Posted in: Disc Reviews by Gino Sassani on July 26th, 2012
“Space… The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission, to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Nearly 20 years after the original Star Trek left the network airwaves, Gene Roddenberry set out to discover if he could catch lightening in a bottle once again. Some say he did an even better job with Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are times I tend to agree. The Star Trek sequel series had a lot more advantages from the moment it was conceived. Star Trek, a series that barely registered on the ratings during its three-year primetime voyage, became a huge sensation in syndication. By the time Next Generation came on the scene, the original show had been syndicated in over 20 different languages all over the world. It had launched an animated series, and a fifth feature film was already in the early stages of consideration. So it isn’t quite fair to judge the success or quality of The Next Generation over the original series. One thing is inarguable. The second would never have existed if not for the first.
The show did have some things working against it. There was the wrath not of Khan but of millions of Star Trek fans if they didn’t get it right. Beloved shows are almost never successful a second time. The show was also going to appear directly in syndication, where the first show really broke out. That’s fine for second run, but it was not a smart move in 1986 for a first-run series. It had never been done successfully, and it would mean markets where the show simply wouldn’t even be available. There was no internet or streaming shows back then. Now, this did also provide an advantage in that there were no network censors to deal with, and Roddenberry would finally have the freedom he never had in the 1960′s to tell the stories he wanted to tell in the way he wanted to tell them. With all of this, the future didn’t look so bright for this sequel.
But the one thing Roddenberry did do right was to expand rather than remake his original show. It was still too early for fans to accept other actors in the roles of Kirk and Spock. Too often shows try to reinvent characters that appear to kiss off the original fans. ABC’s attempt to remake Kolchak: The Night Stalker is a good example. Imagine if their character had been a relative of the original Kolchak instead of trying to completely change the personality of the original. Roddenberry wasn’t remaking Star Trek. He brought us a new Enterprise with a new crew and a glimpse nearly 100 years into the future of the old show. It was a rather brilliant move, and it certainly resurrected Star Trek to new heights. We felt like we could fall in love with these guys without betraying the ones we already loved.
I won’t use up space here setting up the characters and story. I’m pretty sure most of you know who the players are and where the series fits into Star Trek lore. But, the beautiful thing here is you didn’t have to really know much about the original series or the complicated mythology to enjoy this show. You still don’t. Star Trek has always been about characters, and the quality stories good characters can tell. The Next Generation did this for a pretty solid seven years.
With the help of an infusion of cash from Netflix to be the exclusive stream supplier of Star Trek television, Paramount decided to give the series a high-definition facelift. You won’t find the dramatic effects changes here that you did on the original series. Where it was possible to find original material the crew used it and remastered it all in high definition. There are some notable exceptions where new complete effects were provided. The crystalline entity is a very glaring example. The new effect blows away anything you might remember having seen previously. Often the raw footage from the ILM model work was discovered and rescanned at the high resolution. The non-effects work was easily converted as it had been originally shot in 35mm film. The result isn’t quite as splashy as the work on the original series, but it is quite impressive. Suffice it to say that you’ve never truly seen this show until you’ve had a chance to catch these Blu-rays. I don’t care how much money you spent on the laserdiscs, DVD’s, or even VHS copies that currently occupy your video shelf. No self-respecting Star Trek fan can be caught dead without these discs and the ones that are promised to follow.
Great shows get better with time. The Next Generation was a great show. As you watch the episodes of this first season you begin to realize just how much better the series had become by the time the 7th season had ended. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some classic and memorable episodes to be found here. There are. But like all new shows, the actors are just getting to know their characters and each other and are not yet completely at home in their new environment. As you watch the show you might find this first season Picard to be much more stiff and less friendly than the captain we remember from the show’s totality. It’s true that Patrick Stewart signed on never expecting the series to last. He was a Shakespearean stage performer who first looked down on the job. All of that obviously changed as he began to truly appreciate the work and the quality of the writers and his castmates. Brent Spiner was far more rigid as Data in this season and more than a little arrogant, unfortunately much as I found the actor himself to be when I met him several years ago. The character was also softened to the point where he was more likable. It’s hard to imagine a season where LaForge wasn’t the chief engineer but rather the “blind helmsman”. Worf’s makeup is drastically different here as is his uniform. Troi had this frizzy hair that I honestly didn’t recall.
