STAR TREK: DARK ARMADA, Part 2 (2010 to 2016)

dark-armadaIn Part 1, we began our ten-year journey with the crew of STAR TREK: DARK ARMADA, a fan series out of the Netherlands created by Robin Hiert.  Inspired by the early green screen fan series Star Trek: Hidden Frontier, Dark Armada attempted to build on the Chroma-keying advances of its predecessor to take low-budget, virtual set Star Trek fan films one step farther to make scenes appear even more realistic in a constrained green screen filming environment.

Gathering together a group of semi-professional fan filmmakers from the Netherlands and Belgium in 2005, Fan Trek Productions (as they called themselves) began filming their first episode in 2006 and released it later that year.  The 8-minute episode “These Are the Voyageswas intended to be more of a learning activity than an actual pilot.  Their first “real” episode (the 13-minute “Worst Nightmare“) would premiere two and a half years later in early 2009, to be followed shortly thereafter by the 15-minute “Choices, part one” toward the end of 2009.  By that point, more than 40 different production people were working on a single episode, and the quality had increased considerably.

And that’s where we left off.  As we enter 2010, Dark Armada owes its fans a sequel to “Choices, part one” plus an explanation of why exactly the series is named “Dark Armada…”

The 15-minute “Choices, part two” followed relatively quickly in February of 2010.  Like its two predecessors, this episode was written by Robin Hiert (also the lead actor) and directed by Eric Van Der Ven.  And again, the episode featured about three dozen actors and production crew and began with a “Previously on Dark Armada…” montage recap sequence.  The only significant difference was that the background music was provided by Matt Milne instead of Hetoreyn and used much more sparingly.  If you pay attention to such things, you’ll notice it, but it doesn’t hurt the film at all.  It simply provides it with a subtly different flavor.

The quality of the visual effects and the compositing of green screen-filmed actors with virtual CGI backgrounds continued to improve, featuring a larger number of scenes with three actors on screen at one time (along with more two-actor scenes, as well).  The space vessel 3D animations also remained strong.  The story itself wrapped up the two-parter cleanly, featuring some exciting “action” scenes plus a bit of character development thrown in…especially concerning Captain Richardson and a particular member of his crew (no spoilers!).

The only problem was that we were now three full episodes into the series, and fans still had no idea why it was called “Dark Armada“!

The series went, um, dark for the next two years, and when Star Trek: Dark Armada did finally release its next episode, “Promotion,” in April of 2012, the finished product looked as though it had been thrown together in, like, eight hours.  And that’s because it was thrown together in eight hours!

The folks at Dark Armada had been asked for a favor by the event planners for Elf Fantasy Fair 2012 (a sort of combo Renaissance Faire/Star Wars convention that takes place annually in the village of Haarzuilens at the De Haar Castle…yep, a ren faire at a real castle!).  The fair planners wanted to offer guests a chance to participate in a workshop on film making, with several different groups taking part.  Five attendees were chosen to be in a Dark Armada episode, which was shot at the event and edited together in a tent over the next few hours while the fair continued.

Scenes included both outdoor location shots (where one can clearly hear the commotion of the rest of the fair in the background) as well as a few scenes against green screens with composited virtual backgrounds.  Nothing was particularly complex, including the story itself (written, as usual, by Robin Hiert…who also appeared briefly in the three-minute film).

The five volunteers each got to do a little something, including acting and a bit of directing.  And a trio of Stormtroopers from the Dutch Garrison (part of the 501st Legion Star Wars fan club) generously gave the Starfleet officers a convenient gang of villains to shoot at.  Behind the scenes, a core group of about a dozen Dark Armada regulars handled things like lighting, visual FX, audio, music, and editing.  All in all, it was a decent effort and a fun little vignette.  But it was more of a detour away from the ongoing Dark Armada story line…and still no clue why the series had that darn name!

As 2013 rolled around, the Dark Armada production team decided the time had finally come to reveal the ultimate mystery of the series: what the heck is this “Dark Armada“?  And that meant opening up the raw footage vault!

