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Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection
In an odd but interesting move, Paramount has released this box set of the first six Star Trek films in their original theatrical versions. Although the two-disc Special Editions offered up tweaked director's cuts of three of those six movies, along with huge amounts of bonus material, Paramount has now reverted to the theatrical cuts - they are presented here in remastered transfers with all new extras, thereby jettisoning the entire content of the two-disc Special Editions.
There is some iffy collector-oriented logic at work here. There are fans who will want to have improved versions of the theatrical cuts to replace the now-lackluster first wave of Star Trek DVDs released in 1998. However, this set represents the third time these films have been released on disc. Something along the lines of a multi-disc Ultimate Edition for each feature would have made more sense, and would have been fairer to fans and collectors. Generally speaking, this set (and its companion set containing the four Next Generation features) smells like a stop-gap measure to increase Paramount's short-term bottom line.
The content here cannot be argued with. The packaging is above-average, the transfers are fine, and the bonus content is appealing if not overwhelming. But why replace excellent releases (the Special Editions) with the merely interesting?
I should admit here that I knew nothing of Star Trek until about age 17. During my junior year in high school, a friend who was a big fan set me in front of a television and popped in a VHS of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I was not impressed, and conversations followed in which my frustrated friend belittled my intelligence and I questioned my friend's sanity. But over the years, something changed and the franchise's charms have distinctly grown on me. The comfort of the original crew's camaraderie is like a warm old shoe; the Next Generation cast is almost equally genial and probably more talented as a group of actors. No other films series (and I address the films exclusively here because I have not spent enough time with any of Star Trek's television incarnations) takes as its core foundation the intersection of science, politics, and philosophy. Although there is plenty in the Star Trek universe that is trivial and occasionally nonsensical, the driving spirit is the emphasis that Gene Roddenberry put on the implications of scientific concepts and speculation upon human behavior and institutions.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
The first Star Trek movie was made in response to mushrooming fan interest in the original series, and by studio interest in the monumental success of Star Wars two years prior. Yet it in no way mimics that film's tone, plot, or style. It remains very true to the universe of the original series, while employing a storyline that revolves around philosophical, hard science fiction concepts.
After Starfleet monitors an enormous, destructive cloud of energy on a course for Earth, Admiral Kirk takes command of a dock-bound, semi-operational Enterprise from Captain Decker (Stephen Collins), much to the latter's annoyance. Decker has been supervising an overhaul of the Enterprise, and Kirk's disruption of the improvements leads directly to accidents and even a pair of deaths. When Kirk and crew finally encounter the energy cloud, it sends a probe aboard the Enterprise that abducts the Deltan navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) and replaces her with a cyborg sentinel to observe the crew. The sentinel Ilia reveals the cloud's name: V'Ger, and that V'Ger is seeking its Creator. But the sentinel does not elaborate much beyond these mystical statements. Kirk and crew go on to explore the vessel at the heart of the cloud, a massive craft, and discover that it is an accretion of hardware that has amassed around the intelligence that operates it: the Voyager 6 spacecraft.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is known for its slowness. It is, indeed, a sleep-inducing movie - from Jerry Goldsmith's lovely overture ("Ilia's Theme") to the meditatively-paced exploration of V'Ger's core. The pacing seems almost expressly designed to lull viewers into a pleasant doze, and I may be alone in saying that this isn't a bad thing. I say that because there's something strangely pleasurable to be found in the oddly extended length of time that Wise takes with these sequences - to say nothing of the positively epic shuttle journey around the Enterprise taken by Kirk and Scotty early on. The production crew took great care in designing the film, and Wise wants to show it off. Of course, this has a downside, and the film's reputation has suffered for it. Although the plot is straightforward and stretched rather thin over 131 minutes, I stand by my position that the director's deep engagement with the film's design is a rare and interesting thing - especially for Wise, who is generally known for his antiseptic musicals, and as the man (at least partially) responsible for wrecking The Magnificent Ambersons. In Star Trek, Wise takes an approach closer to the strange ambiguity of his first feature as a director, The Curse of the Cat People. Its stately pace and long stretches allow the concepts to roll out slowly, in a more organic and compelling way than in the average sci-fi epic. The film is without shock moments or silly gags, and there's something to be said for that, too. The tone has been called overly serious, but it's nice to aspire to something serious within a pop culture framework.
