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From: (Originally in Russian)
Date: 07 March 2011

Film Adaptations of Games: Wing Commander - Space Enough for All

Author: Ivan Vasiliev
Date: 04/12/2010

The history of the vast universe of the space simulator Wing Commander has its origins in 1988 when a young game designer Christopher (Chris) Roberts wrote a design document in which he set forth the essence of a game codenamed "Squadron." The plot was based on the opposition of the human Empire and the Military Council of the aliens, known as the Kilrathi in the 27th Century. The principal hero was a graduate of the Imperial Flight Academy who had been assigned to the aircraft carrier "Tiger's Claw."

The Origins of a Space Saga

Little time passed between the idea and the implementation, and in 1990 Roberts' "firstborn" appeared: Wing Commander: Vega Campaign 1. Of course, the game does not completely correspond to the primordial version of the design document (for example, the human Empire became the Confederation etc.), but on the whole, it was still the renamed "Squadron." The protagonist remained a cadet, receiving the name Christopher Blair.

[Caption: The Cockpit in Wing Commander: Vega Campaign]

Wing Commander: Vega Campaign, thanks in large measure to its interactivity, immediately became a hit. So Blair did not simply fly a ship and shoot down opponents, he was present at a briefing prior to a mission, he conversed with pilots at the bar, and he received well-deserved medals in front of flight crews. This first game also began the grand tradition of alternating gameplay with videos (at first with animations).

For example, the arrival after battle was accompanied by a display of Blair's ship, and depending on damage, the vehicle's fuselage was covered with dents, scorch marks and even shell-holes. In contrast, after a successful battle, the fighter landed safe and sound. Zeal for the game was also added by the Kill Board, a distinctive chart of pilots who had shot down the greatest number of aliens. To be on top of the Kill Board was a matter of honor. The vivid images of colleagues helped one to experience the tough, everyday life of a pilot: "Maniac" Marshall, Mariko Spirit, Angel... With additional "sparkle," Wing Commander: Vega Campaign had a non-linear campaign, 256-color VGA graphics and excellently rendered objects - in 1990, this was genuinely cool. The only regret is that Roberts' imagination was not sufficient for the creation of a genuinely "alien" form for the Kilrathi who, in the game, resembled large cats.

[Caption: Such were the Kilrathi in the game]

After the resounding success of the first game, the second was released the following year: Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi. In it, the Kilrathi launched invisible ships, and no one believed Blair, who discovers these infernal vessels. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn accuses Blair of alarmism and betrayal and sends him to a remote, god-forsaken post. However, we can't get by without the main hero, and Blair continues his glorious struggle in the second game.

The game Wing Commander: Privateer appeared in 1993. In this game, considered an offshoot of the main saga, the protagonist was "liberated" from orders and given independence. You could join a guild of mercenaries or traders, travel among various systems, in short, you could live. There was, however, also a plot tied to an artifact of the vanished Steltek race. Wing Commander: Privateer continued the grand tradition of the space sim Elite and became the new standard for games of the genre. The not-so-successful release Freelancer of 2003 was clearly created under the influence of Privateer.

And then came 1994, and with it Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger on 4 compact-discs(!!!). So much space was required for the impressive set of FMV cutscenes with the participation of Hollywood actors. The role of Tolwyn was played by Malcolm McDowell, Maniac by Tom Wilson, "Paladin" by John Rhys-Davies, and Blair by Mark Hamill himself, who immortalized on screen the image of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars 1977-1983.

[Caption: Mark Hamill, he's Luke SkyWalker, he's Blair]

In the fourth game, the Kilrathi race was finally conquered, and the plot of Wing Commander IV: The Price of Freedom (1996) revolved around the conflict of the Union of Border Worlds and the Confederation. Blair, recalled to service from retirement, discovers that danger emerges from the conspiratorial organization Black Lance, which is dedicated to the development of genetically enhanced soldiers. The head of the organization unexpectedly proves to be Admiral Tolwyn who is vanquished by Blair in the finale.

The Price of Freedom moved even closer to an actual movie, as real scenery was created for the cutscenes. Three years later Chris Roberts realizes his dream and shoots a full-fledged film based on the game series. Before this, he leaves Origin and organizes the company Digital Anvil.

