First generation Trekkies such as myself (and I proudly scorn the Trekker label) know only too well how shamelessly Paramount-as-was kept putting out old wine in new bottles over the years. I long ago gave up keeping track of the number of times Trek has been repackaged and reissued in all its incarnations, but one glaring omission from the conveyor belt has been the lack of The Next Generation and its successors on blu-ray.
The problem in bringing it to the format was the manner in which the series was put together in post-production. Like the original series in the sixties, prinicipal photography took place on 35mm film which is, to all intents and purposes, the original hi-def visual format, and it had been a long-standing practice since the fifties for prestige television series in the USA to be filmed on 35mm. Courtesy of the Hollywood film industry, there was a well-established infrastructure for handling this medium, and as television stations around the globe had wildly differing technical standards, celluloid became the preferred medium of international exchange, making overseas sales of shows filmed in that format much easier.
Lower-budget shows of the time such as Doctor Who were produced on videotape but had to be transferred to film for foreign sale – hence why old prints occasionally turn up at car boot sales. The original Star Trek was physically edited and effects optically compiled on film, but on The Next Generation, the rushes were transferred to magnetic tape and all editing and post-production carried out on that medium. By the late eighties there was a significant shift in practices in US television and post-production was moved from being primarily celluloid-based to magnetic tape-based.
In television production; time is money and deadlines are crucial, and the immediate advantages of magentic tape are that editing becomes quicker and easier and, more significantly, visual effects can be added faster and less expensively. The biggest disadvantage is the massive drop in picture quality, somewhat mitigated by the fuzzy picture quality on American television sets of the time, though now vastly evident on modern screens. This effect was exacerbated when the tapes were transcribed to different technical standards around the globe, with colour values and contrast suffering markedly when episodes were converted from American NTSC to UK PAL; the BBC received many complaints when Dallas switched to this production method in the late eighties and everyone wondered why Texas now had turquoise skies and JR and Sue-Ellen had magenta skin.
Come the advent of blu-ray, it was relatively easy to transfer 1960s Star Trek because every episode existed on celluloid masters, but The Next Generation existed solely on videotape masters which looked pretty fuzzy in standard definition and were a dead loss when upscaled to hi-def. Fortunately, the original 35mm camera negatives still existed in the vaults. If they had been time-indexed and the original editing logs were accurate it should be a relatively straightforward task to scan in said negatives and electronically compile every episode – just give the computer the relevant time indices and it’ll pull off a rough cut instantly, I imagine. The bulk of the work would then be in grading the image, recompositing the visual effects and remastering the soundtrack.
In the case of The Next Generation, I believe most of the visual effect elements were shot on film but composited on tape with some effects (phaser beams, transporter effects etc) added electronically. What CBS, who now own the Star Trek properties, have done here is digitally re-composited the surviving film elements and recreated the extra effects. They have avoided, wherever possible, replacing effects shots wholesale with new elements (as with the original series remasters on blu-ray) and instead recreated the look of the original effects using modern techniques. There have also been a few subtle enhancements, such as when the Enterprise slides under the opening credits, the conference room now has a computer generated interior with various crewmembers visible. Unfortunately, not all the upgrades are successful; in Encounter at Farpoint, the new insert of the Enterprise transferring energy to the Farpoint “space jellyfish” creature is weirdly lit and looks very out of place when compared with the original modelwork of Industrial Light and Magic.
In terms of overall quality, there is just no comparison between this and the DVD – it’s more than just ‘having your windshield cleaned’. Not only is the image considerably sharper but the colour balance is now more natural, fleshtones are lifelike, the image is less contrasty and we finally have true blues and greens. The pinkish-red hue that dominated the season one DVD releases has gone, although everybody bar Data now sport glowing Californian tans. As the eighties moved into the nineties, the post-production process was considerably refined and the colour problems had largely been sorted out by season three, so the overall difference in quality is less marked in the two later episodes included in this sampler, Sins of the Father and The Inner Light.
While the image presented is still much sharper, what is noticeable now is a graininess in certain scenes which would have been mitigated by the transfer to tape but has been highlighted by the upgrading process, but considering we are looking at 25-year-old film shot in considerable haste it’s not remarkable. Anyone accustomed to seeing 21st-century HD shows such as Fringe with its pin-sharp resolution will perhaps find the image rather soft and grainy, however the biggest problem for some people will be the screen ratio. Shot in open-matte to be transmitted on old televisions with a 4:3 screen, The Next Generation was never intended to be masked down to any widescreen format and CBS have preserved that framing. For those that object to a “narrowscreen” image, most widescreen televisions have an option to zoom and reframe the image to the viewer’s preference.
As far as the effects shots go, the six-foot Enterprise model is extremely impressive and is a tribute to its builders. The jump into warp under the opening credits no longer has the jarring discontinuity as the models are switched, which raises a downside of the project. The counterpart 4-foot model of the Enterprise was designed to be easier to photograph than the 6-foot original, featuring more prominent surface detailing to register better on the television screens of the time, but while the larger model now looks sleek and classy, the smaller looks clunky and crude. On the plus side, the soundtrack has been given a 7.1 remix which will require a home cinema setup to be truly analysed and appreciated, but even the stereo mix is atmospheric and impressive. The show had some very fine artists working on it, and the make-up, costumes and props hold up extremely well under scrutiny; Diana Muldaur, when interviewed during season two, remarked how high the production values were for a television
show at that time, and the evidence is here.
On the whole, this sampler is very impressive, notwithstanding Encounter at Farpoint being glacially slow, talky and overwrought; there were many better episodes from season one to showcase, although the feature length premiere episode was a logical place to start. The key decision on whether full season sets will be required buying upon release will depend on whether the price will be reasonable, but it is to be hoped that if this reissue of The Next Generation is commercially successful, the team will next turn their attention to Deep Space Nine, which will be an essential purchase.
Star Trek The Next Generation – The Next Level is now available on blu-ray