The special effects have a charming vintage look. I appreciate what Wise and Douglas Trumbull were able to accomplish under a lot of studio pressure to make a Christmas-time release date. The rushed production schedule ultimately led to a choppy history of many different cuts. The 2001 Director's Edition represents a distinct improvement upon the theatrical cut, with appropriately-placed CGI effects, crisper opticals, and a vast number of editorial adjustments.
My primary complaint about Star Trek: The Motion Picture has to do with the dialogue, which tends to be overly expository and devoid of rhythm. Also, while lovingly designed, the movie also suffers from a dull lighting scheme that is reminiscent of daytime television. Interiors in particular look washed out, blanched. It doesn't do the sets or photography justice.
I like Star Trek: The Motion Picture with its faults, though. Although I acknowledge that the film's slowness may put many off, there's something I appreciate about the movie's deliberate, thoughtful pace. I consider the more polished Director's Edition to have supplanted the theatrical cut. But, even though a rushed production resulted in an unfinished, feel, the theatrical cut remains worth a look.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan has a reputation as the best Star Trek feature, and it's well-earned. Diametrically opposed to The Motion Picture's pace and loftiness, The Wrath of Khan takes its adventurous spirit - and backstory - directly from the original series. The film is constructed with great care and ingenuity, offering a panoply of memorable images and moments, with a remarkable emotional payoff.
Searching for a place to test the Genesis device - a bio-capsule that can create life on desolate planets - Chekov and his colleague Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) land on Ceti Alpha VI, where they are taken hostage by Khan (Ricardo Montalban). Khan and his fellow supermen have been exiled there for fifteen years (ever since the end of the original series episode, "The Space Seed") and he still bears a grudge against the man who put him there: Kirk. After commandeering Chekov's ship, the Reliant, Khan attacks the Regula I space station, where the Genesis project is directed by Kirk's former girlfriend Dr. Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) and their son, David (Merritt Butrick). Shortly thereafter, the battle is on between Kirk and Khan. An extended chase and space battle culminates in Khan activating the Genesis device on board the Reliant, while the crippled Enterprise is saved by Spock, who walks into the highly radioactive core and restores the warp drive. The crew escapes the Genesis explosion, although Spock dies of exposure to the core's radiation. His body is jettisoned in a torpedo tube, landing on one of the planets affected by the Genesis device.
There is something very special about The Wrath of Khan. Unlike The Motion Picture, this one feels like the product of a confident, focused cast and crew. In fact, that comfort level is reflected in a sense of camaraderie among the crew of the Enterprise that was notably lacking in The Motion Picture; there is more humor and more character "bits" here. The picture was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who commingles a fun adventurous tone with some weighty themes and solid character-driven drama. The relationship between Kirk and Spock is the film's emotional heart - and there are some nice moments early on in the film that skillfully presage Spock's death, particularly Kirk's cavalier line, "Aren't you dead?" following a training exercise in which Spock was supposed to have been "killed" due to Lt. Saavik's (Kirstie Alley) error. The two friends' relationship is characterized by the tension between Kirk's human emotions and rash choices, and Spock's Vulcan logic and resistance to reactive thinking. This barrier prevents the two from ever connecting in a forthright, obvious way. Instead, their relationship is made up of moments of insight wherein some common understanding is evident, expressed in small facial expressions, or a very few words. This is why Kirk and Spock are one of the most enduring pairs in recent popular culture; they represent men from different places whose ongoing attempt to understand one another parallels the difficult time we all have empathizing with those whose experiences and outlooks are different from our own.
