"Let's see what this Galaxy Class starship can do."
It's very fortunate that the TV climate of the 1980s was more receptive to 'Star Trek' than that of the 1960s. Lest we forget, the original series was a ratings flop that barely managed to string out three seasons on the air. However, it built a fan base in reruns and syndication that eagerly lapped up the franchise's transition to feature films. By 1987, 'Star Trek' had produced four blockbuster movies and was a formidable brand name with a loyal and ever-growing audience. Creator Gene Roddenberry took the opportunity to bring 'Trek' back to television with an all-new show, featuring an all-new cast. Thus was born 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', which created a cultural sensation that would grow to eclipse its predecessor in popularity, despite the fact that (let's be honest about it) the first couple seasons of the show pretty much stunk.
A decade earlier, Roddenberry had attempted to launch a prototype version of 'The Next Generation', then to be called 'Star Trek Phase II', for what was to be a new Paramount TV network. When Paramount's plans for the network fell apart, 'Phase II' was scrapped. Elements of it were reworked into 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture', while others wouldn't see fruition until 'TNG'.
'Phase II' had been planned as more of a direct extension of the original series, with roles for many of the old cast members. Because the movies then filled that need, Roddenberry chose to push his new show eight decades further into the future, a time when technology would have advanced considerably beyond the days of Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. That was the plan, anyway. In practice, the biggest advances over the original series were that the starship was capable of traveling at Warp 8 speed instead of just Warp 6 (arbitrary numbers in either case), and the crew's new spandex uniforms finally solved that wrinkle problem over which Roddenberry was strangely fixated. On the other hand, the change in setting and a respectable budget allowed for a snazzy new visual design and (for the day) state-of-the-art special effects.
When it finally premiered, 'The Next Generation' was in many ways a thinly-veiled remake of the original show. Here we follow the adventures of the fifth Starship Enterprise (sixth if you buy into the later ret-conned prequel series). Where 'The Original Series' had an emotionless Vulcan science officer, 'Next Generation' had an emotionless android. Many of the early scripts were reworkings of old episodes. Fortunately, this proved not to be too much of an issue for the new generation of viewers picking up 'Star Trek' for the first time. More problematic was a whole lot of clunky writing and stiff acting as the show's production staff and cast struggled to find the chemistry and tone for the new series.
'Encounter at Farpoint', the two-hour pilot episode, does the requisite job of introducing our new characters: stalwart Captain Picard, dashing First Officer Will Riker, Data the android, blind engineer Geordi LaForge, and so forth. We also meet the omnipotent troublemaker Q, who will play a big role in the series' run. Beyond that, unfortunately, the episode is a stodgy affair with comically broad acting and stilted dialogue. The thinly-sketched Picard is, frankly, kind of a jerk here. Extras in the background of crowd scenes look practically catatonic. The storyline, about a planet whose inhabitants exploit the magical properties of innocent space jellyfish, is rather silly. The episode also features a pointless cameo from Deforest Kelley in old-age makeup as the 137-year-old Dr. McCoy, and an action scene that showcases the ship's ability to separate its saucer section for entirely unnecessary reasons. The holodeck sure is neat, though.
Growing pains like these lasted pretty much a full two seasons. The show wouldn't really find its footing until Season Three. In episode 'Sins of the Father', security chief Worf returns to his Klingon homeworld to stand trial for a crime that his father allegedly committed. The episode provides a lot of information about Klingon culture and the race's devotion to matters of honor, as well as introducing backstory about Worf's origin and the Khitomer Massacre that would be referenced several times later in the franchise.
Season Five's 'The Inner Light' is one of the series' most high-concept and fondly remembered episodes. In this one, Picard is knocked out by a beam from a mysterious space probe and wakes up in a rural farming commune where all of the natives believe him to be a man named Kamin who just recovered from a bad fever. They treat him like he's suffered hallucinations and memory loss. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise bridge, Picard's body lies unconscious and the crew tries to figure out how to wake him up (though, strangely, they never bother to take him to Sick Bay). With seemingly no hope of rescue, Picard settles into a life as Kamin in the colony, where in his perception he lives for decades, has a family and advances to old age, all while only minutes pass back in the real world. This is a very philosophical and melancholy episode that helps to show just how far Picard's character had developed since his early origins as an uptight stick-in-the-mud.
Watching these three episode back to back also clearly exposes the amusing arc that Riker would take. He starts as a svelte and clean-shaven young officer, takes on authoritative airs by growing a beard, and eventually settles into pudgy complacency as Picard's perennial "Number One."
'Star Trek: The Next Generation' ran for seven seasons in all and spawned four of its own feature films. Among many fans, this cast is even more beloved than the original crew. Though flawed, the show's popularity is a testament to the enduring power of Gene Roddenberry's vision.
In preparation for a more comprehensive Complete First Season box set due later in the year (and further season sets to follow), CBS Home Entertainment and distributor Paramount Home Entertainment offer this Blu-ray sampler disc containing three fully restored episodes of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'. The disc is being marketed under the awkward title 'Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Next Level', and the even more awkward subtitle "A Taste of TNG in High Definition."
The disc comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with slipcover (identical cover art). Upon playback, you will be prompted to choose a menu language. This happens every time. Following this is an annoying but skippable promotional ad for the upcoming first season box set. All of the disc's menus are 16:9 in aspect ratio and are cleverly styled to mimic the LCARS computer interface made famous in the show.