You see, the team had always planned for their pilot episode to be titled “Nightfall” and explain exactly what the “Dark Armada” was.  In fact, most of that episode had already been filmed back in 2006 and 2007!  So what happened to change their plans?  I asked Robin Hiert…

The original script for Nightfall was about 60 minutes in length, and it had a big cast.  So basically, we took on more than we could handle.  Halfway through filming, we realized it was going to take some time to complete.  That and the fact that we became more experienced along the way made us decide instead to create a few vignettes to show the improved quality compared to the “test” episode we released in 2006.

What we call the “Choices three-parter” were intended to be three short character introductions of about 5 minutes, but we really got into it, and they turned into three 15-minute episodes instead!  After that, we got back to completing “Nightfall,” but some of the character introductions were unnecessary at this point and the episode was slow.  So to complete “Nightfall,” almost half of the original script was cut out.  Some pieces that were cut out but already filmed we turned into the short preview episode “It’s Dark…. Get Over It” leading up to the release of “Nightfall” later that same year (2013).

Yes, it was dark…and yes, I got over it!

It’s Dark… Get Over It” was indeed dark, both in terms of plot and also visually.  The three and a half minutes of footage featuring the characters was purposefully darkened by the production team to hide the lack of production quality, so the vignette appeared darker than the well-lit trio of 15-minute episodes that preceded it.  But “It’s Dark… Get Over It” was still very exciting and got fans psyched for the big event: “Nightfall.”  They wouldn’t have to wait long.  The vignette was released in January of 2013, and the half-hour long “Nightfall” followed quickly in April.

It was initially a little confusing to some fans (including me!) because the vignette was actually an epilogue, of sorts, to the full “Nightfall” episode.  One eventually realized this because “It’s Dark… Get Over It” referenced the death of a character who was still alive in “Nightfall.”  Also, the captain’s log at the beginning of the vignette casually mentioned the ships of the “Dark Armada”…and we still didn’t know what it was yet!  But yes, that question would, in fact, FINALLY be answered at the end of “Nightfall.”  So my strong recommendation is that you watch “Nightfall” first and then watch the vignette “It’s Dark… Get Over It” afterward.

Robin Hiert ages five years and emerges from the Holodeck with a brand new hair style!

“Nightfall” was an interesting fan film to watch because it was assembled from scenes shot over a period of nearly seven years!  Most of the footage was originally filmed in 2006 and 2007.  But when it came time to finally complete the episode, new scenes were shot beginning in 2010 and going all the way into 2013!  Robin Hiert commented on one scene in particular…

The best example is the Holodeck scene, which was the very first recording for “Nightfall.”  After this scene, Richardson walks out and ends the program, which was filmed about 5 years later.  You’ll notice obvious differences in age, weight, and even in acting and accent.

The half-hour episode was filled with expository scenes explaining certain elements of the plot, such as character relationships and previous modifications to the starship that would give her a bit more “pep” than a typical science scout.  And yes, we finally got to learn details about the Dark Armada…and they were pretty terrifying!

The USS Batavia lands, and the crew finally gets to walk around without the constraints of a 6-foot green screen!

The visual effects for the episode were done more recently than 2006, of course, allowing fans to actually witness the USS Batavia land on a planet (with a really funky sky…you just need to watch the episode to understand) and see a good portion of the crew get some much-needed shore leave.

All told, 18 actors and 13 extras appeared in front of the camera, and three dozen more crew people were listed in the credits.  This time, the background music was done by Wendell (like Hetroyen, a composer who goes by only one name!), who had also composed the music for the fan series Dark Frontier, and added a lot of emotion to the episode…especially toward the end.

Martin Lejeune (in yellow) crosses over as Faldor in Star Trek: Intrepid (top) and later in Dark Armada.

“Nightfall” also featured the series’ second-ever crossover with another fan film…this time Star Trek: Intrepid out of Scotland.  Actor Martin Lejeune appeared on both series as Engineer Faldor, an ensign on the USS Intrepid in a few episodes and, ten years later in fictional Star Trek time, a lieutenant on the USS Batavia.  Martin also did compositing on the first episode of Star Trek Continues (“Pilgrim of Eternity“) and appeared as a crewman in the Swiss fan film parody Star Wreck 2pi: Full Twist, Now.