In 1997, the fifth game of the series appeared: Wing Commander Prophecy. In it, the protagonist is not the aging Blair, but Lance Casey, the son of Iceman, one of the characters in the first game. Blair also makes a cameo, but as a commander. Now humanity is opposed by the beetle-like Nephilim, the appearance of which was foretold in the sacred book of the Kilrathi: this is the succession of game components. Using the Prophecy engine, the game Wing Commander: Secret Ops appeared a year later. With this, the story of Wing Commander came to a close. Or it stopped temporarily?...

[Caption: In Wing Commander Prophecy, humanity is opposed by the "beetles"]

Film Adaptation

Year of Release: 1999. Director: Chris Roberts.
Budget: $30 million. Box Office Receipts: a little over $11.5 million in the U.S.A.


Freddie Prinze Jr.: Lt. Christopher Blair;
Saffron Burrows: Angel;
Matthew Lillard: Lt. Todd "Maniac" Marshall;
Tcheky Karyo: James "Paladin" Taggart;
Juergen Prochnow: Commander Paul Gerald;
David Suchet: Captain Jason Sanski;
David Warner: Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn;
Ken Bones: Admiral Bill Wilson;
Ginny Holder: Lt. Rosie Forbes;

[Caption: Film Poster]

After its release, the film Wing Commander received a measure of well-deserved criticism, both from film critics and from fans of the game series. And in this case, to blame the director for failing to imbue the film with the spirit of the legendary game just won't do: Chris Roberts himself oversaw the shooting of the film. He acted as a sort of Taras Bulba who, in a story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol', gave birth to a son and killed him.

For example, it was difficult to find a more inappropriate actor for the role of Blair than Freddie Prinze Jr. Not disputing the definite talent of the latter, any of the many millions of the army of fans of the Wing Commander series exclaimed at the sight of the cute, thick-lipped face of Freddie: "Not a bit like him!" Indeed, the actor did not have an external similarity with either the game character or with Hamill who played Blair in the cutscenes.

[Caption: And this kid will save the world?]

Moreover, Chris Roberts encroached even on the internal world of Blair. In the film, this fearless pilot is portrayed as a frightened kid who is yelled at by the "elder," James Taggart. However, as usual in Hollywood pictures, in this youth is concealed an unseen strength, for in the veins of Freddie (or rather Blair) flows the blood of some mysterious race of Pilgrims. This turn in the plot elicited the greatest negative outcry from fans, for no Pilgrims were ever to be found in the game.

Thus, in the movie, the war with the Kilrathi is relegated to the background. The battle with the aliens only serves to set off the hidden possibilities in Blair which are awakened in the very beginning of the film when the youth calculates the jump coordinates through a quasar on a computer with one hand. So it is then that Wing Commander is a film about the youth Blair who (not without the assistance of those around him) discovers within himself the strength of the Pilgrims and saves the Earth from the invasion of the Kilrathi.

[Caption: The Kilrathi: A rare shot!]

As mentioned above, the Kilrathi in the film are seldom shown. In the beginning, they attack a human base on the asteroid Pegasus with a multitude of space ships. However, the viewer does not see a "live" Kilrathi in this episode. We can observe with our own eyes the cat-like aliens closer to the finale, and there they appear to be more repulsive than in the game.

[Caption: "Palladin" inspires]

In general, most of the characters in the film seem to be a sort of ballast, adding "to the load" of the spiritual turmoil of the main hero. Even such experienced actors as Prochnow and Suchet are no more than extras. The only person who really draws attention to himself is Tcheky Karyo in the role of "Palladin." Karyo is not accustomed to playing tough guys (even if we remember the film "Dobermann"), and in Wing Commander he also played a memorable role. Also remaining in one's mind, but with a "minus" sign, is the blond Lillard who played "Maniac." Throughout the film, he grinned, made faces in the spirit of Jim Carey and generally tried to look as imbecilic as possible.

