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On April 28 Paramount will premiere a deluxe Blu-ray set of Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1. The original Trekkies (Trekkers?) are now pushing 50 at the minimum, but the appeal of the original Star Trek television series hasn't diminished. Strangely enough, I remember Trek being a sort of fringe-appeal show even when new; enthusiasm among my junior high school crowd was reserved for less mature TV fare, like Batman. That's not to say that I didn't build an Enterprise plastic model kit, just like everyone else.
We're told that the real Trek fan bonanza didn't begin until the show went into syndication several years later. By that time the cumulative impact of Gene Roddenberry's concept had sunk in. Star Trek was considered to be more than a collection of freestanding episodes, like the Wagon Train that never seemed to make it to California; each episode was a chapter in a larger Trek universe. Fans began to trace patterns and themes through the shows, as well as to map them out by studying the "star dates" announced in Captain Kirk's log entry voiceovers. What some reviewers dismissed a "submarine movie in outer space" now seemed a perfect space cadet soap opera. Fans took note of every detail and dialogue reference from Kirk's romantic encounters to various attempts to get Mr. Spock to reveal his "human" side.
1960s TV Sci-Fi had stagnated under the rotten example of Irwin Allen's unimaginative output. Thanks to Roddenberry's insistence that the Enterprise's five-year mission maintain an overall consistency, fandom reached a critical mass with Star Trek as had no show before. I remember seeing someone's Master's Thesis on "Cold War Policy and the Dissemination of Democratic Values" as exemplified by the show's liberal attitudes. Unlike the non-intervention philosophy of the later Next Generation series, Captain Kirk and his officers inject themselves proactively into the affairs of other planets, throwing their weight around and occasionally delivering ultimatums.
Star Trek began with a shrewd concept. What we initially criticized as a quickie borrowing of ideas from Forbidden Planet (phasers, communicators, planet investigations) proved to be a much more flexible story foundation. The Enterprise is a combination exploration vessel, warship and flying space colony. It explores new planets but also makes stops at established frontier outposts and contacts alien civilizations. Captain Kirk, sort of a John Kennedy of the 23rd century, spreads Democratic values while romancing multi-colored aliens and dealing with various exotic threats, the kind that invariably jeopardize the entire ship, if not the galaxy.
The military prerogative appears when the Enterprise confronts other hostile civilizations, clashes that always end in a practical compromise. Doves liked Star Trek because the futuristic "Federation" sees beyond Vietnam-like quagmires to a time when American values and reasoned restraint result in a civilized peace. Hawks were pleased because Captain Kirk enjoys a good brawl and is willing to duke it out with pirates, monsters and alien bullies.
Seeing Star Trek again after such a long time (and through the filter of its excellent 1980s follow-up The Next Generation) is an almost giddy experience. The Desilu Company gave the show terrific production values for 1966, yet we can't help smiling at the velour costumes, the "flashing lights" decor on the ship's bridge and the generally tacky interior sets representing the various planet surfaces. The ship's transporter room is a brilliant idea that eliminates the need for space landings. The show may have introduced the computer as an all-purpose exposition machine -- no matter what happens, someone can relay an instantaneous report on an unfamiliar planet or unknown life form -- excluding, of course, details that might solve the mystery too soon. The only real complaint is that Captain Kirk's voiceover log entries sometimes cheat, with passages like, "We aren't aware of it yet, but the away team has brought a deadly disease back aboard ship..."
The Mr. Spock character was a big deal in the 1970s; it's rather amusing that Spock keeps insisting that he has no emotions, when we can see him struggling mightily every time his personality is criticized or his libido tempted. Spock has feelings, it's just that he seems to be emotionally constipated. Roddenberry's approach to his characters favors rather obvious dialogue scenes where personalities are discussed out in the open. An early installment has the attractive Lt. Uhura literally come on to Spock right in the middle of the Bridge; the poor Vulcan gets no peace.
