner Rob Caves directed a short sequence featuring HF regular David Dial as Rear Admiral Ian Quincy Knapp in one of those rare fan series crossovers. (Hidden Frontier also did a couple of crossover episodes with Starship Intrepid.)
Once again, the visual effects were top-notch, the original score (by Hetoreyn and Justin R. Durban) provided dramatic depth, and the compositing of actors and virtual sets together in the same scenes showed how far this low-budget/green screen sub-genre of fan films had come. There were now even over-the-shoulder scenes, a technique often used in Hollywood but seldom seen in virtual set fan films up until then.
The story itself, again written by Robin Hiert, remained as involving as the previous episode…actually more so. Viewers got to see a bit more development of certain individual characters along with the introduction of an actual villain or two. You could see the progress of director Eric Van Der Ven from his debut episode “Worst Nightmare,” with only three actors speaking lines, to this episode with eight speaking roles (not counting the HF cast in America).
And yet, fans of Dark Armada were still left with the biggest mystery of all: what exactly is this “Dark Armada” that the series was named after? Maybe we’d find out in “Choices, part two…”
And speaking of Part 2, come back next week as we look at the rest of the episodes of Star Trek: Dark Armada as the series goes into some very–well–dark places and throws a number of surprises at us fans. Will we ever find out what this “Dark Armada” is? Is the USS Batavia destined for the same mutiny and destruction as its historical Dutch namesake? Well, I’m not going to spoil the series by answering the second question, but I might just give you an answer to the first!
And to learn more about Dark Armada and access all nine of their episodes and vignettes, visit their website: http://www.dark-armada.com