When I first heard that 'Star Trek: The Original Series' would be undergoing a 'Star Wars'-style complete digital makeover, in which all of its 1960s model and miniature special effects would be replaced with modern CGI, frankly I was appalled at the news. I outright despise the tinkering that George Lucas has imposed on 'Star Wars', and refuse to watch those movies in anything other than the original theatrical versions as I first saw them. And now the same was going to happen to 'Star Trek'? Doesn't everyone realize that its datedness is a big part of the charm and appeal of 'The Original Series'? The miniskirts and crazy costumes, the chintzy sets, goofy monster makeup, and hambone theatrical acting -- these are all things to cherish. 'Star Trek' is a product of its era, and should remain so.
But then a funny thing happened. Images from the new "Remastered" versions of the episodes were released, and they didn't look so bad. Statements by those implementing the changes (including renowned 'Trek' experts Michael and Denise Okuda, writers of many 'Trek'-related books and the pop-up trivia tracks accompanying earlier DVD releases of the shows and movies) actually made some good, valid points about the work they were doing and the need for it. So now we have it, the complete first season of 'Star Trek', episodes dating from 1966 to 1967, here revamped, refreshed, and revitalized. And you know what, I think it's great. Despite my skepticism, I've officially been won over.
Here's the difference between the revised versions of 'Star Trek' and 'Star Wars': The people updating 'Star Trek' aren't trying to change everything. Although the prints have been cleaned and the visual effects modernized, there are no goofy flying robots buzzing around scenes just to show off, no crappy deleted scenes that should remain on the cutting room floor needlessly reinstated, and no significant alterations made to the plot or the fundamental personalities of the characters. This is still 'Star Trek' as Gene Roddenberry envisioned it in the 1960s. The material has been treated with absolute loving respect and even reverence; it's just been spruced up a little to brush away the cobwebs of age and of the severe production limitations faced at the time.
So what exactly has been done to the show? Most obviously, almost every single space shot involving grainy stock footage of the Enterprise model dangling on wires in front of plastic schoolroom globes has been replaced with a fresh digital rendering that orbits credible-looking planets. It's still the Enterprise we know and love, recreated down to the last detail (even the silly glowing orange tips on the warp nacelles), just cleaner and less obviously toy-like. The shots run the same length and usually retain the same content and composition. The impulse to add stuff to shots or to make everything look sleeker and flashier has been largely resisted, and the restraint is often admirable. Many of the original effects, like the cartoonish phaser blasts and shimmery dissolves, haven't been touched at all. Many that were cleaned up were designed specifically to go unnoticed. The old matte paintings in the background of shots are sometimes tweaked a bit, but they still look like matte paintings. The aliens in ridiculous costumes haven't been digitally wiped out and replaced with complex CGI creatures, even when that might have been for the best; he may now blink, but the Gorn is still just a guy in a bad rubber monster suit. When the Enterprise jumps to warp speed, it cruises through the shots with the same movement it always did; no one has tried to add in the slingshot warp effect used in 'The Next Generation'. The work of the original artists has been respected. The intent isn't to change the show, but rather to restore it. This is what the producers of the series would have wanted it to look like if they'd had the budget and the technology at the time.
That being the case, occasionally some major alterations do creep in. Sometimes they're necessary, such as replacing a matte painting in 'The Menagerie' to correct a continuity error concerning the scene's time of day, but sometimes the digital artists are a little overzealous in wanting to wow a modern audience. On some alien planets, wide establishing shots have been inserted where previously we saw only close-ups and medium shots. This is helpful at times, but unnecessarily distracting at others. In some instances, the new visual effects are too ambitious in scale and detail, and look out of place mixed with the cheapie physical sets and props. (The contrast is especially jarring in 'The Galileo Seven', where elaborate shots of the shuttlecraft flying through a beautiful green ion storm cut away to interiors set in a small room with blank gray walls and a handful of plastic chairs). There are also a few cases where the new effects just look a little video game-y, but those are fortunately rare and certainly no cheesier than the originals.
What surprised me the most about the Remastered 'Star Trek' is how well the majority of the new footage blends right into the old. While the differences stand out in a few occasions, in most others the transition is amazingly seamless (a claim that cannot be made about the revamped 'Star Wars'). The new effects serve to pull you into the stories and the universe Gene Roddenberry created, not knock you out of them. I must admit that I'm a lot more impressed than I expected.