The Blu-ray's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is an astounding improvement over any previous broadcast or video release of the series. Until now, the circumstances of the show's production limited it to very poor picture quality. DVD editions were a blurry mess, even by DVD standards. Although the episodes were photographed on 35mm film, that footage was originally transferred to standard-definition video for all editing and post-production work. Therefore, the final masters for the episodes were locked to late-'80s/early-'90s standard-def video. In order to restore the show to high-def quality, CBS had to dig through its archives to locate every original reel of film, re-transfer it all in new high-def quality, and reconstruct each episode from scratch using the original editing logs. This was a massive undertaking, much more work even than the restoration of 'Star Trek: The Original Series' (which had the benefit of being edited on film back in the '60s).
The results are a revelation. The episodes on this disc are crisply detailed, with rich contrasts (the blacks of space are truly inky) and vibrant colors for the most part. As explained in the disc menus, 13 seconds of footage from episode 'Sins of the Father' could not be located on film and had to be upconverted from SD video. You'll know the scene immediately when you see it. It looks like absolute garbage in comparison to the rest of the show. Fortunately, the problem is very brief.
Unlike 'The Original Series', very few of the show's special effects have been replaced with new CGI substitutes. (Some upgraded phaser blasts and transporter beam effects look very true to the original intent.) The majority of special effects are the original models and miniatures as photographed during production, seen here for the first time with greatly improved clarity never before possible. For example, a flyby shot of the Enterprise passing a planet would have been shot in several passes: one background plate of the star field in the distance, one layer with the planet, one pass with the Enterprise model lit by external lights, and one pass with the model in the dark, lit from within to illuminate the windows. These were all combined on standard-def analog video the first time around, which left the final composite rather fuzzy. Here, the original layers have been digitally recomposited in high definition, and reveal an impressive level of detail that was always hidden from view.
That's not to say that the image quality is perfect eye candy material. The episodes can be quite grainy, especially 'The Inner Light'. I personally wasn't too impressed with the digitization of the grain, which often has the texture of video noise. Some specks on the source material haven't entirely been cleaned up, and shadows occasionally exhibit a crushing of black details. The reds of the Starfleet uniforms tend to fluctuate in vibrancy from scene to scene, and episode 'Sins of the Father' has a yellowish tinge in flesh tones. I can't be certain whether that's an issue with the photography or a color-grading problem with the restoration. The enhanced clarity is also sometimes too revealing of focus errors, matte painting backgrounds, chintzy sets and less-than-impressive old-age makeup. However, all of these flaws are relatively minor and well worth the tradeoff for everything gained. Once you see these episodes, you'll never be able to go back to watching the show on DVD again.
Even though the disc menus will fill a 16:9 screen, all three episodes have been transferred at a 4:3 aspect ratio, as they were composed and originally broadcast. Like the Blu-ray editions of 'The Original Series', pillarbox bars appear at the sides of the screen. Since this disc was first released, some nit-picky fans have compared screen shots of the Blu-ray to the same episodes on the older DVD editions, and have found some framing differences. The Blu-ray usually has a little more picture around the edges, except for episode 'Sins of the Father', which seems to be cropped on all four sides. This is not something that I noticed while watching the disc, and I doubt that many viewers will be able to tell the difference without a direct side-by-side comparison. Further, framing differences like this are not unusual when dealing with two completely separate film-to-video transfers. The composition doesn't look any more cramped to me than the other episodes on the disc, which I would chalk up to a stylistic decision of late '80s television programming, when it was expected that that entire audience would be watching on small low-def TVs.
The quality of the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks isn't nearly as impressive as the video restoration. The original stereo soundtracks have been remixed into 7.1 format, to little benefit. Although I've read some complaints from viewers that the tracks had too much music bleed to the rear channels, in my room they remained mostly focused in the front soundstage with little noticeable surround activity. Bass is boomy yet doesn't extend very deeply at all. The music (especially in 'Encounter at Farpoint') is often thin and brittle.
This isn't to say that the soundtracks are unlistenable by any means. Dialogue is clear and intelligible at all times. Some auditory details, such as the creaking leather of Klingon uniforms, comes through very nicely. However, anyone expecting these episodes to have feature film quality soundtracks, or even the quality of a modern TV production with 5.1 sound, will likely be disappointed. They sound like what they are – a TV show from the '80s, with all the limitations inherent to that.
In some respects, listening to the Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks on the disc through Dolby ProLogic IIx processing may yield better results in terms of soundstage balance and surround bleed. However, I didn't test this extensively.
Since the studio has not released a comparable DVD edition of the 'Next Level' sampler, any bonus features on the disc should be considered high-def exclusives.
This sampler disc of episodes from 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' is exactly what the tag line on the packaging claims. It's a "taste" of the show's high-definition restoration. These aren't necessarily the best episodes of the series, but they offer a delectable appetizer while we wait for the main courses to come.
This may not be an essential purchase. Some fans of the series have already decided to skip this sampler and wait for the Complete First Season box set due later in the year. (Others may even skip that and wait for Season Three.) That's fair enough. For those without so much patience, this disc's low asking price makes for a very appealing tide-me-over in the meantime, especially given that two of the episodes won't appear in box set form for possibly a couple of years.