Let’s get bang up to date with a review of a show that’s 25 years old, shall we?
Well actually, this is new – because the SyFy channel in the UK is showing the all-new remastered versions of the 1987 Star Trek spin off The Next Generation starring Patrick Stewart. These were originally created for a pricey Blu-ray release as the latest way of wringing more money out of the franchise, but they have also found their way onto a broadcast channel in HD.
Yes, the Next Generation is in high resolution. That came as a huge surprise to me when I heard about the remastering project, as I always understood that the series had been produced on video for cost reasons being a straight-to-cable production. That resulted in a rather blurry picture at the very low end of the NTSC conversion quality stakes when it aired here on Sky and the BBC. But it turns out that all the series was actually shot on film, and the film footage then transferred to video in order that the low-resolution FX work could be added at a more economical rate. Fortunately the production kept all the original film reels, and has now rescanned this at high definition to which new high-resolution FX sequences can be dropped in. It’s virtually a case of redoing the entire post-production process of each episode from scratch, from cutting and editing onwards – certainly not for the faint hearted.
Now, first things first – I don’t have a High Definition subscription on my cable service, so I can’t analyse how good the HD is per se. Sorry if you were waiting for me to do that, but at least I’ve spoken up about it early. All I’m watching is the standard definition version of the SyFy channel instead, at which point you might wonder if it’s possible to tell any difference from the 1987 aired episodes at all.
The answer is a spectacular and resounding ‘Yes.’ I was dubious about this whole new remastering project, but the proof is in the visual pudding and it’s really stunning. Checking back with the original broadcasts of S1 episodes, they seem not only blurry and smeared because of the NTSC/video conversion, but they’re also flat, dull, lacking in colour contrast – and they all have a weird pink caste which is particularly distracting across a starship bridge meant to be predominantly beige (this was the 80s, don’t forget.) The comparison with the new SyFy aired episodes is night and day.
Whereas before Picard and Riker’s tunics were a murky reddish-purple colour, on the new masters they’re a sparkling deep crimson. Similarly, Data’s skin shines silver and his uniform is a striking gold. Shadows are rich and deep rather than just muddy greys. And that damn pink caste over everything is gone, so that the contrast is now perfectly set and brings the whole picture to life as though it were filmed just last week. I’m sure that if you added HD to it then the details would pop and crackle as well, but even without the higher resolution this is astoundingly good and worth a watch on SyFy if it’s included in your cable or satellite subscription.
However, as brilliant as they are, I have to admit that I wouldn’t consider buying this on Blu-ray, currently costing as it does around £50 per season from online retailers. Part of that it because – how can I put this – season one of The Next Generation isn’t all that good. In fact it’s rather painfully bad in all sorts of ways, starting with the pilot two-parter “Encounter at Farpoint.” The writing is terribly dated and clunky with all sorts of exposition being crowbarred in with all the subtlety of a punch to the face. Surprisingly the acting is also really quite poor – even among the regulars, who all have trouble finding a believable level in that first outing, with Patrick Stewart (Picard) and Brent Spiner (Data) about the only ones to come out of it intact.
To be fair, the other regulars quickly find their feet and within a few regular episodes have their characters working much better, with Jonathan Frakes (Riker), LeVar Burton (Geordi La Force) and Michael Dorn (Worf) all soon in their stride. I even have a certain amount of sympathy for Wil Wheaton as Wesley, whose boy genius character seems almost purposely designed to antagonise the viewership and who therefore can’t win no matter how good he may be. The only actor who frankly never seems to grasp the style of acting required by the show is Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar) who comes over as quite embarrassingly poor, so it’s no surprise when she was written out to everyone’s relief before the end of the first year.
Although the new remastering and FX removed most of the signs of the serious budgetary limitations the show was working to, it’s still discernible in the soundtrack. Recorded at the same time as the filming, you can hear voices echoing around the set, and the actors’ shoes clumping as they walk around the wooden bridge set. The alien planets are mostly shot on terribly obvious soundstages with a couple of fibre glass rocks lying around just as they were for the original series with Kirk and Spock 20 years before. Some of the scripts feel like they’re of around the same vintage, too.
But the show, even in its first season, has its moments. The character of Q is a delightful development of the original show’s Tremayne thanks to guest star John de Lancie who immediately ‘gets it’; the first exploration of the potential of the holodeck in “The Bug Goodbye” is a major moment in the show’s philosophical as well as technological evolution; and some of the later episodes such as “Skin of Evil” and “Conspiracy” flirt with some really dark themes that would have really shaken up the cosy image of the franchise for good if they’d taken root.
But really, the show didn’t completely click until season 3, so if you want to buy the Blu-ray remastering then perhaps wait a year or two until we get to those releases. In the meantime, revisit your childhood on SyFy and find it looking better, brighter and more colourful than it did even in your most vivid memories.
SyFy is currently showing the remastered season 1 episodes weekdays at 7pm. Season 1 is also out on Blu-ray, with Season 2 due for release on December 10, 2012. CBS Action is showing remastered episodes of the original Kick/Spock Series at 6pm, and all three seasons are already available on Blu-ray (in HD) as well as DVD (for standard definition) with new CGI FX sequences.