The continuing rejuvenation of the Star Trek franchise continues apace with the release on blu-ray of season three of Star Trek The Next Generation. Seasons one and two have already been released to reviews ranging from positive to ecstatic although the quality of the digital mastering of the second release has come under fire from some fan quarters, making it necessary to recap here some of the details of the mammoth technical undertaking this release has required.
All prestige television series produced in the USA from the 1950s up to the early 2000s were shot on 35mm film which was the medium of choice because, although expensive and time-consuming to use, it delivered a very high quality image, made location shooting easy, was supported by a comprehensive technical infrastructure thanks to the Hollywood feature industry and was the principal medium of international exchange of television shows. Due to the widely differing technical standards from country to country, television programmes sold abroad were shipped on celluloid.
By the time Star Trek The Next Generation first aired in 1987 many TV programmes, although shot on celluloid, were being transferred to videotape for all editing and post-production work, including visual effects, as a cost-saving measure. For a technically ambitious TV show this was the only way to meet the tight deadlines and budgets involved but the downside was that the very high quality picture captured on the 35mm film was severely downgraded by its transfer to video, though this wasn’t really apparent in the eighties as most colour television sets of the period had, by modern standards, relatively poor picture quality.
With the advent of high definition televisions and blu-ray, CBS, now keepers of the Trek flame, realised that upscaled transfers of the original video masters wouldn’t stand the scrutiny and devised the audacious idea that it would be technically feasible and commercially worthwhile to reconstruct every episode from the original film and audio elements held in storage. Since then a dedicated team has scoured the Paramount archives and sourced the original camera negatives and sound recordings, transferred them to the digital realm and rebuilt every single finished frame from scratch. As some of the original effects elements are long-lost and have had to be recreated digitally as have some of the original CGI elements, this has been and continues to be a massive undertaking which is now paying dividends with this latest release.
The advent of season three of Star Trek The Next Generation in 1989 saw some significant changes both behind and in front of the camera as the show finally achieved its potential to become the classic it is now rightly regarded as. Rick Berman continued as the chief producer with Gene Roddenberry retaining an active if diminishing role. Michael Piller was hired to run the writing staff which saw a significant leap in script quality and Marvin Rush came onboard as the new director of photography and it’s his work in particular, as well as that of the wardrobe department, which is best-served by these blu-ray releases. Gates McFadden, sporting a brand-new wig, returned to the cast replacing Diana Muldaur who, I believe, had only ever signed up for one season as Doctor Pulaski. The season also saw the first significant redesign of Starfleet uniforms in response to cast complaints about the discomfort of the earlier ones.
All these elements together saw a noticeable rise in overall quality and resulted in season three containing more classic episodes and fan favourites than perhaps any other and being considered as among the best season of the seven. One of the significant changes Piller brought to the writing was to make each episode more character-driven instead of just being a planet-of-the-week story. He wanted to focus on a particular member of the crew each week to build the characters and audience loyalty. Top-notch episodes include The Enemy, The Defector, The Offspring, Sins of the Father, Sarek and, of course, The Best of Both Worlds Part One. Towering above these is Yesterday’s Enterprise which not only is one of the best episodes of Trek ever made but possibly one of the best time travel/alternate universe episodes of any television show. The season can also boast The High Ground, a terrorist story, which was initially banned by the BBC on political grounds and only later broadcast by them in an edited form.
The Enemy was a classic Cold War allegory in which Geordi is stranded on Galorndon Core and has to co-operate with a shipwrecked Romulan to survive. The same episode also saw Worf’s ruthless side emerge as he refuses to donate life-saving cellular elements to a dying Romulan which introduced the first sour note to Roddenberry’s prevailing utopia. The Defector similarly continued this allegory as a Romulan officer seeks political asylum aboard the Enterprise. The Offspring is a sequel to and perhaps even remake of The Measure of a Man as Data creates another Soong-type android aboard the Enterprise which Starfleet attempts to seize from him. A budget-saving bottle show is saved by an astute if sentimental script, light touches of humour and a perfectly-pitched performance from Hallie Todd as Lal, Data’s ‘daughter.’
Sins of the Father is a heavy-duty Worf story which kicks off the epic Klingon strand that would continue through all remaining series of The Next Generation, into the Generations feature film and throughout Deep Space Nine. Sarek was notable for being the first episode to feature a classic Trek character breaking a ban prevously imposed by Berman and Roddenberry. Mark Lenard gives a subtle and moving performance as the aged Sarek succumbs to dementia and his success paved the way for later appearances by Spock and Scotty. The Best of Both Worlds Part One saw the return of the Borg and a final reveal-cum-cliffhanger that rocked the audience.
