Star Trek: The Next Generation: Season One (US - BD RA)
Gabe stumbles through the growing pains of Next Gen in glourious HD...
Despite a long and forgiving relationship with the Star Wars series, a screener supplied from the generous folks at Paramount have led me to write a whole lot more about the other popular, seemingly unending sci-fi series with a stellar title – Star Trek. I assume we as nerds/geeks have arrived at a point where we are no longer preoccupied with the false assumption that there’s somehow a competition between George Lucas’ and Gene Roddenberry’s fan bases and do not want to imply that my occasionally blind affection for Star Wars is in conflict with my more passing fondness for Star Trek. Trekkies/Trekkers/Star Trek Fans should take my growing respect for their favourite property as a testament to its enduring quality. All this said, I’m really not a fan of the series’ second television incarnation, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and parts of the series section of this review will probably come across as confrontational.
My experience with Start Trek mostly comes out of the theatrical releases, which were kind of an accidental Christmas ritual when I was a child. These films, even the bad ones ( The Final Frontier), hold a pretty big part in my heart and those tender feelings moved me to watch Next Generation with the rest of nerd-America when it premiered in 1987. The behind the scenes story and eventual success of Next Gen is a genuinely inspirational tale of what a passionate fanbase can achieve. It’s rare that interest in a genre property can find a new audience just over two decades after its original incarnation was canceled for a sizable lack of interest. It’s even more rare that said initially (relatively) unpopular series can be reintroduced to enough popularity to spawn seven seasons, three spin-off series (two of them popular), and four feature films (the closest similar example I can recall is Firefly, which achieved only a single unpopular film spin-off). It’s a remarkable achievement.
But looking back on the series that rebooted Star Trek into a full-blown phenomenon, I’m kind of surprised by how, well, dull it is. In a way, this isn’t exactly a negative criticism, as Next Gen ended up largely achieving exactly what Roddenberry intended. Roddenberry approached science fiction with an early ‘60s idealist’s eyes, which leaves the original show and this follow-up with a distinct lack of conflict. The original show was best when exploring abstract and philosophical concepts that had never been touched upon by television or film sci-fi, but the most memorable episodes were usually built around strong villains, which led to strong conflict and even, on occasion, violence. That or some concept so kooky it’s impossible not to giggle along (note: not at). The first time Star Trek was reintroduced to audiences, it was in the form of the overlong, crushingly dull, but beautifully filmed Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which fulfilled all of Roddenberry’s initial goals for his property. Later the keepers of the kingdom largely removed Roddenberry from the equation and made Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and a classic, continuously beloved film was born. Roddenberry didn’t exactly embrace the rest of the films in the original crew canon (he hated my personal favourite, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, for all its political intrigue), but was an integral part of Next Gen (despite initially avoiding involvement).
From what I understand, even fans tend to agree that the first season was comparatively weak aside from a handful of episodes, and that the joy of watching the series evolve remains the best reason to revisit it. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Next Gen began to pick up when Roddenberry’s involvement decreased due to poor health. Eventually this led into a more fully-formed Star Trek universe and mythology that was largely unhampered by, well, Roddenberry himself, and into the property’s strongest television series – Deep Space Nine. Deep Space Nine (which also took a few seasons to hit its stride) utilized all of Next Gen’s greatest strengths and married them with less elegant and idealistic concepts, like modern politics, prolonged warfare, and serialized story structures. Still, there’s no mistaking the strength of most of these characters right off the bat. None of them would go on to be Kirk or Spock-sized pop-culture touchstones, but many are recognizable outside the Star Trek fanbase, and most of the actors involved have come to find themselves defined by these roles.
In this case the season’s overall weakness doesn’t equate an utter lack of gem episodes even non-fans will likely appreciate. These start with the pilot episode, Encounter at Farpoint, which eloquently sets up the basics of the new series without wasting too much time on the usual ‘origin episode’ shenanigans (save some dopey expositional dialogue). It’s also a solid introduction to one of the best Next Gen ‘villains’, Q, the Star Trek equivalent to Mr. Mxyzptlk and other Jungian archetype tricksters. The Naked Now helps set the series’ tone, and puts a straight, or at least ‘adult’ face on a very silly subject previously explored by the original series (though DS9 did basically the same thing better without Wesley Crusher). Where No One Has Gone Before explores intriguing surrealist moments and features very pretty, remastered special effects. Justice is another amusing throwback to the original series and H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, appropriating the tropes with a Next Gen slant. The Big Goodbye introduces the genre-jumping options made available by the Holodeck and features cameo appearances from Lawrence Tierney and the ageless Dick Miller. Datalore is the first of many Data-centric episodes, which would become a large part of the basis for the Next Gen feature films and introduces Data’s twin Lore, another recurring antagonist. Though I find the Klingons the most boring diversion on DS9, their continued mythology is important, and Heart of Glory kicks off Worf’s complex relationship with his people (which lasts through both Next Gen and DS9).
