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Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Next Level

March 5th, 2012
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I own every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation on DVD.  So does that make me a sucker for purchasing Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Next Level, a three-episode sampler blu-ray disc of the series’ conversion to high definition?  Well, probably.  But I just couldn’t resist checking out the series’ much-ballyhooed blu-ray high-definition upgrade.  And I was not disappointed!!

Some back-story: Many wondered whether Star Trek: The Next Generation would ever see a blu-ray release, and if it did, what sort of a mess it would look like.  Because while the show was shot on film (which of course contains the resolution necessary to look dynamite on blu-ray), Next Gen was edited on video and the special effects were created on video in standard-def.  To up-convert that standard-definition footage would most likely look, well, probably pretty darn dismal.  So CBS and Paramount have decided to take a radically unprecedented step.

A team lead by Michael and Denise Okuda (vidual effects geniuses who have been involved with Star Trek since all the way back to “Encounter at Farpoint,” the pilot episode of Next Gen) have gone back to the original film elements (which, thank heavens, have all been preserved and meticulously archived by Paramount) to re-edit all of the episodes from the ground up and re-composite every single one of the visual effects sequences (every outer-space shot, every transporter beam, every phaser, etc. etc. etc.) in high definition.  The amount of work that will be needed to do that for each and every one of the 176 episodes of Next Gen is mind-boggling.  (For more information on this process, click here for a great interview with Michael and Denise Okuda or here for a detailed blog entry by Michael Okuda.)

Trek fans know that The Original Series was already released on blu-ray a few years back.  That was apparently a much easier job because the episodes were shot on film and edited on film, meaning that the completed, edited episodes could then be scanned at high-def for the blu-ray release.  (That’s in contrast to Next Gen that was edited on VIDEO and so the actual episodes only existed in standard-def.)  Before the blu-ray release, the Okudas were also involved in a project to upgrade the Original Series episodes with new, snazzy CGI effects.  (These revamped episodes were shown in syndication for about a year, before the blu-ray release.)

For that project, the Okudas and their team had carte blanche to create entirely new visual effects.  So whereas an episode from 1967 might have used the same stock shot of the U.S.S. Enterprise five times, for the revamped versions those shots would be replaced with five new, different, cool CGI shots.  For episodes that depicted space battles (such as, most notably, “The Doomsday Machine”), really exciting, dynamic new effects shots were created to replace the much simpler, more primitive shots from the ’60s.

But this Next Generation project is entirely different, apparently.  Here the intention is to re-build and re-create the original effects shots from the ’80s and ’90s exactly, rather than to replace them with new and different shots.  I’m not sure, ultimately, whether that will be a good or bad thing.  The purist in me rejoices, but I must admit that I really dug the new, snazzier visual effects given to the Original Series in its high-def upgrade, and I can easily think of countless Next Gen episodes where the visual effects could certainly benefit from some modern-technology-assisted tweaks.

The three episodes on this new sampler disc are the pilot episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” the season three episode “Sins of the Father” (a terrific Worf-centric episode that started a long-run of episodes, throughout the run of the series, exploring Klingon culture and politica), and “The Inner Light” (arguably one of the two or three finest episodes of the entire series, in which Picard is zapped by an alien probe and lives an entire life in the span of mere minutes).

First of all, let me state that the episodes all look jaw-droppingly gorgeous in high definition.  It’s a credit to how well-produced the series was that all the sets, costumes, and make-up effects looks remarkably great when seen in high definition.  The episodes are crisp, clear, and incredibly vibrant.  Just for comparison, after watching “Encounter at Farpoint” I popped in one of my Next Gen DVDs and watched another season one episode.  Compared to the blu-ray, I was shocked by how blurry it looked!!  (Particularly considering that I can remember the day, about ten years ago now, when I first bought the DVD of season one of Next Gen, and I still remember how astounded I was at how amazing the series looked compared to the VHS tapes I’d been watching for years…)

As for the visual effects, in most cases the effort of going back to the original film elements clearly paid off.  The shots of the Enterprise D in space are extraordinarily beautiful.  ILM’s model-work is on impressive display, more so than ever before.  The hull of the ship gleams as it flies by the camera, and for the first time you can really notice the little people moving in the observation windows when we see the back of the primary hull at the end of the opening credits.  The effects of the space-jellyfish at the end of “Encounter at Farpoint” are also vastly improved.  Whereas before all you saw was a washed-out white, now the details and internal workings of the creatures are visible, which is very cool and also quite beautiful.  (Scroll to about 1:24 in this clip to see what I mean.)

The one space shot that wasn’t so great was the opening shot of “Sins of the Father,” in which we see the Big E in space, facing a Klingon bird of prey.  The shot has a much different look than what we’d seen before.  The image is composed exactly the same way, but whereas before the bird of prey was a bright green, now much of the ship is heavily in shadow.  The whole shot has a much harsher, more dramatic look.  I’m not sure exactly what’s going on there.  It doesn’t look bad, just different than I remembered, and the bird of prey in particular looks much more like a model.

The shots of the Klingon capital city and great hall in “Sins of the Father” look dynamite.  We get to see quite a lot more detail of the matte painting, and of the live-action set.  I also love how here, too, you can really make out the detail of little people moving throughout the corridors of the great hall in the wide-shots.  (Those are visual effects elements composited into the matte painting.  They were always there, just a bit obscured.  In the crisp new image they’re plain as day, and they look terrific.)

When the sampler disc was first announced, I was surprised that these three episodes were chosen, as none of them are very visual effects-centric shows.  However, after reading about the project in the past few months, and now after having seen the episodes, the reason behind the choice of these episodes is clear.  The presence of absence of visual effects is not the point.  As I described above, unlike the Original Series project, this Next Gen project is not about improving the visual effects.  It’s about preserving the show that we love, and presenting it in the very best light possible.  “Farpoint” is important because it is the pilot episode, and “Sins of the Father” and “The Inner Light” are two of the series’ best episodes.  That’s why they were chosen: because they’re among the best episodes of Next Gen and so Paramount and CBS want us to see the show at its height, presented in the best way possible.

I’m a teensy bit disappointed, I must admit, that it looks like we’re not going to get to see any improved special effects.  “Farpoint” looks great, but I wonder if when we eventually get the full season one blu-ray release and see the second episode, “The Naked Now,” that we won’t all be wishing the effects weren’t reproduced so exactly.  I’m sure Trek fans remember the really terrible shot of the fragment of the collapsed star hurtling towards the Enterprise in that episode. Boy, I’d love to see that fixed up.  And who wouldn’t want to see some souped-up Borg action in “The Best of Both Worlds”??

But I shouldn’t complain.  Major praise must be given to Paramount and CBS for the expense of money and manpower that is going into this project to ready The Next Generation for a high-definition blu-ray release.  This “The Next Level” sampler disc is astounding.  It was enormous fun revisiting these Next Gen episodes, and I can’t wait to rediscover the rest of the series over the coming years.  (And then, maybe, Deep Space Nine??)

I’d better start saving my money!

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