Creating Star Trekscii: A retro computer art project of galactic proportions

Star Trekscii
Star Trekscii

​You may have seen this retro art on a futuristic subject. Star Trek characters and ships made in a computer style, which was state-of-the-art 30+ years ago. I was interested in who exactly was creating these fascinating images on the “Star Trekscii” Twitter feed, and it turns out to be a grandfather / grandson team. We chatted with Andrew Vaisey about his project, and how this has transformed from side project to a remarkable, long-term project.

Tell us about the Star Trekscii team

My name is Andrew Vaisey, and I live in a small, former mining valley town called Pontypool in the fine country of Wales in the United Kingdom. I’m a fully qualified and experienced teacher but currently work in the family business where I manage a private daycare nursery with my wife.

My partner on ‘Star Trekscii’ is my grandson, Ryley. As with most young people these days where technology is concerned, he is a natural user with little explanation. However, I do want him to be aware that using computers, tablets, and phones isn’t just limited to playing games and watching YouTube videos.

Therefore he regularly watches me code, compose and draw and joins in with many of my projects. He’s beginning to use my old machines and get used to ‘low level’ nature and all the inherent peculiarities. I bought him a Raspberry Pi to experiment with too.

Tell me about your art…

Strangely, I’m not actually very good at drawing using traditional methods (painting, pencil, etc.). However, I discovered from a young age (around 10 years old) that I had an aptitude for creating images on computers. Starting around 1984 on the Commodore64 (C64), I progressed to the Commodore Amiga and then the PC. I also write music and code using these machines.

"I never forget a face." Khan, as created by the Star Trekscii team.
“I never forget a face.” Khan, as created by the Star Trekscii team.

The ‘Star Trekscii’ images are drawn in something called ‘PETSCII’ (PET Standard Code of Information Interchange), which is the built-in ROM character set (letters, numbers, and symbols) of the 8bit range of Commodore computers.

Actually, that’s where the name of the Twitter account comes from – it’s a portmanteau of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘PETSCII’! In the mode that we are using, the C64 has a screen size that is 40 characters wide and 25 characters deep, each PETSCII character being a predefined block of 8×8 pixels.

The C64 has two built-in charsets, uppercase, and lowercase. Many people choose the uppercase set when drawing PETSCII images as there is a wider range of symbols to choose from. Still, we opted to use the lowercase set, which is more limiting but means we could, in theory, display the images on the old-style ‘Bulletin Board Systems’ (BBS’s) which, believe it or not, are still in operation today catering for C64 users who are online with their old machines!

We have only 16 colors to choose from on the C64 when drawing the characters, which is why occasionally, the characters may not be in their exact original colors. Nerd fact: the images are drawn in and screen-dumped using a C64 color palette called ‘Colodore.’

Do you have a working C64? Is there a C64 art program you use to make these?

The images on the ‘Star Trekscii’ Twitter page were created using my own Windows PC based application called ‘ChillED’ that I coded, initially to design levels for a C64 game I’ve created and am putting the finishing touches to. The application just happens to be used to create the Star Trek characters, among other things.

Although Windows-based, my application can export data (a big table of hexadecimal numbers) that can be used on a real C64. My application can also export the Commodore SEQ format needed for the previously mentioned BBS’s and have various versions of the C64 color palette built in to choose from.

I have a real working C64; actually, I have 6 of the things, including my original ‘Breadbin’ version from 1984. I also have the accompanying tape and disk drives, cartridges, more modern SD card readers. The ‘Star Trekscii’ images are occasionally exported and tested on my real C64 to see how they look on original hardware.

Don't let this individual near the Enterprise's main computer systems.
Don’t let this individual near the Enterprise’s main computer systems.

How long does a typical character take you? How many of these are you planning to create?

A typical ‘Star Trekscii’ character image can take anything from 20 minutes to a few days, depending on the complexity. The ones that take a few days to complete are usually the ones that take 20 minutes to start with but end up being saved because we are not happy with them for some reason. We then procrastinate for ages, changing shapes, colors, and so on until we’re satisfied with them.

Some images are still ‘in progress’ even after a few months because there is something about them that we still aren’t happy with. For example, Seven of Nine in her silver jumpsuit was drawn ages ago, but we still can’t get the body shape to a place where we’re content with it.

When we first started pixelling the images, each one may have taken a bit longer because we took a while to settle on a style and get ‘into the groove’ so to speak.