As for the show itself, 'Star Trek' remains a nearly ideal blend of campy fun, exciting adventure, and surprising intellectual depth. It's really a series of morality plays, psychological character studies, and philosophical treatises set within an outrageous science fiction backdrop. The show may be remembered most for its Technicolor sets and costumes, William Shatner's hammy charisma, and its goofy alien monsters, but the material thrives on the strength of its writing and the chemistry of its cast. There's good reason it has so far inspired five spin-off series, eleven feature films, and undoubtedly more on the way.
Although it took a little while to find its footing, this first season is arguably the show's best, and contains many of its most iconic episodes. 'Where No Man Has Gone Before', 'The Naked Time', 'Mudd's Women', 'The Corbomite Maneuver', 'Balance of Terror', 'Space Seed', 'Devil in the Dark', and 'City on the Edge of Forever' are just some of the gems found here. Sure, there are a few clunkers like 'Shore Leave', 'The Galileo Seven', and the finale 'Operation: Annihilate!' that even the best special effects updating in the world can't rescue from their inherent cheesiness. Even these turkeys have been lovingly restored with the same care and attention as the season's finest. They're mercifully few in number, and nowhere near as bad as the way the show would fall apart in its third season.
The film purist in me likes having the old versions of the episodes around, but the 'Trek' fan in me had a blast watching the new ones. It truly felt like discovering something special for the first time all over again. 'Star Trek' is classic television, and these newly Remastered episodes breathe fresh life into a series that had grown a little too comfortable with familiarity over the years.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
CBS Home Entertainment (through their distributor Paramount Home Entertainment) previously released 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1' on the HD DVD format in November of 2007. That 10-disc box set was very impressive, but it contained only the Remastered versions of the episodes, and was burdened with some gimmicky (and quite flimsy) packaging. For the show's belated Blu-ray debut, the studio has made a concerted effort to correct what few flaws the HD DVD had.
For one thing, the Blu-ray set is stored in new, much more practical packaging. The season's 29 episodes are encoded on 7 dual-layer BD-50 discs held in a simple, multi-disc keepcase with a slipcover. It's compact, good-looking, and much less likely to crack into pieces during shipping. Rather than the prior set's Data Cards, the Blu-ray has an episode listing printed on the backside of the cover art (visible through the plastic case).
Most importantly, the Blu-ray edition 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 Blu-ray also offers the original mono soundtracks that were previously omitted. To top it all off, the Blu-ray's MSRP is $70 less than the HD DVD retailed for.
Annoyingly, Disc 1 opens with a very loud trailer for the 2009 'Star Trek' feature film reboot before the main menu.
The episodes are presented in their original broadcast order, which causes a few minor continuity problems. Dr. McCoy appears in the first two episodes, 'The Man Trap' and 'Charlie X'. The actual pilot episode 'Where No Man Has Gone Before' aired third, and features a different Chief Medical Officer (Dr. Piper). 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. However, it should be noted that this box set does not contain the first produced pilot episode ('The Cage' starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike) that was rejected by NBC. We can expect that episode at the end of the eventual Season 3 box set.
Although the episodes have been re-encoded using VC-1 compression for Blu-ray, the results look virtually indistinguishable from the prior HD DVDs (which used AVC MPEG-4). Considering that both look pretty terrific, that's far from a complaint.
Befitting a television series produced in the 1960s, the 'Star Trek' Blu-ray set retains the show's original 4:3 aspect ratio, pillarboxed into the center of the 16:9 frame. This includes all of the new visual effects footage, which was technically rendered at a wider 16:9 ratio but is center-cropped to 4:3 here. In fact, in preparing the Remastered episodes, the studio struck three separate high-def transfers: one at a consistent 4:3 ratio (the version available in this box set), one that varies between 4:3 for live action footage and 16:9 for visual effects (X-Box Live users may have downloaded episodes in that format), and one with all of the live action footage cropped and stretched to 16:9. As far as I'm concerned, the 4:3 version is the most appropriate and the only one worth considering.
It should go without saying that the quality of television broadcasts (not to mention the TVs themselves) in the 1960s were nowhere near the standard available today. Even the show's syndicated broadcasts over the decades have rarely captured the vibrancy of its original photography. By the time the series was released on DVD, the episodes there already looked significantly better than anyone had ever seen them before. The 1080p/VC-1 transfers in this Blu-ray set take things to the next level, revealing a world of detail that viewers in the 1960s could scarcely imagine was available. The high definition imagery is clear enough to resolve the powder of the actors' makeup, the hairs on Shatner's chest, and the pockmarks of George Takei's bad complexion. Ironically, the seams in many alien costumes and the frayed edges of the Starfleet insignia on Kirk's uniform expose budgetary limitations previously hidden by less-detailed transfers.