Kirk's relationship with Khan, on the other hand, is the inverse of this great chemistry. Khan's hatred for Kirk can be traced to his sense of biological superiority, being a product of a Nazi-like quest to create a superior human being. Khan wishes for nothing more than to torment Kirk, to exact his revenge by making Kirk feel what he has felt for the past fifteen years. The intense mutual rage felt between the two provides a strong, primal, convincing basis for the way the second half of the film is plotted. It's a rare movie that utilizes such a basic motivation so effectively. (It seems increasingly common for sci-fi blockbusters to grasp at an array of pointless, convoluted plot strands out of some kind of narrative inferiority complex, when less is usually more in this sense.)
The Wrath of Khan boasts a richer color palette than The Motion Picture, and more appealing production values overall. The costumes have thankfully been steered away from the "pajamas" of the first film, into the crimson futuristic military style that became the norm. Sets - and locations - are more diverse, from the new bridge of the Enterprise to the dusty desert of Ceti Alpha V and the lush forests of the Genesis planet. The visual storytelling is generally more layered, and more economical.
James Horner's score deserves special note. Although Jerry Goldsmith's musical contributions to Star Trek cannot be emphasized enough, Horner's score for The Wrath of Khan is my favorite of whole series. This is wide-ranging music with a lot of different moods and textures; it's also a score that transcends the boundaries of the film, making for a great listen on its own. Although individual themes may not be as memorable as Goldsmith's work on the first film, this score's varied orchestration and consistent inventiveness are unmatched. It's arguably Horner's best work, and Film Score Monthly's recent release of the official expanded score is well worth seeking out.
The Wrath of Khan holds up remarkably well and remains the series' best film. My original reaction - which focused derision upon Montalban's ridiculous prosthetic chest and the cheesiness of the mind-controlling eel emerging from Chekov's ear - has given way to respect for the care with which the central character dynamics are handled, and awe for the extended quasi-nautical chase that echoes Moby-Dick and culminates in the Mutara Nebula.
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The second part of the unofficial Star Trek "trilogy," Star Trek III: The Search for Spock picks up in the immediate aftermath of its predecessor. Although certainly true to the world of the previous film and a worthy, wholly engaging sequel, The Search for Spock lacks the special vigor of The Wrath of Khan.
While the Enterprise limps back to Earth, Kirk's son David (Merritt Butrick) and Lt. Saavik (Robin Curtis, replacing Kirstie Alley) return to the Genesis planet, where they detect lifeforms around Spock's mysteriously empty casket. Captain Kruge (Christopher Lloyd), a Klingon officer, believes that Genesis is a weapon; he locates David and Saavik on Genesis, destroys their ship, and captures them, along with the youthful Spock - found to have been regenerated by the Genesis effect. Meanwhile, Kirk has learned from Spock's father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), that Spock had transferred his katra, or spirit, to McCoy before entering the Enterprise's core at the end of The Wrath of Khan. Kirk and crew then steal the Enterprise and head for Genesis, where they rescue Saavik and Spock, and defeat Kruge. On Vulcan, the reborn Spock is reunited with the katra preserved within McCoy, and Spock begins to once again resemble the man they all once knew.
The Search for Spock was Nimoy's feature debut as a director. Nimoy's variegated career - as an actor, director, poet, writer, and photographer - has resisted as much as possible immediate identification with the character of Spock. (Nimoy's first autobiography, published before the advent of the Star Trek feature films, was titled I Am Not Spock, to the chagrin of fans.) Here, Nimoy stays behind the camera, appearing onscreen for only a few minutes at the end. Still, the power of Spock as a character - and the import of his absence - presides over the entire length of the picture. As a director, Nimoy ably continues the tone of The Wrath of Khan. In terms of look and feel, we are squarely in the world that the previous film established. The sets are imaginative, and the score by James Horner is almost as effective and engaging as his landmark work on The Wrath of Khan.