Let’s take a quick journey back in time and examine some of the best episodes from season one:
Encounter At Farpoint:
This episode not only launched the new Enterprise, but it also introduced us to one of the truly great antagonists in Star Trek history. John DeLancie gave his first appearance as Q, that omnipotent entity that has been a thorn in the side of Picard, Sisko, and even Janeway for years to come. It’s a disappointment to me that he did not appear in any of the feature films. That was a wonderful moment forever lost to time and space. It’s a two-part episode that does a fine job of introducing us to all of the new crew and the ship itself. A highlight is the separation of the saucer and warp sections of the ship. It was something Roddenberry always wanted to do on the original show but never had the budget.
The Naked Now:
Not really a great episode, but it was a wonderful connection to the original show. The crew encounters a disease that plagued the Kirk crew in the episode The Naked Time. It was intended to allow these new characters to release their inhibitions giving us some insight into their hidden natures, desires, fears and ambitions.
Again, not a great episode, but it introduced us to Troi’s heratige in much the same way Amok Time did for Spock. We also meet Nurse Chapel’s Majel Barrett, and Gene Roddenberry’s wife, as the recurring character of Lwaxana Troi, Deanna’s overbearing mother. Here we have a tie to the source material and even the creator himself but with a fresh look that would add some much needed comic relief to the franchise.
The Last Outpost:
When Roddenberry first announced the new Star Trek he promised a new treacherous enemy that would be far more frightening than either the Klingons or Romulans had ever been. Of course, we know the Borg as just such an enemy. But in 1986 Roddenberry was talking about the Ferengi. It wouldn’t quite work out the way he planned. They might have looked a bit frightening, but they appeared comical by their actions. The race would go on to provide more comedy than drama to the show, but it started here. Armin Shimerman, who would go on to play Quark, plays a different Ferengi here.
Hide And Q:
Q makes his first return trying to tempt Riker with his powers. Now, I always considered Jonathan Frakes to be the weakest member of the cast. John DeLancie brings out one of his better performances here.
The Big Goodbye:
Another element that Roddenberry always wanted to have in the original series did show up in the animated show. But it wasn’t until this episode in The Next Generation that the holodeck was able to really show us what was now possible. Picard plays his favorite film noir detective Dickson Hill and allows other members of the crew to share his fantasy. Of course, something goes wrong, and the safety features of the holodeck get turned off, and fantasy becomes more real than anyone intended. It’s a wonderful character moment for Picard and a primer on holodecks for future episodes.
We find out that Data had a twin brother. Spiner plays both Data and his evil brother Lore here. The evil twin is an old standby. The trick here is that this episode also serves as a bouncing board for Lore to cause even more trouble in the future.
Heart Of Glory:
One of the biggest pieces of news during the early buzz stages was that there was going to be a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise. The two governments were now allies, and Worf was the first Klingon Federation officer. He would turn out to be the longest running of the television characters. Yes, Colm Meany’s O’Brien ran longer, but he was never a regular on Next Generation. This is the first in a series of episodes that offer a rich cultural run of the Klingons. We get to know them about as well as any other race in Trek mythology, and it starts here.
Skin Of Evil:
I guess I only like this one because it meant the death of Tasha Yar, whom I hated from the start.
One of the best in the series. We meet two civilizations. One is basically a drug pusher for the other. Not only is there a strong social comment and a very ironic look at the Prime Directive, but the episode reunites two actors from Star Trek: The Wrath Of Khan as the rivals. Merritt Butrick, who soon after died, played the addicted race leader. He was Kirk’s son David in the film. Judson Scott played the dealer race leader. He was Kahn’s right-hand man Joachim in the film.
