Star Trek

Star Trek Beams onto Blu-ray – Classic Series Materializes in Two Versions

By Jim Bray
April 24, 2009

The Blu-ray release of the original Star Trek TV series sees Paramount taking yet another dip into its product well. But rather than merely rereleasing the same old stuff, only in HD this time, the new version offers Trek fans some real meat.

In fact, Season One, released on April 28, is truly a "must have" for collectors and fans of the series.  It's also an interesting balancing act. "TOS" (The Original Series") uses the Blu-ray technology to offer not only the original series as it was shown originally (sans commercials, fortunately), but also a version featuring newly-created special effects that drags the classic Enterprise into the new millennium.

Star Trek always told marvelous and upbeat stories that were big on imagination, yet appeared produced for about a dollar and a half an episode. Redoing the special effects smacks of painting a moustache onto the Mona Lisa, and when I first heard Paramount had done that I was a tad nonplussed, and a more than a tad apprehensive. I mean, part of Trek's appeal was its low budget, cheesy special effects and – as with the original Star Wars movies – I didn't think they needed messing with.

On DVD, the cheapness didn't really matter; I remember reviewing the first DVD release (two episodes per package, which took up a whole shelf in the home theater) and remarking how great it looked – even down to noticing finger (or maybe nose) prints on the turbo lift doors.

Ah, but 1080p high definition magnifies the flaws as well as it magnifies the good stuff and that may have been behind Paramount's decision to up the effects ante.

That, and continued profitability…

Regardless of the reason Paramount has handled it just as they should, providing both versions side by side and letting fans choose between the best of both worlds (to quote the title of my all time favorite Trek episode, though it's from The Next Generation series).

So when you fire up the disc, you're greeted by a menu that offers you the ability to choose each episode "au naturel" or with the new effects, and also to hear either a newly-enhanced 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack or the original mono.

Not only that, but you can toggle back and forth between the visual effects shots as they happen, which is pretty cool.  

Naturally, I toggled back and forth madly, as well as watching the same episode "unspoiled" and then again with its shiny new suit of clothes. And much to my surprise, I found that as much as I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, I preferred the new versions, grudgingly. The new effects are beautiful, they're true to the spirit of the original shots  and they just plain look better in high definition.

I thought I'd get struck by lightning when I realized that, but so far, so good.

The producers appear to have bent over backwards to make the new shots fit, and they've done an excellent job. The old Enterprise looks better than ever, and the planets and planet surfaces are richer and more textured. I still find myself going back to the original sometimes (slumming, one might say), but I like the clean new look.

Now if only they could digitally equalize Shatner's waistline so it doesn't change throughout the episodes and seasons…

One thing that also comes through loudly and clearly, thanks to the 1080p high definition picture, is just how small the sets seem. I had never realized before just how much stuff they managed to cram onto those sound stages way back then; as with the effects, they accomplished a lot with very little. And it actually contributes to the feeling that the characters are in an enclosed space populated by hundreds of people.

The picture overall is very good. It isn't consistently excellent – for instance, closeups look better than many wide shots, but Trek TOS has never looked as good as it does here.

That's the good news. The bad news, well the "less good news" is the audio. While I'm a big fan of dts HD Master Audio, here it's just a bit too darn quiet. I ran it through audio systems of 250 and 500 watts per channel, either of which should have made the show pop right out of the respective home theaters, but instead I had to crank it a few positions farther up the volume knob than usual to get an acceptable level.

Oh, the sound quality's good overall, and quite listenable (especially on the supplementary stuff that was recorded more recently) but I really would've liked a bit more "oomph".

Season One comes on seven BD discs in a package that, at about inch in thickness, is much more "wall friendly" than those old DVD's (four of the original DVD episodes took up about the same space as the 29 episodes here). And of course they're loaded with special materials, some of which are new for the Blu-ray release.

Each disc includes trailers of its episodes, but there's also an abundance of other stuff spread across the circular septuplets, including “Starfleet Access” bonus content on selected episodes, which lets you watch the show with special pop-up trivia and picture-in-picture video commentaries. There's some interesting stuff there, but it does get in the way of the episodes; of course if you're the type who memorized the shows decades ago this won't cause a problem.

