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Star Trek: Discovery – How Much Has It 'Borrowed' From Mass Effect?

Thursday, October 19th 2017 by Dan Howdle

While much has been made elsewhere of the many flaws in Netflix’s otherwise-enjoyable Star Trek: Discovery, that’s not what’s causing me to double-take like Pepe Le Pew in a cattery. More that, rather than stimulate my Vic Fontaine’s Gyrus (the part of the brain that stores Star Trek trivia), it is instead causing my Frontal Mordin Solus (the part of the brain used for thinking about Mass Effect) to become highly active. I decided to investigate…

On a dark, dark, dark, dark bridge

The bridge of the Normandy (Shepard’s ship in Mass Effect) is actually a comparatively tiny space with a couple of pilots flying stick and several banks of colourful, holographic whatnots – more like the cockpit of a large, sci-fi passenger jet than the more maritime open space bridges of Star Trek ships.

That's why I've chosen the Normandy’s Command Information Centre (CIC) for comparison. The CIC is used aboard the Normandy in precisely the same way the bridge of the Discovery is – to meet, plan, natter to aliens and so on.

The Discovery bridge (top) bears a striking stylistic similarity to Mass Effect’s Normandy CIC (bottom)

The similarities are rather striking, wouldn’t you say? The palette, apart from Mass Effect’s heavy use of bright orange holograms, is all but identical. Shiny grey-blue metal dominates and in both cases someone has forgotten to turn the lights on.

I mean, sure, there are lights, but none of them appear to have been designed to actually light the space in which they exist. It’s more like they decided to paint a few bits and piece here and there with jellyfish blood. What if someone loses a contact lens? Perhaps they're saving that one for the season finale.

These locations are not identical. There are many differences, and if this were the only evidence presented today, I would say the case was weak. But ask yourself – if you encountered these two locations within the same fictional universe, would you notice anything out of place? Exactly.

Flare enough?

What’s the name of that weirdly pleasing lens flare that’s irrevocably synonymous with Mass Effect? Anamorphic flare. That’s it. It's an artefact of analogue cinematography when using an anamorphic (widescreen) lens, and manifests as bright, horizontal lines of light that take on the hue of the source. Depending on the context, the effect is either desired, or steps can be are taken to prevent it.

You have to admit, the Star Trek: Discovery shot (top) could almost pass as a screenshot from a Mass Effect game

In the context of a videogame, there is no lens, so it’s always going to be deliberate, and in the case of Mass Effect it’s absolutely everywhere. Now, I’m not saying the effect is somehow Mass Effect’s property and that no one else has any right to use it, rather that if you do, and your intended use is in a sci-fi series, you’d best be aware of the comparisons you’re likely to draw.

Hmm-hmm… at this point it’s actually difficult to tell which is which (Star trek is top, as in all these shots)

Could the parity in heavy-handed use of anamorphic flare be coincidence? Feasibly, yes. But it becomes harder to believe when you look at the light palette used in both instances. Blue. Purply blue. White. They are identical.

The spacesuits

We only catch one glimpse of the Star trek: Discovery space suit in the pilot episode, when Burnham is sent out to investigate an extremely dangerous-looking space object. Despite shuttles being readily available. Yeah.

Identical? Not at all. From the same universe? You decide

In the Mass Effect universe, by contrast, spacesuits are everywhere cos, you know, you kinda need them if you’re going to go prancing about in places with no atmosphere – an activity that plays a substantial part in Mass Effect’s overall gameplay.

Admittedly, they’re not identical by any stretch – the most prominent point of difference being the helmet. Plus, there are only so many ways to design a spacesuit. However, I ask again: If you were told these were in the same universe, would you bat an eyelid?

Take a look at some of the detailing here. The material. That carbon-composite, futuristic metal shit. Those little geometrically shaped cuts designed to offer the appearance of having been manufactured from many smaller parts. The floating shoulder extensions.

The uniforms… the goddamn uniforms!

In Star Trek: Discovery the uniforms are Celtic blue with gold detailing. By contrast, in Mass Effect, the uniforms are Celtic blue with gold detailing.

The uniforms in the two franchises don’t bear the slightest resemblance to one another. No siree. No idea what you’re talking about…

There’s really not a lot else to say about these. There are differences, sure. Collars are a bit more Fu Manchu in Mass Effect, and the layout in the detailing is largely dissimilar. But, look at them. Just look at them.

I just asked Data, and he says the chance of all this being a coincidence now stands at exactly 3,489,147,927 to one.

Lieutenant Saru and the Salarians

Wait, what? The alien on the left (a Salarian from Mass Effect) has big bug eyes and a diamond-shaped head and a mouth like an irate toad, while the guy on the right is clearly an actor (Doug Jones playing Lt. Saru, a Kelpien) with some prosthetics, but nevertheless still bearing an unmistakably human countenance.