Roddenberry made the ship's first officer an alien, and populated his core cast with a refreshing ethnic spread, some stereotyped and some not. Dr. McCoy can be depended upon to grossly overreact to any crisis at hand, providing balance for the reserved Mr. Spock. McCoy's medical skills vary greatly depending on the needs of the particular show -- if a virulent mind-control parasite comes on board, the doctor will identify and isolate it neither too late nor too quickly. And it's true: Dr.McCoy does repeat his catch line, "He's dead, Jim!" more often than we'd think reasonable.
The other stalwarts on the bridge are the dependable Scots engineer, the eager Asian helmsman, and (a year later) a decidedly un-threatening Russian. That a sixties' network show could have a Russkie good-guy is a pleasing prospect, but trumping that achievement is Lt. Uhura, a Swahili beauty given equal status and respect with the rest of the crew. She was news in 1966; I remember issues of TV Guide touting the Uhura character as a broadcast milestone.
Sober critics will point out that most everyone on the show overacts, which is now one of Star Trek's great pleasures. William Shatner has more or less joined the ranks of journeymen actors like Peter Graves and Lloyd Bridges, solid almost-leading men that ended up lampooning their own careers in movies like Airplane! Shatner is always capable and charming in quiet scenes, and borderline silly in anything requiring emotional extremes. He's a perfect choice to enliven Star Trek, even when his eye makeup seems somewhat out of control. Leonard Nimoy's career was going more or less nowhere when Star Trek came around; he grabbed the attention-magnet Spock role and ran with it. Both nerdy and super-cool, Spock appeals to mild misfits everywhere, and his trait of being Logical: i.e., stating the obvious, provides a fine contrast with the demonstrative Dr. McCoy. DeForest Kelley has the most film experience of anyone in the cast, and seems to be having a fine time playing the outer space sawbones.
Having all the first season episodes lined up on this 7-disc set enables us to examine the tentative beginning of the show, with the pilot episode cleverly reworked into a two-part flashback story, and Dr. McCoy taking over from Dr. Piper, played by actor Paul Fix. More educated Trek fans can probably point out when subtle changes were made in costumes and Mr. Spock's makeup. Star Trek has been a fixture of home video for almost thirty years now. I resisted buying into the notion of collecting the myriad videocassette, laserdisc and DVD series and collections but this Blu-ray box is a real temptation. Paramount's big Trek campaign this year includes Blue-ray collections of the first series of original-cast Star Trek movies as well as sampler TV disc sets including episodes of the Next Generation TV series -- all in support of the launch of a new feature due out in a couple of weeks. Star Trek (2009) takes us back to Kirk and Spock's Starfleet Academy days, for what looks like a reverential reboot of the entire franchise.
Paramount's Blu-ray remaster of the Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 is a dazzling way to enjoy a show of undying appeal. The HD transfers highlight the NBC-mandated bright, colorful images designed to make the color televisions of the day look good. Wide shots on the bridge are evenly lit, but close-ups often throw in dramatic shadows and darker background choices, making it look as if the character cutaways for an entire show (or more than one show?) were filmed at the same time to economize. Star Trek has never looked this good.
Two years ago Paramount decided to replace many of the original 1960s optical effects with improved digital animation. Most of the effects are clean cutaways without human figures, so replacing them editorially is no problem. When possible, alien landscapes are also replaced, as are ray gun blasts, etc.. The Enterprise is the original issue, a cross between a flying saucer and a NASA rocket, still looking porcelain-white but with added running lights and engine nacelle effects. The replacement shots mimic the originals without jazzing them up too much; likewise the planetary artwork is done with restraint, and generally cuts in well.
When these "Enhanced" visuals were introduced to DVD I was aware of some grumbling on the web. This Blu-ray set offers a choice of viewing the episodes enhanced or with the original opticals in place. Seamless branching accomplishes this without having to double-encode every episode; one can switch between versions using the Angle button on the player remote.
The audio can also be toggled between the original mono tracks and a new 7.1 Surround Sound mix.