Unfortunately, The Search for Spock spends a bit too much time with Kruge, David, and Saavik, ancillary characters whose relative importance is a bit overplayed in terms of screen time. Compounding this is the fact that Butrick's and Curtis's performances are terribly flat, making the sequences on Genesis - which are visually engaging - seem overlong and dull. This comprises the main fault of The Search for Spock. Beyond that, the film's rapid pace and clever plotting keep us deeply involved. The Kirk/Spock friendship is taken to a new and different place; Kirk puts everything on the line to regain his friend, and their reunion at the film's close maintains the hallmark restraint of their relationship - and is suitably moving at the same time.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Nimoy returned to the director's chair for the wildly popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. This is the film that Trekkies and non-fans alike rally around. I think it's fair to attribute its success to the film's reliance upon comedy as well as its contemporary setting. Surprisingly, upon re-viewing this film sequentially, in the context of the entire set of "original crew" features, it comes off as the worst of the bunch. The opinions that follow will likely arouse the ire of many, but I have no interest in bursting the bubbles of those devoted to this beloved film.
Most of the blame for the movie's failure can be laid at the doorstep of the plot, which I'll recap briefly here. Picking up immediately after the "re-birth" of Spock on Vulcan, the Enterprise responds to a distress call from Earth. A probe of unknown origin, emitting strange harmonic sounds, hovers over Earth, wreaking havoc with electronic equipment of all kinds and enveloping the planet in heavy storms. Spock determines that the probe's signals are a form of whale song, and that the lack of a response (whales - humpbacks, specifically - are extinct) is causing the probe's violent reaction. The solution is to go back in time, capture a humpback whale, and transport it to the future so that it can "sing" back to the probe and call off the apocalypse.
The first thirty minutes or so of The Voyage Home make up a wholly involving coda to the previous two films. We see the crew on Vulcan, recuperating and repairing the Klingon vessel they flew there, while Spock completes a thorough re-education. The arrival of the probe near Earth is effectively eerie; the terrified reaction at Starfleet is portrayed with an effective sense of dread. Once in flight, Spock's reintegration into the crew is handled gently with graceful exchanges between Kirk and Spock that reaffirm their friendship. Thereafter, the plot takes its sharp left turn into foolishness.
The whale plot goes well beyond acceptable levels of absurdity for any space adventure. The world of The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock is utterly abandoned, and the crew charges forth on this bizarre quest without looking back. The environmental, time-travel plot and the amplified comedy amount to awkward self-parody that is at times embarrassing to watch. "A double dumbass on you!" might strike some as inspired fish-out-of-water hilarity, but it sounds like desperation to me. There are successful funny moments - the exchange about whether Kirk and Spock like Italian food stands out - but they are few and far between. I appreciate the humor in the Star Trek films, but the jokes here did not work for me.
More importantly, however, is the fact that the whale/time-travel elements of the story are devoid of internal logic. We never find out where the probe is from, why its signal is whalesong, or what any of this portends. The crew of the Enterprise engage in wild hijinx in order to carry out their vague mission, and there is absolutely no payoff for them - or us - once it is completed. A plot does not need to exhibit total inner cohesion nor have all loose ends neatly tied up; but it should persuade a viewer - or at least give lip service to the notion - that there is some guiding logic behind its forward movement, no matter how silly it might be in its specifics. Without this, the probe in The Voyage Home is just a red herring, with no origin or purpose, which, for this viewer, deflates the entire adventure.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Following the suspension of disbelief-busting The Voyage Home, the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier felt like a return to form - in a way. Although The Final Frontier features a more Star Trek-like plot and mood, it's maddeningly muddled, leaving the impression of an incomplete film that fumbles ambitious themes.
The film opens with stirring imagery. A well-digger is toiling away on the desert planet Nimbus III, and is set upon by a lone rider, who reveals that he is on a spiritual quest of sorts - and that he is a Vulcan. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are interrupted during shore leave (camping at Yosemite) and are ordered to rescue hostages held on Nimbus III. It turns out that the lone rider, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), has staged a hoax to lure the Enterprise to Nimbus III; he is Spock's brother, and has used his knowledge of Spock's position at Starfleet to gain control of the starship and fly it to Sha Ka Ree, the legendary birthplace of all creation. Sybok seeks ultimate knowledge - and to see the face of the Creator. Sybok tries to convince the crew of his special suitability for this quest by revealing the sources of (and healing) McCoy's and Spock's greatest pain in life; Kirk refuses, maintaining that his pain is an inseparable part of his identity. Pursued by Klingons, the Enterprise continues on toward Sha Ka Ree, located behind a great barrier thought to be impenetrable. When they arrive, Sybok summons a godlike apparition that turns out to be some sort of manifestation of Sybok's own hopes and fears. Needless to say, Kirk et al escape Sha Ka Ree and avoid a confrontation with the Klingons as well.