Apologies for the quality of the Saru image here – he’s rarely shown full length in the series thus far

But honestly? That’s where the differences end.

It would be completely fair to say that one of the most instantly recognisable traits of Mass Effect’s Salarians is their posture: Shoulders pulled back to the extreme, ultra-skinny midriff thrust outward, arms curved slightly forward. This is precisely the posture used by Jones to portray the ‘alienness’ of Saru. Saru, Salarian – they even sound similar.

A Salarian’s posture also plays a part in its gait, as does the fact that, as an animal, it would be described as ‘digitigrade’ – meaning it walks on its toes, like dogs, cats and other four-legged mammals.

If you take a look at the back legs of a dog, they appear the have backwards knees, but in reality the whole bottom half of a dog’s rear legs constitute the ‘foot’, which is why you can still find a toe halfway up its leg. So Salarians are digitigrade, and their gait has a sort of late-night tiptoe vibe – as if they’re trying not to be heard.

In an actor, digitigrade legs are a harder trick to pull off. Nevertheless, by putting Jones on his tiptoes and adding platform shoes, not only has a digitigrade look been achieved, but both the gait and the posture have been mimicked exactly.

Oh, but wait. We’re not even remotely done here. Sci-fi typically offers us one or two dominant traits per alien species (Vulcans are cold and logical, Klingons honourable and aggressive). Salarians are nervous nerds. Imagine a neurotic lab technician who’s scared of everything and breaks out in hives at the first loud noise – that, generally speaking, is the Salarians.

And it’s also Lt. Saru. He even has little tendrils that emerge from his neck when he’s particularly nervous. Which is all the time. And the speech. The voice. The rhythm, even his script is as Salarian as the most Salarian thing you saw the other day.

Paragon or renegade?

The first two games in the Mass Effect series featured something called the Paragon/Renegade system. In essence, the more ‘good’ or ‘evil’ decisions you made in the game, the more options opened up to you during dialogue to double-down on that trait: Be enough of a dick and the game will invite you to be a total dick all the time.

Could’ve Photoshopped one half of this image to show Burnham – couldn’t be buggered

There were upsides to this. Pushing in a specific direction was great fun no matter which you chose. It was as hard to be good in every situation as it was to be bad. It toyed with your conscience.

The downside, meanwhile, was that almost every decision became absolute: You either save the criminal on his knees begging for his life because he’s just a puppet in the wider scheme, or you shoot him in the back of the head without passing go.

Which is precisely the problem many have complained about with the main character in Star Trek: Discovery. Michael Burnham deals only in absolutes. There are no shades of grey, and therefore no subtlety. She is, arguably, intensely dislikable, and I put it to you that that's primarily because every decision she makes is a prime example of Paragon/Renegade absolutism.

As Burnham decides to Vulcan neck-pinch the Captain to get her own way with the Klingons, superimposing flashing Paragon/Renegade icons into the bottom left and right of the screen wouldn’t have been at all weird.

Mass Effect: Discovery is a thing… yeah, really

This is in here just for fun really. And yes, I realise that fun weakens my case, but I just had to mention it. Mass Effect: Discovery was a four-part comic book series launched to coincide with the release of Mass Effect: Andromeda on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4.

This comic was released far too late to provide name-related inspiraton, but still, it’s a canny coincidence

As a result of it being released only in May of this year the name could only be a coincidence. Nevertheless, the identical naming convention here could be as a result of the Star Trek: Discovery Naming Committee (known as the TBC Naming Committee at its founding) having retrieved the name from the future through the consumption of timecake.

In conclusion

I haven’t set out to show that anyone ‘stole’ ideas from anyone else. Every artform we have is inspired by what came before it because true originality is as difficult for the artist achieve as it is confusing for the audience it aims to reach. Rather, what I’ve aimed to show are the similarities my own brain has drawn between the two.

I’m well aware of confirmation bias. This limited list of similarities was selected precisely to strengthen my claim: That Star Trek: Discovery shares enough commonalities with Mass Effect that the likelihood of this having happened by chance is slim. This amounts to eight or nine things, but I've not included the hundreds of things that are completely different.

So, putting all of this together, what’ve you got? Not much. There are enough similarities to make Star Trek: Discovery eerily evocative of Mass Effect to anyone who has spent time in both universes.

Saying the latter ripped off the former, then, would be going too far. But if you tried to make the case that the people behind the creatures, sets, effects, costumes and narrative design of Star Trek: Discovery hadn’t spend long periods of time with their eyes clamped to at least one Mass Effect game, I would scoff invisibly at you from a dark corner drenched in anamorphic flare.

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