Whether you’re a Trekker or not, if you grew up any time in the past three decades, Star Trek: The Next Generation is unquestionably a part of your popular culture. The founding father of the ’90s syndication boom, ST:TNG owned Saturday nights in most markets, beating out network programming, and leaving a lasting impact as one of the few “re-imaginations” of a classic that managed to both satisfy longtime fans and bring in new ones.
The show was also a part of a major trend starting in the late 1980s, in which the television industry made a move from editing their programs on film, like movies do, to the far cheaper and more efficient videotape formats. Not only could they composite things like visual effects in real time, but it also gave them more time to spend fine tuning the editing of an episode before it aired. Unfortunately, this shortcut has come back to bite the industry in the tuckus when it comes to the long term viability of their assets, and so studios have taken their gems and begun reconstructing them from scratch in high definition. While a sitcom like Seinfeld or Friends is a fairly straightforward affair, genre programming like TNG has to have a full effects team recreating every transporter, every phaser, every time someone even walks in front of a viewscreen in a painstaking process that takes nearly a month per episode from start to finish. In this case, the results are worth it. The Next Generation is ready for the future.
Designed to whet the appetite for the full season sets to come with a selection of episodes from across the series’ 7 year run, The Next Level is a sampler release that exposes both the limiting realities of television production as well as the care that went into producing the show (not to mention the newly remastered high-definition versions thereof). If there’s anything to criticize about the quality of the video, is that it’s almost too good. Shipboard scenes are often shot with very bright, flat lighting, and some of the shots get so crisp and contrasty, they almost appear to be captured on HD video instead of film, a look I found a tad distracting. While the pilot is the worst offender, the later episodes had higher budgets and more dynamic lighting design that create a much more even, film-like experience. The new sound design is a bit of a blessing and a curse. The soundfield is open and airy compared to the Dolby Digital mixes from the DVDs, but the bass is a bit overwhelming at times, especially with the constant shipboard thrum, and the center channel is a bit low at times, making dialogue a bit more difficult to understand than I’d like.
Nitpicking aside, for anyone familiar with the material, this is a startling upgrade. Uniforms are finally really red, the gold sheen of Data’s makeup is as subtly apparent as Spock’s green was in the HD upgrade of the original series, and everything has become solid instead of that hazy analogness that has always plagued the show in the past. Don’t come in expecting Lost-like HD delciousness — you aren’t going to get it — but what you will get is the greatest of all Star Trek shows archived for decades to come in a form you can throw on the biggest home theater screens without a problem. Hopefully these sets will sell to a level where CBS can justify a similar remaster for Deep Space Nine, and, begrudgingly, Voyager, so that the whole franchise lives in the 21st century through the 24th.