We went through various styles and settled on the current ‘cartoon’ version early on. After all, there is only so much detail you can fit into a character that is generally only 24 ‘blocks’ tall and 9 wide and made of letters, numbers, and basic symbols! Complete realism is out the window.

The Star Trek Universe is vast; there seem to be endless characters to draw, so we’ll just keep going! Early on, we have gone for the more prominent main characters, but increasingly now we are pixelling characters who may have only appeared in one episode or were only background characters.

For example, we recently posted images of Soren, Laas, Lieutenant Jae, and a Bajoran security officer played by Dennis ‘Danager’ Madalone. Anyone with half-decent Star Trek knowledge should know those characters/people, and if not, how dare they call themselves Star Trek fans.

As well as the Star Trek characters, we occasionally do other Star Trek related images for the Twitter page, which takes much more time as they’re more complicated. We save these for when we reach a certain number of followers. For example, we had recently reached 400 followers, so we created a PETSCII version of the Enterprise-D bridge. This took a few hours to do off and on, over a few days. After your excellent article about Andrew Probert, we dedicated that PETSCII to him because he’s a bit of a hero!

The bridge of the Enterprise-D, created by Andrew and Ryley Vaisey.
The bridge of the Enterprise-D, created by Andrew and Ryley Vaisey.

What has been the response to what you guys are up to?

The response has been very positive. We’ve been sent many nice messages and words of encouragement via Twitter DM. We’ve also received positive feedback on some message forums we visit and post on.

Perhaps the nicest comment we’ve had was on a forum where someone mentioned that our little project is the kind of thing Twitter was meant for – something positive, enjoyable, and creative.

We’ve recently reached 500 followers in a few short months. That may not be many followers compared to some other Twitter accounts. Still, considering we’re operating in a real niche corner (Star Trek combined with a very old 8bit machine from the 1980s using basic symbols), we’re pretty pleased with how things are going!

Do you make other images besides Trek?​

The ‘Star Trekscii’ images are a side project with my grandson. I’m heavily involved in the C64 scene, being a member of two scene ‘groups’ called Arkanix Labs and Cosine Systems. For both these groups, I create graphics for games and demos, as well as composing music and providing code.

Our most recent non-Star Trek project together was a PETSCII of Robocop (with versions for both the Commodore64 and Commodore Plus/4), which can be found on the database website mentioned above.

The Trekscii version of Robocop.
The Trekscii version of Robocop.

When was your “first contact” with Star Trek?

I can’t give an exact date or even year when I first encountered Star Trek, but I think it’s safe to say it would back in the late 1970s or early 1980s, watching the original series. I’m old enough to remember the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the cinemas back in the day!

Tell me about how your grandson got involved… is he into Trek now due to this project?

My grandson has watched me use my application to create levels for my game, which he is also playtesting. He kept nagging me to have a go, so we started with a very easy Doctor Who project first, which uses simple blocks of color to represent the various incarnations of the Doctor. I coded these images into a simple Doctor Who demo for the C64 for him, which was released into the scene.

Since he is often around my house when I’m watching Trek’s old episodes, it made sense to progress onto the ‘Star Trekscii’ images next, which also uses simple shapes and colors. I decided to post these on Twitter to try and reach a wider audience beyond the C64 scene.

He does watch some Star Trek now but, being younger, he’s more interested and becomes more alert to it when there is a space battle or some action!

What is next for you guys? Any cool upcoming characters we ought to look for?

We will shortly begin doing ‘compilations’ of previously tweeted images – we ran a poll a while ago asking if people wanted such a thing. The result was ‘Yes’! For example, we have already posted numerous individual versions of Doctor McCoy, so we will put four versions of him in one image. Almost like a Doctor McCoy over the years!

If time allows, we’re hoping to do a simple C64 demo for Christmas 2020 with some of our ST: TNG characters as compilations, accompanied by some C64 music. Obviously, the images are already done; it’s just a case of me knocking out some C64 code to display them while getting the music done.

We are always open to suggestions of which characters to do next! People can use the DM function on Twitter to contact us!

Have any Trek stars commented on your work? If so, who, and what did they say?

We’ve had no comments, but some of our images have had ‘likes’ from some of the actors, including Manu Intiraymi, Levar Burton, Jeffrey Combs, Michelle Forbes, and Jonathan Frakes. This is quite an achievement considering, as already mentioned, it’s such a niche project.

An actual comment one day would make our day…