This episode should have been a two-parter. Its only weakness is that it is rushed, and it’s sad it was never really followed up later. Picard finds that aliens have infiltrated Starfleet Command itself. It’s another excellent episode written by staff writer Tracy Torme, who would pen some of the show’s greatest moments. There is fantastic suspense to this episode. The music is also quite unique and the best of the season.
The Neutral Zone:
The Enterprise picks up a few cryonic survivors from our time. This isn’t a Khan situation. The real trouble is that starbases are being literally scooped up on the border of the Neutral Zone with the Romulans. Each race suspects the other. The episode ends with the mystery unsolved. Because of the writers’ strike the following year, the point was not immediately picked up when the show started its second season. It was actually ignored. We would later learn of the Borg and the mystery would be solved, but not for some time. The first episodes of the second season had originally been written for the original cast for a proposed Star Trek: Phase Two series that led to the first feature film instead. The scripts were a way to keep production alive during the strike. It would mean a delay, however, to this mystery and possibly an explanation as to why the show did not pick up on the Conspiracy thread. As the Romulan Commander says at the episode’s close: “We’re back”.
Each episode is presented in its original full frame aspect ratio. Yes, I would have liked to see widescreen here, but they do address that in the features. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. Again, this is not as dramatic as the original series. One of the problems is the prevalence of earth tones and subdued colors on this show. It’s not really the kind of color or flash that pops on a high-definition image presentation. The real key to these episodes is crispness and detail. The show was always quite a bit soft around the edges. Close-ups always appeared smooth and featureless. No longer. The model never had more detail in texture and lighting. Faces show distinctive features that didn’t exist in earlier versions. Data’s makeup flaws are actually clearly visible, particularly around the eyes. The image is sharper than it has ever looked for this series. We all saw this originally on old analog televisions.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 is not near as ambitious or impressive. Surrounds attempt to remain true to the original production, so nothing here is aggressive. The theme certainly has more punch as does the dialog. The big winner here is the sub, which tends to add depth to the overall effect. The original sound is still available for purists.
You get all 25 episodes on 6 discs. The following extras are also included:
Episode Promos for every episode
Introduction To The Series: (2:45) SD This was an introduction to advertisers and station execs.
Energized! Taking The Next Generation To The Next Level: (23:46) HD This feature deals with the task of getting these episodes into high definition. It chronicles the search for footage and materials to assemble the project. It also deals with the aspect ratio situation.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Revisited: This feature is in HD and split into three parts for royalty reasons. It avoids the studio having to pay royalties to all of the participants by keeping it under feature-length. The parts are:
Inception: (28:09) Here we get all of those stages that went into creating the new show. There’s vintage footage from Roddenberry, Robert Justman, Herm Zimmerman, and even Rick Berman. There’s tons of conceptual design, camera tests, and set construction footage.
The Launch: (32:13) The actors are the focus here as they talk about their characters and how they got involved. Most are quite candid about their limited expectations at first.
The Continuing Mission: (32:42) As Paul Harvey used to say, this is the rest of the story.
Gag Reel: (8:10) SD
You also get all of the Mission Logs from the DVD set in standard definition.
I actually learned of the show months before it was officially announced. Earlier in 1986 Gene Roddenberry was giving a talk at the University Of South Florida, which I attended. It was actually sparsely attended, and those of us who went got the announcement of a life-time. He stated that he probably shouldn’t be telling us this, but Star Trek was indeed coming back to television. It was greeted by thunderous applause. I’m sure he regretted it to some extent because the Q&A was dominated by questions he wasn’t yet able to fully answer. When I think back to that evening and the events that have driven Star Trek forward since then it’s quite amazing. Roddenberry is gone now, for many years. What would he have thought of this high-definition age and what it meant for Star Trek? It was just a television show, William Shatner reminded us in a famous/infamous Saturday Night Live comic rant. Was it? “I have a feeling there’s more to it than just trying to please us.”