The seven discs contain a number of extras, most dating from 2004 and 2007. The featurettes promote the notion that we all should feel a vested interest in the Star Trek franchise, a cherished institution. Paramount executives (several of whom talk about seeing the show as small children) work up considerable enthusiasm during on-camera appearances, as do the actors interviewed.
The restoration featurette reports that the music cues in the new mix are newly re-recorded with an identical orchestra, and emulate the originals in full detail. Music expert Jon Burlingame tells us that composer Alexander Courage was asked to make his main theme sound like an old arrangement of the standard "Beyond the Blue Horizon", and we can hear the similarity. Youthful visual effects experts stress that they purposely avoided modernizing or re-interpreting the shots, but the featurette ends with a set of examples in which they indeed add new elements, like a scene in which the Enterprise releases a series of satellites. All of these enhancements look great, as when the stiff "Gorn" monster's eyes suddenly blink.
Reflections on Spock gives Leonard Nimoy a chance to discuss his relationship to his career-making role; he defends his "I Am Not Spock" phase and makes sure we know that he directed two of the movies. William Shatner also reminds us of his varied accomplishments, but his personalized featurette concentrates totally on his picturesque but irrelevant equestrian pursuits. Shatner takes a half-joking attitude to most issues concerning the show. We get the distinct feeling that producing a comprehensive docu on Star Trek is a minefield of thorny personalities and conflicting agendas: those most vociferously enthusiastic about the franchise (executive, producers, writers) are the ones with an ownership stake.
Other featurettes are spread out over the seven discs. To Boldly Go ... examines the first season, presenting amusing anecdotes about individual episodes from Nimoy, Shatner and the late associate producer Robert Justman. Ricardo Montalban offers welcome observations about his famous episode, Space Seed. The longest featurette is The Birth of a Timeless Legacy, which happily is more than a chorus of self-congratulation. Robert Justman, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei discuss the show's breaking of racial barriers -- the network wanted Lt. Uhura recast when it discovered that Ms. Nichols would be playing a featured role with substantial dialogue.
In a piece on the show's writers, story executive Dorothy "D.C" Fontana explains that Gene Roddenberry wanted real science fiction names. Ted Sturgeon advised her to avoid introducing more than one major new concept at a time, a rule that kept storylines from becoming too confusing. Robert Justman told one writer to fashion a show after the old submarine movie The Enemy Below. That sounds like cheating until we realize that Star Trek episodes were similarly ripped off: The feature film The Final Countdown with its "timewarp" aircraft carrier-vs.-Japanese Zero plot is awfully similar to the Trek episode Tomorrow is Yesterday, in which the Enterprise navigates a timewarp and is attacked by a modern Air Force jet.
"Kiss 'n' Tell is a lightweight piece about the women on the show. The dated insistence on "space babes" is glossed over, as Shatner refuses to discuss the matter seriously. George Takei and Walter Koenig aren't sure why they mostly got left out of the skirt-chasing scenes. Takei wonders on camera where his daughter, introduced in one of the subsequent movies, came from -- there was no hint that Lt. Sulu was ever in a relationship with anyone. Billy Blackburn's Treasure Chest interviews actor William Blackburn, who played a navigator and various other minor show characters. An unpretentious storyteller, Blackburn sneaked an 8mm camera onto the set and filmed some amusing home movies.
An additional extra called Starfleet Access enables a pop-up picture-in-picture trivia track that plays through selected episodes. Also welcome are the "Coming Attraction" preview blurbs, which serve as helpful trailers for unseen episodes. The "Interactive Enterprise Inspection" is an elaborate 3-D tour of the spaceship's various features, an architectural HD fly-around of the highly recognizable craft.
The seven discs come in a fat keep case with several interior disc holders ... on my copy, the last disc doesn't want to stay stuck and comes loose, so I need to take care not to drop it while opening the case. The overall menu design is exemplary. Navigating through the extras is not difficult and the menu instructions are easy to figure out. This highly recommended disc set is an excellent way to revisit the Star Trek TV show.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.