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Star Trek: The Original Series - The Complete First Season
"Space... the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life, and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." With these words, a struggling, under-funded and misunderstood television show set out to do something new and different: to tell serious, thoughtful, imaginative science fiction stories set in a consistent future universe. Now that we have not only Star Trek: The Next Generation, but also Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, not to mention the feature films, we may take Star Trek and its storytelling style for granted, but in 1966 when the starship Enterprise first blazed its trail across viewers' screens, it was very much charting a voyage into unknown territory.
When I first saw Star Trek, in syndicated re-runs when I was in middle and high school, you didn't have to specify which Star Trek show you were a fan of: "the original series" was simply the only Star Trek there was... and it was quite good enough to get me hooked. I must have watched every episode half a dozen times. Now I've come to it again, this time after having not seen a single episode for fifteen or so years. How good is it as a show in its own right, and how much nostalgic value does it have? It's really impossible to separate those questions: Star Trek: The Original Series is what it is in large part because of what it gave birth to: a rich and enduring story universe. Nonetheless, we can take a look at this first season of Star Trek and ask how well it has stood the test of time.
Purely in terms of storytelling, Season 1's episodes are a mixed bag, with some nicely done stories mixed in with weaker episodes. Some of the stand-outs of Season 1 hold their own as entertaining stories, independently of the context. "The Menagerie" is a skilfully done two-part episode (the only two-parter in the original series) that deftly tells a story within a story, as Mr. Spock hijacks the Enterprise to take his former captain back to a mysterious, proscribed planet. Never mind that the necessity of recycling footage from the unaired first pilot was the mother of this particular invention; it's well done, and that's enough. Another episode that is rightfully known as a classic is "Balance of Terror," which establishes the Romulans as a threatening alien race... but one with depth and complexity, in a story that reminds us of the futility of warfare while also serving as a fun "submarine thriller in space." We can't forget "Space Seed," either: it's the episode that serves as the back-story for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, one of the best Trek feature films.
When we look at the remaining episodes, some are nicely done stories, like "The Man Trap," which offers an interesting adventure episode that manages to end on a fairly thoughtful note. Others are blander, like "Charlie X" "The Galileo Seven," or "The Conscience of the King," but there are surprisingly few true duds. Some of the otherwise reasonably handled episodes feel a bit hackneyed by now, because the same themes have been re-done, and done considerably better, by Next Generation. But would we have had "Darmok" if we hadn't had "Arena"? Would we have had Q if we'd never met the Squire of Gothos? Probably not: and with that in mind, it's a whole lot easier to appreciate these stories. Star Trek does a respectable job with its stories, considering that it had a blank slate to work with, and despite the fact that Roddenberry's use of talented science fiction writers was offset by the series' miniscule budget and lack of network support.
Star Trek's first season is absolutely riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, not to mention downright glaring errors of logic... but it's all forgivable, because Star Trek was a show in the process of inventing itself, and of inventing a new style of television science fiction in the process. The creation of a consistent, persistent story universe would eventually give the writers more to work with, but it's still amusing to see, especially in the first few episodes, how the series hadn't yet settled on simple back-story elements like the existence of Starfleet, who the Vulcans were, or what the phasers look like when they fire.
The same length of perspective that lets us laugh at the styrofoam rocks and retro hair styles also reminds us of how daring the series was. In 1966, Gene Roddenberry put Lt. Uhura on the bridge... a black woman, as an officer on a starship. He made a point of creating a racially mixed crew, including the alien Mr. Spock, to show by example that the future could be a place of greater harmony and diversity than it is now. He created a show that told stories of exploration, not conquest; stories that were willing to look at shades of gray rather than black and white; stories that tried (even if not always successfully) to challenge the viewer with genuine speculation rather than the same old stories retold in a space setting. That's how we get imaginative stories like "The Enemy Within," with a transporter accident splitting Kirk into good and bad personalities, "Miri," where the Enterprise encounters a civilization of feral, long-lived children, or "The City on th Edge of Forever," in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy must deal with the consequences of changing Earth's timeline.
So, to return to my original question... how good is the show, 38 years after its original air date? It's true that Star Trek: The Original Series can't really stand up next to the best that modern science fiction television has to offer; shows like Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Babylon 5, and Farscape have moved the bar far too high for that. Nonetheless, its significance as part of the history of the genre, and its nostalgic value for fans of Star Trek, give it merit. And it's also true that at its best, as in quite a few of the episodes in Season 1, Star Trek: The Original Series has some fun, imaginative, often thoughtful stories to tell... and that's what pulls everything together to make the series still worth watching.
Star Trek: The Original Series – The Complete Season 1 is an 8-DVD set, containing all 29 episodes from the show's 1966-1967 run.
The packaging for this set is terrible. Just terrible. Paramount's packaging of DS9 was absolutely perfect: stylish, durable, and easily accessed cases. Things went downhill with Voyager: still durable and reasonably stylish, but with very annoying slipcases. Now we get the Original Series in packaging that seems determined to keep the viewer from getting his hands on the discs for as long as possible.
OK, the case looks like a tricorder. That's cute for about 10 seconds; after that, it's irrelevant. The tricorder-shell cracks open (needing a fair amount of effort, I might add) to reveal an inner CD-sized package of discs. These are enclosed in their own paper slipcase, which you have to remove before you can actually get to a DVD. There's an insert booklet that includes the episode list, but it's randomly stuck inside with nothing to hold it in place, so it's likely to flop around and get lost or damaged.