The undisputed highlight of the season, however, is Yesterday’s Enterprise, a perfectly-pitched tale that sees the crew thrown into an alternate dark reality where the Enterprise-D is a warship engaged in a futile conflict with the Klingon Empire. This has been brought about by the disappearance of the Enterprise-C some twenty-odd years earlier which conveniently pops out of a time-space vortex right in front of the Enterprise-D and thus rewrites federation history. The episode also saw the return of Tasha Yar which would lead to the reappearance of Denise Crosby in later episodes as Tasha’s half-Romulan daughter Sela. Although written by committee and expected to be a disaster by the writers’ team, the episode works spectacularly well due to terrific guest actors, great performances from the regulars and very effective design and lighting changes to the familiar Enterprise sets.
I also have a soft spot for The Survivors featuring the late Anne Haney, one of the great unsung heroes of American television supporting artists, a ubiquitous presence in the eighties and nineties usually playing no-nonsense mature women in authority including the Bajoran arbiter in the Deep Space Nine episode Dax, she had such talent and integrity it’s a joy to see her again in this freshly-polished reminder of her work.
As mentioned, there were some criticisms of the digital compositing and mastering of season two, which due to time constraints, CBS were unable to do in-house and had contracted out to another company. I’m pleased to report there are no such concerns with this season which was produced in-house and looks stunning from the opening shot of the first episode.
Of course, stunning results can only be obtained if you have good materials to work with and director of photography Rush’s work is a revelation; facilitated by a change in film stock, he brought a new palette of colours to the show and a richer, almost painterly quality to every frame. An example of where this is most immediately apparent is his lighting of the second episode The Ensigns of Command.
By the production of the third season, lighting of the standing sets had moved to a standard lighting rig. Previously each and every shot was individually lit which, although atmospheric and flattering to the actors, was time-consuming. To save time and money, a standard generic lighting plot was introduced which unfortunately resulted in most of the bridge scenes now looking samey and somewhat overlit.
To compensate, Rush paid particular attention to many of the temporary sets and the lighting of the planetside scenes in Ensigns is breathtaking. His use of colour is bold yet atmospheric and the lighting is sophisticated. Colours are intense and refulgent and some of the set-ups resemble old oil paintings in the use of colour and interplay of light and shade to give form and depth. There is no comparison whatsoever between this blu-ray restoration and the drab, fuzzy DVD transfer. With cinematography of this high order it’s easy to see why CBS have been so keen to press on with the restoration.
It’s also worth pointing out that the digital restoration team have done a respectful job recreating many of the now-lost effects shots and have striven to copy almost exactly what went before with a few minor exceptions where glaring visual errors have been corrected. There are also very occasional shots where the modern team have subtly enhanced what went before to add a little more visual texture and life; I spotted one enhancement in The Booby Trap which made a subtle yet significant improvement to one scene.
CBS also continue to excel as far as value-added material goes; as well as including all the material from the original DVD releases, there are also commentaries on several episodes, a new round-table with writers Brannon Braga, Ronald D Moore, Naren Shankar and Rene Echevarria moderated by Seth MacFarlane whose knowledge of the series outstrips the writers’ own. Although starting out as a discussion of season three, it quickly extends into an overview of the series as a whole. The passage of time has also allowed the writers to relax a bit and they happily disparage their poorer efforts which is refreshing in these public relations driven times. It has to be noted that the sound mix is bit dense in this, but fortunately there is a subtitle track which assists in making out what is being said.
There is an excellent ninety minute behind the scenes piece split into three parts and featuring Ira Steven Behr and Melinda Snodgrass most prominently, perhaps a little drier than the equivalent pieces on the previous two releases with minimal cast input and nothing at all from supporting artists but it certainly passes the time and no-one holds back about many of the difficulties experienced off-camera trying to get the show on the air. Although everyone remembers the late Michael Piller very fondly, there is no attempt to gloss over his deficiencies as a people manager and there is also a separate short tribute to Piller featuring contributions from his family and Trek staff.
Possibly the extra of most interest to many long-term fans is the recovery of the three scenes originally shot by David Rappaport for The Most Toys. Rappaport was best-known now for Terry Gilliam’sThe Time Bandits and by 1989 he was an established guest artist in US television, and as is now well-documented, he was replaced during filming of that episode by Saul Rubinek following a failed suicide attempt. Tragically, a second attempt shortly after was successful and the original scenes have never been available publicly until now.
As an actor, Rappaport’s skills were limited but his physical stature and personality ensured he worked steadily. By all accounts he was a very difficult person to deal with and this hard edge comes across in his performance lending a ruthlessness missing from Rubinek’s characterisation of Kivas Fajo. Had Rappaport completed filming, this episode would have had quite a different tone to it more in keeping with the script. The final extra is the now-obligatory gag reel of Michael Dorn having trouble with his prosthetic teeth while other cast members walk into doors.
In summation, I can recommend this set without reservation. Anyone who has held off buying the earlier two sets shouldn’t hesitate with this one, as the care lavished on it is extraordinary and it is worth every penny.
Star Trek The Next Generation season three is now available on blu-ray, as is The Best of Both Worlds parts one and two as a standalone disc