[Caption: Maniac in his repertoire]

One wants to send a "special message" to the costume designers. Looking at the uniforms and clothes that the Wing Commander actors have to wear, you understand that the Russian Army was lucky with Yudashkin. For example, it is incomprehensible why some costumes (those "sported" by Blair and Maniac in particular) are cut from the neck to the shoulder as if they belonged to monks of the Middle Ages. Caps too also appear strange, for they are neither helmets nor caps with earflaps, but some sort of unintelligible podium-like thing.

The vicissitudes of love occupy a special place in the film. However, the emphasis on the amorous feelings of the heroes is done very "clumsily" - you already know from the first seconds of the meeting of Blair and Angel that they will have a fling. This is not unlike the love "triangle" in "Star Wars" Parts IV-VI of which Chris Roberts was a fan.

However, in his film things are much simpler, and not only do Blair and Angel become closer, but also Maniac and the dark-skinned Rosie Forbes. Naturally, fellow pilots will carry out combat missions more readily if their girlfriends fight beside them. Actually, these passions, raging in the young hearts, also give the film a necessary degree of tension. The rescue of Angel becomes the most important thing, not the rescue of Mother-Earth from the bloodthirsty Kilrathi. The film version of Wing Commander concludes with a happy ending. The Kilrathi are annihilated, sweat is wiped from the taut faces of the commanding officers, and Blair receives into his embrace the rescued Angel.

[Caption: Well, how in space can one resist such a beauty?]

Like any other movie, Wing Commander contains its "Easter eggs." Thus, many will be interested to know that the voice of Merlin, labeled in the credits with a question mark, belongs to Mark Hamill. Another interesting fact: Chris Roberts appears in a cameo role as a pilot who saves Blair towards the end of the film.

A number of errors of different types also exist in the film (for example, the spelling of the admiral's surname not as Tolwyn, but as Towlyn), but it makes no sense to dwell on them. There are more than enough grounds to find fault. Summing up, one can say that Chris Roberts did not manage to re-create the atmosphere of the previously released game series, nor did he come up with new story lines that would fit seamlessly into the universe of Wing Commander. Alas.

[Caption: Although the special effects in the film turned out well]

The Newcomers Will Save Us

And there is no emotional outlet for modern fans of space battles. The space simulator genre that captured the hearts and minds of video game fans since 1984, the release date of the incomparable Elite, has been in crisis for a long time. There are a number of objective reasons for this.

First off, after long years of development, the genre has in many respects exhausted itself. Behind us are the "combat" space sims in the person of Wing Commander, the "military-economic" space sims (Privateer, Freelancer), the "pure" simulators where the flight of the vehicle is subject to the laws of physics (Homeplanet), and even the MMORPGs (EVE Online). It is possible that the peak of space sim development was the game X3 which unified limitless freedom, detailed economics and a well-developed plot.

Secondly, the game industry has long ago turned sideways toward, if not completely away from, fans of virtual space travel. Developers place emphasis on colorfulness and primitiveness, and as a result, advertised projects prove to be empty pacifiers.

Finally, thirdly, space itself has become less able to attract a new generation of players. Flights in the airless reaches of space long ago became commonplace, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence has not yielded the expected result. At one of the gaming forums on the Internet devoted to space sims, the opinion has been expressed that a meeting with extraterrestrials will be a turning point for the genre and will help it regain lost ground.

In general, little reason for optimism exists. It is quite clear that to hope for the large, well-known studios is not worth it. All that remains is to hope for the success of a small "creative" team, where people do not so much work, but rather they create. Well, considering that or the notorious meeting with the extraterrestrials, it isn't clear which of these is the least likely.


In 1990, two additions were released for Wing Commander: Vega Campaign: Secret Missions 1 and Secret Missions 2: The Crusade. For Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi, there are two add-ons: Special Operations 1 and Special Operations 2 (1991).

The popularity of the game series at the time is indicated by the fact that the animated film Wing Commander Academy was released in 1996. 13 episodes were filmed. Among the series' voice artists were Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell.

In order to somehow rectify the situation concerning the Pilgrims, two books ("Wing Commander" and "Pilgrim Stars") were released in which tales concerning this race were recounted.

(translated by Stewart Todd Morgan, 07 March 2011)

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