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Paramount is putting forth a strong commitment to Blu-ray, at least in terms of films post-1970. They must have been working on this pricey (but heavily discounted) boxed set of Star Trek movies for quite a long time, as the six features on seven discs add up to more than 25 hours of entertainment and extras.
The Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection Blu-ray boxed set is the centerpiece of a major product push accompanying this Spring's franchise reboot with the new movie titled simply Star Trek. Both this box and the monster Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 Blu-ray set from a couple of weeks back will be appearing on personal wish lists for months: "Let's see, if I still have a job by July, then I'll buy it for sure." A second Blu-ray box contains only the central trilogy of feature episodes two through four.
Each disc comes in its own slim case in an attractive white box. The only flaw in the viewing experience are the promotional trailers for the new movie and the TV Blu-ray box that begin every disc ... and must be skipped over. Although by absolute standards quality does change over the six features, I found the 1080p HD transfers almost as perfect as discs made from new releases. 1
Some fans have voiced dissent over the unavailability of individual titles. The popular rule of thumb is that the even-numbered Treks are the keepers and that the odd numbered ones are the losers. After seeing them all again, I think that #3 The Search for Spock is a good series entry as well.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979): The fan momentum for this first big-screen installment was so great that the movie itself didn't have to be particularly good. TMP plays like a talky, padded TV episode. Our favorite characters are re-introduced but have little meaningful interaction. Empty tech chatter fills in the holes and the movie is almost completely devoid of action. The draw is supposed to be Douglas Trumbull's special effects, which are mostly loving views of the newly designed Enterprise (actually created in pre-production by the effects company of the fired Robert Abel) and "ooh ahh" vistas of alien gas clouds & a colossal, menacing object on a collision course with Earth. The cast mostly watches the galactic travelogue on the Enterprise's new Panavision-shaped view screen. That means that the film's drama consists of watching people watch TV. Surprisingly, the much-touted 65mm effects fall apart when it comes time to make optical composites. Travelling mattes are poor, as are some of the matte paintings -- possibly because the video transfers are a bit too bright.
I've written more about Star Trek: The Motion Picture in a review of the DVD Special Edition from eight years ago. Director Robert Wise can't do much with a tired storyline sourced in one of the original TV shows. Its main threat reminds us of the 1975 novelty record by Peter Ferrara and Bobby Boris Pickett, "Star Drek". In that spoof the Starship "Booby Prize" battles a "colossal negative space wedgie of great power".
Persis Khambatta's Ilia character appealed to female fans but drones on with more of the script's endless exposition. Fans loved seeing their heroes again, lapping up nuggets like Dr. McCoy's one reasonable dialogue line: "Well, lucky for you we happened to be going your way."
Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan (1982): The series got a fresh start with its second outing, picking up producer Harve Bennett, who somehow straightened out the ego and control rivalries that made Robert Wise unhappy on #1. For the next few episodes the franchise really hit its stride.
Under the direction of Nicholas Meyer The Wrath of Khan rediscovers what entertainment can be when liberated from the strictures of franchise worship. The TV series was sometimes criticized as a "submarine movie", but this script is a great submarine movie. Lively banter flows between the beloved characters, especially Mr. Spock, who constantly demonstrates emotional reactions despite claiming that he hasn't the capacity.
The movie has plenty of action. The slam-bang special effects are a welcome break from Trumbull's sober pictorialism. Industrial Light and Magic's ambitious producers cut their teeth on the Trek movies with adventurous, risky effects of superior design. The Wrath of Khan's extended "battleship" duel comes off quite well, re-establishing Shatner as a clever & resourceful tactician.
Actually, the best acting turn is by Ricardo Montalban, whose return as Khan is one of his very best roles. Montalban handles the vengeance schtick well, and is not embarrassed by the dialogue borrowed from Melville (while Shatner riffs on Dickens). The show has a great character payoff, with Spock laying down a surprise sacrifice for the good of the team ... and a terrific trick ending that reminds us of our emotional investment in the Trek characters.
Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock (1984) had to be concocted at the same time as #2; I can't believe the producers were serious about killing off Spock, especially when his resurrection is so well set up. Solid plotting, more Captain Kirk tactical tricks and nostalgia for the doomed Enterprise work well, overcoming the film's slight tendency toward bathos. The Vulcan spirituality hocus pocus is also successful.
Leonard Nimoy's direction is just fine; he teases even more character touches out in the open. DeForest Kelley's piggyback split personality gag is an easy idea to mess up, but it sails smoothly. Christopher Lloyd's fanatic Klingon character is fun to watch as well. We're happy that Kirstie Alley got involved with the Cheers TV show, but her replacement Robin Curtis isn't bad. It's also nice to see Miguel Ferrer in a brief bit.
Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home (1986) is the payoff, fun movie of the series. Once again the Earth is threatened by a Space Wedgie (looking rather similar to pocketbook art for Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama) but the emphasis is on light-hearted character fun back on present-day Earth. The literal "Save the Whales" theme is sweet without being treacly. Catherine Hicks is almost too weepy-liberal as a whale-hugging idealist, but she does get the choice moment of laying a 20th-Century brush-off on Captain Kirk: Thanks for the ride to the future, and you're a swell guy. Bye!
Nobody is stuck at a computer station reading exposition. Every one of the regulars, even Nichelle Nichols' Commander Uhura, gets a chance to stretch with good material. The writing becomes genuinely witty as soon as the bridge officers land on the sidewalks of Market Street. Walter Koenig is interviewed by military intelligence experts for sneaking aboard one of the U.S. navy's "Nuclear Wessels". Faced with "barbaric" 20th Century medicine, Dr. McCoy cures incurable diseases with a single pill. James Doohan tries to get a PC computer to work by talking into its mouse. As for Spock, he must cover his ears with his terrycloth Vulcan bathrobe, becoming just another freak on the bus to Sausalito.
But the best detail is when Kirk pulls out a communicator in a restaurant. Catherine Hicks looks at him like he's crazy. Today of course, everybody talks into tiny (or invisible) phones at any time they please. It's strange to discover what aspects of movies suddenly stick out as dated!
Director Nimoy is generous to everyone in what is a celebratory film with no overt violence or tragedy -- none of which is missed. The picture is a joy to watch, with the only caveat to my opinion being my own happy experience watching my own small children become excited about our heroes' mission to save the whales from extinction. Yes, ecology is more complicated than that, but "Save the Whales" is their version of my own 1950s "Smokey the Bear" experience. The Voyage Home is positive stuff for little kids. And Spock gets to swear (mildly).
This center trilogy is some of the best studio franchise-husbandry on record. The Voyage Home ends on a satisfactory note of a job well done. Curiously, the movies succeeded by not aping the grandiose visions of 2001; whenever Trek attempts a deep message, it falls flat on its face. The movies consistently succeed when they continue the rich character dynamics of the original TV show.
As if giving equal directorial time to its other star, Star Trek 5: The Final Frontier (1989) puts William Shatner in a co-writing and directing role. The result is the only real stinker in the original batch of Trek movies. Naturally, this show centers on Captain Kirk, the mountain climber and horseman. The story is a jumble of incredibly trite ideas, starting with a space odyssey to "find God", who is not on the planet Mars as imagined by the koo-koo 1952 Sci-fi film Red Planet Mars, but on a screwy desert planet at the center of the universe. God hides behind an impenetrable cosmic barrier, the kind that are always penetrated a few minutes after we hear about them. Good actor Laurence Luckinbill is a James Jones- like cultist named Sybok, a born-again Vulcan who brainwashes people into his cause. He takes over a trio of diplomats (including David Warner, who is ignored almost all the way through the movie) and then the Enterprise, forcing Kirk to take the Enterprise to meet its maker.
Sybok's mind games prompt a trio of embarrassing soliloquies by Kirk, Spock and McCoy. These traumatic episodes from their past somehow motivate them to go "off to see the Wizard" with Sybok. 100 minutes of boring talk later, "God" does indeed turn out to be a cosmic con man neither omniscient nor all powerful. He also has a floating disembodied head, not unlike the movie Zardoz.
Fans criticize William Shatner's direction but the basic idea and script sink The Final Frontier; it's the kind of bad idea kids think up in junior high. Nothing about the production is in the least bit distinguished; the desert setting of the beginning is a pale imitation of Luke Skywalker's home planet in Star Wars. When doors and elevators don't work (and talk back) to Captain Kirk on the dysfunctional new Enterprise, we again wonder if somebody had listened to Star Drek too many times. The film's profound spiritual advice prescribes singing "Row Row Row Your Boat" around a campfire, not searching for your heart's desire over the rainbow.
Star Trek 6: The Undiscovered Country (1991) has a political allegory at its center, the end of the Cold War. That real-world situation is applied to the demise of The Klingon Empire, which has wiped out its future in the reckless pursuit of warfare. The movie asks us to believe that the Klingons (The Soviet Union) are irresponsible warmongers, while the responsible Federation (The U.S.A.) only wants peace and harmony for everyone.
The fairy tale politics of that premise prompt a sneaky diplomatic plot to create a false attack that will re-ignite hostilities between the competing Empires. The Undiscovered Country is a conspiracy film and a detective story as well, cleverly plotted and competently directed by Nicholas Meyer -- at least until its ending, a weak replay of The Manchurian Candidate.
