A look at two new ''Star Trek'' CD-ROMs
Millennia from now, when historians are picking through the remains of the late 20th century, they may very well conclude that the digital revolution was simply a by-product of a much more profound phenomenon: Star Trek. The evidence will be overwhelming. They'll look at our on-line activity and assume that the Internet was created simply to accommodate a global Trek forum. (How else to explain the sheer volume of Trek traffic in cyberspace, often in newsgroups?) They'll unearth Trek screensavers, font packs, sound clips, and videogames and deduce that such electronic arcana were designed to verse children in Trek lore. And they'll come across CD-ROMs such as Star Trek: The Next Generation ''A Final Unity'' and Star Trek Omnipedia and reason, logically, that multimedia was invented to fulfill our deep communal desire to immerse ourselves in our favorite mythical universe.
That's the futuristic view (fittingly). The funny thing is, the picture doesn't change much from a closer perspective. Star Trek, the most popular, all-embracing fantasy of our time, is a mania uniquely served by multimedia technology. Where else but on CD-ROM could you weave together the actual voices of the Next Generation cast into an adventure simulation, as A Final Unity does? And what other medium affords access to the collected minutiae of the Trek compulsion, as the Omnipedia does? Next to running your own holodeck program, these discs are the surest ways to translate the details of a fictional universe into a functional interactive illusion.
Of course, the programs accomplish that through different means. Unity is a role-playing game featuring splashy animation, insanely detailed controls, and the voices of Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, et al. The game's structure resembles an episode of the series: An opening scene sets up the plot (you've come to the aid of a ship being pursued by hostile aliens near the Neutral Zone), the familiar theme music plays, and...engage.
Intuition quickly takes over. You can slip into the skin of Captain Picard (hearing Stewart's authoritative baritone issuing your orders is immensely empowering) and quickly begin negotiating with other ship captains, fighting battles, and exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations. The captain's chair is all yours: Decide what tone to adopt when dealing with leaders of other planets and assemble the proper away teams to solve mysteries at different sites. (Hint: Never send a Betazoid to do a Klingon's job.)
This being Star Trek, the ship and its systems have been painstakingly crafted. But in certain cases, the degree of detail is stupefying. One look at the engineering control panel and I felt like scurrying back to Starfleet Academy. Am I really supposed to figure out what percentage of the ship's total reserve power is stored in the EPS power grid? As in the show itself, the technobabble runs thick.
Of course, techie Trekkies will demand as much, if not more. In which case they may be better off consulting the Omnipedia, a numbingly comprehensive reference work that rounds up every last ion, Tribble, and Quark that ever appeared in any of Trek's many incarnations: the original series, The Next Generation, the feature films, etc. (a free update covering Voyager and Generations will be issued later this year). A follow-up to last year's immensely successful Star Trek: The Next Generation Interactive Technical Manual, Omnipedia adopts the interface of the Enterprise's on-board computer, complete with actress Majel Barrett's soothing voice.
It doesn't take long before you're pleasantly lost in space. Punch up the name McCoy and you're treated to a complete dossier on the crotchety physician, including a video montage of some of his more memorable moments (''I'm a doctor, not an escalator!''). Link to Edith Keeler, the Depression-era social worker, played by Joan Collins, whose life McCoy tried to save during a time-travel adventure, and see a production still from the episode. Scroll down to Kim (for personal reasons) and read about Luisa Kim, a scientist who was part of the unsuccessful terra-forming project on Velara III. Jump to the chronology and search for the dates of that project and continue browsing through other ''historical'' events. By the way, you'll be relieved to find out that the terrible and bloody eugenics wars will finally come to an end in 1996.
If your computer has the necessary hardware, you can access the Omnipedia through voice commands, a whimsical interactive experience that feels remarkably comfortable in this context, once you get past the initial self-consciousness about talking to a machine. The Omnipedia even assumes that you'll get carried away: Bark, ''Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,'' in your best Picardian delivery, and the program will remind you that ''this unit is not a replicator.''
The Omnipedia's scope is astonishing. It covers any subject, no matter how slight, that has ever been mentioned in any Trek episode or movie. But the program's depth is only reflective of the breadth of the Trek universe itself, a universe that has been tended and cultured by fans for decades and that now, finally, can be thoroughly and willfully explored.
Star Trek: The Next Generation ''A Final Unity: B+
Star Trek Omnipedia: A