Also included is an interactive tour of the starship Enterprise which, while pretty lame, makes the Enterprise look fabulous in its CG glory. There's also a very interesting look at how they transported Trek into the 21st century (from the 23rd?). It covers the restoration of the film elements, the sound (they even re-recorded the original theme from the original arrangement!) and, of course, the new special effects.

You also get a reasonably nifty "Sci-fi Visionaries" featurette (in which series movers and/or shakers reminisce about the sci-fi giants – names such as Theodore Sturgeon and Ray Bradbury – who either got involved or refused to get involved with the series) as well as featurettes on "Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner",  "Romance in the 23rd Century" etc.

Inside the package is a coupon for a collectible Sulu figure, supposedly from the "Where No Man Has Gone Before" episode – a.k.a. the series' second pilot. The figure itself is included in the price, once you shell out $7.50 shipping and handling. Figures.

Star Trek
Star Trek TOS Season 2

Season 2 looks as good as the first season - and since they've included the bonus (and apparently unremastered) episode "Trials and Tribbleations" from Star Trek Deep Space Nine, you can see first hand just how great a rejuvenation the series has been given.

The second season comes with all the advantages and tweaks of season one, including the ability to watch the episodes in either their unspoiled original livery (with monaural sound) or with newly-created CG effects and remixed surround sound. And as with the first season, we found ourselves preferring the newly tweaked versions because the new effects are better than the cheap and cheesy originals, and were done with loving care by people who wanted to be true to the series. It shows.

Likewise, you can flip back and forth between the versions during special effects shots, and it's easy to see just how much they've been improved. And if you prefer the old ones, you can watch them - that's the advantage of branching technology: you don't have to lose one version to get the other.

Even the original "live action" scenes look fabulous, the remastering having done its job well. The high definition treatment does the show justice, even to the point of showing up just what a low budget production this original Trek was - making it all the more amazing at what they managed to pull off back then. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that we know these people are either a lot older or, in some cases, dead, it almost looks as if the HD pictures were shot recently.

Spread over the set's seven discs are some of the best Trek episodes, though some would argue that the first season was better. But it's hard to argue about the quality of such Trek stories as "The Trouble With Tribbles" (One of the series' most popular, apparently, according to author David Gerrold's commentary track on the episode), "Mirror, Mirror" (a great parallel universe tale), "The Doomsday Machine", "Journey to Babel" (Where we meet Spock's parents), "The Deadly Years", the deliciously creepy "Wolf in the Fold", the amusing "A Piece of the Action", and the spinoff pilot "Assignment Earth" featuring a very young Teri Garr in a supporting role.

There's plenty of bonus material, too, as you'd expect.

We particulrly liked the loving attention given to The Trouble with Tribbles, which was one of Trek's first comedies and, as they point out, one of the fan favorites. Paramount has given this episode its own disc, and bundled with it the "More Troubles, More Tribbles" episode Gerrold wrote for the Star Trek animated series as well as the Deep Space Nine tribute/crossover episode mentioned earlier. There are also some Tribble featurettes.

The only problem with watching Trials and Tribbleations is that it doesn't look nearly as good as the original episode does, despite being newer by decades. It makes us hope that when the time comes for Paramount to release the other Trek series on Blu-ray, it does as good a job with them as it has so far with the original series.

Special features on the disc set includes new footage from “Billy Blackburn’s Treasure Chest: Rare Home Movies And Special Memories Part 2” (Bill Blackburn is a little known actor who cropped up all over the Star Trek universe back then) plus "To Boldly Go," which gives an overview of the entire season; "Kirk, Spock & Bones: Star Trek’s Great Trio," explores the relationships of the three main characters, while "Star Trek's Divine Diva: Nichelle Nichols," points the spotlight on Uhura.

There are also trailers for each episode, some interactive features and, apparently, new clips via BD-Live. Not only that, but every disc is Mobile Blu enabled, which means iPhone users can turn their phones into a Blu-ray remote control and download exclusive content to their iPhones. We could really care less about this, but welcome extra value as long as the "meat" is substantial - and in this case it is.

The discs are presented in 1080p high definition with English 7.1 dts-HD Master Audio, English Original 2.0 audio.

Copyright 2009 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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