As much as we may look back at 'Star Trek' as an enduring cultural institution, the show had a very difficult time capturing a mass audience during its original broadcast run from 1966 to 1969. In fact, it had such low ratings that the NBC network was ready to cancel the series after its second season. 'Trek' was only brought back for one additional season due to an aggressive letter-writing campaign waged by zealous fans. The network relented, and renewed 'Star Trek' for a third year, but hedged its bets. They cut the show's budget again, and shifted it to a Friday death slot where it was guaranteed to fail. The same young, hip viewers that were the show's core audience were also the sort of people unlikely to stay home to watch TV on a Friday night. As expected, ratings continued to plummet until NBC had no choice but to pull the plug.
During this time, creator Gene Roddenberry became discouraged and stepped away from active production of 'Star Trek' to focus on developing other projects. The show's remaining producers exerted most of their efforts trying to attract (or retain) an audience, often to the detriment of core essentials like interesting storylines or quality screenwriting. The third season of 'Star Trek' is, without question, the show's weakest. Most of the series' poorest episodes are found here, perhaps most exemplified by the season premiere, the lamentable 'Spock's Brain', which is widely (and justifiably) regarded as the very worst episode of 'Star Trek'. Even the premise is just plain dumb: a race of bimbo female aliens steal Spock's brain to use as the CPU in their compound's computer system – which prompts Kirk, McCoy, and Spock's roboticized body to go fetch it back. The episode is badly written, badly acted, and ridiculously campy in ways more cringe-inducing than fun. "Brain and brain! What is brain?"
Sadly, that's far from the only dog in this pack. Other notorious stinkers include 'And the Children Shall Lead' (which puts famed attorney and occasional actor Melvin Belli in a flowery muumuu as a creepy pedophile alien who causes a bunch of annoying kids to rebel against the Enterprise) and 'The Way to Eden' (the notorious "space hippies" episode). Even an episode critical to the show's mythology like 'The Enterprise Incident', although generally better, starts off excessively contrived and is filled with illogical plotting. Erratic writing and inconsistent characterizations plague almost the entire season. Keep an eye on William Shatner's performance for a good indicator of which direction any given episode will go. The actor was smart enough to recognize a bad script, and often tried to compensate by hamming it up more, as if to distract from the deficiencies in storytelling. If Shatner seems more over-the-top than usual, that's not a good sign. When he had a good script to work from, he was more likely to reign in his performance.
By the time the year drew to a close, the show's production staff knew very well that there would be no fourth season in store for them. Unfortunately, it was not common practice at the time to produce a proper series finale that might tie up any lingering storylines or bring closure to the characters. As such, the last episode, the gender-swapping 'Turnabout Intruder', makes a very poor finale with absolutely no acknowledgment that the 'Star Trek' adventure was ending.
And yet, the third season has some good episodes too. 'Spectre of the Gun' gives us a surreal, Western-themed story that's pretty entertaining. 'Day of the Dove' has a group Klingons trying to take over the Enterprise, which is always fun, and even shows us our first (old-style) Klingon female. (She's cute enough that Chekov tries to score with her!) A number of episodes, even if flawed, have intriguing concepts, like the benign non-corporeal aliens whose appearance will drive men insane in 'Is There in Truth No Beauty?', or the aliens in 'Wink of an Eye' that move at a speed too fast for humans to detect. Others attempt to tackle relevant social issues like racism ('Let That Be Your Last Battlefield') or overpopulation ('The Mark of Gideon'). I can't think of any episode in the third season that I'd mark among the show's best, but there are a few legitimate 'Trek' classics here such as 'The Tholian Web' and 'Plato's Stepchildren', the latter of which made history by featuring the first interracial kiss ever to air on American television.
The third season collection is also where we find 'The Cage', the original 'Star Trek' pilot episode starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. It's a fascinating, 1950s-style sci-fi tale with a notably different performance from Leonard Nimoy as Spock (the only character to survive the recasting for the subsequent pilot and series). Footage from 'The Cage' was later carved up and interspersed as flashbacks into the first-season episode 'The Menagerie', but the episode didn't air in its original version until 1988. Because the studio has insisted on presenting all of the show's episodes in broadcast order, this one is traditionally placed last and tacked onto the end of Season 3.
