To answer some of your questions:
1) Im a little confused by the different versions of the game. It seems like during the course of a discussion DL, DA, TA(or something like that) all get bunched together. So that I never know if what their talking about pertains to my game.
I have DL. Is DL the newest expansion? I feel like Im playing with pretty barebone options here compared to the crazy stuff ive been reading. The graphics also look somewhat dated so maybe one of the other expansions is newer. Not that I play 4x games for graphics but it doesnt hurt.
DL (Dread Lords) is the oldest version (except for the original Galactic Civilizations 1). TA (Twilight of the Arnor) is the newest. The later expansions have the improved graphics and expanded options you're talking about. That said, DL is fun in its own right.
2) how far do starbases influence work? In my first game I was paranoid and basically had my starbases sitting on top of the planet.
I'm not sure I understand - are you talking about trying to culture-flip another race's planet, or protecting your own against hostile culture?
3) Im a little confused by the power of fleets. Like I had 2 dreadnaughts get mauled by a bunch of smaller ships. What are some pointers about fleets. I feel like defense doesnt amount to much when 100 glass cannons come at me.
Fleets are powerful, probably most so in DL. The new combat system in the expansions reverses the capital ships vs. fighters scenario, but in DL, as only one ship can be targeted at a time, a swarm will often be able to destroy a much more powerful single ship. (Campaign tip: this is the best way to fight the Dread Lords). A large ship strategy isn't useless, but fighters are definitely at their strongest under the DL combat rules.
4) how do you guys build your ships defenses. Do you focus on one defense type or spread it out? what about offense.
Using multiple defense types is rarely, if ever, a good idea. Others can give you more details on the math, but in general it's best to have different ship designs for different defense types. If you're fighting an AI with a different kind of weapon, off-type defense should usually be enough until you can build new ships. As for offense, it's generally also good to have only one weapons type. Occasionally, if you have enemies with multiple sets of defenses and equal weapons tech in two weapons areas, you might consider using two types.
Your fifth question is probably better answered by one of the experts around here - I'm not into maximizing my gameplay.