Interestingly, the movie serves as a pleasant final bow for the original series cast, some of whom seem ready to journey to the stars in wheelchairs. Their animated signatures actually "sign off" the film; as sentiment goes it is more direct and less annoying than the ghostly curtain calls that conclude the Star Wars films. The thoughtful character arc shows George Takei's younger officer Sulu with a command of his own, while the nearly white-haired Captain Kirk questions his own fitness for duty, writes bitter anti-Klingon sentiments in his logbook and refuses to put his trust in diplomacy. The movie ends with old Cold Warriors realizing that younger braves must take over, trying to elicit a nostalgia akin to John Ford's She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
Mark Lenard returns once again as Spock's father, and a fine supporting cast (Kim Cattrall, Brock Peters, Kurtwood Smith, Christopher Plummer) assay the main roles. We also get David Warner, John Schuck and The Next Generation's Michael Dorn as spirited Klingons, who have changed in character into something less brutal. I suppose all we've seen before are barbaric Bird of Prey captains. The makeup is excellent for these alien Klingons, with Christopher Plummer's Asian-Klingon a particularly successful makeup design. Too bad that the script has Plummer reciting non-stop Shakespeare quotes, a lazy way to try to lend class to the proceedings. The movie has almost everyone coughing up quotes, and it becomes annoying.
The effects move firmly into the digital age, giving us purple blood bubbles blobbing around when killers turn off the Klingon's artificial gravity. No more will we see mismatched traveling mattes shimmering around objects. ILM appears to stick with miniatures and high speed photography as the best way to represent explosions and fire.
The Undiscovered Country was supposed to be the end of the original cast, but the next feature would feature a sort of relay hand-off to the Next Generation cast. Nobody from the original cast returned after Kirk's final appearance in Star Trek: Generations.
All of the features in Paramount's Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection Blu-ray boxed set look good, especially the first. I thought #2 was a bit dark but other sites report that they like that transfer the best. The effects are generally fine throughout, with some "garbage matte popping" visible even on the ILM pictures. Matte paintings seem to want the slight blur of theatrical projection to make them fit in better -- some vistas and the green Klingon ship hijacked in #3 and #4 can look flat and fake. Overall the Star Trek series was the proving ground for the then-peerless ILM, before CGI leveled the pixel-crunching playing field.
Watching all the movies in a row allows us to compare composers. Jerry Goldsmith's monumental theme for #1 picks that static movie up and keeps it on its feet; we can tell that the music is working overtime when each cutback to the V'ger cloud is accompanied by a harsh electronic sting. James Horner's themes are very memorable in #2 and #3; both composers' work is as firmly established as the original Alexander Courage TV music. Leonard Rosenman's score for #4 has riffs further developed in his powerful "city suite" theme for RoboCop 2. Goldsmith's "God" theme for #5 reminds us of Alfred Newman's work on the classic Leave Her to Heaven.
The Captain's Summit Bonus Disc is a 70-minute Blu-ray round table discussion / gab fest with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. Its exactly the kind of anecdote talk that Trek fans want to hear, with the 'executive crews' of 30 years' worth of Enterprise missions on their best behavior.
That brings us to the voluminous extras on the six feature discs, all of which are organized into categories familiar to the kind of fan who studies Show Bibles and continuity concordances. New HD features include multi-speaker commentaries, news film of actors getting their sidewalk stars on Hollywood Blvd. and sidebars on actors, stuntmen & composers. Ongoing Starfleet Academy featurettes explain the back stories of major plot points or planetoids, as needed. The larger featurettes collect making-of interviews. We hear a lot from Harve Bennett on his decade-long run of franchise success, as well as Leonard Nimoy's "I don't hate Spock" speech for the umpteenth time. The upshot is that these actors are all personable and generous with their participation. It's important to remember, however, that it's all the inside story told by men who earn money from the Trek galaxy of fan memorabilia. God help the hardcore collectors of this stuff!
This doesn't count the quizzes (BD-Live), factoid and definition resources (organized as if generated by a "Library Computer) and big doses of featurettes and other content produced for earlier, non-HD video releases. Fans already into the franchise need only to know of the existence of this set to outfit themselves with Blu-ray capabilities and push the button marked "Boldly Go". Newcomers will no doubt get hooked on the Starfleet adventures as well, ensuring that Paramount will live long and prosper.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. More input from advisor Gary Teetzel, 5.17.09: Trek II & VI also had Director's Cuts -- not represented in this theatrical cut-only set. Although I don't think much of the new effects done for The Motion Picture, some of the added live action scenes are an improvement. II (Wrath of Khan) adds a scene or two establishing that Scotty's nephew is working in engineering; he's killed during Khan's first attack. I think there's also an extra scene between Spock and Kirstie Alley's Lt. Saavik character.
The Director's Cut of VI (The Undiscovered Country) has an added scene that makes the politics of the film more complex -- there are more men on BOTH sides who would rather cling to old antagonisms than seek peace. -- Gary Teetzel.
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