To continue with the theme of "obstruct the viewer as much as possible," the menus are annoying, too, featuring a tedious, non-skippable animated sequence that shows off a chunky 3D rendering of the bridge.
Considering the age of the source material, I was very impressed with the image quality here... but then again, Paramount has consistently delivered all its Star Trek shows on DVD with top-notch transfers. I have never seen the single-disc releases of the series to compare, but I think it's safe to say that the image here is close to as good as it can get.
For the most part, the image is crisp and clear, with details startlingly apparent, especially in close-up shots. (There's enough detail here that you can often spot the seams in Leonard Nimoy's pointed ear appliances!) The picture is somewhat softer in a few of the longer-distance shots, with some grain appearing in the image, but it's still very attractive; print flaws are also very few and far between. The exterior shots of the starship Enterprise look considerably worse, but I would venture to guess that this is an issue with the original composite, not with the transfer, as everything else looks much cleaner. Colors are completely natural, with the bright colors having a nice vibrancy while skin tones are completely natural.
Star Trek: The Original Series appears in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Two soundtrack options are provided for viewers: the original Dolby 2.0, and a remastered Dolby 5.1 track. The 5.1 wins out over the 2.0, even if you're a purist; while there's almost no use of the surround channels (except for the occasional rather disconcerting effect when the ship warps by, or fires phasers) the overall sound quality is much better. The Dolby 2.0 track tends to sound rather muddy and flat, with the dialogue not sounding particularly clear. The 5.1 track corrects that nicely, giving us crisp, clear dialogue that's distinctly separate from any background music or special effects. It's a nice clean track as well, with not even a hint of any background noise or hiss.
Assuming we make it safely past the packaging and menus, what do the special features have in store for us? All in all, while the amount of content is nowhere near as lavish as fans of the series might want, the bonus materials here are quite interesting and do add value to the set overall. The general outlines of the material will be familiar to hardcore fans, but the actual details make the featurettes well worth seeing whether you're a casual viewer coming to the series for the first time, or a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie (into which category I'd place myself).
Several text commentaries are included, from Star Trek experts Michael Okuda and Denise Okuda. These are for "Where No Man Has Gone Before," "The Conscience of the King," and parts 1 and 2 of "The Menagerie." These commentaries take the form of little pop-up bubbles that appear on the screen; they're slightly transparent, and generally well placed, so they don't get in the way of the on-screen action. I found the commentaries to be mildly interesting, if not really compelling. They're largely collections of trivia about the episodes, ranging from information on the later careers of some of the secondary actors, to details about the sets and props. The more interesting parts of the commentaries are when they give more in-depth information about the episode in question (such as discussing Roddenberry's use of a frame story to re-use the footage from the original pilot), or provide some historical context (such as pointing out just how far ahead of its time Star Trek was with then-radical ideas like using computers to process photographs or correlate networked data).
Each episode comes with its own preview trailer, which is accessible after you select that episode from the main menu screen.
Disc 8 contains all of the special features except the commentaries. We start out with "The Birth of a Timeless Legacy," a 24-minute featurette discussing the origins of the series. Through interviews with the late Gene Roddenberry (the footage dates from a 1988 interview), producer Robert Justman, and others, we learn about the show's two pilot episodes: the unaired "The Cage," from which we are shown some interesting clips, and the second, aired pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before." It's quite interesting to learn about the reasons why the original pilot wasn't accepted, and how Roddenberry finally got approval for the show.
Next on tap is a ten-minute piece called "Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner," featuring recent interview footage discussing his show horses. It's tangential to Star Trek and really only of interest to fans who particularly like Shatner.
Of more interest is "To Boldly Go... Season 1," an 18-minute piece that is really a continuation of what was discussed in "The Birth of a Timeless Legacy." Interviews with Robert Justman, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, George Takei, and others provide insight into the conditions of creating the show, which can be summed up as "not good." With the lack of confidence from the network and the budget constraints described here, it's amazing that Star Trek was ever made.
The next featurette, "Reflections on Spock," is a 12-minute interview with Leonard Nimoy, who has some interesting thoughts on the nature of his character and its appeal to the audience. The main bonus content wraps up with the 16-minute "Sci-Fi Visionaries," discussing how Roddenberry's approach to a serious content-based science fiction show was to bring on talented science fiction writers rather than just using Hollywood scriptwriters. We get to hear from Roddenberry himself, as well as Trek writer D.C. Fontana; it's an interesting piece.
Lastly, we get a photo gallery. There's also one hidden mini-featurette (but thankfully only one; at least here Paramount is learning). On the second screen of special features, if you select the red light at the top center of the console, you'll get a one-minute clip with some behind-the-scenes information on "The Corbomite Maneuver."
Star Trek: The Original Series has a distinctly retro appeal, almost forty years after its initial release, but the appeal is certainly still there. With a generous number of genuinely entertaining episodes, combined with the undeniable historical appeal and the nostalgia factor of the series, the first season of Star Trek is, even after all this time, still fun to watch. Despite the annoying packaging, the appeal of having the entire first season in one set rather than many separate discs is clear; fans and new viewers alike will also enjoy the special features, which provide almost an hour and a half of background on the series and its main actors. Recommended.