Star Trek: Discovery is set 10 years before the events of the original Star Trek, but that wasn’t always going to be the case. It was almost an anthology show that was going to take fans from the pre-Kirk Federation into Star Trek’s future. If you’re disappointed Discovery is solely stuck in the past instead, you really should play Star Trek Online.
First released in 2010, STO is an online RPG in the vein of World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. Here, players create a Captain (Federation, Klingon, or Romulan), recruit a bridge crew, and then jet off in their own space ship to boldly go where... well, all the other players are going, too. The game went free-to-play a few years after its release, and has been supported regularly with new expansions and storylines ever since, even including an expansion from PC to current consoles.
As an MMORPG, it’s a decent time. The ground combat sucks (frankly, no one’s really into Trek for the boots-on-the-ground phaser shootouts anyway), but the space combat has a nice, almost naval feel to it that does a great job of making you feel like you’re captaining a Star Trek vessel. But the primary draw of the game is the story: right now, Star Trek Online is the only licensed Trek product that’s set after the events of Deep Space Nine and Voyager. (That includes books; there are currently no new books on the schedule set in that time.) Hell, it’s the only Star Trek story set after the opening events of the 2009 reboot movie, in the wake of Spock’s disappearance from the prime timeline and the destruction of Romulus and Remus. And while, as a spinoff, the canon status of the game is hazy at best, it does let fans explore the aftermath in a way nothing else can.
Initially set in 2409, two decades after the Hobus star went supernova and took out the heart of the Romulan and Reman civilization, Star Trek Online concentrates on continuing the original Star Trek timeline after the events seen in the original shows and movies. Like DS9 before it, it mostly began with an examination of how a utopian society like the Federation copes in the face of a dire scenario that pushes its ideals to the limits. After all, it is a video game—you need some avenues of conflict so people can go blow things up!
In the early days of Star Trek Online, the Alpha Quadrant is in crisis. The Star Empire is reeling from the devastating loss of its homeworld, and eventually falls into disrepute as Sela—the half-Romulan daughter of an alternate universe Tasha Yar from The Next Generation—overthrows it to become its Empress, and attempts to hunt down and end the fledgling Romulan Republic while it builds a new home away from the controlling eyes of the Romulan secret police, the Tal Shiar.
A strained Federation and the Klingon Empire find themselves heading toward war, as a greedy new Klingon chancellor sees the Romulans’ loss as a potential land grab for their empire. As if that wasn’t enough for Starfleet to deal with, a resurgent Borg begins probing the Alpha Quadrant, and there are new conflicts with Voyager’s Species 8472—named here as the “Undine”—looking to destroy Federation and Klingons alike.
Although the game begins in an un-Trek-ish war campaign, STO’s story eventually turns into something with themes and messages you’d expect from a Star Trek tale, focusing on protecting the ideals of compassion and unity from threats that would destroy them. The Federation and Klingon Empire eventually re-ally when they find that they’ve been duped into conflict by the shadowy Iconian race (itself a deep-cut Trek reference, having been briefly mentioned in episodes of DS9 and TNG), who turn out to be the actual big villains of the game’s early storyline.
After the newly formed Romulan Republic becomes willing to work with both factions as well, the game’s story started exploring the Star Trek universe in its 25th century in earnest—exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and battling the Borg, of course.
Announced as part of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary a few years ago, Discovery—which premieres September 24—has something of a nostalgic air to it. Even though it’s got snazzy new uniforms and borrows a few pages out of the aesthetic of the rebooted movies, it plays with the beloved past of Star Trek as a franchise. It’s got the classic flip communicators and the old school phasers, and it has presented itself as a window into the time just before Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew made history.
Meanwhile, Star Trek Online has been exploring the future ramifications of all those past TV series in some interesting and unique ways.
Speaking of the aforementioned alt-Tasha Yar, a brief game plotline sees players cross paths with the Enterprise-C of “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” helping the crew back into their ill-fated timeline. An extended storyline set around Deep Space Nine and Bajor not only catches up with the current state of the Cardassians and the Dominion, decades after the war for the Gamma and Alpha Quadrants that formed the backbone of Deep Space Nine’s latter half, it even at one point answers the question of what the hell actually happened to that fleet of Dominion warships Sisko got the Prophets to disappear in “Sacrifice of Angels” (they dumped it into the “present” of the game, because the Prophets are assholes).
Another early story even follows up with Miral Paris, the daughter of Tom and B’Elanna from Voyager, who ended up being pegged as part of a bizarre Klingon prophecy in one episode of the show. And a whole expansion of content for the game saw players return to the Delta Quadrant, seeing the ramifications of the alliances and enemies the U.S.S. Voyager made during its time there 30 years beforehand.
You even get to work alongside famous Trek characters during a bunch of these stories—often voiced by their actual actors, including Denise Crosby (both Tasha Yar and Sela) and Michael Dorn (Worf); like, half the primary cast of Voyager; and even most recently LeVar Burton (Geordi LaForge). All reprise their roles as players get to catch up with what these characters did after their respective series came to a close.
With Enterprise, the rebooted movies, and now Discovery, Star Trek has spent over a decade indulgently examining its past, alternate or otherwise. STO is just as nostalgic and deeply filled with connections to Trek past as you’d expect of any particularly fanservice-y production. But it’s also been looking to the future of these characters and stories instead of simply mining them for a fan-friendly reference or six.
It’s kind of weird that right now, in the franchise’s 51st year, a video game has been the only real window into what Star Trek’s future might look like—something I, like many other fans, hoped to see out of Discovery when it was first announced. But as far as windows go, the view has been surprisingly enjoyable.