There are three episodes here that might be considered in league with the series’ best. These begin with Skin of Evil which, goopy monster effects and occasionally hilarious ‘horror’ aside, manages to take itself just seriously enough. Conspiracy is my personal favourite. This horror show episode takes inspiration from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s The Thing, anticipates the espionage that flows throughout Deep Space Nine, and features a cameo from the incomparable Michael Berryman (it’s also the first episode I ever saw during the show’s original run). The last of these ‘classics’ is The Neutral Zone, which is both an impressive standalone, ‘man out of time’ science fiction story (cryogenically frozen people awaken in Star Trek time) and a mythology-building, Romulan re-introduction episode.
When Paramount released the original Star Trek on Blu-ray, they proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that, assuming it was well maintained, old television could look just as great as old movies in 1080p HD. Even those of us that knew what the format was capable of were taken aback by how vibrant and clean the decades-old footage was. I was again skeptical of what Next Gen would look like on Blu-ray because I wrongly assumed that it was shot on video, which cannot be presented in 1080p (or even 720p) without ‘upconverting,’ a process that never yields satisfying results. It turns out I’m mostly ignorant to exactly how common it was for ‘80s and ‘90s era live-action television (outside of studio audience sit coms) to be shot using 16mm or (better yet) 35mm film. Next Gen was shot on 35mm, which, aside from something unrealistically expensive like 65mm or 70mm, is the ideal format for the pre-digital era. And looking at the original DVD release I can now see Next Gen had plenty of room for improvement.
When I heard the series was coming to Blu-ray I was afraid that the collection’s producers would see fit to re-frame the 1.33:1 episodes in a widescreen friendly 1.78:1. Paramount knew better than to reframe the original series, and I’m relieved to see they knew better than to reframe this one as well. Looking at the episodes again, I now see that the analogue TV-friendly framing is more or less nonnegotiable. Character close-ups tend to feature plenty of head space, but wider shots involving multiple characters would be bereft of valuable visual information. By directly comparing the DVDs to the Blu-rays I also noticed that the SD transfers were ever so slightly stretched, which means the 1080p remaster has a more natural structure and a teeny bit more information on the right and left sides of the screen. My second biggest fear was that the remastering process would include a lot of digital noise reduction. There are obvious signs of DNR, including some occasionally waxy skin textures and flattened highlights. These are most apparent in facial close-ups, many of which I’m guessing were originally shot somewhat softly to disguise facial blemishes. Overall, however, DNR is minimal, made apparent by natural (glorious) grain levels that change, based on lighting and colour quality. Some viewers will likely complain about the grain (others may claim it’s closer to CRT scanning noise, which may be correct in some cases), but they have unrealistic expectations of the 35mm format and unfortunate aesthetic tastes.
Details are definitely sharper than any television or DVD version and are really only hampered by the original footage (there are so many erect nipples). Comparing the DVD transfer I notice the biggest improvement in clothing, prop textures, and the separation of background elements. The DVDs (and, I should note, the Netflix streaming episodes) are handicapped by a series of digital compression artefacts, including edge haloes, blocking effects, and at worst, interlacing effects, all of which deaden details even further than an average 480p transfer. These are all but entirely eradicated on this release, save a couple of minor blocking effects on a handful of shots. The colour quality changes are not as vast as those seen on the original series’ Blu-rays, but there’s no mistaking the vast improvement. Not only are colours sizably more rich and vibrant, there are big advancements made in terms of colour separation. The repeating hues, such as uniform and lighting effects, are far more consistent, and colours of similar hues are more clearly differentiated. The SD transfers are also left wanting for yellows and oranges. Here, the warmer elements, specifically skin tones, are given the yellow boost they need to appear more natural (it is verified in the behind the scenes footage that the original notes on colour correction were utilized during the restoration process). There are still some minor bleeding effects (especially those red suits), but the only measurable shortcoming here is some over-crushed blacks. The sharp edges and deep nature of the blacks is quite attractive, I’ll admit, but shadows are often deepened to a point that detail is lost, especially on the darker costume pieces. The black and dark blue/green pieces of the uniforms are flattened quite a bit and some detail (zippers, pleats) go missing altogether.
The original broadcasts of Next Gen featured analogue Dolby SR/LTRT stereo-surround sound, which means the original DVD producers had something to work with while remixing the series into a 5.1 Dolby Digital format. I don’t recall the sound of the DVDs all that well, but have watched the same sound design crew’s Deep Space Nine discs semi-recently and have fond memories of a solid and natural remix. According to the supplemental footage this newly minted DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix was made from scratch using the original source material, not the Dolby Digital tapes. Some viewers and fans will likely be disappointed that these DTS-HD presentations aren’t particularly impressive when compared to modern, big budget television releases. The truth is that Next Gen isn’t aurally comparable to Lost or Battlestar Galactica, and it never will be without sizable editions to the existing soundtrack, which I am usually not a fan of on principle. There are only a few examples here of the production crew gleefully over-doing it in terms of stereo and surround spread.