The Final Frontier features one of the best Star Trek stories from a conceptual viewpoint - Sybok's quest for ultimate knowledge tries to be a culmination of key philosophical elements touched on throughout the original series and the preceding features. The screenplay attempts to flesh out the "Star Trek" approach to life, death, humanity, and religion - but the movie is hampered by a confused prioritization of its themes, a sloppy joke-ridden opening sequence, and choppy transitions throughout.
It was reported several years ago, when the Special Edition DVD was being prepared, that Shatner (who directed) lobbied Paramount to provide him a budget for a revised cut. I'm not clear about what that cut would look like, but The Final Frontier does feel as though it were either rushed or hacked up by the studio. (I do know that there was an alternate ending featuring a "rock man" creature, a tantalizing clip of which is seen in the extra features for The Undiscovered Country.) The conceptual framework for a fine film exists within The Final Frontier, and I'd be most curious to see Shatner's preferred vision come to fruition at some point.
Jerry Goldsmith returns and provides a typically excellent score. Uhura performs a naked (?) fan dance. The final sequence involving the barrier and Sybok's godhead is compelling, if too ambiguous. In all, The Final Frontier is a mixed bag - it is natural to conclude that its failure spurred the original crew's return in The Undiscovered Country. It would have been a shame if they'd gone out on such an unsatisfying, if intriguing, note.
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
The most fully satisfying Star Trek outing since The Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country frames a rousing adventure in the guise of a murder-mystery, and brings Kirk's hatred of the Klingons to a head. The return of Nicholas Meyer to the director's chair brings the world of Star Trek back into focus, after the daffy escapism of The Voyage Home and the hesitant philosophical departures of The Final Frontier.
The destruction of the Klingon moon Praxis leads to an existential crisis for the Klingon Empire. The Klingons must broker a peace with the Federation, and the Enterprise is sent to rendezvous with the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon (David Warner), and escort him to Earth for negotiations. En route, however, Gorkon and members of his crew are murdered by two assassins wearing Starfleet gear. Gorkon's lieutenant, General Chang (Christopher Plummer) tries Kirk and McCoy, who are found guilty and sentenced to life amid the frozen wastes of Rura Penthe. Spock leads an investigation into the murders, convinced of his colleagues' innocence, before rescuing them from imprisonment. The crew then proceeds to avert the sabotage of the planned peace talks between Klingons and the Federation.
As with The Wrath of Khan, The Undiscovered Country benefits from a tightly-constructed plot, upon which hangs all manner of inventive set design, characters, and incidents. Plummer's performance is enjoyably juicy; he revels in the plentiful Shakespearian allusions integrated here (some of which are appropriate, while others are merely colorful). Kirk's palpable hatred for the Klingons presents a major stumbling block for our hero, who blames the entire Empire for his son David's death (at the hands of Kruge in The Search for Spock). It's a deft and compelling examination of racism, made all the more interesting due to the fact that the film's protagonist is the one afflicted, and we see Kirk confront and conquer it with relative honesty. This theme and the blunt parallels to the end of the Cold War, lend some welcome, shadowy substance to the crime procedural plot.
Meyer's commitment to a broadly-appealing Star Trek world that remains true to the basic concepts and canon of the franchise represents a rare achievement in popular culture. Too bad Meyer couldn't have contributed that sensibility to recent disappointments like X-Men: The Last Stand or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The final voyage of the original crew is executed with an essential panache and unflagging verve that prevents repeat viewings from feeling diluted. As the film closes upon a vast field of stars, and the signatures of the main cast are written one-by-one across the screen, there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that this storied bunch has gone out in a flourish of rousing filmmaking.