Once more, the wizards at CBS Digital have thoroughly restored all of the episodes (even 'The Cage') for these Remastered versions. A big part of that involves replacing many of the original, dated special effects shots with shiny new CGI. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, I find the new visual effects to be tastefully done and genuinely helpful in enhancing appreciation of the series.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
CBS Home Entertainment (through their distributor Paramount Home Entertainment) brings 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 3' to Blu-ray. The studio previously released the show's first season and second season on the format earlier this year. The Blu-ray once again contains both the new Remastered versions of the episodes and the original versions with their 1960s special effects. The alternate footage is seamlessly branched from each episode, allowing you to toggle between the old and new versions on the fly by selecting the camera icon in the pop-up menu.
The third season Blu-ray packaging is very similar to the earlier two. The 6 discs are housed in a multi-disc keepcase with slipcover. However, the keepcase this time is noticeably slimmer than the others. The first disc in the set opens with two annoying promos before the menu.
An episode listing is printed on the backside of the cover art, visible through the plastic case. As before, the episodes are presented in their original broadcast order, not their production order. If you wish to watch the episodes in production order, you have to sort that out by reading the "Mission Stardate" trivia notes on the episode list. Because it was not broadcast until 1988, well after the series had been cancelled, 'The Cage' is presented as the final episode in the set. Other than 'The Cage' (which is set before Captain Kirk took charge of the Enterprise, and thus could be viewed as a prequel), the episodes in the third season have no ongoing storylines and will not cause any continuity problems regardless of which order they're viewed.
The third season of 'Star Trek' has undergone the same loving restoration as the earlier two. In fact, because the show's episodes were not remastered in chronological order, many from this season were completed at the same time or earlier than those from Seasons 1 and 2. The source elements have been dramatically cleaned of dirt, debris, and scratches. Even many original production limitations that were previously "baked in" to the picture (such as hairs or grit trapped between optical composite layers) have been digitally painted away. Some imperfections remain, and the old special effects footage (although upgraded to high-def) was obviously not restored at all. Nevertheless, when combined with the high-definition resolution and all-new visual effects (if you choose to watch them), the result is an almost revelatory new look at a familiar show.
The 1080p/VC-1 transfers are presented in the show's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with pillarbox bars on the sides of the frame, as they should be. Although all of the episodes were restored in the exact same way, the original episodes themselves suffered from a budget cut after the first season. The production quality of episodes in the second and third seasons is generally sloppier than the first. The photography is often grainier, softer (with many missed focus cues), and not as expressively lit. This is reflected in the restorations, perhaps more so than was visible in TV broadcasts of the past. Season 3 irons out at least some of these problems in comparison to the second season. It doesn't have nearly the wide swings in picture quality from episode to episode (or even scene to scene within episodes) that we saw in Season 2. However, it's still obviously softer and flatter than Season 1. Just compare the restored version of 'The Cage' to any other episode in this set, and you can't help but be struck by the difference in production values.
Even so, for a low-budget TV series from the 1960s, 'Star Trek' looks terrific, and far better than it ever has before.
(It's also worth noting that the show's opening titles were changed to a blue font color in Season 3, rather than the yellow used in the first two years.)
I hate to repeat myself, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtracks on Season 3 are every bit comparable in quality to those of the first two seasons. Since I have nothing new to add, all I can do is reiterate what I've said before. Every word still applies.
The show still isn't a slam-bang auditory powerhouse, but the remixes do a good job of cleaning up and tweaking the original material while retaining its flavor and intent. Each episode remains primarily anchored in the front soundstage, with few gimmicky or inappropriate surround effects. In many episodes, there may be one or two instances of obvious movement in the rear channels. Generally speaking, dialogue and most sound effects remain in the center channel, with the musical score spread out to a mild stereo dimensionality. The audio is clean and clear, if not particularly aggressive in envelopment or dynamic with bass. The show's theme has been freshly recorded from a new orchestration and sounds terrific.
Purists will be pleased to know that the studio has again provided the show's unrestored monaural soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono format. You can choose this audio over either version of the episodes. Unfortunately, it is significantly weaker in quality and fidelity.
The Blu-ray carries over all of the bonus features found in the comparable DVD box set of these Remastered episodes, which was released in late 2008. Many of these were originally created for the non-Remastered DVD box set from 2004.
All of these supplements are clustered on the last two discs of the Blu-ray box set.
It's an unfortunate fact that 'Star Trek' took a nosedive in quality during its third season. Many of the episodes here are among the show's worst. But there are still some good ones too. Even the bad ones are usually fun. Despite its flaws, the third season remains an essential part of any 'Star Trek' fan's collection. The Blu-ray box set is on par with the earlier two seasons, and is just as highly recommended as those were.