The future is a foreign country; they play games differently there. Whether it’s the alien games of distant worlds, or familiar games PLAYED. IN. SPAAAAACE, science fiction loves bringing board games into the plot. Regardless of the ships you pilot or creatures you encounter, someone is willing to set up a board of some kind. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Star Trek Original Series – Tri D Chess
The third episode of Star Trek opens with Spock and Kirk playing a little Tri-D Chess. While we’re given bits and pieces of Spock’s cold Vulcan logic in previous episodes, this game really sets up the core of Spock and Kirk’s relationship. Spock’s calculated strategies give him the upper hand, while Kirk’s irrational playstyle is often surprising. Kirk finds Spock’s emotionless play irritating, because, for him, humanity is ruled by emotion. To be human is to embrace our flaws, struggles, and passions.
Seeing the pair interact during leisure helps solidify the closeness of their friendship.
Having Kirk’s humanity laid bare in a game becomes relevant as the episode progresses. A crewman is imbued with psychic abilities that continue to become more and more powerful. Greater power strips the crewman of his flaws and, consequently, his humanity. This crewman becomes convinced that his power is absolute, and that a new race of superior psychics should replace mankind. Unpredictably, Kirk kills him with some rocks.
Star Wars – Holochess (Dejarik)
What do you know about Wookiees? These days, we know a lot about their mannerisms, their home planet, and their Life Day traditions.
But in 1977, we knew very little about Wookiees. In fact, the word Wookiee only appears once in A New Hope.
“Let the Wookie win”
Aboard Han Solo’s ship, there’s a Holochess terminal that Chewbacca and R2D2 take to playing. It’s not surprising that an interstellar starship would have some form of entertainment, but the scene allows for some interesting world building.
Han comments about the Wookiee propensity to rip the arms off of players who beat them at holochess; that gives us two pieces of information: Chewbacca is a Wookiee and Wookiees are violently sore losers.
This brief scene is a great introduction to one of the most iconic characters from the Star Wars universe, and the presence of a game allows Lucas to playfully instill the notion that Star Wars is much larger than what we’re just seeing on the screen.
Battlestar Galactica – Triad
Triad is a pretty funny example of different for the sake of different. The show runners looked at the script and saw the characters playing poker and said, “Nuh uh, this is SPACE, we gotta have ’em playing SPACE POKER, and they play with hexagons or something.”
In the original BSG, Triad was the name for the space-equivalent of basketball and space poker was called Pyramid. Apparently, when they rebooted the series, they got the names mixed up, and noone on the team thought to double check.
Back to the Future 3 – Chess
This chess reference is a clever bit of set dressing. Doc Brown’s dog, Copernicus, sits at a chess board with all the pieces wired up in a ridiculous mad scientist rig. At first glance, it’s easy to write it off as a goofy prop, but Doc Brown’s brainwave reader is used in a couple bits in the series.
Upon careful examination of the board, chess nerds agree that Marty’s move has given Copernicus a significant advantage with board position, because Copernicus is a good boy.
Tron: Legacy – Go
When Tron Legacy was released, computer AI’s were only just starting to consistently beat the best human players at Go. It’s no accident that Finn would have a Go set, since it represents a battleground where humanity is engaged in a losing struggle against artificial intelligence.
Finn is engaged in a losing struggle against Clu, a rogue program made in Finn’s image. Finn has always been defined by games, transitioning from the twitchy games of 80’s arcade cabinets to the patient strategy of board games. Clu has an equal but opposite love of games, creating violent blood sports for his own amusement.
Finn’s fondness for Go becomes a visual representation of his philosophy and disposition. Quorra, his protege, describes her own strategy as rash and impulsive compared to his more measured approach.
The game also describes Finn’s relationship with Quorra. Despite a life of danger, Finn spends time to teach her Go. Sharing the game allowed him to be the father figure for Quorra that he couldn’t be for his actual son.
