Since pretty much the exact instant when Blu-ray became an actual thing, fans started asking, “When will Star Trek: The Next Generation be released in high-def?” Time and again, the response from people in a position to know has been, “The show only exists on analog videotape, it would require $40, 50, 60 million or more to re-post 176 episodes from scratch, and redo the effects. It’s possible, but do not hold your breath under any circumstances.” Various alternatives to a full-blown all-seasons restoration have been posited over the years, like just doing the top 10 or 20 episodes as a test, or upconverting the effects.
Thankfully, there are a lot of great and talented people at CBS that shared the dream, the love, and the passion for the series, and somehow convinced the brass with the pursestrings that doing ST:TNG right in high-def really was a Good Idea(TM), and set upon the herculean three-to-four-year task of bringing the show into the modern era in a fashion that will let it live and breathe in any venue in the way that this iconic show deserves.
And it worked.
Sitting down with this first season Blu-ray box set, it’s shockingly apparent from the opening shot of the first episode that a lot of work has gone into prepping the show for HD, because it oozes from every pore of every frame. The first two seasons of The Next Generation were posted on composite analog videotape (that little yellow plug), which is blurry on the first-generation master hot off the edit bay. It was fuzzy, a little shakey, the colors weren’t the best, but it worked at the time, given that the very best broadcast television wasn’t much better.
One of the great things about this new Blu-ray set is that you don’t have to rely on memory to see what a difference the restoration has made. You can actually choose toplay each episode with the original cheesy “Next Time on Star Trek” teaser and get a shocking glimpse of just how bad things were back in the day, and just how much better the video is now.
The show feels solid now; it’s like you got a new pair of glasses. All the details on the models pop, the lifeboats (those little yellow squares), the aztecing (the patterns on the hull), and all the other stuff that OCD model builders have been desperately trying to discern for a quarter century are there to see, in crystal clarity. On video, the windows were always these fuzzy splotches, and having them so expertly defined adds much needed mass and weight to the models. Once we get inside the ship, results are a little more mixed, but that has nothing to do with the quality of the mastering, and everything to do with what you could get away with in the ’80s in terms of set decoration and makeup. What I intially thought was a little too much noise reduction on closer inspection was too much pancake makeup and rouge. Sets occasionally have chips and dents in them, a stain on the carpet here and there–honestly this is nothing you see unless you’re looking for it, and TNG retains a production quality throughout that holds up on the big screen. But if you’re obsessively looking for booboos, this spectacular high-definitition transfer does reveal them.
As I mentioned before, the colors in the original mastering process suffered greatly, and that’s probably the bit that gained the most from the restoration. One of the most notorious aspects of the analog NTSC television system was the color red. It bled. A Lot. So the red uniforms were turned a bit purple in post to keep things evened out. Now that the show can finally be seen in its rich, true colors, it truly brings it to the Next Level.
The restoration of the sound had less to work with. TNG had a pretty hectic shooting schedule of 26 episodes per year, and a lot of the audio was straight from the studio floor, with limited fidelity. The score survives better, but don’t expect any miracles. CBS did the best they could with what was there.
For those wondering, yes, all the extras from the original DVDs are intact here, but what we really care about is the new material. Energized! Taking Star Trek: The Next Generation to the Next Level chronicles the journey to making this restoration a reality, showing you the film vaults, the scanning rooms, and all the other places the magic happens. Most importantly, it goes over the contentious issue of whether to reframe these episodes for 16:9. While TNG was shot full apeture, it was most definately framed for 4:3. Go outside that safe zone and pieces of starships vanish, light stands appear, and suddenly the person who’s supposed to be in orbit on the communicator is standing right next to Commander Riker feeding him lines. So they definitely made the right choice in keeping the episodes at 4:3 for Blu-ray. If you really feel it’s that important for TNG to fill your screen, that’s what the zoom button is for.
I grew up on this show. From watching the original series on my parent’s knee, to TNG, to DS9 — it was always a part of my life during my formative years. Star Trek has always been about re-using the archives to keep production quality high, and seeing things like spacedock (from Star Trek 3, reused in “11001001“) in its true modern glory leads me to hope that Paramount has gotten jealous and will at least consider putting the same kind of work into the theatrical features at some point in the future. Never bought the DVDs? This is the time to buy. Unsure that it’s still for you? The full run is on Netflix or BBC America 14 times daily if you need a taste, but none of those airings are sourced from the new masters, so the real show is only available to you on the Blu-rays.
The real meat of the next extras is the three-part documentary Stardate Revisited. Tracing the origins of the show through the departure of Denise Crosby, this is 90 minutes of all-new interviews. There are a lot of stories here that have never been heard before, as the documentarians made it a point to get the cast and crew to examine parts of the experience outside of what normally makes for good convention chatter. Furthermore, for the first time you’ll see all the horrible versions of Data and Geordi that might have been, and your heroes’ bad taste in ’80s clothing lines. My personal favorite bits are the original Trek crew talking about coming back to this universe to create a new take on it. There is so much here — concept sketches, archival footage — it really can’t be described with glossing it over or getting bogged down in minutia. This meticulous documentary puts the ones on the DVD releases to shame, and this is only the first installment of many more to follow.
Also, finally, for the first time. the TNG gag reels are available in an official form, and I’m amazed how much remained intact. The fiveminute montage of male anatomy euphemisms constructed from flubs and out-of-context dialogue is worth the price of admission alone.
In the grand scheme of things, the first few seasons of The Next Generation have to be seen as a new series–an entirely new kind of television, for that matter–finding itself. TNG was the first major made-for-syndication television series, and its grand, network-crushing success brought about an entire industry of genre television that could be seen every weekend on UHF stations around the country. Highlander, Hercules, Xena, Babylon 5, and even two additional Gene Roddenberry-created series are just a small part of the legacy it left behind.
In the end, the question a prospective purchaser has to ask themselves is: “Is it worth it?” After all, people have dropped upwards of $6-700 buying the show on DVD. So is it worth another dip? If you care about having the definitive, archival version of TNG, then absolutely yes. If you ever thought about picking it up on DVD but just didn’t, now is the time to buy, because it really is never getting any better than this. If you’re on the fence, consider that there are a lot of studios watching this release to decide whether their properties are worth revisiting in a similar fashion. This is the kind of meticulous work that classic film fans crave, and that we see in Blu-rays like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and The Godfather, except 75 times bigger. But rarely do we see it done for television shows. TV is just as much a part of the Hollywood legacy as film is, though, and we’re very fortunate to have passionate people like the crew at CBS that feel the same kind of love for their charges as the classic film crews at the major studios do.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m biased. My birthday is the same as Star Trek‘s, I was raised on it, and I’m passionate about the art of film restoration, high-definition video, and lossless audio. So I went in pretty convinced that I was going to love this set to absolute death. Just a note to CBS, the way to remove my last shred of journalistic integrity might be a 3D conversion of Best of Both Worlds in Season 3/4. Just say’n.
Earlier this week, I took a tour of CBS Digital, and I’d like to give a shout-out to all the great people who are working so hard on this collection, and showed me great hospitality while I pestered them about it. While there are certainly more people working on the project that I didn’t get to meet, I really want to give as many people as possible a shout-out for bringing all of our childhoods into the 21st century.
May their efforts live through the 24th century and beyond…