Seven slim keepcases are housed in a heavy card box. The box is adorned with a holographic image of the Enterprise, and the whole is embraced by a clear plastic slipcover printed with the set's title.
My reaction to these new transfers is mixed. All of them are enhanced 2.35:1 images - even The Undiscovered Country, which has previously been released at about 2:20:1. The transfers for The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan feature completely altered color balances from their previous DVD releases; the overall effect is too white, too blue, too sharp, and too bright. The earlier DVDs are warmer, redder, and earthier. The first two features have much in common with the mishandled James Bond sets that came out about three years ago. But as we move on, The Search for Spock looks much better, if still a bit cool and oversharp. The remaining features, especially The Undiscovered Country, look outstanding. Colors are sharp, well-contained, and blacks are impenetrable. Although some effects shots have been slightly compromised by the industrious remastering process, the last four pictures generally come off winningly.
Each film boasts a new Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track, and they have much in common with those found on the prior wave of Star Trek releases. In general, surrounds are strong, particularly in the last two films. The first three films have narrower soundstages than the last three; surrounds feel more "cramped" and central in the earlier films. These tracks can't be faulted for their crispness, though. The music comes across particularly well.
As I stated at the beginning of the review, the extra features here are all-new, with nothing preserved from previous releases (this isn't true for the Blu-Ray edition of this set, where much has been retained). Each film contains an audio commentary, and these are weak almost without exception. Perhaps this is because none of them feature anyone directly involved in the films' production, except for The Wrath of Khan, which thankfully pairs Nicholas Meyer with Manny Coto, a writer and producer who worked on Star Trek: Enterprise.
The other extras are listed below. In general, these featurettes are brief but interesting. There's not a lot of bulk here, though; each disc's aggregate bonus content runs well under an hour.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Commentary by Michael & Denise Okuda, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and Daren Dochterman
The Longest Trek: Writing the Motion Picture
Special Star Trek Reunion
Starfleet Academy: The Mystery Behind V'Ger
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Commentary by Nicholas Meyer and Manny Coto
James Horner: Composing Genesis
Collecting Star Trek's Movie Relics
A Tribute to Ricardo Montalban
Starfleet Academy: The Mystery Behind Ceti Alpha VI
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Commentary by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Taylor
Industrial Light & Magic: Visual Effects
Spock: The Early Years
Star Trek and the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame
Starfleet Academy: The Vulcan Katra Transfer
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Commentary by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman
Pavel Chekov's Screen Moments
The Three-Picture Saga
Star Trek for a Cause
Starfleet Academy: The Whale Probe
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Commentary by Michael & Denise Okuda, Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens, and Daren
Star Trek Honors NASA
Hollywood Walk of Fame: James Doohan
Starfleet Academy: Nimbus III
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Commentary by Larry Nemecek and Ira Steven Behr
Tom Morga: Alien Stuntman
To Be or Not to Be: Klingons & Shakespeare
Starfleet Academy: Praxis
The Captains' Summit
The seventh disc contains this 70-minute group interview of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, and Jonathan Frakes, moderated by Whoopi Goldberg. This plays like a fraternity reunion - it's a combination of jocular fondness and extreme awkwardness. There are interesting anecdotes interspersed with odd remarks and emotional outbursts. It's a truly strange, frank, and poorly edited feature. Goldberg doesn't seem up to the task of moderating with probing questions, and absolutely no one appears to have prepared for the interview in any way. In fact, all the participants, with the possible exception of Nimoy, could have come directly to the studio from separate three-martini lunches. Well worth watching for those hungry for more, and for those interested in its significant curiosity value.
Despite my positive-to-mixed reaction to a release that could have been much more thorough and substantive, it was enjoyable to watch the theatrical versions of the original crew's features in sequence. Reliving the first six Star Trek films confirmed that despite their faults, they comprise a key part of one of popular culture's most beloved franchises. Anchored by the weight of the enduring Kirk/Spock friendship, these films continue to age well as a high watermark of science fiction storytelling. Released at a reasonable price, and despite the reservations I've already noted, this set is highly recommended.