With that said, the show's style does at times limit the amount of detail visible. Every single close-up of an actress, for example, was photographed in soft focus. The difference in focus between the male and female actors may not have stood out as much in standard definition, but here is almost comically apparent. In addition to its fresh telecine transfer, the show has had much of the dirt and age-related defects from the source elements digitally erased. Not everything was cleaned up, though, and there are quite a few surprising instances of visible dirt and damage. Still, it's much cleaner than we've ever seen it before.
'The Original Series' is famous for its garish costumes and sets. The purity and almost surreal vibrancy of colors in the new transfer far exceed that of earlier DVD releases. The yellowish tinge of Leonard Nimoy's makeup in the early episodes is much more obvious here than it's ever been before. (The thinking at the time was that Spock's green blood would leave his skin with a jaundiced look, an effect that was toned down as the series progressed). Contrast has also been digitally tweaked to enhance black levels and depth, effectively highlighting the show's expressive lighting schemes, but also sometimes leading to crushed shadow detail.
On the downside, the show's photography is frequently grainy, sometimes quite a bit so, and the grain is not always adequately digitized. It appears that noise reduction has also been employed to tame the worst of it, a process that softens detail at times and can cause its own artifacts. Viewers with keen eyes will notice posterization and pixelation problems in a number of episodes, notably on the wall behind Kirk at time code 28:30 in 'Charlie X'. A first instinct may be to blame the VC-1 compression, however the same artifact is present at the same spot on both the DVD and HD DVD editions of these Remastered episodes. Whatever the cause of this problem (likely aggressive noise reduction or digital recoloring), is part of the master, not something specific to the Blu-ray encoding. For what it's worth, the same scene in the pre-Remastered 2004 DVD set does not show any pixelation.
For obvious reasons, if you watch the original 1960s versions of these episodes, the picture quality takes a dramatic drop as soon as any of the old special effects shots appear. The old footage has been transferred in real 1080p high definition, but suffers from the multi-generational compositing processes used at the time. These shots almost uniformly look faded and extremely grainy. They stand out pretty badly when intercut with the lovely restored footage in non-effects shots.
Nitpicks aside, 'Star Trek' has never looked this good before. It's not perfect, and some episodes look decidedly better than others, but overall the high-def transfer certainly brings a whole new life to the series.
In another change from the HD DVD, the show's soundtrack has been re-encoded from Dolby TrueHD 5.1 to DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. Don't get too excited about the addition of two new channels, because the mix almost never uses them. In other respects, the TrueHD and Master Audio formats are both lossless, and sound identical to one another.
As with the updated visual effects, the purist in me takes issue with the show's original monaural soundtrack being remixed to stereo or surround. Fortunately, those qualms were put to rest as soon as I heard the results. The mixers have been very careful not to lose the flavor of the original sound. Each episode remains primarily anchored in the front soundstage, with few gimmicky or inappropriate surround effects as have plagued some other 5.1 or 7.1 remixes of previously mono tracks.
The show's theme has been freshly recorded from a new orchestration and sounds wonderful. The Enterprise now whooshes from the front speakers to the back during the opening credits. 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. This may not be an auditory powerhouse like modern feature films, but the soundtrack is appropriate and respectful of the original material.
Speaking of the original material, CBS/Paramount has also seen fit to provide the show's unrestored monaural soundtracks in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono format. You can choose this audio over either version of the episodes. Fidelity is naturally a bit thin, but that's likely more an artifact of age than the lossy codec. Even though I had no serious objections to the remixes, I'm very pleased to see the original tracks included as well.
The Blu-ray set carries over almost all of the bonus features found on the HD DVD, which were a mixture some new content and some recycled from the 2004 DVD release of the pre-Remastered first season. We'll start with those ported over from the DVDs.
Almost all of my concerns about the Remastered episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series' were put to rest when I finally saw how tastefully the visual effects changes were implemented. There is a world of difference between the loving care taken to restore this classic TV series and the tacky desecration that George Lucas imposed on his 'Star Wars' movies. I went in with skepticism, and came out a believer.
The high-def transfer has a couple of faults, but is by and large a joy to behold. This new Blu-ray box set makes several improvements over the earlier HD DVD. The $129.99 list price is still on the high side and may put off many fans and casual viewers. For those who love 'Star Trek', it's absolutely worth the expense.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.