Tuesday, March 29, 2011

'Star Trek' Season One (1966)

Starring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForrest Kelley
Created by Gene Roddenberry

Star Trek: The Original Series - Season 1 [Blu-ray]I can't introduce it any better than this, so I won't even bother:

"Star Trek" premiered in 1966.  Forty-five years ago.  Just think about that for a moment.

In the 23rd century, humanity has grown beyond its petty Earth-bound squabbles and taken to the stars.  Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) commands the Federation starship Enterprise, part of a vast fleet of interstellar ships exploring the galaxy and keeping the peace. Kirk is joined on his adventures by Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the half-human, half-Vulcan ship's science officer who devotes his life to the pursuit of logic and rejects emotion, and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForrest Kelley), the passionate and dedicated ship's surgeon. 

The Enterprise travels throughout the galaxy at incredible speeds, encountering bizarre alien creatures, vicious enemies, strange new worlds, and danger at every turn.

There's not much else to the setup of "Star Trek."  Though the details of the universe are many, and one could (and many have) write entire books on the subject, the initial premise remains surprisingly simple: a bunch of people on a ship exploring the galaxy.  Iconic performances, bright colors and a grand sense of adventure elevate that simple premise into something that would become not only a part of American pop culture, but an enduring, multi-billion dollar franchise that would expand to include eleven (twelve soon enough) feature films, four spinoff TV series, countless comic books, novels, toy lines, videogames, music releases, breakfast cereals and amusement park attractions.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about.  The first season of "Star Trek" on Blu-Ray is.

This Blu-Ray set features the 29 episodes of the first season of "Star Trek" in both their original and "Remastered" form.  There are a few clunkers in the set, as one can expect, but for the most part, this is a great season of television.  Viewed through modern eyes, there are a lot of inconsistencies on display.  Because episodes were produced and aired rather wildly out of order, you'll see the show go through numerous cast and costume changes until finally settling down somewhere around the second or third disc.  For example, the season begins with "The Man Trap," but the pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is the third episode, so characters and costumes from "The Man Trap" aren't present in "Where No Man has Gone Before."

It can be confusing, and even irritating, but the quality of the episodes overwhelms those feelings.  If one so desires, one could simply watch the episodes in their production order, which would solve many of these minor problems, but not all of them.

As a product of the 1960s, "Star Trek" often throws a number of wild and bizarre scenarios at the viewer.  In one episode, the crew comes across an idyllic planet where their thoughts are brought to life.  This episode features all kinds of zany silliness such as Dr. McCoy encountering Alice and the rabbit from "Alice in Wonderland," Sulu attacked by a Samurai, Yeoman Barrows is nearly raped by Don Juan, and Kirk encounters a bully from his past.  Another episode finds the crew stumbling across an exact duplicate of Earth where all the adults have died, leaving only children (who are now hundreds of years old) to fend for themselves.  Yet another sends the ship back through time to the 1960s, and later another jaunt further back to the 1930s.  It's all bright, and wild, and colorful and fascinating.

Much fun has been made of William Shatner's style of acting.  The man is very theatrical, with a staccato way of speaking.  But there's also no denying that the man can easily, capably play charming, confident and fun characters.  Whatever else he may be, William Shatner is inherently watchable.  There are plenty of times when Shatner's performances on "Star Trek" rest comfortably right on the edge of camp, but there are also times when he dials it way back and surprises you.  One of the highlights of the season (and, indeed of the franchise as a whole) is the episode "City on the Edge of Forever", where Kirk falls in love with a woman fated to die in order to preserve the timeline.  This episode is rightly revered among fans as one of the franchise's best episodes. 

The breakout role of the series belonged to Leonard Nimoy as the alien Mr. Spock.  His popularity came as a complete surprise to everyone, from Nimoy on up to studio executives who were worried that his "demonic" appearance would frighten away viewers.  Instead, the audiences loved Spock.  Man of the actors who would later come to play Vulcans would never hit the subtleties of the character the way Nimoy could.  His Spock is a fascinating enigma - a character who rejects emotion, and yet doesn't ever come across as flat or boring.

The third piece of the puzzle is Dr. McCoy, played by DeForrest Kelley.  Kelley is easily my favorite performer in the bunch, the man who gets all the best lines and seems to be having more fun as his character than anyone else on the show.  McCoy is the polar opposite of Spock - emotional, deeply passionate and caring.  He serves as the opposing viewpoint for Kirk, who must find a balance between the two in order to get them all out of whatever crazy situation they've gotten themselves into this week.

The other recurring cast members like George Takei as Mr. Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura and James Doohan as Scotty all do fine and carve out their own niches on the show.  But while these characters typically get some nice moments, the show largely revolves around Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  This would change in the later "Star Trek" shows, which were much more of ensemble pieces.  Back in 1966, though, it was that triumvirate that ruled the Enterprise.

On Blu-Ray, this 45-year-old TV show looks incredible.  Each episode has been gorgeously remastered from the original film elements.  Fine detail like skin, hair, and clothing textures are quite striking.  Closeups, in particular, look amazing.  Color reproduction is also amazing, with bright, bold and saturated colors.  The red and yellow Starfleet uniforms like absolutely awesome in some episodes, though the blue ones are a bit more subdued.

Some episodes look better than others, which isn't terribly surprising considering, again, this show is 45 years old.  The ones that look the best are typically episodes involving daytime location shooting.  Parts of some episodes look soft; this is alternately either because of the original production (a lot of the women were shot in soft focus) or because the original elements just weren't in the best shape.  Still, the restoration is amazing, and this show has never, ever looked better.  And it probably never will.

As part of its HD restoration, the special effects have been redone with modern computer generated shots.  It was found that the old effects, because of degradation inherent in compositing film in 1966, looked pretty crappy compared to all the live action footage of the actors.  The Blu-Ray set includes both versions of every episode, thanks to the wonderful technology known as "seamless branching" (ahem, pay attention George Lucas!).  The original effects, for those purists out there, are soft and washed out and generally exhibit far more grain than the live action footage.  The new CG effects, though, are a mixed bag.

The episodes were remastered out of order, apparently in some attempt to put some of the show's more popular episodes back on the air first instead of going in order.  As a result, the new effects are wildly inconsistent, with episodes that were remastered later coming across far better.  The producers were obviously trying to strike a balance between being faithful to the original effects and also using the new technology at their disposal to really enhance the episodes.  But sometimes, they falter.  The action-heavy episode "Balance of Terror," which shows the Enterprise crew's first encounter with the deadly Romulans, has some pretty lame CG enhancements.  While the script for the episode, and the performances of the cast, are totally first rate, some of the fun is sapped by the fact that the new CG effects just aren't that good, even compared to the episodes around it on the same disc.  Check out the lame Romulan plasma weapons in "Balance of Terror," and then check out the gorgeous quasar in "The Galileo Seven," just two episodes later.

Ultimately, this is a minor quibble.  These are still great, and great-looking, episodes.  The first season of "Star Trek" is fantastic, and has been afforded an appropriately fantastic restoration in high definition on Blu-Ray.  (The remastered episodes are available on DVD, but not together in the same set with the original versions.)