Firefly | S1E2 – Chinese Checkers
Firefly is a joy, and it’s filled to the brim with personality. It never misses a moment to playfully expand the relationships between characters. Watching our smugglers enjoy a quiet moment of leisure gives us a chance to laugh and get closer to them. I just wish they weren’t playing Chinese Checkers.
Firefly has a problem. The setting is a mix of Western and Eastern influences. Character’s swear in mandarin, Asian text is commonly seen, many spaceports have a decidedly eastern feel. However, all of those elements are surface level. There are almost no Asian actors, and no meaningful interactions with how Eastern traditions would translate into a space opera. It’s guilty of cultural appropriation.
Cultural appropriation is trying to sell someone’s heritage as exotic without actually exploring what that heritage means. Chinese Checkers is actually a perfect example of cultural appropriation. Developed in Germany in the late 1800’s, Chinese Checkers is based on purely western games, but salesmen thought it would sell better as a exotic game from “the Orient”. This is both disingenuous and stands in the way of pop culture with actual eastern heritage getting wider adoption.
So to see this game come up in Firefly feels particularly tone deaf.
Dr. Who | S6E13 – Live Chess
“The crowd is getting restless. They know the queen is your only legal move. Except you’ve already moved it 12 times, which means there are now over 4 million volts running through it. That’s why they call it live chess.”
Leave it to a British TV show to make chess into a bloodsport. It’s a brilliant device in this episode. The Doctor corners his opponent into a chess game and, using only his intellect, strips his opponent of any options except to divulge some very critical information.
“Even with the gauntlet, you’ll never make it to Bishop 4 alive.”
The chess game is both incredibly descriptive of the Doctor as a character, but it also acts as a metaphor for the plot of this particular episode. The Doctor is searching for information, meticulously beating up pawns, and working a plan to corner the leader who pulls the string.
In Chess, the goal isn’t to kill the king; checkmate is when the king cannot move. Likewise, the Doctor’s plan is one of decidedly nonviolent entrapment.
X Files | S5E20 – Stratego
After the first season of X-Files, the department is shut down and Mulder finds himself struck in a web of intrigue. He wants to pursue the truth, but he can’t risk any information getting found out. After a discrete talk with Skully, he begins to question his perspective.
Later, he dreams of the night his sister was abducted by aliens, the core reason for Mulder’s search for the truth. Before she was taken, the two of them were playing Stratego.
Stratego represents Mulder’s struggles moving forward in the series. Secrets are the core of Stratego’s gameplay, both keeping them and uncovering them. While a game like Clue is about solving a mystery, Stratego is about surviving in a web of intrigue. If Mulder wants to find his sister, his survival will hinge on his ability to play a game of secrets.
Stargate SG1 – Poker
Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Mitchell spent a big chunk of the later seasons of Stargate trying to get the SG-1 team back together, which proves a difficult feat both physically and emotionally (for both him and the casting directors).
To call the team members that do manage to return dysfunctional, is somewhat of an understatement. To improve performance, Major General Hank Landry forces the team on a “relaxing” log cabin vacation. It has all the fun of a mandatory work picnic, and Mitchell and Landry spend several awkward moments over a chess board. Neither are fond of chess, but they also don’t know how to interact with each other outside of work and need something to fill the time.
Eventually the team bonds over solving a mystery and killing a monster. They’re reminded of their bonds as a team, and they finish the episode playing poker. The transition from chess (a game where you could ignore your opponents and just look at the board) to poker (a game that relies on reading your opponents) certainly shows the team warming up to one another off-duty.
X Men: Days of Future Past – Chess
Comic books really get off on the whole good-verses-evil motif. I mean “super-hero” and “super-villain” pretty much scream moral absolutes. Chess is a pretty common trope, because it immediately invokes the concept of “us vs them”.
The recent string of X-men movies revolve around Professor X and Magneto hurling their figurative pawns at one another, so it’s no surprise we get to see them do so in a literal sense as well.
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