Some of the more impressive sequences (those that do not entirely betray the series’ humble beginnings) include a booming trip past Warp 10 on the episode Where No One Has Gone Before, a giant, omnipotent voice on the episode Justice, the crystal entity zipping about the channels throughout Datalore, and some excessive, explosive laser effects towards the climax of Conspiracy. More subtle directional and immersive effects include Holodeck and planetary ‘natural’ ambience, and the constant hums and beeps of the ship sets. These mixes are generally quite clear but there are cases of inconsistent dialogue track volume and a couple dozen crackles and pops at high volume levels. The music is given a sizable ‘re-spreading’ along the stereo and surround channels, creating a powerful dual wall of sound. I might’ve preferred just a bit more of a central musical element (it’s present in the center channel, but rarely in the center of the room), and occasionally the score sounds a bit tinny, but those opening titles are downright breathtaking.
*Edit, 8/2/12: Paramount has verified an audio error on some episodes. The quote from the studio reads: "There are some episodes that inadvertently had their front channel designations incorrectly mapped, resulting in an undesired playback experience when listening to them in a 7.1 or 5.1 Surround Sound environment." I apologize for missing this while reviewing the set, and will try not to let my guard down while watching hours and hours of content next time I get a TV season.
The extras begin on disc one with Energized! Taking the Next Generation to the Next Level (23:50, HD), a look at the restoration of the original 35mm source material. This includes plenty of valuable before and after comparisons (including attempts at 16x9 composition) along with interviews from scenic art supervisor Michael Okuda, scenic artist Denise Okuda, visual effect director Craig Weiss, producer Rick Berman, film transfer tech Wade Felker, compositor Eric Bruno, and a collection of techs and artists that recaptured the series special effects. Part of the remastering process included restoring the special effects from the original source negative. Originally, the producers tried ‘upconverting’ the special effects footage, which was composited and edited using SD video, but the effect was deemed unacceptable compared to the rescanned 35mm film. The increased image quality of the effects here is so dramatic I had assumed it was achieved largely through Lucasfilm-style digital reboots, but it turns out this is only part of the story. Digital enhancements are mostly delegated to meticulously recreating lost electronic and laser effects, detail tightening on some of the background planets, and rebuilding some of the effects that were already digitally created. The bulk of the restoration process was more focused on scanning the original 35mm miniature effects and re-compositing them under the watchful eye of the Okudas. The only additions fans might be unhappy with are the digital set extensions, which do smell an awful lot like Star Wars: Special Edition stuff. For the most part the alterations are subtle. The more valuable among these improvements, which works beyond the ‘cool’ factor, are the improved differentiations between characters and solid set pieces, and the occasionally blue screen enhanced background screens. That fuzz around the edges is no longer an issue. Disc one also includes vintage promotional material, including an EPK (2:40, SD), three promo pieces/trailers, and a season one recap (4:50, SD).
Disc six extras start with the three-part Stardate Revisited: The Origin of Star Trek: The Next Generation documentary. Part one, Inception (28:30, HD), covers the long journey of bringing a new Star Trek to television, including the process of constructing characters and stories, casting Stewart, and designing the sets and costumes. Part two, Launch (32:10, HD), continues with the casting process and make-up designs. Part three, The Continuing Mission (32:40, HD), covers more production design, fan reactions, going over-budget, special effects, Denise Crosby ditching the show, and Roddenberry’s ongoing issues with the series. These all include behind the scenes footage, camera tests, and interviews with Roddenberry, executive producers Rick Berman, David Livingston and Bob Justman, consultant David Gerrold, associate producer D.C. Fontana, illustrators Andrew Probert and Rick Sternbach, set decorator John Dwyer, The Okudas, make-up designers Michael Westmore and Doug Drexler, production designer Michael Zimmerman, effects coordinators Gary Hutzel and Dan Curry, and actors Stephen Macht, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Gates McFadden, Wil Wheaton, Michael Dorn, Denise Crosby and Marina Sirtis. The final disc also features an old, fan-made gag reel (8:10, SD), and archival features, including The Mission (18:00, SD), Selected Crew Analysis (15:20, SD), The Making of a Legend (15:30, SD) and Memorable Missions (17:00, SD).
I still don’t love Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it is nice to revisit these often sloppy, occasionally great early episodes and there’s no mistaking the huge leap in quality on these Blu-ray discs. The care put into these 1080p transfers approaches monumental, and it’s incredibly easy to overlook a handful of remastering errors. The sound quality is also much richer than the DVD releases and well balanced throughout the 5.1 channels. The extras aren’t quite extensive, but I quite enjoyed the documentaries as a knowledgeable outsider. Now if only we could fast forward to a time where they’ll be doing this kind of extensive makeover to Deep Space Nine…
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality. They were taken from a series of stills Paramount released to advertise this release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 24th July 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English, German and Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish
Extras: Energized: Taking Next Generation to the Next Level, Stardate Revisited: The Origin of Star Trek the Next Generation, Episode Promos, Archival Launch Footage, Original DVD Features
Easter Egg: No
Cast: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Brent Spiner, Denise Crosby, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Wil Wheaton
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama and Sci-Fi
Length: 0 minutes
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