So with the Dark Armada finally revealed…what now?  Well, how about ending the series?  But it wasn’t a snap decision.  Once again, I turn the microphone over to Robin Hiert:

Our final episode “Out of Time” was actually written right after Star Trek 2009 came out, and it was always intended as an episode to ‘reset’ the show under the new name Batavia…getting rid of the Dark Armada story line altogether.  Dark Armada came from a fan fiction I created long before we started on a fan production.  Our test-episode from 2006 shows a holodeck creation of the events that lead to the creation of the Dark Armada in the TOS era by the Federation itself.

With the script already written, work began on the series finale “Out of Time” on November 26, 2013.  It would end up being Dark Horizon‘s most ambitious undertaking yet, another half-hour episode with more than a dozen actors and more than a half dozen extras plus a production team of almost forty.  The episode was nearly three years in the making!

Andrew Foster as Captain Dan Hawk…will he spell trouble for the crew of the USS Batavia?

While fans waited, Dark Armada released a short vignette entitled “Almost Time” featuring a single two-minute prologue scene introducing fans to Captain Dan Hawk, an ominous figure who appeared to be headed for a major confrontation with Batavia‘s Captain Richardson.  Hawk was played by Canadian-born Andrew Foster, who also worked both in front of and behind the camera on Star Trek: Hidden Frontier and a number of its spin-off series.

“Almost Time” also featured scenes from the series finale “Out of Time” along with a final message: “coming soon.”  Well, not quite.  “Almost Time” was released in April of 2014, and the plan was to release “Out of Time” late the same year.  Instead, the series finale debuted on December 10, 2016.

But it was worth the wait!

Out of Time” opens with a scene that, at first, seems to be a flashback to Alexander Richardson on the USS Blue Star while he was still a commander and executive officer.  But suddenly, a ship appears on the viewscreen with a very unexpected face in the captain’s chair.  I won’t say any more for fear of spoiling it.  This one just has to be seen and enjoyed for the unexpected curve-balls it throws at a Star Trek fan who watches it.

How far green screens and virtual sets come come! Just take a look at the “depth” of these two screen captures from the Dark Armada finale “Out of Time.”

In addition to being well scripted and decently acted, the episode looks amazing (for a fan film, of course, but a very strong one).  What began as a very limiting and constrained way to create virtual futuristic sets with little more than green screens and still backgrounds has evolved into something so much more.  As you watch this episode (assuming you do) pay attention to the way the camera and characters move through the virtual “sets.”  Also, listen to the music.  The score by composer Wendell ranks, in my opinion, among the top for any Star Trek fan film.  Kudos to director Eric Van Der Ven, who directed all full-length episodes of this series, and to Robin Hiert, who wrote every script.  They and their entire team have come a long way!

So what’s next?

Although “Out of Time” does leave a few loose ends open, the saga of the Dark Armada can still be seen as complete.  Whether or not a Dark Armada movie will finally wrap up those lose ends is, according to Robin Hiert, still up in the air.  But right now, things are shifting to a brand new fan series: Star Trek: Batavia.

Robin describes the basic idea for the new series…

We really wanted to start over with Batavia.  Some of the characters will remain, and we’ll be focusing much more on the story and acting.  You’ve seen how Richardson and Dagger serve on the Blue Star.  So you can expect Batavia‘s first episode to be about the launch of the Batavia and Richardson’s first command as a captain.  But instead of the Equinox/Nova-class ship, we’ll use the Rhode Island version from the Voyager finale “Endgame.”  We’ve already released some images of the new ship.

I asked Robin when fans might be able to see the first episode of Star Trek: Batavia

We’re still working on some of the characters and the script.  So it will be at least half a year before we start filming.  But the new set-up will allow us to release stuff quicker.  We’re working on a way to tell a story in smaller bits…most likely with three 5-minute vignettes followed by a 15-minute conclusion that form one bigger story.  That will allow us to shoot, edit, and release at a much faster rate.  But I can’t give you a date yet, as we’re still in pre-production.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what these Dutch dynamos do next!  In the meantime, you can find out more about Dark Armada and watch all of the episodes of this fan series on their website:

Watch “Choices, part two” by clicking here.


Watch “Promotion” by clicking here.

Rating: PRETTY GOOD  Rating 2a

Watch “It’s Dark… Get Over It” by clicking here.


Watch “Nightfall” by clicking here.

Watch “Almost Time” by clicking here.


Watch “Out of Time” by clicking here.

Rating: MUST SEE